The Abrahamic Covenant

Sermon preached on Genesis 15 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 08/27/2023 in Petaluma, CA.

Sermon Manuscript

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.

The Christian life is one of faith. We are given many promises of God that don’t immediately come to pass. Of course, if all God’s promises immediately came to pass, then we wouldn’t need faith. But God has found a beauty and wisdom to make the Christian life at first about faith. Yes, that faith will one day become sight, when the fullness of God’s promises come to pass. But until then, ours is a life of faith, and one that is tested while we wait in hope. This is true for us, just as it was true for father Abraham. We’ll see in today’s passage that Abraham will have a conversation with God about the promises he has made. For purposes of our study, we’ll treat them as two conversations though they may have been back-to-back. In each, God will reaffirm a previous promise he has already made to Abraham. Abraham will then respond with concern about the fulfillment of that promise. God will then respond with assurance. The passage ends with God formalizing these promises in the covenant we now call the Abrahamic Covenant.

We begin today looking at verses 1-6. This is the first conversation here between Abraham and God. The conversation ends up dealing with the matter of God’s promise to Abraham of a people. God had promised back in chapter 12, that he would make of Abraham a great nation. This conversation in verses 1-6 revisits that promise. It begins with God revealing himself to Abraham in a vision. See God’s wonderful words there to Abraham in verse 1. God says, “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” I believe today’s chapter has reasons to contrast it with what we studied last chapter with Abraham rescuing Lot. So, we might immediately wonder why God would need to begin by telling Abraham here to not fear given that context. Well, last chapter ended with Abraham turning down all the reward the King of Sodom had offered, and Abraham basically made this very bold statement of how he was going to rely on God’s blessings and rewards instead of man’s. Yet, here, at some point after that, Abraham has not yet realized the promises God had given him. Based on God’s words here, I think we are to infer that Abraham was beginning to become a bit afraid and concerned that maybe the promises wouldn’t ever be fulfilled. So, God speaks words to encourage Abraham and to tell him that he doesn’t need to be afraid.

Instead, God says to Abraham that he, God himself, will be Abraham’s shield and that Abraham will be very greatly rewarded. This is God describing his relationship with Abraham, setting God as the covering and benefactor to Abraham. For God to be a shield, makes us especially think of God’s protecting of Abraham. We saw that last chapter, in Abraham’s victory against those four foreign kings. Because God is such a shield to him, he won’t need to fear. God then immediately declares all the reward he would be giving his servant Abraham. What a contrast to last chapter where the foreign King Chedorlaomer’s relationship to Sodom and Gomorrah was one wanting to be a suzerain over them to take from them. But here, God, as the royal benefactor and protector over Abraham, instead wants to graciously give to him.

Contrast further with me Chedolaomer’s relationship with Sodom and Gomorrah before they rebelled, and the relationship between God and Abraham. We can find analogy in Ancient Near Eastern covenants for both of these sorts of relationships. Ceholaomer was that common suzerain-vassal type of covenant. But another type of covenant formula that can be found in the Ancient Near East is called a “royal grant” covenant. That is when a king would formally covenant to grant certain blessings or possessions or property upon a favored servant. This may be why Abraham turned down King Sodom’s offer last chapter because he didn’t want any way to be construed that he was in such a royal grant relationship under such a wicked king. But here then, God now appears to be making use of that cultural practice of a royal grant covenant and interacting with Abraham in a somewhat analogous way.

Well, Abraham is pleased to be in such a relationship with God, yet it resulted in an immediate question from him. Verse 2, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” Clearly, the childless status of Abraham, has been on his mind. Clearly, Abraham is remembering God’s promise to make him a great nation, and yet he still has no heir. Should God give him riches upon riches, Abraham wonders what good that would be, since he would have no one to bequeath it to. Abraham is even concerned that since he has no heir, his chief servant will instead “inherit” everything (which was in line with common cultural practice back then when there was no natural heir). And so, Abraham raises some reasonable concerns and we can recognize then that his faith is being tested with these circumstances.

