frequently asked questions

QUESTION:  
blue bullet  What is the Abrahamic Covenant?

ANSWER:
blue bullet  God's Covenant with Abraham

by David Brewer
www.amfi.org


The Bible contains the record of mankind's rebellion against God, and God's plan for restoring that broken relationship. The story begins in the opening chapters of Genesis with God creating Adam and Eve as the culmination of creation. They were created in His own image, and enjoyed an intimate fellowship with the Lord. When the first humans disobeyed, that fellowship was broken and the sentence of physical death was brought upon mankind. But though Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise, God made provision for them to live, procreate, and maintain a relationship with Him.

In the story of Noah (found in Genesis 6-9) we learn of the exceeding wickedness of humanity, with the result that God destroyed the world with a flood. Only Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord; he is described as "a righteous man, blameless in his time; Noah walked with God" (Genesis 6:8-9). Noah and his family were saved in the ark built at the Lord's command, allowing the human race to continue.

Then approximately 4000 years ago God initiated a new stage in the drama of the redemption of mankind. In Genesis 12 we find God calling one man, Abram (whose name was changed later to Abraham), to take his family and leave his hometown of Ur, and to go to a land that He would show him.

In Abraham's day, Ur was the wealthiest city in Mesopotamia, with a complex system of government and a well-developed system of commerce; trade routes joined Ur with other great towns to the north and the south. Citizens of Ur during the time of Abraham were able to enjoy a high standard of living in their prosperous city. So it is not surprising to find that they felt superior to the nomads who lived in the semi-desert beyond the areas watered by the Euphrates.

Abraham's life after God called him was very different from the one he had before the call of God. At the Lord's command, Abraham left the sophisticated city, with all its security and comfort, to become one of the despised nomads. What is more, God didn't even tell him where He was leading him. No wonder Abraham is held up as an example of faith [see Romans 4]!

As part of the call of Abraham, the Lord made specific promises to which He committed Himself. This contractual agreement has been called by many the "Abrahamic covenant." The Bible records six occasions on which God appeared to Abraham to make or reinforce the promises (Genesis 12:1-3, 7; 13:14-18; 15:4, 5, 13-18; 17:1-8; 18:17-19; 22:15-18).

The provisions of these agreements, which ultimately would result in bringing blessing to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:3), were extended to Abraham's descendants after him. In a cluster of predictions found in Genesis 12-28, God defined clearly the chosen line through which Messianic blessing would come into the world: Abraham, Isaac (son of Abraham and Sarah), and Jacob (Isaac and Rebekah's son). Toward the end of the Patriarchal period Jacob (whose name was changed by God to "Israel") singled out Judah as the chosen one among his twelve sons to whom the scepter (symbol of rulership) was given (Genesis 49:10).

Let us go back to the beginning of the story to examine Abraham's covenantal relationship with God. "Now the LORD said to Abram, 'Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father's house, To the land which I will show you; And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed'" (Genesis 12:1-3).

AN UNCONDITIONAL COVENANT

The Abrahamic Covenant has been described as "unconditional." This means that God's promises will be without qualification; that is, that the covenant promises will be completely fulfilled in spite of man's success or failure to keep whatever conditions or commandments may be contained in the covenant. Fulfillment is dependent upon God and not man. God intends to fulfill the terms of the covenant regardless of whether man fulfills his obligations. Abraham may have had some obligations to fulfill, but even if Abraham failed to fulfill those obligations, God's promises to him would still have been kept.

THE "CUTTING OF THE COVENANT"

In Genesis 15 animals were slaughtered so as to solemnize a blood covenant. Afterwards the animals were cut up and its pieces were lined up in two parallel rows. [In Hebrew, it is common language usage to "cut a covenant." The very phrase brings to mind the picture of animals being sacrificed as seen in Genesis 15. Not every covenant is "cut" however; a different word is used in Genesis 6:18 when God says "I will establish my covenant with you."]

