Last updated: May 28, 2010
English Translation (ESV)
1After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” 4And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” 5And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 6And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
7And he said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” 8But he said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 9He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. 11And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
12As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. 13Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
17When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”
1 After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”
“After these things” refers to the war and the meeting with the kings in chapter 14. An indefinite period of time has passed since then. That the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision presages his identity as a prophet (20:7).
Victor P. Hamilton says the following about the words the LORD speaks:
The divine imperative is followed by a word of divine self-disclosure. Two clauses in apposition state the same fact twice. The first states a fact from the speaker’s point of view: I am a benefactor for you. The second states the same point, but from the addressee’s point of view: your reward shall be exceedingly great.
Most translations have rendered “shield” for MT magen (e.g., AV, RSV, NIV). On the heels of Yahweh’s words to Abram that he “fear not,” the promise that he will be the patriarch’s shield would be appropriate. Thus we have a metaphorical term signifying divine protection (see Deut. 33:29; Ps. 3:4 [Eng. 3]; 18:3 [Eng. 2]; 28:7; etc.).
Some scholars have suggested slight emendations, however. For example, M. Kessler suggesting emending MT magen to a participle, mogen (cf. miggen in 14:20), thus providing this translation: “I am about to deliver to you a very great reward.” This rendering would explain Abram’s retort: “what will you give [titten] me?”
A second emendation calls for reading magan, “benefactor, suzerain.” This suggestion has the advantage of making more sense of the following line: “your reward [sekareka, MT] shall be exceedingly great,” or “who will reward you [sokereka] greatly.” It is a benefactor, rather than a shield, who provides a reward. Abram has already had one benefactor from whom his “reward” was substantial (Pharaoh, ch. 12). He refused the donation of a second potential benefactor (king of Sodom, ch. 14). But this benefactor he will pursue. One passage in the OT, Ps. 127:3, lists “the fruit of the womb” as a “reward” (sakar) for a man. This might suggest that the reward Yahweh has prepared for Abram is a son.1
For comparison, Kenneth A. Matthews writes:
The message is expressed by a poetic tricolon. “Shield” (magen) may be the poetic glue connecting lines one and three. G. Rendsburg finds in the verse a case of janus parallelism; magen as “shield” parallels the prior line, and its consonants m-g-n, meaning “give” (14:20; Prov 4:9), parallel the subsequent line (i.e., reward). The second and third lines can be synonymous (as NIV) in which “shield” is the cause (metonymy) for the “reward,” that is, the Lord will bring about his reward (see NJB, NAB). The parallel line thus gaps the subject: “I am your shield//[I am] your very great reward.” If interpreted as a synthetic parallelism, the third line adds to the thought of protection, “Your reward [will be] very great (NIV note, NASB, NRSV, HCSB).
“Do not be afraid” (al tira) urges the desired effect, resulting from the divine promise of reward in lines two and three. Fittingly, words of consolation are spoken first (also 21:17; 26:24; 46:3; cp. Matt 1:20; Luke 1:13, 30; 2:10; Acts 18:9) since theophany usually elicits a fearful response (e.g., Exod 20:18). Elsewhere in the Old Testament there is an association of “fear not” and the survival of descendants (e.g., 21:27; 26:24; 35:17; 46:1-7; Jer 30:10-11; 46:27-28). That the same theophanic message to the childless Zechariah (Luke 1:13) appears to recall our passage (15:1) is one of several possible links between birth announcements in the Old and New Testaments. This verse is the first of only three passages where the name “Abram” or “Abraham” occurs in direct address (15:1; 22:1, 11). “Abram” in this context of a promised son anticipates when God calls out “Abraham” to rescue that son (22:1, 11).
The Lord identifies himself in terms of his relationship to Abram (“your shield,” “your . . . reward”); the security fostered by this relationship explains why Abram should take courage. A similar combination of “do not be afraid” and “I am with you” (e.g., 26:24; Isa 41:10) emphasizes divine guardianship. As the echo of “who delivered” (miggen) in 14:20, “shield” (magen) assures Abram that in the face of hostilities he can rest in the protection that grants him victory. The term magen is the most frequently used of several words in the Old Testament for shield; it is typically used metaphorically in the psalms (e.g., Ps 3:4; 7:11; 18:30) for God who defends his people (Deut 33:29). The LXX captures the sense well, “I am covering you as a shield.”
“Reward” (sakar) often denotes a laborer’s or servant’s wages (e.g., 30:28, 32-33; Deut 15:18). It may figuratively refer to reward for faithfulness (e.g., Num 18:31; Jer 31:16) and the victor’s spoil (Isa 40:10-11; 62:11). Abram has refused the rightful booty of his victory (14:22-23), but the Lord confirms that what Abram has entrusted to him will be rewarded. The “reward” is not paid to him as compensation for his heroic deeds in chap. 14, or he would have received payment from the kings; rather, the “reward” looks ahead to the gifts of descendants and land already promised. Psalm 127:3 identifies the inheritance of children as a “reward” given by the Lord. There is no sense that God is indebted to Abram; rather, the Lord reassures Abram that his confidence in the divine promise is well placed.2
2 But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”
There is disagreement on how to translate the Hebrew behind the phrase “the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus”. The ESV translation (above) is consistent with the meaning of verse 3’s “a member of my household will be my heir”.
