5. God's Covenant with Abram (15: 1-21)
In a very particular sense this is a monumental chapter, monumental in the testimony that it bears to saving truth. It is for this reason that Paul alludes to a word from this chapter when he establishes the truth concerning salvation (Rom.4:3; Gal.3:6). It is nothing short of amazing to find in the patriarchal age so clear-cut an answer to the question: How can a man be justified in the sight of God? The way of salvation was one and the same in the old covenant as well as in the new.
At the same time, this chapter demonstrates in particular, how God's treatment of Abram moved along from step to step in conformity with the patriarch's needs. As new problems arose, a new course of procedure was inaugurated by God. The more severely Abram's faith was put to the test during the period of waiting for the son who was to be born, the more substantial became the support that God offered to Abram's faith. If hitherto numerous offspring had been assured, and a land promised in which his seed might multiply, now the assurance is given that Abram's own seed and not that of another should be his heir, and the promise is established in a covenant.
At the same time we find in this chapter as positive a type of evidence as anyone might desire of the high level and the distinct character of the patriarchal religion. Even when men accept the separation of the Pentateuch into various sources (a thing we definitely reject as unscientific), even these sources give indication of very accurate transmission of the facts of early history. The Hebrews had a keen sense for preserving tradition reliably. This accurate tradition of theirs also indicates very definitely that Israel's religion did not first originate with the literary prophets. Nor did it first take its beginning with Moses and the exodus from Egypt. But, as this chapter very clearly indicates, Israel's religion appeared in the patriarchs as a religion essentially the same as it is found to be in the eighth century, yet in the matter of details sufficiently different to allow for our classifying it as the patriarchal stage of Israel's religion; and having as its heart and core faith in a faithful God.
This revelation of God to Abram is the fifth granted to the patriarch.
At the very outset we must remark that no one is now in a position to tell just how God manifested Himself to men in visions; but such revelations of God must have come with an emphatic distinctness to men, so that the recipient could not be in doubt whether or not God was actually speaking.
1. After these things the word of Yahweh came to Abram in a vision, thus: Be not afraid, Abram; I am thy shield, thy exceeding great reward.
The accurate report of what transpired in Abram's life indicates that in point of time this vision came after the defeat of the kings. The particular word used for "vision" (machazeh) is not a common one, being found besides only in Num.24:4, 16 and Ezek.13:7. It is used with the article because the type of vision accompanying divine revelation is implied (the article with things customary—K. S.299 b). But since the chapter presents a unit, one part naturally attaching itself to the other, the statement at the head, that this revelation came in a vision, covers the entire chapter. The denial of this simple fact works confusion. Such a denial grows out of a restriction of the idea of a "vision," as though as soon as some form of action takes place, the vision must be terminated. The truth of the matter is that the ecstatic state which renders the mind receptive to divine revelation may allow for "seeing" (machazeh, from chazah, "to see") God speak and for seeing one's self do various things and God, too, do things as well as speak, "Visions," like dreams, allow for a wide latitude of experiences for him that has them, though the vision and the dream are by no means identical. Standing at the opening of the chapter, the term "vision" is designed to cover the entire complex experience that follows.
A major difficulty is encountered in determining why Abram was addressed: "Fear not." What caused Abram's fears? Looking backward, as might be suggested by the phrase "after these things," we might prefer to hold that Abram feared retribution at the hand of the Eastern kings after the surprise defeat he had inflicted upon them, So the Jewish commentators largely believed. This view seems to meet additional support in the rest of the divine communication: "I am thy shield." Now, it cannot be denied that Abram was human enough to be visited by a measure of trepidation at the thought of another punitive expedition from the East. But the rest of the chapter shows beyond the possibility of doubt that such a fear is by no means under consideration, but the fear of remaining childless is what Abram and the Lord alone refer to. Over against that danger God promises that He Himself is the perfectly adequate safeguard and the only reward that Abram needs. From thoughts of what is deemed humanly possible Abram should centre all hope in God alone as a God adequate for every need. Since, then, the Lord emphatically points to Himself, we see at once that the second half of the statement must be rendered as we have translated above: "(I am) thy exceeding great reward," and not after the fashion of the Greek translators, who made of this a second clause: "thy reward is very great." For, as Whitelaw rightly suggests, this rendering "fails to give prominence to the thought that the patriarch's reward was to be the all-sufficient Jehovah Himself." With this agrees the emphatic position of 'anokhî:" It is I who am the shield," etc.
