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                                                                           Genesis 15:1-18
Background to the Book of Genesis

Literary Features: Genesis is a fascinating book which begins with two creation accounts of the world in Gen 1-3, continues with stories about humanity in general through to the end of Gen 11 before we come to the specific journeys of Abraham. Gen 1-11 is often referred to as universal history or primeval history and is applicable to all of humanity. The genealogies enable Abraham to be descended from Adam and Eve. Indeed, another purpose of the genealogies is to divide these eleven chapters as follows into a 5-fold division:

  • Gen 2:4a heaven and earth - these are the generations of the heavens and the earth ...
  • Gen 5:1 ff Adam - This is the book of the generations of Adam.
  • Gen 6:9 Noah - And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth
  • Gen 10:1 Noah’s 3 sons - These are the generations of the sons of Noah. ...
  • Gen 11:10 Shem - These are the descendants of Shem ...

Besides the suggested division above, scholars have proposed different recurring literary patterns such as sin, speech, punishment - Gen 1-3, 4, 6-9,11 (Westermann) in Gen 1-11: von Rad includes forgiveness: sin, speech, forgiveness, punishment. Whether one wants to go along with any of the above suggestions about the literary divisions or patterns in Gen 1-11, there is almost unanimous agreement that there is a tightly formed literary pattern and we are meant read it as a unity. Creation of the world and humans is torn apart when the relationship between God and humans is told in Gen 3 and between humans and humans in Gen 4. One of the literary patterns which may be considered to not only be present in Gen 1-11, but also extend through into the remainder of the book of Genesis is that connected with the command in Gen 1:28 - ‘be fruitful and multiply’. Not only does the phrase occur in a number of places, but the lists of genealogies show that indeed the people have been fruitful and multiplied - Gen 5, 10, 11. The genealogies continue in Gen 12-50 at particular points: Gen 25:12 (These are the generations of Ishmael), Gen 25:19 (These are the generations of Isaac), Gen 36:1, (These are the generations of Esau), Gen 37:2 (These are the generations of Jacob). The genealogies not only show that God's command in Gen 1:28 has been followed, but the promises to Abraham in Gen 12:1-3, Gen 15:5 have come true. That is, Abram will have many descendants and become a great nation. At the point where each of the genealogies are listed we have the story of that person in the following chapters. Abraham in Gen 11:27-25:18: Jacob in Gen 25:19-36:43: Joseph, Judah and Jacob's family in Gen 37:1-50:26. There are a number of covenants mentioned in the Book of Genesis all of which come into the category of unconditional or promissory. Unlike the condition covenant in Exod 19 in which God seeks a response of obedience from the people, the covenants in Genesis are based on first person pronouncements by God. In Gen 9 it is an universal covenant with all living creatures, but once we move into Gen 12 the covenants are specific to Abraham and his descendants. The relationship has been set up from creation when humans were created to be in special relationship with God (Gen 1:26-27).

Attempts have been made since the 18th century to explain such things as: a different word used for God -Yahwist or Elohim: multiple versions of the same story = Abraham’s pretence, Gen 12:10-20, 20:1-18, 26:6-16: repetition within the same story = Gen 6:5-7, 11-12: contradictions - for example, Exod 20:24 gives permission to offer sacrifices at numerous altars v Deut 12:13-14 which forbids this and restricts sacrifice to one place only or Gen 7:17 in which the flood remains for 40 days v Gen 7:24 in which the flood remains for 150 days and other examples. The classic theory suggests that the Pentateuch has a number of written sources as well as the early oral traditions which account for the sort of differences mentioned above. In Gen 1-11 there is the Priestly source which can be seen in Gen1:1-2:4a, 6:9-22, some verses in Gen 7-8, 9:1-17, 10:1-7, 11:10-27 and the remaining texts come from the Yahwistic source. Some characteristics of what is know as the 'P' source are: the use of the Hebrew term toledoth/generations, the writing is sophisticated and often in a liturgical style (Gen1:1-2:4a), in the creation account God speaks and it happens, humans are made in the image of God, the covenant is unconditional and can be made with the animals, and an abiding concern to state numbers and years. The Yahwistic source uses myths and sagas to tell the story, God and animals speak (anthropomorphic), the world is very small (Gen 2:10-14) compared with the universal world of the 'P' source (Gen 1:1-2:4a).

