Genesis 15
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. 15. The Covenant with Abram. (J, E.)

This chapter contains at least two slightly different narratives, which dealing with the same subject have been blended together. Thus Genesis 15:1; Genesis 15:5 speak of Abram in sleep, at night time, when the stars are visible: in Genesis 15:12; Genesis 15:17 we read of the sun going down, and afterwards, when the sun had set, of its becoming dark. In Genesis 15:6, Abram’s faith is singled out for especial commendation. In Genesis 15:8, Abram, in distress and doubt, asks for a sign. In Genesis 15:13-16, is recorded an explicit promise of the occupation of the land of the Amorite. In Genesis 15:17-18, the covenant is made, with a brief sentence containing a promise of the land. The probability is that we have here a combination of the two threads of prophetic narrative, which have been distinguished by scholars as (E) Elohist, or Ephraimite, and (J) Jehovist, or Judean. See Introduction.

After these things the word of the LORD came unto Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.
1–6. The Promise of an Heir

1. After these things] A vague note of time. Cf. Genesis 22:1; Genesis 22:20; Genesis 40:1; Genesis 48:1.

the word of the Lord] i.e. the word of Jehovah, as in Genesis 15:4. This is a technical expression in the O.T. for a Divine revelation to a prophet. It occurs nowhere else in the Pentateuch. It suggests the prophetic character of Abram, and should be compared with Genesis 20:7 (E), where Abram is spoken of as a prophet.

in a vision] Evidently, as is shewn by Genesis 15:5, the vision occurs in a dream, or in the condition described in Numbers 24:3-4; cf. Job 4:13, “in thoughts from the visions of the night, when deep sleep falleth on men.”

Fear not] The situation requiring this particular encouragement is not described. Abram, alone, childless, surrounded with foreigners, is not a coward, but is tempted, at times of depression, to fear that there is to be no fulfilment of the promise.

thy shield] A poetical simile of frequent occurrence, e.g. Deuteronomy 33:29; Psalm 3:3; Proverbs 2:7, “He is a shield to them that walk in integrity”; Genesis 30:5, “He is a shield unto them that trust in him.”

and thy exceeding great reward] So the Lat. et merces tua magna nimis. But R.V. marg. thy reward shall be exceeding great is preferable. So the LXX. That for which Abram shall be rewarded is his trust.

And Abram said, Lord GOD, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus?
2. Lord God] God = Heb. Jehovah, as in other places where it is put in capitals. “Adonai Jehovah”: this combination of sacred names occurs only here, Genesis 15:8, and Deuteronomy 3:24; Deuteronomy 9:26, in the Pentateuch. It is, however, not uncommon in the prophetical writings; and is especially frequent in Ezekiel. The Hebrew student will notice that the sacred name JHVH receives here the vowel points “e” “o” “i” of Elohim, because the word “Adonai,” whose pronunciation it generally receives, immediately precedes it. Where the full word “Adonai” precedes JHVH, the Jewish scribes, in order to prevent profane repetition of the word “Adonai,” punctuate and pronounce JHVH as if it were “Elohim”; hence they would read here Adonai Elohim, not Adonai Adonai.

seeing I go childless] R.V. marg. go hence. LXX ἀπολύομαι, Lat. ego vadam. “I go” is generally understood to mean here, “I depart this life.” Cf. “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart,” Luke 2:29 (νῦν ἀπολύεις τὸν δοῦλόν σου, δέσποτα). But it might mean, “I take my ordinary path in life, childless.”

The misfortune of having no children was acutely felt by the Israelite: see Numbers 27:4, “Why should the name of our father be taken away from among his family, because he had no son?”

possessor of my house] i.e. my heir.

The conclusion of this verse, in the original, gives no sense. The R.V. probably furnishes the general meaning. The confusion is apparent in LXX, ὁ δὲ υἱὸς Μάσεκ τῆς οἰκογενοῦς μου, οὗτος Δαμασκὸς Ἐλιέζερ = “And the son of Masek, my slave born in the house, this is Damascus Eliezer.”

Dammesek Eliezer] R.V. marg., Targum of Onkelos, and Syriac, have Eliezer the Damascene. The text is corrupt. Literally the sentence runs: “and the son of the possession of my house is Damascus Eliezer.” Dammesek is the usual Hebrew word for “Damascus.” Attempts to restore the text have not been successful.

