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Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at

Genesis Chapter 15


gen 15:0

The Covenant - Genesis 15

With the formula "after these things" there is introduced a new revelation of the Lord to Abram, which differs from the previous ones in form and substance, and constitutes a new turning point in his life. The "word of Jehovah" came to him "in a vision;" i.e., neither by a direct internal address, nor by such a manifestation of Himself as fell upon the outward senses, nor in a dream of the night, but in a state of ecstasy by an inward spiritual intuition, and that not in a nocturnal vision, as in Gen 46:2, but in the day-time. The expression "in a vision" applies to the whole chapter. There is no pause anywhere, nor any sign that the vision ceased, or that the action was transferred to the sphere of the senses and of external reality. Consequently the whole process is to be regarded as an internal one. The vision embraces not only Gen 15:1-4 and Gen 15:8, but the entire chapter, with this difference merely, that from Gen 15:12 onwards the ecstasy assumed the form of a prophetic sleep produced by God. It is true that the bringing Abram out, his seeing the stars (Gen 15:5), and still more especially his taking the sacrificial animals and dividing them (Gen 15:9, Gen 15:10), have been supposed by some to belong to the sphere of external reality, on the ground that these purely external acts would not necessarily presuppose a cessation of ecstasy, since the vision was no catalepsy, and did not preclude the full (?) use of the outward senses. But however true this may be, not only is every mark wanting, which would warrant us in assuming a transition from the purely inward and spiritual sphere, to the outward sphere of the senses, but the entire revelation culminates in a prophetic sleep, which also bears the character of a vision. As it was in a deep sleep that Abram saw the passing of the divine appearance through the carefully arranged portions of the sacrifice, and no reference is made either to the burning of them, as in Jdg 6:21, or to any other removal, the arrangement of the sacrificial animals must also have been a purely internal process. To regard this as an outward act, we must break up the continuity of the narrative in a most arbitrary way, and not only transfer the commencement of the vision into the night, and suppose it to have lasted from twelve to eighteen hours, but we must interpolate the burning of the sacrifices, etc., in a still more arbitrary manner, merely for the sake of supporting the erroneous assumption, that visionary procedures had no objective reality, or, at all events, less evidence of reality than outward acts, and things perceived by the senses. A vision wrought by God was not a mere fancy, or a subjective play of the thoughts, but a spiritual fact, which was not only in all respects as real as things discernible by the senses, but which surpassed in its lasting significance the acts and events that strike the eye. The covenant which Jehovah made with Abram was not intended to give force to a mere agreement respecting mutual rights and obligations-a thing which could have been accomplished by an external sacrificial transaction, and by God passing through the divided animals in an assumed human form-but it was designed to establish the purely spiritual relation of a living fellowship between God and Abram, of the deep inward meaning of which, nothing but a spiritual intuition and experience could give to Abram an effective and permanent hold.

Genesis 15:1

gen 15:1

The words of Jehovah run thus: "Fear not, Abram: I am a shield to thee, thy reward very much." הרבּה an inf. absol., generally used adverbially, but here as an adjective, equivalent to "thy very great reward." The divine promise to be a shield to him, that is to say, a protection against all enemies, and a reward, i.e., richly to reward his confidence, his ready obedience, stands here, as the opening words "after these things" indicate, in close connection with the previous guidance of Abram. Whilst the protection of his wife in Egypt was a practical pledge of the possibility of his having a posterity, and the separation of Lot, followed by the conquest of the kings of the East, was also a pledge of the possibility of his one day possessing the promised land, there was as yet no prospect whatever of the promise being realized, that he should become a great nation, and possess an innumerable posterity. In these circumstances, anxiety about the future might naturally arise in his mind. To meet this, the word of the Lord came to him with the comforting assurance, "Fear not, I am thy shield." But when the Lord added, "and thy very great reward," Abram could only reply, as he thought of his childless condition: "Lord Jehovah, what wilt Thou give me, seeing I go childless?" Of what avail are all my possessions, wealth, and power, since I have no child, and the heir of my house is Eliezer the Damascene? משׁק, synonymous with ממשׁק (Zep 2:9), possession, or the seizure of possession, is chosen on account of its assonance with דּמּשׂק. בּן־משׁק, son of the seizing of possession = seizer of possession, or heir. Eliezer of Damascus (lit., Damascus viz., Eliezer): Eliezer is an explanatory apposition to Damascus, in the sense of the Damascene Eliezer; though דּמּשׂק, on account of its position before אליעזר, cannot be taken grammatically as equivalent to דּמּשׂקי.