Harbeh, though an absolute infinitive, is, as frequently, used adverbially.
2, 3. And Abram said: Lord Yahweh, what couldest Thou give me, seeing I am going on childless, and the prospective heir of my house is the Damascene, Eliezer? Abram also said: See, to me Thou hast not given offspring; and, look, one belonging to my household will inherit my goods.
Holding these two responses of Abram together and noting that each is separately introduced by "and Abram said," we gain the impression that Abram spoke twice before God answered. Apparently, this was exactly the way this event transpired. Before God applies, the new comfort that He is about to administer to Abram, He gives Abram full opportunity to give vent to the thoughts that oppress him, in order that the divine comfort may operate the more effectively.
Abram's first mild complaint, expressing what has long burdened his soul and caused fear (v.1b), begins: "Lord Yahweh," i. e., 'adhonay yahweh. 'Adhonay signifies Allherr, ie., "Lord of all"; coupled with Yahweh, it represents a very respectful and reverent address and shows Abram as one who was by no means doubtful of God's omnipotence. But, at the same time, Abram voices the natural misgivings of the limited human understanding when he says: maht-titten-lî. This should not be rendered: "What wilt thou give me?" God had not just concluded promising him anything. But rather: "What couldest thou give me?" For, to tell the truth, Abram does not see what God could give. Abram was "going on" through life. (holekh not here in the sense of "perish") "childless" ('arîrî—"stripped," ie., of children). What we have rendered as "prospective heir" is a typically Hebrew expression: "son of possession" (ben-mésheq), i. e., the one who will possess. The rest of the statement is also unusual: "is Damascus Eliezer." (EIi'ezer—"God is help"). Apparently, Eliezer was from Damascus. By metonomy, Abram says, "my heir is Damascus, i. e., Eliezer." This says no more than that Eliezer seems to have hailed from this ancient city. To make the statement imply that he would ultimately take all of Abram's goods back to that city certainly stretches the point.
It seems that out of this harmless reference to Eliezer's connection with Damascus has grown the entirely unfounded legend about Abram's residence in Damascus and his being king of that city. Luther misreads ben-mésheq and gives Eliezer a son. In this verse 'adhonay appears for the first time in Genesis; it is rarely coupled with Yahweh.
3. This verse presents Abram's misgivings more strongly; note the vivid double interjection hen and hinneh, "see" and "look." These give to the statement the tone of an implied plea—not of impatience or of unbelief but of eager request. "One belonging to my household" is again a typical Hebrew expression with the broad use of the word "son"; for it runs thus: ben bethî, "son of my house." What we have rendered "will inherit my goods" literally—"he will be heir to me," er wird reich beerben. Tragic as all this is for Abram, the situation reflected speaks well for the status of servants in Abram's day and household. After the master's children the children of the headservant were counted as heirs.
A practical point may be considered here. Abram had in the previous chapter acquitted himself nobly and sought no selfish advantage. Such are not always or promptly rewarded by God. There may come seeming neglect or indifference on God's part after a man has served Him unselfishly. So must the true love of God's own be put to the test.
Note: Here the participle takes the object not as a pronominal suffix but with the sign of the accusative, yoresh othî, K. S.240 b, also a common construction.
