When God called Abraham and told him to leave his country, his family, and his father’s house, God promised that he would give him a land in which he and his descendants would settle and become a great nation. The promise that God would give Abraham and his descendants the land of Canaan is one of the major themes of the Pentateuch. The promise of the giving of the land was made to Abraham and renewed to Isaac and Jacob.
God’s gift of the land to Abraham contains three elements: a promise, a covenant, and an oath. In addition, for Abraham to become a great nation, God also made another promise, the promise of progeny, that is, that Abraham’s own son would inherit the land.
When God called Abraham to leave his country, God promised him that he and his descendants would become a great nation (Genesis 12:1-3). According to Walter Brueggemann (p. 106), “the promise is God’s power and will to create a new future sharply discontinuous with the past and the present. The promise is God’s resolve to form a new community wrought only by miracle and reliant only on God’s faithfulness.”
The promise that Abraham and his descendants would become a great nation contains implicit in it another promise, the promise that God would give him the land of Canaan, since a great nation cannot come into being without a land of its own. God’s promise to Abraham also implies that God would give Abraham an heir, a son who would carry his name and eventually inherit the land as the fulfillment of the divine promise.
But how could God’s promise to Abraham that he would become a great nation be accomplished when his wife Sarah was barren? The barrenness was a stumbling block to the fulfillment of the promise. How could an old man and an old woman be fruitful and become a source of blessings to many? Abraham trusted God’s promise and took God at his word: “I will bless you;” “You shall become a great nation.” God’s promise was enough for Abraham. He believed and in believing he was blessed. And in being blessed Abraham’s descendants became a great nation and his descendants received the promised land.
Believing in God’s promise, Abraham left Haran to go to Canaan. In Canaan Abraham was a stranger, a pilgrim in the land, sojourning from place to place, traveling through Shechem to the oak of Moreh and from there to Bethel and finally to the Negev (Genesis 12:6-9).
Abraham sojourned in Canaan waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise that he would have a son and that through his son he would inherit the land that was promised to him. However, Sarah’s barrenness continued and Abraham remained childless and the fulfillment of the promise was in doubt.
In his anguish to have a son who would inherit the promise, and probably plagued by doubt of ever having an offspring, Abraham adopted Eliezer of Damascus, a servant and the steward of his house, as his heir. Abraham understood that the fulfillment of God’s promise required an heir, a son who was to be born from his family, in whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed. And yet, Abraham was old and was about to die childless!
It is at this time that God appeared again to Abraham, telling him not to be afraid because his reward would be great (Genesis 15:1-2). The reward that God had promised to Abraham was the land, but for Abraham to receive his reward, he needed a son. And God again promised Abraham that he would have a son: “This man shall not be your heir; your own son shall be your heir” (Genesis 15:4).
To confirm to Abraham that his promise would be fulfilled, that there would be a future for Abraham in the land of promise, God renewed the promise of a son by establishing a covenant with Abraham: “On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates’” (Genesis 15:18).
A covenant is an agreement enacted between two people in which one or both parties of the covenant make promises to perform a certain action. The Hebrew word berith, which in English is translated by the word “covenant,” comes from a root which means “to cut,” that is, the act of cutting or dividing of animals used in the covenant ceremony into two parts. As an act of establishing a covenant, the contracting parties pass between the two halves, thus ratifying the covenant.
The ritual, in which God passed between the two halves of the sacrificed animals, represents God’s unqualified intent to do what he had promised to Abraham. In the Ancient Near East, the passing between the two halves of the sacrificed animals meant the invocation of a curse. In one of his oracles, the prophet Jeremiah makes a passing reference to this ritual: “And the men who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant which they made before me, I will make like the calf which they cut in two and passed between its parts” (Jeremiah 34:18).
In his covenant with Abraham, God is the only one who walks between the slain animals, signifying that God’s promise to give Abraham a son and the land of Canaan was binding on God as an eternal promise.
God’s promise to Abraham was marked by the tension between promise and fulfillment. Twice God had made the promise to Abraham that his heir would inherit the promise. When Abraham left Haran he was seventy-five years old (Genesis 12:4). Twenty four years later, when Abraham was ninety-nine (Genesis 17:1), the promise that “your own son shall be your heir” (Genesis 15:4) had not yet been fulfilled. Sarah remained childless and the fulfillment of the promise was in jeopardy.
The reality of Sarah’s barrenness again brought anguish to Abraham. Would the promise God made while he was in Haran be kept? Would the promise God made at the time the covenant was established be fulfilled? Could God be trusted to fulfill his promise of an heir and of the giving of the land?
Hoping against hope, Abraham and Sarah took the initiative to work out the fulfillment of the promise by taking matters into their own hands. Instead of waiting on God to fulfill his promise, Sarah gave Hagar, her Egyptian servant, to Abraham as a wife. Although Sarah’s motive could be considered noble, the action itself was wrong because it came out of Abraham’s unwillingness to wait on God to fulfill his promise.
Out of this union Ishmael was born but Ishmael was not to be the heir of the promise. God appeared to Abraham to assure him that Sarah in her old age would become the mother of a son and that God’s everlasting covenant would be with Isaac and his descendants after him and not with Ishmael (Genesis 17:19).
The birth of Isaac marks the fulfillment of one of God’s promises to Abraham: the promise of an heir. Isaac had been the child of his parents’s many prayers and the fulfillment of a hope that for many years seemed beyond hope. But then, God came to Abraham and asked him to sacrifice his son Isaac.
God’s request appeared to be a denial of the promise. If God’s promise of the land would be fulfilled in Isaac, why would God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son? Without a son there would be no descendants, no one to inherit the land, no future for Abraham. And yet, Abraham was willing to obey God one more time, believing that the God who gave him a son could also give him a future without a son.
Without hesitation Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son. Three days after the divine request, Abraham came to the place God had selected for the sacrifice. As Abraham was about to sacrifice his son, God intervened and stayed the sacrifice of Isaac. In light of Abraham’s loyalty, God swore an oath:
“I am taking an oath on my own name, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not refused to give me your son, your only son, I will certainly bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of their enemies’ cities. Through your descendant all the nations of the earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me” (Genesis 22:16-18).
An oath is an appeal to divine authority to ratify the truth of an assertion. When the people of Israel wanted to establish the truth of a statement, they called on God to be a witness and to validate the truth of the statement. The oath that God made to Abraham in his own name was a sure guarantee that Abraham’s descendants would be numerous and that they would receive the land of Canaan as their inheritance, the land that God had promised to give to him because of his willingness to believe in God. God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would receive the land included a covenant and an oath. God gave the descendants of Abraham the land of Canaan because God’s promises are faithful. God’s promise to Abraham was sealed by a covenant and affirmed by an oath. As the author of the book of Hebrews wrote:
“When people take oaths, they base their oaths on someone greater than themselves. Their oaths guarantee what they say and end all arguments. God wouldn’t change his plan. He wanted to make this perfectly clear to those who would receive his promise, so he took an oath. God did this so that [they] would be encouraged. God cannot lie when he takes an oath or makes a promise” (Hebrews 6:16-18).
Reference: Walter Brueggemann, Genesis. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary