Christians: What is the Abrahamic Covenant?
…the LORD made a covenant with Abram… Genesis 15:18
In Genesis, we read that the people of Babylon were a godless and arrogant bunch. They sought to build a kingdom of their own apart from God as a testimony to their greatness.
God’s response to the efforts of Babylon seeking to make its name great was the calling of Abram to be a man with a new name who would become the father of a new nation that God would make great by grace.1 With the arrival of Abram in Genesis, the book shifts from the theme of God calling creation into existence in Genesis 1 to 11 and creation’s catastrophic spiral down into deepest wickedness, to God calling people into covenant in chapters 12 to 50 to restart his program to redeem wicked people.
God did not speak from the time of his covenant with Noah until he spoke to Abram to again initiate a covenant relationship.2 When Abram was called by God to become the father of a new nation, the prototype of a life of faith, and one of the most important men in the Bible, he was simply yet another sinner living among the scattered nations. In this way, Abram was as Noah had been before God likewise called him into covenant. We know very little about Abram before God called him other than his genealogy, his barren wife, and his temporary home in Haran after having been born in Ur of the Chaldeans.3 Since Nehemiah 9:7 and Acts 7:2–3 seem to indicate that God in fact called Abram in Ur of the Chaldeans, and the key city of the Chaldeans was Babylon, Abram may have even been called out of Babylon as a Babylonian who perhaps even sought to help build that great city that God judged, demonstrating the graciousness of God’s grace.4 It is amazing that Abram was seemingly just another sinner from a godless family when, much like Noah, he too found gracious favor in the eyes of the Lord.5
God simply told Abram to leave his homeland and father to journey to a new land that God would show him. God then promised Abram that though his wife was barren, he would be a father. He was promised a great nation blessed by God that would be a blessing to the nations of the earth through one of his offspring or seed. This refers back to the original “seed” promise of Genesis 3:15. The noun is singular, meaning Jesus. It is also collective, referring to Israel, the carrier of promise.6 Galatians 3:16 connects the promise of Abram’s seed with Jesus Christ:
“Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.”
In this way, God promised that the nation of Israel would come through Abraham and, like Mary, be the “womb” through which Jesus Christ would be brought forth as the blessing to all nations. This fact is so significant that Galatians 3:8 comments on it, saying, “The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’”
Abram was told that his descendants would receive the Promised Land if he made a radical break with his past and left his home in faith. He and his descendants eventually spent four hundred years in Egypt. Genesis ends with Joseph requesting that his bones be taken from Egypt to the Promised Land when God’s people would finally enter that place. Less than a year later they leave Sinai with the expectation of entering the Promised Land.7 But their disobedience delayed their entering for a whole generation and their longing was not realized until after the death of Moses in the opening chapters of the book of Joshua.
In faith Abram believed and obeyed God, doing as God commanded at the age of seventy-five. He took his wife, Sarai, their household, and his nephew Lot, who becomes a troublesome figure later in the story. God again appeared to Abram, who responded by worshiping God in faith by building an altar, something he does throughout the book after encountering God.8
The central point of the account of Abram is discovered when contrasting Abram with Babylon in the story that preceded his call, the Tower of Babel. The Babylonians sought to be a great nation and a blessed people, great in name, protected from their enemies, and the centerpiece of world affairs.9 But they pursued their aims apart from faith and apart from God. So God called one of them, Abram, out into covenant with himself and promised to give to Abram, by his gracious provision, all that the Babylonians had strived for. Therefore, God is showing that our hope cannot rest in the efforts of sinners to save and bless themselves. Rather, our only hope is to be found in entering into covenant relationship with God by faith.
Sometimes, we do not value and protect the people and things God has given us. This is precisely the story of Abram. Although God promised Abram a son through his wife and a nation in the Promised Land, Abram essentially gave both away.10
Thankfully, God did intervene and, through inflicting diseases on Pharaoh and his household and causing Lot to choose land other than the Promised Land, God made good on his promises, in spite of his servant. The central theological point in these accounts seems to be that while God’s servants are imperfect, it is his sovereign covenant protection that saves them from themselves and makes his covenant promises become reality.
