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Genesis 15.12: "And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, lo, an horror of great darkness fell upon him." (KJV)

Is this similar to the plague of darkness in Ex 10.21? Or Genesis 32.24, where Jacob wrestles with the Angel?

Why does it fall on Abraham, and what purpose does it serve?

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  • Do the standard commentaries not provide any satisfying answers? - if not, why not? – Dottard Feb 1 at 10:42
  • @Dottard Standard commentaries have: deep sleep references to Adam with the rib and Jonah. And "dread associated inspired by the awareness of the Divine Presence". Darkness has ref to Exodus. I am hoping the community can come up with something that has a bit more meat. If not, it's OK. – Robert Feb 1 at 10:49
  • @Dottard I just had a thought that perhaps this could be a type of Christ in the grave as well. I think there is a lot to dig out here and tie together, more than is available in standard commentaries. – Robert Feb 1 at 10:54
  • Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. 2 He said: 3 “May the day of my birth perish, and the night that said, ‘A boy is conceived!’ 4 That day—may it turn to darkness; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minoan_eruption – R. Emery Feb 5 at 3:25
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Is this similar to the plague of darkness in Ex 10.21? Or Genesis 32.24, where Jacob wrestles with the Angel?

I doubt it.

Let's see how far we get... It'll help if one understands what "deep sleep" is in this context. The "deep sleep" can mean just a "deep sleep" or it can have have a divine intervention linked to it. In the divine intervention scenario, the horror can be the sense of awareness when one is in God's presence (similar feeling when one is near important people, like a president except that God would exceed it). Looking at the verses that follow leads into that direction.

So, considering only this passage, I'd say the purpose is to convey God's presence.

Is there more to it than that? Probably. Why do I say probably? Simply because this passage also triggers me Job 4:12-14 (NASB)

12 “Now a word was brought to me secretly, And my ear received a whisper of it. 13 Amid disquieting thoughts from visions of the night, When deep sleep falls on people, 14 Dread came upon me, and trembling, And made all my bones shake.

From this passage in Job we can see similarities between the two that go beyond just the "presence": there's a message / revelation being carried as well and in a way that gives no doubt of its authority.

Why does it fall on Abraham, and what purpose does it serve?

It falls on Abraham because God wanted to reveal something to him in a way that Abraham would understand to be from God Himself.

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    +1. Thank you for your considered answer. I'm waiting for other answers to come in now. – Robert Feb 3 at 0:21
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If the word “horror” is taken as a key word, that will dispense with mere darkness. Yes, there are lots of mentions of darkness in the Bible, supernatural ones too, but how often is that associated with ghastly dread? And if we take the matter of the carcasses laid out by Abram before darkness comes, we may well think of the body of Christ nailed and lifted up to be seen both as a horror to behold, and as that dreadful, supernatural darkness descended at mid-day for three hours. Did anyone ever suffer such dread as did Christ during those hours of darkness? He had been in dread anticipation of it in the dark garden of Gethsemane hours earlier, but when that supernatural darkness enveloped him, then he knew being forsaken by God, though he had done nothing to warrant that. He had become something – a sacrifice.

This was surely foreshadowed by those unique events at nightfall, when Abram slept but then this awful darkness gripped him. “Why does it fall of Abram”? you ask. Matthew Henry’s Commentary makes these suggestions.

“This great darkness, which brought horror with it, was designed, (1) To strike an awe upon the spirit of Abram, and to possess him with a holy reverence, that the familiarity to which God was pleased to admit him might not breed contempt. Note: Holy fear prepares the soul for holy joy… (2) To be a specimen of the methods of God’s dealings with his seed. They must first be in the horror and darkness of Egyptian slavery, and then enter with joy into the good land… (3) to be an indication of that covenant of peculiarity which God was about to make with Abram.” (page 32, columns 2 & 3)

There seem to be parallels. Consider the awesome ceremony. After Abram had cut a heifer, a she-goat and a ram in two (the two birds were not cut) and laid each side opposite the other, with a gap between the two, God did something extraordinary in the fearful darkness. Normally, a covenant was cut with the animal carcass split in two and the parties to the covenant walking between them, as a visual aid that they were agreeing to respective penalties if they broke their side of the covenant. But with this one, only God moved (unseen but for the burning brazier and brand), showing he would bear the penalties for BOTH sides of the covenant agreement (as Abram was immobile). So if Abram and his descendants broke their side of the covenant, God would bear the penalties. And there was no ‘if’ about it. God knew full well before the covenant was sealed that the descendants of Abram would break the covenant. Of course, God would never break HIS side of the covenant but this mysterious ceremony showed that God had bound himself to keep his covenant.

Contemplate this: God will pay the ultimate price for covenant failure. The Son of God was willing to die on behalf of Abram and his descendants, literal and spiritual. When they fall short of the covenant's terms, he will take the curse for covenant failure in their place. This is why God credits Abraham with righteousness the moment he says 'yes' to the covenant (Gen. 15:6). Surely this foreshadows the cross of Jesus? His flesh was torn and sacrificed so that God's word to Abram might be fulfilled, not just for land, not just for one tiny nation, but for forgiveness and eternal life for all who put faith in Jesus, Jews and Gentiles alike! “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3).

