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The Biblical Covenants, Part 2: The Abrahamic Covenant

The chapters that separate Noah and Abraham (Gen. 10-11) provide the context to bridge a gap of about three hundred and fifty years.[1] The lines of Shem, Ham, and Japheth are given (Ch. 10) as well as their collective rebellion to obey God’s command to  fill the earth (9:1, 7) by gathering in one place to become men of a name (Ch. 11). The scene is beginning to look like the world-wide rebellion recorded in 6:1-4,[2] but rather than destroy mankind God confused their language and thus forced them to separate into their prospective people groups.

The book of Genesis is divided into ten sections that record a specific record or generation (תּוֹלֵדוֹת – Gen. 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10, 27; 25:12, 19; 36:1; 37:2). By the time we arrive at 11:10, Moses (the author of Genesis) makes it obvious that Shem’s line is of intense interest. Even though the list of Noah’s sons is always recorded as Shem, Ham, and Japheth (5:32; 6:10; 7:13; 9:18; 10:1), the listing of their offspring begins with Japheth (10:2-5) then Ham (10:6-20) to be followed by Shem (10:21-31). It seems that Shem, though normally listed first, is presented last for emphasis. After all, it is within Shem’s tents that God will one day dwell (9:27). Now that the peoples of the earth have been divided into nations by their language, the focus remains on Shem and his line. From Shem the attention moves to Terah, and from Terah to his son Abram. It is with this man that God will establish yet another covenant.


The Covenant’s Context – Genesis 12:1-3, 7

“1Then Yhwh said to Abram, 

‘Go forth! From your land, and from your kin, and from your father’s house,

to the land which I will show you. 

2And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make great your name;

and you will be a blessing. 

3And I will bless those who bless you and he who curses you I will curse; 

and they will be blessed in you, all the families from the earth.’…


7Then Yhwh appeared unto Abram and He said, ‘To your seed I will give this land.’ So, he built an altar there to Yhwh who appeared unto him. ”


Here is the context of the Abrahamic Covenant (hereafter referred to as AC). Because we do not yet read the term “covenant” (בְּרִית), we call this the covenant’s context. Even so, much of what comes later is already laid out in these three verses.

The language God employs is interesting. While He does employ an imperative initially (Go forth! – לֶךְ־לְךָ) implying that obedience is a prerequisite for the blessing that follows, there remains absent the “if/then” clauses we would expect of a Suzerain-vassal treaty. The command is therefore not a stipulation for the following blessing so much as the blessing is the promised result of the going forth.

There are no fewer than eight promises made by God to Abram in these verses: (1) To make Abram a great nation, (2) to bless Abram, (3) make Abram’s name great, (4) Abram’s name will be a blessing, (5) blessing for those who bless Abram, (6) cursing for the one who curses Abram, (7) in Abram will be a source of blessing for all the people groups of the earth, and (8) God would give the land of Canaan to Abram and his “seed”.[3] To this we should add something rather obvious. Namely, that Abram would have a seed (זֶרַע). In such close proximity to Noah’s narrative, which advances Adam’s narrative, it is not difficult to understand that the seed of the woman (3:15) which was linked with Shem’s line (9:27) is now linked with Abram. Thus far there is a link between the covenants and God’s promise to defeat Satan. One might almost state at this point that God’s plan of victory is revealed through the covenants. More specific for our current point, there is a link between God’s covenant with Noah and the one He will make with Abram. Simply put, the AC is built upon the covenant already established with Noah.

Regarding this multi-facetted promise, several observations should be made. First, the initial command to “go forth!” is a command to become separate. Shem’s line had become quite numerous and prosperous in the 350 years since the flood.[4] But the chosen line of Shem was included in the global rebellion at Babel and is thus as much tainted with wicked men as the lines of Ham and Japheth. God is calling Abram to be separate from even other Shemites. To this we should add that Abram was called even to separate from his own father, family, and kin. It seems that from this point forward, Abram has no father or rather that God will be his father. The sense of the new father motif gains traction in that God promises to bring Abram into a new land. There is no need to anticipate an inheritance that Terah will provide, for God will provide Abram with an inheritance in a new land.

Second, the promise to make Abram into a great nation is set in the context of God creating the nations by confusing their languages (11:1-9). Nations have already been formed by their common language. To these God will add another nation that stems from Abram. From the other nations, God is forming a new nation.

