Updated: Mar 2, 2022
A Closer Look at Abraham
Just over 30 years ago, as I was continuing my undergraduate studies in theology, I was taking a class with Dr. Daniel C. Juster. Dan would become one of my primary mentors, not only in theology but in congregational government. As was typical, he was already about 15 minutes past the end of the class. I was getting agitated. Unpleasant thoughts were finding their way into my mind. And then Dr. Juster read the passage where the Angel of the Lord stops Abraham from killing his son Isaac. This is where God renews his covenant with Abraham. "In blessing, I will bless you…" (Gen. 22:17a)…
And then something happened that I will never forget. As Dan read the passage, he began to cry. Tears streamed down his face as God renewed the covenant with Abraham. It was the first time I had ever seen anybody cry over theology, and it was profound. I was embarrassed at my attitude, that I just wanted to get the class over with. He was clearly seeing a truth to which I was still blinded in my young faith—and truth moved his emotions. That moment played a profound role in developing a passion in me for theology. So it's with joy that I have the opportunity to take a deeper look at God's covenant with Abraham.
A recurring theme in Scripture, from Joseph to Paul and his companions almost losing their lives, is that God makes great promises, and then there is a period where it seems impossible. We see that with David's calling to become king. We see it with Esther and Mordecai, and we certainly see it in the resurrection of Yeshua. We also will see it in the life of Abraham.
According to Stephen, "The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia" (Acts 7:2). He told him, "Go from your country, your people and your father's household to the land I will show you" (Gen. 12:1).
Something that few people notice is that Abraham's father had already left Ur of the Chaldeans for Canaan. Why? Had God spoken to him first? Why did he not fulfill the journey? Yet God says to Abraham in Genesis 15:7 that he brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans, not out of Haran, where they settled. So maybe the entire Terah clan set out on the divine mission that was then passed down to Abraham.
Was Terah simply too broken over the death of his son Haran (Gen. 11:28)? "It is a devastating and unexpected sorrow for a father to outlive his son (cf. 37:34–35)." Why does the Bible mention Haran's death as taking place "while his father Terah was still alive?" "For some unexplained reason, the intended migration of Terah and family from Ur to Canaan had come to a halt."
The text tells us that Abraham leaves his father, taking his wife and his nephew Lot. He obeys the heavenly voice. Abraham is dependent on this voice that has visited him as Terah "gave him no inheritance here, not even enough ground to set his foot on" (Acts 7:5). Not that Abraham was poor (Gen. 12:5), but leaving his inheritance, he takes a risk and trusts the heavenly voice.
Before the covenant, we have the promise. It is sevenfold:
I will make you into a great nation,
I will bless you,
I will make your name great,
You will be a blessing,
I will bless those who bless you,
I will curse those who curse you,
All peoples of the earth will be blessed through you. (Gen. 12:2-3)
He arrives in Canaan, and God tells him that He is also giving this land to Abraham and his offspring (v. 7). The land promise is perpetual to Abraham's descendants, as Gen. 17:8 calls it an "everlasting" (עלום) possession. The strongest language used in the Hebrew Bible to convey eternal or everlasting is min olam ve'ad olam, and it almost exclusively refers to God. It is translated as "forever and ever." Two places where it doesn't refer to Elohim are in Jeremiah 7:7 and 25:5. In both places, it refers to God's promise of the land of Israel to Abraham's descendants. This is strengthened by Jacob's words to Joseph, long after Abraham had died, "I will make you a community of peoples, and I will give this land as an everlasting possession to your descendants after you" (Gen. 48:4). The land where I am typing these words 3600 years later was not merely to Abraham but his offspring after him.
We can see all that God wants to do through Abraham in Genesis 12. But God wants to go further in guaranteeing the promise through covenant. "A covenant is a solemn promise made binding by an oath which may be either a verbal formula or a symbolic action." In Hebrew, the word brit (covenant) is stronger than it is in English. And when my friend Asher Intrater published his book, Covenant Relationships, in Hebrew, some people struggled with the word brit because of the depth and strength of the word. In the end, he changed the name to chaver naaman (faithful friend).
When God makes covenant with Abraham, there is no reversal. That is one reason why replacement theology is so despicable. Not only does it have undertones of antisemitism, but it makes God out to be unfaithful to his covenant promises.
