Abrahamic Covenant


The Hebrew Scriptures as well as a close study of ancient Near Eastern times demonstrates that covenant making was a frequent and customary tool among people groups then, just as today. The Hebrew word for covenant is בְּרִית or berith which can refer to an “agreement, alliance, covenant:” It is the equivalent of a contract between two persons or partners. 

The idea of such a covenant relationship is also easily found in the ancient Near Eastern literature (e.g. Amarna Letters). “This could have started early, because such an idea was well known in the ancient Near East from well back in the 3rd millennium BC.” This type of covenant was certainly not foreign to the Israelites. Man had increasingly gone his own way, far from God. This covenant is used as a means of relationship and expression with his people. Through the seed of Abraham God would reclaim and redeem mankind. Abraham’s willingness to believe in God and forsake all is indicative of later Jewish and Christian theologies. This covenant with Abraham is literally the foundation for the rest of the Bible. One cannot interpret and understand Scripture apart from a proper understanding of Genesis and it primary figure—Abraham and God’s covenant with him.

The Divine Contract with God and Man

In the Abrahamic Covenant God, Himself, covenants with Abraham. This covenant will prove to be unconditional and depends solely upon God who “obligates Himself in grace to bring about what He has promised.” At first, the Covenant was not revealed in definite detail to Abraham. In Gods sovereign plan He would later confirm this Covenant to Abraham in a greater measure (See Genesis 13:14–17; 15:1–7, 18–21; 17:1–8).

The Abrahamic Covenant, also known as the patriarchal covenant, comes to us from two primary sources in the Genesis account—Genesis 15 and 17. God initiated or made this covenant with Abraham, just as He had done prior with Noah (See Genesis 6:18). It is a divine contract between God and man (Abraham) with principle emphasis on at least two promises: the multiplication of Abraham’s offspring and the inheritance of the Promised Land. We will mention a third later.

“Avraham stands at the core of the entire book of Genesis, as his experiences will in many ways be reflected in those who follow him.” God first called Abraham in Ur (Genesis 11:31); Haran (12:1–4); Shechem (12:7); Bethel (13:14–17); twice in Hebron (15:5, 18; 17:1–8). God reiterates the promise to Abraham’s son Isaac (26:3–4); grandson Jacob (28:13–14; 35:11–12; 46:3–4). Even later, in 2 Samuel 7, God speaks of the same promises in His covenant with David. In the following Scriptural progression we can see the beginning of the story of redemption, as it unfolds.

The Early Unfolding:

Genesis 12:1-3, “I will make you into a great nation”: God initializes the covenant. He calls Abram (later Abraham) to “leave” his country for a land that will be given him, yet not revealed by God at the time. God promises that He will make Abram “a great nation”; “I will bless you”; a great name; be a blessing to all people of the earth; whoever curses you I will curse.

Genesis 12:4, 5 Haran: After the calling Abram and his people leave for Haran and live there until he leaves at the age of 75.

Genesis 13:14-17 Offspring and land promise: After separating from his brother (Lot) God again promises “land” to Abram and that “your offspring” will be like the “dust of the earth”(NIV). He tells Abram to walk through the land because “I am giving it to you.”(NIV)

Genesis 15:1-21“To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates”: God uses an ancient custom of passing between two sections of sacrificed animals (heifer; goat; ram; dove; pigeon) to renew His covenant with Abram. God also foretells of Israel’s being enslaved and mistreated for hundreds of years. (NIV)

Genesis 17:1-27“I am God Almighty; walk before me”: God covenants—“as for me”—with Abram when he was 99 years old. He changes his name from Abram (exalted father) to Abraham (father of a multitude). Abraham will be “fruitful” and “nations” and “kings” will come from him. He gave him and all his descendants “everlasting possession” over the “whole land of Canaan”. Circumcision begins as well as a name change and promise of of a child to Sarai (later Sarah). (NIV)

Genesis 22:15-18 “through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed”: Thru his son—Isaac—Abraham demonstrates his unflinching faith and obedience to God by being willing to offer him to God. An angel of the Lord informs him that because he did “not” withhold his son that he will “surely” be blessed and have numerous descendants. These descendants will also take possession of lands and cities. Through these same people shall “all nations on earth be blessed, because you obeyed me.” (NIV)

The Basic Ingredients of the Covenant:

1. Inheriting the land of Canaan
2. Becoming a great nation
3. Being a blessing to all nations

Indeed these basic premises of the Abrahamic Covenant are foundational to other covenants found in the Old Testament through which it changes and develops. Such covenants are the promise of land in the Palestinian Covenant (Deuteronomy 30:1-10), the promise of kingly descendants in the Davidic Covenant (2 Samuel 7:12–16), or the promise of blessing in the “Old” and “New” Covenants (Exodus 19:3-6; Jeremiah 31:31–40). After Genesis 12 the renewal of this covenant comes in the “form of command, promise and reward punctuates the action.”

