The Covenant Keeping God of Genesis 15

The Covenant Keeping God of Genesis 15 February 29, 2024

If you’re anything like me, you have never read a single online user’s terms and agreement. But sometimes these agreements have important pieces of information that you contractually agree to and need to know. Take for example this one:

“You agree to grant us a non-transferable option to claim, for now, and forever more, your immortal soul. Should We wish to exercise this option, you agree to surrender your immortal soul, and any claim you may have on it, within 5 (five) working days of receiving written notification from or one of its duly authorized minions.”

Thankfully, this website declared it void and didn’t hold anyone to it. And of course, it is an obvious example of a goofy unenforceable contract designed to make folks laugh who actually read the terms. But there are certainly other contracts and promises that we pay much closer attention to. You need to know what you’re agreeing to when you sign a mortgage.  A healthy person is not going to tone out the marriage vows at the altar. You don’t mess around when signing anything handed to you by a lawyer. 

And when God enters into a covenant, a relational contract with His people, we must take notice. And we see such an arrangement in Genesis 15 when God formally enters into a covenant with Abram. A covenant is more than a promise. It’s a bond in blood uniting two parties together with obligations and blessings for staying true, and curses for breaking the covenant vows. And the covenant ceremony in Genesis 15 is vital to our understanding of the Gospel and sets the stage for the coming King, Jesus. It’s the reason we can say with conviction that all of God’s promises find their yes and amen in Christ. And Genesis 15 teaches us 3 of God’s covenant faithfulness: God Covers, God Cuts, and God Completes.


God Covers (Genesis 15:1-6)

Chapter 15 opens up in verse 1 by telling us “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.”

When a narrative begins with the phrase “after these things” everything that follows is in some way connected with a previous story or idea. In Genesis 14, Abram saved the day by rescuing his nephew Lot and his family from captivity. They were taken in battle when Sodom and Gomorrah were attacked by a coalition of kings. Abram took a force of 318 of his servants to defeat the pillagers and took back all of the wealth and people they plundered.  And Abram didn’t keep any of it, even though it was his right to keep all of it. Instead, he gave 10% to Melchizedek, a prophet of God who was king of Salem, a little up-and-coming town that would later be called Jerusalem, as an honoring gift, and returned the rest to the original owners.

And it’s after this that God appears and says to Abram “Fear not, I am your shield, your reward shall be very great.” This shows us that Abram was afraid.  And let’s be honest, logically we can see why Abram would be nervous. Yes, he had just defeated several kings in battle, but those kings still had armies, they had families, those families were connected, and they weren’t known for “live and let live.” With all of this swirling around in Abram’s head, God Himself comes to put him at ease. “Fear not, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”

And just as we often do when a concern is addressed, Abram felt free to bring up what was truly bothering him in verses 2-5:

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?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” 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.” 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.” 

And what was Abram’s response to this divine revelation in verse 6? “He believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”

Genesis 15:6, That verse, that one line captures the entirety of the Gospel. Abram believed God and was declared righteous, He believed, and by faith was made right with God, he was justified. This verse says that it was “counted to Him as righteousness.” “Counted” here is saying that righteousness was effectively put on His record. It’s describing a declaration that he has been personally credited righteousness. When Abram died and stood before the Lord his account showed “paid in full.” He was covered. But this righteousness had to come from somewhere. It couldn’t have come from Abram because if it did he wouldn’t have needed the credit in the first place. So this begs the question, how was he saved, and even more expansively, how were people in the Old Testament saved? 

The simple answer is that people in the Old Testament were saved exactly as people have always been saved, through faith in the person and works of Jesus Christ. He is the King, the only King who can cover the sins of His people. And here in Genesis 15 is a whisper, a quick foreshadowing, a call to the righteousness that Christ gives to all who respond to His Gospel in faith. Paul picks this up in Romans 4:13 “For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” 

Yes, Abram didn’t have a full understanding of God’s redemptive purposes at the point in time where he was. He wasn’t called to have a robust understanding of the Messiah and the works he would do, He was simply called to faith that God would come through on His promises! 

That’s the same faith all are called to even today. Abram’s was a forward-facing faith in the future work of God. Abram believed in God, and it was counted to him as righteousness. He was utterly covered by the coming King’s righteousness. Abram looked forward, and after Christ appeared we now look back to His work on our behalf. We are covered in the same blood that covered the sins of Abram and all who went before and after Him in faith. 

So we see that the King covers the sins of His people and clothes them in righteousness now and forever. But why? Why did he do it? How can we be sure that He will do it when we respond in faith? Well, that is seen in our next point detailing the covenant-making ceremony. We can be sure of salvation because the King Cuts.


God Cuts (Genesis 15:7-16)

Notice after God calmed Abram’s fear about having a true son and heir, he preemptively addressed another fear that Abram has yet to bring up. He tells him he will give Abram the land he promised. He says in verse 7 “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” And Abram responded, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” And what follows sounds strange to our ears, starting in verse 9 

9 The Lord 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.” 10 And 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. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. 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. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”

When God assured Abram that He would fulfill his promises he did more than promise. He made a covenant with Abram. After the ceremony, it says in verse 19 “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram” The Hebrew word translated covenant is “Berith.” This word comes from the root word Brit which means cut. It’s the source of the Hebrew word for circumcision. So it’s most accurate to say that God cut a covenant. He made a bond in blood.

