COMMITMENT TO A MAN OF FAITH:
The Covenant with Abraham
Genesis 12; 15; 17
• A man without merit (Genesis 12)
• A man with faith (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4)
• Seven promises to Abraham (Genesis 12:2–3, 7)
• Abraham “believed God” (Genesis 12:6)
• God makes it “legal” (Genesis 15:8–21)
• Has God kept His promises? (Genesis 24:1)
• Circumcision: sign of the covenant (Genesis 17:9–14)
• A map of things to come
“For better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness, and in health—till death do us part.”
These familiar words of the traditional marriage ceremony express a commitment which two people make to each other. All too often that commitment is broken as the glow of first love fades in the harsher light of constant exposure to each other’s weaknesses.
But imagine that God had made this kind of commitment to a human being. Suppose that His commitment was unconditional: that no matter what, He would remain faithful to His promise.
As we look further into the Bible book of Genesis, we discover that God did just that!
Following the Flood described in Genesis 6–9, the earth was gradually repopulated by Noah’s descendants. Genesis 10 describes the settlement of different areas of the ancient world by various groups and peoples. Genesis 11 describes the origin of ethnic and language groups, and then provides a genealogy tracing the family of Abram (later known as Abraham) back to Noah’s son, Shem.
Like other biblical genealogies, this list of ancestors is selective. It identifies key individuals but does not name all ancestors. While we can’t guess how many years elapsed between Noah and Abraham, they should be measured in thousands rather than hundreds.
What is most important, however, is that by the time of Abraham, human civilization was again corrupt. Documents from the ancient Near East make it very clear that morally and spiritually humanity had abandoned the knowledge of God and His ways. As Joshua 24:2 reminds us, “Your fathers, including Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, dwelt on the other side of the River in old times; and they served other gods.”
In Noah’s time, such wickedness had led to the judgment of the great Flood.That Flood established for all time the fact that God is a moral judge who will punish sin.
But with Abraham God introduced a new and gracious approach to dealing with humankind. That approach is summed up in Joshua 24:3:“Then I took your father Abraham from the other side of the River, led him throughout all the land of Canaan, and multiplied his descendants.”
God chose Abram and initiated a long-range plan that would for all eternity establish the Lord as a God of love, who cares deeply for human beings in spite of our sinfulness. That plan is introduced in the covenant promises God made to Abram. And the rest of the Bible is the story of how that plan was carried out.
ABRAM THE MAN
We know little about Abram except that he was born in Ur of the Chaldees, an important city-state where many pagan deities were worshiped. We know from Acts 7:2 that God spoke to Abram as an adult while he lived in Ur. We know that Abram journeyed to Haran, where his father and brother settled, and that after a time Abram continued his journey to Canaan. We know that Abram was well-to-do and traveled with flocks and herds and servants, as well as with his wife and his nephew Lot. We also know that, unlike Noah, Abram’s call included no personal commendation by God.
The text of Scripture never indicates that when God spoke to Abram, he was “a just man, perfect in his generations” or that he “walked with God” (Gen. 6:9). In fact, from the stories of Abram told in Genesis, we know that he was a seriously flawed individual. Told by God to get out of his country and to leave his family and his father’s house, Abram left Ur. But he took his father along. Even after his father died in Haran, Abram took his nephew Lot to Canaan with him.
There is other evidence that we are to understand Abram as a sinner. On a visit to Egypt, and again later in Canaan, Abram urged his wife to lie about their relationship out of fear that he might be killed by someone who wanted her. No wonder God had to accept Abram’s faith for righteousness (Gen. 15:6). Abram, the idolater, was not an especially righteous man!
Abram’s wealth was in his flocks and herds.
MERIT OR GRACE
As we look at the Abrahamic Covenant, we need to remember the principles defined earlier in our study of the Noahic Covenant. As “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen. 6:8), so the Abrahamic Covenant was a grace gift from the Lord.
This vital truth was corrupted in the Judaism of the first century b.c., and in modern Judaism as well. The apocryphal book of Jubilees credits Abram with great piety before the Lord spoke to him. It says,
And the lad began understanding the straying of the land, that everyone went astray after graven images and after pollution. … And he separated from his father so that he might not worship the idols with him. And he began to pray to the Creator of all so that he might save him from the straying of the sons of men (Jubilees 11:16, 17).
The same idea—that it was Abram’s merit which led God to make His wonderful covenant promises—is reflected in a Sabbath devotional of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, written for the November 7, 1992, Jerusalem Post. Rabbi Riskin related a famous tale told in Jewish Midrash intended to show that Abram “became worthy of divine trust and blessing.” The story goes like this:
A famous tale relates how Abram, the son of a man who trafficked in idols, one day smashed those idols and then planted a stick in the arms of the largest one. When his astonished father, Terah, demanded an explanation, innocent Abram pointed to the idol holding the plank, as if that inanimate god were the culprit. He thus ridiculed idolatry by demonstrating that not even idol makers believed in their product.
Terah’s shop was not some fly-by-night affair in temporary quarters, located near the busiest section in town, but rather a thriving center for idolatrous arts—more like the luminescent chambers of any large museum, with spotlights and acres of space to dramatize the repose of the idols. And Abram’s action was not a mere childish prank, but a revolutionary stroke which changed the way humanity perceived reality for all subsequent generations.
While we can appreciate the imaginative telling of this story which, unlike the biblical account, has no roots in history or tradition, it’s clear that both Jubilees and Jewish Midrash explain God’s covenant promises by referring to Abram’s supposed merits rather than to God’s grace.
Yet it is there, in God’s heart and character, that the explanation for His covenant promises lie. In saying that “there is none righteous, no, not one,” (Ps. 14:1–3; cf. Rom. 3:10), the Old Testament and New Testament agree. We cannot look for an explanation for God’s gracious acts in any supposed human goodness—not even in the supposed goodness of Abram, a true hero of the faith. No, we must look for the explanation of God’s gracious acts in His compassionate heart.
Abram, like you and me, was a sinner who, apart from God’s initiative, would have continued in the idolatrous path established by his forefathers. But God did choose to act. As Nehemiah 9:7states, “You are the Lord God, Who chose Abram, and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans.”
And Abram responded with faith.
ABRAM’S FAITH RESPONSE (GENESIS 15:6; ROMANS 4)
The Abrahamic Covenant is stated three times in Genesis.
Genesis 12lists the series of promises that constitute the covenant. Abram responded with a demonstration of faith. As commanded, Abram left Ur to set out for Canaan.
When God restated several of the original covenant promises in Genesis 15, the Bible says of Abram that “he believed the Lord, and He accounted it to him [credited it to him] for righteousness” (Gen. 15:6).
The apostle Paul developed the significance of this verse in Romans 4. He argued that the key to personal relationship with God is not works––what we do—but faith. Personal relationship with God “is of faith,” Paul wrote, “that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to all the seed” (Rom. 4:16). Paul concluded his thoughts by reminding us that faith was credited to Abraham for a righteousness which, despite rabbinic fictions, he did not possess. And, Paul indicated, this wonderful revelation of a righteousness that comes through faith in the gracious promises of God was not “written for his sake alone that it was imputed to him, but also for us. It [righteousness] shall be imputed to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification” (Rom. 4:23–25).
Abram, then, was a man like the rest of us, flawed by sin and without any merit to recommend him to God. Yet, God in His grace made a series of promises to Abram, and sealed them in that binding agreement known in the ancient world as a berit, or covenant. Those promises were freely and sovereignly given and, as we will see, mark out a wonderful future not only for Abram’s physical descendants but also for all who respond with faith in the one in whom the covenant promises will be fulfilled.
THE CONTENT OF THE ABRAHAMIC COVENANT (GENESIS 12:1–3, 7)
The basic content of the Abrahamic Covenant is spelled out in Genesis 12:1–3, 7, where God stated His intent to bless Abram and his descendants.
Now the Lord had said to Abram: “Get out of your country, From your family And from your father’s house, To a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you And make your name great; And you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, And I will curse him who curses
you; And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:1–3).
Later God appeared to Abram and added this clause. “To your descendants I will give this land” (Gen. 12:7).
GOD CALLED ABRAM (GENESIS 12:1)
The first verse of Genesis 12 contains God’s call to Abram, then living in Ur (Acts 7:2). Abram was to separate from his old associations and move to a land which God would show him.
Get out … to a land (Genesis 12:1).The Hebrew text adds the reflexive pronoun to the command “you get out,” so that the text should read “go yourself.” Commentators see two possible emphases.
Go by yourself.
God may be saying, “Go by yourself” out of your country, from your family and your father’s house. In this case, it’s clear that while Abram obeyed God’s command to leave, he did not go by himself. He went with his family, and even brought his nephew Lot to Canaan after his father Terah died in Haran.
Go for your own benefit.
The great Jewish scholar Rashi understands the phrase “go yourself” to mean “go for yourself,” that is, for your own benefit, for your own good. In commanding Abram to leave Ur, God was speaking graciously, with the intent of blessing Abram.
Each of these two interpretations reminds us that grace underlies the giving of all covenant promises. God’s purposes, as expressed in the Abrahamic Covenant, has Abram’s best interests at heart and, indeed, the best interests of all humanity.
From your country … family … father’s house (Genesis 12:1).
This call to abandon everything to follow the Lord moves from less to more difficult. It is hard to leave a society in which a person has grown up. It is harder to leave the extended family and that circle of relations who have helped us define who we are. It is hardest of all to leave our father’s house, where relationships are closest and love deepest.
We see this reflected in Abram’s story. First he left Ur, but took his family with him. Even after his father died in Haran, Abram took a nephew with him to Canaan. Perhaps this gradual severing of the ties that bound Abram to his former life served God’s purposes as well as a sudden departure would have. In any case, God graciously accepted the gradual process. But it was not until after Abram and his nephew had separated (Gen. 13) that God formally confirmed the promises given Abram (Gen. 15).
To a land that I will show you (Genesis 12:1).
God set the direction for Abram’s move but did not state a destination. It is this, along with the call to leave all that was familiar behind, which reminds us that from the beginning, Abram’s response to God’s revelation was marked by faith. Abram trusted God enough to leave behind all that was familiar to set out for a life he could not imagine, to live in a place he had never visited (cf. Heb. 11:8–10).
It was faith that enabled Abram to claim the promises. But it was grace that moved God to make the promises in the first place.
GOD CONVEYS HIS INTENT TO ABRAM (GENESIS 12:2, 3, 7)
God’s intent is expressed in a series of “I will” statements. As in other promise covenants, God’s “I will” statements mark unconditional commitments. They express what God will do, without defining how He will accomplish what He has promised. We can see seven distinct statements of God’s intent in Genesis 12:2, 3, 7.
(1) “I will make you a great nation” (Genesis 1:2). When Abram left Ur, he and his wife had no children. Yet God’s promise to make Abram a great nation clearly required that the patriarch have children in the future, and that he have many descendants.
Even more is implied in the choice of the word for “nation,” goy. This word is applied throughout Scripture to pagan nations, while Abram’s descendants are typically identified as a people (˒am). The use of the word goyin this verse implied that one day Abram’s descendants would be more than an ethnic group: they would be a nation among the nations, with their own government and territory.
To keep peace between their herdsmen, Abram and Lot eventually went their separate ways.
(2) “I will bless you” (Genesis 1:2).
No specific content is implied here, although Jewish commentators tend to apply Proverbs 10:22, “the blessing of the Lord makes one rich,” and take the phrase to mean that Abram was promised wealth.
Gorden Wenham, in his commentary on Genesis 1–15, (Word) notes that the root 3(“bless”) occurs 88 times in Genesis, compared to 310 times in the rest of the Old Testament.
God’s blessing is manifested most obviously in human prosperity and well-being: long life, wealth, peace, good harvests, and children are the items that figure most often in lists of blessing such as Genesis 24:35–36, Leviticus 26:4–13, and Deuteronomy 28:3–15. What modern secular man calls “luck” or “success,” the OT calls blessing (p. 275).