(Note: The legend of Abram having been king in Damascus appears to have originated in this, though the passage before us does not so much as show that Abram obtained possession of Eliezer on his way through Damascus.)

To give still more distinct utterance to his grief, Abram adds (Gen 15:3): "Behold, to me Thou hast given no seed; and lo, an inmate of my house (בּן־בּיתי in distinction from יליד־בּית, home-born, Gen 14:14) will be my heir." The word of the Lord then came to him: "Not he, but one who shall come forth from thy body, he will be thine heir." God then took him into the open air, told him to look up to heaven, and promised him a posterity as numerous as the innumerable host of stars (cf. Gen 22:17; Gen 24:4; Exo 32:13, etc.). Whether Abram at this time was "in the body or out of the body," is a matter of no moment. The reality of the occurrence is the same in either case. This is evident from the remark made by Moses (the historian) as to the conduct of Abram in relation to the promise of God: "And he believed in Jehovah, and He counted it to him for righteousness." In the strictly objective character of the account in Genesis, in accordance with which the simple facts are related throughout without any introduction of subjective opinions, this remark appears so striking, that the question naturally arises, What led Moses to introduce it? In what way did Abram make known his faith in Jehovah? And in what way did Jehovah count it to him as righteousness? The reply to both questions must not be sought in the New Testament, but must be given or indicated in the context. What reply did Abram make on receiving the promise, or what did he do in consequence? When God, to confirm the promise, declared Himself to be Jehovah, who brought him out of Ur of the Chaldees to give him that land as a possession, Abram replied, "Lord, whereby shall I know that I shall possess it?" God then directed him to "fetch a heifer of three years old," etc.; and Abram fetched the animals required, and arranged them (as we may certainly suppose, thought it is not expressly stated) as God had commanded him. By this readiness to perform what God commanded him, Abram gave a practical proof that he believed Jehovah; and what God did with the animals so arranged was a practical declaration on the part of Jehovah, that He reckoned this faith to Abram as righteousness.

The significance of the divine act is, finally, summed up in Gen 15:18, in the words, "On that day Jehovah made a covenant with Abram." Consequently Jehovah reckoned Abram's faith to him as righteousness, by making a covenant with him, by taking Abram into covenant fellowship with Himself. האמין, from אמן to continue and the preserve, to be firm and to confirm, in Hiphil to trust, believe (πιστεύσιν), expresses "that state of mind which is sure of its object, and relies firmly upon it;" and as denoting conduct towards God, as "a firm, inward, personal, self-surrendering reliance upon a personal being, especially upon the source of all being," it is construed sometimes with ל (e.g., Deu 9:23), but more frequently with בּ (Num 14:11; Num 20:12; Deu 1:32), "to believe the Lord," and "to believe on the Lord," to trust in Him, - πιστεύειν ἐπὶ τὸν Θεόν, as the apostle has more correctly rendered the ἐπίστευσεν τῷ Θεῷ of the lxx (vid., Rom 4:5). Faith therefore is not merely assensus, but fiducia also, unconditional trust in the Lord and His word, even where the natural course of events furnishes no ground for hope or expectation. This faith Abram manifested, as the apostle has shown in Rom 4; and this faith God reckoned to him as righteousness by the actual conclusion of a covenant with him. צדקה, righteousness, as a human characteristic, is correspondence to the will of God both in character and conduct, or a state answering to the divine purpose of a man's being. This was the state in which man was first created in the image of God; but it was lost by sin, through which he placed himself in opposition to the will of God and to his own divinely appointed destiny, and could only be restored by God. When the human race had universally corrupted its way, Noah alone was found righteous before God (Gen 7:1), because he was blameless and walked with God (Gen 6:9). This righteousness Abram acquired through his unconditional trust in the Lord, his undoubting faith in His promise, and his ready obedience to His word. This state of mind, which is expressed in the words בּיהוה האמין, was reckoned to him as righteousness, so that God treated him as a righteous man, and formed such a relationship with him, that he was placed in living fellowship with God. The foundation of this relationship was laid in the manner described in Gen 15:7-11.

