{4}         God’s covenant confirmed (Gen 15—16)


Part H. Abram’s Migration to Canaan (12:1—16:16)

H5.   Confirmation of the covenant (15:1–21)

·         Abram received righteousness through faith (v.6). A divine oath and the rite of covenant (slaughtering of animals with God’s presence) confirmed the promises.

·         This was the deeply mystical passage describing the fearful moment when God passed through the sacrifice and confirmed the covenant with His presence (v.17).

·         God also revealed the historical context in which the promise would be fulfilled—through the exodus and conquest (v.13–16).

H6.   Birth of Ishmael (16:1–16)

·         The childless Sarai used her own design by asking her maidservant Hagar to provide Abram with a child. Abram and Sarai were repeating Eden’s sin of doubting the word of God.

·         After Hagar became pregnant, a rivalry between Sarai and Hagar intensified, ending with the escape of Hagar. However, she was commanded by God to return and later gave birth to Ishmael.



15:1     After this (things): This phrase introduces a new episode (also Gen 22:1; 39:7; 40:1; 48:1; and many other places in the OT).

vision: Visions and dreams were common modes of revelatory speech to the patriarchs. Sometimes a theophany (appearance of God) occurred as a physical phenomenon such as a thunderstorm (Ex 19; Hab 3:8) or human form (Gen 18:1–2; 28:13; 35:24,30).

Do not be afraid: Perhaps Abram feared revenge from the kings he had just defeated.

shield: protection; God promised to give him physical protection from harm.

15:3     so a servant in my household will be my heir: Since Abram had no child, he was thinking about designating the servant Eliezer of Damascus as his heir. Childlessness was usually interpreted as divine punishment. The name of Abraham’s servant is mentioned only here in the Bible; some suggest that the servant who went to Haran to seek for Isaac’s wife was Eliezer.

15:4     a son coming from your own body: God told Abram to wait for the birth of his own child. But God did not specify here whether the son would be from his wife Sarai. Therefore, the offer of Hagar after waiting some time seemed to comply with the vision.

15:5     count the stars: The star metaphor occurred again for Abram at Moriah (Gen 22:17) and for Isaac at Gerar (Gen 26:4).

15:6     Abram believed the LORD: Abram entrusted his future to what God would do for him as opposed to what he could do for himself to obtain the promises.

credited it to him as righteousness: God assigned Abram’s faith the value of righteousness—right standing with God, acceptance by God. Note that righteousness came by a faith response, not by works.

15:7     I am: The confirmation of the covenant consists of 4 divine speeches. The divine self-identification “I am” was also used for Moses (Ex 20:2). Jesus often used “I am” to indirectly identify Himself with God.

brought you out: For emphasis, the Hebrew verb (yasa) occurs twice earlier in “coming” (v.4 yese) and “took him outside” (v.5 yose). Just as God had faithfully brought Abram to Canaan, He would also satisfy the promise of descendants.

15:8     how can I know: Abram asked God for confirmation of the land promise.

15:9     Bring me a heifer: The 5 animals requested for the ritual slaughter were different from those prescribed for Israel’s sacrificial rituals. Heifer, goat, and ram were used in sacrifices but Israel’s practice was to use 1-year olds “without defect” but they were 3-year olds here. Turtledove and young pigeon were not for later sacrifices.

15:10   arranged the halves: Abram arranged the parts facing one another forming a passageway between the pieces, except for the birds which were probably too small to divide.

15:11   birds of prey: They were unclean and were a threat to the slaughtered animals. If they touched the animals, the sacrifice would be unclean and improper. Some interpret this allegorically to signify the nation of Israel would be under oppression but would be protected by God, as symbolized by Abram’s driving them away.

15:12   a deep sleep: a trance or daydream state that is not totally unconscious; the word is the same for the slumber of Adam at Gen 2:21.

thick and dreadful darkness: It associated with the gloomy forecast of enslavement for Abram’s descendants.

15:13   Know for certain: a response to Abram’s earlier question of “how can I know?” This verse also prophesied the alien status of his descendants who would experience a 400-year servitude in a foreign land.

15:14   I will punish: God’s retribution would be against the nation for its mistreatment of Abram’s descendants. No only would they be freed but they would be enriched with “with great possessions”.

15:15   buried at a good old age: This verse reverts from his descendants back to Abram and prophesied that he would died in old age. In fact, the 3 patriarchs all died in old age and in prosperity.

15:16   fourth generation: Hebrew word for “generation” (dor) denotes a span of time but not necessarily a fixed number of years. Since v.13 refers to 400 years, one generation might be equivalent to 100 years. Further, Abram’s first-generation (Isaac) was born after 100 years (Gen 21:5).

the sin of the Amorites: Amorites in OT fluctuates in meaning, either referring to all of Canaan’s population (Am 2:10) or to a specific group. Their sins were condemned in Mosaic Law (Lev 18:24–25; 20:22–24; Dt 18:12; 1Ki 14:24; 21:26; 2Ki 21:11)—because of much violence and sexual sins in their religious rites. The delay by God to punish them showed divine forebearance. Retribution against their sins only at “its full measure” demonstrated that divine judgment is neither impulsive nor unwarranted.

15:17   a smoking firepot with a blazing torch: “Firepot” was the oven/furnace for baking bread and roasting grain for sacrifice (Lev 2:14; 7:9). The metaphorical use of furnace depicts divine judgment against Israel’s enemies (Isa 31:9; Ps 21:9). “Smoke” functions as a veil, and may also signify God’s wrath (2Sa 22:9). “Torch” in prophetic books depicts the awesome and eerie presence of God (Dan 10:6) and pictures destruction (Zec 12:6).

