Standing on the Promises
Once again, the promises God made to Abraham are about to be expanded. This is a frequent pattern in Genesis—promise or covenant followed by expansion.
The events narrated here occurred some years after Abraham had come out of Haran and into Canaan in obedience to God’s call. He had as yet no child, neither by Sarah nor by any other woman. Here he was an old man, years after God’s promise was first given, and there was no sign of the fulfillment of that promise. But, as Paul wrote in the book of Romans, speaking of Abraham when he was even quite a bit older and at an age when he would be unexpected to be able to father children, “Not being weak in faith, he did not consider his own body, already dead” (Romans 4:19 Romans 4:19And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sarah's womb:
American King James Version×). Abram had confidence that God would fulfill His word. For he walked by faith, not by sight. Nevertheless, the wait was difficult.
When God appeared to Abram in a vision and assured him of protection and reward, Abram reminded God that he had as yet no child, and that according to custom Abram’s steward, Eliezer, would become his heir. God then took Abram outside into the night and showed him the stars, saying: “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them…. So shall your descendants be” (Genesis 15:5 Genesis 15:5And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if you be able to number them: and he said to him, So shall your seed be.
American King James Version×). The magnitude of this promise can often be lost on us in our modern world, for man has so fouled the air with pollution and has so obscured the starry brilliance of the heavens with our city lights that the number of stars we can behold on any given night is often a paltry few. But go out into the desert, or up on a mountain, on a clear night and, with this scripture in mind, you will be astounded by what you behold. Imagine, then, how Abram felt. Though awestruck, no doubt, “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (verse 6, NIV).
Supplementary Reading: “Profiles of Faith: Abraham--God’s Friend,” The Good News, Jan.–Feb. 1996.
Slavery and the Promise of Deliverance
God promised multitudinous descendants to Abram, but He also promised that they would be enslaved for a period of time before being delivered with great wealth. The period of 400 years mentioned in verse 13 is not the period of their slavery. Biblical chronology indicates that Israel was enslaved for just over 200 years. The 400 years appear to date from Abraham’s death to Israel’s possession of the Promised Land (though there are other possibilities).
But why was there to be a delay in Israel’s possessing the land and servitude to a foreign nation? One reason is expressly stated. God says that the iniquity of the Amorites, who dwelt in Canaan, was not yet full—meaning that God was extending mercy to them, allowing them time to repent. God deals justly with all people, and He often delays punishment until the situation shows no hope of betterment. But another reason for the delay and servitude was probably to condition Israel. If Israel had developed in the land, unmolested, they may have acquired a general disposition of rejecting any dealings with God whatsoever—“Who needs God if everything is fine,” human reasoning says. But by allowing Israel to be enslaved, they would be humbled and willing to listen. Though they ultimately displeased God by rebelling against Him, they undoubtedly went further in serving Him than they otherwise would have. As God told Paul, in weakness we can be made strong (2 Corinthians 12:9 2 Corinthians 12:9And he said to me, My grace is sufficient for you: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest on me.
American King James Version×; compare Hebrews 11:34 Hebrews 11:34Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.
American King James Version×). Additionally, if Israel would be taken out of slavery and made great, the credit for the greatness would more obviously be God’s.