Genesis 15:7

gen 15:7

Abram's question, "Whereby shall I know that I shall take possession of it (the land)?" was not an expression of doubt, but of desire for the confirmation or sealing of a promise, which transcended human thought and conception. To gratify this desire, God commanded him to make preparation for the conclusion of a covenant. "Take Me, He said, a heifer of three years old, and a she-goat of three years old, and a ram of three years old, and a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon;" one of every species of the animals suitable for sacrifice. Abram took these, and "divided them in the midst," i.e., in half, "and placed one half of each opposite to the other (בּתרו אישׁ, every one its half, cf. Gen 42:25; Num 16:17); only the birds divided he not," just as in sacrifice the doves were not divided into pieces, but placed upon the fire whole (Lev 1:17). The animals chosen, as well as the fact that the doves were left whole, corresponded exactly to the ritual of sacrifice. Yet the transaction itself was not a real sacrifice, since there was neither sprinkling of blood nor offering upon an altar (oblatio), and no mention is made of the pieces being burned. The proceeding corresponded rather to the custom, prevalent in many ancient nations, of slaughtering animals when concluding a covenant, and after dividing them into pieces, of laying the pieces opposite to one another, that the persons making the covenant might pass between them. Thus Ephraem Syrus (1, 161) observes, that God condescended to follow the custom of the Chaldeans, that He might in the most solemn manner confirm His oath to Abram the Chaldean. The wide extension of this custom is evident from the expression used to denote the conclusion of a covenant, בּרית כּרת to hew, or cut a covenant, Aram. קרם גּרז, Greek ὅρκια τέμνειν, faedus ferire, i.e., ferienda hostia facere faedus; cf. Bochart (Hieroz. 1, 332); whilst it is evident from Jer 34:18, that this was still customary among the Israelites of later times. The choice of sacrificial animals for a transaction which was not strictly a sacrifice, was founded upon the symbolical significance of the sacrificial animals, i.e., upon the fact that they represented and took the place of those who offered them. In the case before us, they were meant to typify the promised seed of Abram. This would not hold good, indeed, if the cutting of the animals had been merely intended to signify, that any who broke the covenant would be treated like the animals that were there cut in pieces. But there is no sure ground in Jer 34:18. for thus interpreting the ancient custom. The meaning which the prophet there assigns to the symbolical usage, may be simply a different application of it, which does not preclude an earlier and different intention in the symbol. The division of the animals probably denoted originally the two parties to the covenant, and the passing of the latter through the pieces laid opposite to one another, their formation into one: a signification to which the other might easily have been attached as a further consequence and explanation. And if in such a case the sacrificial animals represented the parties to the covenant, so also even in the present instance the sacrificial animals were fitted for that purpose, since, although originally representing only the owner or offerer of the sacrifice, by their consecration as sacrifices they were also brought into connection with Jehovah. But in the case before us the animals represented Abram and his seed, not in the fact of their being slaughtered, as significant of the slaying of that seed, but only in what happened to and in connection with the slaughtered animals: birds of prey attempted to eat them, and when extreme darkness came on, the glory of God passed through them. As all the seed of Abram was concerned, one of every kind of animal suitable for sacrifice was taken, ut ex toto populo et singulis partibus sacrificium unum fieret (Calvin). The age of the animals, three years old, was supposed by Theodoret to refer to the three generations of Israel which were to remain in Egypt, or the three centuries of captivity in a foreign land; and this is rendered very probable by the fact, that in Jdg 6:25 the bullock of seven years old undoubtedly refers to the seven years of Midianitish oppression. On the other hand, we cannot find in the six halves of the three animals and the undivided birds, either 7 things or the sacred number 7, for two undivided birds cannot represent one whole, but two; nor can we attribute to the eight pieces any symbolical meaning, for these numbers necessarily followed from the choice of one specimen of every kind of animal that was fit for sacrifice, and from the division of the larger animals into two.