Ball conjectures, “And he who will possess my house is a Damascene, Eliezer.” Eliezer is probably the same as the faithful servant of Abram mentioned in Genesis 24:2, where the name is not given. The possible reference to Damascus in this verse gave rise to the traditions connecting Abram with the conquest of Damascus; see Josephus (Ant. i. 7, 2), quoting Nicolaus of Damascus, who wrote in the days of Herod the Great; cf. note on Genesis 12:5.

And Abram said, Behold, to me thou hast given no seed: and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir.
3. one born in my house] The childless master of the house is here represented as likely to be succeeded by a member of his household. Lot is ignored. For the favourable position of a trusted slave in an Israelite household, cf. 24; 1 Samuel 9:3-8; 1 Samuel 9:22; 1 Chronicles 2:34 ff.; Proverbs 17:2.

And, behold, the word of the LORD came unto him, saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir.
And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be.
5. tell the stars] i.e. count. A proverbial expression for the infinite and innumerable, as in Genesis 22:17, Genesis 26:4.

The word “tell” is Old English for “count,” as in Psalm 22:17, “I may tell all my bones”; Psalm 48:12, “tell the towers thereof”; Jeremiah 33:13, “And in the cities of Judah shall the flocks again pass under the hands of him that telleth them.” Cf. “And every shepherd tells his tale Under the hawthorn in the dale” (Milton, L’Allegro, 67, 68).

And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.
6. he believed in the Lord] Abram believed (1) in God’s protection (Genesis 15:1), (2) in the fulfilment of the promise of a son (Genesis 15:4), and (3) of innumerable descendants (Genesis 15:5). It is this trust to which St Paul refers (Romans 4:18), “who in hope believed against hope, to the end that he might become a father of many nations, according to that which had been spoken, So shall thy seed be.”

“Believed in,” i.e. “believed,” “trusted,” as with the same Hebrew construction, Exodus 14:31, Jonah 3:5.

In the Ep. to the Hebrews (Genesis 11:8; Genesis 11:17) Abram’s faith is not illustrated from this, passage, but from his leaving his country (chap. 12) and from his sacrifice of his son (22).

and he counted it to him for righteousness] A short pregnant sentence of abstract religious thought. The word “righteousness” (ṣedâqâh) occurs here for the first time in Scripture. It denotes the qualities of the man who is “righteous,” or “right with God” (see note on ṣaddîq, Genesis 7:1). To the Israelite, “righteousness” implied the perfect obedience of the law. The writer records that, at a time when there was no law, Jehovah reckoned the faith of Abram, shewn in simple trust and obedience, as equivalent to the subsequent technical fulfilment of legal righteousness. The trustful surrender to the loving will of God is represented, in this typical instance of the father of the Israelite people, as, in Divine estimation, the foundation of true religion.

For the phrase, cf. the reference to Phinehas, Psalm 106:31, “and that was counted unto him for righteousness.”

For the argument based by St Paul on this verse in connexion with the doctrine of the justification by faith, see Romans 4:1-25; Galatians 3:6 : cf. James 2:23.

And he said unto him, I am the LORD that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it.
7. out of Ur of the Chaldees] Possibly a later gloss: see note on Genesis 11:31, Genesis 12:1. Cf. Nehemiah 9:7-8.

7–19. The Ratification of the Promise by a Solemn Covenant

The occasion of the covenant is distinct from that described in Genesis 15:1-6; but the connexion of thought is obvious. It is the man of faith who has the privilege of vision and is admitted into direct covenant relation with his God.

And he said, Lord GOD, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?
8. whereby shall I know] Abram requests a sign to assure him of the fulfilment of the promise: cf. the action of Gideon, Jdg 6:17, and of Hezekiah, 2 Kings 20:8. On “Lord God,” see note on Genesis 15:2.

And he said unto him, Take me an heifer of three years old, and a she goat of three years old, and a ram of three years old, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.
9. Take me an heifer, &c.] The sign to Abram is the sign of the covenant, of which the ceremonial is here described. This ceremonial is evidently of great antiquity. The writer, perhaps, intends to refer the origin of the institution to the time of Abram and to this occasion. The ceremony is as follows: (1) Animals permitted for sacrifice are selected. (2) They are killed, and their carcases divided. (3) The divided portions are placed in two rows over against each other. (4) The contracting parties pass between the rows, invoking, as they do so, an imprecation upon any violator of the covenant, that he should in like manner be cut asunder.

