Men Who Slept
“Men who Slept:” These articles by the Editor of The Believers’ Magazine are instructive and interesting. They also are full of weighty words of counsel.
It should be noted that “the father of the faithful,” in the incident before us is still called Abram, for it was not until after the covenant described in chapter 15 of Genesis that the divine announcement was made, “As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram; but thy name shall be Abraham … and I will establish my covenant between Me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant” (Gen. 17:4-7). That covenant has not been abrogated, and its terms will stand, that the land of Canaan (Israel) will be for an everlasting possession, and Jehovah has pledged Himself in these words, “I will be their God” (17:8). The making of that covenant was the climax of Abraham’s experiences, “When the sun was going down, and a deep sleep fell upon him” (Gen. 15:21).
His ordinary business life as a farmer had been gloriously interrupted by the divine command to leave his idolatrous associations in Ur of the Chaldees, and, with his family, travel towards an undisclosed destination. That departure is honoured in the Epistle to the Hebrews as an act of faith, and so it was, for it was confidence in God put into operation. By providential guidance he had ultimately reached “The Promised Land” of Canaan, and had been given the assurance, couched in the barest of language. “Unto thy seed will I give this land” (Gen. 12:7). Because of a famine which menaced both his family and his flocks, he had gone south into Egypt, “to sojourn there,” only to sojourn, for his intention was to return to Canaan where more inviting conditions prevailed. During his sojourn in Egypt Abraham increased in wealth, for he was “very rich in cattle, in silver and in gold,” having “sheep, and oxen, and he asses, and menservants and maidservants, and she asses and camels” (13:2; 12:16).
On his return from Egypt he had separated from Lot, his nephew and dwelt in the plain of Mamre, while Lot had chosen the more attractive pastures near the wicked city of Sodom. It was while he dwelt in Mamre that Abraham had to sally forth to rescue Lot from the hands of his captors, and it was then that he had refused the tempting offer from the king of Sodom, and had been succoured and strengthened by Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of the most High God (Gen. 14:17-20).
It is against that historical background that chapter 15 opens with these words, as introductory to the covenant making scene which follows, “After these things the word of the Lord came unto Abraham in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abraham I am thy shield and thy exceeding great reward” (v. 1). That promise of protection and provision was made “in a vision” a condition which is to be distinguished from the “deep sleep” which is described later in the narrative. The chapter deals with the covenant which Jehovah made while Abraham slept in complete detachment from the material world around him. Notice,
1. Abraham’s concern, as disclosed in the conversation between the patriarch and the Lord God. Abraham had cherished the promise previously given, and his puzzlement about its fulfilment is expressed in his query, “What wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless?” He could have no heir if he had no offspring. The answer to his dilemma was a practical one, for Jehovah “brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be.”
The confirmation of the covenant in the rite which followed was the divine answer to Abraham’s faith, just as the opening words of the chapter were the answer to his refusal to be enriched by the king of Sodom. It is written that Abraham “believed in the Lord; and He counted it to him for righteousness (v. 6). God accepted the patriarch in His favour and confidence because the patriarch had believed the promise of an innumerable seed when as yet there did not seem to be any human possibility of offspring. That was faith which was confirmed in the covenant rite during the enactment of which Abraham was in a deep sleep.
IL The Co-operation between God and Abraham in the ritual of the making of the covenant before Abraham fell into the deep sleep when the details of the covenant were made known. God gave the instructions in reply to Abraham’s question which was not occasioned by doubt but by anxiety to have assurance that the promise would be fulfilled, “Whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?” The rite was one with which Abraham would be familiar, and the solemn significance of which he would understand. He knew what was meant by cutting a covenant, when covenant victims were divided and the parts placed opposite each other. Some interpret the act as representing the two parties to the covenant, while others see it as setting forth “the penalty of perjury,” for it was “usually accompanied by the imprecation upon the covenant-breaker of a destruction as complete as that which had befallen the slaughtered animals.” As this covenant was a unilateral one, involving only the promise of Jehovah, there was not the faintest possibility of its being broken. Abraham’s part was to prepare the covenant animals, the heifer, the she goat and the ram, each three years old, indicating maturity and value. Besides, he took a turtle dove and a young pigeon. In the strictest sense of the words those were not sacrificial animals, as they would have been in the Levitical economy.
That ceremony took place on the day following the night on which he had seen the stars as a sign of the number of his descendants.. Until the sun was going down Abraham had the task of driving off the birds of prey whose feasting upon the animals would have reduced the ceremony to a meaningless performance. Abraham’s co-operation ended there, and God began to act when a deep sleep fell upon Abraham at the going down of the sun.
III. The Divine Communication in detail. In “the horror of great darkness” which accompanied the sleep, Abraham became aware of the awesomeness and grandeur of the divine presence. While the patriarch slept Jehovah communicated to him details about the future history of the nation of which he was to be progenitor. The items in the communication are easily followed. Abraham’s seed would be stranger in a foreign land. They would be slaves there. The duration of their exile and slavery would be 400 years (actually 430). God would visit the enslaving nation in judgment and would deliver Abraham’s seed who would leave the land enriched with great substance. It does not take any stretch of imagination to observe that those predictions were fulfilled in Israel’s sojourn in Egypt.
The final act in the ratification of the covenant took place while Abraham was in his deep sleep. As the sun went down and darkness came on immediately Abraham saw a strange sight, a smoking furnace and a lamp of fire or flaming torch, passed between the pieces of animals. One explanation of “the smoking furnace” is: “The word really means the circulated firepot which Orientals use in their houses to sit round for purposes of warmth. This one was wreathed in smoke, out of which shot “a burning lamp” (Heb. a torch of flame). For not two symbols, but only one, passed between the divided carcases. The double symbol of darkness and light would convey to Abraham two aspects of the divine nature, and as the smoking furnace passed between the pieces he would joyfully conclude that God was ratifying the covenant, and was pledging that it would be fulfilled both for Abraham himself and for his seed after him. Here was Jehovah as the covenant-keeping God. As he wakened from his sleep, Abraham’s faith would be greatly strengthened.
There are lessons for us to learn from the narrative.
(1) God will be no man’s debtor. Just as He became to Abraham his “exceeding great reward,” so now we are assured that even a cup of cold water given to a servant of the kingdom will not go unrecognized. Those who sow material good to those who bring spiritual blessing in due season will reap if they faint not.
(2) God has made His covenant to be the God of Abraham’s descendants, and He has pledged Himself to keep that covenant. Despite the defections and disobedience of the nation He has not discarded the people of His choice, and their continued existence with the contemporary national revival is evidence that the covenant is being honoured. Such a God is our God who has revealed Himself in the Person of His Son, and is covenant-keeping unto salvation because of the transaction on Calvary. Let us trust Him, for “they who trust Him wholly, Find Him wholly true.”