Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
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.XV.
JEHOVAH’S COVENANT WITH ABRAM.
(1) After these things.—After the war with Chedorlaomer.
The word of the Lord came (Heb., was) unto Abram.—This phrase, used so constantly afterwards to signify revelation, occurs here for the first time. The revelation on this occasion is made by night (Genesis 15:5), not however in a dream, but in a trance, in which the senses of Abram were closed to all earthly impressions and he became passive in the hands of the Almighty. Up to this time Abram had received only general promises of offspring, and of the land being the possession of his seed; but years were passing by, and the fulfilment of his hopes remained distant as ever. By the war with the Elamite king he had also made for himself powerful enemies; and though the immediate result was fortunate, yet many Canaanite nations may have witnessed with displeasure so remarkable an exhibition of the power and energy of an “immigrant.” And thus the time had come when the patriarch needed and obtained more formal assurances, first, of the bestowal upon him of offspring (Genesis 15:1-6), and, secondly, of the future possession of Palestine (Genesis 15:18-21).
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.—Not Jehovah Elohim, but Lord Jehovah, “Lord” being the ordinary title of respect. Usually Jehovah takes the vowels of ‘donai, “lord,” but as the two words occur here together, it takes the vowels of Elohim, whence the translation in our version, in obedience to a superstition of the Jews (Genesis 4:1).
What wilt thou give me?—There is a slight tone of complaint in these words. Jehovah promised Abram a “reward great exceedingly.” He answers that no reward can really be great so long as he has no heir.
I go childless.—Either, I am going to my grave childless (Psalm 39:13), or better, I continue to be, pass my days, in childlessness.
The steward of my house.—Heb., the benmeshek of my house. Ben-meshek is generally explained as meaning “the son of possession,” that is, the possessor, owner of my. house when I die. Other authorities derive meshek from a verb signifying “to run about,” as if it was Eliezer’s business to go to and fro in execution of Abram’s orders. The term is rare, and has evidently been chosen for the play of words upon Dammesek= Damascus. Perhaps this may also explain the last words, which literally are, he is Damascus Eliezer. Grammatically it should have been, “he is the Damascene Eliezer,” but this would have spoiled the assonance between ben-meshek (probably pronounced bemmeshek) and Dammesek.
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.—This is a mistake. Those born in Abram’s house were his servants (Genesis 14:14). The Hebrew is, the son of my house, my house-son, not born of me, but the chief of the house next to myself, and its representative. Eliezer was probably born at Damascus.
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) He brought him forth.—There is no reason for regarding this as a poetical description of a merely mental emotion. With his senses dormant, but alive to every spiritual impression, Abram feels himself led forth from the tent into the open space around, and is there commanded to count the stars. As a matter of fact, the stars visible to the naked eye are not very numerous, but they have ever been a received metaphor for an infinite multitude, probably because, as men gaze, they perpetually see the faint radiance of more and more distant constellations. Thus they cannot be counted, and Abram’s seed was to be countless, because of the vastness of its number.
And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.(6) He believed in the Lord (in Jehovah) . . . —We have here the germ of the doctrine of free justification. Abram was both a holy man and one who proved his faith by his works; but nevertheless the inspired narrator inserts this reflection, not after the history of the offering of Isaac, but in the account of this vision, where all that Abram did was to believe, and for that belief’s sake was accounted righteous before God. For the definite conclusions deduced from this verse by St. Paul see Romans 4. The quotation there is from the LXX., and gives the general sense, but the correct rendering of the Hebrew is that given in our version.
And he said, Lord GOD, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?(8) Lord God.—Heb., Lord Jehovah, as in Genesis 15:2.
Whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?—Jehovah had required Abram to leave his home in Ur of the Chaldees on a general promise of future endowment with the land of Canaan. Abram now asks this question, not from want of faith, but from a desire for a more direct confirmation of the promise and fuller knowledge of the details. What Abram, therefore, receives is an exact and circumstantial prophecy, made in the form of a solemn covenant.
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, 10) Take me an heifer . . . —This form of making a covenant was probably that usual in Babylonia, and thus Abram received the assurance of his inheritance by means of a ceremonial with which he was familiar. But in most ancient languages men are said to cut or strike a covenant, because the most solemn formula involved either the cutting of victims in two, or striking them dead, as was the Roman manner. The severing of the bodies was not, as some suppose, to represent the two parties; but, as explained in Jeremiah 34:18-20, it set forth the penalty of perjury, and was usually accompanied by the imprecation upon the covenant-breaker of a destruction as complete as that which had befallen the slaughtered animals. There is no mention in this place of a sacrifice, although the animals are those subsequently set apart for sacrifice by the Levitical law. The heifer, she-goat, and ram at three years old would each have attained its full maturity; but there may be a further symbolic meaning in there being three animals each three years old.
Laid each piece . . . —More exactly, and laid each half over against the other. The birds were not divided; but as there were two, Abram probably placed one on one side and one on the other.
And when the fowls came down upon the carcases, Abram drove them away.(11) And when the fowls . . . —Heb., And the birds of prey came down upon the carcases, and Abram scared them away. Had there been a sacrifice the fire would have kept the vultures from approaching; but the bodies lay exposed, and Abram therefore kept guard over them, lest the purpose of the ceremonial should be frustrated by any want of respect shown to the outward symbols.