Third, the blessing pronounced on Abram is reminiscent of God’s blessing of the man and his wife (1:28) and Noah with his sons (9:1). In fact, while this is the third time that God is recorded to have blessed persons, it is the first time that He blesses an individual. There is therefore a sense of individuality or specificity that comes with this blessing. The man and his wife stand as the only persons alive and therefore to bless them is to bless the entire human race. The same can be said of the blessing of Noah and his sons as the only heads of families on the earth at that time. Yet, Abram is far from the only man alive when this blessing was made. There is therefore a sense of specificity involved.

Fourth, the language of a great name points back to the objective of the Babelites (11:4) as well as the Nephilim and their wicked human allies (6:4). The difference here is between blessing and rebellion. The previous parties took the responsibility of making their own names great. Here, God states that He will be the one to make Abram’s name great. This is more than ironic for Abram’s name (אַבְרָם) literally means exalted/great (רום) father (אב). God will be the one who puts meaning into Abram’s name.

Fifth, Abram is transformed from being blessed into being a blessing. Abram’s blessing is not going to be self-contained but rather is going to produce blessing to others. The text does not describe how that will be (though will soon shed light on it), yet the trail that connects Abram to the seed of the woman via Noah and Shem is a mighty clue. That God will dwell in Shem’s tents (9:27) is not a sense of favoritism against the other tribes of the earth. Rather, God’s residence among Shem through Abram will be the means by which He blesses all the families of the earth.[5] This blessing that is specifically for Abram and his seed is therefore not exclusively for Abram and his physical descendants. The fate of Abram and those who come from him is linked with the fate of the world.[6]

Sixth, the promise to bless those who bless Abram and curse the one who curses Abram should make us sit up and read closely. God used the plural participle to describe the blessers (מְבָרְכֶיךָ) of Abram. Any and all who bless Abram will be treated in kind by God. Yet the description of those who curse Abram is stated in the singular (מְקַלֶּלְךָ). It is almost as if God has a single person in mind. There is blessing for all who attach themselves to Abram and a curse for the individual who opposes him.

Finally, the fact that Abram’s promised blessing is for the benefit of others becomes plainly stated in that all the tribes/families of the earth will be blessed in Abram. This promise is both universal and specific. It is universal in that general terms are used. God does not focus on the land (אֶרֶץ) where Abram is residing nor the land (אֶרֶץ) where God is taking him. Rather, it is the families of the earth (הָאֲדָמָה) that will be blessed. In this context, אֶרֶץ indicates a specific region (land) while הָאֲדָמָה indicates the globe. Yet this universal promise is given specific details in that (a) God uses the terms of people groups (מִשְׁפְּחֹת – families, clans, tribes) rather than speaking of all individuals roaming the planet. To this we must add that (b) the blessing is found in you [Abram]. In other words, connection with Abram and this promise is what unleashes the blessing.

In vv. 4-6 we read that Abram packed up and came to the land of Canaan, territory occupied by Ham’s cursed son (9:25-27). Abram, a single seed from Shem is in the midst of the Canaanites. For Noah’s prophecy to come true, much will have to change. Yet it is this land to which God referred for in v. 7 He tells Abram precisely that. In response, Abram built an altar to Yhwh, the first recorded altar to worship Yhwh since Noah disembarked the ark. The context is now set for the covenant to be cut.


The Covenant Cut – Genesis 15

Genesis chapter 15 begins with “After these things”, a reference to all that occurred in chapters 13-14 (Abram’s defection from the Promised Land to enter the land of Egypt only to be enriched and sent back to the Promised Land followed by an account of how Abram acted like a warrior king to win back what was taken from him and subsequently blessed by Yhwh’s priest, Melchizedek of Jerusalem). Great things have happened to Abram, yet the land does not belong to him, and even if it did, he does not have any seed to bequeath it to. This is the context of Yhwh’s appearance to Abram in chapter 15.

The first 8 verses record a conversation between Yhwh and Abram. The conversation begins with Yhwh reaffirming His pledge to Abram by means of encouragement (fear not! I am a shield to you), and reminder of what had already been promised (your wages are exceedingly many). The fact that Yhwh had protected Abram (as a shield) is validated by the fact that he escaped Egypt and Chedorlaomer unscathed. Some of those wages (שָׂכָר) have already been received by the loot taken from Chedorlaomer’s destruction. Abram’s response may express frustration but at the least confusion: And Abram said, Lord Yhwh, what will You give to me, since go childless, and the heir of my house is he of Damascus, namely Eliezer (v. 2). In other words, there is no seed (12:7) for Abram to give this land to and unless that part is remedied, Eliezer of Damascus will receive this land when Abram is gone. The emphasis on the lack of seed (זֶרַע) is brought out in v. 3. What is the point of wages when there is no seed.

