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God’s Covenant with Abram


After these things the word of the L ord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2But Abram said, “O Lord G od, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 4But the word of the L ord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 5He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6And he believed the L ord; and the L ord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

7 Then he said to him, “I am the L ord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” 8But he said, “O Lord G od, 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.” 10He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. 13Then the L ord said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed 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 ancestors 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.”

17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18On that day the L ord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants 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. The word of the Lord came. When Abram’s affairs were prosperous and were proceeding according to his wish, this vision might seem to be superfluous; especially since the Lord commands his servant, as one sorrowful and afflicted with fear, to be of good courage. Therefore certain writers conjecture, that Abram having returned after the deliverance of his nephew, was subjected to some annoyance of which no mention is made by Moses; just as the Lord often humbles his people, lest they should exult in their prosperity; and they further suppose that when Abram had been dejected he was again revived by a new oracle. But since there is no warrant for such conjecture in the words of Moses, I think the cause was different. First, although he was on all sides applauded, it is not to be doubted that various surmises entered into his own mind. For, not withstanding Chedorlaomer and his allies had been overcome in battle, yet Abram had so provoked them, that they might with fresh troops, and with renewed strength, again attack the land of Canaan. Nor were the inhabitants of the land free from the fear of this danger. Secondly, as signal success commonly draws its companion envy along with it, Abram began to be exposed to many disadvantageous remarks, after he had dared to enter into conflict with an army which had conquered four kings. An unfavourable suspicion might also arise, that perhaps, by and by, he would turn the strength which he had tried against foreign kings, upon his neighbors, and upon those who had hospitably received him. Therefore, as the victory was an honor to him, so it cannot be doubted, that it rendered him formidable and an object of suspicion to many, while it inflamed the hatred of others; since every one would imagine some danger to himself, from his bravery and good success. It is therefore not strange, that he should have been troubled, and should anxiously have revolved many things, until God animated him anew, by the confident expectation of his assistance. There might be also another end to be answered by the oracle; namely, that God would meet and correct a contrary fault in his servant. For it was possible that Abram might be so elated with victory as to forget his own calling, and to seek the acquisition of dominion for himself, as one who, wearied with a wandering course of life and with perpetual vexations, desired a better fortune, and a quiet state of existence. And we know how liable men are to be ensnared by the blandishments of prosperous and smiling fortune. Therefore God anticipates the danger; and before this vanity takes possession of the mind of the holy man, recalls to his memory the spiritual grace vouchsafed to him to the end that he, entirely acquiescing therein, may despise all other things. Yet because this expression, Fear not, sounds as if God would soothe his sorrowing and anxious servant with some consolation; it is probable that he had need of such confirmation, because he perceived that many malignantly stormed against his victory, and that his old age would be exposed to severe annoyances. It might however be, that God did not forbid him to fear, because he was already afraid; but that he might learn courageously to despise, and to account as nothing, all the favor of the world, and all earthly wealth; as if he had said, ‘If only I am propitious to thee, there is no reason why thou shouldst fear; contented with me alone in the world, pursue, as thou hast begun, thy pilgrimage; and rather depend on heaven, than attach thyself to earth.’ However this might be, God recalls his servant to himself, showing that far greater blessings were treasured up for him in God; in order that Abram might not rest satisfied with his victory. Moses says that God spoke to him in a vision, by which he intimates that some visible symbol of God’s glory was added to the word, in order that greater authority might be given to the oracle. And this was one of two ordinary methods by which the Lord was formerly wont to manifest himself to his prophets, as it is stated in the book of Numbers, (Genesis 12:6.)