Jesus stands between the holy God and unholy sinners who have broken their covenant obligations. Jesus supports the latter who trust in him while upholding the righteousness of God in justifying sinners. God is completely righteous in sending his Son to die on behalf of covenant violators who accept by faith that provision. God is keeping his terms of the covenant as displayed that dark night when he cut the covenant with Abram. This is the ultimate purpose of that terrible darkness. Galatians 3:16 says that Christ is the seed (singular) of Abraham. Christ paid the penalty on behalf of covenant breakers, immobilised, unable to move out of our darkness. And because Christ is God incarnate, we come full circle, back to that awesome dark night which parallels the horror of that dark day when the sword pierced Christ and he was sacrificed in the fire of God’s righteous judgment on sin. We could not keep the covenant. He paid the penalty on our behalf.

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    +1. Thank you for your answer and research – Robert Feb 3 at 0:22
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The fear that descends on Avram in verse 12 is the fear of anticipation of the horrific tidings given in the following verse, "Know for a certainty that your descendants will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and they will be in servitude and afflicted for four hundred years".

The verse shows that Avram was close enough to God to anticipate the gravity of the tidings, and that God trusted Avram to the degree that that He could give Avram this knowledge without breaking Avram's faith.

The MT Hebrew for the fear is אימה חשכה גדולה. This is a noun phrase constructed of a noun, אימה "fear", followed by two adjectives, חשכה "dark"1 and גדולה "great", so it would be more correct to translate as "a great dark fear" rather that "a great fear of darkness" or "a fear of great darkness". Avram wasn't afraid of the dark.

This incident in toto is similar to Jacob's struggle with the Angel, Moses's encounter in Exodus 4:24, and Joshua's encounter with the minister of God's army in Joshua 15:15. These are all fearful encounters that both test and strengthen a prophet before before embarking on a challenging experience.


  1. In the MT, darkness as a noun is always חשך (חושך)
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  • Thank you for your answer. I was hoping for a bit more research and citations, and you are certainly capable of it. – Robert Feb 3 at 0:23
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    @Robert You might be trying to over-read the verse. There aren't a lot of citations and the verse doesn't get a lot of attention from scholars. The language and meaning are simple and don't require much interpretation, God gives Avram a frightening view of the trouble in store in the medium term future that causes Avram to lose his sight from the anxiety. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Feb 3 at 7:16
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@Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim is on the right path that the "horror of great darkness" concerns the future events of Israel that will soon be unfolding.

There are at least two ancient Jewish sources that comment on this passage in this regard.

The first is from Genesis Rabbah 44:22. The following translation is from First Fruits of Zion, Depths of the Torah, Book 1 (page 110):

Rabbi Yochanon ben Zachai and Rabbi Akiva disagree. One teaches, "He revealed the future of this world to Abraham, but not the World to Come." The other said, "He revealed to him both this world and the next." ...Rabbi Leazar and Rav Yosi bar Chanina disagree. One teaches, "He revealed to him the whole future until that day [i.e., of the Exodus of Egypt]." The other said, "He revealed to him the future from that day [of the Exodus from Egypt until the day of Messiah]." (Genesis Rabbah 44:22)

The second comes from the Aramaic Targums - the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible. When the translators would take the text from Hebrew to Aramaic they had the tendency to weave their commentary into the translation.

This translation is from First Fruits of Zion, Shadows of the Messiah, Book 1 (pg. 79):

And when the sun was setting, Abram was cast into a deep sleep, and, behold, four kingdoms arose to enslave his children. "Terror" refers to Babylon. "Darkness" refers to Media. "Great" refers to Greece. "Fell" refers to [Rome] which will fall and from whence the children of Israel will come up. (Genesis 15:12, Targum Pseudo-Yonatan)

You can find Genesis 15 in Targum Pseudo-Yonatan here from Sefaria.org.

Considering these ancient interpretations it then makes sense when Jesus says in John 8:56

"Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad." (NIV)

This may also lend to Hebrews 11:13 -

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth

Hope this helps you on your journey.

P.S. - After some contemplation on Roberts follow up question (see comments below):

The Rabbi's interpretation is that Abraham sees both the "terror" of what is about to happen to his children (the oppression) as well as the "joy" (John 8:56) of the redemption.

Whether it is the redemption from Egypt - the Exodus on "that very day" (Exodus 12:51) or the day of the Messiah and the final redemption. Either way, there is joy to be seen in the future when his children are finally redeemed.

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  • Thank you, @s-broberg for digging up these references. +1. But I think you'd need to make an argument as to why Abraham saw horror and not joy, if he saw the whole future ahead of him, especiall the Messiah. There is something missing here. – Robert Feb 4 at 3:54
  • Great point @robert! Much more to contemplate. – S. Broberg Feb 4 at 14:38
  • @Robert - after much contemplation I added to my answer (see above). – S. Broberg Feb 4 at 15:57

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