Too many of us too many times have been burned by a broken promise. Perhaps you were the one who vowed to do this, that, or the other thing only to renege when it suited you. This is almost always the case with marriages that end in divorce. Someone who promises to remain faithful to the bitter end opts out when times get tough, or when it isn’t convenient to be married anymore. The trust that stood upon those two little words, “I do,” is gone in an instant. People ware left embittered, unable to go forward with healthy relationships, because they’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Imagine feeling that way about God?
In the ancient world, a covenant was a sworn agreement between two parties, whether persons, tribes, or nations. A covenant had stipulations that each party committed themselves to keep. If either neglected to keep their part of the covenant, then restitution, of whatever sort was predetermined, would be warranted. The story of the Bible also contains covenants. These agreements are between God and individuals or whole groups of people, like Israel. We look at one of the most significant and lasting covenants in this essay, God’s covenant with Abraham.
Background to the Abrahamic Narrative
It may be helpful to quickly and succinctly fill in what happened between the fall and God’s call to Abraham. Well, things went from bad to worse. The human race didn’t get progressively better, but continued its downward spiral into sin. The first murder takes place in Genesis 4 as Cain kills his brother Abel (both were sons of Adam and Eve). Adam and Eve eventually have another son, Seth, whose godly line results in the birth of Noah, whom the Bible calls “a righteous man” (Gen 6:9). Because of the great violence and corruption of the human race, God decides to destroy everyone except Noah and his family (6:11–7:1).
Following the flood things aren’t much better. It doesn’t take long for Noah to get drunk and for his son, Ham, to shame him (9:20–22). The descendants of Noah’s three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, end up repopulating the land. However, by and large, their offspring don’t follow in the righteousness of Noah. Eventually, God scatters these peoples through confusing their languages, to remind them of their utter dependence upon their Creator (11:5–9). This then brings us to Genesis 12.
The Covenant Promises (Gen 12:1–9)
One of the Bible’s major figures is Abraham. He shows up first as part of the genealogical record of Shem (Gen 11:10–26). And then, almost from out of nowhere, God begins speaking to Abraham. Genesis 12 begins, “The Lord said to Abram [later renamed Abraham], “Leave your country, your people, and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you” (12:1). God promises to do seven things for and through Abraham. First, he will make Abraham into a great nation (12:2). Later, we see that this is the nation of Israel. Second, God promises to bless Abraham (12:2). Abraham will be given children, possessions, and be in relationship with God. Third, God will make Abraham’s name great, that is, he will be highly esteemed (12:2).[i] Fourth, he will use Abraham to bless others (12:2).[ii] Fifth, God will bless those who bless Abraham, and curse those who curse Abraham (12:3). Sixth, many peoples (“all the peoples of earth”) will be blessed through Abraham (12:3). Seventh, God will give Abraham’s descendants land to dwell in (12:7). This land is the Promised Land. As you read through the Bible’s storyline these promises aren’t fulfilled all at once. They take time and unfold over hundreds, and even thousands of years.
The Covenant Instituted (Gen 15:1–21)
It must be mentioned up front that God did not choose Abraham because he was righteous. We read in Genesis 15 that “Abram believed [the promises of] the Lord, and he [God] credited it to him [Abraham] as righteousness” (15:6).[iii] It is by faith, and not by his actions, that Abraham is reckoned righteousness (cf. Rom 4:1–11).[iv] We’ll say more about this later.
We then read about the institution of the Abrahamic Covenant. It seems strange to us, and some of the features are strange. Abraham, following God’s request, takes a heifer, a goat, a ram (all three years of age), and a dove and young pigeon, and cuts them in half. He then places the halves opposite each other, so as to provide a path between the animal carcasses (Gen 15:9–10).
Next, Abraham falls into a deep sleep, in which the Lord speaks to him. He promises Abraham that his descendants “will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure” (15:13–16). What are we to make of this? First, it must be noted that this is a direct reference to the future nation of Israel’s enslavement in the land of Egypt and their subsequent exodus. Abraham, we’re told won’t have to go through any of this hardship. So why mention it to him at all? It would appear that the Lord wishes to emphasize at least the fact that hardship doesn’t threaten his covenant promises. God is faithful to keep his word. In fact, he uses difficult circumstances to show his faithfulness and to maximize his glory.
As the sun is setting, a “smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces [of dead animals]” (15:17). The smoking firepot and torch symbolize God’s presence, as fire does on other occasions (cf. Exod 3:2; 14:24; 19:18; 1 Kgs 18:38; Acts 2:3). The writer continues, “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram” (Gen 15:18a). This is strange to us. But it also would have been strange to Abraham. Typically both parties participated in the covenant ceremony. In fact, the action of walking between the animals halves was necessary for both parties, since it symbolized the gruesome consequences of not keeping the covenant (“May it be so done to the one who does not keep the covenant.” cf. Jer 34:18–19).[v] However, in this covenant God is both the one who stipulates its terms and the one who promises to keep it. He graciously takes responsibility for fulfilling the covenant all by himself.
The Covenant Sign (Gen 17:1–10, 23)
As we come to Genesis 17, we find Abraham a very old man (he’s 99 years old). God appears to him and reaffirms his covenant to Abraham and his promise to give him numerous descendants (17:2). God even changes his name from Abram to Abraham, meaning “father of many nations,” to be a constant reminder of God’s gracious promise to Abraham (17:3–6). God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants will be an “everlasting covenant … to be your God and the God of your descendants after you” (17:7).