Yhwh’s response is both reassuring and enlightening. The word of Yhwh explicitly tells Abram that Eliezer will not inherit Abram’s possessions but that one which comes from his own body will inherit (v. 4). Not only this, but Abram will produce seed to rival the stars in the heavens (v. 5). The line from Noah to Shem to Terah to Abram will remain intact as the line of the coming seed of the woman. Because the seed in question will come from Abram’s body (as opposed to the woman’s), his heir will not be the seed, yet will be part of the anticipated line that will produce the seed. This is what Abram believed (v. 6): that Yhwh’s appointed seed will come from the fruit of Abram’s own loins. The promise of Abram’s land and blessing will culminate in the coming seed of the woman. This is the faith for which Yhwh accounted righteousness to Abram’s account. The faith of Abram is followed by a statement of assurance from Yhwh. This assurance is based on God’s identity and historic faithfulness: I am Yhwh who brought you our from Ur of the Chaldeans to give to you this land to inherit it (v. 7). The purpose[7] of coming to Canaan is to possess the land as an inheritance. God, Abram’s new father, is giving this land to His son, Abram. In turn, Abram will bequeath this land to his seed (12:7). To this statement Abram asks a question: How can I know? (v. 8). All that follows is Yhwh’s answer to Abram’s question.

What is described in Genesis 15:9-21 is the official cutting of Yhwh’s covenant with Abram. In vv. 9-11, God tells Abram to bring the necessary animals who will be cut in two to seal the covenant. Abram prepares the bloody corridor for the two parties to walk through in order to bind themselves to the official covenant. Abram obeys in the sense that he gathered, cut, and arranged the animals but then did nothing. Abram is interestingly passive in this scene.

 In vv. 12-16, God tells Abram exactly what to expect because of this covenant. Regarding the numerous seed promised to Abram (v. 5), they will spend four centuries as slaves in a foreign land. Yet, like Abram, they will come out of that land wealthier than when they arrived. God will not only judge the nation that oppresses them, but He will then bring them back to this very land which He promised to them. God even provides an explanation for this delay: because the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete (v. 16). The blessing for Abram’s seed (the land) will be a judgment for the inhabitants. Canaan will serve Shem. As for Abram, he has nothing to worry about for he will die in peace and be buried at an old age. All this information is what Abram can expect from the covenant about to be cut.

In vv. 17-21, the covenant is cut. Here is the first time the term covenant (בְּרִית) is used in relation to Abram (v. 18). Yet Abram is not the one who walks between the pieces of bloody animals with Yhwh. Abram continues to look on as a spectator as God walks through the bloody corridor by Himself. The language is of certainty. This is how Abram can know that God will bring these things about, because of the covenant that God made. Like God’s covenant with Noah, there are no stipulations for Abram to follow for this covenant to be granted and kept. This is a Land Grant covenant, a unilateral blessing from the superior to the inferior. By divine oath, Yhwh gives this land to Abram’s seed.

The description of this land is both detailed and reminiscent of a previous description. Both the inhabitance and boundary markers correspond with the description of where the seed of Canaan settled (Gen. 10:15-19). The only major difference being that Canaan settled this land from the north and worked his way south and east. The boundary markers given by Yhwh to Abram begin in the south and work their way north. Thus, the seed of Canaan will serve the seed of Shem, among whom God will dwell and through whom the world will be blessed.


The Covenant’s Call – Genesis 17

In order to establish the context for Gen. 17, a brief timeline will prove helpful. Abram was 75 years old when he first entered the land of Canaan (12:4). Chapter 17 occurs twenty-four years later when Abram was 99 years old (17:1). It is not certain how long the events of chapters 12-15, but it is best to assume that they took less than ten years, making Abram no older than 85 when God cut His covenant with Abram, and likely a little younger. The rationale for such a statement is that chapter 16 contains a time marker of ten years after Abram entered the land (16:3). It seems that Abram is doomed to repeat the mistake of his father Adam in that he listens to the voice of his wife (16:2) rather than God in such a way that threatened to compromise the promise of the coming seed. This willful misunderstanding that Abram’s promised seed would not necessarily come through his own wife requires another visitation from God who will provide additional specification on this promise.

After living in Canaan for twenty-four years and fourteen years after impregnating Hagar (making Ishmael 13 years old at this time)[8], Yhwh again appears to Abram. The purpose of this appearing is to officially claim what belongs to Him. In other words, God is invoking the rights of a father by naming and thus making a people for His own possession. The following narrative can be divided along the following lines: God names Himself (vv. 1-3), God re-names Abram (vv. 4-8), God names the sign of His covenant (vv. 9-14), God re-names Sarai (vv. 15-17), God names Sarah’s seed (vv. 18-22).