Fear not , Abram. Although the promise comes last in the text, it yet has precedence in order; because on it depends the confirmation, by which God frees the heart of Abram from fear. God exhorts Abram to be of a tranquil mind; but what foundation is there for such security, unless by faith we understand that God cares for us, and learn to rest in his providence? The promise, therefore, that God will be Abram’s shield and his exceeding great reward, holds the first place; to which is added the exhortation, that, relying upon such a guardian of his safety, and such an author of his felicity, he should not fear. Therefore, to make the sense of the words more clear, the causal particle is to be inserted. ‘Fear not, Abram, because I am thy shield.’ Moreover, by the use of the word “shield,” he signifies that Abram would always be safe under his protection. In calling himself his “reward,” He teaches Abram to be satisfied with Himself alone. And as this was, with respect to Abram, a general instruction, given for the purpose of showing him that victory was not the chief and ultimate good which God had designed him to pursue; so let us know that the same blessing is promised to us all, in the person of this one man. For, by this voice, God daily speaks to his faithful ones; inasmuch as having once undertaken to defend us, he will take care to preserve us in safety under his hand, and to protect us by his power. Now since God ascribes to himself the office and property of a shield, for the purpose of rendering himself the protector of our salvation; we ought to regard this promise as a brazen wall, so that we should not be excessively fearful in any dangers. And since men, surrounded with various and innumerable desires of the flesh, are at times unstable, and are then too much addicted to the love of the present life; the other member of the sentence follows, in which God declares, that he alone is sufficient for the perfection of a happy life to the faithful. For the word “reward” has the force of inheritance, or felicity. Were it deeply engraven on our minds, that in God alone we have the highest and complete perfection of all good things; we should easily fix bounds to those wicked desires by which we are miserably tormented. The meaning then of the passage is this, that we shall be truly happy when God is propitious to us; for he not only pours upon us the abundance of his kindness, but offers himself to us, that we may enjoy him. Now what is there more, which men can desire, when they really enjoy God? David knew the force of this promise, when he boasted that he had obtained a goodly lot, because the Lord was his inheritance, (Psalm 16:6.) But since nothing is more difficult than to curb the depraved appetites of the flesh, and since the ingratitude of man is so vile and impious, that God scarcely ever satisfies them; the Lord calls himself not simply “a reward,” but an exceeding great reward, with which we ought to be more than sufficiently contented. This truly furnishes most abundant material, and most solid support, for confidence. For whosoever shall be fully persuaded that his life is protected by the hand of God, and that he never can be miserable while God is gracious to him; and who consequently resorts to this haven in all his cares and troubles, will find the best remedy for all evils. Not that the faithful can be entirely free from fear and care, as long as they are tossed by the tempests of contentions and of miseries; but because the storm is hushed in their own breast; and whereas the defense of God is greater than all dangers, so faith triumphs over fear.

2. And Abram said , Lord God. The Hebrew text has יחוה אדונת (Adonai Jehovah.) From which appellation it is inferred that some special mark of divine glory was stamped upon the vision; so that Abram, having no doubt respecting its author, confidently broke out in this expression. For since Satan is a wonderful adept at deceiving, and deludes men with so many wiles in the name of God, it was necessary that some sure and notable distinction should appear in true and heavenly oracles, which would not suffer the faith and the minds of the holy fathers to waver. Therefore in the vision of which mention is made, the majesty of the God of Abram was manifested, which would suffice for the confirmation of his faith. Not that God appeared as he really is, but only so far as he might be comprehended by the human mind. But Abram, in overlooking a promise so glorious, in complaining that he is childless, and in murmuring against God, for having hitherto given him no seed, seems to conduct himself with little modesty. What was more desirable than to be received under God’s protection, and to be happy in the enjoyment of Him? The objection, therefore, which Abram raised, when disparaging the incomparable benefit offered to him, and refusing to rest contented until he receives offspring, appears to be wanting in reverence. Yet the liberty which he took admits of excuse; first, because the Lord permits us to pour into his bosom those cares by which we are tormented, and those troubles with which we are oppressed. Secondly, the design of the complaint is to be considered; for he does not simply declare that he is solitary, but, seeing that the effect of all the promises depended upon his seed, he does, not improperly, require that a pledge so necessary should be given him. For if the benediction and salvation of the world was not to be hoped for except through his seed; when that principal point seemed to fail him, it is not to be wondered at, that other things should seem to vanish from his sight, or should at least not appease his mind, nor satisfy his wishes. And this is the very reason why God not only regards with favor the complaint of his servant, but immediately gives a propitious answer to his prayer. Moses indeed ascribes to Abram that affection which is naturally inherent in us all; but this is no proof that Abram did not look higher when he so earnestly desired to be the progenitor of an heir. And certainly these promises had not faded from his recollection; ‘To thy seed will I give this land,’ and ‘In thy seed shall all nations be blessed;’ the former of which promises is so annexed to all the rest, that if it be taken away, all confidence in them would perish; while the latter promise contains in it the whole gratuitous pledge of salvation. Therefore Abram rightly includes in it, every thing which God had promised.

