“Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.” (Genesis 15:1b)
There was a lot to potentially be afraid of in Abram’s time. His region was filled with violence, lawlessness, armies, and sinfulness. He may have been a lot more comfortable back in his original setting in Sumer. It’s always the case with following God, I think it’s true to say. It’s a walk of faith with him into the unknown, and then by experience we learn of his goodness and faithfulness. We can’t learn this in comfort and security. Also, we are called by God to transform, which means walking through darkness with the light. The idea that Christ calls us to security in this world needs to be banished from our thinking. Abram was also concerned about not having an heir, a child of his own. He claimed that no matter what God gave him, without an heir what value was any of it? God giving an heir to an aged man and an aged woman would show the sincerity of his promises to Israel in the years ahead. God would overcome any obstacle or persecution to bring his word to pass.
“He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:5-6)
God’s testimony in history is that he does not hold our sins against us, if we accept that we are sinners and stop trying to justify ourselves. In self-justification there is only emptiness and lostness. God gives freely, to take away our driving shame and guilt. But he does this to build a new family of care, replacing the debauchery and violence all around Abram in his day, renewing the world. This new family was the ultimate purpose in calling Abram as the father of us all who believe.
Abram accepted God’s help. He believed and accepted God’s promises. He became a covenant partner with God. “Righteousness” reflects the idea of covenant faithfulness. Because Abram did not reject God’s free offer of help, nor deny his need (trying to establish his own righteousness), God cleansed him of all unrighteousness as a free gift. Abram was justified by faith. This does not mean that Abram was free to live unrighteously thereafter, because that would be a denial of the partnership God had called him into. When we believe God, we enter into a partnership with him and in this partnership, we receive forgiveness of sins as a gift. Here is the gospel of faith in the scriptures, as far back as Genesis, even before Abram was circumcised.
The text here in Genesis sets out to deny the racial superiority of Israel. Israel was called, yes. But they were called to serve the whole family of faith, which means all nations and people. This is Abram’s seed that God promised. The seed is the seed of faith. Because Abram became a partner with God by faith, this means he is the father of all those who believe. Abram’s seed are all those who believe God’s promise. This is the seed that will be more in number than the stars of heaven (a figure of speech.) Paul wasn’t rewriting this text in Romans, to adjust it to the gospel after Jesus came. This is the meaning of the original words in Genesis. The author of Genesis was saying Abram was justified by faith, without works, and that his seed are all those from all nations who follow his footsteps. This is God’s covenant with the world through Abram.
And that non-racist family is the purpose of faith. It is the free gift that makes us all one, to accept and serve each other: so that none has a reason to boast, as Paul put it. This one family is the reason Paul wrote of faith, not to lift up our individualistic faith.
Then we are confronted by the weakness of Abram’s faith. Like us all, we believe, but also tremble when faced with opposition. So God did two things. Not only did he give Abram his promise, but also confirmed the promise with an oath. This means covenant. It was the custom in those days to confirm your word with an oath, like today we often use lawyers. This is because our word cannot be trusted. This isn’t God’s way. Jesus said simply to let our yes be yes, and anything added to that comes because of evil, because of the unfaithfulness of our word. So God condescended and gave Abram and oath: a covenant that was made according to the human custom of those days. We see again the amazing condescension of God in helping us in our weakness.
It was the tradition of Abram’s time to cut animals in half and lay the halves opposite each other on the ground, leaving a blood trail down the centre. Then the parties to the covenant would walk through the trail of blood, repeating the blessings and curses of the covenant. If they break the covenant, then their blood would be shed, like the blood they were walking upon. This was to be as solemn as a legal contract is supposed to be today. So God undertook this same tradition just to reassure Abram with something he could see. But this time the act was different: only God walked the blood trail, while Abram did not. Like God said elsewhere, “By myself, I have sworn.” This covenant depends only upon God’s solemn oath and not upon human faithfulness. That is, even though Abram’s faith would fail, God would still carry out his promises, nonetheless. This he did through Christ, without the help of man, and through the Holy Spirit sent into our lives today. This act of God walking through the blood alone is a direct testimony in scripture that he by himself would fulfil the covenant, which would make no sense unless he came in Christ to do just that. This Genesis text is a definite testimony of the coming of God in the flesh, in Christ: “a temple built without (human) hands.” (Daniel 2:34)
But first, Israel would go into captivity in Egypt, where they would become a nation, and be brought back to Palestine when the sins of the inhabitants were at their height. It was bad in Abram’s day, but 400 years later, the sin of the land would be far worse. As stated in an earlier section of this commentary, this was not to be a colonization, as we see in more modern times. The Israelites attacked the main military strongholds of the land, but foreigners were to be assimilated through a faith of love and care, just like God assimilated (rescued) Israel in their oppression.
Israel’s life (Abram’s natural seed) was to be a shadow (through the law of Moses) of Christ and his kingdom. This kingdom is Abram’s true seed. It is through this latter kingdom that the fullness comes, the true nature of God is seen, and God’s reformation of the nations. It is only through Christ’s kingdom that we see the true values of heaven, that change our human values and practices. His is the kingdom of peace. In the kingdom of Christ the nations become one family through an assimilation of love inspired by faith and hope: service instead of force. This assimilation isn’t to a conformity of culture, but to a unity of values. The Sermon on the Mount shows how this assimilation takes place and walking in this is what it means to “make Jesus Lord of our lives.”