Abram was beginning to build a notable reputation in his new homeland. He and his small army had bested the strong alliance of Chedolaomer. As such, the kings of Canaan were extremely thankful to Abram for recovering the riches that had been taken from them. Despite being held in high esteem by his neighbors, Abram still struggled to understand how God would fulfill all of the promises He’d made...
I. A PICTURE IS GIVEN (v1-6)
After defeating the Mesopotamians and recovering their captives, including his nephew Lot, Abram returned to Canaan. Peace had been established and life returned to normal once again. It was during this time that the LORD appeared again to Abram. He told Abram not to fear, promised to protect him, and vowed to reward him greatly. But Abram wondered what God could possibly give him that would last, seeing that he had no children of his own. At this point, Abram’s vast inheritance was slated to be received by his chief and senior servant Eliezer. God comforted Abram by ensuring that he would someday have his own biological children to be his rightful heirs.
God had Abram go outside after dark and look up into the glittering sky. The LORD asked Abram to count the stars, if possible. Of course there were far too many to number. Then God ensured Abram that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the heavens. As the saying goes, “A picture paints a thousand words.” The stars in the night sky served as a visual representation of countless children to come. Though he didn’t know exactly how it would happen, Abram believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Abram was justified before the LORD by faith (Romans 4:1-25).
II. A PREPARATION IS MADE (v7-11)
God continued speaking to Abram. He reminded Abram that He had brought him up from his homeland in Ur of Chaldea and had given him all of Canaan as an eternal possession. Abram wondered how he could know for certain that he and his posterity would possess the land. So, Abram asked the LORD for some sort of assurance. Abram believed in God’s promises, but still wanted a guarantee of certainty. This request did not offend the LORD. Instead He instructed Abram to make preparations for the initiation of a formal covenant.
God told Abram to bring Him a three year old heifer, a three year old female goat, a three year old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon. Abram gathered these animals as requested. He killed each of them and divided their carcasses in half, except for the birds. He laid the severed pieces opposite of one another, forming two parallel lines. Birds of prey, perhaps like vultures, descended on the dead bodies to pick at their flesh. However, Abram remained there throughout the afternoon and evening to drive the scavengers away.
III. A PROPHECY IS SPOKEN (v12-16)
Finally, as the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep. Terror and darkness gripped him. Once again the LORD spoke. He said, “Your future descendants will become strangers in a foreign land. They will be enslaved and oppressed there for 400 years. But then I will judge the nation whom they serve and will bring them out of it with great possessions. At that time, they will return to the land of Canaan.” It was then that God’s promise would come into fruition.
Just as God prophesied, the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt during the days of Moses took place exactly 4 generations after Abram’s death. Abram died while his grandson Jacob was still young and well before he’d fathered any children. So the generations being referred to began with Jacob’s son Levi, then Levi’s son Kohath, then Kohath’s son Amram, and finally Amram’s son Moses. Until then however, the Promised Land remained in the hands of the Canaanites “until the inquiry of the Amorites was complete”. For now the ordained time of God’s judgment against the Canaanites was still many years away.
IV. A PLEDGE IS TAKEN (v17-21)
Once the sun had completely set and the night had grown very dark, a smoking oven and a flaming torch appeared. These 2 ghostly objects passed between the severed body pieces which formed opposing lines on the ground. Then the LORD officially pledged to give the land of Canaan to Abram’s descendants, spanning from the river of Egypt to the mighty Euphrates. This vast territory would include areas that were occupied at the time by the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.
It was a common practice during this ancient era to forge covenants by passing between the divided pieces of an animal or animals. The slain carcasses represented the fate that would befall anyone who violated the terms of the covenant (Jeremiah 34:18-20). In this instance, Abram did not walk through the path… only God did, in the form of a smoking oven and a flaming torch. In other words, this was a unilateral and unconditional covenant established by God alone. There were no terms placed upon Abram and his descendants. God took full responsibility for the fulfillment of this covenant.
There are several different interpretations as to what the smoking oven and the flaming torch represent. Some suggest that the oven symbolizes Egypt and the persecution that they’d inflict upon the Hebrews. They further theorize that the flaming torch represents God’s presence, which would enable the Hebrews to endure the hardship. Similar language is used many years later describing the clans of Judah in Zechariah 12:6. Whatever they mean, these objects were a manifestation of God Almighty.
God had already promised to make of Abram “a great nation”. He had even led Abram to the land of Canaan and swore to give it to him and his descendants as an eternal possession. But in this chapter, the LORD provided a few more specifics concerning these general promises. These details helped to clarify what God intended and how it’d be accomplished.
First, the descendants of Abram would be his own biological offspring. The nation that will rise from his lineage would not be birthed through his servant or any other non-relative. Though he had grown old and was still childless, Abram would have a naturally born son. This child would be his heir, and the heir of God’s covenant promises.
Second, the land of Canaan which God gave to Abram and his family as an everlasting inheritance was given 2 specific boundaries. It western edge would be the brook of Egypt, which was generally considered to be the border of Egypt. Its eastern edge would be the Euphrates River, which ran through Babylonia at that time.
Throughout Israel’s long and vaunted history, it has rarely held dominion over this entire area. It did so only once, during the reigns of King David and Solomon. However, someday all of these lands will be restored to Israel again. God has given His word, and His word never fails.