Supplemental: Genesis 15

Abraham: Covenant Ratification

Today we come to Genesis 15, “Covenant Ratification.”[1] Since I know it’s the weekend, and you probably have other things on your mind, I’ll make this post as brief as possible. I just couldn’t let Genesis 15 go by without comment. This is one of the most important chapters in Scripture. In fact, verse 6 is quoted practically verbatim in Romans 4:3, Galatians 3:6, and James 2:23. Clearly the New Testament writers thought this chapter was incredibly important in terms of having a right understanding of the doctrine of justification.


The Context

Let’s remember where we are in the book of Genesis. In Genesis 12, God called Abram. He promised to make him into a great nation and also make him a blessing to the nations. Abram was still a young believer, though, so when he went to Egypt, he didn’t think he would be under God’s protection. He told his wife to lie so that the men of Egypt wouldn’t kill him. This little lie almost got her married off to the Pharoah! But God protected Abram, and he began to see that perhaps this God wasn’t restricted by geography.


Then in Genesis 13, Abram and Lot separated. Lot took the good land of the Jordan valley and left the hill country of Canaan to Abram. Yet God had promised to give Abram the land. God had promised to provide for Abram in the land. And so Abram trusted God even in the midst of an unfortunate falling out with his nephew.


Then in Genesis 14, Sodom (the place where Lot had moved) went to war, and Lot was captured. Abram led an expedition to rescue his nephew. Upon his victorious return, Abram met a man named Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of “God Most High.” He greeted Abram, saying, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” Once again, Abram is learning. This God he now served wasn’t only sovereign in Canaan and Egypt. This God possessed heaven and earth. When Abram meets with the king of Sodom, he makes it clear he’s gotten the message when he says, “I have lifted my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth, that  I would not take a thread or a sandal strap or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’” The king of Sodom’s request is irrelevant. Abram had made a vow to the possessor of heaven and earth.


Notice one thing missing in all this, though. Abram still had no child. He and his wife were old, well past the age for having children. This new God Abram had met might possess heaven and earth, but could he do the impossible? Abram would soon find out.


The Confrontation

In verse 1 God comes to Abram and says, “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” God knew that Abram was beginning to wonder whether God’s promise would be kept, and once again God was patient with Abram, reassuring him that he had not been forgotten. Yet Abram was still struggling to believe, so he says in verse 2, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” and in verse 3, ““Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.”


This indicates pretty clearly, I think, that Abram was already thinking in covenantal terms. Remember, one of the defining aspects of a covenant is the stipulations attached to it.[2] In this confrontation, Abram is essentially saying to God, “Look, I’ve kept up my end of the bargain, but you haven’t kept up yours.” He’s suing God for a breach of his covenant obligations. It’s quite a bold move, and it’s also completely untrue. Yet rather than coming down hard on Abram, God instead formally ratifies the covenant. It’s as though in Genesis 12-14 God and Abram were kind of functioning on a “hand-shake deal.” Now God’s gonna sign on the dotted line.


The Ceremony

God tells Abram to bring him “a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Abraham immediately knows what’s happening, so he slaughters the animals and arranges them in halves. This was common practice for a treaty ratification ceremony. When a powerful king would make a covenant with the king of a smaller nation, the two kings (and sometimes only the lesser king) would walk between the halves of the animals as they took the covenant oath. In so doing, they were invoking a curse upon themselves. It’s as though they were saying, “If I do not keep my word, may what has happened to these animals happen to me.”[3]


What we see, though, is not both God and Abraham making promises and walking between the halves of the animals. Abraham takes no “self-maledictory oath,” that is, an oath wherein he invokes a curse upon himself if he doesn’t keep his word. God makes the promises, and God (by way of a theophany in the smoke and fire pot) passes between the pieces. Abram is given no stipulations. Abram is promised no sanctions. Abram is simply the beneficiary of God’s favor, and God invokes a curse upon himself if he is not faithful to do everything he promised to Abram.[4]


And just as Abram believed God’s promises to him and it was credited to him as righteousness, so we are given the promise of the gospel of Jesus Christ. God has promised to reconcile us to himself, to forgive us our sins, and to call us his own. If we believe God as Abram did, we too can have the assurance that Abram did. We can know that God can no more fail to keep his word to us than he could cease to be God. His word is sure, and we can trust his promises as our father Abraham modeled for us.

[1] John Scott Redd, “The Abrahamic Covenant,” in Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives, ed. J. Nicholas Reid Guy Prentiss Waters, and John R. Muether (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 135.

[2] Richard P. Belcher Jr., The Fulfillment of the Promises of God: An Explanation of Covenant Theology (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2020) 24-26.

[3] For a much fuller discussion of ancient treaties like this, see Michael Horton, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006) 23-34.

[4] For a much fuller discussion see O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1980), 128-131. And Belcher, The Fulfillment of the Promises of God, 63-65.