It is this ceremonial which causes the making of a covenant to be expressed by words meaning “to cut,” e.g. Heb. karath b’rîth, Lat. foedus icere, Gr. ὅρκια τέμνειν.

The details of the ceremony probably differed slightly from age to age. The origin of some old customs is lost in obscurity. Why, for instance, are the animals mentioned to be three years old? is it because they are to be full grown? (Cf. 1 Samuel 1:24, R.V. marg.) Why are the birds not to be divided like the beasts? These are questions of a technical ritual character to which at present we can give no answer.

The most interesting Scriptural illustration of covenant ceremonial is afforded by Jeremiah 34:18, “the covenant which they made before me, when they cut the calf in twain and passed between the parts thereof.”

And he took unto him all these, and divided them in the midst, and laid each piece one against another: but the birds divided he not.
And when the fowls came down upon the carcases, Abram drove them away.
11. And the birds of prey, &c.] The birds of prey, regarded as unclean, swooping down threatened to carry off the pieces of flesh. This would have interrupted the ceremony with an evil omen, polluted the sacrifice, and impaired the covenant. Abram drives away the birds of ill omen. In the context, these birds evidently symbolized the Egyptians, who threatened, by enslaving Israel in Egypt, to frustrate the fulfilment of the Divine promise to the seed of Abram. The chasing away of the birds typified the surmounting of all obstacles.

The LXX συνεκάθισεν αὐτοῖς = “he sat with them” for “he drove them away” (reading vay-yêsheb ittâm for vay-yasshêb ôthâm) is a strange example of the mistakes arising from Hebrew writing without vowel points.

And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, lo, an horror of great darkness fell upon him.
12. a deep sleep] See note on the same word in Genesis 2:21. LXX ἔκστασις.

an horror of great darkness fell] Lit. “an horror, even great darkness was falling.” A vivid description of the sensation of terror, preliminary to the revelation he was to receive.

And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years;
13. a stranger] The word used (gêr) (LXX πάροικος) means more than a “sojourner” (cf. Genesis 23:4, Exodus 2:22).

A stranger (gêr) is properly a guest residing in another country, whose rights are in a sense protected. He may be merely a temporary sojourner (tôshâb). But as a “stranger” (gêr) he has a recognized status in the community. As a “sojourner” (tôshâb), he has none; he is a mere social “bird of passage.” The difference is that between a “resident foreigner” and “a foreign visitor.”

and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them] The personal pronouns in English are ambiguous. There is a change of subject. Israel shall be slaves to the people of a land that is not theirs, i.e. to the Egyptians; and the Egyptians shall afflict them. The LXX δουλώσουσιν, “they, i.e. the Egyptians, shall make bondmen of them, i.e. the Israelites,” gives a different turn to the first clause, and avoids the interchange of subject and object: cf. the quotation in Acts 7:6.

four hundred years] See note on Genesis 15:16. The figure agrees in round numbers with the number of 430 years assigned, in Exodus 12:40, to the sojourning of Israel in Egypt. Cf. Acts 7:6; Galatians 3:17.

And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance.
14. will I judge] Referring to the plagues of Egypt.

with great substance] See Exodus 12:35-36; Psalm 105:37.

And thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age.
15. go to thy fathers] i.e. depart in death to join thy forefathers in the place of departed spirits, i.e. Sheôl. Cf. Genesis 47:30, “when I sleep with my fathers”; Genesis 49:33, “was gathered unto his people.”

a good old age] See for the fulfilment of this promise, Genesis 25:7-8. To live to a good old age and to depart this life in peace, was, as is shewn in the typical lives of the patriarchs, regarded as the reward of true piety. Cf. Job 5:26, “Thou shalt come to thy grave in a full age, like as a shock of corn cometh in its season”; Proverbs 9:11; Proverbs 10:27.

But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.
16. in the fourth generation] This agrees with the genealogy in Exodus 6:16-20, where the generations are: (1) Levi, (2) Kohath, (3) Amram, (4) Moses. If the fourth generation is to be harmonized with the 400 years in Genesis 15:13, a generation must have been computed as 100 years. Isaac was born in Abram’s 100th year. But it may be doubted, whether the mention of “the fourth generation” comes from the same hand as “the 400 years” in Genesis 15:13.

for the iniquity of the Amorite] The idea is that the wickedness of the people of Canaan must reach a certain degree, before the Divine penalty can be inflicted. The postponement of the penalty, which indicates Divine forbearance, means also a terrible, but gradual, accumulation of guilt. For the iniquity of the Amorites, cf. Genesis 13:13, Leviticus 18:24-30, Deuteronomy 9:5. On the Amorite, see Genesis 10:16.