Throughout his life Abram was to be blessed by God. Even when his actions did not merit it, God would show favor to Abram, even as God shows His favor to you and me today.
(3) And make your name great (Genesis 12:2).
Several inscriptions from early second-millennium Mesopotamia show the concern of ancient kings in a “great” name. Man’s life on earth is short, and for many in the ancient as well as the modern world, being remembered seemed to offer at least a semblance of immortality.
How fascinating that those kings who set their hearts on conquering other peoples and building great monuments have long been forgotten, while Abram, who spent a quiet nomadic life living in tents, has been honored for more than four thousand years!
(4) “You shall be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2).
This is one of the most significant promises made to Abram. He was not only to be blessed. He was to become a conduit through which God’s blessing might flow to others. Again, this statement of God’s intent does not specify how Abram was to be a blessing. The how would become known only as the centuries flowed and God’s plan unfolded more and more. But while Abram could not imagine how he would be a blessing to others, it was clear that God intended blessing to flow through Abram to others yet unborn.
(5) “I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you” (Genesis 12:3). These two phrases are in the form of a poetic doublet, and they should be understood as a single statement of intent. When it comes to Abram, the normal operations of cause and effect in human relationships are set aside. God Himself will personally intervene, to provide those who support Abram with blessings, and to repay those who trouble Abram with troubles.
(6) “And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).
The word translated “family” here indicates a major group between a tribe and a single household. It is often translated “clan.” We note that the passage does not say every individual on earth will be blessed in Abraham, but that members of every major group will be blessed.
It is interesting that the Jewish sages tended to take the Niphal form of “bless” here as a reflexive pronoun, and read it, “All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” Rashi took this to mean that people everywhere will one day say “be like Abraham” when expressing best wishes to others. But Rambam and others noted that if taken in the passive, to mean that Abram will become the source of blessing for all humanity, the verse fits a doctrine emphasized later in the prophets.
Truly all humankind has been blessed in Abram, and in what God has done through the patriarch and his descendants, the Jewish people.
(7) “To your descendants I will give this land” (Genesis 12:7).
This seventh promise, or statement of God’s intent, is separated from the first six. It is not only separated in the text. It was separated in Abram’s experience.
The first six promises were given to Abram in Ur (Acts 7:2). It was only after Abram had left and actually traveled to Canaan that this seventh promise was made to him. There is good reason for the delay. God had told Abram to leave everything and everyone and travel to a land the Lord would show him. Only when Abram had arrived in the land, and seen it, could God say “I will give this land.”
To have meaning for Abram, “show” had to precede “give.”
As we trace this specific promise through the Scriptures, we will see just how important it is. For now, however, it’s enough to note two things. The land of Canaan could not be inherited by Lot, for it was promised to Abram’s descendants. And the land could not be possessed by Abram then, for God said the land would be given to Abram’s descendants. This promise was to be fulfilled in the future, not in Abram’s present.
Abram, his son, and his grandson did live in the land of God’s gift. In this sense, it became theirs too (see Gen. 13:17). But Hebrews 11:8–10 makes it very clear that Abram’s true inheritance was much more than the land which God gave to his descendants. These verses remind us that “by faith he [Abram] dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.”
Whatever God intended ultimately for Abram, it was far more than he could imagine from God’s statement of these covenant promises. What God intended ultimately for Abram and for us became clear only as the centuries passed, and as Scripture revealed how God would keep the wonderful promises He had made.
GOD MAKES A FORMAL COVENANT WITH ABRAM (GENESIS 15:1–21)
Abram now lived in the land of Canaan. For some ten years Abram and his wife Sarai, with their flocks and servants, had wandered as nomads in the land God promised Abram’s descendants were to inherit (Gen. 16:3). But Abram was now 85 and Sarai 75, and they were childless.
When God appeared to Abram again, promising to be his shield and “exceedingly great reward” (Gen. 15:1), Abram was frustrated. He asked, “Lord, what will you give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” (Gen. 15:2).
In essence Abram was saying, “Lord, what meaning does any reward You give me have, as long as I have no children?”
This challenge led to the formal restatement of two promises recorded in Genesis 12. Significantly, the two promises related to Abram’s childless state: the promise of descendants and the promise that Abram’s descendants would inherit the land of Canaan.
“So shall your descendants be” (Genesis 15:4, 5).
Abram’s concern over his childless state was understandable. God responded to that concern by promising, “One who will come from your own body shall be your heir” (Gen. 15:4). If this were not enough, God brought Abram outside his tent and told him to look to the heavens and count the stars, “if you are able to number them.”
Even though only about three thousand stars are visible to the naked eye from any hemisphere, the stars are in fact beyond our ability to count. “So,” God promised Abram, “shall your descendants be.”
Abram would have a son, and in time he would have so many descendants that it would be impossible for a human being to number them.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SONS IN THE ANCIENT WORLD
Anyone who has wanted children but was unable to have them can sympathize with Abram and Sarai in their old age. But in the world of Abram, there were even greater pressures to have sons. The Story of Aqhat tells of a banquet Danil provided for the gods in an effort to move them to give him a son. In the story, the god Ba’al adds his appeal to that of Danil, and in the process suggests a number of practical and religious reasons why having a son was so important in the ancient world.
· Put a son in his palace.
· A son …
· To erect a stele for his ancestral gods,
· To build a family shrine in the sanctuary.
· A son …
· To free Danil’s spirit from death,
· To guard his footsteps from the earth to underworld.
· A son—Aqhat …
· To enslave those who revolt against Danil,
· To drive away those who invade his father’s land.
· A son strong enough …
· To take Danil’s hand,
· —when he is drunk.
· To put Danil’s arm over his shoulder,
· —when he is full of wine.
· A son …
· To eat a funeral meal in the temple of Ba’al,
· To offer sacrifice in the house of El.
· To patch Danil’s roof when it leaks,
· To wash Danil’s clothes when they are dirty.
