Read Genesis 15 (opens in new window)
The first verse is closely linked with the last part of chapter 14. Because the patriarch refused the rewards of the king of Sodom, Jehovah said to him, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward,” thus making Abram both protected and fabulously wealthy.
Being childless, Abram feared that their servant, Eliezer of Damascus, would be their heir, since that was the law at that time. But God promised him a son and descendants as numerous as the stars. Humanly speaking this was impossible, since Sarai had passed the time when she could bear a child. But Abram believed God’s promise, and God declared him to be righteous. The truth of justification by faith enunciated here is repeated in Romans 4:3, Galatians 3:6, and James 2:23. In 13:16 God had promised descendants as numerous as the dust, and here in 15:5 as numerous as the stars. The dust pictures Abram’s natural posterity—those who are Jews by birth (children of the earth, as Adam was made from the dust of the ground). The stars depict his spiritual seed—those who are justified by faith (spiritual descendants through the Holy Spirit, as Adam gained life by Gods’ “ruach”, breath or spirit. see Gal. 3:7).
To confirm the promise of a seed (vv. 1–6) and of a land (vv. 7-8, 18–21), God acted out a significant symbolism (vv. 9–21). According to the ancient Eastern manner of making a covenant, both the contracting parties passed through the divided pieces of the slain animals, thus symbolically attesting that they pledged their very lives to the fulfillment of the engagement they made (see Jer. 34:18-19). Now in Genesis 15, God alone, whose presence was symbolized by the smoking furnace and lamp of fire, passed through the midst of the pieces of the slain animals, while Abram was simply a recipient of this wonderful exhibition of God’s free grace. This signified that it was an unconditional covenant, dependent for fulfillment on God alone. This is the SAME type of covenant as New Testament salvation in Jesus Christ. All Abraham had to do was “show up” (by prepping the animals); all we have to do is “show up” by REPENTANCE. Notice that it is not by saying a rote prayer and signing a card or walking an aisle, but by REPENTANCE (see Matthew 9:13, Luke 13:1-5, Acts 11:18, 2 Corinthians 7:10, 2nd Peter 3:9)
Israel’s deliverance would not come until the iniquity of the Amorites was complete. These pagan inhabitants of Canaan must eventually be exterminated. But God often allows evil to run its course, sometimes to the seeming detriment of His people, before He judges it. He is longsuffering, not willing that any should perish—even the depraved Amorites. He also allows evil to come to fruition so that the awful consequences of wickedness can be clear to all. Thus His wrath is demonstrated to be completely righteous.
Verses 13 and 14 pose a chronological problem. They predict that Abram’s people would be in harsh servitude in a foreign land for 400 years, and that they would leave at the end of that time, carrying great wealth with them. In Acts 7:6 this figure of 400 years is repeated.
In Exodus 12:40, 41 we read that the children of Israel, who dwelt in Egypt, were sojourners for 430 years, to the very day.
Then in Galatians 3:17 Paul says that the period from the confirming of the Abrahamic Covenant until the giving of the Law was 430 years.
How can these figures be reconciled?
The 400 years mentioned in Genesis 15:13-14 and in Acts 7:6 refer to the time of Israel’s harsh affliction in Egypt. Jacob and his family were not in bondage when they first came to Egypt. On the contrary, they were treated quite royally.
The 430 years in Exodus 12:40-41 refer to the total time the people of Israel spent in Egypt—to the very day. This is an exact figure.
The 430 years in Galatians 3:17 cover approximately the same period as Exodus 12:40-41. They are reckoned from the time that God confirmed the Abrahamic Covenant to Jacob, just as Jacob was preparing to enter Egypt (Gen. 46:14), and they extend to the giving of the Law, about three months after the Exodus.
The four generations of Genesis 15:16 can be seen in Exodus 6:16–20: Levi, Kohath, Amram, Moses. Israel has not yet occupied the land promised in verses 18–21. Solomon had dominion over it (1 Kgs. 4:21-24), as over vassal states, but his people did not occupy it.
The covenant will be fulfilled when Christ returns to reign. Nothing can stop its fulfillment. What God has promised is as sure as if it had already occurred!
(see Ezekiel 47:13-23, and Revelation 21:15-16)