The Abrahamic Covenant
The first eleven chapters of Genesis ended with the Gentile nations being scattered. God had given them up to walk with Satan in his kingdom of wickedness. Looking back, we can see that man’s rebellion at the tower of Babel brought the third dispensation to an end. This dispensation was known as “human government” under the direction of God. Mankind refused to follow God’s laws, chose his own way, and aligned itself with Satan rather than God.
The Apostle Paul tells us that: “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves…because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen…And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” (Rom. 1:24, 25, 28, NIV).
Returning to the era after the Tower of Babel, we again pursue the golden thread of promise revealed in Scripture. When the time was right, God chose a man out of Ur in southern Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq, to become a chosen earthly vessel through whom He would work. Through this man, Abram, later called Abraham, and his descendants, God developed His plan, sent His Son, and revealed Himself more fully. God entered into a covenant relationship with this faithful man, and a new dispensation began – the dispensation of promise.
“For the LORD searches all hearts and understands all the intent of the thoughts” (I Chr. 28:9, NKJV).
The Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, writing in the first century, having access to old documents no longer available to us, gives us more insight into a man named Abram.Josephus said that Abram worshiped wood idols that the family made. Quote from Josephus: “Berosus mentions our father Abram without naming him when he says thus: ‘In the tenth generation after the Flood, there was among the Chaldeans a man righteous and great, and skillful in the celestial science.’” From Josephus and archaeology, we know that the Chaldeans worshipped many different idols. We assume that Abram was a student of astrology because it was also customary to worship the sun, moon, and stars. (Above quote: Josephus, in chapter seven of book one of “Antiquities of the Jews” quoted from Berosus of Mochus.)
Josephus also said that Abram’s study of the heavenly bodies convinced him that they obeyed fixed laws of the universe rather than acting independently of each other as true gods would do. As he continued studying, Abram became convinced that a supreme god of the universe must control everything. Therefore, he began to question the family’s beliefs about their gods. Islamic documents give us even more information about Abram, his family, and their work with carved idols.
When God saw that Abram’s mind and heart were open to Him, He spoke to him with words recorded for us in the twelfth chapter of Genesis.
“Now the LORD had said to Abram: get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:1-3, NKJV).
God told Abram to do three things: 1) To get out of his city and country; 2) To separate himself from his family; and 3) To go to a land that He would show him. There were four promises that God made to Abram: 1) He would become the father of a great nation; 2) He would be blessed, and his name would be great; 3) God would bless those who blessed him and curse those who cursed him; and 4) All the families of the earth would be blessed in him.
God was ready to continue revealing Himself, and He chose by divine grace this man Abram, a pagan in a pagan home and pagan city, to become His channel of blessings to mankind. Today, after nearly four thousand years, we can see the fulfillment of those promises. From this man, God created an exceptionally privileged nation with whom He dwelled and revealed Himself more fully. God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, making this name so great that it is still known worldwide today. The world’s three great religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, trace their origin to Abraham. Time and time again, we have seen how God has blessed the seed of Abraham, and history has recorded the downfall and destruction of those who have persecuted the Jews, God’s chosen people.
Since God made plans to send His Son to pay the price for sin and man’s redemption, Abraham’s faith allowed him to receive those blessings. Next, God desired to reconcile man to Himself and to have fellowship with Him. God’s last promise to Abram was that in him, all the families of the earth would be blessed. Through the lineage of Abram and the promised nation, God would send His Son, “The Lamb of God,” and “The Seed of Woman.” The assurance of this last promise was so sure that Abraham could enter into a measure of fellowship with God even before the necessary payment was made.
Response to the Call
God told Abram to do three things: to leave his country, to separate himself from his family, and to go to a land that He would show him. Abram, like many of us, only partially obeyed God’s command. Taking his family with him, he traveled some 600 miles up the Euphrates River to Haran and took up residence there. Haran was where caravans bound for Egypt turned south to cross the desert. Again, Abram disobeyed God by taking his entire family, including his father, brother, and nephew. We can only speculate whether or not the accompaniment of these relatives was part of why Abram stopped short of the promised land.
We do not know how long Abram dwelled in Haran after his father, Terah, died, but Abram eventually obeyed God’s command to go into the land that He would show him.
“So, Abram departed as the LORD had spoken to him, and Lot went with him. And Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Then Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people whom they had acquired in Haran, and they departed to go to the land of Canaan. So they came to the land of Canaan. Abram passed through the land to the place of Shechem, as far as the terebinth tree of Moreh. And the Canaanites were then in the land” (Gen. 12:4-6, NKJV).