3 And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.”
Numerous ancient Near Eastern documents provide for the adoption of a stranger who inherits the estate in return for the performance of filial duties. These include paying the adoptive parents the proper respect, maintaining the household, taking care of their physical needs and comforts in their old age, and performing funerary rites at their death. In such cases, the adopted son cannot be deprived of a share of the inheritance even if there are subsequently natural-born sons. Thus, God’s emphatic and unambiguous reply in verse 4 can only mean that the patriarch, despairing of having children, had decided to resort to the adoption of his servant but has not yet acted. God assures him that this will not be necessary.3
4 And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.”
Note that the mother of the son is not named. Abram has a son, Ishmael, by Hagar the Egyptian servant (ch. 16). Later, God promises an heir by Sarai (17:19).
5 And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
This prophecy is viewed as having been fulfilled in Deuteronomy 1:10; 10:22; 28:62; Nehemiah 9:23.
6 And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
The Hebrew behind “believed” (he’emin + be prep.) means that Abram placed his trust in God (Exodus 19:9; 1 Samuel 27:12)4. But, as the previous chapters make clear, this is not the first time Abram has placed his trust in God. The verse means Abram’s trust has been continuous since he was brought out of Ur of the Chaldeans (v 7). God, in an act of grace, assigns Abram’s faith (“counted it to him”) the value of righteousness5.
[H]ere Abram is not described as doing righteousness. Rather faith is being counted for righteousness. Normally righteousness results in acquittal by the divine judge. Here faith, the right response to God’s revelation, counts instead. As the rest of the story makes plain, this faith leads to righteous action (e.g., 18:19), but only here in the OT is it counted as righteousness.6
7 And he said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.”
This is the first use of the formula “I am the LORD”. “It is not the disclosure of a hitherto unknown name, but an emphasis on the unimpeachable authority behind the accompanying declaration. The style ‘I am So-and-so’ is known from Hittite treaties and Canaanite-Phoenician royal proclamations”7.
8 But he said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”
Abram’s question is a request for a sign and not an expression of doubt. The promise of an heir did not need a sign for it would happen in Abram’s lifetime, whereas the inheritance of the land would happen after his death.
9 He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.”
Three year old animals were considered full grown. Hebrew meshullash (“three years old”) may also mean “threefold”, referring to three of each species8. Later, one year olds without defect were prescribed for sacrifice (Exodus 29:38; Leviticus 1:3; 9:3).
11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
The otherwise terse and austere style of the narrative makes it certain that the incident recorded here has special significance. Hebrew ‘ayit, here taken as collective “birds of prey,” is most likely the carrion-eating falcon (cf. Isa. 18:6; Ezek. 39:4). In Egyptian art this bird represents the important god Horus with whom the living king was identified. It is possible, therefore, that the sudden appearance of birds of prey, and of Abram successfully warding them off, symbolically portends the sharp and menacing change that is to take place in the fortunes of the Israelites at the hands of the Egyptians while it also prefigures their rescue through the merit of the patriarch.9
This interpretation is bolstered by the ensuing prophecy that clearly refers to Israelite bondage in Egypt.
12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him.
The note that the sun was going down implies that Abram’s vision was entering its second day, for the stars were out (v 5), then the birds of prey, who only hunt during the day, came out (v. 11), and now the sun is going down. A “deep sleep” befell Adam (2:21) and was associated with divine revelations (Job 4:13; 33:15; Isaiah 29:10).
13 Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years.
God’s “know for certain” answers Abram’s “how can I know” (v 8). The Israelites sojourned in Egypt and became slaves to the Egyptians. According to Exodus 12:40, the Israelites were in Egypt for 430 years.
14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.
The judgment refers to the plagues on Egypt (Exodus 6:6; 7:4; 12:12). The Israelites left Egypt with many possessions (Exodus 12:35-39).
15 As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age.
Abram himself would not face the aforementioned misfortunes (25:8).
16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
Unless we are going to posit a mindless author/editor, the 400 years of verse 13 and the four generations of this verse must be reconcilable. The Hebrew word dor (generation) must be taken to mean a “cycle of time” or a “life span”. Four 100-year life spans would be compatible with the 400 years of verse 1310.
The fate of Israel is tied up with the fate of the Amorites (Canaanites). The Canaanites were not expelled from the land merely because God elected the Israelites. They were expelled because of their iniquity (cf. Leviticus 18:24; 20:23; Deuteronomy 9:4-6). Abram could not take the land immediately because their sins had not reached their full measure.
17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.
The smoking fire pot and flaming torch symbolize the deity11. That nothing symbolizing Abram walks through the pieces implies that this was a unilateral covenant. Abram is free of any obligations. It is solely up to God to implement the promise of descendants and land. In this sense, the covenant is similar to royal land grants from the ancient Near East12.
18-21 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”
The “river of Egypt” is not the Nile, which is called ye’or in the Bible, but rather the modern Wadi el-Arish13. These lands were only possessed at the height of the united monarchy (1 Kings 4:21).
Friedman, Richard E. Commentary on the Torah. HarperOne, 2003.
Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament 1A. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990.
Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 11:27-50:26. The New American Commentary Volume 1B. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.
Mays, James L. HarperCollins Bible Commentary – Revised Edition. Rev Sub. HarperOne, 2000.
Sarna, Nahum M. JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1989.
Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 1-15. Word Biblical Commentary 1. Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1987.
1Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, 418-419.
2Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 162-163.
3Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 113.
4Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 166.
6Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 330.
7Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 114.
10Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 116; Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, 436.
11Exodus 3:2; 13:21; 14:24; 19:18; 20:18; 1 Kings 18:38
12Mays, HarperCollins Bible Commentary – Revised Edition, 93.
13Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, 58; Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, 438.