by Felipe Diez (Minister_of_Music@yahoo.com)
“After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: <sup class="crossreference" sab="672" value="(A)”>“Fear not, Abram, I am <sup class="crossreference" sab="673" value="(B)”>your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2 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?” 3 And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and <sup class="crossreference" sab="681" value="(C)”>a member of my household will be my heir.” 4 And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; <sup class="crossreference" sab="685" value="(D)”>your very own son shall be your heir.” 5 And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and <sup class="crossreference" sab="690" value="(E)”>number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, <sup class="crossreference" sab="691" value="(F)”>“So shall your offspring be.” 6 And <sup class="crossreference" sab="694" value="(G)”>he believed the Lord, and <sup class="crossreference" sab="696" value="(H)”>he counted it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:1-6)
Abram’s faith, arriving to him as a result of a trusting relationship with Yahweh and His promises, is a well-known theme in the book of Genesis. This essay will examine the implications of what Genesis 15:1-6 teaches with regard to the term “reward” and the other events surrounding these few verses, such as Abram’s mentioning of Eliezer the servant, the fact that the Lord calls Himself a “shield,” and what signified the stars in the Ancient Near Eastern sky. A sustained exegesis of each of the six verses will be provided, as well as some words concerning Biblical Theology. The essay will focus mostly on verse 1. It is important to note that the word “reward” in verse 1 is sometimes accompanied by other words in other translations to form phrases such as “your very great reward” (NIV), “your exceedingly great reward” (NKJV), or simply “your reward shall be very great” (NASB). The Hebrew word that is translated in these various ways is “sakar” (shkr). Its simple definition is “wages,” but it can also be used to mean “reward” and even “hire.” Sakar is a masculine noun, very well suited to refer to the Lord, since He is often called Father. Other instances of uses of sakar in the Old Testament will be mentioned as well as the existence of other Hebrew words that can also be translated “reward” in order to help paint a picture of this theme. This essay is descriptive, but will argue for an interpretative case. It is exegetical in nature, but will go further than to simply translate the chosen verses.
The Hebrew word for “reward” (sometimes translated as “wages” or “repay”) occurs about 28 times in the Old Testament. This does not count for other usages of “wages” that may possess more obscure definitions. The most basic definition for the term translated “reward” or “wages” is something given or received in return or recompense for service, merit, or hardship. “Sakar” (your reward) along with “ishlm” seem to be the most used words for “reward” and “wages” with the aforementioned definition although a secondary definition is also possible: “a sum of money offered for the detection or capture of a criminal, the recovery of lost or stolen property.” This definition accounts for few of the verses used in the OT for “reward” and is, then, not the one in view with regard to the verse in Genesis. Some other OT examples of the first definition of “reward” (Hebrew “ishlm”) are found in 2 Samuel 3:39
“And today, though I am the anointed king, I am weak, and these sons of Zeruiah are too strong for me. May the LORD repay the evildoer according to his evil deeds!” (NIV).
The NKJV, following the tradition of the KJV, translates the same verse containing “ishlm” as “reward” instead of “repay” here:
“And I am this day weak, though anointed king; and these men the sons of Zeruiah are too hard for me: the LORD shall reward the doer of evil according to his wickedness.”
Another verse where “ishlm” occurs is in Ruth 2:12:
“May the LORD rewardyour work, and your wages be full from the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to seek refuge.” (NASB).
The NIV translates the first few words of this verse as ‘May the Lord repay.” Other than the main verse of study in this essay (Gen.15:1) “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,” there is another verse that uses “sakar” (shkr) instead of “ishlm.” It is Numbers 18:31 “You and your households may eat the rest of it anywhere, for it is your wages for your work at the Tent of Meeting (NIV). Here, the Hebrew word is “sakar.” The NKJV, again, translates this same Hebrew word as “reward” in the same verse. Other Hebrew words that are translated “repay,” “reward,” or “bribe” are nebizbah, pelluah, and shalmon, although these occur with less frequency out of the total 28 verses in the OT translated “reward.” Shalmon occurs in Psalm 5:15. An instance of “nebizbah” used in the second definition to mean “recovery of stolen goods or property” happens in Daniel 6:14 “When the king heard this, he was greatly distressed; he was determined to rescue Daniel and made every effort until sundown to save him.” (This verse is not included in the total 28 instances of “reward” in the OT).