4, 5. And, lo, the word of Yahweh came unto him thus: This man shall not be thine heir, but one born of thine own body, he shall be thine heir. And He led him forth outside and He said: Look, now, at the heavens and count the stars, if thou canst count them. Then He said to him: So numerous shall thy offspring be.
With the same statement as furnished in v.1 for the communication of a divine revelation God's answer to Abram is introduced. A "lo" (hinneh) accompanies the introductory remark, because a divine word is always a very noteworthy event. Yahweh, who displays mercy also in what He promises in this case, and who also clearly foresees the course events will take, informs him that Eliezer will not be heir to Abram, but a direct descendant of his own. Mimme'êkha means "from thy belly," euphemistically for the generative organs. From this point onward Abram is enabled to see clearly that when God speaks of Abram's offspring, He means the term very literally. Besides, hû' resumes the subject emphatically: "that very one shall be heir" (K. S.340 a).
5. To make the fact as such doubly impressive Yahweh brings Abram outside, that is to say, in the vision, and bids him gaze upon the stars and count them. "So" (koh, which usually points backward) therefore "so numerous" shall Abram's "offspring" (Heb. zéra'—"seed") be. The uncounted multitude is the point of the comparison. The point made by the comparison would come home to the patriarch with all the greater emphasis under the Oriental skies where tim stars gleam far more distinctly and so appear more numerous. The fact that present day astronomers happen to chart the heavens, listing all stars and counting them, detracts nothing from the force of the comparison as it was originally made by God for Abram, who would never have thought of attempting to count all. The same comparison is used in Genesis 22:17; 26:4 and Exodus 32:13. Dods departs from the point at issue by letting God's control of the stars, His calling them by name and so proving Himself a God who "has designs of infinite sweep and comprehension," be the point of the comparison, whereas Yahweh had distinctly referred to their being countless, as the point at issue.
If one compares Genesis 13:16 ("dust of the earth") with this promise, one notices that at least in one point a distinct advance is marked and that may be allowed for here. The comparison now stresses not only numbers, but a noble sort of multitude will God bring into being.
The na' after habbet gives a kindly tone to the imperative (K. S.355 b). On koh as retrospective see K. S.332 b.
6. And he believed in Yahweh, and He counted it to him for righteousness.
The biggest word in the chapter, one of the greatest in the Old Testament! Here is the first instance of the use of the word "believe" in the Scriptures. He'emîn, Hifil of 'aman, "to confirm" and "support," means "trust," "believe," implying fiducia rather than assensus. It is construed with be, as here, or with le. The form is unusual, perfect with waw, not as one would expect, imperfect with waw conversive. Apparently, by this device the author would indicate that the permanence of this attitude is to be stressed: not only: Abram believed just this once. but: Abram proved constant in his faith, er bewaehrte sich als Glaeubiger (K. S.367 i). Kittel's correction wayya'amîn blurs the fine distinction.
But at once we are moved to ask in what way can it be detected that Abram did believe and what indication have we that his faith was counted to him for righteousness? The first answer must be that this grand truth was revealed to the author, Moses, by the Spirit of inspiration; for of himself no man would ever have discovered such a possibility. But on the other hand, such revelations are never made in the abstract: they grow out of situations that clearly demonstrate them. So here, particularly from what follows, when God asks Abram to carry out certain orders and Abram unhesitatingly obeys; this attitude displays his faith. Again, the response of God to Abram's implicit obedience shows that Abram met with God's favour: he was justified; his faith had been counted to him for righteousness.
Perhaps the most marvellous thing about this word is the clearness with which it rules out all efforts and attainments of man as contributory factors in the justification. Work righteousness is completely eliminated, a fact which again human reason might never have discerned but for divine exposition as granted to inspired men (Romans 4; Galatians 3). But the only factor that counts in this transaction is faith, and even faith only in so far as it grasps God's promise, not faith as an achievement of man.