For Abram, of course, the motivation was even stronger. Abram needed a son if God’s promises to him were to be fulfilled and if God’s purposes through Abram were to be achieved. No wonder Abram asked, “What does reward matter as long as I am childless?” (cf. Gen. 15:2).
God promised a childless Abram more descendants than all the stars he could count.
“He believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 12:6).This pivotal verse, discussed above, makes two statements.
He believed God.The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament points out that the Hebrew word here means that “he relied on, gave credence to a message or considered it to be true, trusted in someone” (1:308). It is not that Abram had a general but hazy trust in God. What the passage asserts is that Abram relied on God’s specific word, and considered what God said to be trustworthy and true. Abram truly believed that his descendants would be innumerable.
He accounted it to him for righteousness.The Hebrew word for “accounted” is used here in a legal sense. God counted Abram’s faith as righteousness. Or, God credited faith to Abram’s account as righteousness. This pivotal Old Testament verse tells us that God accepts faith in His promise in place of a righteousness which neither Abram nor you and I possess!
This too is a grace gift from God. God did not have to accept faith in His promises and declare those who believe righteous. Yet this is exactly what the Lord did for Abram—and exactly what He does for us when we hear the promise of forgiveness of sins in Jesus, and by faith accept Him as our Savior.
“How shall I know that I will inherit it?” (Genesis 15:8).
Abram believed God’s promise. It would be wrong to take his question as an expression of doubt, as some do. Yet when God announced that “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to inherit it” (Gen. 15:7), Abram did say, “How shall I know?”
A survey of Jewish and Christian commentators on this verse shows considerable confusion. Some Jewish sages suggest that the verse means “by what merit will I know my descendants will inherit the land,” and answer that it is by the merit of the sacrifices described in the chapter. Other sages take the verse to mean, “How will I be able to show the nations that I and my descendants truly have title to Canaan?”
Christian commentators note that requests for a confirming sign occur elsewhere in Scripture, and that such signs are given in response to faith, not to unbelief (cf. Judg. 6:36–40; 2 Kin. 20:8–11).
However, the critical issue here is an apparent conflict between “Abram believed” and his question, “How shall I know?” The best answer is that the statement “Abram believed” describes Abram’s subjective state. Abram’s innermost self responded to God’s promise, and he trusted God implicitly. He believed God.
In contrast, Abram’s request was for objective confirmation: “How shall I know?”
Certainly God was not offended by Abram’s request, because the Lord immediately provided objective confirmation. He did so by telling Abram to prepare animals for a 2
We saw in chapter 1 that a covenant, a berit, was a legally binding, formal contract or agreement. God was now preparing to enter into just this kind of objective agreement with Abram, formally binding Himself to do what He had promised. This formal covenant, as recorded in tradition and later in Scripture, has provided the foundation of Israel’s conviction that God truly did give Israel the promised land.
“He cut them in two” (Genesis 15:9, 10).
Abram prepared for the covenant-making ceremony by dividing animals in two and placing the pieces side by side, leaving a path between the pieces. Much evidence exists in ancient Near Eastern texts that animals were slaughtered in treaty contract ceremonies. Some of the texts indicate that the two parties to a treaty walked between the parts of the freshly killed animals. Whatever the symbolism of this act, there is no doubt that this was one of the most binding of ancient berits, which some have called a “covenant of blood.”
“A deep sleep fell upon Abram” (Genesis 15:12).
That evening, after the animals were prepared for the treaty ceremony, Abram slept and had a vision. God told Abram that his descendants would become slaves in the land of Egypt, but that after 400 years God would judge Egypt and Abram’s descendants would return to Canaan. The coming centuries would witness God’s faithfulness to His promises to Abram.
“A burning torch that passed between those pieces” (Genesis 15:17).
Normally both parties to this kind of covenant sealed the agreement by passing between the pieces of the animals. But in this case the Lord alone, represented by the fiery symbols, bound Himself in the covenant ceremony. Abram, who slept, was free of any obligation. God unilaterally bound Himself to keep the promises He had made: “To your descendants I have given this land.”
The description in Genesis 15 of God executing a formal covenant with Abraham focuses our attention on two of the seven promises recorded in Genesis 12. God had stated His intention to bless Abram, to make him a great nation, to give him a great name, and to bless all peoples through him. And God had stated that He would make Abram a great nation and establish that nation in the land of Canaan. Now these last two promises—the promise of multiplied descendants and the promise of Canaan as a homeland—are given formal expression in a binding, unilateral covenant that God made with His servant Abram.
GOD CONFIRMS HIS COVENANT WITH ABRAM (GENESIS 17:1–8, 19)
It was fourteen years after God executed the formal covenant with Abram described in Genesis 15 that the Lord appeared to him again. In the interim, Abram had a son by his wife’s servant, Hagar. This was a common practice in Abram’s world. A childless wife might give her slave to her husband as a surrogate. Any child born to the slave was considered to be the child of the wife.
But when God appeared to Abram when he was 99 years old, the Lord announced that Abram would have a son by his wife, Sarai (Gen. 17:16). The descendants promised to Abram would be hers as well as his.
In this third statement of the Abrahamic covenant, the Lord again emphasized descendants and the land. And God expanded one of the “I will” statements of Genesis 12.
“I will multiply you exceedingly” (Genesis 17:2).
Earlier God had promised to make Abram a great nation (Gen. 12:2). When the covenant was given formal expression, God told Abram his descendants would be innumerable. Now God further expanded this promise, saying, “I will multiply you exceedingly” and adding, “You shall be a father of many nations” (Gen. 17:4). Not just one nation would trace its origin to Abram; many would.
God further emphasized, “I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you” (Gen. 17:6).
“Your name shall be Abraham” (Genesis 17:5).
At this point God changed Abram’s name to Abraham. The name Abram means “exalted father.” That meaning is intensified by the change in name, which also implies a change in status. Abram was to be the father of a (one) nation (Gen. 12:2). With his name universalized, Abraham would be the father of many nations! Multiplied peoples in addition to Israel would look back to Abraham as their fountainhead.
“I will establish My covenant” (Genesis 17:7).
