The Covenant between God and Abraham

This is my third study on God’s covenant in the Old Testament. For previous published posts on covenants, click on the link below. The link will also list future posts on this topic.

From a canonical perspective, God’s covenant with Abraham came after the events that happened after God’s covenant with Noah. Throughout the first eleven chapters of Genesis, the text deals with the problem of human sin and its universal progression.

These chapters also reveal God’s effort to deal with the problem of sin. Up to this point, God has been dealing with human beings on a universal basis. But God’s effort met with resistence, a resistence that brought divine judgment in the days of Noah.

God’s covenant with Noah and the earth brought a new beginning in God’s plan to redeem sinful humanity. God promised that human beings would never again be destroyed by a flood. And God gave the rainbow as an everlasting sign of his promise.

However, after the flood, human rebellion took the form of a challenge to God’s plan that human beings populate the earth (Genesis 11:4). The tower of Babel becomes a symbol of human rebellion against God. This rebellion again brought divine judgment upon the human race and people were scattered across the face of the entire earth (Genesis 11:9).

The call of Abraham introduces a new phase in God’s story of redemption. God’s promises to Abraham, promises sealed by God’s covenant with him, become the foundation for Israel’s mission in the world.

The Call of Abraham

Before there was a people called Israel, there was Abraham. God called Abraham from a pagan background to be the father of a people who would become the bearers of God’s message of salvation to the world. The Bible declares that Abraham’s family came out of an idolatrous background:

“Joshua said to all the people, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods’” (Joshua 24:2).

When God revealed himself to Abraham, God told him to leave his country and go to a place unknown to him, but a place that eventually would become his home.

God’s Promises to Abraham

When God called Abraham, God made several promises to him. These promises must be understood in the context of God’s purpose for his creation. Because human beings failed to fulfill God’s purpose for their lives (Genesis 6:5-7), God called Abraham to become the father of a people who would then do God’s work in the world (Exodus 19:5-6).

These are the promises God made to Abraham:

1. The promise of the land: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).

2. The promise of becoming a great nation: “I will make of you a great nation” (Genesis 12:2).

3. The promise of God’s blessing: “I will bless you” (Genesis 12:2).

4. The promise of the great name: “I will make your name great” (Genesis 12:1).

5. The promise of mediating blessings to other people: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).

The Background of God’s Covenant with Abraham

God’s covenant with Noah came just after Abraham’s war with the four kings from the East (Genesis 14). After these kings invaded the land of Canaan and took Lot captive, Abraham took 318 trained men, people who were born in his house and he pursued the four kings as far as Dan (Genesis 14:14).

It is possible that Abraham’s life was put in jeopardy because of his struggle with the invaders. If this is true, then the threat to Abraham’s life posed a threat to the fulfillment of the promises God had made to Abraham.

When God appeared to Abraham, Abraham was facing some misgivings about God’s promises. Genesis 15 portrays Abraham fearing that God would not fulfill his promise. God appears to Abraham to reassure him: “Do not be afraid, Abram” (Genesis 15:1).

If Abraham feared for his life, God’s reassured him of his protection: “I am your shield.” These words indicate that God would be his shield against all his enemies.

But Abraham’s despondency was evident, since he did not have a son to inherit the land. For ten years Abraham had been following God and yet, he remained childless. Abraham said to God: “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir” (Genesis 15:3).

Abraham had lost hope of becoming the father of a son. He had followed the customs of his country of birth and adopted a slave to become his heir. But God once again reassured Abraham that he would fulfill his promise: “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir” (Genesis 15:4).

But, there was another doubt in Abraham’s mind, his doubt about the possession of the land. Abraham asked the Lord: “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess [the land]?” (Genesis 15:8). In light of the presence of the Canaanites in the land, the fulfillment of the promise was almost an impossibility.

Once again, God answered Abraham and renewed the promise that his descendants would receive the land: “The LORD said to Abram, ‘Know this for certain’ . . . I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” (Genesis 15:3; 15:7). God reaffirmed his promise to Abraham by saying that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in heaven.