The genre of the passage is “prose narrative concerning a vision.” It describes a short but meaningful conversation between Abram and God. It is covenantal in that it involves a promise and a vision to authenticate the scope of the promise. There is symbolism in the passages that aid the reader in understanding past revelation and how it continues – progressively providing more information concerning God’s management of Abram’s life and future. The Lord presents Himself for the third time to Abram, this time as a “shield” and a “reward.” It is not a human shield or a monetary reward that Abram will be protected by or receive as some recompense, but the present tense in verse 1 “I am your shield; your very great reward” strikes the reader as something that God is (Sovereign) and what He signifies (a reward in and of Himself). Chapter 15 is a new passage, however, the phrase “after this,” in the first part of verse 1 gives a clue that the following verses may contain some information that takes into account the preceding story. Previously, Abram had interacted with the King of Sodom, and had refused an offer to keep treasures of war for himself, so as to remain unstained by that King’s nefarious influence. In the ancient Near East world, a king signified protection (shield) from all manner of harm. A powerful ally would have served a landless sojourner such as Abram well. The Lord’s dealing with Abram states explicitly that no other King but Him would provide Abram with protection, nor would he be comforted with extra riches as a reward. God’s relationship to Abram would be his comfort and estate. Neither should Abram be afraid of any ruler but the Lord.
As is usual in the lives of the patriarchs, there are complaints of something lacking, and in Abram’s case, it was a male child who would be his heir. Abram is quick to attribute this perceived problem to the Lord’s doing in verse 3 “you have given me no children.” Eliezer of Damascus was Abram’s only link to an heir. He was probably a beloved slave, such as those who would be purchased in the ancient world if a man was childless. Some commentators suggest that Abram could have obtained Eliezer during his journey southward to Haran. In Genesis 24:2, there is a servant who remained “unnamed.” Some speculate that this could have been Eliezer himself. Studies of ancient Near Eastern texts (Code of Hammurabi) strongly suggest that a childless male could make one of his male servants an heir. It appears this way in verse 2. At any rate, this was not God’s plan (verse 4), for Abram was promised a child even at his old age. This was another one of his complaints to God, which eventually resulted in the birth of Ishmael, who was not destined to be the carrier of the seed (Abram’s descendants). The Lord has Abram contemplate the night sky. There were probably many thousands of bright starts in the ancient night sky. This, along with the grains of sand of the beaches, was to be the analogy concerning the number of descendants that Abram would have (verse 5). God would surely and sovereignly bring all of this to pass, even if Abram could not fathom it. In earlier encounters, similar things were spoken by the Lord to him. Three visions, an important number in ancient culture, constituted a well-rounded set of events that ensured, in totality, the veracity of the vision as well as the divine reputation of the enactor.
An exceedingly important verse is the final one in this study “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” This verse not only has New Testament implications (as do the others), but very personal issues that concern every believer. The fact that Abram believed God is a sovereign result of God’s good and reliable character – that He fulfills all promises – yet even though Abram faltered in many ways, he is credited with trusting the Lord so as to be called righteous (just). There is a two-way relationship between God and the patriarchs – one of mutual trust, although it is God who is perfect and finally responsible for carrying out the task. His divine condescension is proof that He is kind and caring toward His creatures. He works in the lives of those who believe and trust in His promises as well as Himself. Since God is not separated from what He proclaims (in the Bible), one is not a believer who does not trust in God’s promises, for then she does not trust in God’s character.
The theological content of these six verses supply a dense narrative of information with regard to the Abrahamic covenant. God is to be regarded as Lord over Abram in every sense. God, who is the protector of His people, does not want them to trust in kinds or in chariots, but in the Lord Himself. Him being the shield, He sets a hedge over those whom He calls. There is surely a rewarding content to this covenant. There is land and offspring – greatly coveted items in the ancient world and even today. But Abraham would not see the result of this promise nor would he meet the Christ. Not even Moses was able to enter the land. In a sense, Abram was not rewarded by the items themselves (except for the birth of Isaac), but with righteousness for having believed God. This was experienced by Abram, and the source of this righteousness is God Himself, therefore verifying the words of the vision in verse 1: “I am your shield; your very great reward.”That relationship with God which affects all those who believe is a form of protection from the final consequences of unbelief – spiritual death. A vision from God was not experienced by every person, and an important question must be asked: Why does God single people out and leave others to perish? Even among His children, why do some receive more information than others and a closer relationship with God? An exposition of answers to these questions is beyond the scope of this essay, but some passing mention can be given soon with regard to the theological implications of not only national election (Israel), but a very personal and individual election and favoritism in the Lord toward people of various kinds and in various manners.