Genesis 15:11

gen 15:11

"Then birds of prey (העיט with the article, as Gen 14:13) came down upon the carcases, and Abram frightened them away." The birds of prey represented the foes of Israel, who would seek to eat up, i.e., exterminate it. And the fact that Abram frightened them away was a sign, that Abram's faith and his relation to the Lord would preserve the whole of his posterity from destruction, that Israel would be saved for Abram's sake (Psa 105:42).

Genesis 15:12

gen 15:12

"And when the sun was just about to go down (on the construction, see Ges. 132), and deep sleep (תּרדּמה, as in Gen 2:21, a deep sleep produced by God) had fallen upon Abram, behold there fell upon him terror, great darkness." The vision here passes into a prophetic sleep produced by God. In this sleep there fell upon Abram dread and darkness; this is shown by the interchange of the perfect נפלה and the participle נפלת. The reference to the time is intended to show "the supernatural character of the darkness and sleep, and the distinction between the vision and a dream" (O. v. Gerlach). It also possesses a symbolical meaning. The setting of the sun prefigured to Abram the departure of the sun of grace, which shone upon Israel, and the commencement of a dark and dreadful period of suffering for his posterity, the very anticipation of which involved Abram in darkness. For the words which he heard in the darkness were these (Gen 15:13.): "Know of a surety, that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them (the lords of the strange land), and they (the foreigners) shall oppress them 400 years." That these words had reference to the sojourn of the children of Israel in Egypt, is placed beyond all doubt by the fulfilment. The 400 years were, according to prophetic language, a round number for the 430 years that Israel spent in Egypt (Exo 12:40). "Also that nation whom they shall serve will I judge (see the fulfilment, Exo 6:11); and afterward shall they come out with great substance (the actual fact according to Exo 12:31-36). And thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace, and be buried in a good old age (cf. Gen 25:7-8); and in the fourth generation they shall come hither again." The calculations are made here on the basis of a hundred years to a generation: not too much for those times, when the average duration of life was above 150 years, and Isaac was born in the hundredth year of Abraham's life. "For the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full." Amorite, the name of the most powerful tribe of the Canaanites, is used here as the common name of all the inhabitants of Canaan, just as in Jos 24:15 (cf. Gen 10:5), Jdg 6:10, etc.).

By this revelation Abram had the future history of his seed pointed out to him in general outlines, and was informed at the same time why neither he nor his descendants could obtain immediate possession of the promised land, viz., because the Canaanites were not yet ripe for the sentence of extermination.

Genesis 15:17

gen 15:17

When the sun had gone down, and thick darkness had come on (היה impersonal), "behold a smoking furnace, and (with) a fiery torch, which passed between those pieces," - a description of what Abram saw in his deep prophetic sleep, corresponding to the mysterious character of the whole proceeding. תּנּוּר, a stove, is a cylindrical fire-pot, such as is used in the dwelling-houses of the East. The phenomenon, which passed through the pieces as they lay opposite to one another, resembled such a smoking stove, from which a fiery torch, i.e., a brilliant flame, was streaming forth. In this symbol Jehovah manifested Himself to Abram, just as He afterwards did to the people of Israel in the pillar of cloud and fire. Passing through the pieces, He ratified the covenant which He made with Abram. His glory was enveloped in fire and smoke, the produce of the consuming fire, - both symbols of the wrath of God (cf. Psa 18:9, and Hengstenberg in loc.), whose fiery zeal consumes whatever opposes it (vid., Exo 3:2). - To establish and give reality to the covenant to be concluded with Abram, Jehovah would have to pass through the seed of Abram when oppressed by the Egyptians and threatened with destruction, and to execute judgment upon their oppressors (Exo 7:4; Exo 12:12). In this symbol, the passing of the Lord between the pieces meant something altogether different from the oath of the Lord by Himself in Gen 22:16, or by His life in Deu 32:40, or by His soul in Amo 6:8 and Jer 51:14. It set before Abram the condescension of the Lord to his seed, in the fearful glory of His majesty as the judge of their foes. Hence the pieces were not consumed by the fire; for the transaction had reference not to a sacrifice, which God accepted, and in which the soul of the offerer was to ascend in the smoke to God, but to a covenant in which God came down to man. From the nature of this covenant, it followed, however, that God alone went through the pieces in a symbolical representation of Himself, and not Abram also. For although a covenant always establishes a reciprocal relation between two individuals, yet in that covenant which God concluded with a man, the man did not stand on an equality with God, but God established the relation of fellowship by His promise and His gracious condescension to the man, who was at first purely a recipient, and was only qualified and bound to fulfil the obligations consequent upon the covenant by the reception of gifts of grace.