And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp that passed between those pieces.
17. a smoking furnace] The sign of the covenant is given in the appearance of a kiln, from which issued smoke and a blazing torch; and this passed through the two rows of the divided carcases. The figure described as a “smoking furnace” (tannur) was that of a clay constructed kiln, or furnace, such as is used for baking purposes by the Fellaheen. It is the κλίβανος = “oven,” of Matthew 6:30. For the fire and smoke as a symbol of the Theophany, see Exodus 13:21; Exodus 19:18; Exodus 24:17.

In the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates:
18. the Lord made a covenant] A covenant, or compact, as between man and man, is necessarily impossible between God and man. God in His mercy gives the promise; man in his weakness acknowledges his willingness to obey. For the other covenants in the Pentateuch cf. 9, 17; Exodus 24. The origin of b’rîth = “covenant,” is uncertain. Some suggest barah = “eat,” in the sense of a “solemn meal.” See note on Genesis 15:9.

The fate of the victims was supposed to be invoked upon the head of the party who broke the covenant. Cf. Livy, i. 24, tum illo die, Juppiter, populum Romanum sic ferito, ut ego hunc porcum hic hodie feriam, tantoque magis ferito quanto magis potes pollesque. The idea of Robertson Smith that the two parties to the covenant, standing between the pieces, partook of the mystical life of the victim (Relig. of Semites, p. 480) remains doubtful.

from the river of Egypt] The n’har Mizraim is clearly the Nile. The ideal boundaries of the future territory of Israel are here stated in hyperbolical fashion, as extending from the Nile to the Euphrates: so Joshua 13:3, 1 Chronicles 13:5. The Eastern, i.e. the Pelusiac, arm of the Nile is meant.

“The River of Egypt” is to be distinguished from “the Brook of Egypt,” naḥal Mizraim, Numbers 34:5, Joshua 15:4; Joshua 15:47, the Rhino-colura, the modern Wady-el-Arish, a watercourse on the extreme S.W. of Palestine, on the confines of Egyptian territory.

unto the great river, the river Euphrates] Cf. Deuteronomy 1:7; Deuteronomy 11:24. It was probably only in the days of Solomon that this picture of Israelite greatness was ever approximately realized; see 1 Kings 4:21, Psalm 80:11.

The Kenites, and the Kenizzites, and the Kadmonites,
19. the Kenite] Dwellers in the S. of Canaan, connected with the Amalekites and noted for their subsequent friendly relations with Israel. Cf. Numbers 24:20-21; Jdg 4:17; 1 Samuel 15:6.

the Kenizzite] Also a people on the Edomite border of Canaan; cf. Kenaz, Genesis 36:11. Caleb, the head of the tribe of Judah, was a Kenizzite, Numbers 32:12, Joshua 14:6. Hence the Kenizzites were probably a south Palestinian clan absorbed into the tribe of Judah.

the Kadmonite] Probably dwellers on the eastern desert frontier of Canaan. Compare “the children of the east” (b’nê ḳedem) in Genesis 29:1.

19–21. The names of the ten peoples to be driven out by the Israelites. For other lists of these, cf. Exodus 3:8; Exodus 3:17; Exodus 13:5; Exodus 23:23; Exodus 34:11; Deuteronomy 7:1; Deuteronomy 20:17. Here only, are ten names given; usually only five or six are mentioned. The Kenite, the Kenizzite, the Kadmonite, the Perizzite, and the Rephaim, seem here to be added to make up the full list.

These verses and Genesis 15:18 are attributed by many scholars to a Deuteronomic editor.

And the Hittites, and the Perizzites, and the Rephaims,
20. the Hittite] See note on Genesis 10:15. Probably indicating the presence of Hittite settlements in Canaan—bands who had roamed southward from the great Hittite kingdom of the north.

the Perizzite, and the Rephaim] See notes on Genesis 13:7, Genesis 14:5.

And the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.
21. the Amorite, &c.] See Genesis 10:15-16.

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