This confirmation of the covenant “between Me and you and your descendants after you” is now further explained.
“An everlasting covenant.”The descendants of Abraham would inherit the promises made to him. But, as history and Scripture demonstrate, any given generation could benefit from the promises only by exercising and demonstrating a faith like that of Abraham.
“To be God to you and your descendants after you.”Earlier God had said to Abram, “I will bless you.” Now the Lord further explained the promise of blessing. God would bless Abraham and his descendants by being God to them.
While God’s blessings do encompass what we call prosperity or success, there is no doubt that in Scripture all these hinge on personal relationship with God. It was because God was Israel’s God that Abraham’s physical descendants could be blessed. And it is only because God is our God through faith in Christ that every spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:3) is available today to us, who by faith have become Abraham’s spiritual descendants (see Rom. 4:16).
“I give to you and your descendants after you the land” (Genesis 17:8).
Once again, God confirmed His gift of the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants as “an everlasting possession.” And again God stated, “And I will be their God.”
Taken together, the original statement of God’s intent (Gen. 12), the covenant execution (Gen. 15), and the covenant confirmation (Gen. 17) express what God intends to do in human history. These promises gave no details about how God intended to carry out His intent and fulfill His promises. Nevertheless they do identify certain vital elements of God’s plan.
Through Abraham and his descendants, God planned from the beginning to bless all humankind. And through Abraham’s descendants, He has done just that. Through the people springing from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, humanity has been given God’s written Word. And from this people came His Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior.
THE OUTWORKING OF THE COVENANT
In chapter 1 we noted that the major biblical covenants are eschatological in character. They point to history’s end for their ultimate fulfillment. Yet in many ways benefits promised in God’s covenants have already been experienced by Old and New Testament believers. It’s important, then, to note how the promises God made to Abraham have worked out in history.
“I will make you a great nation” (Genesis 12:2).
This promise implies the “many descendants” promised in Genesis 15 and 17. But the word nation (goy) implies more than an ethnic identity. Abraham’s descendants are to have a national identity, with their own territory and government.
The covenant promise first given to Abraham was transmitted to Abraham’s son Isaac (Gen. 17:21) and then to his son Jacob (Israel) (Gen. 28:13), and then on to the tribes which sprang from Jacob’s sons. Some 500 years after Abraham, the Lord identified the Israelites, whom Moses led out of Egypt, as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and heirs to the land promised the patriarchs.
While the Israelites, the Jewish people, are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they have not always been a nation. In fact, it was not until the time of David, around 1000 b.c., a millennium after Abraham’s day, that the Israelites were united and established as a nation. The kingdom of Israel, which was established by David, lasted only through the reign of his son, Solomon. In 930 b.c., the united kingdom was divided into two independent nations, Israel in the north, and Judah in the south.
The nation of Israel lasted only until 722 b.c., when it was overrun by Assyria and the Jewish population was deported and resettled in the East. The nation of Judah survived to 586 b.c., when it was overrun by Babylon, and its population was also deported and resettled outside Canaan.
In spite of the fact that a small group of Jews returned to Jerusalem and resettled part of the Holy Land, no Jewish state was established in Canaan [Palestine] until 1948, when the modern state of Israel was formed. Between 586 b.c. and a.d. 1948, no Jewish nation existed anywhere in the world.
Does this mean that God broke the ancient covenant promises that He gave to Abraham and his descendants? As we’ll see when we look at the Mosaic Covenant, not at all! Under Mosaic Law, God was obligated to bless given generations of Israelites only when they obeyed His commandments and worshiped Him alone. Israel was legally expelled from the land for repeatedly turning from God to idolatry, and for their failure to live the holy life laid out in the Law. But even in the darkest of times, the Old Testament prophets looked forward confidently to a future in which God’s promises would be fulfilled.
Isaiah, writing during the time when the Northern Kingdom was overrun by the Assyrians, envisioned a coming day when a deliverer would be born of David’s line:
Of the increase of His government and peace There will be no end. Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, To order it and establish it with judgment and justice From that time forward, even Forever (Isa. 9:7).
According to Isaiah, Israel would again be a nation, and a descendant of David would govern it.
This same conviction was expressed by Jeremiah, who lived through the Babylonian conquest of Judah (cf. Jer. 33:15, 16). Ezekiel, a contemporary of Jeremiah, gave one of the Old Testament’s most impressive predictions of national restoration. Ezekiel was given a vision of a valley filled with dry bones, which he reported in chapter 37. Ezekiel was told to prophesy, and he saw the scattered bones come together, saw flesh cover them, and saw God’s spirit restore them to life. Ezekiel was then told that the bones represented the whole house of Israel, scattered among the nations. God would cause the people to come back to the land of Israel, even though they were spiritually dead. There God would next cover the bones with flesh. Then, at last, God would put His spirit in them “and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land” (Ezek. 37:14). Furthermore, God said through Ezekiel, “Surely I will take the children of Israel from among the nations, wherever they have gone, and will gather them from every side and bring them into their own land, and I will make them one nation in the land” (Ezek. 37:21, 22).
In the valley of dry bones, Ezekiel found hope for Israel’s future.
The Old Testament, then, does not suggest that God has reneged on the covenant promise that Abraham’s descendants would become a nation. According to the Old Testament prophets who lived through and after the fall of the last Jewish kingdom, the promise of nationhood would surely be kept one day—a day that is still future in our time, a day that will dawn as history draws to a close.
“I will bless you” (Genesis 12:2).
The promise was made to Abram, and it was kept. Abram was blessed with riches. He was blessed with victory when forced to fight to recover his nephew Lot from a hostile raiding force (Gen. 14:1–16). When Abram lied about his relationship with his wife, and she was taken into a harem in Egypt (Gen. 12:10–20), God not only guarded Sarai from a sexual encounter; He also protected Abram from punishment by the pharaoh. At the end of Abraham’s life, as Genesis 24:1 states, “The Lord had blessed Abraham in all things.” This covenant promise was kept indeed.
