7 And he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” 8 But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 9 He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. 13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.” – Genesis 15:7-21 ESV
Abram “believed the Lord” (Genesis 15:6 ESV). In other words, he trusted that God would fulfill the promise He had made. Abram’s attempt to number the stars in the night sky had been quickly followed by God’s bold assertion, “So shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15:5 ESV). And Abram had taken God at His word.
Then, after declaring His plan to give Abram innumerable descendants, God reiterated His promise to provide Canaan as their future homeland.
“I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” – Genesis 15:7 ESV
God was simply reminding Abram of the promise that He had earlier made.
“Look as far as you can see in every direction—north and south, east and west. I am giving all this land, as far as you can see, to you and your descendants as a permanent possession. And I will give you so many descendants that, like the dust of the earth, they cannot be counted! Go and walk through the land in every direction, for I am giving it to you.” – Genesis 13:14-17 NLT
But while Abram believed that God could and would fulfill those promises, he was still filled with apprehension and nagging doubts. As a finite human being, he couldn’t help but look at the circumstances surrounding his life and wonder how God was going to pull off what appeared to be an impossible feat. From Abram’s limited perspective, it appeared as if the odds were against him. He was old and his wife was barren. And, while he had successfully defeated the armies of the four kings of Mesopotamia, he knew the land of Canaan was occupied by more nations than he could ever hope to defeat with his small militia. In fact, God would even accentuate the impossible odds that Abram faced when He later declared, “To your offspring I will give this land…the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites” (Genesis 15:19-21 ESV).
That’s a formidable list of potential foes that will have to be defeated before Abram can occupy the land. And, according to Genesis 14:14, Abram had only 318 trained fighters at his disposal. The deck was stacked against him. And add to that the problem of Sarai’s infertility, and it is no wonder that Abram had questions for God.
“O Sovereign Lord, how can I be sure that I will actually possess it?” – Genesis 15:8 NLT
Abram needed proof. It wasn’t that he no longer believed God, it was just that he desperately needed a tangible sign to help fortify and solidify his belief. Abram’s struggle was normal and natural, and he was not the only God-follower who needed a sign to bolster their faith. Moses, the man who was recording the life of Abram, knew what it was like to struggle with doubts. When he had received his call to deliver the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt, Moses had declared his doubts that the people would believe he had been sent by God.
“What if they won’t believe me or listen to me? What if they say, ‘The Lord never appeared to you’?” – Exodus 4:1 NLT
In response, God told had Moses to take his shepherd’s staff and throw it on the ground. When Abram obeyed, the staff transformed into a snake. Then, God told Moses to pick the snake up by the tail. Once again, Moses did as he was told.
“So Moses reached out and grabbed it, and it turned back into a shepherd’s staff in his hand.” – Exodus 4:4 NLT
This “sign” was meant to provide Moses with faith and it was to serve as proof to the people of Israel that Moses had been sent by God.
“Perform this sign,” the Lord told him. “Then they will believe that the Lord, the God of their ancestors—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—really has appeared to you.” – Exodus 4:5 NLT
Belief and unbelief can actually coexist at the same time. And nowhere is this idea better illustrated than in the gospel of Mark. He records an encounter between Jesus and a man whose son was possessed by a demon. In Jesus’ absence, the disciples had attempted to cast out the demon but had failed. So, Jesus asked the father how long the boy had been possessed. To which the father replied, “From childhood…it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (Mark 9:21-22 NLT). This man was desperate. He wanted to see his boy set free from this devastating and life-threatening disorder. And he hoped that Jesus might be able to do what the disciples had failed to do.
While the man had sought out the rabbi from Nazareth, believing that He had the power to heal and cast out demons, Jesus sensed the man’s lingering doubt. In earshot of the man, the disciples, and the rest of the crowd that had assembled, Jesus declared, “All things are possible for one who believes” (Mark 9:23 NLT). To which the father immediately responded, “I believe; help my unbelief! (Mark 9:24 NLT).