So then, God responds in verse 4. God assures Abraham that he will has a son of his own physical descent. God assures him that his descendants will be beyond number. He uses the analogy from the night sky, to say that Abraham’s offspring will ultimately be as uncountable as the stars in the sky. And the word of God’s assurance bore fruit in Abraham’s heart. Per verse 6, it dispelled his concerns and increased his faith. It says that Abraham believed the LORD and God counted that unto Abraham as righteousness. This verse is picked up by the Apostle Paul in Romans 4:3 and Galatians 3:6 to say that Abraham was justified before God by faith and not by works. God received Abraham’s faith in lieu of works, and counted him to be righteous. Paul was saying that Abraham and us both are saved in the same way, through faith. Paul was saying that when we believe in Jesus to save us from our sins, we are justified through faith in the same sort of way Abraham has. Indeed, almost ironically, we help to fulfill this promise Abraham believed when we believe, because at that moment of faith God adopts us into Abraham’s family, so that we become part of this chosen race, sons and daughters of Abraham. Our faith proves Abraham’s faith was right, because through faith we are grafted into the family of his descendants, praise be to God!

Let us turn next to verses 7-16. Here we find that second conversation Abraham had here with God. Here the topic turns to address how God had promised Abraham a place, specifically the land of Canaan. God begins in verse 7 by identifying himself to Abraham, saying, “I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” God gives the historical background to their relationship. You will note how that sounds very similar to what we’ll find later during the time of Moses when God makes the Mosaic Covenant to Abraham’s descendants of Israel. Then God will say that he is the God who brought the people out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. Again, we can think of how God adapts common cultural covenanting practices here, because it was typical of a covenant to begin with an identification of the background between the parties.

It’s in God’s historical background that he mentions the land promise, which causes Abraham to have another concerned response. While Scripture had just affirmed his great faith, we now see that faith tested. He asks in a similar fashion as before, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” At this point, he did not in any real way own any of the Promised Land yet. He still was a sojourner living in tents. So, he boldly asks God for some assurance.

We’ll talk about the assurance God then gives through this matter with the animals in our third point. But for now, look at the verbal assurance that God gives him in verses 13-16. Notice that God begins by saying, “Know for certain,” to tell him this is surely going to come to pass. God goes on to assure him that the land will be his. He also foretells the future and how things will work out. Abraham wants to know when he will possess the land, and he’s told there is actually a lot that has to happen first. So, notice the things we learn about the future. Abraham’s descendants are actually going to be sojourner yet for a long time. In fact, they aren’t even going to be sojourning there in the land of Canaan. They will find themselves in another land, also owned by someone else, who will afflict them. This will go on for some four hundred years. This is clearly describing their time in Egypt. But then God also foretells the glorious Exodus from Egypt, that they’ll even leave with many possessions. It will only be after that, that God will bring them back to the Promised Land for them to finally possess it. So then, maybe this wasn’t the answer Abraham was hoping to hear. But God does go on to say that meanwhile, Abraham himself will himself have a good long blessed life and die in peace. Note as well the promise of a good afterlife that is so casually mentioned there in verse 15, that he will die and then go to his fathers in peace.

Verse 16 then gives us an important explanation of why there would need to be such a delay before Abraham’s seed could possess the Promised Land. It says that the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete. Here, the Amorites are being used to refer to all the various Canaanite peoples that are spelled out more fully in verses 19-20. Understand what this means. Right now these Amorite peoples possess the land that God is promising to Abraham. God is a just God, and so he isn’t just going to take the land away from these peoples just to give it to Abraham. That would seem wrong. Instead, God is going to bring a great and terrible judgment upon these Amorite peoples to destroy them from the land, and then in the aftermath give the land to Israel, Abraham’s descendants. In other words, Israel is going to be God’s hand of judgment against these wicked peoples, and only after that give Israel the land which will then need a new owner. But God says that time is not yet. Realize, that even though God knows these Amorite peoples won’t repent of their wickedness so that God would spare them from such judgment, nonetheless God is giving them time. That could be time for them to repent, but it will turn out to be only more time for them to bring their record of sin to a full measure, so God will be all the more justified in their destruction. You might remember, that last week we said the deliverance of Sodom and Gomorrah from utter destruction was supposed to wake them up to repentance. But they will continue to excel in their sin until their iniquity comes to the full and God will destroy those wicked cities with fire and brimstone. Their day of judgment will then be a warning to all the Amorite and Canaanite peoples nearby. Sadly for them, they will not heed that warning. So, this prophecy tells us of God’s justice in bringing damnation upon the wicked and graciously bestowing blessing on Abraham’s seed.

