G-d’s presence alone passes through the sacrificial animals while Avram is in a deep sleep. As a result the covenant responsibility is entirely incumbent upon G-d. Therefore, it is impossible for Avram or his descendants (Israel) to revoke the covenant through disobedience. The land has been promised and will not be taken back. It is a perpetual promise from a G-d Who cannot lie and never breaks His oaths.
Those who consider the former chapter to be an outside source refuse to acknowledge any continuity with the present chapter. As a result the opening clause becomes irrelevant because it is not known to them which events precede it. A more realistic and logical view sees the obvious continuity between the two chapters and reads the opening clause as following the words spoken by Malki-tzedek, the king of S’dom and Avram at the conclusion of chapter 14. Remembering that the Torah sees no chapter division at all and therefore presumes continuity of chronology. I suggest rereading 14:18-24 and without breaking, continue to read the first verse of chapter 15. It will soon become obvious to you that these events are part of a continuing narrative.
Gen 15:1 After these words (D’varim, events) the Word (D’var) of HaShem (YHVH: Mercy) came unto Avram (father of a nation, exalted father) in a vision, saying, “Don’t Fear, Avram: I am a shield (magen) to you, a reward that is great exceedingly.
Given that Malki-tzedek, the king of S’dom and Avram have just finished speaking, it seems more consistent to translate the Hebrew, “D’varim” literally as, “words”. Additionally, while it is popular to discredit translations that read the latter clause as an extension of Who G-d is to Avram, it is none the less a valid reading and makes more sense in light of the eternal nature of what follows. Therefore, I believe, “I am a shield (magen) to you, a reward that is great exceedingly” is the best reading. From this we understand that for the person of faith/trust, G-d is both protector and reward.
Gen 15:2 And Avram said, Adonai HaShem/Elohim (Lord YHVH/G-D: Master, Merciful, Judge), what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my household is from Damesek (Silent sackcloth weaver, mourning) Elietzer (My G-d helps)?
Avram’s response, “My Lord HaShem Elohim” is an unusual combination of Divine titles. The Hebrew text reads, “Adonai YHVH” but the characters YHVH are marked with the nikudot (vowels) for Elohim—this is how the mistaken name Jehovah was concluded by early Christian translators. What the scribe intends, is that we understand the three attributes of G-d: Dominion, Mercy and Judgement. It is noteworthy that Avram calls G-d these titles prior to protesting his lack of progeny. Avram shows himself to be a man of relationship and true faith in that even his doubts place their trust in G-d.
On reading the phrase, “My Lord G-d” the discerning Messianic Jew is reminded of another man of faith, who had at one time been a doubter: that is, T’oma (Thomas) the Talmid (disciple) of our Mashiyach Yeshua:
‘And after eight days again his disciples were inside, and Thomas was with them: then came Yeshua (Jesus), the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Shalom Aleichem (Peace be unto you)”. Then He said to Thomas, “Reach out your finger, and touch my hands; and reach out your hand, and thrust it into my side: and don’t doubt, but believe. And Thomas answered and said unto Him, “My Lord and my G-d”.’ –Yochanan (John) 20:26-28
We now recall G-d’s promise to give Avram’s descendants all of the land of Israel (13:15): implicit in this promise is the provision of descendants. Avram knows G-d will fulfil His promise, so why does Avram respond the way he does?
Avram’s response here is more of a, “How will You do it?” than it is a statement of mistrust. This is further testified to by the accreditation of righteousness that soon follows. When we ask G-d, “How will You keep Your promise?” we are not saying, “I don’t believe you can keep Your promise”. Trust or a lack thereof determines the way we respond to G-d.
Gen 15:3 And Avram said, “Behold, to me You have given no seed: and, look, one born in my household is my heir.
Male heirs were a necessity in the Middle Eastern culture of Avram’s time. In fact, this is still the case in many Middle Eastern countries today. A blood born heir was seen as a means to maintain the family name and heritage. For Avram this was more than a mere feeding of the ego, it was a means by which he might pass on his knowledge of the one true G-d. Thus the interchange over the issue of an heir was a G-d inspired conversation, filled with hope and purpose.