This honest statement from a grieving father represents the heart cry of every child of God. Saddled by a finite perspective and equipped with a faith that is burdened down by a sinful nature that is predisposed to doubt and disobey God, every believer finds himself struggling with unbelief. But God the Father, just like God the Son, is always willing to bolster unbelief. And so, rather than chastising Abram for his request for a sign, God patiently and powerfully obliged His reluctant servant.
But God didn’t simply perform a miracle like He had with Moses. Instead, He involved Abram in the process, by ordering him to gather “a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon” (Genesis 15:9 NLT). After checking off all the items on his God-ordained shopping list, Abram brought the animals to God and proceeded to prepare them for sacrifice.
God was commanding Abram to prepare a covenant ceremony. This would have been a common occurrence in Abram’s day that was meant to seal a bilateral covenant between two parties. The animals were killed then split down the middle. The two halves were then separated, forming a pathway between them. To seal their agreement, the two parties would walk together between the lifeless bodies of the sacrificed animals, signifying their commitment to remain faithful to the covenant agreement or face the same fate as the animals. It was a blood covenant.
But after completing his assignment, Abram had to spend the next hours fending off the birds of prey that were attempting to consume the carcasses of the sacrificed animals. Exhausted by the effort, Abram eventually fell asleep. His attempts to drive off the “unclean” scavengers proved too much for him. And this failure to preserve the sacrifice was meant to reveal Abram’s complete dependence upon God. As Abram slept, “a terrifying darkness came down over him” (Genesis 15:12 NLT). Even in his unconscious state, Abram sensed a feeling of dread. Something terrible was about to happen. He had fallen asleep with the disturbing image of the dismembered animals being attacked by ravenous birds seared in his brain. And this seemed to conjure up a foreboding sense of dread.
“…Abram driving off the birds of prey from the dismembered pieces portrays him defending his descendants from the attacks of foreign nations. Genesis itself tells of a number of attacks by foreigners against the children of Abraham and it already looks forward to the sojourn in Egypt.” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Genesis
In the midst of Abram’s fitful and fearful sleep, God spoke to him, affirming that his feelings of dread were well justified. There were difficult days in store for His descendants. God’s fulfillment of the promise to give the land of Canaan to Abram’s descendants would be delayed by a seeming tragedy.
“You can be sure that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign land, where they will be oppressed as slaves for 400 years.” – Genesis 15:13 NLT
This was probably not the sign Abram had been seeking. It only seemed to confirm his lingering doubts and fears about the promises of God. But God followed this dose of bad news with a confident assurance of a glorious outcome.
“But I will punish the nation that enslaves them, and in the end they will come away with great wealth. (As for you, you will die in peace and be buried at a ripe old age.) After four generations your descendants will return here to this land, for the sins of the Amorites do not yet warrant their destruction.” – Genesis 15:14-16 NLT
God was letting Abram know that His plans and His promise were long-term in nature, and their fulfillment was not up to Abram. In fact, as Abram slept, God ratified the covenant between them. In a normal covenant ceremony, both parties would have walked together between the carcasses, forming a bilateral agreement. But this covenant was unilateral in nature. When the sun went down and darkness descended on the land, “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces” (Genesis 15:17 ESV). The presence of God, symbolized by smoke and fire, passed along the pathway and ratified the covenant. God was holding Himself accountable to keep the covenant He was making with Abram and his descendants. And this imagery of smoke and fire would become a recurring theme for the Israelites as God led them from Egypt to the promised land by a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of smoke by day (Exodus 13:21).
God gave Abram a glimpse into the future. And while it would have its fair share of dark days, Abram could rest in the knowledge that God was in full control of the outcome. It would all happen according to His sovereign will and by virtue of His unwavering faithfulness. None of it hinged on Abram’s faith. God was going to do what He promised to do. His plan was perfect and infallible. The promise of a seed and an inheritance would be fulfilled, whether Abram believed or not. The covenant ceremony was intended to assure Abram that the outcome was completely up to God, and He would not disappoint. Yes, the future would be filled with dark days and disappointing setbacks, but they were all part of God’s plan. A barren wife, a 400-year delay, and the presence of powerful foes would not be enough to thwart the plans of God.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.