Commentary on Genesis 15:1-6
This text is best interpreted with the entirety of Genesis 15 in view.
Both sections (15:1-6; 15:7-21) begin with a divine promise (15:1; 15:7). Each promise is followed by a question that Abram raises about the promise (15:2-3; 15:8; see also his questions to God in 18:23-33). God, in turn, responds to each of Abram’s questions by making a promise, centering on many descendants (15:4-5) and the possession of the land with God’s covenantal promise relating thereto (15:9-21).
Notably, God’s covenant with Abram (first mentioned in Genesis 15:17-21) does not establish Abram’s relationship with God. That relationship has been in place from Genesis 12:1-9. Prior to any mention of God’s covenant with Abram, God chooses Abram (12:1-3); God saves Abram from Egypt (12:10-20); and Abram worships God (12:7-8; 13:18). A comparable ordering is present in the story of Israel (Exodus 1-24) and David (1 Samuel 16; 2 Samuel 5-7).
It is important to recognize that the covenant is not an “agreement” worked out between Abram and God; Abram is sound asleep when God makes this covenant with him (see Genesis 15:12). This covenant is a divine promise to Abram to which God binds the divine self; as such, this covenant is an act of divine self-limitation, wherein God freely chooses to limit the divine freedom for the sake of Abram’s future. God will keep this promise, come what may!
Turning to Genesis 15:6, Abram believes in God without having any concrete evidence that God’s promise will come to pass (see Hebrews 11:1, 8-12). Abram’s faith has been enabled by God’s addressing the specific issue opened up by Abram’s question.
Abram had addressed some very particular issues concerning the future of his family, and God responds directly to those issues. It is interesting (and crucial) that God addresses himself directly to Abram’s question. Apparently, words from God that didn’t so address Abram’s questions would not have the same efficacy (as they do not have in the wake of God’s promise in Genesis 15:1).
It is crucial that the God who makes the promise links the promise to the actual life situation faced by the questioner. In view of that link, God’s specific word of promise makes Abram’s faith possible, indeed creates his faith. Abram’s faith is not generated by his own resources. Rather, God’s word of promise to Abraham is effective by addressing the specific situation opened up by Abram’s question.
Genesis 15:6 is one of the more commonly cited Old Testament texts in the New Testament. A common translation is: “And he [Abraham] believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (see Romans 4:3, 9, 20-24; Galatians 3:6; James 2:23). According to these New Testament texts, God is understood to be the one who reckons Abram righteous in view of his faith.
Yet, because the subject and object of “reckon” in Genesis 15:6 are not clearly specified in the Hebrew text, the verse could be understood in this sense: Abram reckons the Lord righteous for what God has accomplished. I will assume here, however, that the traditional translation is the more likely understanding. Abram believes God, that is, Abram rests back in the arms of the God who has made the promise. And then, in view of this faithful Abrahamic response, God declares/reckons him righteous.
The verb “reckon” probably has a background in Israel’s worship life, wherein the priest declares that a believer’s gift has been properly offered (see Leviticus 17:4). The word “righteous” can have two different senses: (1) Doing justice to the relationship in which one already stands (see Genesis 7:1; 38:26); (2) What God declares that Abraham has become in view of his faith. The latter sense is the likely meaning in this verse.
God’s participation in the covenantal rite (Genesis 15:17), parallel to the usual human participation in such rites (see Jeremiah 34:18-20), is striking. God (imaged by the smoking fire pot and flaming torch) goes through the rite and submits to its terms (rather than Abram). This is an act of self-imprecation; God in effect puts the divine life on the line, ‘writing’ the promise in blood. God thereby invokes death upon the divine self should God be unfaithful to the terms of the promise. God has staked God’s very own life on God’s faithfulness to promises made.
This text moves to a climax in God’s making a covenant with Abram regarding the land (Genesis 15:17-21). As noted, “covenant” in this text refers to God’s promise, under oath, not to a contract or agreement. The divine promise grants the land to Abram’s descendants.
That Abram continues to ask questions (Genesis 15:8) in the wake of such a positive statement about his faith is important. The implication: it is not unnatural to faith, or unbecoming to the believer, that questions persist in the midst of belief. Faith does not stop the questions about God!
God will never nullify this promise to Abram (and his descendants). At the same time, while God’s promise is everlasting, God does not guarantee that every descendant of Abram will participate in its fulfillment. The promise always remains available for believers to cling to, knowing that God remains available to fulfill that promise; but, rebellious individuals may not live to see it. Faith does not function as a condition for receiving the promise, but one can, by unbelief, leave the sphere of the promise. God’s “unconditional” promises do not make the recipient’s faithfulness irrelevant.
God makes clear to a sleeping Abram (Genesis 15:12-16) that there will be a delay in the fulfillment of the promise; 400 years is a long time. The story of God’s peoples during those centuries makes clear that God’s promises will move through dark and complex times and the people will have to wait a long time for fulfillment. But it will be worth the wait!