And what happens in verses 12-16 was the standard covenant model of the day. The official name of this covenant model was called the suzerain-vassal treaty. In short, two parties would enter into a formal business or familial relationship with each other, there was always a greater party, usually a king, ruler, or man of great wealth, and the lesser party. This was often local leaders or non-land-owners promising to care for the king’s land as his vassals (or something along those lines).


We have copies of ancient covenants like this one in Genesis 15 and there are always several parts to a formal covenant:

1 – Identification of the Suzerain/King/Ruler/Greater party – “I am the Lord your God”

2 – The history between the Suzerain and the Vassal – “Who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land” 

3 – The Content of the Covenant  – verses 13-16 show the promise to give the land to Abram’s offspring after a predetermined period when the iniquity of the Amorites was complete. 

And then there comes the 4th part: 

4 – Divine Witness – Here’s where everything is different, normally people would call out a long list of gods to witness the treaty and confirm the intentions and so on. But here God is not a witness, He’s a party to the covenant. He initiated this covenant ceremony with Abram. 


“As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him.”

Dread. Horror. Fear. God was there, present, and as Abram was put into a sleep he experienced a fear unimaginable. This is pure conjecture on my part because the text doesn’t say it, but perhaps God is giving Abram a small glimpse of his holiness and wrath against sin. The darkness that comes from being in the presence of God without a mediator standing in the gap.

But what we do know is that this is not the only time someone connected to this covenant would experience this dreaded darkness. Christ would Himself cry out to the Lord on the Cross “My God, my God, Why have you forsaken me!” Yes Abram glimpsed a dreaded darkness, but God put Abram to sleep, he put Christ to death.

There would be no mediator for Jesus as he bore the penalty for sin. He experienced death, He experienced the consequences for all the sins of His people. and if you trust in Christ for your salvation He did it all, for you.

The King Covers His people with His righteousness, He does this because He cut a covenant and bound Himself to that promise, and we can rest assured because the King Completes it all.


God Completes (Genesis 15:17-21)

Now some of you may have noticed that there was a 5th and final aspect of a covenant ceremony that wasn’t explained in the previous section. The final part of a covenant ceremony was the section detailing the blessings and curses. This is different from the content of the covenant. This is the result of the covenant being kept or broken. The first unveiling of the blessing of this covenant is Abram’s descendants receiving and living in the Land. God reiterates this in verses 18-21

“18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give[c] this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”

But what about the curses for failing to keep the covenant? Well, the curse here is the animals cut by Abram. At a covenant ceremony, the animals were cut, they were divided making a pathway between the carcasses. And then after all the other ceremonial rites and promises were laid out, the two parties would walk through the pieces together showing their new bloody bond and commitment to each other. There’s nothing like this in our culture, the only image we really have is a marriage ceremony with the aisle of two sides participating in the covenant vows by being witnesses. But in the Ancient Near East, the parties agreed to be cut up in pieces if they didn’t keep their vows. Effectively they were saying “May I become like these pieces – May my body broken, my blood poured out.”

But when the time came to finalize this covenant, to walk through the pieces together, to promise to fulfill conditions and be faithful lest they become like the dead animals, where is Abram? Asleep in the corner. And what happens next is vital and necessary for our salvation: When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord cut a covenant with Abram.”

Do you see what’s happening here, do you understand what you just read? God Himself passed through the pieces. The firepot and torch image is a theophany, it’s a physical representation of God’s special presence, just like the burning bush. God Himself swore to uphold the covenant entirely on His own. He promised to bear any covenant curse that came from the breach of the covenant. God Took on the responsibility of everything. 

God walked through the pieces and made a vow! There is no name higher, no being more glorious, no object of value for God to swear by than Himself. God Bound Himself, To Himself, Through Himself to set apart a people made holy for His glory. 

Abram couldn’t keep the covenant; he couldn’t always be faithful to God. After this, we have many instances recorded of his failures. But he never broke the covenant because he didn’t pass through the pieces. He couldn’t keep it, we can’t keep it. But we don’t have to, it’s been kept for us by Christ. Abram couldn’t have fully grasped what God’s plan was, but he believed and trusted Him in faith. And around 2,000 years after Abram died, a King was born. A king whispered about from the days of Adam, Noah, and Abram

A King who being truly God passed through the pieces of the animal, promising to become like the carcasses and bear the curse of the covenant. The king came to fulfill a covenant that his subjects had no possible chance of keeping. The King who has bound us to Himself through the very blood he promised to shed at a covenant ceremony before Abram. Christ not only fulfilled the covenant, but he bore the covenant curse on our behalf. When Christ was dying and cried out “It is finished” “It” is the very covenant promise He made thousands of years earlier in the desert near Sodom and Gomorrah. He is the Lord of the Covenant and he completed everything He set out to do on the cross. Just like he promised


This was a guest post from David Chambers. David has been serving youth and families in the context of his local church for over 10 years. He is a proud husband to his wife Brittany and a proud father to his sons AJ and Jackson. David is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary, where he pursuing a Master of Divinity in hopes of pursuing ordination in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).


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