Our passage this morning tells how the LORD confirmed his promise to Abram, to make of him a great nation. We first read about this call a few chapters earlier Genesis 12 where it’s recorded that:
1The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
2 “I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.[be seen as blessed]
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”[will use your name in blessings]
4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran. 5 He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.
As we’ve made note of before, when God first called Abram, he was a person, not a nation. In creating what would one day be the nation of Israel, God didn’t simply reveal himself to an already-existing nation and ask it to change its ways and follow him. Instead God started from scratch, taking an individual of his choosing to whom he disclosed himself and revealed his will and his ways. From the outset this would be a holy people—a people set apart by God—made to live for and honor him even as God had intended when he first made Adam and Eve. So the LORD promises Abram that through him, he would make a nation that would be uniquely his and that one day all peoples on earth would be blessed through him. We should note as well that Abram is 75 years old when God first makes this promise to him. This isn’t exactly an ideal age for conceiving a child and so becoming the father of all nations.
Jumping ahead to our passage, it begins with the LORD’s word coming to Abram in a vision and saying: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield,[or sovereign] your very great reward[or your reward will be very great]” (v. 1). “Do not be afraid” is certainly an appropriate place to begin, isn’t it? Imagine if the God of the universe—the God who created not only you but everything else that has ever or will ever exist—came to you. Why you?? Wouldn’t the very fact of his appearing to you be cause for concern and fear? Think of it this way—if, for instance, the President of the United States or another world leader or perhaps the head of the FBI were to come to your home with a special message, wouldn’t that be a bit unnerving? Wouldn’t you have cause for concern? How much more so if the one who comes to you is God Almighty himself!
Now it’s important to note that God’s word to Abram begins with the LORD disclosing who he is—he is Abram’s shield, or another possible translation is “sovereign.” In essence these are two ways of saying the same thing since a shield often stands for a king. So if the LORD is Abram’s shield, the suggestion is that he will provide protection for Abram; and if he is Abram’s sovereign, again the point is that the LORD is Abram’s supreme ruler or King. This revelation should comfort Abram. God will care for him. He is on Abram’s side.
The LORD further states that he is Abram’s “very great reward”—and again, another possible translation is “your reward will be very great.” A contrast is being made here between the LORD being Abram’s reward with Abram having turned down a monetary reward in the previous chapter when he helped defeat some kings and was offered a reward by the king of Sodom. In verses 22–23 of chapter 14 we see Abram’s reply to this offer: “With raised hand I have sworn an oath to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, 23 that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the strap of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’” Abram knows who his true provider is. And the LORD rewards him by underscoring that he is Abram’s reward—and what could possibly be greater than having the LORD as one’s reward?
Abram replies to God’s self-disclosure as shield and reward by stating “Sovereign LORD”—so he’s understood that God is in control over all that exists. But he’s understandably unclear about how all of this will come about since he has not children. Now by the laws in place at the time in which he lived around 2000 BC, if Abram was unable to produce an heir then his servant Eliezer could be his heir. It was possible to adopt one of your male servants to be heir and guardian of your estate. Let us remember, again, that Abram is 75 years old at this time. And since the name “Eliezer” even means “God is help” Abram may have been viewing him as the means by which God would fulfill his promise. So Abram responds to the LORD saying: “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir” (v. 3). But the LORD reassures Abram that, no, not Eliezer but an actual son—his “own flesh and blood”—would be his heir (v. 4).
Now when this word from God came to Abram it must have been night for we read that the LORD “took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.’” Stars can only be clearly seen in a night sky. So after having Abram look up at the vast immensity of sky filled with innumerable stars adorning it, the Lord then adds “So shall your offspring[seed] be” (5). And with that we’re told in verse 6 that “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” Isn’t this the very definition of faith—believing God? Faith has an object, and that object is the God who made us. And faith has a content and that is what God says by his Word and, for us, in his Word. And because God is who he is—he is our sovereign and great reward—we can trust that he will bring to pass those things he promises to us in his Word.