This covenant is truly everlasting, since it includes all who come to God through Jesus Christ in faith. We find this worked out in the New Testament. In John 8:33–41 Jesus works out what it means to be a genuine child of Abraham. He doesn’t deny that Abraham is rightly identified as the father of ethnic Jews. Yet in another way, one more important than genetic descent, the Jews whom Jesus is addressing are not children of Abraham; they are wrong to claim Abraham as their father. Abraham is the father of all who put their trust in the one true God. Abraham’s legitimate children are those who come to God by faith (Gal 3:7–9). For the Jews of the old covenant this meant faith in the promises of God that he would bless them and cause them to be a blessing through Abraham’s “seed” (cf. Gen 12:1–3; 15:4–6). Now for Jesus’ audience, the promises of God to Abraham find their fulfillment in Jesus himself (cf. Heb 11:8–16). Were the Jews truly Abraham’s children, they would have recognized this. However, their inability to recognize Jesus as the promised “seed” and Messiah (Gal 3:16) was evidence that Abraham was not their father. Their behavior (John 8:39, 40) betrays who their real father is (8:38, 41, 44).
The sign of this covenant in the context of the old covenant is male circumcision (Gen 17:10). Abraham rightly carries this out (17:23). Abraham and his offspring as God’s covenant partners are required to keep his covenant. However, we’ll see they are unable to do this. Time and again Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, his twelve sons, and the nation of Israel as a whole prove unable to keep their part of the covenant. Yet God does not wipe them out. Remember, he is the one who passed between the animal halves. He will not only keep his part of the covenant, but he will also provide a means for Israel to keep the covenant through the offspring of Abraham.[vi]
The Covenant Tested (Gen 22:1–19)
One of the things God promised Abraham was to make him into a great nation, that is, to give him countless descendants. However, his wife Sarah was unable to bear children (Gen 16:1). So, Sarah gives Abraham her maidservant Hagar, and she bears him a son named Ishmael (16:15–16). Although Abraham hopes for Ishmael to be the one through whom God’s promises will be fulfilled, he is not the one God has chosen (17:18–19). The son of promise, the one through whom the nation of Israel and eventually the Messiah will come, will be borne by Sarah.
At 90 years old, Sarah gives birth to Isaac (21:1–7; cf. 17:17). In Genesis 22 God asks Abraham to sacrifice his promised son, in order to test him (22:1).[vii] While going up Mt. Moriah, Isaac asks his father, “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” (22:7) Abraham responds in faith, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (22:8).[viii] Just as Abraham is about to plunge his knife into the chest of Isaac, the angel of the Lord commands Abraham to stop. “Now I [the Lord] know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son” (22:12). God provides a ram that is caught in a thicket for the sacrifice (22:13). In this ordeal, God puts Abraham to the test. Abraham trusts in God that he will be faithful to his promises and provide a sacrifice for himself. This sacrifice anticipates a later sacrifice, one that includes a greater son of promise than Isaac, and one whose bloody death will far exceed the sacrifice of bulls, goats, and rams.[ix]
Theological Reflections & Application
- God continues to be the initiator in the salvation of humanity. We first saw this in the Garden and here in rescuing Isaac. This truth is developed throughout progressive revelation.
- Human beings are unable to keep covenant with God in and of themselves. Ultimately, it will take one who is both God and man to fulfill our covenant obligations.
- Death is not only the recompense of sin, but also the purchase price of redemption.
- God alone will receive the glory for the fulfillment of the covenant. He chooses to use persons and means that are impossible by human standards of reasoning.
- People do not and cannot earn God’s grace. It is something appropriated by faith in God alone.
[i] V. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1–17, 372 notes that while the builders of the town of Babel sought to make a name for themselves (Gen 11:4), it is God who promises to make Abraham’s name great.
[ii] Sailhamer sees here “a reiteration of God’s original blessing of humankind (1:28)” (The Pentateuch as Narrative, 139).
[iii] See also. V. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapter 1–17, 427 n. 29. Wenham notes, “As the rest of the story makes plain, this faith leads to righteous action (e.g., 18:19), but only here in the OT is it counted as righteousness” (Genesis 1–15, 330).
[iv] Wenham notes that faith in God is “not … peripheral to OT theology. Rather faith is presupposed everywhere as the correct response of man to God’s revelation” (Genesis 1–15, 329). See also Sailhamer who notes “Only after he had been counted righteous through his faith could Abraham enter into God’s covenant” (“Genesis,” 129).
[v] See also V. Hamilton’s excellent treatment (The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1–17, 430-433, 437).
[vi] V. Hamilton notes “the covenant remains a personal commitment by God in which he brings himself to this open-ended promise to Abraham” (The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1–17, 466).
[vii] Walton notes this is the only place in the Old Testament where the Hebrew word for test (nsh) is used in which the testing of an individual or group is “accomplished by giving a command that is rescinded before it is carried out” (Genesis, 510). See also Wenham who notes a test in the Bible serves to reveal the integrity of one’s heart (cf. Deut 8:2; Exod 16:4), as well as, something that occurs for one’s good (cf. Deut 8:16; Heb 12:5–11) [Genesis 16–50, WBC (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1994), 104)].
[viii] Sailhamer notes, “Abraham’s words should not be understood as merely an attempt to calm the curious Isaac; but in the light of the fact that they anticipate the actual outcome of the narrative, they are to be read as a confident expression of his trust in God” (The Pentateuch as Narrative, 178).
[ix] D. A. Carson, The God Who Is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010), 53–54. See also Wenham (Genesis 16–50, 117–118) and V. Hamilton (The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18–50, NICOT [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995], 119–123) who briefly recount the use of the Isaac and Abraham typology in the New Testament.