The expression "and He counted it to him for righteousness" involves a purely forensic act. "Righteousness," well defined (K. W.) as "normalcy in reference to the obligations of an individual," is the equivalent of measuring up to the demands of God. What God demands and expects of a sinful mortal is faith. He that has faith measures up to God's requirements, is declared to have manifested the normal attitude pleasing to God; against such a one God has no wrath or displeasure. He counts him innocent; He gives him a verdict of "Not guilty." Meek seems to stand entirely on the basis of work righteousness when he renders: He "counted it to his credit." Such translations, modern enough in expression, are unsatisfactory and wrong.
Now the question arises, Is Abram's faith different from the justifying faith of the New Testament believer? We answer unhesitatingly and emphatically, No. The very issue in this chapter has been Abram's seed. But Abram cannot as a spiritual man have thought of this seed only as numerous descendants; for already in Genesis 12:3 b that seed had been shown as involving the one who would bring salvation to mankind ("all families of the earth blessed"). How could Abram have overlooked or undervalued this chief item? The remark of Hunnius (quoted by Delitzsch) certainly is correct: sub innumerabili illa posteritate latebat Christus. Abram believed that God would send this Saviour for his own good as well as for the whole world. Naturally, however, such faith may not possess full understanding of the details of the redemptive work and the atoning sacrifice. Yet in essence it is trust in the Saviour sent by God.
To this must be added the question raised by Luther whether Abram had been justified by faith before this time, or whether only at this point his faith began to be counted to him for righteousness. Naturally, the answer has to be that Abram was justified by faith as soon as this faith began to manifest itself, which must have been years before this time. But why first record the justification here? We feel our answer must take the same form as Luther's, who points out that justification by faith is first indicated in the Scriptures in a connection where the Saviour is definitely involved, in order that none might venture to dissociate justification from Him.
Note the rapid change of subject in the short compound sentence—a common observation in Hebrew (K. S.399b). The feminine suffix on the verb "count" represents the neuter "it" (K. S.12; G. K.112 q).
7. And He said to Him: I am Yahweh who brought thee forth from Ur of the Chaldees to give thee this land for a possession.
The "vision" is not concluded. It has further revelation of import to Abram. To this purpose God goes on to remind Abram first of all that He is the one who called him forth from Ur of the Chaldees (cf. Genesis 11:28). This reminder recalls the whole of God's plan in reference to Abram and his descendants, which plan took its beginning with the Exodus from Ur. Abram is now to be shown what things must yet transpire before God will bring this plan to a complete realization. Critics find this self-introduction of Yahweh to be natural only at the commencement of an "interview" and here "difficult to reconcile with the assumption or the unity of the narrative."
8. And he said: Lord Yahweh, whereby shall I know that I shall possess it?
Again the same reverent address as in v.2 in token of his faith in God's ability to perform what He promises. But this faith seeks legitimate tokens; it is anxious to have still fuller assurance. So Abram asks, not in a spirit of doubt but with the purpose to be more solidly established in its conviction. We find Gideon's prayer analogous (Jud 6:17 ff.), or the question of the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:34). "Whereby"—bammah—"by what."
9, 10. And He said to him: Take me a three year old heifer, a three year old she-goat, a three year old ram and a turtledove and a young pigeon. And he took him all these and he cut them in two and he put them in order each part over against its corresponding part, but the birds he did not cut in two.
A covenant is to be established. God condescends to let it be made after the fashion of covenants made in those days, particularly among the Chaldeans. K. C. points to the historical evidence of the use of the same ceremony when the North Syrian Mati'lu is put under obligation to Aschschurnirari. The covenanting parties would pass between the halves of the beasts, and this may have implied that a similar lot, viz., being killed, was to befall their own cattle in the event of their violating the covenant. But a modification of the procedure is involved in this case: neither do both parties pass between the halves, nor is the threat implied.