God’s appearance at Sinai (Ex 19:18) was accompanied by 4 elements: smoke, furnace, fire, and lightning. Here they represented God, the appearance corresponding to the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire in the exodus (Ex 13:21–22).

passed between the pieces: It was a visible sign that God made the commitment to fulfil the covenant. Since Abram did not walk through the pieces, he was not obligated to realize the covenant. It was God who confirmed His agreement to fulfil His promises.

15:18   To your descendants I give this land: the dual promise of descendants and land.

from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates: Two rivers form the southwestern and northeastern boundaries. The “river of Egypt” occurs only once in OT. It is not the expected designation for the Nile and likely refers to the wadi of Egypt (the lowland of the most eastern arm of the Nile delta)—the familiar landmark for Canaan’s southwestern border (Jos 15:4,47). Similarly, the northeastern border is marked with the western wadi of the Euphrates River.

15:19   the land of the Kenites: The 10 groups enumerated here may symbolize completeness, thus representing the entire occupants in Canaan.

16:1     an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar: Maidservant was not a common slave but the personal servant of the mistress of the house. She could have been a gift from Pharaoh during the Egyptian sojourn.

The 2 women, Sarai and Hagar, are contrasted in the whole passage. Sarai was the prestigious wife; Hagar was the subordinate maidservant. Sarai was old, free, and barren; Hagar was young, in bondage, and fertile. The struggle between the 2 women typifies the future struggle between the 2 nations.

16:2     kept me from having children: Sarai complained that her barrenness was an act of God. She believed that children were possible only through someone else.

build a family: Hebrew idiom for establishing a physical progeny (Ru 4:11).

Abram agreed: Abram’s misguided compliance is cast in the same words as Adam’s obedience to his wife (Gen 3:17). That Sarai “took” Hagar and “gave” her “to her husband” portrays Sarai as another Eve.

16:3     living in Canaan ten years: The ancient custom was that if the wife could not produce children, the husband might marry another; perhaps the offer of a substitute stopped the acquisition of a second wife. That barrenness was a ground for a divorce after a 10-year period is a rabbinic explanation for Sarai’s action.

Concubinage involved a husband who added secondary wives, usually for the purpose of procreation. Concubines held an inferior status to the primary wife but above the status of a slave. Multiple wives were wrong according to God’s will (Gen 2:24) and posed a threat to the stability of a family which is sadly illustrated by the strife in Abram’s house.

16:4     despise her mistress: “Despise” means to consider someone lightly.

16:5     You are responsible for the wrong: Sarai’s complaint was a blame on Abram but she was the one who gave Hagar to Abram. The Hebrew word for “wrong” could mean lying, betrayal, even physical violence.

16:6     whatever you think best: “best” means “the good (way)”. Abram did not give permission to Sarai to do whatever she was pleased; rather, Abram directed his wife to treat Hagar in the right way.

mistreated Hagar: The word is related to subjugation, oppression, even despair. This is improper behaviour.

16:7     angel of the LORD: This is the first reference for “the angel of the Lord”. It occurs 48 times in OT and 6 times in Genesis (Gen 16:7,9,10,11; 22:11,15). The angel is equated with God in some texts (theophany). In other places, the solitary term “angel” (without “of the Lord”) has a similar meaning. Traditionally, Christian interpreters ascribed the angel to the preincarnate divine Son of God (Christophany).

the road to Shur: Shur was the southern region in northwest Sinai as Hagar apparently planned to return to Egypt.

16:9     submit to her: The angel instructed Hagar to return to Abram and submit to Sarai, literally “humble yourself under her hand”, in correspondence to Abram’s word “hands” in v.6. “Humble” is the term describing Sarai’s oppression of Hagar that led to her flight. The angel in effect was instructing Hagar to return to the oppressive life. The motivation for her return was the grand future of innumerable descendants.

16:11   name him Ishmael: Ishmael means God hears. The gender of the child, though unknown to everyone, was announced here.

16:12   wild donkey of a man: This verse describes Hagar’s child by 4 characteristics: (1) “wild donkey of a man” indicates a lifestyle outside accepted social conventions, anticipating his desert residence. (2) His independence is described further by his hostile behaviour toward “everyone”. (3) The response of this is that “everyone’s hand against him”. (4) The extent of his violence is “toward all his brothers”, hence breaking the bonds of family loyalty. The fulfilment occurs in Gen 25:18. In all, Ishmael was prophesied to be an antagonist whose hostilities were indiscriminate and without restraint.

16:13   the LORD who spoke to her: the angel was God Himself.

the God who sees me: Hebrew words are “You are El-roi.” Perhaps “a God of seeing” (ESV) is a better translation.

16:14   Beer Lahai Roi: meaning “the well of the Living (One) who sees me”.



·         God’s promise of land would only be realized 400 later. One reason for this delay was God’s forbearance of the sin of Canaanites. God gave them a very long time to change their wicked ways but at the same time, He already knew that they would not change. When the Israelites conquered Canaan, the Canaanites would be punished as their sin would have reached “full measure”.

·         After Abram and Sarai waited for 10 years to have a child, they finally took the matter into their hands by having Hagar as a substitue wife. Their lack of faith brought disaster to the family. Even today, the Israelites are bearing the burden of this poor decision as the descendants of Ishmael (the Arabs) still try to destroy Israel.

·         The rabbinic explanation for the involvement of Hagar was that the ancient custom set a 10-year waiting period to have a child before the husband was allowed to have a divorce or a concubine. It is unwise to set a timetable for God. God will fulfil His promise in His own time.

·         Although Sarai initiated the involvement of Hagar, she blamed Abram for the results. It is often easier to blame someone else for a mistake than to admit an error and ask forgiveness. Just like Adam and Eve blamed someone else.