In chapter 15, God cuts covenant with Abraham. Abraham asks the Lord how he can know that God will really give him the land (v. 8), and God's response is to make a covenant with him. That's how powerful covenant was. Abraham understood that if God made covenant, then the issue was settled permanently. "Nothing could assure the certainty of this promise more than this solemn ceremony sealed by God's oath." And this covenant is very unique.
"In response, God contracts a solemn covenant with the patriarch, who becomes the passive beneficiary of His unilateral obligation, unconditionally assumed. It would seem that the form of this covenant is modeled after the royal land-grant treaty common in the ancient Near East."
This is interesting because the decalogue is fashioned after the ancient suzerain treaty of the Hittites. "It spelled out the terms of the relationship between the Hittite state and the vassals …which gave allegiance to the empire. The king would offer to protect the people in exchange for their support and tribute." The book of Deuteronomy greatly resembles a suzerain treaty, whereby God is the king offering support and protection to the vassal state, which is Israel. There are stipulations and consequences, such as blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience.
However, with the Abrahamic covenant, it is the responsibility of God alone towards Abraham and his seed, which is what would happen in a royal land grant:
"This type of grant, common in antiquity, was perpetual and unconditional. The king, or sovereign, possessed all the land and granted parcels of it to loyal subjects as rewards for faithful service."
As we continue to read in Genesis 15, we see that Abraham is put in a deep sleep, and God takes care of ratifying the covenant. Most scholars agree that this was God's way of making a one-sided covenant with Abraham. Dr. Michael Brown sheds insight:
"In ancient days, that is how covenants were made. Sacrificial animals were cut in two, and their severed bodies placed in two lines. Both parties entering into the covenant would then walk between the carcasses. By doing so, they were symbolically saying, 'If I break this binding agreement, if I fail to uphold my side of the pact, then let me suffer the same fate that these animals have suffered.'"
But there is a twist in this plot. "Something was different in Genesis 15. Only God passed through the pieces! This was a one-way deal." God made his side of the bargain legally binding. Why would he do that? Because he knew that the children of Abraham would go astray, following idols. They would prostitute themselves before other gods. Yet they were central to his plan to redeem the world. So it would appear that he created a way for him to be faithful even when the Jewish people were unfaithful. God could no more break the Abrahamic Covenant than he could the New Covenant. He ratified it in a way that was legally binding for eternity!
Covenant is Eternal Law
Let’s go a deeper just to see how serious covenant is. When God promises the land of Canaan to Abram asks, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?” (Gen. 15:8). To prove his seriousness to Abraham God could have sent an earthquake, parted a sea (as would do in the future) Or some other supernatural act. But in order to give hm the confidence that he would indeed do it, he simply makes a covenant with Abram.
On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates—the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.” (Gen. 15:18-21)
In other words, the most powerful thing in the universe that God could do for Abram in order to prove that God’s “land grant” was real was simply to make a Covenant with him. Abram no longer questions God on the subject. It has been settled. God’s very reputation is at stake. That is one reason why replacement or fulfillment theology is so despicable. Not only does it have undertones of antisemitism, but it makes God out to be unfaithful to his covenant promises.
In Genesis 17, God confirms the covenant. But there's a small twist—or cut!—here as well. God does demand something from Abraham: All of the boys must be circumcised (Gen. 17:9ff). Dyrness points out that this was not merely an act of obedience on Abraham's part; this was an identification marker. It was a cut in the flesh to communicate that this nation-state had pledged its loyalty to Yahweh. Every time a Jewish boy would receive circumcision, blood would flow, confirming from generation to generation their covenant with God. Circumcision was one of the ways that God enabled the Jewish people to be an identifiable people in the diaspora. While many misunderstand the apostle Paul's words in Romans chapter 2 regarding circumcision, he is clear in chapter three of the same book that this simple act continues to bring the blessing of God on the Jewish people.
Circumcision was not a covenant that promised eternal life. But it did promise blessing to the Jewish people and the land of Israel. It is interesting to note that over the past 100 years, the Jews who went through the most difficulty in persecution were those of the former Soviet Union, where most ceased the practice of circumcision decades ago under communism. While Jews of the West, even those who were not religious, continued with the covenant responsibility and thus, continued to prosper. Romans 3 is clear regarding circumcision: even if Israel is not faithful, God will be true. In fact, the apostle says, circumcision has "much value in every way" (v. 1-2).