In verse 7 God reminds Abram who he is by identifying himself with his past self-disclosure to him which I earlier read to you from Genesis 12: “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.” So we see here that God’s promise to Abram is multi-faceted. He promises not only to make of him a nation but also to give him a land that will serve as home to his nation. Now you would think that if Abram believed God’s promise that his offspring would be as innumerable as the stars in the sky, then surely he would believe that God would be able to provide him with a land in which that nation could live. But instead we see him asking in verse 8: “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?” This is actually a very good question. Keep in mind that the land wasn’t simply there for the taking. It isn’t as if there was an uninhabited country just waiting for Abram to come in, stake his claim upon, and populate. No, there were other nations already living in the land that God promised to Abram. And Abram was 75 years old so how would this conquest come to pass?
But God reassures Abram by means of a ritual intended to put Abram’s concerns to rest. The LORD tells Abram in verse 9: “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.” Once Abram had brought these to God, he cut the heifer, goat, and ram in half (though not the birds—possibly because they were too small) and kept watch over them, driving away the birds of prey seeking to enjoy a free meal (vv. 10–11). Then “As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.” Though we can’t know the cause of the “dread” in the darkness, it’s certainly understandable if we consider the enormity of what the LORD plans to do by way of Abraham, this septuagenarian who has been told that though he is childless, nonetheless not only will a nation will be formed through him but also that all of the people and nations of the world will one day be blessed through him and not only that, but that these innumerable descendants will be given a land to inhabit. So as Abram is in this state of deep sleep and dreadful darkness the LORD speaks to him and tells him in vv. 13–16:
Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. 15 You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.
This isn’t the most comforting of prophecies, is it? It reminds me of an admittedly cynical drawing a colleague once forwarded to me depicting Christians in the Roman coliseum being fed to lions surrounding and waiting to devour them. The caption underneath read: “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” Albeit in an overstated manner, this drawing is a reminder that our notions of what God’s sovereign love should and shouldn’t entail don’t always correspond with what God may actually be doing. We often seek earthly ease and happiness whereas God often uses his servants to remind us that our final joy is in and with him. And though we will never be separated from his love in this life or the next, neither will be spared the effects of the Fall this side of heaven. If even Jesus had to suffer temptation and suffering inflicted by others while he lived on earth, then why should we expect to be spared the same?
In this vision, the LORD is telling Abram what is to come. He is telling Abram the unadorned truth of what will come to pass—the good and the bad. So though Abram will have descendants, these initial descendants will be enslaved for four hundred years in a country that is not their own. As Ron reminded me when we talked about this passage earlier this week, four hundred years is almost twice as long as the United States has existed as a nation. Think about that. There were generations that had no memory or experience other than being slaves. The LORD further tells Abram that his descendants will serve as slaves and they will be mistreated. But, in the end, those who mistreat Abram’s descendants—we know it was Egypt—will be punished and Abram’s descendants “will come out with great possessions.” As for Abram himself, however, God reassures him that he’ll “go to his ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age.” And “in the fourth generation” Abram’s descendants will return for the “sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure”—a reference to the judgment God will one day exercise upon this group living in Canaan.
After the LORD says all of this to Abram, we read in verse 17: “When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.” This is a reference to the earlier ritual in which the animals were cut in two by Abram. The blazing torch is a theophany—a visible manifestation of God to Abram—sealing his promise to Abram with a sign. The torch’s passing between the pieces of cut animals is an indication of the surety that what God says he will do, he will do. We see this practice in other ancient Near Eastern texts and Jeremiah 34:18 as well. It indicates that by passing between the torn animals—which signify the punishment due to those who break the covenant—God invokes a self-maledictory oath or curse upon himself of what will happen to him should he fail to keep his covenant promise. God is swearing by the highest authority possible—himself—and is saying in effect, “May it be so done to me if I do not keep my oath and pledge.” If he doesn’t do as he has promised, then may God himself be cut asunder even as the sacrificed animals have been cut in two. When the text goes on to say in verse 18 that “On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram” the literal word for making is to “cut” a covenant which, again, refers to the slaughtering of the animals.