Abram did not take either of the two main roads south; he went down the mountain ridge, which later became Samaria and is known today as the West Bank. He avoided the populated areas along the Mediterranean Coast and the Jordan Valley. Abram successfully transitioned from city life back to the nomadic lifestyle of his forefathers. He had large flocks and herds and probably many servants. The wilderness’s quieter, more solitary environment probably enhanced his communication with God. Abram was slowly stepping out on faith, but he had not completely separated himself from his family as his nephew, Lot, still accompanied him.
God appeared to Abram when he stopped at Shechem, near the present-day West Bank City of Nablus. “And the Lord appeared to Abram and said, ‘to your descendants I will give this land.’ So he built an altar there to the Lord who had appeared to him” (Gen 12:7, NASB1995).
We should carefully note that God did not promise the land to Abram until, by faith, he came into the land. This is also the first Biblical record of Abram building an altar to honor God.
Interestingly, even today, the Jews and Arabs are still disputing the ownership of this land, which is in the heart of the West Bank. The city of Nablus is occasionally in the news as one of the hotspots of the troubled area.
Abram had a mountaintop experience of faith where he met God, his Creator. But soon, as most of us have experienced, he was about to fall into the valley of darkness and despair. Since Abram was a son of Adam, he received a sinful nature that was about to take control of his life.
After some time, a famine came upon Canaan; Abram, in a panic situation because of his state of affairs, forgot his Creator and turned to his own wisdom and understanding. In search of greener pastures, he left the Promised Land and went south into the land of Egypt.
We fall into sin and get into trouble when outside God’s will. So, it was with Abram. Fearing for his life because of his wife’s great beauty, Abram lied to the Egyptian Pharaoh and claimed that Sarai was his sister.
At sixty-five-plus years of age, Sarai’s beauty was so appealing that Pharaoh took her into his house and rewarded Abram with many gifts of great value. But God, out of His great mercy, protected Sarai by bringing great plagues upon Pharaoh and his house. Realizing that the plagues came because Sarai was Abram’s wife, Pharaoh chastised Abram and had the army escort him and his family out of the country. Nevertheless, Abram returned to Canaan with his gold, silver, and livestock wealth.
We are told that Abram returned to where he had built the altar and called upon the name of the Lord. We have no record that God spoke in response to Abram’s plea. Abram was still disobedient because he had never fully separated himself from his family; his nephew, Lot, remained with him.
But growing strife between Abram and Lot’s herdsmen soon led to the needed separation. Abram decided to give Lot the first choice of land; Lot chose the rich valley near the Dead Sea and left the hills to Abram. So, Abram separated his family, his servants, and his flocks from those of Lot.
“And the LORD said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him: ‘Lift your eyes now and look from the place where you are—northward, southward, eastward, and westward; for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever. And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if a man could number the dust of the earth, then your descendants also could be numbered. Arise, walk in the land through its length and its width, for I give it to you.’ Then Abram moved his tent, and went and dwelt by the terebinth trees of Mamre, which are in Hebron, and built an altar there to the LORD” (Gen 13:14-18, NKJV).
While touring Israel a few years ago, our tour bus stopped on top of a mountain near old Shechem, present-day Nablus. From this place, we could see many miles in all directions. The coastal plain and the Mediterranean Sea were westward, the Jordan River Valley and the land beyond were eastward, the Jezreel Valley and the hills of Galilee were northward, and the hills of Judea were southward. From this mountaintop, we could see a large part of the land of Canaan.
Many think this or a nearby location was where God showed Abram the land he was to possess. If Abram had demanded the valley and given Lot the hills, his greed would have significantly restricted his view. Since mountains surround the valley, the view from the valley is restricted and appears to be the walls of a fortress.
Notice that God waited until Abram was completely obedient before He revealed the full extent of His blessings. God’s gift of the land was to be forever. The Bible makes this unconditional statement and reconfirms the promise many times. As we move along, we will look at other Scriptural support for this promise.
The 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, NASB1995)?
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, NKJV).
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 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, NKJV).
This ceremony has two significant aspects. First, God gave Abram a contract for blessings and ownership of the Promised Land. In the days of Abram, separating the animals into two halves was part of the custom of making a contract between two parties. The prophet Jeremiah referred to this custom in chapter thirty-four, verse eighteen. As a sign of their intent and commitment, the two parties entered into the contract after the animals had been divided by walking between the animal parts.
The second aspect of the ceremony was prophetic in type. The various ceremony animals 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 by 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 as 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 birds’ attack on the animal carcasses represents Satan’s constant attack against God’s plan. Some scholars also believe Abram’s deep sleep symbolized 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, NKJV).