In the culture of that day, if the contract being made was a conditional covenant, there were certain things that the parties to the agreement would do. In a situation (like that described in Genesis 15) where a conditional covenant was being made, both parties making the contract would walk together between the pieces of the animals (e.g., Jeremiah 34:18-19). This meant that the terms of the covenant would be mandatory on both parties. If one party became guilty of violating any single term of the covenant, it would free the other party from the necessity of fulfilling his own promises contained in the covenant.

But in Genesis 15, Abraham and God did not walk together between the pieces of the animals. God put Abraham in a deep sleep and only God -- in the form of a smoking oven and a flaming torch (Genesis 15:17) -- walked between the pieces of the animals. This meant that the fulfillment of the covenant was based purely upon God's grace, in spite of how often Abraham or his descendants may fail. Abraham could not be a participant in the covenant, but could only be a recipient of a covenant.

WHAT PART DID OBEDIENCE PLAY IN THE COVENANT?

While enjoyment of the blessings of the covenant may be conditioned upon obedience, the fulfillment of the promises is not. Possession and ownership of the land was unconditional; however, the enjoyment of the land is conditional -- based on only one condition!

The sole condition for the Abrahamic Covenant was the command for Abraham to leave the land of his birth and to enter a new land. Once Abraham obeyed this one imperative, it rendered the covenant unconditional. In other words, whether or not God would make a covenant program with Abraham did depend upon Abraham's act of obedience in leaving the land, but when Abraham set out for the Land God would show him, the covenant was irrevocable and unconditional. Once Abraham obeyed, the fulfillment of the promise did not depend on Abraham's continued obedience, but on the character of our LORD.

THE PROVISIONS OF THE COVENANT

What promises were included in the covenant God made with Abraham? Here is a list:

  1. A great nation was to come out of Abraham, namely, the nation of Israel (Genesis 12:2; 13:16; 15:5; 17:1-2, 7; 22:17b)
  2. Abraham was promised a land -- specifically, the Land of Canaan (Genesis 12:1, 7; 13:14-15, 17; 15:17-21; 17:8). Later we learn that the privilege of Abraham's descendants, the Jewish people, for living in their land under God's blessing is conditioned upon their obedience (see, for example, Deuteronomy 28-29). But whether the Jews are physically residing inside or outside of the land, or whether anyone else may control it by conquest or any other means, the land belongs to the Jewish people by divine right.
  3. Abraham himself was to be greatly blessed (12:2b; 15:6; 22:15-17a)
  4. Abraham's name would be great (12:2c)
  5. Abraham will be a blessing to others (12:2d)
  6. Those who bless will be blessed (12:3a)
  7. The one who curses will be cursed (12:3b) -- again and again this principle is operative in the prophets as they pronounce judgment on the nations surrounding Israel for the treatment of His chosen people.
  8. In Abraham all the earth will ultimately be blessed, a promise of Gentile blessing (12:3c; 22:18)
  9. Abraham would receive a son through his wife Sarah (15:1-4; 17:16-21)
  10. His descendants would undergo the Egyptian bondage (15:13-14)
  11. Other nations as well as Israel would come forth from Abraham (17:3-4, 6; the Arab states are some of these nations)
  12. His name was to be changed from Abram to Abraham (17:5)
  13. Sarai's name was to be changed to Sarah (17:15)
  14. There was to be a token/sign of the covenant -- circumcision (17:9-14).

THE TIMING OF THE PROVISIONS OF THE COVENANT

While a covenant may be signed and sealed at a specific point of time, this does not mean that every provision goes immediately into effect. Some go into effect immediately (e.g., changing of Abram's and Sarai's names to Abraham and Sarah, and the sign of circumcision). Some are fulfilled in the near future (e.g., the birth of Isaac 25 yrs. later; and the Egyptian sojourn, enslavement, and the Exodus some 400 years later). Still other may be delayed until the distant future (like the possession of all of the Promised Land) before God brings them into effect.

THREE KINDS OF PROMISES

Certain individual promises were given to Abraham. Other promises concerning his descendants, the nation Israel, were given to Father Abraham. Universal blessings that encompassed all nations were also given to him.

Individual -- Abraham is promised that he would be the father of a great nation including kings and nations other than the "seed itself" (Genesis17:6). God promises His personal blessing on Abraham. His name will be great and he himself will be a blessing.