I go childless. The language is metaphorical. We know that our life is like a race. Abram, seeing he was of advanced age, says that he has so far proceeded, that little of his course still remains. ‘Now,’ he says, ‘I am come near the goal; and the course of my life being finished, I shall die childless.’ He adds, for the sake of aggravating the indignity, ‘that a foreigner would be his heir.’ For I do not doubt that Damascus is the name of his country, and not the proper name of his mother, as some falsely suppose; as if he had said, ‘Not one of my own relatives will be my heir, but a Syrian from Damascus.’ For, perhaps, Abram had bought him in Mesopotamia. He also calls him the son of משק(mesek,) concerning the meaning of which word grammarians are not agreed. Some derive it from שקק (shakak,) which means to run to and fro, and translate it, steward or superintendent, because he who sustains the care of a large house, runs hither and thither in attending to his business. Others derive it from שוק (shook,) and render it cup-bearer, which seems to me incongruous. I rather adopt a different translation, namely, that he was called the son of the deserted house, (filius derelictionis370370     Et filius derelictionis domus meae erit iste Dammescenus Elihezer.” That is, according to the usual interpretation of the Hebrew phrase, the son or person to whom the house was left in charge by its master; though Calvin gives it a different turn. The various ancient versions, except the Syriac, agree in this interpretation. Dathe prefers the translation of Schultens, who refers the word to an Arabic root, שוק, which signifies to comb, to dress, or polish, and which he supposes may be applied generally to the care which a steward takes of everything in the house. But this is fanciful. — Ed ), because משק mashak sometimes signifies to leave. Yet I do not conceive him to be so called because Abram was about to leave all things to him; but because Abram himself had no hope left in any other. It is therefore (in my judgment) just as if he called him the son of a house destitute of children,371371     Acsi vocaret, Filium orbitatis.” — “Comme s’il l’appeloit, Fils de la maison, ou il n’y a point d’enfans.” — French Tr because this was a proof of a deserted and barren house, that the inheritance was devolving upon a foreigner who would occupy the empty and deserted place. He afterwards contemptuously calls him his servant, or his home-born slave, ‘the son of my house (he says) will be my heir.’ He thus speaks in contempt, as if he would say, ‘My condition is wretched, who shall not have even a freeman for my successor.’ It is however asked, how he could be both a Damascene and a home-born slave of Abram? There are two solutions of the difficulty, either that he was called the son of the house, not because he was born, but only because he was educated in it; or, that he sprang from Damascus, because his father was from Syria.