God gave him a vision of his promised seed being taken into captivity as Abram slept. Later 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, NKJV).
The contract had been signed and sealed, but only God walked between the pieces. Since the contract was unconditional, Abram was not required to commit. 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, symbolizes the coming suffering and judgment, while the burning torch speaks of Christ, who would come as the world’s light. 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, NKJV).
Notice the verb tense change involving the Promised Land. Before 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 believe this covenant was broken when the Jews rejected their Messiah at His first Advent. However, this is not true since the contract with Abram was eternal and unconditional. All the prophecies of the judgment about Israel show that there will be a permanent return to the land. A promise of 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 – they will weep greatly.
The prophet Isaiah said, “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. 45:18-19, 25, NKJV).
“‘And a Redeemer will come to Zion, and to those who turn from transgression in Jacob,’ declares 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, NKJV).
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, NKJV).
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, NKJV).
When will these things happen? When Christ comes the second time as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Then the Jews, as a nation, will receive Him as their Messiah.
When Isaac was young, God called upon Abraham to offer his son as a human sacrifice on a mountain called Moriah. Abraham obeyed, and as Abraham was getting ready to kill his Son, “The Angel of the Lord” stopped him and provided a ram as a substitute for the sacrifice (See Genesis Chapter 22).
Then God reconfirms his covenant with Abraham. “Then the Angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time out of heaven, and said: ‘By Myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son— blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice’” (Gen 22:15-18, NKJV).
Many scholars believe that the above spokesman is the pre-incarnate Christ, the Son of God. The “Angel of the Lord” always speaks with great authority and often clearly speaks in the first person as divine when He reveals the position that God is taking. In this case, the Angel made it clear that God recognizes Isaac as the only son of Abraham.
Only through Isaac would the promised blessings come; the lineage of the promised “Seed of Woman,” who would be the Son of God in human form, can be traced through Isaac. Only through the shed blood of this Son of God could the promised blessings be secure. These blessings are a gift of God, purchased by the blood of Christ. How appropriate for the Son, Himself, to directly reconfirm God’s covenant with Abraham.
The covenant of promise, purchased by the blood of Jesus on the cross of Calvary, was presented to Abraham – a gift wrapped in three packages. The first package contained personal blessings to be bestowed upon Abraham. A second package included blessings related to the chosen Nation of Israel. Finally, in the third package, God provided individual salvation for all Jews and Gentiles. Because of the payment’s certainty, many blessings were bestowed years in advance.
The Apostle Paul clarifies in the third chapter of Galatians that salvation was included in the covenant. “Just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, ‘In you all the nations shall be blessed.’ So then those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham…And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:6-9,29, NKJV).
In Second Corinthians, chapter 5, we read: “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name” (II Cor 5:21).
The blood of Jesus was shed for the sins of all, past, present, and future; however, some have refused the gift. “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12, NKJV).
The salvation of both Jew and Gentile is included in this package of the promise. Individual Jews were never promised salvation because of their national heritage – Jesus makes this point clear when He condemned the Pharisees for their unbelief (see John 8:31-44).
Promises made concerning the chosen nation were made at the national level. However, details are missing in the promise, as God revealed to Abraham only that He would make him a great nation. This nation would be a channel of blessings and would inherit the land as an everlasting possession.
Physical and spiritual blessings are included in the promises – some are conditional, and some are unconditional. The promise was that Gentiles would, at a later time, share in some of the spiritual blessings. However, God reserved certain physical possessions and blessings for his chosen nation as an exclusive and eternal inheritance. Therefore, individuals who share in this national inheritance must be both physical and spiritual children of Abraham.
On a personal level, God blessed Abraham with additional sons born through a second wife and possibly through other concubines whom Abraham took after Sarah died. But God considered neither these children nor Ishmael, physical children of the promised covenant. “Abraham left everything he owned to Isaac. But while he was still living, he gave gifts to the sons of his concubines and sent them away from his son Isaac to the land of the east” (Gen 25:5-6, NIV).
As part of Abraham’s blessings, these sons became fathers of several Gentile nations. These Gentile children, as individuals, could share in the spiritual blessings of Abraham only if they become spiritual children of Abraham through faith. Some have chosen to do so. Many more have rejected the blessing.
Scripture quotations marked NKJV are taken from the New King James Version of the Bible, copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked NIV are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® NIV® 2011 by Zondervan Corporation. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Used with permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Scripture quotations marked NASB1995 are taken from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1971,1977, 1995, by The Lockman Foundation, LA Habra, California. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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