The proceeding, therefore, is not a sacrifice, even though animals that are at a later date ordained for sacrifice are employed. The requirement of creatures three years old has no further significance than that they are to be of full strength and beauty. Meshullésheth, a pual feminine participle, does not mean "three" of each (Targum) but three years old. No particular significance attaches to the number of creatures used. For the count of them is difficult in any case. They seem to be five; yet, if the halves are laid over against one another and the turtledove over against the young pigeon, four pairs appear on the scene. We cannot even be sure of this arrangement of the birds. The animals used are simply those that are most suitable for sacrifice among the domesticated animals, as also the Mosaic law provided that these only were suitable for sacrifice.
It should also be noted that without receiving specific directions Abram understands what the Lord intends and proceeds on his own accord to cut up the victims into parts. It is also very much in place to observe that on the level of the practices of patriarchal religion the mode of procedure is quite different from the mode of offering sacrifices as prescribed by the book of Leviticus. For there Moses prescribes burning of sacrifices with fire (Le 1). Yet regarding the points of contact, between both modes note also the practice of not cutting up the smaller birds (Le 1:17). But again: Abram did not offer a sacrifice in this instance.
The article is used with tsippor (here collective) because the birds have been previously mentioned ("the article of relative familiarity," K. S.298b). The datives "take me" (lî) and "he took him" (lô) are datives of interest merging into ethical datives. The final bathar does not appear with waw conversive as imperfect because the object intruded for emphasis after the conjunction (K. S.368 t).
The various acts of Abram here recorded must be regarded, according to v.1, as having transpired in the course of the "vision." What, do we know about visions that allows us to claim such acts cannot be part of a vision?
11, 12. The birds of prey came down upon the carcases, but Abram drove them away. And the sun was about to go down, and a deep sleep fell upon Abram and, lo, terror and great darkness was falling upon him.
Wherever carcases are, birds of prey promptly congregate—here 'ayit, used collectively. Since these victims have thus been prepared for the solemnization of a sacred covenant, Abram drives off the foul birds that might pollute them. This is but natural. To suggest that Abram regarded the appearance of birds of prey as an ill omen, just because certain Arabic tribes still suppose the mere sight of buzzards to be an ill omen, is a purely gratuitous assumption attributing to one nation what is characteristic of another. Israel's legitimate religion, whether on the patriarchal, Mosaic, or prophetic level, never acknowledges omens or superstitions.
The article with 'ayit is the categorical article, (K. S.300 a). The further meaning of this feature of the vision will be touched upon below.
12. As far as the vision itself is concerned, it transpires in such a fashion that in the course of it Abram sees the sun at the point of setting, about as a man might dream he sees the sun setting. Such a dream or vision might occur morning, noon or night, Attempts to compute the length of time over which the experience extended by the expressions used such as "the sun was about to go down," would lead to an unnaturally long lapse of time. The setting of the sun in the vision prepares for the falling of darkness upon him. But first of all comes a "deep sleep" (tardemah) which is as little a "trance" here as it was in Genesis 2:21 (which see). The "terror and the great darkness" that fall upon him are the terror which the ancestor experiences in the vision at the revelation of the sufferings which his descendants must endure. In the vision he feels these things in anticipation, even before the revelation is imparted to him that his descendants are destined to this particular form of misery. Perhaps the relation of 'êmah chashekhah gedholah (without conjunction), would be expressed best by a rendering like: "terror and an awful gloom." The difference between the verb naphelah and the particle nopheleth should be noted: the deep sleep fell, ie., quickly as a single act, but the terror and awful gloom kept falling, or settling upon him and were still enfolding him more fully when the rest of the revelation came (K. S.237 e explains a bit differently).
Wayhi (masculine) begins the sentence, as often when the gender of the subject to follow has not yet been revealed; this does not, however, make hashshémesh masculine (K. S.345 c). Note wayhi le—"was about to" (K. S.234; G. K.114h, i). The "deep sleep" (v.12) is not in conflict with the "vision" (v.1) as though the one term were the Elohist's way of putting it, the other the Yahwist's (e. g. Procksch). The "deep sleep" takes place within the "vision."