4. This shall not be thine heir. We hence infer that God had approved the wish of Abram. Whence also follows the other point, that Abram had not been impelled by any carnal affection to offer up this prayer, but by a pious and holy desire of enjoying the benediction promised to him. For God not only promises him a seed, but a great people, who in number should equal the stars of heaven. They who expound the passage allegorically; implying that a heavenly seed was promised him which might be compared with the stars, may enjoy their own opinion: but we maintain what is more solid; namely, that the faith of Abram was increased by the sight of the stars. For the Lord, in order more deeply to affect his own people, and more efficaciously to penetrate their minds, after he here reached their ears by his word, also arrests their eyes by external symbols, that eyes and ears may consent together. Therefore the sight of the stars was not superfluous; but God intended to strike the mind of Abram with this thought, ‘He who by his word alone suddenly produced a host so numerous by which he might adorn the previously vast and desolate heaven; shall not He be able to replenish my desolate house with offspring?’ It is, however, not necessary to imagine a nocturnal vision, because the stars, which, during the day, escape our sight, would then appear; for since the whole was transacted in vision, Abram had a wonderful scene set before him, which would manifestly reveal hidden things to him. Therefore though he perhaps might not move a step, it was yet possible for him in vision to be led forth out of his tent. The question now occurs, concerning what seed the promise is to be understood. And it is certain that neither the posterity of Ishmael nor of Esau is to be taken into this account, because the legitimate seed is to be reckoned by the promise, which God determined should remain in Isaac and Jacob; yet the same doubt arises respecting the posterity of Jacob, because many who could trace their descent from him, according to the flesh, cut themselves off, as degenerate sons and aliens, from the faith of their fathers. I answer, that this term seed is, indiscriminately, extended to the whole people whole God has adopted to himself. But since many were alienated by their unbelief, we must come for information to Christ, who alone distinguishes true and genuine sons from such as are illegitimate. By pursuing this method, we find the posterity of Abram reduced to a small numbers that afterwards it may be the more increased. For in Christ the Gentiles also are gathered together, and are by faith ingrafted into the body of Abram, so as to have a place among his legitimate sons. Concerning which point more will be said in the seventeenth chapter Genesis 17:1

6. And he believed in the Lord. None of us would be able to conceive the rich and hidden doctrine which this passage contains, unless Paul had borne his torch before us. (Romans 4:3.) But it is strange, and seems like a prodigy, that when the Spirit of God has kindled so great a light, yet the greater part of interpreters wander with closed eyes, as in the darkness of night. I omit the Jews, whose blindness is well known. But it is (as I have said) monstrous, that they who have had Paul as their luminous expositor; should so foolishly have depraved this place. However it hence appears, that in all ages, Satan has labored at nothing more assiduously than to extinguish, or to smother, the gratuitous justification of faith, which is here expressly asserted. The words of Moses are, “He believed in the Lord, and he counted it to him for righteousness.” In the first place, the faith of Abram is commended, because by it he embraced the promise of God; it is commended, in the second place, because hence Abram obtained righteousness in the sight of God, and that by imputation. For the word חשב (chashab,) which Moses uses, is to be understood as relating to the judgment of God, just as in Psalm 106:31, where the zeal of Phinehas is said to have been counted to him for righteousness. The meaning of the expression will, however, more fully appear by comparison with its opposites.372372     Melius ex antitheto patebit.” — “Toutefois on entendra mieux par l’antithese, c’est a dire, par ce qui est opposite, ce qu’ emporte ceci.” — French Tr In Leviticus 7:18, it is said that when expiation has been made, iniquity ‘shall not be imputed’ to a man. Again, in Leviticus 17:4, ‘Blood shall be imputed unto that man.’ So, in 2 Samuel 19:19, Shimei says, ‘Let not the king impute iniquity unto me.’ Nearly of the same import is the expression in 2 Kings 12:15, ‘They reckoned not with the man into whose hand they delivered the money for the work;’ that is, they required no account of the money, but suffered them to administer it, in perfect confidence. Let us now return to Moses. Just as we understand that they to whom iniquity is imputed are guilty before God; so those to whom he imputes righteousness are approved by him as just persons; wherefore Abram was received into the number and rank of just persons by the imputation of righteousness. For Paul, in order that he may show us distinctly the force and nature, or quality of this righteousness, leads us to the celestial tribunal of God. Therefore, they foolishly trifle who apply this term to his character as an honest man;373373     The French version is strongly expressed. “Et pourtant ceus — la gazouillent bien sottement, qui tirent ceci au bruit et renom de preud’hommie.” Especially do they chatter foolishly enough, who draw this aside to the fame and renown of honesty. — French Tr. as if it meant that Abram was personally held to be a just and righteous man. They also, no less unskilfully, corrupt the text, who say that Abram is here ascribing to God the glory of righteousness seeing that he ventures to acquiesce surely in His promises, acknowledging Him to be faithful and true; for although Moses does not expressly mention the name of God, yet the accustomed method of speaking in the Scriptures removes all ambiguity. Lastly, it is not less the part of stupor than of impudence, when this faith is said to have been imputed to him for righteousness, to mingle with it some other meaning, than that the faith of Abram was accepted in the place of righteousness with God.