Gen 15:4 And, behold, the Word of HaShem (YHVH) came unto him, saying, this shall not be your heir; but he that shall come forth out of your own loins shall be your heir.
The Tanakh (OT) can speak of a legal heir as a son (Ruth 4:17), thus the emphatic phrasing, “out of your own loins”, literally: stomach, eternal organs.
In order for this promise to be complete the heir must reach adulthood and be able to physically maintain the household and property belonging to Avram. Therefore, this is also a promise of longevity for Avram.
Gen 15:5 And He brought him outside, and said, “Look now toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you’re able to number them: and He said unto him, so shall your seed be.”
We now discover that the vision is seen at night. The phrase, “brought him outside” suggests that Avram was in his tent when the vision began. The subsequent events of verses 9-11 would probably have occurred the following day.
The Midrash interprets, “outside” to refer to G-d showing Avram what is possible outside of humanity’s natural reasoning. Avram knew that it was now no longer physically possible for he and Sarai to have children, therefore, G-d was showing Himself to be the G-d of the impossible. The Jewish people would be born from miraculous events, thus miraculous events would pursue Israel all the days of her life in order to cause us to return to the G-d who birthed us.
The Pesikta Zutresa explains that this vision symbolized to Avram that just as no nation could conquer the stars, so too no one would ever succeed in exterminating Israel.
The stars 15:5 and the dust of 13:16 are symbolic representations of one and the same people. This is affirmed by the parallelism of 22:17. It is the ethnic people of Israel who are to inherit the covenanted land. This is made clear prior to Avram’s act of trust. Above all else we should note that G-d made this promise to Avram without condition.
Gen 15:6 And he trusted in HaShem; and He counted it to him for righteousness.
Avram had been trusting in HaShem for some time prior to this, therefore, the intended meaning here is that Avram gave himself over entirely in his trust of G-d: not just regarding the present promise but in all things.
This verse is quoted twice by Rav Shaul (Paul) the Shaliach (Apostle): Romans 4:3 & Galatians 3:6, and by Yaakov in James 2:23. Both the present account and the argument posed by Shaul in Romans 4 show that faith/trust is not achieved but received. Our role in relating to G-d is the role of wife, receiving that which He has promised.
Gen 15:7 And he said unto him, I am HaShem that brought you out of Ur (flame) of the Kasdim (Clay breakers), to give you this land to inherit it.
This verse affirms that G-d has already established the land as Israel’s inheritance.
Gen 15:8 And he said, “Adonai (Master) HaShem (YHVH: Merciful)/Elohim (Judge), in what will I know that I will possess it?”
Avram uses the same unusual combination of Divine titles that he used in verse 2. This continues to show Avram’s submission to G-d’s Kingship, an understanding of His mercy and a respect for His judgement. Avram is not asking for visual affirmation because of doubt, he has just been named as one righteous through trust. Therefore, the question is a request for a physical connection within the conversation that he is having with the invisible G-d. G-d understands the human need for physical kinetic interaction and sees it as part of the vehicle of communication which strengthens relationship.
Gen 15:9 And He said unto him, bring Me three heifers, and three she goats, and three rams, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.
From Avram’s perspective within time and space the animals are intended for the establishment of a covenant and to give it the status of an irrevocable oath. From G-d’s perspective the covenant is already established. By definition a covenant is irrevocable.
Each of the animals listed are used for sin offerings in the Torah, for the purification and redemption of all Israel, from the greatest to the least, both corporately and individually.
The number three is representative of the unity of G-d, of perfection, completion and of an irrevocable decision, an established reality that has been firmly decided in the mind of G-d. Hence a perpetual application for the promises attached to the covenant.