13-16. And He said to Abram: Thou shalt know of a surety that thy descendants shall be sojourners in a land which is not theirs, where they shall be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years. But I in turn will judge that nation to whom they are enslaved, and afterwards they shall go forth with great possessions. But thou on thy part shalt go unto thy fathers in peace and shalt be buried at a ripe old age. And the fourth generation shall return here; for the guilt of the Amorites is not yet complete.
Now comes the revelation in words apart from the symbolic act, which here is made to represent the same facts, but it can only be understood after the revelation thus offered by word and by symbol makes the fact involved doubly impressive; and, surely, there was need of unusual emphasis, for this word was largely to furnish the much needed light during the dark ages of the period here described.
The knowledge provided for Abram is of a very definite and positive sort: "thou shalt know of a surety," Hebrew: "knowing thou shalt know," verb plus its absolute infinitive (G. K.113, o). Zéra'—"seed," "descendants." The ger, "sojourner," is one whose stay in certain territory is only temporary. We could translate: "a temporary resident." Nothing for the present indicates that the land involved is Egypt. Perhaps this is not revealed lest Abram's descendants conceive an undue prejudice against this land. This first part of the revelation involves nothing grievous. Abram himself, for that matter, was a sojourner in the land of Canaan when he received this revelation. The next two terms, however, cover the unpleasant side of the experience: "they (Israel) shall serve them" (Egyptians), which we have rendered for purposes of easier construction: "where they shall be enslaved." Then, with a quick, change of person: "they" now—Egyptians—"they (Egyptians) shall oppress them." This is the hardest part which Israel will have to endure. The whole experience of being sojourner, being enslaved, and being oppressed shall involve "four hundred years." To make the whole sojourn one continuous oppression is completely at variance with the facts. In fact, computing according to the life of Moses, we should be nearest the truth if we allot the last century to the oppression.
The four hundred years mentioned are, of course, a round number, which is given more exactly in Exodus 12:40, as 430 years. Michell's computations agree with these figures, making the year of Jacob's going down into Egypt to be 1879 B. C. and the year of the Exodus 1449.. Since this latter year, or perhaps 1447 B. C., is now quite commonly accepted, we may let these dates stand as sufficiently exact for all practical purposes. How Moses arrives at the computation 430 in Exodus 12:40 need not here concern us. Other instances of exact predictions in numbers of years are found in Jeremiah 25:11; 29:20, in reference to seventy years; and Isaiah 16:14, for a matter of three years.
Note: lo' lahem is a relative clause with the customary relative omitted (G. K.115 e).
14. The participle dan, according to the context, points to the future: "I will judge." "Judging" here implies "punishing." Here it is also revealed at once that Israel shall not be the poorer for its experience. By way of compensation for the affliction suffered the nation shall "go forth with great possessions." Rekhûsh is again used for "possessions" because they are movable. The choice of the word, here too, is not a mark of P but the natural term to use, for Israel was not to be rich in real estate but in rekhûsh. Criticism fails to discover such simple proprieties. Beth of accompaniment with rekhûsh (K. S.402 s).
So in v.13, 14 a great basic principle, applying to God's people, has been revealed: they must through much tribulation enter into the Kingdom of God (Acts 14:22), even as did the Captain of their salvation (Luke 24:26); but, on the other hand, God will often offset their losses and reimburse them so that their needs will be marvellously supplied. At the same time a correct conception of God as the Judge of the nations is clearly reflected at this point. Even in the patriarchal age a clear conception, correct in all its parts, prevailed in reference to Yahweh.