It seems, however, to be absurd, that Abram should be justified by believing that his seed would be as numerous as the stars of heaven; for this could be nothing but a particular faith, which would by no means suffice for the complete righteousness of man. Besides, what could an earthly and temporal promise avail for eternal salvation? I answer, first, that the believing of which Moses speaks, is not to be restricted to a single clause of the promise here referred to, but embraces the whole; secondly that Abram did not form his estimate of the promised seed from this oracle alone, but also from others, where a special benediction is added. Whence we infer that he did not expect some common or undefined seed, but that in which the world was to be blessed. Should any one pertinaciously insist, that what is said in common of all the children of Abram, is forcibly distorted when applied to Christ; in the first place, it cannot be denied that God now again repeats the promise before made to his servant, for the purpose of answering his complaint. But we have said — and the thing itself clearly proves — that Abram was impelled thus greatly to desire seed, by a regard to the promised benediction. Whence it follows, that this promise was not taken by him separately from others. But to pass all this over; we must, I say, consider what is here treated of, in order to form a judgment of the faith of Abram. God does not promise to his servant this or the other thing only, as he sometimes grants special benefits to unbelievers, who are without the taste of his paternal love; but he declares, that He will be propitious to him, and confirms him in the confidence of safety, by relying upon His protection and His grace. For he who has God for his inheritance does not exult in fading joy; but, as one already elevated towards heaven, enjoys the solid happiness of eternal life. It is, indeed, to be maintained as an axiom, that all the promises of God, made to the faithful, flow from the free mercy of God, and are evidences of that paternal love, and of that gratuitous adoption, on which their salvation is founded. Therefore, we do not say that Abram was justified because he laid hold on a single word, respecting the offspring to be brought forth, but because he embraced God as his Father. And truly faith does not justify us for any other reason, than that it reconciles us unto God; and that it does so, not by its own merit; but because we receive the grace offered to us in the promises, and have no doubt of eternal life, being fully persuaded that we are loved by God as sons. Therefore, Paul reasons from contraries, that he to whom faith is imputed for righteousness, has not been justified by works. (Romans 4:4.) For whosoever obtains righteousness by works, his merits come into the account before God. But we apprehend righteousness by faith, when God freely reconciles us to himself. Whence it follows, that the merit of works ceases when righteousness is sought by faith; for it is necessary that this righteousness should be freely given by God, and offered in his word, in order that any one may possess it by faith. To render this more intelligible, when Moses says that faith was imputed to Abram for righteousness, he does not mean that faith was that first cause of righteousness which is called the efficient, but only the formal cause; as if he had said, that Abram was therefore justified, because, relying on the paternal loving-kindness of God, he trusted to His mere goodness, and not to himself, nor to his own merits. For it is especially to be observed, that faith borrows a righteousness elsewhere, of which we, in ourselves, are destitute; otherwise it would be in vain for Paul to set faith in opposition to works, when speaking of the mode of obtaining righteousness. Besides, the mutual relation between the free promise and faith, leaves no doubt upon the subject.