Genesis opens with God speaking and preparing creation for mankind by the power of his word. Throughout Genesis, God has thus far spoken to Adam, Noah, and Abram. In Genesis 15:1, God again speaks to Abram in a vision. God poetically promised to be Abram’s protector and provider. God promised that though Abram was childless and his wife, Sarai, was barren, they would have a son, and that through that son a nation would be born. Genesis 15:6 reports Abram’s response to God’s word, which is among the most important verses in the Bible, saying, “He believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”
Genesis 15:6 tells us that Abraham dared to believe God’s unlikely promise of a son in his old age. This is the kind of total trust that God calls righteousness. That kind of trust in God’s word even when it makes no sense at all receives the promise of God.
It becomes a verse that is central to the New Testament doctrine of faith, in general, and Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith, in particular.11 Additionally, Jesus’ half-brother James quoted Genesis 15:6 to teach that true faith in God results in good works in life with God.12
God’s covenant with Abram was confirmed with a sacrifice and the shedding of blood. This act foreshadowed the new covenant of our salvation, which was confirmed with Jesus’ sacrifice of his own life on the cross and the shedding of his blood.
God often works through generations of a family. That is the case with Abram. God promised Abram that though his descendants would inherit the Promised Land, it would not be in his lifetime but only after a future four-hundred-year exile in Egypt, recorded in Exodus. God then marked out the boundaries of the Promised Land, the boundaries of which also coincide with the garden of Eden.13
Throughout God’s dealings with Noah and Abraham, we have witnessed a pattern of God speaking to them, calling them into covenant, establishing them as the head of a new humanity, promising to bless them, and inviting everyone to respond to him in faith. We then see each falter in faith and sin against the Lord despite his patient kindness to them.
In Genesis 16 we see this pattern repeated in yet another mini-fall of sorts. After the establishment of God’s covenant in Genesis 15, Abram sought to take matters into his own hands by bearing a son with his Egyptian maidservant and second wife, Hagar. The faithless plot was conceived by Abram’s wife, Sarai, who, like her first mother Eve, failed to trust the simple words of God and feared that God had not kept his promise to her.14 Their actions were likely motivated at least in part by the fact that they had been waiting ten-plus years for God to give them the child he had promised, and Abram was now eighty-six years old and his wife was seventy-six years old and barren.
The central lesson for us that God does not need our help and that when we take matters into our own hands we only cause pain and complexity. And, that was the case with Abram committing adultery and bringing a son into the world. The great conflict between these two lines that descended from Abram that continues to this day between Islam and Judaism.
Following God’s covenant with Abram in Genesis 15 and Abram’s sexual sin with Hagar in Genesis 16, God institutes circumcision as the sign of the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 17. The reason why God chose to mark his men on this part of their anatomy is not revealed to us, but it makes sense, since it is generally very important to men—the means by which they conceive children and the cause of some of their most grievous sins.
Circumcision was performed either with a sharp knife or stone. Circumcision began in Genesis 17 with Abram, who was ninety-nine years of age, as a sign of his covenant with God, like the rainbow was the sign of God’s covenant with Noah. God spoke to Abram, and Abram responded to God’s command in faith, falling down on his face to worship God. God then changed his name from Abram, which means “exalted father,” to Abraham, which means “father of a multitude,” as the time for God to fulfill his promise of a son for Abram was very near. God also expanded his covenant with Abraham to include Abraham’s descendants.
God then told Abraham that his wife’s name would also be changed from Sarai to Sarah, which means “princess.” God also promised that through Sarah the princess, kings would come with the ultimate fulfillment being the birth of Jesus Christ, who is the King of kings promised to Sarah’s great-grandson Judah.15
When God restated his Genesis 15 promise that he would give Abraham a son by Sarah, Abraham laughed at God in distrust that he and Sarah could conceive as God had promised.16 Rather than giving up on Abraham, God graciously repeated his promise once again, even instructing Abraham to name him Isaac, which means “laughter,” since God would get the last laugh.
