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“The Pebble and the Rockslide”

Genesis 15:1-21
Bob DeGray
September 24, 2006

Key Sentence

The pebble of faith releases the rockslide of God's faithfulness.


I. The Promised Seed (Genesis 15:1-5)
II. The Pebble of Faith (Genesis 15:6)
III. The Promised Land (Genesis 15:7-21)


        Imagine yourself standing at the edge of a steep slope covered with loose rock. Someone presses a pebble into your hand and urges you to throw it as far up as you can. You hesitate a moment, then throw. At first it appears nothing will happen: the pebble simply bounces off a small rock high on the slope. Then that rock dislodges and begins to bound down the slope. As it goes it dislodges more rocks, and they dislodge others in an ever increasing torrent. Soon large rocks and boulders are tumbling down under the force of gravity, and then the whole face of the slope itself appears to shift. What follows is a dusty huge confusion. When it settles the valley is filled with what had been the mountain slope. A huge rockslide, seemingly caused by no more than a pebble’s impact. There is a branch of mathematics called ‘catastrophe theory’ that’s used to model rock slides like this, and shows that a slow predictable progression can mathematically be followed by a non-intuitive sudden change in state, so that a very small change in some variable causes a large, irreversible outcome. I want to use that concept and the image of the pebble and the rockslide to explore Genesis 15. As I thought and prayed about this key chapter I was hit by the overwhelming nature of God’s acts and promises compared to the seemingly insignificant factor of Abram’s faith. I came to the conclusion that when we believe, the pebble of our faith releases a landslide of God’s faithfulness: it’s really the landslide that’s significant, not the pebble that caused it. So I want us to examine the two landslides of promise made by God here, but also to look at the pebble of faith God pressed into Abram’s hand to precipitate those blessings.

I. The Promised Seed (Genesis 15:1-5)

        We begin with the landslide of the promised seed. Genesis 15:1-5 After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: "Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward." 2But Abram said, "O Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?" 3And Abram said, "You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir." 4Then the word of the Lord came to him: "This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir." 5He took him outside and said, "Look up at the heavens and count the stars--if indeed you can count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your offspring be."

        We don’t know exactly how long after Lot’s rescue this episode takes place. It appears to be some time later. Abram left Haran at age seventy-five. We’ll find out in the next chapter that he’s eight-six when Hagar gives birth to Ishmael. This is probably toward the end of those eleven years. At that time the Word of the Lord comes to Abram. This phrase appears first here and will be used hundreds of times as God speaks to his people through his prophets. Moses is reminding us that Abram is a prophet, and that these events have prophetic significance for God’s plan.

        So the word of the Lord comes to Abram: “"Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward." What is Abram afraid of? Some have speculated that he was afraid of military reprisals by the kings he’d defeated. But God doesn’t address that kind of fear. Instead God addresses the fear his promises will not be fulfilled: that there never will be an offspring for Abram, or a land for his heirs. In the face of this fear God makes an embracing statement of comfort: “I am your shield, your very great reward.” The first word, the word for a literal shield, becomes one of the great descriptions of God in Scripture: Psalm 28:7 “The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and I am helped.” Psalm 33:20 “We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield.” God promises to be Abram’s protector, coming between him and harm; and this is a blessing enjoyed by all God’s people. He is also, to Abram, ‘your very great reward’. Some have said this should be translated ‘your reward is very great’ but the most common and profound sense of the Hebrew is that God himself is the reward Abram is being promised. And this promise will be repeated with endless variations. The Psalmist will say “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.” God’s presence as shield and reward is one of the greatest blessings he can give.

        But Abram is concerned: “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?" In the ancient near east there was a well-attested practice to gain an heir. If no child were born to the couple, they would instead adopt a servant born in their household. This ‘son’ would care for them in their old age and would inherit their possessions at their death. Apparently during the time of his wandering Abram had so identified ‘Eliezar’ of Damascus. This may have been prudent for a successful businessman, but it was a low point for Abram’s faith and it threatened the promises God had made, since it would have given them to someone else’s descendants.

