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An Unconditional Covenant

A Covenant of Promise

“After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.’ But Abram said, ‘Lord God, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus’” (Gen. 15:1-2)?  Since Abram’s wife was barren, he was concerned about his promised heir.  At sixty-five plus years of age, she was well past normal childbearing years.  Abram was looking for answers so he asked God if the promised heir was to come through his servant, Eliezer of Damascus.

“Then Abram said, ‘Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir!’ And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir.’  Then He brought him outside and said, ‘Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.’ And He said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:3-6).  God made it clear to Abram that his heir would be of his own physical seed, and Abram believed it.  Because of his faith in the promise, God considered Abram to be righteous even though his actual righteousness was as filthy rags (Isa. 64:6).

“Then He said to him, ‘I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to inherit it.’ And he said, ‘Lord God, how shall I know that I will inherit it?’ So He said to him, ‘Bring Me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.’ Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, down the middle, and placed each piece opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when the vultures came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.  Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, horror and great darkness fell upon him” (Gen. 15:7-12).

This ceremony has two major aspects.  First, God gave Abram a contract for both blessings and ownership of the Promised Land.  In the days of Abram, the separation of the animals into two halves was part of the usual custom of making a contract between two parties.  The prophet Jeremiah made reference to this custom in chapter thirty-four, verse eighteen.  As a sign of their intent and commitment, after the animals had been divided, the two parties entered into the contract by walking between the animal parts.

The second aspect of the ceremony was prophetic in type. The various animals of the ceremony provided a preview of the Levitical sacrifices that would later be required of the promised nation.  The Levitical sacrifices are prophetic pictures of the nature and work of Christ.  One of each of the five acceptable sacrificial animals (cow, goat, sheep, pigeon, and dove) was slain by Abram and laid on the altar.

The goat later became a sin offering that was given as a temporary sacrifice until God sent his Son, The Lamb of God.

After preparing the animals in accordance with custom, Abram waited for God to seal the contract by passing between the halves.  God did not act immediately; the delay and its events appear to be prophetic symbols.  The delayed completion of the contract speaks of the many years that would pass before all of the promised blessings would be fully consummated.  The attack of the birds on the animal carcasses represents the constant attack of Satan against the plan of God.  Some scholars also believe that Abram’s deep sleep symbolized the fact that he would die before all the blessings were bestowed upon his seed.

“Then He said to Abram: ‘Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years. And also the nation whom they serve I will judge; afterward they shall come out with great possessions.  Now as for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age. But in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete’“ (Gen. 15:13-16).

As Abram slept, God gave him a vision of his promised seed being taken into captivity.  Subsequent Scriptures clearly show that Abram’s descendants were taken into captivity three times, and returned to the land three times.  God’s vision to Abram showed his descendants going into captivity in Egypt.  The verses contain a sevenfold prophecy which received a literal and complete fulfillment: 1) They were to be strangers in a land not theirs; 2) They would serve in that land; 3) They were to be afflicted four hundred years; 4) God would judge their captor; 5) They would come out of captivity with many possessions; 6) Abram would be spared suffering; and 7) They would return to the promised land.

“And it came to pass, when the sun went down and it was dark, that behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a burning torch that passed between those pieces” (Gen. 15:17).

The contract had been signed and sealed, but only God walked between the pieces. Since the contract was unconditional, Abram was not required to make a commitment.  It became binding by the grace of God – with no conditions placed on Abram.  Even today, controversy involving this contract is a major world problem.  The Jews are claiming this contract as proof of ownership of the land of Palestine.  The smoking oven, which God was holding, is symbolic of the coming suffering and judgement, while the burning torch speaks of Christ who would come as the light of the world. The Middle East controversy will end only when the “Light of the World”, Jesus, returns and ends the struggle over the possession of the land.

“On the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying: ‘To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates” (Gen. 15:18).

Notice the verb tense change involving the Promised Land.  Prior to this verse the promise has been in the future tense “I will give”.  Now God is saying, “I have given” you this land.  The contract had been signed; God had entered into an unconditional covenant relationship with Abram, which promised him all the land between the Euphrates River of Iraq and Syria and the Nile River of Egypt. This Promised Land includes parts of Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.  Many today, hold to the theory that this covenant was broken when the Jews rejected their Messiah at His first Advent; but this is not true since the contract with Abram was eternal and unconditional.  All the prophecies of judgement pertaining to Israel show that there will be a permanent return to the land. A promise blessings always follows chastisement.  Even if one believes this covenant is conditional, scriptural prophecies show that when the Messiah returns that many Jews will accept Him.

The prophet, Isaiah, said it this way: “But Israel shall be saved by the Lord with an everlasting salvation; you shall not be ashamed or disgraced forever and ever. For thus says the Lord, Who created the heavens”.   “… I am the Lord, and there is no other. I have not spoken in secret, in a dark place of the earth; I did not say to the seed of Jacob, ‘Seek Me in vain’; I, the Lord, speak righteousness, I declare things that are right…”  “In the Lord all the descendants of Israel shall be justified, and shall glory” (Isa. 45:17-18a, 18b-19, 25).  “’The Redeemer will come to Zion, and to those who turn from transgression in Jacob,’ Says the Lord.  ‘As for Me,’ says the Lord, ‘this is My covenant with them: My Spirit who is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your descendants, nor from the mouth of your descendants’ descendants,’ says the Lord, ‘from this time and forevermore‘“ (Isa. 59:20-21).