When Abraham heard God’s words reassuring him that the promises would be fulfilled, Abraham believed God’s promises: “Abraham believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).

The word translated “believed” means “to trust.” Abraham trusted that God’s promises would be fulfilled. Genesis 15:6 is used several times in the New Testament to teach about justification by faith. The reason the New Testament uses this text is because it teaches that faith is trust in God’s promises.

In order to confirm his promise to Abraham, God established a covenant with Abraham in which God bound himself to an oath to assure Abraham that the promise was true. In a previous post, “God’s Covenant with Abraham,” I have discussed in detail the ritual of covenant ratification and the oath by which God bound himself to the promise he made with Abraham. In this present post, I will offer only a brief outline of the ritual.

God’s Covenant with Abraham

1. The Sacrifice

God told Abraham: “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon” (Genesis 15:9).

2. The Cutting of the Animals

Abraham did what the Lord commanded him: “He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other” (Genesis 15:10).

3. God’s Oath

“When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces” (Genesis 15:17). This ceremony of passing between the cut animals is an oath, a self-curse, in which God bound himself to fulfill the promises he made to Abraham. The significance of this oath is explained in the post mentioned above.

4. The Sign of the Covenant

The sign of the covenant between God and Abraham is circumcision: “So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant” (Genesis 17:13).

5. The Nature of God’s Covenant with Abraham: An Everlasting Covenant

Like the covenant with Noah, God’s covenant with Abraham is also an everlasting covenant: “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Genesis 17:7).

Implications of God’s Covenant with Abraham

God’s covenant with Abraham has many implications in the unfolding of God’s story in the world. Unfortunately, this post has gone beyond the space limits I set for myself. I will return to the implications of God’s covenant with Abraham at a later time. For now, let me give a brief overview of the implications of God’s covenant with Abraham:

1. Since it was only God who passed between the cut animals, God took an oath and bound himself to fulfill the promises he made to Abraham.

2. Since God promised to give the land of Canaan as an inheritance, Israel did not have to depend on the conquest under Joshua to posses the land.

3. The land of Canaan was given to Israel because the original inhabitants of the land had violated God’s universal binding moral laws.

4. The covenant God made with Abraham is an everlasting covenant. This means that God has chosen Abraham and his descendants to have a special relationship with God.

Studies on God’s Covenants

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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4 Responses to The Covenant between God and Abraham

  1. Rev. Bryant J. Williams III says:

    I like this series on the Covenant. In your post of October 17, 2011, “God’s Covenant with Abraham,’ you wrote,
    “The most remarkable aspect of the covenant between God and Abraham is that it is God, represented by the “smoking fire pot” and the “flaming torch,” who passed between the pieces. By doing so, the Lord was invoking a self-curse to indicate that what he had promised to Abraham would be fulfilled. There is no reference that Abraham was required to meet any obligation in order to fulfill his part of the covenant.”

    Now, would this indicate that the Abrahamic Covenant is unconditional NOT conditional? Genesis 17 and the Covenant of Circumcision would be conditional since it requires Abraham and his descendants to circumcise (you will probably discuss this in later post). Finally, would Genesis 17 and the requirement that all of Abraham’s descendants follow the rite of circumcision be a bone of contention between the descendants of Ishmael and the descendants of Isaac?

    Like

    • Bryant,

      Thank you for your comment. You make very good points in your comment.

      There is much discussion among scholars about God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15 and 17. The issue is whether it is one covenant or two. I will come back to this later, but I believe it is one covenant. The covenant with Abraham was an eternal covenant. It was unconditional because God was the guarantor of the covenant. Circumcision was a sign of the covenant.

      As for the descendants of Ishmael and the descendants of Isaac, both Jews and Muslims practice circumcision, so circumcision is not an issue about which they fight.

      I am glad to know you are enjoying this series of studies on the covenant.

      Claude Mariottini

      Like

  2. Lorene Hawkins says:

    I loved the post on the covenant with God and Abrams it was explained very well and so that you could understand it thank you

    Like

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