Abraham immediately obeyed God, as Moses makes clear by writing that he did it “that very day.”17 Abraham was circumcised at the age of ninety-nine along with every member of his household, as God had commanded. He did this because God promised that any male who was not circumcised would be cut off altogether by God. Ever since this occasion, Jews have circumcised their sons on the eighth day, as that was the day chosen for their father Isaac.18
Scripture expands the concept of circumcision, the cutting away of the foreskin, to the cutting away of sin from the heart.19 Abraham’s descendants expand from sons by natural birth to include those who are descendants by new birth. Those with hearts circumcised by the Holy Spirit are truly Abraham’s descendants, as they, like him, live in covenant relationship with God by faith in Jesus Christ.20
In Genesis 21 Sarah erupts with laughter as Isaac, the promised son whose name means laughter, is born. Sarah jealously demanded Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael into the desert to die. But God, always faithful to his promise, heard Abraham’s other son and they were spared. The chapter ends with the serene portrait that Abraham’s life has finally all come together under God’s perfect covenantal blessing. Despite nearly losing his wife twice, Abraham still has Sarah. And despite waiting for twenty-five years, Abraham finally has his son Isaac because God is faithful.
When Isaac was likely a young man, Moses tells us that God tested Abraham. Perhaps the point of this test was not for God to see if Abraham had faith, but rather for Abraham to demonstrate the depth of his faith in front of his son Isaac so that he too would learn to walk in faith as his father had.
Echoing God’s initial call to Abraham in Genesis 12, God commanded Abraham to “go” and sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering.21 This would have required that Abraham slaughter his son, dismember him, and burn his body. Obediently, Abraham awoke early the next morning without any noticeable hesitation and set out with his son to do as the Lord commanded. The Bible has no words adequate to describe Abraham’s agony.
But just before Abraham killed his son, with the knife in the air above him, the angel of the Lord (likely Jesus) called to Abraham from heaven and commanded him not to harm his son. God then provided a ram to be sacrificed. Abraham, and Moses writing seven hundred years later, recognized that this prefigured God’s future messianic provision at the same mountain, Mount Moriah, also known as Mount Zion.22
The comparisons between this account and the death of Jesus are many. To help you see them clearly we have listed them:
- Isaac and Jesus were both sons of a promise that was given many years before their birth.
- Isaac and Jesus were both born to women who could not have conceived apart from a miracle.
- Isaac and Jesus were both firstborn sons.
- Isaac and Jesus were both greatly loved by their father/Father.
- Isaac and Jesus went to the top of Mount Moriah/Mount Zion.
- Isaac carried the wood to his own sacrifice, just as Jesus carried his wooden cross to his crucifixion.
- Isaac and Jesus each willingly laid down their lives to their father/ Father.
- Isaac’s father and Jesus’ Father both felt the agony of killing an innocent son.
- Isaac was brought back from the dead figuratively and Jesus was brought back from the dead literally.
- Isaac points us to Jesus, the Son, and Abraham to the Father in this prophetic portrait of their mutual agony as they partner together to provide substitutionary atonement for all people on this very spot two thousand years later.
Hebrews 11:17-19 says it this way:
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.
After having walked with God for many years and seeing God provide in very difficult situations, Abraham had apparently learned to trust God no matter what. This fact reveals that those in covenant with God can mature and grow in faith. Abraham’s faith in God was so resolute that he believed that even if he killed his son that God, who gave him the son through a miracle, could give him back through yet another miracle.23 After all, Abraham had also lost his wife on two occasions only to see God bring her back to him, and Abraham believed that God would do the same with Isaac because God is always good for his covenant promises.
To summarize the Abrahamic covenant: the human mediator between God and Abraham’s family, the nation of Israel, and the nations of the earth is Abraham. The blessings of the covenant include land, a son, and a nation of people who would bring forth Jesus Christ as the ultimate promised blessing. The condition of enjoying the covenant was obedience to God and “doing righteousness and justice,”24 as God’s people are to be ethical and promote justice on the earth. Like Jesus who would call the church to be a city within the city,25 God commanded his people in the Abrahamic covenant to live as a nation among the nations for the missional purpose of revealing God to the nations through righteousness and justice. The sign of the covenant internally was faith as Abraham believed God, and the sign externally was circumcision, as visible evidence of internal faith. The covenant community took the form of a family and nation that proceeded from that family bringing forth Jesus as the blessing to all nations.
Lastly, the promise of Jesus Christ is that he would come as the seed of Abraham and blessing to all nations of the earth. Revelation 7:9–10 reveals the fulfillment of this aspect of the Abrahamic covenant at the end of time around the throne of Jesus:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Everyone starts their relationship with God just like Abram did, just a regular sinner needing a Savior. Where are you at in your relationship with God?