Genesis 15:18

gen 15:18

In Gen 15:18-21 this divine revelation is described as the making of a covenant (בּרית, from בּרה to cut, lit., the bond concluded by cutting up the sacrificial animals), and the substance of this covenant is embraced in the promise, that God would give that land to the seed of Abram, from the river of Egypt to the great river Euphrates. The river (נהר) of Egypt is the Nile, and not the brook (נחל) of Egypt (Num 34:5), i.e., the boundary stream Rhinocorura, Wady el Arish. According to the oratorical character of the promise, the two large rivers, the Nile and the Euphrates, are mentioned as the boundaries within which the seed of Abram would possess the promised land, the exact limits of which are more minutely described in the list of the tribes who were then in possession. Ten tribes are mentioned between the southern border of the land and the extreme north, "to convey the impression of universality without exception, of unqualified completeness, the symbol of which is the number ten" (Delitzsch). In other passages we find sometimes seven tribes mentioned (Deu 7:1; Jos 3:10), at other times six (Exo 3:8, Exo 3:17; Exo 23:23; Deu 20:17), at others five (Exo 13:5), at others again only two (Gen 13:7); whilst occasionally they are all included in the common name of Canaanites (Gen 12:6). The absence of the Hivites is striking here, since they are not omitted from any other list where as many as five or seven tribes are mentioned. Out of the eleven descendants of Canaan (Gen 10:15-18) the names of four only are given here; the others are included in the common name of the Canaanites. On the other hand, four tribes are given, whose descent from Canaan is very improbable. The origin of the Kenites cannot be determined. According to Jdg 1:16; Jdg 4:11, Hobab, the brother-in-law of Moses, was a Kenite. His being called Midianite (Num 10:29) does not prove that he was descended from Midian (Gen 25:2), but is to be accounted for from the fact that he dwelt in the land of Midian, or among the Midianites (Exo 2:15). This branch of the Kenites went with the Israelites to Canaan, into the wilderness of Judah (Jdg 1:16), and dwelt even in Saul's time among the Amalekites on the southern border of Judah (Sa1 15:6), and in the same towns with members of the tribe of Judah (Sa1 30:29). There is nothing either in this passage, or in Num 24:21-22, to compel us to distinguish these Midianitish Kenites from those of Canaan. The Philistines also were not Canaanites, and yet their territory was assigned to the Israelites. And just as the Philistines had forced their way into the land, so the Kenites may have taken possession of certain tracts of the country. All that can be inferred from the two passages is, that there were Kenites outside Midian, who were to be exterminated by the Israelites. On the Kenizzites, all that can be affirmed with certainty is, that the name is neither to be traced to the Edomitish Kenaz (Gen 36:15, Gen 36:42), nor to be identified with the Kenezite Jephunneh, the father of Caleb of Judah (Num 32:12; Jos 14:6 : see my Comm. on Joshua, p. 356, Eng. tr.). - The Kadmonites are never mentioned again, and their origin cannot be determined. On the Perizzites see Gen 13:7; on the Rephaims, Gen 14:5; and on the other names, Gen 10:15-16.

Next: Genesis Chapter 16