The Covenant Genesis 15

Abraham is rich; Abraham is prosperous; Abraham is victorious; Abraham is great; Abraham has won an illustrious name, and has entitled himself to a nation’s admiration and gratitude.

But as we know that in the life of man—that in our own life—the moments of our highest exaltation are often followed by those of our deepest humiliation and heaviness—as we know that the thorn in the flesh is seldom wanting to prevent man from being exalted above measure—it is no surprise to us that the next thing we learn of the patriarch, after all this glory, is, that he is exceedingly cast-down, and greatly in need of special encouragements from God.

This case is not difficult to understand. Abraham, a man of peaceful tastes and habits, had been roused to an unwonted course of action; but now, as he walks in the solitude of his own tents, and all the recent excitement has passed away, there is a strong reaction. Human regrets and fears press him down; and solemn and earnest thoughts overwhelm him. How does he know that the defeated kings, overcome by surprise, may not return in overpowering force, and exact a bloody price for the victory he has won? Then, what is his reward for all the toil and labor he has undergone? Lot, whose alienated heart he had probably hoped to win by so great a service, is still as far from him as ever. For the sake of the fat pastures and well-watered lands of Sodom, he is  content still to dwell among men, whom he must by this time have known from experience, to be “sinners before the Lord exceedingly.”

In the midst of these thoughts, the voice of God falls upon his ear—“Fear not, Abraham, I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward;” or rather, “thy reward shall be exceeding great.” These great words, so well suited to refresh and strengthen a troubled and weary spirit, failed not of their effect upon Abraham. Still, the nothingness of human greatness pressed heavily upon his heart. It was true, that he had all this greatness, this honor, this wealth. But what did it avail him? He was among strangers; the attachment of his only relative, within some hundreds of miles, he had failed to win; he was approaching life’s farthest verge, and no child had yet been given to him. Soon his accumulated wealth would pass into other hands; and, no son of his taking down his name and race to future days, his memory would utterly perish from the earth. Under the influence of these feelings he said—“What wilt thou give me?” As much as to say—“Thou hast already given me in abundance all thy outer blessings; and what can more of the same avail, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus.” This he afterwards explains by saying—“Lo, one born in mine house is mine heir.” This was an old and attached house-born slave, in whom he had confidence, and who, in the absence and alienation of all natural ties, would become the possessor of his substance. But although this man was worthy, and although his tried faithfulness was a comfort and a blessing, he was not a son; and his heirship could give the patriarch none of those hopes and interests in the great future which he had been led to expect.

But God told him plainly, that not Eliezer, nor any stranger, but a son of his own, should be his heir. It was night; and he was drawn forth into the fields, and bade to look upon the stars, and to count them if he could; for so countless as they should his posterity become. The sight of the heavenly host may not have been without influence in convincing him, that  what God had promised he was able to perform. He lost all doubt and fear. He and his wife were both old; both had reached that time of life at which men and women were wont to see their grown-up sons and daughters around them, and to dandle their children upon their knees. But Abraham “staggered not at the promises of God.” There were difficulties, to human judgment insuperable; but they were to him as dust in the balance against the promise of God. He believed with all his heart that it would be as God had said. This was Abraham’s faith. It was no milk and water faith. It was strong faith—faith to live by. He believed; and God counted that belief to him for righteousness.

To reward this faith, the Lord condescended to renew, in the most solemn manner, his other promise—which was to give to his descendants the possession of that land in which he was himself a pilgrim and a stranger. Abraham immediately asks, “Whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?” This has seemed to many a sad lapse from the strong faith he had just indicated. But we do not so view it. He saw the land already containing a large population, which must be greatly increased in number long before his posterity could be increased into a nation fit to possess this heritage; and like Mary at the salutation of the angel, he asks, not “Can this thing be?”—he knew that it could—but “How shall this thing be?” Chrysostom, in his Homily on this place, seems to have hit the sense rightly. He paraphrases the words thus—“I firmly believe that what thou hast promised shall come to pass, and, therefore, I ask no questions from distrust. But I should be glad to be favored with some such token or anticipation of it, as may strongly affect my senses, and raise and strengthen my weak and feeble apprehensions of this great matter.”

The way in which the Lord chose to meet his wish is, in all respects, remarkable. He entered into a formal ritual covenant with him, after the manner of men. It was the most solemn of all forms of ratifying a treaty or covenant among divers ancient nations, and, among the rest of the  Chaldeans (as may be seen from Jer_34:18), to divide the carcass of a victim, as butchers divide a sheep, into two equal parts lengthwise, these are placed opposite to each other, and the covenanting parties entering at the opposite extremities of the passage thus formed, met in the middle and there took the oath.

Accordingly, Abraham was directed thus to divide and lay out a heifer, a she-goat, a ram, a turtle dove, and a young pigeon. These he watched to protect them from birds of prey, and to wait the expected manifestation. As the sun was going down the great and darksome horror, and the partial unconsciousness—unconsciousness of his clayey burden—that fell upon him, disclosed to Abraham that God was sensibly near. He heard a voice declaring to him the destiny of his sons for four generations, after which they should come triumphant from bondage to take possession of that land. The voice ceased—the darkness deepened—and, lo, a flaming fire in the midst of what seemed like the smoke of a furnace, passed between the pieces. This was the well-known symbol of the Divine presence; and thus was the covenant ratified by the most solemn sanction known in ancient times among men.

To estimate the full effect of this awful solemnity upon the mind of Abraham, it should be borne in mind what solemn importance was, in ancient times, attached to oaths and covenants, in almost all nations, even those who, in the ordinary intercourse of life, were by no means remarkable for truthfulness. The judicial legislation of the East does at this day recognize a false oath as a moral impossibility; and hence, among some of the most mendacious people in the world, an accusation on oath is held to be true, in the absence of other testimony, and unless the accused will consent to purge himself by a counter oath. Even in ancient Greece, where a lie was a small matter, to distrust an oath seems to have been rewarded as a high crime. The same sentiment is indicated in the special judgments from heaven, which were expected to await the breaker of treaties, on the man who had sworn falsely. So, in the Iliad, when the truce has been  broken by the act of Pandarus. Agamemnon comforts his wounded brother thus—

“The foe
Hath trodden under foot his sacred oath,
And stained it with thy blood. But not in vain
The truce was ratified, the blood of lambs
Poured forth, libation made, and right hands joined
In holy confidence. The wrath of Jove
May sleep, but will not always; they shall pay
Dear penalty.”—Cowper.
And further on, he says to the Greeks—
“Jove will not prosper traitors. Them who first
Transgressed the truce, the vultures shall devour;
And we, their city taken, shall their wives
Lead captive.”

We may compare with this the more oriental notion expressed in the Institutes of Menu—“He whom the blazing fire burns not, whom the water forces not up, or who meets with no speedy misfortune, must be held veracious in his testimony on oath.” This implies that God is so sure to punish him who has no regard for his oath, that the absence of punishment is an assurance of truthfulness.