We must now notice the circumstance of time. Abram was justified by faith many years after he had been called by God; after he had left his country a voluntary exile, rendering himself a remarkable example of patience and of continence; after he had entirely dedicated himself to sanctity and after he had, by exercising himself in the spiritual and external service of God, aspired to a life almost angelical. It therefore follows, that even to the end of life, we are led towards the eternal kingdom of God by the righteousness of faith. On which point many are too grossly deceived. For they grant, indeed, that the righteousness which is freely bestowed upon sinners and offered to the unworthy is received by faith alone; but they restrict this to a moment of time, so that he who at the first obtained justification by faith, may afterwards be justified by good works. By this method, faith is nothing else than the beginning of righteousness, whereas righteousness itself consists in a continual course of works. But they who thus trifle must be altogether insane. For if the angelical uprightness of Abram faithfully cultivated through so many years, in one uniform course, did not prevent him from fleeing tofaith, for the sake of obtaining righteousness; where upon earth besides will such perfection be found, as may stand in God’s sight? Therefore, by a consideration of the time in which this was said to Abram,374374     Ergo ex ratione temporis certo colligimus.” — “Nous recueillons donc pour certain, selon la raison du temps auquel ceci fut dit a Abram.” — French Tr we certainly gather, that the righteousness of works is not to be substituted for the righteousness of faith, in any such way, that one should perfect what the other has begun; but that holy men are only justified by faith, as long as they live in the world. If any one object, that Abram previously believed God, when he followed Him at His call, and committed himself to His direction and guardianship, the solution is ready; that we are not here told when Abram first began to be justified, or to believe in God; but that in this one place it is declared, or related, how he had been justified through his whole life. For if Moses had spoken thus immediately on Abram’s first vocation, the cavil of which I have spoken would have been more specious; namely, that the righteousness of faith was only initial (so to speak) and not perpetual. But now since after such great progress, he is still said to be justified by faith, it thence easily appears that the saints are justified freely even unto death. I confess, indeed, that after the faithful are born again by the Spirit of God, the method of justifying differs, in some respect, from the former. For God reconciles to himself those who are born only of the flesh, and who are destitute of all good; and since he finds nothing in them except a dreadful mass of evils, he counts them just, by imputation. But those to whom he has imparted the Spirit of holiness and righteousness, he embraces with his gifts. Nevertheless, in order that their good works may please God, it is necessary that these works themselves should be justified by gratuitous imputation; but some evil is always inherent in them. Meanwhile, however, this is a settled point, that men are justified before God by believing not by working; while they obtain grace by faith, because they are unable to deserve a reward by works. Paul also, in hence contending, that Abram did not merit by works the righteousness which he had received before his circumcision, does not impugn the above doctrine. The argument of Paul is of this kind: The circumcision of Abram was posterior to his justification in the order of time, and therefore could not be its cause, for of necessity the cause precedes its effect. I also grant, that Paul, for this reason, contends that works are not meritorious, except under the covenant of the law, of which covenant, circumcision is put as the earnest and the symbol. But since Paul is not here defining the force and nature of circumcision, regarded as a pure and genuine institution of God, but is rather disputing on the sense attached to it, by those with whom he deals, he therefore does not allude to the covenant which God before had made with Abram, because the mention of it was unnecessary for the present purpose. Both arguments are therefore of force; first, that the righteousness of Abram cannot be ascribed to the covenant of the law, because it preceded his circumcision; and, secondly, that the righteousness even of the most perfect characters perpetually consists in faith; since Abram, with all the excellency of his virtues, after his daily and even remarkable service of God, was, nevertheless, justified by faith. For this also is, in the last place, worthy of observation, that what is here related concerning one man, is applicable to all the sons of God. For since he was called the father of the faithful, not without reason; and since further, there is but one method of obtaining salvation; Paul properly teaches, that a real and not personal righteousness is in this place described.

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