Historical: (History within the text). xxxxxGen 12-50 tells the stories about Abram and his descendants as they move from Haran into the land of Canaan and begin wandering around the land and then into Egypt. These stories began as oral traditions passed down within the tribes long before they became part of the written tradition. It is the way many cultures remember their history, but in the Western world we became influenced by the enlightened definition of 'history' which understood 'history' as written facts from an objective viewpoint. This has caused many scholars to debate whether the Patriarchs can be proven to be true people through archaeological means. Other scholars say that this is not possible and therefore they cannot be historical people. If this argument was applied to Bedouin tribes or Australian Aboriginal people we deny them any history. History as oral tradition passed down is the history of a people, and does not need to be justified by Western values. The people are portrayed as very human with all their faults and strengths - they lie, deceive, steal, test God, they have courage, journey into the unknown, seek God, question God and are obedient. These traits apply to men and women, and many of the women (Sarah, Rebecca, Tamar) play a significant role in the working out of the promises of God. I encourage people to read these stories for themselves. After the story of Abram in Gen 11:27-25:18 the next block, Gen 11:19-36:43, tells us about Jacob and finally about Joseph in Gen 37:1-50:26. At the end of the book we are placed ready to begin the story of Moses, the release of the Hebrews from Egypt and their wanderings in the wilderness.

We know something of this period from the discoveries of the Mari Tablets - 20,000 tablets in old Akkadian of which 5,000 were official correspondence (J.Bright. A History of Israel. London: SCM Press, 57). Mari was a great city with highly sophisticated living conditions and the centre of trade. Terah and his family would have travelled through Mari to get to Haran. Mesopotamia was a centre of civilisation in the Far East in the same way that Egypt was in the Near East.

It is a period in which some people lived in cities and others lived a semi nomadic life travelling with their herds and stopping for periods, but rarely settling to an agrarian life style. We seem to have examples of both these life styles within the story of Abraham.

Context of Genesis 15:1-18

Prior to Genesis 15 Abram has left Haran with his wife Sarai and brother Lot and his family. Only Abram and Sarai appear to go into Egypt where Abram out of fear tells the Pharaoh that Sarai is his sister. Consequently, she is taken into the Pharaoh's household as his wife. Abram receives cattle and servants in exchange. After the famine Abram moved back into Canaan, making an altar at Bethel and negotiating with Lot to move into separate areas of land. God makes a further promise to Abram that all that land he could see would belong to him and his descendants. He builds another altar at Hebron.

In the period following the parting of the ways between Lot and Abraham there was a war between local kings and Lot was taken captive. Abram led a force of his own men and freed Lot and all his goods. On his return we have this fascinating encounter between Melchizedek, King of Salem and Abram in which Melchizedek brings out wine and bread and blesses Abram (Genesis 14:19-20). The exchange that follows is totally incongruent with event in Egypt in which Abram quite willingly took all that Pharaoh had to offer. Here, Abram behaves in an ethical fashion not wishing to take that which doesn't belong to him.

In Genesis 15 we will look in detail at the vision from God to Abram in which he is promised again descendants and the land. This promise is immediately followed in Genesis 16 with Sarai's instruction to Abram to have sexual relationship with her servant Hagar and beget a child with her. This set up the conflict situation between Sarai and her servant. Hagar could feel triumphant that she had conceived and Sarai could feel jealous because of her lack. One of the interesting observations in this chapter is the lack of action by Abram on behalf of Hagar: he simply opted out and let Sarai deal with her harshly. This action packed chapter is followed by another appearance of God to Abram in which the promise of descendants is reiterated and Abram's name is changed to Abraham. Abram means 'the father is exalted' and the addition of 'ha' doesn't change the meaning, but rather it symbolises the new era which is about to happen.

I hope people will want to continue reading the story of Abraham in which we have the famous visitation in Genesis 18 of the three men. It is this story which is depicted in the famous icon by Rublev called The Holy Trinity.

Insights/Message of Genesis 15:1-18: Literary Insights:

We will deal with the whole chapter which can be divided: vv.1-6 = the promise of an heir, vv.7-21 = the promise of the land. Verses 1-6 are continuous dialogue between Abram and God which involves us at a deeper level. Verse 6 is the response to the dialogue with the Lord and shows once more the faith of Abram who believes against all the odds that he will have heirs. The chiasm in vv.1-6 in which the word of the Lord came to Abram (v.1) and he believed the Lord (v.6) emphases the role of the Lord God in Abram's life and frames the dialogue (Scullion: 130). The words 'After these things' (v.1) is a deliberate link back to Genesis 14 which is why I believe it is important to know the context. It is a continuous narrative and there are literary features which tell us they want us to keep in mind what has just gone before.

