Summary: Abraham’s faith in the face of his disappointment at being without an heir is met with God’s grace--and becomes a model for all who come to faith after him.
Warring armies carried off Sodom’s people – including Abram’s nephew Lot & Lot’s family. But with 318 men, Abram pursued & defeated an army, rescued Lot, family, and Sodom’s people. Just before our passage, Abram began his victorious return. Along the way, Melchizedek, high priest of Salem, blessed Abram and received his tithe. Nearer home, Abram met the king of Sodom, who offered him a reward for freeing Sodom’s people. To obey God and to avoid being indebted, Abram accepted no reward – though he graciously asked for his men’s share. Hear now the Word of the Lord, Gen 15:1-6 (NRSV).
Abram seems to have it all. He’s respected, wealthy, and – after this victory – powerful. Spiritually, he also seems to have it all. Abram loves God. He tithes. In Abram we see a man God loves, for God speaks to him. In fact, these 6 verses carefully portray Abram as a prophet. Unique in Genesis, verses 1 & 4 use a prophetic formula to place Abram squarely among the prophets: “the word of the Lord came to Abram.” At the end of verse 1, the intent to portray Abram as a prophet is confirmed by the Hebrew word for “vision”. Used only 3 times elsewhere in the OT, each instance is set in a prophetic context. Lest we miss this intent, Genesis 20:7 explicitly calls Abram a prophet. So, Abram is more than wealthy, more than respected, more than powerful, and more than righteous. Even more, Abram is a prophet. Why, then, does God first tell him not to be afraid?
Remember that Abram is still a stranger in Canaan. And, his triumphant rescue of Lot has just attracted the notice of at least the nine city-kingdoms involved in the war! In comparison, Abram fielded only 318 fighting men. Refusing to owe anything to the king of Sodom, the likeliest potential ally, may have opened Abram to fear. There is certainly good reason! But God meets him where he is and says, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield.” But, God continues, “Your reward shall be very great.” Why? Perhaps God is graciously providing what Abram obediently refused to accept from the king of Sodom.
Yet Abram’s response shows that his fear points to a deeper hurt. Abram begins to voice this hurt in v.2, “O Lord God.” Because the personal name for God was likely pronounced Lord in Hebrew, Abram’s pairing of this personal name with the explicit name “Lord” is unusual. By this pairing, Abram shows reverence and respect. Yet Abram hurts so deeply that his reverence is overcome. As a result, he confronts the Creator of the universe with a complaint! Hear his hurt in vv. 2 & 3 as he pours out his heart to God, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I remain childless…? You have given me no offspring, and so a slave in my house is to be my heir.”
Why does Abram hurt so deeply? Seemingly, all life’s blessings are his, just as God promised… All but one… Remember when God sent Abram to Canaan in Genesis 12:1-3. At that time, God promised, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” But this wasn’t God’s only promise of offspring.
When Abram arrived in Canaan God promised in Genesis 12:7, “To your offspring I will give this land.” Abram was already 75 years old when he left Haran. To remove any doubt God promised again! Beginning at Genesis 13:14, God added, “…All the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted.”
Despite God’s three promises, Sarai’s inability to bear children (Genesis 11:30) hasn’t changed. By the time Abram’s story gets to Genesis 15, he fears his estate will pass to an unrelated servant unless God gives one heir – never mind offspring as numerous as dust. For God’s other promises to be meaningful, Abram’s promised heir has to come – even if he is over 75 years old. As the NIV phrases his hurt plea, “What can you give me since I remain childless?
For Abram to confront God so boldly, his hurt must have been very great. Until now, the pattern of his story has been much different. God says, “Go,” and Abram goes without comment. In Genesis 15, for the first time Abram addresses God. And he does so with a complaint!
But Abram’s story shows that God can be trusted – even with a complaint. Instead of anger, God responds with steadfast love, mercy, and grace. Notice in v. 4, “The word of the Lord came…” Once again, Abram receives a prophetic word. God affirms, “No one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” In light of Abram’s ache for an heir and God’s unfulfilled promises, we now come to the central issue of this story.