But Genesis 17:7 expanded and perhaps explained the concept of blessing. There God said He would “be God to you and your descendants.” In this verse, God offered Himself to Abraham’s descendants. The personal relationship with God that Abraham enjoyed, and the blessings that flow from that relationship, were to be accessible to Israel. The psalmist picked up this thought and expressed it in Psalm 33:12. He said, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, The people He has chosen as His own inheritance.” And the psalmist went on to explain,
Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him, On those who hope in His mercy, To deliver their soul from death, And to keep them alive in famine (Ps. 33:18, 19)
The promise to be God to Israel is often repeated in the Old Testament. As God said in the time of Solomon, “I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will not forsake My people Israel” (1 Kings 6:13; cf. 1 Sam. 13:22; 2 Sam. 7:24; Ezek. 37:27).
There is also an eschatological aspect to this promise of blessing. Ezekiel looked ahead to the day when a descendant of David would shepherd God’s people in their own land, and quoted the Lord, who said, “I will make them and the places all around My hill a blessing; and I will cause showers to come down in their season; there will be showers of blessing. … Thus they shall know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and they, the house of Israel, are My people” (Ezek. 34:26, 30).
God’s promise to bless, by being God for them, was a promise that any generation or individual could claim. God kept His word and has been God for Israel throughout history. Yet so often God’s Old Testament people failed to claim Him as their own.
Psalm 33reminds us that relationships are reciprocal. We can offer ourselves to another person, but only when that person responds to our offer will an actual relationship exist. Thus, while the Lord then and now was God for Israel, many generations of the Old Testament failed to respond to Him as Abraham had.
Today God has shown Himself in Christ to be God for all people. And God still waits outside the heart’s door, eager to enter our lives and bless us.
How do we respond to God’s willingness to be God for us in our own time? We should respond as Abraham did, and as the psalmist described it:
Our soul waits for the Lord; He is our help and our shield. For our hearts shall rejoice in Him,
Because we have trusted in His holy name. Let your mercy, O Lord, be upon us, Just as we hope in You (Ps. 33:20–22).
“And make your name great” (Genesis 12:2).
This is the third covenant promise expressed in Genesis 12. God committed Himself to make Abraham’s name “great.” The reference here is to lasting honor and fame, a goal fixed on by many who desperately seek to find some significance to their lives beyond the few short years we have here on earth.
Ozymandias has been long forgotten. Yet the name of Abraham—who built no empire and erected no statues, who lived a quiet, nomadic life but who responded with faith when God spoke to him—truly has become great.
Today Abraham is looked upon as the source of both the Arab and Jewish peoples. Abraham is respected as the fountainhead by three of the world’s great religions: Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Abraham is rightly considered a great man, not only famous but also significant, by hundreds of millions today, some four thousand years after he lived and died. What’s more, not a single generation in all that span of time has lacked those who have honored Abraham as a truly great man.
God kept His covenant promise to Abraham, far more fully and completely than Abraham could ever have imagined. Even as God is “able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us” (Eph. 3:20).
“And you shall be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2).
This is the fourth statement of God’s intent found in the original statement of His covenant promises to Abraham.
While it appears to duplicate a similar promise in Genesis 12:3, the emphasis here is on Abraham himself. He is not simply the conduit through which blessing will flow to others. He is the fountainhead, the spring from which the waters of blessing will flow.
Thus, the emphasis here is on the role of Abraham in history rather than on the blessings which ultimately will come through his descendants. Certainly Abraham’s role in history is unique. In choosing Abram, God set in motion a plan to redeem humanity through the descendants of one man. In this sense, Abraham is himself a blessing to all.
“I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you” (Genesis 12:3).
This promise functioned in Abram’s day and has also worked itself out in the history of the Jewish people. When pharaoh took Abram’s wife into his harem, even though unwittingly, God “plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues” (Gen. 12:17). Later, after the Israelites had been enslaved in Egypt, God punished that land with devastating judgments (Ex. 8–11).
The Old Testament correlates the rise and fall of mighty empires with their treatment of the Jewish people. God called Assyria to discipline His people (Isa. 10:5), yet the arrogant Assyrians went too far. So Isaiah quoted God as saying, “I will punish the fruit of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria,” (Isa. 10:12). In God’s own time, Assyria fell to the Babylonians, whose rise to power was sudden and unexpected.
Isaiah also predicted the rise of Persia. A hundred years before that empire emerged, Isaiah even named the Persian ruler, Cyrus. Isaiah makes it clear that God replaced the Babylonian Empire with the Persian Empire so Cyrus could free God’s people by permitting them to return to the land from which they had been torn by the Babylonians.
Says of Cyrus, “He is My shepherd, And he shall perform all My pleasure, Saying to Jerusalem, “You shall be built,” And to the temple, “Your foundation shall be laid” (Isa. 44:28).
The cursing and the blessing of peoples who curse and bless Abraham’s descendants may be delayed. But God does intervene to see to it that this promise to Abraham is kept.
Many see this principle at work even in the Christian era. Spain once rivaled England as a great power. Then a systematic persecution of the Jewish people and “conversions,” Jews who had publicly converted to Catholicism, was carried out by the Spanish Inquisition. Within a century, Spain had been reduced to a third-class power.
More recently Nazi Germany initiated the Holocaust. Hitler’s “thousand-year Reich” was crushed within a decade.
There are, of course, “natural” explanations for the rise and fall of nations. And yet believers are well aware that God often works through the flow of cause and effect to accomplish His purposes. And to keep His word.
“In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).
The earlier promise that Abraham would be a blessing draws attention to his role as the spring from which streams of blessing would flow. This promise looks ahead to the blessings themselves.
It was impossible for Abraham to guess what we know now about the blessings God intended to provide through him and his offspring. All that we know of God’s plans and purposes, all that we know of His love and grace, has come to us in the Scriptures written by Abraham’s descendants. Even more significantly, Jesus Christ in His human nature is a descendant of Abraham. And through Jesus all humankind is offered a salvation that can be claimed through a faith like that of Abraham. How wonderful these blessings are!