        But God says “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” It couldn’t be any more plain: don’t look to legal fictions for the fulfillment of God’s promises - look for literal fulfillment: your genetic offspring will be your heir. And then to emphasize the abundance of this promise, God takes Abram outside, presumably outside the tent and says “Look up at the heavens and count the stars--if indeed you can count them - so shall your offspring be.” This is the pebble and the rockslide. Abram says ‘I want a son’. God says ‘how about millions of descendants through a son?’. Abram will have one son who will be the father of a multitude of descendants, and one of those will be the Son. The New Testament tells us that Jesus is the seed of Abraham. Galatians 3:16 “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say "and to seeds," meaning many people, but "and to your seed," meaning one person, who is Christ.” Galatians 3:29 “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.” All who by faith believe are part of the rock slide, the overwhelming flood of heirs that Abram would receive.

II. The Pebble of Faith (Genesis 15:6)

        In fact, all who have trusted in God are ultimately included in that promise: Isaac and Jacob, Moses and Joshua, David and Daniel, Nehemiah and Zechariah, Peter and James, Paul and Timothy, and you and me. This is the flood released by the pebble of Abram’s faith. Moses pauses to clarify the critical importance of faith in verse 6: Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

        The New Living version says “And Abram believed the LORD, and the LORD declared him righteous because of his faith.” The Hebrew literally says “and he believed in the Lord and he counted to him righteousness” Moses is not saying that the faith happened at this moment. There is no time marker in the text and Hebrews tells us that when Abram first went out from Ur he went by faith, as we’ve seen in these chapters. Why, then, did Moses wait until this point to tell us that Abram believed, and was justified by faith? Luther’s answer is profound: Abram’s faith is not mentioned until now in order to emphasize the fact that a saving faith is one that focuses upon the person and work of Jesus Christ. Here Abram’s faith is focused upon the promise of a son, through whom blessing will come to the whole world.

        This word faith is used a number of times in the Old Testament and means certainty or assurance. Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. So Abram was sure of God’s promises. The same root is used in several ways. It’s used of God to say he’s a faithful and sure God. In another form it’s the word from which we get our word ‘Amen’. Abram ‘amened’ God and it was credited as righteousness. When we say amen we agree with God and tell him we’re sure he’s going to do what he’s promised. That’s what Abram was doing when he believed.

        For Abram, belief was centered on the promises of God and on the person promised, this seed who was to come. For us faith is in the one who has come, Jesus who died for our sins and rose from death. In both cases, for Abram and for us, this dependence and trust is the pebble which is credited by God as righteousness. We cry in faith and an avalanche of blessing comes down. Faith is credited as righteousness not because it has the same value as what is received, but because God chooses to count it valuable, to make it the sole qualifier for salvation. Righteousness is being right with him: having an established, unbreakable relationship with him because he’s forgiven our sins and paid the penalty for all that separated us. Paul gives a profound explanation of this in the book of Romans: “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets - including Abram - testify. 22This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are made righteous freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood.”

        Notice two remarkable things here. First, simple faith, even a pebble’s worth is counted by God sufficient to obtain this outpouring of righteousness. No works are required, no righteousness of my own is required, no character reconstruction is required; all God asks is faith. In Romans Paul says: “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? 2If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about--but not before God. 3What does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness." 4Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. 5However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.” And even the pebble of faith is pressed into our hands by God. Ephesians 2 “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, so that no one can boast.”

        So the pebble of faith releases the rockslide of faithfulness from God. The pebble of faith leads to a landslide of descendants, more numerous than the stars in the sky. The pebble of faith leads to a landslide of righteousness, so foolish Abram is declared to be pure and holy in God’s sight. And the same can and should be true of us. God presses the pebble of faith into our hands; by it we trust in Jesus, and a landslide of righteousness is released to overwhelm us with forgiveness and eternal life.

III. The Promised Land (Genesis 15:7-21)

        The final rockslide released by Abram’s pebble of faith is the promise of the land. Let’s go a few verses at a time. Genesis 15:7-11: He also said to him, "I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it." 8But Abram said, "O Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?" 9So the Lord said to him, "Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon." 10Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. 11Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.