The phrase 'the word of the Lord came' is unique in the Pentateuch but used a lot in the Deuteronomistic History (Deuteronomy - 11 Kings). Although the rendering of the last part of v.1 is inconsistent by scholars the intent is surely that Yahweh is assuring Abram of his protection. We have no knowledge to whom v.2b refers although it has given rise to lots of speculation. V.3 may refer to a Nuzi custom by which a child born of a slave may become the heir if the wife was unable to bear a child. However, Yahweh's response denies this possibility and maintains it shall be progeny from Sarai and Abram who will be the heir. This section concludes with Abram's affirmation of faith in Yahweh and his promise.

Again vv.7-21 are framed around the promise of land. Verse 7 reminds Abram of why he brought him from Ur and vv.18b-20 describe the land which will belong to his descendants. There is another of the inconsistencies that we get in these narratives suggesting that they may come from different traditions joined together. In v.6 we read of Abram's affirmation of trust and yet in v.8 Abram suddenly wants proof of Yahweh's promise. Yahweh gets Abram to set up the old way of a covenant renewal ceremony and in the midst of it provides another revelation. In this time of deep sleep God forecasts the time of oppression in Egypt and then affirms the promise of the land. This is the first time in the story that we are warned there is going to be time of hardship in the future. The list of peoples named in vv.19-20 are reminiscent of similar verses in the Deuteronomistic History.

Apparently v.6 is cited a umber of times in the New Testament but I haven't checked into the context in which it is used.

Message / Theology

This chapter reaffirms the promises made to Abram in Genesis 12 when he was called to leave Terah and begin his journey into Canaan. God offers him the assurance of his presence and in response Abram confirms that he will trust in God whom he know to be righteous. The promise of descendants and land will come true in the future.

Abram's questioning of God's ability to deliver the promises of descendants brings an unusual response from God. We have a description of what appears to be a very early ritual where a covenant was cut and inserted into this ritual was a time when Abram fell into a deep sleep. In the ensuing words from God he finds out that he will not see the land or experience the time when the Israelites will be slaves, but his descendants will be the recipients of the promise. The covenant is an unconditional promise by God unlike the later Sinai covenant which demands a response and is indeed dependent on the people keeping their side of the covenant for it to be realised. Not so with the covenants between God and Abram. They are all pure grace.

A message for us in this story is that God is faithful to his promises and we can trust in those promises. As Christians we look to the promises through Jesus Christ: we have life in all its fullness; we know Christ is present with us through the Holy Spirit; we know that death is not the end. It is well to be reminded by this story that God chooses us, we respond to what God has been doing through the Holy Spirit in out lives.

The Genesis commentary in the New Interpreter's Bible has a very good reflection section on this particular reading if you have access to these volumes

Resources/Worship for Genesis 15:1-18: Worship:

It would be interesting to organise the worship service in parallel with the pattern of vv.1-6, 7-21.

For example:

Divine Promise: (vv.1,7) Prayers and hymn could pick up this emphasis

Need to question: (vv2-3, 8). Prayers of confession, children's story, first part of sermon, song

God's response with assurance: (vv.4-5, 9-21): final part of sermon, song/hymn

Covenant: (v.17) As the people's response a covenant liturgy could be created.

This reading is very suited to 2 voices plus a narrator.



The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the Book of Genesis, the author is R.W.L.Moberly, 1992. (Genesis 12-50)

Brenner, Athalya, ed. A Feminist companion to Genesis. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993.
---. ed. Genesis. Feminist companion to the Bible (Second Series), 1. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.
*Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. Int. Atlanta, Ga.: John Knox 1982.
Coats, George W. Genesis, with an Introduction to Narrative Literature. FOTL. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1983.
Davies, Philip R., and David J. A. Clines, eds. The world of Genesis: Persons, Places, Perspectives. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.
*Fretheim,Terrence E. "The Book of Genesis: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections." In The New Interpreter's Bible. Vol 1. Abingdon: Nashville, 1994.
Hamilton,Victor P. The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17. NICOT. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1990.
---. The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50. NICOT, Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1995.
Hess, Richard S., and David Toshio Tsumura, eds. I Studied Inscriptions from before the Flood: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary, and Linguistic Approaches to Genesis 1-11. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1994.
*Moberly, R. W. L. Genesis 12-50. OTG. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992.
*Rogerson, J. W. Genesis 1-11, OTG. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1996.
Scullion, John J. Genesis: A Commentary for Students, Teachers, and Preachers. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1992.
Waltke, Bruce K., and Cathi J. Fredricks. Genesis: A Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, c2001. Call Number: 222.11077 W237g
Wenham,Gordon J. Genesis 1-15. WBC. Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1987.
---. Genesis 16-50. WBC. Dallas, Tex.: Word Books, 1994.
Westermann, Claus. Genesis: A Practical Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1987.

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources: These links were updated 30/12/11