Yet what is stunning is that even greater blessing lies ahead. One day Jesus will return to earth, to take His place as King of kings. Then we will be raised from the dead, to reign with Jesus. One day this universe itself will flare out of existence and God will create a new heaven and earth. The last taint of sin will be removed, and we will enjoy a fellowship with God and others that we cannot begin to imagine.
Yes, all the families of the earth do trace God’s blessings back to Abraham. And each individual who responds to God’s promises as Abraham did, with faith, will be blessed endlessly.
“To your descendants I will give this land” (Genesis 12:7).
As we’ve seen, this promise, first expressed in Genesis 12:7, is emphasized in both Genesis 15 and Genesis 17. In fact, the promises of descendants and their inheritance of the land of Canaan are closely linked throughout the Old Testament. These promises are repeated again and again.
Strikingly, the Israelites have never occupied the promised land to the full extent of God’s land grant.
The entire land granted to Abraham’s descendants has never been occupied, either by the ancient Israelites or the modern Jewish people. But the land commitment made in the Abrahamic covenant is repeated again and again throughout the Old Testament.
That covenant and the land grant were confirmed to Abraham’s son Isaac (Gen. 26:3) and to his grandson Jacob (Gen. 28:13). Moses frequently mentioned the land in the first five books of the Old Testament. God told Moses that the Israelites in Egypt were the inheritors of the Abrahamic Covenant, saying, “I have also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their pilgrimage, in which they [the patriarchs] were strangers” (Ex. 6:4).
At the end of Moses’ life, as Israel stood poised on the edge of the Promised Land, God showed Moses Canaan from across the Jordan River, saying, “This is the land of which I swore to give Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’” (Deut. 34:4).
Under Moses’ successor, Joshua, the Israelites defeated the Canaanites and did settle in the promised territory. Yet their occupation was partial at best. Then, some 450 years after Joshua’s day, David unified the Israelites and extended the territory they had occupied some tenfold. For the first time a Hebrew nation was established in the Promised Land!
It would seem that the promise given to Abraham of a nation in Canaan for his descendants had at last been fulfilled. But even the united kingdom of David and Solomon failed to occupy all the land granted by God. And after Solomon’s death, that kingdom was divided.
Through the next centuries, the fortunes of the two Hebrew kingdoms waxed and waned as rulers and their people turned to or away from God. For most of this time, the territory occupied by Judah and Israel fell far short of the land granted to Abraham’s descendants.
It is fascinating, then, to see the ancient covenant promise that Abraham’s descendants would possess the land repeated frequently in the writings of the prophets. After the fall of Israel to Assyria, Isaiah wrote, “The Lord will have mercy on Jacob, and will still chose Israel, and settle them in their own land” (Isa. 14:1).
Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who lived during the last days of Judah and witnessed the destruction of the last Hebrew kingdom, also referred to God’s covenant promises as a basis for hope. God said through Jeremiah, “In those [future] days the house of Judah shall walk with the house of Israel, and they shall come together out of the land of the north to the land that I have given as an inheritance to your fathers” (Jer. 3:18; cf. also Jer. 30:3; 31:16; 32:37, 41; 33:7). Through Ezekiel God promised, “For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you to your own land. … Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; you shall be My people, and I will be your God” (Ezek. 36:24, 28; cf. also Ezek. 37:25).
This covenant promise of Israel’s occupation of the Promised Land, repeated again and again by the Old Testament prophets, has yet to be fulfilled.
In significant ways, then, the fulfillment of the ancient Abrahamic Covenant promises has been and is being worked out in history. Yet, the promises stated in this covenant provide the barest of outlines of the purposes God intends. The full extent of Godcommitment, and His plan for achieving His purposes, have become clearer and clearer as the ages unfold. God also provides additional details concerning His plans in two other promise covenants—the Davidic Covenant and the New Covenant. As we study these covenants, God’s good purposes for us and the world will become clear.
In particular, these covenants will unveil the central role of Jesus Christ in fulfilling all the covenant promises of God. All the promises of our Lord find their focus and fulfillment in Him.
THE SIGN OF THE COVENANT: CIRCUMCISION
God’s covenant promises were given freely and unilaterally. While ultimately all find blessing in the promises given to Abraham, the promises were actually made to Abraham and his descendants. This leads to an important question. How are the “descendants” of Abraham to be identified?
Physical descent is not enough (Romans 9:6, 7).
In Romans 9, Paul developed an important thought. He pondered the fact that while Jewish believers composed the earliest Christian church, not all Jews in his time accepted Jesus as the promised Messiah. Yet God had made His covenant commitments to Abraham and his descendants.
Paul explained rejection of the gospel by most Jews by pointing out that “they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, ‘In Isaac your seed shall be called’” (Rom. 9:6, 7). Paul’s point is simple. Being a “descendant” of Abraham involves more than physical descent! Ishamael was Abraham’s son, and thus Ishmael’s descendants, the Arab peoples, are physical descendants of Abraham. But God did not give the covenant promises to Ishmael. The covenant promises made to Abraham were passed to Isaac, not Ishmael. Physical descent was never enough to qualify a person as a “descendant” and thus an inheritor of the covenant promises.
Earlier in Romans, Paul noted another vital truth. Abraham’s faith was accepted by God in place of the righteousness he did not have. God declared Abraham righteous “by faith.” Paul argued from this that Abraham is the spiritual father of all who believe in God as he did, whether they are Jews or Gentiles biologically (Rom. 4:11)!
It follows that, throughout Old Testament history, only those Israelites who had a faith in God that was like Abraham’s faith were his true descendants!
This insight helps us understand the tragic history of ancient Israel as recorded in the Old Testament. How can we explain the readiness of so many generations to abandon the Lord and turn aside to idolatry? How can we explain the fact that the Israelites were so often victimized by many powerful foreign enemies, in spite of God’s covenant promises to them? Many generations failed to find God’s blessing because, while they were Abraham’s biological descendants, they were not Abraham’s spiritual descendants. They were Jews. But they were unbelieving Jews.
Circumcision as a sign of covenant-faith (Genesis 17:9–14).