God’s Name (vv. 1-3)

That God introduces Himself is significant in and of itself. This is far from the first meeting between Yhwh and Abram. These two parties know each other. Yet God introduces Himself by a name not yet known to Abram: God-Almighty or El Shaddai (אֵל שׁדַּי). At least two items are worth noting in regard to this name. First, the name itself is rightly translated in most Bibles as God-Almighty. The name implies God’s ability and power to do anything. This is the God who can do the impossible. Therefore, what He says He will do, He will do. Second, this is the first occurrence of this name in Scripture and will from this point forward be an identifier of the God who made covenant with Abram (Gen. 17:1; 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; Ex. 6:3; Ezek. 10:5).[9] This revelation of who God is (the Almighty One) comes with a command.

The double imperatives in the final line of v. 1 to walk (הִתְהַלֵּךְ) before God-Almighty and be (וֶהְיֵה) blameless might sound as if this is a conditional statement. Yet, as already seen in the covenant’s context (12:1-3), there is no condition stated as such. The text is missing any if/then clause. That this command is not a condition of God’s covenant is made explicitly clear in v. 2. In the simplest of terms, God summarizes all that He had already promised to Abram. This is clearly not a Suzerain-Vassal treaty but a reiteration of the same Land Grant promise. How then does this command to walk before God and be blameless fit in? Rather than conditions to be met before God holds up His end of the bargain, these commands reveal the purpose of God’s covenant. The blessings of the AC are to permanently join Abram and his seed to God. God is claiming Abram has His property, even as His son. Abram understands this and thus hits the ground in humble worship before God-Almighty.


Abram to Abraham (vv. 4-8)

While the naming of Abraham is certainly a key figure in these verses, several other items are demanding attention. Here we see details of the future, the purpose of God’s covenant, and the extent of its design.


What is in a Name – Seed (vv. 4-6)

With no conditional statement or any strings attached, God plainly states that His covenant is with Abram and thus he can expect all that God had promised to come about. Specifically, that Abram would become a father to multiple nations (הֲמוֹן גּוֹיִם). As such, the name Abram (exalted father – אַבְרָם) is not as appropriate as Abraham (father of many – אַבְרָהָם). God follows this up by revealing His rationale: Because I gave you as a father of a multitude of nations. In naming (or re-naming) Abram to Abraham, God is invoking His right as father and as sovereign. It is the right of a father to name his children. Yet, this right to name creatures was first executed by Adam. Just as Adam designated the creatures into their kinds and gave his woman her personal name, so God invokes His right of ownership over Abraham via his new name. With this in view, God speaks to the many seed that will come from this prolific father.

This man of 99 years is promised much fruit (implying much seed) from which will arise multiple nations and multiple kings at those nations’ heads. Abraham will become a royal name. In many ways Abraham is now positioned similarly to Adam as the head of multiple nations who will claim their regal lineage from him. If the promised seed of the woman has been traced to Abraham (and it has – 12:1-3; 15:6), then there is now an element of royalty added to the expectation of the coming seed.[10]


Purpose of the Covenant – Blessing (v. 7)

This verse not only reaffirms the covenant made in chapter 15, but specifically dictates that this covenant (1) is passed down to Abraham’s seed and (2) has no expiration date. This is an everlasting covenant that cannot be broken and contains no statutes of limitations. As amazing as this revelation is, the main point is to reveal the purpose of this everlasting covenant. God states that it is His purpose to be Abraham’s God and also to be the God of Abraham’s seed. The purpose of this covenant is to bind Abraham and his seed to God Almighty. In a very real sense, God Himself is the blessing given to Abraham and his seed. 


Place to Dwell – Land (v. 8)

The form of a Land Grant covenant fails to have much significance if land is not involved. Because the land is a gift from God the possession of it binds the people from Abraham to their God. The land and God go together as this everlasting covenant. One can no sooner say that Yhwh is no longer the God of Abraham then suggest that Abraham’s seed no longer has an inheritance in Canaan.


Circumcision the Sign (vv. 9-14)

Every covenant has a sign, a seal, a means of reminder for the parties involved. For God’s covenant with Noah, He set His bow in the sky to remind Himself to never again flood the earth (Gen. 9:12-17). For God’s covenant with Abraham, the sign will be that of circumcision. Why circumcision? Several reasons are easily recognized in light of the fact that this covenant (1) is permanent and perpetual, (2) marks the recipients as belonging to God, and (3) is connected to the promised seed to come. 