National -- The nation itself should be great (Genesis 12:2) and innumerable (Genesis 13:16; 15:5). The nation is promised possession of the land . . . the Abrahamic Covenant itself is expressly called "everlasting" (Genesis 17:7) and the possession of the land is defined as "an everlasting possession" (Genesis 17:8).

Universal -- "all families of the earth" are promised blessing (Genesis 12:3).

ABRAHAMIC COVENANT AND THE FUTURE

This covenant, which contained individual promises to Abraham, promises of the preservation of a nation, and the possession of a land by that nation, was given to a specific covenant people. Since it was unconditional and eternal, and has never yet been fulfilled completely, it must await a future fulfillment. Israel must be preserved as a nation, must inherit her land, and be blessed with spiritual blessings to make this inheritance possible.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN TO ME?

By leaving Ur, Abraham had to totally abandon all that was significant to him. Of course God rarely demands personal sacrifice without the compensation of even greater blessings. Abraham's move from Mesopotamia and his father's house probably meant losing his inheritance, but how much greater were the things which God promised! Abraham would, indeed, be leaving a land of large cities rich in material goods, but the LORD promised a new inheritance that would include another land. Even though Israel's possession of the land was threatened time and again, Israel never completely lost it. God's promise was sure and it was unconditional. Retaining the land did not depend on the might of Abraham or his descendants, but on the faithfulness of God who promised.

In the same way that we know God has not abandoned Abraham's physical descendants, so we can be assured that He will not abandon those who are Abraham's children "by faith." The promises He has made He will fulfill, because it is His character to do so.



UR -- ABRAHAM'S HOMETOWN


Ur
(modern day Tell al-Muqayyar), Abraham's "home town," is located in southern Iraq, 200-220 miles southeast of Baghdad, halfway to the Persian Gulf). The ruins of Ur were discovered and first excavated in 1854-55 by British consul J.E. Taylor. British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley directed the most extensive excavations at Ur from 1922 to 1934 for the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania. In Abraham's day, Ur was the wealthiest city in Mesopotamia, with a complex system of government and a well-developed system of commerce; trade routes joined Ur with other great towns to the north and the south. Writing was in common use (e.g., issuing of receipts, and making contracts). Schools trained people for religious, commercial, and governmental work. The curriculum included mathematics, language, geography, botany, and drawing. The city had streets, a drain system, two-story houses, a great temple tower (called a ziggurat), and various other evidences of a highly developed civilization.

Ur was sustained by a healthy agricultural system based on irrigation ditches from the river bank, stone ploughshares, and flint sickles. With this technology the Babylonians grew two crops each season.

In a typical house the street door opened into a small lobby, perhaps provided with a jar of water for those arriving to wash their feet. A doorway at one side led into a courtyard. There were other rooms around the sides of the courtyard, among them store-rooms, a bathroom and a kitchen. In the kitchen there might be a well, a brick-built table, an oven, and grinding stones for making flour, as well as the pots and pans the last owners left behind. A long room at the center of one side could have been the reception room. In these houses there is usually a well-constructed staircase at one side of the courtyard. Arab houses built in recent times in the towns of Iraq follow almost the same plan.

Clay tablets left in the houses, some in small archive rooms, tell what the occupants of those houses were doing. Among them were merchants, local businessmen, priests and others in the service of the temple. Their records deal with the sale and purchase of houses and land, slaves and goods, with adoption, marriage and inheritance, and all the affairs of a busy city.

In a few houses there were many tablets of a much different nature. On round balls of clay, flattened to a bun shape, pupils had copied the teacher's handwriting in exercises to learn how to form the cuneiform signs. The teachers helped their pupils learn the old Sumerian language by using tables of verbs, and for arithmetic they had tables of square and cube roots and reciprocal numbers.

The Royal Tombs of Ur reflect the immense wealth of the city. Kings and queens drank from gold and silver beakers. For show, the kings wore daggers with golden blades, the queens exquisite jewelry of gold and colored stones.

Abraham left all this to become a dweller in tents, having no certain home, embarking upon a pilgrimage "in search of that city whose maker and builder was God" (Hebrews 11:10).