So, in this second point, we’ve seen God assure Abraham of his promise of a place, through a more detailed prophecy of the future to come. God then proceeds to formalizes his promises to Abraham in the form of a covenant. Let’s turn now to consider that as our third point, looking at verses 17-20. Let me begin this third point then by saying that what we have here in Genesis 15 is a formal covenant ratification ceremony. Up to this point in Genesis, we’ve already seen God repeatedly promising a people and a place to Abraham. I’ve referred to that as the Abrahamic Covenant, but especially in light of what we see here in this chapter. Because here, as part of giving Abraham the assurance he requested, God formalizes the promises in the way of a covenant. Maybe a small imperfect analogy is to imagine a man courting a woman. Say that he keeps telling her that one day he’s going to marry her. But that woman will have all the more assurance of that promise if he actually gets down on one knee and gives her a ring and makes a formal proposal. Not a perfect analogy, but hopefully it is helpful.

Verse 18 explicitly tell us that God that day made a covenant with Abraham. Even without that language, this has the various marks of such a covenant ratification ceremony for the Ancient Near East. And starting with verse 18 let me clarify that the literal language is not that God “made” a covenant with Abraham, but that God “cut” a covenant with Abraham. Covenants were typically ratified with some sort of cutting of animals as we see here, so that in the Hebrew language, you would refer to “cutting a covenant” to describe entering into such a covenant.

So then, we go back to verse 9 and see that God instructs Abraham to bring him several animals. Abraham gets the animals and cuts them up and lays out their pieces so that the halves are adjacent each other with a path in between. The two birds aren’t cut, so maybe he just laid them opposite each other. But then the amazing thing happens. A deep sleep falls upon Abraham, and it gets really dark and frankly scarry. But then, into the darkness shines a flaming torch with a smoking fire pot, and it passes through the pieces. That is when verse 18 hears God’s word of covenant promises for a people and a place. In other words, that is when the covenant is formally ratified between Abraham and God.

So then, understand what is going on here. Cutting up of animals and walking between the pieces is common in such covenant ratification ceremonies in the Ancient Near East. We have various examples found through archeology. What you were basically doing as you walked between the cut-up animal pieces is saying, “Let it be to me as these animal pieces if I don’t keep the covenant.” If the people covenanting were peers, they might both walk through the animal pieces. In a typical suzerain-vassal treaty, you would expect just the vassal to walk through the pieces as they swear allegiance to the suzerain. But do you see who walks between the pieces here?

It’s not Abraham. It is God. That’s surely what the fire and smoke are. They are a theophany, a manifestation of God. In fact, the verb in Hebrew here for “passing” through the pieces is in the singular, so that means we should take the smoking fire pot and the flaming torch together. Indeed, they are a manifestation of the one God who walks through the pieces and confirms his promises to Abraham through that. It is God who is saying he will fulfill the promises, and threatens covenant curses upon himself should he not keep his promises.

This is grace upon grace. Why should Abraham expect to receive any good thing like this from God? Let alone for God to covenantally bind himself to the fulfillment of the promises? Yet, God was pleased to graciously love Abraham like this. And what Abraham received here in this covenant ceremony is of the same sort of thing we have today in Jesus. We remember how Jesus cut a covenant with his disciples and thus also with us when at that Last Supper he held the cup and spoke of his blood that was to be shed for the new covenant. Indeed, we would be right to think of how that fulfills the very heart of this Genesis 15 ceremony. The only way God could fulfill his covenant promises to Abraham would be to become cut and killed like these animals. This he endured as the Son of God, the second person of the Godhead, went to the cross. There he fulfilled the Abrahamic covenant and ratified the New Covenant, all a continued outworking of the covenant of grace. This is the covenant we are apart of, if we believe in God to save us in Jesus Christ. That our faith would be accounted to us as righteousness, that we would be justified by grace in the name of Jesus.

In conclusion, let us make sure we really appreciate today this relationship between faith and covenant. God has promised good to us, but his promises yet require more faith to believe they will yet come to pass in the full. Even now, we wait in faith until Jesus comes back and brings us into his glorious eternal kingdom in the new creation. Believing can be hard at times. Our faith can be tested. We can be tempted to fear and doubt. Even Abraham here struggled with this, one moment being described as having faith that is accounted as righteousness and the next moment asking God again for some way of knowing the promises would actually come to pass. God’s word time and again assures us of his promises. But he has done more than just give us words. He has assured us through the formal binding of himself to us in covenant. A covenant ratified here with the blood of some animals and now ratified for us with the blood of God himself. May this strengthen our faith. Any time we are tempted to fear or doubt, remember the covenant. That is even why we have the visual reminder in the Lord’s Supper, which itself is a covenant renewal ceremony. God knows our weakness, and he is pleased to encourage our faith through binding himself to his promises via covenant. Praise be to God and may he continue to establish us firm in the faith.


Copyright © 2022 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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