  • Because this covenant is given to Abraham and to his seed, Abraham’s seed must also bear the sign. 

  • Because this covenant is an everlasting covenant, the sign must be something that cannot be undone. 

  • Because this covenant marks Abraham and his seed as God’s possession, this sign must be unique.[11]

  • Because this promise involves the coming seed, what is marked corresponds with man’s reproduction.

  • Because the coming seed will be a man (Gen. 3:15), He will bear the sign of the AC.

Far from being a stipulation or requirement demanded of Abraham to secure God’s blessing, this is the first step in walking before God and being blameless; i.e. obedience in faith. Does Abraham believe God? If he does, then he will submit to circumcision and pass this sign down to his sons. God will bring His promise about regardless of what Abraham does. But if Abraham trusts God, then he will walk before Him and be blameless.


Sarai to Sarah (vv. 15-16)

It is not enough for God to rename Abraham and thus invoke the right of a father over him. Turning from Abraham, God turns His attention to Abraham’s wife and transform her from Sarai ( שָׂרַי) to Sarah ( שָׂרָה). There is uncertainty as to the difference between these two names, as they both seem to indicate a sense of royalty (princess, princely). Perhaps the point is less in the name’s meaning and more in the fact that God is the one who gave her old name new meaning (for she will be the mother of kings as part of God’s possession).

Sarah will be blessed by God in that the specified seed of Abraham will come through her. She will bear the seed, nations will come from her, and kings will draw their lineage to Abraham through Sarah. If Eve was the mother of life, Sarah is the mother of kings. Both are in the line of the seed.


Isaac the Seed (vv. 17-22)

Abraham’s reaction is at best confused and at worst doubtful. He laughs (צָחַק), unsure if a man and woman so advanced in years could possibly produce a child. But this is God Almighty who is speaking. God utterly rejects Ishmael, the half Hamite, as Abraham’s seed and covenant recipient. God not only doubles down on His previous promise but presumes to invoke His rights as Father in naming the yet unconceived child Isaac, or laugher (יִצְחָק). This is the son that God will continue Abraham’s covenant with (26:15). Between Isaac’s two sons, God chose (and re-named) Jacob or Israel (28:3-4, 13-14; 32:28; 35:9-12). This is the line of Abraham’s Covenant and the thus the line of the seed. The covenantal line specifies the nation that comes from Abraham through Isaac and Jacob, namely the nation of Israel. But this covenant is not exclusively for Israel for it is by and through this nation that God will bless all the families of the earth. The only question for those who follow is whether they believe God as Abraham did.

[1] Henry M. Morris III, The Book of Beginnings: A Practical Guide to Understand and Teach Genesis, vol. Two, Three vols. (Dallas, TX: Institute for Creation Research, 2013), p. 111. Noah died 350 years after the flood (Gen. 9:28) in or around 2000 BC. This means that he lived through the debacle at Babel and was alive when Abram (and possibly Job) was born.

[2] “Men of renown” (אנְשֵׁי הַשֵּׁם) from 6:4 literally means “men of a name.” That the men at Babel desired to “make a name” for themselves (וְנַעֲשֶׂה־לָּנוּ שֵׁם – 11:4) mirrors the previous rebellious heart.

[3] Walter Kaiser, The Messiah in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), p. 46.

[4] Because Shem had no sons on the ark with him and lived 500 years after he had his first son, Arpachshad (11:11), we know that Shem was still alive well into the lifetime of Abram.

[5] Kaiser, p. 48.

[6] Michael Vlach, He Will Reign Forever: A Biblical Theology of the Kingdom of God (Silverton, OR: Lampion Press, 2017), p. 83.

[7] Infinitive construct (תֶּן from נָתַן) with לְ to express purpose.

[8] As an Egyptian (16:3), Hagar would have been a descendant of Ham. That her son Ishmael (a) was half Hamite and half Shemite and (b) received a promise of blessing from God (16:10-12) proves that the curse from Noah (9:25-27) implicates Canaan and his offspring rather than Ham and all his offspring.

[9] Henry M. Morris III, The Book of Beginnings: A Practical Guide to Understand and Teach Genesis, vol. Three, Three vols. (Dallas, TX: Institute for Creation Research, 2014), p. 54.

[10] Vlach, p. 88.

[11] Morris III, vol. Three, p. 56-7. While other cultures of the Ancient Near East practiced circumcision, any evidence that people began to practice circumcision prior to the AC is shaky at best.


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