This week I have been reading through the life of Abraham with my Bible Study group.* Abram's life and call and God's character revealed therein is intriguing and revealing each time I study it. But this time Genesis 15 struck me in a beautiful fresh way. God tenderly reassures Abram's questions fortifying his faith and testimony of the promised redemption for all mankind. Giving him the vision to stand steadfast and fight for the promise to come and covenant to be ratified.
*(Click HERE if you would like information on how to participate in an online study group in your area!)
I truly wish we could sit down and have an animated conversation over this passage. Writing about what God already inspired to be written seems redundant and arrogant. But God thought it fit to conceal treasures in His Word to His glory, so let's start digging in to find what He has to reveal to us!
"It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, But the glory of kings is to search out a matter. " Proverbs 25:2
We will start with an eternal truth that Abram believed. God is faithful and true; all that He says, He will do.
Genesis 15: 1 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.”
God's words to Abram seem simple enough. But what does it mean that God is his shield and great reward? I pondered this. We often think of a shield a protection, and when we get hit with something bad or unpleasant we revert to questioning the integrity of this "shield". But having a shield means that there is something we need shielding from....a battle. A battle means that we are going to be required to fight and endure unpleasant things. But that God is our "exceedingly great reward" means that He and His statutes are worth fighting for. Hebrews 11 :8-10 "by faith Abraham... and it was counted to him as righteousness." I am reminded of the Armor of God in Ephesians 6 :13-18. "put on the breastplate of righteousness, and take up the shield of faith". The armor is interdependent on each other to protect us. Our faith in God's promises shields us from the enemies assault and keeps us steadfast, with hearts pure covered by Yeshua's righteousness. And still, verse 13 commands us to stand steadfast, and 18 reminds to be vigilant to watch and PRAY bookcasing our armor with the awareness that it comes with a great battle.
Now, when the Lord tells us something, we can always rely on it to be true. And yet, God is not disapproving of us asking for confirmations. I am reminded of Isaiah's interaction with King Ahaz in Isaiah 7. It was Ahaz's self-righteousness and LACK OF FAITH in God to REFUSE asking for a sign. Asking questions does NOT automatically default to the sin of doubt. Asking for confirmation can bolster our faith as we see God answer and work in our lives and encourage a greater testimony of God's glory.
I find this aspect of Abraham's relationship with God particularly encouraging. Verses 4 “Lord God, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 Then Abram said, “Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir!” God is not angry with Abram's "discontent" with God being his reward. Verse 5 is a beautiful follow up."Then He brought him outside and said, “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6 And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness." While there isn't a whole lot of detail to this passage, we already see the sweet friendship and relationship that Abram has with God. He has cultivated this relationship through belief and acting in faith to the Word of the Lord, through worship, and prayer. Faith, Action, Worship, Prayer. Seems like the book of James put into practice.
With Verse 5, I picture God going into Abram's tent, and inviting him to stargaze, and taking him by the hand, God leads Abram outside his dwelling, (his temporary dwelling, outside of his limitations and understanding) and waves his arm to the heavens and there Abram gazes agape at the expanse and the story of salvation that would one day enter this world as a baby, born of a virgin (virgo?), the Lion of Judah, from Abraham's seed. This is extra-biblical conjecture, and I don't know all the constellations (although I hope to someday have time to study astronomy) and the majority have been lost to greek mythology and Roman names, but I do know that "the Heavens declare His glory" Psalm 19 :1 and that the wiseman came from the East to worship baby Yeshua because of the alignment of the stars in the heavens. There is a beauty in the imagery of Abram being brought out from the limitations of his tent, to be shown the glory of God declared in the heavens. Up until this point, the Genesis account has pointed to the one day arrival of Messiah redeemer who will save this fallen world from sin and bring us back into fellowship with our creator. As Abram stares at the starry expanse, God shows him a promise of salvation worth believing in, that not only would his physical descendants be as numerous as the stars in the sky, but spiritually, what a heritage of salvation Abram would father.