Avram didn’t divide the birds because birds are not divided for sacrificial purposes, as evidenced in the priestly offerings of Israel. Additionally, the dove/turtle dove is a symbol of Israel as the beloved of G-d (Shir Ha-shirim: Song of songs). As alluded to by Rabbi Solomon Yarchi who states that:
“The idolatrous nations are compared in the Scriptures to bulls, rams, and goats; for it is written, Psalm 22:12: Many bulls have compassed me about. Daniel 8:20: The ram which thou hast seen is the king of Persia. The rough goat is the king of Greece. Daniel 8:21. But the Israelites are compared to doves, Song of songs: ‘O my dove, that art in the cleft of the rock.’ The division of the above carcasses denotes the division and extermination of the idolatrous nations; but the birds not being divided, shows that the Israelites are to abide for ever.”
Ramban interprets the numbers of each animal to represent the three sorts of sacrifices, the burnt offering, the sin offering, and the peace offering;
Ben Melech understands the three heifers refer to the heifer of the Day of Atonement, that for uncertain murder, and the red heifer.
The common theme is one of atonement and redemption, which is to be associated with both the people of Israel and the land of Israel, and is based on G-d alone passing through the sacrificial animals by way of symbolic manifestation. It is noted that in regard to this type of ancient covenant, the one who walks between the sacrificed animals is bringing a death curse upon himself if the covenant is broken. Our Ram (Gen 22:13), Yeshua the Messiah, took upon himself the price of Israel’s salvation, the redemption of the land of Israel and by extension the price for the salvation of all humanity.
Gen 15:10 And he took unto Him all these, and divided them in the midst, and laid each piece one opposite the other: but the birds he did not divide.
For a similar sacrificial practice see Jeremiah 34:18. It was customary for both parties to pass through the divided animals. Here however, Avram simply sets the scene, while it is G-d whose presence passes between the divided animals.
Gen 15:11 And when birds of prey came down upon the carcases, Avram drove them away.
The birds of prey symbolize the nations that would seek to abrogate the covenant by destroying Israel, with the intention of taking the Promised Land for themselves. However, the King of Righteousness (Psalm 110), the Messiah, would one day be born, the seed of Avram and drive away the nations who seek to destroy His prize possession.
Gen 15:12 And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Avram; and, behold, a terror of great darkness fell upon him.
The first mention of the L-rd putting someone into a deep sleep is found in Genesis 2:21 which records the creation of Chava (Eve) from Adam’s side. The relationship here seems to indicate that G-d is about to bring Israel (feminine) forth from Avram. Thus Avram is placed into a similar deep sleep.
The same Hebrew word, “tardemah” is used in the account of 1 Samuel 26:12, where David (G-d’s anointed) walks among the army of Shaul while they are in a deep sleep sent upon them by G-d.
It is also of great significance that Daniel the prophet saw his visions of the future while in a deep sleep (Daniel 8:18; 10:9).
The dread and darkness are the appropriate atmosphere for conveying Israel’s coming years of slavery and darkness. This darkness is also prophetic of the darkness G-d would bring against Egypt (Exodus 10:21-22), which is called, “groping darkness”.
This darkness is also related to Moses meeting with G-d on the mountain at Sinai. During this encounter, “Moses drew near into the thick darkness where G-d was” (Exodus 20:21-25). During this meeting G-d explains the means by which an altar for peace and covering are to be constructed. Thus there is a connection to Israel’s sacrificial system.
Additionally, the terror and darkness are precursors to the appearance of the smoking pot and flaming torch, thus linking these events to the appearance of the L-rd at Sinai (Exodus 19). The New Covenant would also be inaugurated in darkness (Matthew 27:45, 51). In fact throughout Scripture G-d is seen as appearing in or coming down upon darkness (Deut 4:11; 5:22, 23; 2 Sam 22:10; 1 Kings 8:12; 2 Ch 6:1; Psalm 18:9, 1; 97:2).
The Midrash sees the four elements of deep sleep, terror, darkness and falling as representing the progression of oppression that later came against Israel in the form of the nations: Babylon, Media-Persia, Greece and Rome.
Gen 15:13 And he said unto Avram, “Know with certainty that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them; and they will afflict them four hundred years; Gen 15:14 And also that nation, whom they will serve, I will judge: and afterward they will come out with great substance.
