Throughout the Old Testament, the word of the Lord came to prophets—both the former prophets (such as Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha), and the writing prophets (Isaiah – Malachi). But it is Abram who first hears the word of the Lord:
Genesis 15:1, 4 (ESV)
1 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision …
4 And behold, the word of the Lord came to him …
Was Abram a prophet? The short answer is: Yes. God calls him a prophet in Genesis 20:7. So what’s a prophet? What is prophecy?
Is it prediction? As you read the scholars, you find some who treat prophecies as ex eventu (written after it happened), while others argue strenuously for true prediction. Others view prophecy not as foretelling but forth-telling (i.e. proclamation such as preaching). Pentecostals expect to hear prophecies today, while cessationists limit it to the past. Some of the confusion about prophecy disappears when we see a kingdom perspective.
A prophecy is simply this: a message from the sovereign—a word from the Lord (dā·ḇār YHWH). It’s not necessarily about the future. It can be:
- an instruction: something the king wants his servants to do.
- a correction/warning: his servants must stop taking his project off track, grasping his power, misrepresenting his character to this realm.
- an encouragement: his servants may not be seeing it yet, but YHWH’s plans will succeed.
The sovereign may communicate his message to his servants visually (visions/dreams) or in language (oracles). Abram’s first message from YHWH comes in a vision (15:1). We are not told the form of the second one (15:4).
People have been hearing God’s voice all through Genesis. Noah heard God telling him to build a boat. Abram heard God telling him to leave the Babel system for the Promised Land. But something new is stirring in this chapter: Abram is about to be formally installed as YHWH’s governor general via a covenant ceremony. The narrator introduces the language of prophecy because Abram is about to be formally acknowledged as YHWH’s spokesperson.
So what is it that YHWH wants to say to Abram? The first message is a word of encouragement. Abram has just returned from defeating a vastly superior force of allied invaders. YHWH protected him, giving him victory and spoils. YHWH’s message affirms that this is just the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great” (15:1).
Abram responds to this prophetic vision by highlighting the elephant in the room. YHWH’s promises of making a future nation from Abram’s descendants look dead in the water if Abram has no children. If he died at this point, his inheritance would pass to someone unrelated to Abram or the land:
Genesis 15:2, 4 (ESV)
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?”
And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.”
Isn’t that interesting? The second dā·ḇār YHWH is a response to Abram’s point of concern. Prophecy is not just a unilateral message uttered from heaven. Prophecy can be conversational — the king discussing matters of state with his servants.
Did you feel Abram’s grief over his childlessness? YHWH did. He takes Abram outside the tent under the night sky and gives him a sign—a visual representation of the message. Abram sees thousands of stars filling the sky, and for the first time he really sees thousands of descendants filling the land (15:5). Abram believes the message YHWH has given. That trust is the basis of the partnership that will restore YHWH’s righteous rule to the earth (15:6).
The prophetic conversation between YHWH and his servant Abram continues. Abram raises further questions. YHWH responds by binding himself to Abram in a covenant. YHWH even reveals some future events (15:13-16). As YHWH’s human partner in the reestablishment of his reign over all humanity, Abram continues the prophetic conversation in the chapters ahead.
So what is prophecy? It’s not prediction. It’s not preaching. It’s a revelation, a message from the sovereign, a word from the Lord.
What others are saying
Gordon D. Fee and Douglas K. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993), 182:
To see the prophets as primarily predictors of future events is to miss their primary function, which was to speak for God to their own contemporaries.
William David Reyburn and Euan McG. Fry, A Handbook on Genesis, (New York: United Bible Societies, 1998), 331:
The word of the Lord came is a formula that is uncommon in the first six books of the Hebrew Scriptures, but quite common in other parts of the Old Testament. In Genesis the expression occurs only here and in verse 4. It is frequently used of a prophetic revelation, that is, God’s appearing to a prophet. Note that in 20:7 Abram is referred to as a “prophet.” The formula often requires some adjustments in translation, and here it must often be related to in a vision as the means by which the word came to the one who received it, Abram.
2 Peter 1:20–21 (NIV):
Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
Read Genesis 15:1-5.