Place names are abundant in this chapter, and the land word שָׂדֶה (country) appears in 14:7, but the only theologically significant occurrence of the land theme in this chapter are in 14:19, 22. In those verses God is identified as “Creator of heaven and earth” (HCSB; The Hebrew word קנה could refer to either “Possessor” or “Creator.” Hamilton, NICOT, 1:411-12. In the context of Genesis, “Creator” seems the better choice. Of course, as Creator, God is the owner of heaven and earth). Abram reaffirms his trust that God as Creator of heaven and earth will fulfill his promises apart from the help of the king of Sodom.
Genesis 15 is about the seed promise and the land promise. The chapter divides into two somewhat parallel sections. Verses 1-6 concern the seed promise and verses 7-21 concern the land promise (Wenham, WBC, 1:325; Mathews, NAC, 2:157; Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 248-49). In verse 7 God reaffirms his promise to give the land to Abraham. It was for this reason that God called Abram from Ur of the Chaldeans. The promises of seed and blessing could theoretically been fulfilled in Ur. But the gift of this land required Abram’s departure from Ur.
As in verse 2, Abram asks for confirmation of the promise. Given verse 6, this should not be taken as a sign of faithlessness (Wenham, WBC, 1:331). God responds to this request by cutting a covenant with Abram. This begins with God’s instructions to take certain animals, cut them in half (except for the birds) and lay them opposite. All of the animals, save for the last bird (גּוֹזָל) were used in Israel’s sacrificial system. Most were used for a number of different kinds of sacrifices. The heifer was used in sacrifices to purify the land from unsolved murders (Deut. 21:1-7). Abram is then forced to defend the carcasses from birds of prey.
It is the next section (vv. 12-16) that gives us clues as to the significance of these actions. The animals that would later be used in Israel’s sacrificial system may represent Israel (Wenham, WBC, 1:332-; Mathews, NAC, 2:172-73). Given the prediction that Israel would be afflicted in Egypt, the birds of prey may represent Egypt (Mathews, NAC, 2:172-73. Other commentators identify the birds more generally as representing the “surrounding nations.” McKeown, 92; cp. Wenham, 1:132-33). McKeown notes, “Without Abram’s presence, these carcasses would have disappeared rapidly” (THOTC, 92.). This may indicate the importance of God’s covenant with Abram in preserving the people of Israel.
In 15:12-16 we have the prediction that Israel will sojourn in another land, Egypt, before receiving the promised land. Also Abram is told that he will die prior to the return of the people in the fourth generation (15:15-16). The promise of the land was made to Abram personally in 15:7 but the confirmation speaks only of possession by his seed. In fact, it implies that he will die before the land is possessed. Perhaps this awareness of death prior to possession of the land stands behind his expectations according to Hebrews 11:18-16.
The smoking fire pot and flaming torch that pass between the pieces likely represent God. They call to mind God’s revelation of himself in fire in Exodus at the burning bush and at Sinai (See McKeown, THOTC, 93). The significance of passing through the pieces is indicated by Jeremiah 34:18: “And the men who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make them like the calf that they cut in two and passed between its parts” (Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty, NSBT, 80; Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 250-56. I agree with Gentry, against Wenham and Mathews, that the elements of the covenant in this passage and Jeremiah are not bound to a particular time but persisted in their significance from the time of Abraham to Jeremiah). Notably, God has placed Abram in a deep sleep; God passes through the pieces himself. This is an unconditional or a royal grant covenant.
In this covenant, the Lord specifies the borders of the land. No longer is it simply “this land” (12:7) or “all the land that you see” (13:15). Now specific boundaries are set. The promised land will stretch from the river of Egypt, probably the Wadi el-Arish (In other places the term נַ֫חַל [translated brook by the ESV] is used instead of נָהָר. Some commentators therefore think that the eastern part of the Nile Delta is meant [cf. Waltke, 245]. However, since these borders are repeated elsewhere [Num. 34:5; Josh 15:4-47; 1 Kings 8:65; Isa. 27:12], it is most likely simply a variation in terminology [cf. Hamilton, NICOT, 1:438]), to the Euphrates River. The land is also designated by the peoples who lived there. Waltke holds that a purposeful discrepancy exists between the stated borders and the nations that Israel is said to conquer. “Since the geographic description is much larger than the ethnographic and the ethnographic matches Israel’s history but the geographic does not, the geographic is best regarded as an idealization” (Waltke, 245). First, the land of the Amorites stretched up to the Euphrates River (ABD, 1:199-200; P.E. Satterthwaite and D. W. Baker, “Nations of Canaan,” DOTP, 601-2. Milgrom says, “In the eighteenth-century Mari texts, Amurru is a territory and kingdom in central Syria. As such it continues in Egyptian and Mesopotamian sources of the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries when its boundaries are most clearly defined: from the Mediterranean to the Orontes and to Canaan on the south.” Milgrom, Numbers, JPSTC, 105. Though Milgrom thinks that Genesis 15 uses the term merely as an ethnic label for those living in Canaan, the evidence he cites indicates it could have a broader referent). The discrepancy Waltke posits does not exist. Second, the argument for idealization by analogy does not hold up. Waltke says the point is to highlight the land’s “spiritual significance,” which is greater than its physical significance just as the Jordan river is physically insignificant but spiritually significant to Christians. These are not parallel examples. The spiritual significance of the Jordan is never outlined in a covenant. One would think that a covenant document promising land would be the least likely place for borders to be merely ideal. Such an argument would certainly be rejected by interpreters of human covenants. Why take God’s covenant words any less seriously and straightforwardly?
In Solomon’s day Israel’s exercised brief control within these borders, but it was never complete nor long lasting. This points toward a future fulfillment of this promise. It may have been to avoid this conclusion that Waltke resorted to the expedient of claiming the boundaries were idealized (Kidner, TOTC, 125; Hamilton, NICOT, 1:438).