The Rabbis calculate the beginning of the years of subjugation as being 30 years after this vision at the birth of Isaac, because Isaac lacked the permanence of territory and prestige that Avram enjoyed and his descendants were considered aliens even during their years in the land of Israel.
Gen 15:15 And you will go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried in a good old age.
Avram’s longevity and prosperity are affirmed yet again. The father of trust is entrusted with certain hope in HaShem.
Gen 15:16 But in the fourth generation they shall come out again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.
The four generations and the four hundred years are synonymous, in that the Hebrew, “dor” is also understood to mean, “lifetime”.
G-d is not only just but also patient. He will not drive out the Amorites at their present level of sinful behaviour, however, He knows that they will reach levels of sin and self-debasement that will require just discipline. Thus the later invasion of Joshua and the Israelites is not a usurping of land but an act of G-dly discipline, Israel being the instrument of that discipline.
Gen 15:17 And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold a smoking pot full of embers, and a burning torch passed between the pieces.
The smoking pot and flaming torch are symbols of the Divine presence. These same symbols are seen leading Israel through the desert, a column of fire by night and a column of smoke by day (Exodus 13:21). This same manifestation of G-d’s presence was a protection for Israel when the column moved between Israel and the Egyptian army at the edge of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:20; Joshua 24:7). This protection reflects the promise G-d has made to be Avram’s shield. This same manifestation of the Divine presence is called the Angel of HaShem (Exodus 13:19).
There is also a connection here to the revelation of G-d at Sinai (Exodus 19), Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 1:13), and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit during Shavuot/Pentecost (Acts 2). It seems clear that due to the prophecy Avram has just received concerning Israel’s coming slavery, that the symbols of the Divine presence passing through the divided animals is a foreshadowing of the same Divine presence leading Israel through the waters of the Red sea.
G-d’s presence alone passes through the sacrificial animals while Avram is in a deep sleep. As a result the covenant responsibility is entirely incumbent upon G-d. Therefore, it is impossible for Avram or his descendants (Israel) to revoke the covenant through disobedience. The land has been promised and will not be taken back. It is a perpetual promise from a G-d Who cannot lie and never breaks His oaths. This type of covenant is called an Unconditional Royal Covenant, as opposed to the conditional bargain-like covenant of Genesis 31:44.
Gen 15:18 In the same day HaShem made a covenant with Avram, saying, “Unto your seed have I given this land, from the river of Mitzraim (Egypt: double destress) unto the great river, the river Perat (Euphrates: fruitfulness): Gen 15:19 The Ha-Kanee (Kenites: smiths), and the Ha-kenizee (Kenizzites: descendants of Kenaz: hunter), and the Ha-Kadmoneiy (Kadmonites: easterners), Gen 15:20 And the Ha-chetee (Hittites: descendants of chet: terror), and the Ha-Perizee (Perizzites: belonging to a village), and the Ha-Rephaim (Rephaimites: healing), Gen 15:21 And the Ha-Amori (Amorites: sayers), and the Ha-C’naanee (Canaanites: zealous), and theHa-Geergasheey (Girgashites: dwelling in clay soil), and the Ha-Y’vooseey (Jebusites: descendants of Y’boos: threshing floor).”
“In the same day” means in the daylight hours following these events when Avram had awoken to hear the covenant promise, G-d spoke saying, “Unto your seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates”.
Only during David’s reign were the boundaries of verse 18 attained, and then only as an empire.
Of the ten nations (a number symbolizing completion), only the last seven were actually conquered by Joshua. The first three, The Kenites, Kenizzites, and the Kadmonites would belong to Edom, Moab and Ammon. The Rabbinical view is that these will be conquered and belong to Israel during the days of the Messiah (Isaiah 11:14).
Given that G-d is bound by Himself to keep this covenant with Avram’s descendants, Israel, we can look forward to the time when the Messiah of Israel will return and reign over the entire Promised Land as King and High Priest over Israel and the nations.
© 2016 Yaakov Brown
Spiritual leader of Beth Melekh Community, Auckland, Aotearoa, N.Z.