After Abram defeats the kings from the east and rescues Lot, God appears to him again and reassures him with promises regarding a son and the land. Sarai has not given birth and neither she nor Abram are getting any younger, but God assures him that he unquestionably will have an heir that comes from his own body. Not only that, but Abram will have so many descendants that they will be like the stars of the sky. Though all of these promises seem impossible in light of current circumstances, Abram believes God and God justifies him. The story of the covenant God makes with Abram in this chapter becomes a lesson in Old Testament salvation. The lesson – as Paul will later make clear when he refers back to it – is that no one is saved by works. Whether they live before Christ or after Him, salvation is always by faith.
Sometime after Abram returns from defeating the kings of the east, God speaks to him and encourages him. He tells Abram that He will protect him and reward him – just as He said He would when He appeared to him at Haran (12:1-3).
Abram’s response to God is telling. The text has not mentioned any frustration coming from Abram or Sarai over her continued barrenness. But not surprisingly, it apparently is there. He answers God and effectively says any reward would be empty since he does not have a son. Even more, his heir right now is one of his servants because God has not fulfilled His promise. It is not hard to sense the exasperation in what he says. It has likely already been years since God called him to Canaan and told him he would start a nation. And every day he and Sarai get older and farther from child-bearing years. To believe that a son is on his way is getting more and more difficult. “Thanks for the encouragement about protection and reward, but without a son it all kind of rings hollow.”
God does not become angry at Abram’s frustration (we serve a merciful and understanding God who made us with emotions and does not expect us to divorce ourselves from them when we approach Him). He instead seeks to reassure Him. He tells Abram that his servant will most assuredly NOT be his heir. He will have a biological son. Not only that, but He tells Abram to go outside and look at the stars (this conversation apparently takes place at night) and says that his descendants will be similar in number.
Though nothing changes in Abram’s circumstances, he believes God’s words. He puts aside his frustration and believes what God says. Everything about his situation is just as dire as it was a few minutes ago, but now that he has heard from God he has faith. He will in fact have a son and that son will be the start of a great nation.
Abram’s belief is actually a continuation of the belief he first showed in Ur and Haran. He left both places and traveled to Canaan as a result of believing the call from God (which speaks to James’ contention that faith without action is dead – James 2:17 – if Abram believed in Ur but did not leave, his belief would have been worthless). And now he believes again even in the face of evidence that God’s words ring hollow.
Because of His belief, God justifies him. This is what the text means when it says that God reckoned it to him as righteousness. Paul will later point to this verse (Rom 4:3-22, Gal 3:6) as an example that Abram – the father of all Jews – is saved by faith and not works. And he will also point out that his salvation takes place before the Law is given to Moses and before God establishes circumcision as a sign of the covenant between God and Israel. Thus salvation is not for the Jews only and there is no requirement to convert to Judaism to be a Christian. And adherence to the Law cannot save as salvation has always been a matter of faith.
In our study of Galatians 3:6-14, we made the following comments in regard to this passage and what Paul says about it:
Paul goes back to Abraham because he represents the beginning. If the false teachers cite the Law of Moses and the tradition of Judaism in their teaching, Paul goes all the way back to the beginning – to the patriarch of the country.
Paul says that even Abraham was justified through his faith. He quotes Genesis 15:6 – Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. God told Abraham (actually Abram at the time of the event) that his descendants would be like the stars of the sky. At the time God said this Abram was old and had no son and his wife was past childbearing age. Yet in spite of all evidence to the contrary he believed God’s promise. He believed solely on the basis of God’s faithfulness. He did not act, he did not obey, he did not DO anything – he believed.
God reckoned that belief to him as righteousness. This does not mean God made him righteous. It means righteousness was credited to his account. He was justified – declared righteous. God justified him when he believed. God declared him righteous the same way He declared the Galatians righteous. And for both Abraham and the Galatians it was what they received – not what they did – that resulted in justification.
As an aside, it is interesting to consider that Moses wrote Genesis. That means the father of the Law – the one the Judaizers likely reference more than any other – is the very one who wrote that Abraham was justified by belief rather than obedience to the Law.
Something else to remember is that the event described in Genesis 15:6 took place hundreds of years before God gave the Law to Moses (3:17). So Abraham was justified more than four centuries before the Law existed. Not only that, but he also believed roughly 14 years before he was circumcised (Gen 17:24). That means Abraham was effectively a Gentile when he was justified – just like the Galatians (and just like us).
[And it shows that Abraham’s circumcision was not a means of salvation but a symbol of it. This is much like baptism today. Baptism does not save – note that Paul says nothing about baptism when he rehearses the Galatians’ salvation experience in 3:1-5. Salvation comes through hearing with faith. The Spirit comes when we trust in the finished work of Christ. Baptism – like circumcision – is a sign that we have believed, not a component of that belief.]
This answers the question of how people were saved before Christ. The answer is that they were saved the same way as those after Christ. God reckons Abram’s belief as righteousness because He knows Christ will die for Abram just as He will die for everyone else. He can save Abram by grace through his faith because Christ’s death is eternally effective. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “ALL THE NATIONS SHALL BE BLESSED IN YOU.” So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer (Gal 3:8-9).
See again the notes from Galatians:
Verses 8 and 9 show that justification is the blessing the sons of Abraham inherit. The Scripture (note that Paul makes it a living thing) foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith (the definition of the gospel) and so told Abraham (preached the gospel to him) that all nations would be blessed through him. The blessing is justification through faith in Christ. The nations would have righteousness reckoned to them just as their father Abraham (the believer) did. [Note that Paul quotes Genesis 12:3 in this verse. Genesis 12 is the account of God calling Abram out of his homeland of Ur to go to the land of Canaan. This shows that Abram actually believed and trusted God twice – once when he was called out of Ur and once when God told him his descendants would become a great nation.]