Just before the birth of Isaac, when God reconfirmed the covenant promises He had given to Abraham earlier, the Lord added an unusual stipulation.
As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. … Every male child among you shall be circumcised … and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. … And the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant (Gen. 17:9–11, 14).
The “sign” of circumcision.There are three kinds of signs (˒ot) in the OT.
1. The first is a miraculous proof sign, which is given to convince the observer of something (cf. Ex. 7:3–5).
2. The second is an acted-out prophecy, designed to resemble the situation a prophet describes (see Ezek. 4:3).
3. The third kind of sign is mnemonic, designed to serve as a reminder.
In our exploration of the Noahic covenants, we saw that the rainbow served as such a sign. God promised to look on the rainbow and remember [that is, to act on or keep] His promise never again to destroy the world by water.
Circumcision, as a “sign of the [Abrahamic] covenant,” falls into this third category. It is a mnemonic sign: a reminder. But unlike the rainbow, circumcision is not a reminder to God of His promise. Circumcision is a reminder to Israel that they are God’s covenant people.
The significance of circumcision.
When Paul reminds us in Romans that not every biological descendant of Abraham is a spiritual descendant of Abraham, he also provides a clue to the significance of circumcision.
Circumcision as a sign of the Abrahamic covenant was so important that an uncircumcised Israelite, even though a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had no claim to covenant relationship with God. He was cut off: from his people, from Abraham, and from God. At a bare minimum, an Israelite had to have enough trust in God to heed His word about circumcision if he and his offspring were to be counted among the covenant people.
Circumcision was significant as an indication that an individual believed in the God who had spoken to Abraham and made the covenant promises. It provided a way in which each generation could express faith by claiming its own participation in the promises God made to Abraham.
What is more, circumcision stamped in the very flesh of every male a reminder of God Himself. Those who failed to keep God’s covenant by ignoring circumcision displayed a lack of faith in the God of the covenant, and it was the lack of a faith like Abraham’s which cut them off from God’s blessings.
Circumcision thus was a reminder to every Israelite that biological descent from Abraham was not enough to establish a personal relationship with Abraham’s God. To have a vital relationship with Abraham’s God, one must have a faith like Abraham’s.
In this way, this Old Testament sign supported and reinforced the truth Paul developed in Romans. Ultimately, relationship with God is based on faith.
WHAT WE HAVE LEARNED ABOUT THE ABRAHAMIC COVENANT
Earlier we saw that a “covenant” is a legally binding instrument by which promises were made in the ancient world. God made such a commitment to Noah and to all living things when He promised never again to destroy life on earth by water.
Centuries and possibly millenniums later, God chose one man, Abraham, and entered into a covenant with him and with his descendants. This covenant provides a key to understanding the Bible, for it reveals the purposes of God that the Scripture traces through history. Specifically, what we have learned about the Abrahamic Covenant is:
The Abrahamic Covenant expresses God’s intent.
The series of “I will” statements made to Abraham states what God intends to do, from Abraham’s lifetime on into the future.
God stated He would create a nation from Abraham’s descendants.This He did in the past, but according to the prophets, the complete fulfillment of this promise still lies ahead.
God stated He would bless Abraham.This God did during Abraham’s lifetime by being God to the patriarch. God later extended this promise to be God to Abraham’s descendants as well.
God stated He would make Abraham’s name great.This God has done, as Abraham has been revered by millions through all of the years that have passed since Abraham died.
God stated Abraham would be a blessing.God fulfilled this promise, in that Abraham is the spring from which multiplied blessings have flowed.
God stated that He would bless those who blessed Abraham and curse those who cursed him.God kept this promise to Abraham during his lifetime, and extended it to cover Abraham’s descendants. We can see this principle at work in Old Testament and modern times.
God stated that in Abraham all the families of the earth would be blessed.This promise has been fulfilled and is being fulfilled today. Yet, complete fulfillment of the promises lies ahead.
God stated that He would give the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants.This promise was partially fulfilled in Israel’s history during the kingdom period. Yet, the prophets foresaw a complete fulfillment of this promise in what is yet future.
The Abrahamic Covenant, then, gives an extensive preview of what God intends to do. But just how He will accomplish His purposes, and just what wonders each statement of intent involves, has unfolded gradually as God added revelation upon revelation through His word.
THE ABRAHAMIC COVENANT IS A COVENANT OF GRACE
God chose Abraham in spite of the fact that he was an idolator, and freely made promises to him. There was no merit in Abraham that caused God to act as He did. God’s relationship with Abraham was rooted in, and is an expression of, pure grace.
THE ABRAHAMIC COVENANT INVITED A FAITH RESPONSE
Abraham responded to God’s promises with faith. He displayed faith by leaving his homeland at God’s direction. And Abraham believed God’s promise of innumerable descendants, in spite of the fact that he was old and his wife Sarai had ceased menstruating (cf. Rom. 4:19).
The covenant also invited a continuing faith response from Abraham’s descendants. This response is symbolized in circumcision, which functioned as a sign of the covenant. Through circumcision, each new generation of Israelites was reminded that biological descent from Abraham was not enough. A faith response to God was essential if a person was to live in covenant relationship with the Lord.
Jesus was the culmination of the covenants.
THE ABRAHAMIC COVENANT IMPLIES GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY
The promises given in the Abrahamic Covenant would be worked out over the span of thousands of years. Only a God whose power is unlimited, and whose control of future events is sure, could make and keep the promises the Lord made to Abraham.
THE ABRAHAMIC COVENANT FORESHADOWS THE WORK OF CHRIST
While the means by which God intended to keep the promises made to Abraham remained a mystery in Abraham’s day, we know today that these promises find their focus and fulfillment in Jesus Christ. He is the promised seed of Abraham; He is the one whose coming made it possible for God to bless all the families of the world.
As we go on in our look at the covenants, each of which adds additional information about how God’s purposes are to be achieved, we will understand much more clearly how all the covenants anticipate Christ.
Richards, L. (1998). Every promise in the Bible. Includes indexes. (20). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.