There is a chain reaction set in motion by the hand of God when He calls Abram to leave Ur of the Chaldeans and enter a covenant relationship with Him by faith. God had called a man, out of a pagan polytheistic people, from a pagan father—Terah—to create enormous consequences for the rest of humanity.

Eternal Inheritance:
Jeremiah 7:7, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever. (NASB)
Notice the inspired author repeats the final phrase here. Rarely does God repeat things this way without significant meaning. Notice their dwelling there is not forever and ever but that the land given to their fathers is their forever and ever. Israel's disobedience caused them to be exiled from the land on a few occasions.

God promises the land to Israel, the seed of Abraham will be great and through his seed will come the savior, and that there will be blessing through Israel. These are fulfilled in a myriad of ways but from the Abrahamic Covenant does the Land Covenant, the Davidic Covenant and the New Covenant build. God basically enlarges these promises with new covenants.

The focus of the covenant was the faithfulness of God to His commitment not the faithfulness or obedience of Abraham or his physical descendants. The point is to show that God's promises remain true while Israel vascillates. In Genesis 15 when God passes through the animal halves God did not ask Abraham to pass thorugh them as well. Instead, God alone passed between. God alone is our salvation!

Besides the giving of the land another element is introduced (See Genesis 13:14-15) in the sense of "forever". The word here, seen in context or where used, usually refers to the duration of human history and can include eternity. However before this is Covenant is completely fulfilled there will be "blessing and cursing" upon Israel (Deuteronomy 30:1-2). Among the components of making his name great, blessing him, a father of great and many nations, there is also that God would give the land of Canaan as an eternal inheritance. (See Gen. 12:1-3, 17:3-8) He has indeed given the land, as an eternal inheritance. God can reclaim it at anytime and the authority by which He does this is His sovereignty and His everlasting Covenant, not with just Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob but also to Israel.

Joshua 21:8 And I will not cause the feet of Israel to wander anymore out of the land that I gave to their fathers, if only they will be careful to do according to all that I have commanded them, and according to all the Law that my servant Moses commanded them.” (ESV)

The "if" condition here is not in relation to the land covenant. The conditional "if" is in relation to their being exiled or moved from the land. The "land" given to their fathers is still theirs. This is God's promise:

Genesis 13:15 for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. (ESV)

Abraham obeyed God and left Ur thus launching an irrevocable, unconditional program (Romans 11:29). The "I will" language included in the promises reiterated throughout the Old Testament suggest the unconditional aspect of the covenant. The promise of the land predates Moses since the promise was made to Abraham himself (Gen. 12:7, 13:14-17, 15:7-21, 17:7-8, 24:7), Isaac (Gen. 26:2-4; 28:3-4) and Jacob (Gen. 35:11-12) well before Moses ever came along. From Genesis to Chronicles we see the same thing happening. In Romans 11 Paul records that God has removed Israel out of blessing. She is blind in part but will be restored.

Romans 11:25-27, For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. 26 And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: 27 For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins. (KJV)

The ordering of the Old Testament canon (or the NT one for that matter) is not a direct indication to its actual chronological order. The actual ending is around II Chronicles. Some suggest the Chronicles as a summary of the entire history of God's dealing with Israel. In the below passage, seemingly at the close of Israelite history, we have reiterated this unconditional promise to Israel:

2 Chron. 20:6-7 and said, “O LORD, God of our fathers, are you not God in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. In your hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand you. 7Did you not, our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel, and give it forever to the descendants of Abraham your friend? (ESV)

The Blessing for All Nations

Through Abraham comes the nation of Israel. It would be from this very group of people that mankind’s greatest hope would be born—Jesus, the Christ. In Genesis 49:10-11 we read Jacob’s prophecy:
The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his. (11) He will tether his donkey to a vine, his colt to the choicest branch; he will wash his garments in wine, his robes in the blood of grapes. (NIV)
Through the family tree of Abraham comes Jesus Christ, the savior of the world. Through Him people will begin to have a right relationship, a personal covenant with God, and be blessed beyond measure.