The fact that Eliezer and Ishmael were not to be counted as heirs, and the youngest (Isaac) received that favored treatment (not based on anything he did) gives us a picture on divine election not based on personal merit. This kind of theology can be explored in the NT when discussions of merit and righteousness are had. Where did Abram’s righteousness come from if not himself? Was God fully responsible for Abram’s belief, or was it a synergistic relationship where God initiated the content of this faith and Abram responded with a “yes?” If this synergistic model is true, then was it possible for Abram to have probably held to unbelief, thus ending the possibility of the promise being fulfilled? Absolutely not! If Abraham was treated as he was because of who he was or what he did, there would be a type of favoritism with God. But does God react to something in a person to then promise them something? When Isaac and subsequently Jacob were born (elect and then elect of the next generation), they were counted as heirs, and God’s promise to have the older serve the younger is seen here (as opposed to Ishmael and Esau, respectively, as those reprobated). Joseph, then, with his tragic moments carried through by his brothers against him, and with Potifar’s wife and Pharaoh, preserved the promised lineage. It was the Lord who ultimately planned these occurrences for the benefit and carrying out of the promises made in Genesis to Abram. God is faithful and His word does not fail, despite attempts by many Jews to raise questions concerning belief:
“It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” In other words, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.”(Rom.9:6-8)
These verses are both inclusive and exclusive, and deal with the ramifications of Abram’s third encounter with God. The non-believing Israelites throughout all its history were in fact not those in God’s overarching plan of salvation. Some have argued that this election is to service and membership, not to salvation, but an examination of other texts proves this interpretation to be reactionary and insufficient. If God’s promise to Abram was predicated on human belief and then ratified upon that belief, and not otherwise, then what does the Apostle Paul mean with this?
“For this was how the promise was stated: “At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.” Not only that, but Rebekah’s children were conceived at the same time by our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad —in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Rom.9:9-13)
In other words, was God’s election of the Hebrews out of Egypt an act based on foreseen faith and inherent righteousness?
“It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the LORD your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (Deut.9:5)
Abram, the previous idolater, had been chosen for a very special mission and had been given the necessary equipment to believe – to be able to trust God’s promises, therefore God Himself. His descendants refer to believing Israelites and also believing gentiles, which seem to comprise most of God’s children. This is a tremendous amount of grace bestowed to ill-deserving humans. Galatians has a great deal to say concerning Abraham and faith.
“So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” (6-9)
Abraham is undoubtedly a model for proper faith in both the Old Testament and the New. Believers can look up to him and understand that his greatness and importance as a patriarch is due to his obedience as we take into account human responsibility, but ultimately Abram’s story is a result of God raising up this man whom He elected (foreknew) from before the foundation of the world (Rom.8), promising him love and possessions, and sustaining him through his difficult journey. We can expect, as believers, to have similar difficulties in our faith, and could be comforted with the fact that God’s faithfulness in Abram’s life is a result of His omnipotence and everlasting love toward His remnant (true Israel) elect in both the OT and the New.
Beale G.K. Handbook on the New Testament use of the Old Testament. Exegesis and
Interpretation (Baker Academic, 2012).
Brotzman R. Ellis. Old Testament Textual Criticism: A Practical Introduction. (Baker
Everett F. Harrison, Pfeiffer F. Charles. The Wycliffe Bible Commentary. Moody Press.
Chicago, IL, 1962
Horton, Michael. Introducing Covenant Theology. (Baker Books. Reprint Edition, 2009)
Mann, Thomas W. The Book of the Torah: The Narrative Integrity of the
Pentateuch. Atlanta: (John Knox Press, 1988).