It is in this same conversation that God asks Abram to prepare a sacrifice in order to ratify his covenant of salvation with Abram. There is much to be said about covenants, but that will be for another time. At this point, let us look at verses 11, 12 and 17 and the war waged against us and the spiritual darkness that comes to prey upon us and steal God's promises from our hearts.
"11 And when the vultures came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. 12 Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, horror and great darkness fell upon him. 17 And it came to pass, when the sun went down and it was dark, that behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a burning torch that passed between those pieces."
The NIV writes "birds of prey" in place of vultures. For some reason, that slight change of wording blew my mind. I've typically read this in the most literal and natural sense. Abram had laid out dead animals on the ground so naturally God's clean up crew would be circling to do their job. But it seems like a spiritual meaning underlies the text and reveals a spiritual war that raged attempting to steal away the covenant before it was sealed. Whether the birds of prey were simply nature, or manifestations of demonic attack and activity, we read that Abram "drove them away". Remember back in verse 1 where God said He was Abram's shield? Where was God's covering? Abram was in the thick of battle fighting for a covenant promise of salvation to come through Yeshua, one born of Abram's seed, who came from his loins, fighting for the sanctification of the covenant sacrifice which Abram believed meant something because God had asked him to do it. His Belief in God's word required action, and culminated in a fight. Yet in God's mercy, as the time passed "a deep sleep fell on him [Abram], and behold horror and great darkness fell upon him". The scriptures don't explain a lot here, but one can almost see perhaps Abrams weariness of battle. This isn't a darkness resulting from the setting of the sun which is 4 verses later in verse 17. This is a spiritual darkness and heaviness. The NIV translates as a "thick and dreadful darkness. It's as if God is allowing Abram a foretaste of Messiah's rejection and aloneness on the cross when Yeshua cries out "My God My God why have you forsaken me?!" (Matthew 27:46 ) And yet, God is still speaking to Abram, telling him of the darkness of slavery and mistreatment that would become of his lineage before the fruition of his family's inheritance of the Promised Land. It appears that God shielded him from the worst of the fight although Abram still felt and endured the dreadfulness of the battle and a taste of the despair of spiritual separation from God.
And just like that, the horror is over, and verse 17 comes to pass. The sun goes down and in new day (where God's mercies are new Lamentations 3:22-23), under the starry heavens, declaring his glory and story, God appears and ratifies the covenant in the form of "a burning torch and smoking oven." (NIV translates as a "smoking firepot with a blazing torch"). Wait. What?! I would have expected another Theophany, or at least a pillar of fire.... but a smoking pot/oven and torch? I chewed on this a bit. The imagery brought to mind the story of Gideon's battle in Judges 7, verse 20 in particular:
"they held the torches in their left hands and the trumpets in their right hands for blowing—and they cried, “The sword of the Lord and of Gideon!” Now notice, these are the last 100 fighting men of FAITH and valor whom God chose to stand with Gideon in battle, yet they only carried the TORCH IN THE CLAY JAR that invariably smoked, and then raised the torches and blew the shofar in one accord. What ensues is a supernatural battle, where God is both warrior and shield before Gideon's men who are left to stand and watch, and then claim their plunder and reward. WOW! Talk about a beautiful image and reference to God's enduring covenant to Abram!
In conclusion, there is a battle for us to fight, there is a work for us to do. But ultimately the Battle belongs to the Lord. He is the one fighting for us and a shield about us. Salvation is only an act for God to do, but there is a work for us to do to enter into it. When God speaks a word of promise, we need to expect the enemy to try to swoop in and try to defile that promise, to try to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:10) . Just as the birds of prey tried to swoop in on Abram's sacrifice and steal away God's covenant act, and that again Yeshua warned of the birds who stole the seed away before it could take root in (Matthew 13), Satan will try to steal away the promises of God before it takes root in your heart. I pray that this study of Genesis 15 is an encouragement to you today. There is so much more depth and beauty of God's faithfulness, and imagery, and covenant keeping character we could explore, but in this small glimpse, our faith can be strengthened, and we can be inspired to faith in and relationship with God like Abram, and Act accordingly in our daily routines and trials, and to continue steadfastly in Worship and Prayer and Thanksgiving.