Much later in the Epistles of Paul (Galatians 3:13, 14) we would see further fulfillment of these promises as we see that all believers are given the blessings of Abraham. We are told that that Jesus became a curse for us so that we might receive the blessings of Abraham. This begins, just like it did with Abraham. By faith through divine grace are we saved and are able to become new creatures in Christ.

J.C. Gibson has noted that the calling of Abram to leave Ur “marked a moment fraught with destiny for the whole human race, indeed for the whole created universe.” He goes on to say, “For God was behind it. Both Jews and Christians believe that by his call to this one individual God was setting in motion a series of acts of grace and judgment which would fashion a special people for him, who would lead a lost mankind back to their true home."

The Church and Israel:

Often times the church is equated with Israel. In this discussion it is important to understand that they are not identical nor are the terms interchangeable. 1 Corinthians 10:32 reflects just such a division when it says, "Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God," (ESV). Galatians 6:16 and 1 Corinthians 10:18 contrast believing Jews with unbelieving Jews.

This view however that equates them is normally referred to as Replacement Theology or serves as a component of Covenant Theology (Presbyterians and Methodists typically hold to these views). I think it is important however to identify and realize the links here but we should also realize that we are committed to the Scriptures and not historical theological interpretation. I have gotten good and useful things from both Scofield and the Reformers. Notice the words of 17th Century theologians John Owen and Nehemiah Cox:
"The New Covenant of Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant and is the clearest and final fulfillment of the historical Covenant of Grace." 
As noted earlier the Abrahamic Covenant has at least three basic ingredients. The conclusion above is only partial and does not consider this. If taken in a vacuum it could be very misleading and potentially confuses the promise of individual salvation with the promises to national Israel.

This view also supposes that the Gentiles believers described as "seed of Abraham" (Galatians 3:29) means that they are indeed Israel. Paul's description of Gentile believers in Galatians 3:29 means that they participate in the spiritual blessings that come through Israel (See Romans 15:27; 1 Corinthians 9:11, 14). In the books of Acts, both the Church (19x) and Israel (20x) are seen existing simultaneously but they also are shown as continuing to be distinct in some way. At this point the replacement theologian has no valid claims from Scripture. Robert L. Saucy has noted,
"Both the church and Israel are therefore Abraham's seed and heirs of the promise. But this does not therefore equate the church and Israel." 
To equate Israel with the Church though is a failure to see the ethnicity principle of Scripture. It also confuses God's promise of individual salvation with God's promises to national Israel. The Church has not replaced or are instead of Israel. Israel has never left the program of God. Romans 11 is a very important chapter concerning Israel and there we see that Israel, the olive tree, never ceases to be the olive tree. In fact, the Gentiles or the engrafted wild olive tree can be taken out for its arrogance if God sovereignly chooses it to be so. (Romans 11:21) In fact, it is the Jewish root itself which is supporting us. (Romans 11:18) 


[1] Thomas, R. L. (1998, 1981). New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek dictionaries : Updated editio(H1285). Anaheim: Foundation Publications, Inc. (בְּרִית berith (136b); from an unused word; a covenant:—allied(1), allies*(1), covenant(275), covenants(1), El-berith*(1), league(2), treaty(4).)

[2] Holladay, W. L., Köhler, L., & Köhler, L. (1971). A concise Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon of the Old Testament. (48). Leiden: Brill.

[3] Wood, D. R. W. (1996, c1982, c1962). New Bible Dictionary (235). InterVarsity Press.

[4] Thomas Nelson Publishers. (1996). Nelson's complete book of Bible maps & charts : Old and New Testaments. "Completely revised and updated comfort print edition"; Includes indexes. (Rev. and updated ed.). Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson.

[5] Fox, E. (1995). Vol. 1: The five books of Moses : Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy ; a new translation with introductions, commentary, and notes. The Schocken Bible (Ge 12:1). New York: Schocken Books.

[6] Dictionary of Biblical Imagery © 1998 by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. All rights reserved.

[7] Gibson, J. C. (2001, c1981). Genesis : Volume 2. The Daily study Bible series (5). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

[8] Owen, John and Coxe, Nehemiah. Covenant Theology: From Adam to Christ (Palmsdale: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2005), 181.

[9] Saucy, L. Robert. The Church in God's Program. Copyright (c) 1972 by The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. Pg. 75

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