Commentary on Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
We usually describe Abram’s main problem in this passage as a lack of children, but the real issue is not what he lacks. Abram’s problem is the prejudice that he holds onto. Of course, it would be disingenuous to say childlessness is not part of the problem. In Genesis 15:2, Abram (who we will come to know as Abraham after Genesis 17:5) complains, “I remain childless”; and in verse 3 he blames God: “you have given me no children.”
From the start of the Bible, we see the importance of having children. God’s first command to humans is “be fruitful and multiply,” which God repeats verbatim to the first humans after the flood (Genesis 1:28; 9:1, 7). The genealogies in Genesis 4, 5, 10, and 11 show that people are heeding God’s instruction to reproduce. Unfortunately, their procreative obedience ends up multiplying wrongdoing; disobedience (chapter 3), killing (4:8, 23–24), lying (4:9), and violence (6:5, 11–12) abound. God tries to reset things by wiping out everyone except a small remnant of people and animals, but the new creation remains corrupt (Genesis 8:21; 9:20–29). In Genesis 12, God takes a new approach to engaging with humanity: God will work through an ongoing relationship with Abram.
The story of God and Abram starts when God commands Abram to migrate to Canaan. God offers Abram magnanimous promises: he will be a great nation; he will have a great name; God will bless people who bless him and curse the ones who curse him; and through Abram, all the people of the earth will be blessed (Genesis 12:1–3). When God adds a promise of land to Abram’s “seed” (Genesis 12:7), we think that Abram cannot remain childless. Unfortunately, his wife, Sarai, is barren (Genesis 11:30).
With this background, we typically read Genesis 15:2–3 as if the central issue for Abram must be that he needs to have children and he has none. But there is more going on in these verses. It is not only a lack of children that Abram grieves. After both complaints about his lack of progeny, Abram laments the consequence: Eliezer of Damascus, his slave, would end up being his inheritor. Abram is not just concerned that he has no children, but especially concerned that a slave would carry on his legacy!
When describing Eliezer as a slave, Abram literally refers to him as “a son of my house” in these verses. Eliezer is not named as the child of a father—the typical designation for a person—but as the child of Abram’s property. This description of Eliezer fits with an idea that sociologist Orlando Patterson says transcends many cultures: that the enslaved person is imagined as “socially dead,” someone alienated from their bonds of kinship and lineage.1 The urgency of Abram’s complaint comes from the fear that a slave, not even a full person, will inherit after him.
I wish that childless Abram would develop a special connection with Eliezer whom he describes as fatherless. They could complement one another well. It would be nice if God pointed this out to Abram, but that is not what happens in this passage. God seems to conform to Abram’s degrading worldview. With a not-so-humanizing-pronoun, God assures Abram, “this [not “this man” as the NRSV translates] will not be your heir” (Genesis 15:4). After God tells Abram that his own body will produce children more numerous than the stars, Abram can feel relief. Knowing that a slave will not be his heir, Abram can recognize God as righteous (Genesis 15:5–6).2
Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there. God turns from the promise of descendants to the possession of land (Genesis 15:7). Abram asks how he can trust that his descendants will inherit the land (Genesis 15:8). Now that he believes he will have biological heirs, Abram wants reassurance that God will give them all that God promised even after Abram is dead and gone.
This passage has God concede to interact with Abram at the level of human cultural practices. God gives instructions on how to “cut a covenant” (Genesis 15:9–10, 17–18). This is not just a promise (which Abram had already received), but a type of agreement where humans ensure their obligations with a symbolic gesture that speaks volumes. By treading through a path of blood between an animal (or animals) cut in half, a person “cutting a covenant” symbolically asserts that they will keep their word lest their own body be severed like the animal whose blood they walk through (see also Jeremiah 34:18–20). Remarkably, Genesis 15:17 depicts Abram having a vision where God—represented by a smoking pot and burning torch—passes between the carcasses in order to say that God will suffer death if God does not keep this promise.
Twice, our lectionary reading displays God meeting Abram at his very human level. God concedes to Abram’s prejudicial anxiety about a slave carrying his legacy, and God concedes to Abram’s apprehension that some human ceremony could make the divine promise more reliable. But the verses left out of our lectionary reading also offer some nuance to God’s concessions.
In the midst of the covenant ceremony, God tells Abram “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there” (Genesis 15:13). In other words, Abram feared that his heir would be a slave, but God tells him, indeed, there will come a time when all your descendants will be slaves.
Abram thought of slavery as a sign of inferiority that should disqualify someone from inclusion in God’s special lineage. But Abram’s descendants will endure harsh slavery and come to understand it as central to their own identity. God does not make enslavement an immediate circumstance for Abram’s children, but enslavement, perseverance through it, and salvation from it become the banner of God’s people.
Abram was not ready for a radical change in his perspective on enslaved people. In this passage, God gave him comfort. But for the majority of the Torah, God will show that an enslaved people are the right people to carry on the legacy of what it means to be the children of God.
- Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).
- Since only pronouns are used in the second clause for Genesis 15:6, it could mean “God credited it to Abram as righteousness,” meaning that God considered Abram’s trust in God as evidence of Abram’s righteousness. I believe I have chosen the more likely reading: that Abram considers God’s reaction to his situation as proof that God is righteous.