        This is the third time Abram has been promised the land. He’s already been told that his seed will occupy the land, and he’s just been given the great promise of offspring as countless as the stars in the sky. But given the apparent delay in both seed and land, Abram asks ‘how can I know?’ and God graciously responds with an overwhelming affirmation of his commitment. He does so using a form apparently common in Abram’s day, in which an agreement was made between two parties who passed through two rows of slaughtered animals as a sign they were bound by the terms of the contract. The implication is ‘may it be done to me as has been done to these animals if I don’t keep my word.’ This understanding of the covenant ceremony is confirmed in Jeremiah, where God says “The men who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces.”

        Abram prepares the five sacrificial animals and when he’s finished, nothing happens. The delay may indicate that though God’s covenant was sure, it would be a long time in coming. During the wait, Abram had to drive off the birds of prey that tried to devour the carcasses, which may symbolize the attempts of Satan to thwart God’s plan. But at dusk, God speaks, verses 12 to 16: 12As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. 13Then the Lord said to him, "Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. 14But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. 15You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure."

        Abram’s vision of great darkness was probably a visual preview of the sufferings of his descendants in Egypt, for God explains that “your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years.” The four hundred years may include the whole time between this covenant and the covenant at Sinai, so that not all of the four hundred years would be years of slavery. But at the end, God says “I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.” This side trip is needed before Abram’s descendants are ready to possess the land: starting with Isaac, they will grow in numbers and possessions before they can compete with the nations of Canaan. Furthermore God says the sins of the Amorites, the parent tribe of the Canaanites, have not yet reached their full measure. God often delays judgment so that his justice in judging what becomes gross sin can be seen to be faultless.

        Having given Abram this prophecy, God completes the covenant. Verses 17 to 21: When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. 18On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates-- 19the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites."

        By this time it was fully dark: in the darkness appeared a smoking firepot with a blazing torch, symbols of God’s presence, just as God would later appear in fire and smoke at the tabernacle and on Mt. Sinai. The firepot and the torch passed between the pieces. God passed between the pieces: Abram didn’t. God cuts a covenant of grace. He commits himself to the covenant promises, but Abram does not have a work or commitment he’s required to perform in order to receive them. This is a unilateral commitment of a faithful God to his purposes and his people. Verse 18: ‘On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram.” The phrase is literally ‘cut a covenant’ - the cutting of the animals and the walking between them is a promise of faithfulness. It was all of God, in response to Abram’s believing faith.

        And then God, who owns all the earth, promises the lands of many peoples to Abram’s descendants: all the lands from the river of Egypt, the Nile, to the Great river, the Euphrates. For a brief time under Solomon the boundaries of Israel reached this extent, but recognize that this promise will no fully be fulfilled until and unless Jesus comes to reign in Jerusalem in the millennium.

        This is not the first covenant: God had made covenant promises to Noah. This is not the last covenant: God will expand his covenant with Abram in chapter 17 by giving circumcision as the sign of the covenant. He will initiate a covenant of Law with Moses on Mt. Sinai, giving great promises but calling for perfect obedience to the perfect law he will there reveal. And then he will give a new covenant, promised in Jeremiah and Ezekiel and fulfilled in Jesus, a new covenant like that with Abram, of grace through faith. Jeremiah 31:31 "The time is coming," declares the Lord, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. . . 33"This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the Lord. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. . . They will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest," declares the Lord. "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more." This is the final landslide - a covenant of grace and forgiveness instituted by Jesus through his death on the cross so that each one who looks to him and believes receives forgiveness and eternal life.

        So what have we seen? The pebble of faith releases the landslide of God’s faithfulness. Faith itself is a little thing, simply trusting the faithful God who created us, sustains us and has provided rescue for us in Jesus Christ. Faith is the pebble which God presses into our hands. And yet that faith releases a rockslide of God’s faithfulness. There is possibly no better statement of the rockslide than Paul’s impassioned praise in the first chapter of Ephesians. I’d like us to stand and read this together. In fact, since the NIV has conveniently divided Paul’s one impassioned sentence into a number of sentences, I’d like to read you one sentance, and then you read it back to me - and picture it as the rockslide of God’s blessing pouring down on you:

        Ephesians 1:3-14 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will-- 6to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace 8that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. 9And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment--to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. 11In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 13And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession--to the praise of his glory.

        The pebble of faith releases the landslide of God’s faithfulness - to the praise of his glory.