And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, lo, an horror of great darkness fell upon him.(12) When the sun was going down.—The time described was the evening following the night on which he had received the assurance that his seed should be countless as the stars. He had then, in his trance, also asked for some security that Canaan should be the heritage of his posterity, and in answer had received the command to arrange, upon a large scale, the ceremonial of a solemn treaty-making. The morning had been spent in the performance of the command, and after wards he had watched, probably for several hours, by the side of the divided bodies, uncertain what would happen, but occupied in driving away the vultures, which gathered from all quarters round the abundant feast. At sunset the revelation came to him, not in a waking trance, as on the previous night, but in “a deep sleep,” and with those accompaniments of terror so powerfully described in Job 4:12-16, and which the creature cannot but feel when brought near to the manifest presence of the Creator (Daniel 10:8).
Lo, an horror of great darkness fell upon him.—Heb., lo, a terror, even great darkness, falling upon him. The terror was not mental so much as bodily, caused by a deep gloom settling round him, such as would be the effect of an eclipse of the setting sun, and shutting all mortal things away from his view.
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) Four hundred years.—The exact duration of the sojourn in Egypt was 430 years (Exodus 12:40-41), and with this agrees the genealogy of Jehoshua (1Chronicles 7:23-27).
And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance.(14) That nation.—Had it been expressly revealed that the country that would afflict them was Egypt, the patriarchs might have been unwilling to go thither; but the reference to the plagues in the denunciation of judgment, and to the spoiling of the Egyptians in the promise that they should “come out with great substance” (Exodus 12:36), gave detail sufficient for future guidance, and for their assurance in time to come that the promise had been fulfilled.
And thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age.(15) Thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace.—Abram’s ancestors had died in Babylonia, but the phrase, used here for the first time, evidently involves the thought of the immortality of the soul. The body may be buried far away, but the soul joins the company of its forefathers in some separate abode, not to be absorbed, but still to enjoy a personal existence. (Comp. Genesis 25:8.) A similar, but more exact, distinction between the body and the spirit is drawn in Ecclesiastes 12:7.
But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.(16) The fourth generation.—Heb., dôr. (See Note on Genesis 6:9.) As the four generations are identical with the four centuries of Genesis 15:13, we have here an undesigned testimony to the long duration of human life. So Abram was 100 years old when Isaac was born, and Isaac was 60 at the birth of his children, and Jacob 64 years of age at his marriage. But the word dôr had probably come down from a remote antiquity, and, like the Latin word seculum, signified a century.
The iniquity of the Amorites.—As the chief and leading tribe, they are used here for all the Canaanite nations. We learn from this declaration that the Canaanites were not extirpated by any wilful decree to make room for Israel, but as an act of justice, like that which, because of their moral depravity, overwhelmed the Sethites with a flood. So, subsequently, Israel and Judah had each to bear a punishment in accordance with their sinfulness; and so, throughout the history of the world, whenever nations settle down in vice and corruption, the decay of their institutions follows upon that of their morals, and they either waste away or give place to some more manly race of conquerors. The conquest of Canaan by Israel was parallel to that of the enervated Roman empire of the West by the Germans; only we see the preparation for it. and God’s purpose explained; and we also see that if the Amorites had not made the scale of justice weigh down heavily, they would not have been deprived of their country.
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 word really means the circular firepot which Orientals use in their houses to sit round for purposes of warmth. This one was wreathed in smoke, out of which shot “a burning lamp” (Heb., a torch of flame). For not two symbols, but only one, passed between the divided carcases. Abram had probably passed between them immediately after arranging them, and now Jehovah does the same. Fire is the recognised symbol of the Deity, as in the burning bush, the pillar of fire, the lightnings on Mount Sinai, &c.
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.—Heb., Jehovah cut a covenant. Abram had divided the slaughtered animals, and Jehovah, by passing between them, made the whole act His own.
The river of Egypt.—That is, the Nile. In the Hebrew the Wady-el-Arish, on the southern border of Simeon, is always distinguished from the Nile. though the distinction is neglected in our version. Thus in Numbers 34:5; Joshua 15:4; Isaiah 27:12 (where alone an attempt is made at accuracy by translating stream), the Hebrew has, the torrent of Egypt, that is, a stream full after the rains, but dry during the rest of the year. For a description of these torrent-beds see Isaiah 57:5-6, where in Genesis 15:5 the word is translated valleys, and in Genesis 15:6 stream. The word used here signifies a river that flows constantly; and Abram’s posterity are to found a kingdom conterminous with the Nile and the Euphrates, that is, with Egypt and Babylonia. If these bounds are large and vague, we must also remember that they are limited by the names of the ten nations which follow. Between the Nile and the Euphrates, the territories of these ten tribes is alone definitely bestowed upon Abram.
The Kenites, and the Kenizzites, and the Kadmonites,(19) The Kenites.—An Arab race, found both among the Amalekites in the south (1Samuel 15:6) and among the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulon in the north (Judges 4:11), and even in Midian, as Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, is called a Kenite (Judges 1:16). Balaam speaks of them as being a powerful nation (Numbers 24:21), and this wide dispersion of them into feeble remnants seems to show that they were a race of early settlers in Canaan, who, like the Rephaim, had been overpowered and scattered by subsequent immigrants. They were uniformly friendly to Israel.
The Kenizzites.—The chief fact of importance connected with this race is that Caleb was a Kenezite (Numbers 32:12). Apparently with his clan he joined the Israelites at the Exodus, and was numbered with the tribe of Judah. Kenizzite and Kenezite are two ways of spelling the same Hebrew word, the former being right.
The Kadmonites.—This may mean either an eastern or an ancient people, of whom we know nothing.