Now a quick word on why I’ve been referring to “Abram” instead of “Abraham.” Though these are one and the same person, Abram’s name doesn’t get changed to Abraham until God actually fulfills his promise of providing a child when Abram was ninety-nine years old. You do the math. In Genesis 12 we read that Abram was 75 when God promised him that his own son would be an heir so between the time of promise and the fulfillment of that promise 24 years have passed until Isaac is conceived. When the LORD again appears to Abram when he is 99, he tells him (as recorded for us in Genesis 17:5): “No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.” As we continue to see, names are important in Scripture and often reflect some key attribute or characteristic of an individual. Abram’s original name meant “exalted father”—which is ironic since he had no children but is nonetheless a term of respect. But now his name is being changed to “Abraham” which probably means “father of many.” In changing Abram’s name to Abraham, the LORD is highlighting that now is the time when his promise is being fulfilled. And we’re told in verse 5 of Genesis 21 that “Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.” And, by the way, Sarah was ninety when Isaac was born (Genesis 17:17).
So what can we take away from this snapshot of Father Abraham’s life? Well, first, we learn the importance of having faith or believing God’s Word. In Hebrews 11:6, 8–12 we see the centrality of faith and of the Abraham story as the author states:
6 And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him….[—so you see, the LORD is not only Abram’s reward but the ultimate reward of all people—] 8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12 And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.
This leads into a second point: Not only does the Abraham story remind us of the centrality and importance of believing God and his Word but all who do are fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham that, one day, his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. Brothers and sisters, you and I are Abraham’s offspring. We are part of the fulfillment of a promise God made to Abraham over 4000 years ago. Paul tells us that all who know the one true God through God in Christ, are Abraham’s heirs, his offspring. Listen to what Paul states in Romans 4:9b–12:
We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. 10 Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! 11 And he received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. 12 And he is then also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
So Abraham is the father of all who believe. Paul addresses this as well in Gal. 3:7–9 where he states: “7 Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. 8 Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’[Gen. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18] 9 So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.”
Finally, as we have been celebrating this morning with Christians across the globe the unfinished task of all nations and peoples of the world being blessed through Abraham, this morning’s passage reminds us that broken vessels though we may be, the LORD desires to use us as a means of bringing the good news of God’s sovereign love and care to those around us. In Romans 10:11–15 Paul tell us:
11 As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.”[Is. 28:16—LXX] 12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”[Joel 2:32]’14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”[Is. 52:7]
Brothers and sisters, please pray with me now that our gracious and kind and merciful Father, Son, and Holy Spirit might use us to share his love not only with each other but also with all those whom he brings into our lives.
 The “after this” in verse 1 refers to after Abram helped rescue Lot (v. 12), Gen. 14:8–9: “8 Then the king of Sodom, the king of Gomorrah, the king of Admah, the king of Zeboyim and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar) marched out and drew up their battle lines in the Valley of Siddim 9 against Kedorlaomer king of Elam, Tidal king of Goyim, Amraphel king of Shinar and Arioch king of Ellasar—four kings against five.” Abram is on the side of Kedorlaomer, et. al.
 Re: the sin of the Amorites not yet reaching its full measure: The Amorites were one of the main population groups in Canaan and are frequently listed alongside the Canaanites and others. The comment here implies that the Amorites will be dispossessed of their land as an act of divine punishment. At that time, their accumulated iniquity will be so great that God will no longer tolerate their presence in the land (ESV study Bible).
 Jeremiah 34:18–20: 18 Those who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces. 19 The leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the court officials, the priests and all the people of the land who walked between the pieces of the calf, 20 I will deliver into the hands of their enemies who want to kill them. Their dead bodies will become food for the birds and the wild animals.
 Reformation Study Bible
 NIV study Bible