15. Since the natural question must arise in the patriarch's mind, whether the things predicted will begin to come to pass during his lifetime, God assures him that such shall not be the case. An emphatic "thou" ('attah) reinforces the subject: "thou on thy part:" The expression "go unto thy fathers" must involve more than having his own dead body laid beside the dead bodies of the fathers. So we find here a clear testimony to belief in an eternal life in the patriarchal age. Coupled with this revelation from God is the assurance of a decent burial at a ripe old age, a thing desired especially in Israel and, for that matter, among most of the nations of antiquity. On the question of "going to thy fathers" Whitelaw rightly remarks that it must involve more than burial, because Abram's ancestors were not entombed in Canaan, where his own sepulchre was (Genesis 25:9).
16. Some regard dôr rebhî'î as an accusative of condition: "as fourth generation" they shall return. It seems even simpler to us to make it the plain subject: "the fourth generation" shall return. Since four generations cover more than four hundred years, we see that the word reckons a hundred years to a generation, according to the computation prevalent at the time of speaking. Such a computation, according to chapter eleven, is not out of place, especially if one considers that Abram himself lived to the age of 175 years.
Another factor enters into these computations and readjustments —"the guilt of the Amorites." All the inhabitants of Canaan are referred to by the term "Amorites," the most important family of the Canaanites (see on Genesis 10:16). The term is similarly used in Genesis 48:22; Numbers 13:29; 21:21, etc.; De 1:7, 19. These aboriginal inhabitants of Canaan had heaped up a measure of "guilt" ('awon) by this time. The measure was not yet "complete" (shalem), that is, they were nearing the point where divine tolerance could bear with them no longer, but they had not yet arrived at this point. God's foreknowledge discerned that in a few more centuries these wicked nations would have forfeited their right to live, and then He would replace them in the land of Canaan by the Israelites. Passages bearing on the iniquity of the Canaanites are Le 18:24; 20:22; De 18:9 ff. So God will allow the children of Israel to be absent from the land while the Canaanites continue in their evil ways. When He can bear with the Canaanites no longer, He will have another nation ready wherewith to replace them. Thus far we have encountered no direct evidence of Canaanite iniquity but shall soon see the startling examples offered by Sodom.
17, 18a. And it came to pass when the sun had set and dense darkness prevailed, that, lo, a smoking firepot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day Yahweh made a covenant with Abram,
In the vision in the sequence of events the sun finally sets; it was on the verge of doing so v.12. The quick change of the Orient from daylight to intense darkness ('alatah) follows. This darkness makes the next phenomenon, which is one of fire, all the more distinct by contrast. What Abram sees is of a character to occasion surprise ("lo"—hinneh), for it is first of all a tannûr, a portable clay oven, a couple of feet high, more or less like an inverted bowl, with a hole on the upper side for draft purposes. This "firepot" has the fire within it kindled and flaming out of the top of the oven like a "torch" (lappîdh). This firepot plus the flaming torch above pass in between the pieces that Abram had made of the animals that he had been commanded to take.
18 a. All this would be worse than puzzling if it were not for the fact that the much needed explanation at once, as so often, follows: "on this day Yahweh made a covenant with Abram." This "smoking firepot and flaming torch" represented Yahweh passing between the halves of the victims and so concluding the covenant. Nor is this mode of designating Yahweh's presence unsuitable or inappropriate. He who at Horeb appeared in the burning bush (Exodus 3:2-6) and on Mount Sinai in a consuming fire (Exodus 19:18) and throughout the time of the wilderness wanderings in a pillar of fire (Exodus 13:21), now appears as a fire, only the guise of it was the most frequent form in which fire appeared to the nomads of that day, the portable "firepot." So men of Abram's type and age were wont usually to behold fire.
Now the whole typical, representation is clear to us: the divided beasts represent Israel; the birds of prey who would have devoured them are the oppressing nation; Abram drives these birds away, that is, the blessing of God laid upon the nation for its great ancestor's sake drives away all harm; the fire passing hostility of the world; the consequent sufferings of the church; and the ultimate triumph of God's own. For this purpose v.12-16 might suffice. But sound Bible knowledge can be built up by the use of fuller texts, and so we recommend the longer portion, v.12-21.