Genesis 15: 'The word of the LORD came ...'

Not open for further replies.

a mere housewife

Not your cup of tea
Does anyone have thoughts on the significance of this formula used twice in vs. 1-6? Robert Alter points out that patriarchal dialogue with God is usually introduced differently: this is a more prophetic formula. When I read over it not realising it was anomalous, I was simply struck by the way the section opened with the word of the LORD, and closed with faith in that word as righteousness. I thought the structure was throwing emphasis on these things in a particular way. Does the unusualness of the formula serve just to emphasise the word more, or is it linked to Abraham's prophetic office in some way that distinguishes this from other communications with God (even with Noah, there is a more simple, conversational style)?

-- Something else quite striking in the notes on this chapter (Ruben bought me Alter's 'Books of Moses': it's not a sole reliable translation but I think his literary insight is richly wonderful) is the light in darkness motif, and the bringing 'out of' motif: ie, in the first section God draws Abraham outside; in the second God identifies as the LORD who brought him out of Ur (which will change later into 'out of Egypt'). In the first section there is darkness lit by innumerable stars, associated with the promise of seed. In the second, there is a far more profound darkness, with all available light concentrated in that lone smoking torch passing through the pieces of the animal: the light of God making his covenant. So these two sections are linked in various ways, but not in the way that God speaks ... it raises questions.


Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
I think the second "word of the Lord came" implies a follow-up declaration. The first declaration has a form that reminds me of others like Gen.26:24, again with "do not fear." In Isaac's case, he simply builds an altar in response. Abraham answers the Lord, and asks him for a sign. He indicates that his faith feels weak, and he desires more to be said, a token given.

His request is answered with a subsequent "word of the Lord." How much time elapses between the two statements is left opaque; but I believe we are to take the fact that the formula is restated as indicating--this is specifically connected to Abraham's petition. It is not "the rest of what God already began to say."

Abraham's story is presented in such a way that it should be read on two "levels," or perhaps better put: at two "speeds." These are not two different stories, but one way "unpacks" the chronology, and stretches it out over the 40yrs (or so) that comprise the years from arrival in Canaan to the Binding of Isaac. The other way accepts the story as one connected, fast-moving narrative, meant to be taken up in one sitting (so to speak), Gen.12-22.

Under the second (fast) reading, it may be clearer to see the ties between chs.12 & 15 & 17; ch.22 is not to be left off. Ch.12 contains the original promissory declaration, the covenant inception. Ch.15 contains the formal enactment of covenant-oath taking (see Heb.6:13-18), for supplying Abraham with added assurance for the promise. Ch.17 is the granting of the covenant-sign, which again is for supplying assurance, and formalizing covenant succession.

Promise, ceremony, sign. "I want to marry you and never leave you." Wedding bells. Ring.

a mere housewife

Not your cup of tea
Thank you Rev. Buchanan. I always appreciate your answers and they give me something good to think about.

But how would all this relate specifically to the rather unusual prophetic formulation just here in this first section (1-6) to introduce God's speech? Ie, Genesis 26:24 falls into the more usual pattern in these narratives where God speaks simply, as he does again in v. 7 of this chapter. Why is there this 'The word of the LORD came' formula *here* rather than the more simple conversational introduction to God's interactions in Genesis up to this point (and consistently again after, if I'm using Blue Letter Bible's study tools right? -- which I may not be ...). Is that related in some way to Abraham's significant response of faith and associated righteousness? Is it related in a special way to his being a prophet -- in a way that is more unique than other revelations? It sticks out, so I can't help thinking we're supposed to notice it and think something special is happening in this particular section?

a mere housewife

Not your cup of tea
(Just worked up nerve to add that my thought -- which may be quite wild -- is that 'the word of the LORD' occurrence here is not just associated with faith and righteousness but with a high point in Abraham's experience around the appearance of Melchizedek: the content of what God says is very related to that whole incident. It seems maybe like priestly, kingly, prophetic ministries are playing in fuller shafts of light around this passage ... ?)


Puritan Board Freshman
Why is there this 'The word of the LORD came' formula *here* rather than the more simple conversational introduction to God's interactions in Genesis up to this point (and consistently again after, if I'm using Blue Letter Bible's study tools right? -- which I may not be ...).
The English phrase "The word of the LORD came" occurs 92 times in the KJV according to BlueLetterBible (which I use all the time). If you look through the list you will also see Solomon.

I tried looking up what Robert Alter said about Gen. 15:1-6 but the preview in Google books stopped with chapter 14. But I am wondering something about Gen. 15:1-6. You have mentioned speaking phrasing of God speaking to Abraham, and the stars in the sky as a theme of light vs. dark. Does Alter point first to,

Gen. 15:5 (ESV) 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.”​

The stars being an example of something innumerable seems to be the primary meaning of the wording. And this promise to a man of old age! I don't recognize something here saying that these stars are light coming out of darkness. There are plenty of other places in the Bible which speak directly about the conditions lost sinners are taken out of.

