Commentary on Genesis 15:1-6
Genesis 15:1-6 is one of two profound exchanges between Abraham and God that we encounter in the Abraham Saga of Genesis 12-25.1
These exchanges mark high points in the career of this ancestor of the Israelites. Take a look at Genesis 18:16-33, when Abraham boldly argues with God about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham’s concern for the innocent inhabitants of the doomed area is exemplary and his subtle negotiating skills are both clever and courageously insistent — he is arguing with the divine, after all, and, so, is taking his life in his own hands when he engages in this back-and-forth with God.
The conversation between God and Abraham in Genesis 15 is of a more personal nature that of Genesis 18: Abraham and Sarah’s continued childlessness. From the very beginning of Genesis 12 — when Abraham is called to leave his home and head out to parts unknown in response to the promise of God’s blessing — the absence of an heir looms large in the stories of Abraham. In his (mis)adventure in Egypt in Genesis 12:4-20, he saves his own skin and places his wife’s in danger when he tells the pharaoh that Sarah is his sister and not his wife. Upon Sarah’s removal to the house of pharaoh, not only is she at risk but any heir produced at this point in time would be of uncertain parentage. The next two chapters of Genesis see the amelioration of Abraham’s character following the debacle in Egypt as he generously allows his nephew to take the more verdant land of the plain of the Jordan when they decide to part ways (Genesis 13) and then becomes a war hero in Genesis 14. Through all of these adventures, Abraham and Sarah remain without children.
When God appears to Abraham in a vision here in 15:1, Abraham is looking to the future and doesn’t see this unsatisfactory childless state changing. The promise of God’s provision and protection is all well and good, but Abraham is concerned about the bigger picture: what of his posterity? What will ultimately become of any reward God might give him?
His complaint is in two parts. The first is: “O Lord God, what will you give me, seeing that I continue to be childless and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” His words make clear that it is not just the absence of a child in his life that is on his mind; he’s thinking of his death. Implicit in his words is the fact that he views anything that God might give him as a potential waste because he has no offspring to inherit these divine gifts. When God does not immediately reply to this first statement of dissatisfaction, Abraham goes on and is more pointed in his speech: “Look, you have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is my heir.”
In both parts of Abrahams’s complaint, he uses the word “give:” (1) what will you give me” (verse 2) and “you have given me no offspring” (verse 3). God’s appearance and ringing promise in 15:1 is clearly not at all reassuring to Abraham. He’s looking to the future, to the time after his death, and it looks bleak because he has no heir. He doesn’t want God to give him a reward. He wants God to give him a son.
The courageous persistence he demonstrates in Genesis 18:16-33 is on full display in this exchange here in Genesis 15. He is respectful, yes, but he is also direct, and he doesn’t give up when an immediate response from God is not forthcoming. He presses his point until God responds.
God’s response, however, is not to proclaim that Sarah is pregnant. God responds with a promise and an invitation: “This man shall not be your heir. No one but your very own issue will be your heir.” Then, Abraham is invited outside to consider the impossible task of counting the stars and is promised that his offspring will be just as numerous as the stars. God does not give Abraham what he is asking for at this point. Rather, God invites Abraham to imagine what the future might be like if God is faithful to the promise. “Trust me,” God says, and Abraham does.
The fact that Abraham has expressed himself so directly highlights what a tremendously difficult thing God is asking Abraham to do. He has said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, seeing that I continue to be childless.” And God responds by asking him to continue in this state and trust that there will be an end to it eventually. Abraham chooses to trust the promise and take heart in the vision of the stars. The narrative suggests that God was struck by his willingness to do so: “And he believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (verse 6).
I find myself struck by Abraham’s trust, too, and I suggest that a preacher might be well-served to invite a congregation to enter into the narrative and imagine themselves in Abraham’s position. The most difficult thing about faith is that it requires a level of patience and persistence that does not come naturally to us. This narrative does not make light of the effort involved in a life of faith, but it does suggest that honesty and imagination are the two keys to living such a life. Hold up those values to your congregation. Remind them that they’re not the only ones who find a faithful life to be an enormous challenge. Invite them to consider, too, how many generations have declared that a life of faith is difficult but is, ultimately, the most satisfying way to be and how many generations have born witness to the faithfulness of God.
- At this point in the story line of Abraham, “Abraham” is still “Abram” and will be until Genesis 17. I’ll be referring to other stories in the Abraham saga throughout this commentary and will use the name “Abraham” for the sake of consistency.