This means two things. First, the sons of Abraham are those who believe by faith and include ALL nations and ALL people. It is not limited to the Jews and the gospel does not require that anyone convert to Judaism. Second, all people throughout history have been saved by faith – even those born and dead before Christ’s birth and death. Christ’s death was sufficient for ALL sin and ALL people of EVERY age. All sin from Eden to the end of the world was defeated at the cross. And salvation has always been received through faith – not earned through works. When Paul says Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles through faith he means that God always acted based on His plan of redemption. Since He knew Christ would die and His death would be sufficient, He could forgive and justify throughout all of history.
God continues with another aspect of His promise. He tells Abram that he will possess the land of Canaan where he now lives. He actually first reminds Abram that He is the God who brought him out of Ur. This is very similar to what He will tell the Israelites at Sinai (Ex 20:2). There He will say that He is the God who brought them out of Egypt. In both cases He reminds His listeners that His words are credible because of what He has already done.
Abram’s response again is interesting. He has just fully believed what God said about his son and descendants. But here he asks for more. “O Lord God, how may I know that I shall possess it?” Perhaps he wants God to do something similar to showing him the stars of the sky as representative of his many descendants. He wants some kind of sign that what God says will come true.
God tells him to assemble a collection of three-year-old animals and some birds. He does not say to sacrifice them, but He apparently tells Abram to kill them and assemble their carcasses. At three years old these animals are valuable. What God tells him to bring is very costly.
Abram gets the animals and cuts them in two and lays out the pieces opposite each other. He also lays out the birds but does not halve them. Nothing is in the text as to why he does this, but it apparently has covenantal significance.
Verse 11 seems somewhat random. It says that after Abram lays out the dead animals, birds of prey come down on the carcasses and Abram drives them off. Nothing more is said as to why this is important, but some surmise that it is symbolic. The birds of prey may represent Israel’s enemies (assuming that the dead animals represent Israel) and by driving them off Abram shows how God will protect His people (see Jer 34:18-20 for a similar picture). Hard to know how much validity to give this explanation, but it does at least explain why the verse is included.
Apparently the direction to Abram to assemble the animals takes place during the day, so perhaps it is the day after the night God told him to look at the stars. The day now comes to an end, and as the sun goes down God causes Abram to fall into a deep sleep.
As he sleeps, God comes to him and tells him that his descendants will go to a strange land (not identified, but obviously a reference to Egypt) where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. God will then judge the nation that oppresses Abram’s descendants and the people will come out of their oppression with many possessions (which is exactly what will happen after the Passover – Ex 12:35-36).
God also tells Abram that he will live peacefully into old age (interesting since he is already somewhere between 75 and 100 years old). His descendants will have a hard time but Abram himself will live a full and peaceful life (this is pure encouragement – there is no reason God has to tell him this, no purpose to it other than to reassure Abram).
God ends by saying something interesting. He says Abram’s descendants will return to the land in the fourth generation (this is not the interesting part). This is likely a reference to the 400 years in Egypt (generations is probably not meant literally but rather is a reference to four centuries). After 400 years they will return to Canaan and settle the land as God promised. The reason they will not settle the land before then is because the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.
This is an amazing statement. It shows there is another side to the patience and longsuffering of God. Peter tells us that God is not slow about His promises as we count slowness, but is patient so that all will come to repentance (II Pet 3:9). However, His patience can also serve to allow those who are not His to store up more and more wrath. This is apparently what God means here. The full iniquity of the Amorite (probably a generic term that means all the inhabitants of Canaan) has not reached its apex (or its nadir, depending on perspective). When it does – when the people of Canaan become as corrupt as they can be – God will judge them through Israel. And He will instruct Joshua and the people to ruthlessly kill every living thing in the country.
It is sobering to think through what this means. God refers to people living alongside Abram now who are storing up judgment that will not take place for another 600 years. The Canaanites live wickedly and obliviously and will spend the next six centuries accruing God’s wrath. In this light, God’s command to wipe out all life in the land does not seem quite so brutal. The lesson here is that God does not always punish immediately. And for many, their unpunished actions merely bank more and more wrath to be visited upon them at judgment. God’s patience is to encourage repentance, but it can also encourage the un-judged wicked to pursue more wickedness. Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to every man according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation (Rom 2:4-8).
After nightfall, the vision changes and Abram sees a smoking oven and a flaming torch passing between the animal pieces. These apparently represent God existing in the midst of His people. It could be that the smoking oven points to the glory cloud that will lead Israel by day and the flaming torch points to the pillar of fire that will lead the nation by night. Throughout this vision God shows Abram that not only will he have a nation that descends from him but God will be with that nation just as He is with Abram. The promise to Abram will continue throughout all generations of his descendants (“I am a shield to you; your reward shall be very great”).
God speaks to Abram after the vision of the oven and torch. He tells him again that the land will belong to his offspring. This includes the land all the way from the river of Egypt (which may not refer to the Nile but to the Wadi el Arish which is midway between Israel and the Nile – ESV Study Bible; 78) to the Euphrates River. This is an enormous amount of land that will belong to Israel probably only during the reign of Solomon (I Kings 4:21, see also Ex 23:31). All the people groups that now dwell in the land will be conquered by Abram’s descendants.