You can ignore me if you already know the following.

And what about, Abraham believed God and God counted in to him as righteousness? This is repeated in the New Testament so there is something significant here.

God made Abraham a promise in Gen. 12.

Gen. 12:1-3 (ESV) Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."​

In chapter 15 Abraham has no offspring yet, so reminds God of His promise.

Gen. 15:2-3 (ESV) 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."​

God reconfirms His promise.

Gen. 15:4-5 (ESV) 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 something very specific is said about Abraham's response to God's promise.

Gen. 15:6 (ESV) And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.​

This statement is noteworthy enough that it is repeated in the New Testament. Paul even gives a fuller explanation of it in Romans chapter 4. Specifically,

Rom. 4:20-21 (ESV) No unbelief made him [Abraham] waiver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.​

One more thing you mentioned to tie in before summarizing.

that lone smoking torch passing through the pieces of the animal
What was the purpose of this passing between cut animals? It was one means whereby a covenant was ratified or put into effect. God could simply have made promises to men, but He chose several places where He made covenants with men. The significance about covenants is that they are binding promises. It is a more fuller demonstration to convince men that God is faithful to keep His promises. This idea is explicitly stated throughout the Bible. For example,

Deut. 7:9 (ESV) Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations,​

Dan. 9:4 (ESV) I prayed to the LORD my God and made confession, saying, "O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments,

1 Thes. 5:24 (ESV) He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.

Heb. 11:11 (ESV) By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.​

To tie these pieces together. "Abraham believed God" is Abraham believing that when God made him a promise, he believed God is faithful to keep His promises, and he believed God has the ability or power to keep His promises. He was "fully convinced" of this. The following chapters in Genesis show the ups and down of how much or little Abraham, and Sarah, believed this, finally until Isaac was conceived, and later when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. The book of Hebrews is a divinely inspired commentary of this latter event.

Heb. 11:17-19 (ESV) By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, "Through Isaac shall your offspring be named." He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.​

Notice it does not say Abraham started doubting that God was faithful to keep His promise which He had established and reaffirmed. But with that promise fully in mind, and believing that God was faithful to keep His promises and had the power to keep His promise, Abraham reasoned that God would have to fulfill His promise by raising Isaac from the dead. It was all about being "fully convinced" that God has the power to keep His promises and is faithful to keep His promises.

(Sorry about going on to such length. It is just rare that I have heard or read anyone who has ever mentioned this.)


Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
It is to be observed that Gen.15 is the first time in Scripture for this formula, "The word of the Lord."

The next portion of Scripture where these words (and similar expressions) is in Exodus, immediately in ch.4 where Moses rehearses what the Lord had spoken to him, and 2vv later when Aaron rehearses the same to the nation. As if to deliberately connect the prophetic word to the Lord, Ex.8:13 reads, "The Lord did according to the word of Moses;" followed by 9:20-21, where is contrasted those who feared the word of the Lord, and those who did not. Chs. 19 & 24, bracketing the Decalogue and the Book of the Covenant, and emphasizing the mediatorship of Moses contain the next references.

My takeaway is: this is language especially calling to mind the prophetic office. The formula (and similar) is repeatedly in the OT set together with a particular prophet; and when it is not, we should assume an unnamed prophet. The Gen.15 passage is recognizing--not on the first occasion (any time God speaks it is a prophetic moment), but formally, in light of what follows--that this passage is as significant as the institution of the Law, only with Abraham as prophet.

[For additional formality, consider the expression "enquire of the Lord," e.g. Rebekah in Gen.25:22; cf. Ex.18:15, "And Moses said unto his father in law, Because the people come unto me to enquire of God."]​

I do believe the previous passage (introducing Melchizedek) can be seen in a relation with this portion. But perhaps in a somewhat different way from what you may be thinking. On one hand, with Abraham as prophet you have all three mediatorial offices revealed in close proximity: Melchizedek is priest-king of Salem, 14:18; Abraham is the prophet. Perhaps most significantly, Abraham gives the wicked king of Sodom a holy witness and word of warning.

We know that Lot was a witness (albeit a poor one, 2Pet.7:8); but by Abraham was delivered to Sodom a form of rebuke with a contrast--in the respect he paid to Melchizedek. That place and its leadership was given an unmistakable warning of the judgment of God against them. They had been delivered this time, but not for their sake. I think it is meaningful, that the fire fell from heaven (as before when the flood came) only after the preacher delivered a wake-up call. Offer of mercy, room to repent; then judgment--a biblical pattern.

So, that ends up as the immediate backdrop to ch.15, to the righteousness of faith, in the context of the formalization of the promise by covenant-ritual.
Not open for further replies.