We get more details from the prophet, Zechariah: “And I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and supplication; then they will look on Me whom they pierced. Yes, they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for Him as one grieves for a firstborn” (Zech. 12:10).

The Apostle Paul sums it up for us: “For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.  And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: ‘The Deliverer will come out of Zion, and He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob;  For this is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins’“ (Romans 11:25-27).

When will these things happen?   The Jews, as a nation, will receive Him as their Messiah when Christ comes back as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Ishmael – Father of the Arabs

Abram and Sarai grew impatient because, after ten years of living in the land of Canaan, the promised heir had not arrived. Abram was convinced that the heir would be of his physical seed, but he and Sarai began to question whether Sarai was to be the Mother.  How could a seventy-five year old woman have a child?  Sarai went to Abram with an offer that was too tempting for him to refuse.  Abram stepped out of God’s directive will and took matters into his own hands; he acted according to his own understanding. Today, around the world, we still feel the shock waves that resulted from his sin of impatience and his human attempt to accomplish God’s will.

“Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. And she had an Egyptian maidservant whose name was Hagar. So Sarai said to Abram, ‘See now, the Lord has restrained me from bearing children. Please, go in to my maid; perhaps I shall obtain children by her.’  And Abram heeded the voice of Sarai. Then Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar her maid, the Egyptian, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan. So he went in to Hagar, and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress became despised in her eyes” (Gen. 16:1-4).

During this time period, this arrangement was not uncommon when a wife could not bear a child.  In the Bible, we have various accounts where women allowed their concubine to substitute for them; however, this does not mean that God approved.  God did not approve of Abram going in to Hagar, and He soon made that quite obvious.  The root sin here is unbelief on the part of Abram and Sarai and they suffered great heartache for their action.  Almost immediately after Hagar conceived, strife emerged between her and her mistress.

“So Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram named his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram” (Gen. 16:15-16).

A New Name

Thirteen years went by. and Abram did not hear from God so Abram assumed that Ishmael was the promised heir.  But this was not God’s plan, and after many years of silence, God again spoke to Abram.

“When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless.  And I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly‘“ (Gen. 17:1-2).  When God appeared before Abram, He revealed himself by a new name, (El Shaddai in the Hebrew) meaning and translated “God Almighty”.  This name for God stresses His omnipotence – unlimited authority and all-powerful.  God told Abram to walk before Him and to be blameless which implies perfection.  Even though Abram was imperfect, through faith and the grace of God, righteousness was imputed to him.  Although God told Abram to be perfect, we do not find that God told him he would have to live a perfect life in order to receive the promised blessings.  As God revealed more details of His plan, Abram saw that the magnitude of the blessings grew with each repetition of the promise.

“Then Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying:  ‘As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall be a father of many nations.  No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you a father of many nations.  I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.  And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you.  Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God‘“ (Gen. 17:3-8).

God reconfirmed the covenant with Abram.  He first told Abram that He would make of him a great nation, and that nation became the nation of Israel.  God specifically stated that the covenant would be everlasting, and that the land was to be an everlasting possession for Abram and his descendants.  But God added an additional blessing to Abram by promising that he would be the father of many nations.  To show the undeniable nature of the future blessings, God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, which means father of a multitude.

“And God said to Abraham: ‘As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised‘“ (Gen. 17:9-10).

God established a visual seal and sign of His covenant relationship with Abraham and his heirs.  Circumcision was the badge of the covenant.  They did not become owners of the covenant because they were circumcised; they were circumcised because they were owners of the covenant.

“Then God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. And I will bless her and also give you a son by her; then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be from her’“ (Gen. 17:15-16).

Did you hear what God said He was going to do?  Life was to return to Sarai’s dead womb, and she was to become the mother of nations.  Her name was also changed to show the reality of her role as the mother of nations.  Abraham was extremely disturbed because he thought his thirteen-year-old son, Ishmael, was the expected heir.  The shock of the announcement caused Abraham to fall on his face in unbelief.

“Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is one hundred years old? And shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’ And Abraham said to God, ‘Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!  Then God said: ‘No, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him ‘“ (Gen. 17:17-19).

Abraham probably experienced the same shock that a middle-aged man, with grown children, experiences when his wife suddenly announces that she is expecting a baby.  All those carefully laid plans for the future will be changed.  Since Abraham was in a state of anxiety, he was not quick to rejoice.  For many years, he had been under the illusion that Ishmael was the promised heir; suddenly, he learned differently and he asked God about the future of the boy.  “And as for Ishmael, I have heard you. Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall beget twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this set time next year” (Gen. 17:20-21).

Ishmael was destined to become the father of the Arabs. The followers of Islam today claim Abraham as their father through the lineage of Ishmael.  God promised to bless Ishmael, but did not make His covenant with him, but made it with Isaac, the father of the Jews.  We should be very prayerful and careful in our negotiations over the Land of Palestine because God in His ultimate wisdom has destined that land to be a possession of the Jews.  Regardless of world opinion, we must remember that the clay does not have authority over the potter; our duty is to search the Scriptures to know God’s will and stand by it.  God will accomplish His plans.  He says, “My ways are not your ways”.

Now return to “Abraham, Issac and Jacob” to continue the story.

All quoted scripture is of the New Kings James version unless noted.