The Abrahamic Covenant: God’s Promises to Abraham
God’s Covenant with Abraham
God’s enduring covenant with Abraham should be a comfort to the Church. It models God’s heart towards humanity. The famed Abrahamic covenant comes from Genesis 12:1-3. It reads:
“Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Abram or Abraham – who was he?
Abraham, formerly known as Abram, was the first Hebrew Patriarch who came from Ur of the Chaldeans. Today, scholars locate the approximate location to be 200 miles southeast of Baghdad (Britannica).
When we first meet Abram, he was was a pagan like everyone else. However, he was different from the rest of his family, so God called him to separate himself and go to the land which God would show him.
Abram and his wife Sarai were called out of Haran, where they had lived and prospered. They were meant to go somewhere completely unknown to them. All the while, Abram and Sarai did not have any children born to them yet. Abram was still waiting for God to provide an heir to them, and in Genesis 17 the Lord appeared to Abram again, saying,
“I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless.Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.” At this, Abram fell face down, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram[b]; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.” (Genesis 17:3-5)
A New Name for a New Life
Genesis 17 also sees the changing of Sarai’s name, to Sarah (Genesis 17:15). God promises that she will produce an heir, be the mother of many nations, and that kings would come from her line.
Israeli scholar Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg and Rev. Jim Stowe note that the one shift in letter in both Abraham and Sarah’s new names, effected this change.
Abram, (Avram) consists of two words, Av and Ram and means “exalted father”. Abraham (Avraham) makes sense in the context of Genesis 17:5 “Because I give you as a father of a multitude of nations.”
Sarai and Sarah are two forms of the same name which mean “princess/woman of strength”. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg notes, “It is likely that Sarai is simply the possessive form of Sarah (i.e. “My Sarah”). Sarah, therefore, signifies that her strength does not belong exclusively to her immediate family. Instead, it belongs to the future nation of Israel and even the world-at-large.”
Cutting the Covenant with Abraham
One day, the Lord appeared to Abram in a vision, promising, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; your reward will be very great” (Genesis 15:1). Abram wasn’t sure, since he did not have any children yet, and wondered how this promise and the previous promises would come about. At the time, his heir was a man named Eliezer of Damascus.
The Lord reassured Abram that he would have an heir that comes from his own body. And, that his descendants would outnumber the stars in the night sky (Genesis 15:4-5). Abram then believed and it was credited to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6).
The Lord then reassured Abram that he would possess the land. To reassure Abram that He would keep His word to him, God made a covenant. This involved the sacrifice of a three-year-old cow, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a pigeon. All of these were cut in two and each half was laid opposite of each other, except for the birds.
The Hebrew word karat, which means to make a covenant, also means to cut. So “to make” a covenant, could also be said “to cut” a covenant.
Abram then fell into a deep sleep and a deep darkness descended. God foretold the exodus from Egypt, and after this, a flaming torch and smoking oven appeared. They passed through the cut pieces, effectuating the everlasting covenant between God and Abraham.
God’s Promises to Abraham
God’s promises to Abraham have many parts that lead to a total picture of grace and redemption for humanity. This covenant follows the Noahic covenant, in which the Lord promises to preserve the created order. God maintained the place in which He can fulfill His redemptive purposes.
The covenant with Abraham is a covenant of grace, in that it brings about the redemptive purpose. It does so by making a separate nation out of Abraham and his descendants, the Jewish people, through Isaac and the twelve tribes of Israel. And one of those tribes led to the promised Messiah Jesus.
In Genesis 12:1-3, God promised Abraham that He would multiply his descendants as the stars in the sky. He would be their God and give them a specific piece of land forever. Yet even before that, God said He would bless Abraham and his descendants so that all the families of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12).
Abraham’s blessing and promises extend to all the families of the earth. By faith, we as believers, experience Abraham’s blessing of being in the family of God. We believe by faith, just as Abraham believed by faith and it was credited to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)
Land as Part of the Covenant with Abraham
The land promise is key to God’s words to Abraham. God consistently tells Abraham that his descendants would possess the land. At the time, the land was called Canaan and was inhabited by the Canaanites.
When the spies went into the Canaan, after the exodus from Egypt, they were afraid. They saw the inhabitants as giants, and most of them were afraid – except for Joshua and Caleb. Considering this, one can imagine how impossible this promise might have seemed to Abraham.
Can you imagine God telling you that you and your family would one day possess an entire country that is inhabited by giants? And God tells you that not only will you defeat them, but you will inherit their country. Sounds impossible, right?
We can get a sense of Abraham’s faith, in that he believed God even in the impossible.
Do you have ideas, hopes, and dreams within you that seem outlandish and impossible? If they are from the Lord, God wants to keep them alive in you! And they will come to pass even if it takes a long time. As Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Favor in the Land
We also see God’s favor in Abraham when Melchizidek, the King of Salem, showed favor and grace to him. The king brought with him bread and wine. This happened after Abraham defended his cousin Lot by rescuing him from a raiding party that attacked Sodom and Gomorrah.
Abraham rescued Lot, recovered his goods and possessions, and defeated King Kedorlaomer and those allied with him. Melchizidek, went out with his gifts and said,
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And praise be to God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.” Abraham then tithed Melchizidek a tenth of what he had. (Genesis 14:18-20)
Who is Melchizedek? We know from verse eighteen that he was a priest of El Elyon ( The God most High). Scholars also agree that Salem is likely shorthand for Jerusalem. Psalm 76:2 refers to Salem in way that implies that it is Jerusalem.
We see Abraham receiving the favor of a Canaanite priest and king. He is being greatly esteemed by him in the gift a bread and wine. Abraham gives Melchizidek a tithe of his possessions.
In this meeting with a kingly priest, in Jerusalem, we get a foreshadowing of Abraham’s connection to God’s perfect plan for His land and His people. His descendants would later go up to Jerusalem to worship and give ten percent of their earnings (a tithe) to the Temple.
Abraham’s Sons: Ishmael
As we all know, Abraham’s story did not end in Haran. After an entire lifetime of not having children, he fathered Ishmael at the age of 86 through Hagar. Then, he fathered Isaac at the age of 99 through Sarah.
The birth of Ishmael was a source of conflict in the family. The couple grew tired of waiting for God’s promise after living in Canaan for ten years. Sarah took matters into her own hands by having a maid, Hagar conceive and bear the child on her behalf.
And as delicate family matters concerning birth and inheritance often go, things did not turn out how Sarah had expected or hoped. Once Hagar conceived, she did not esteem Sarah the same way, and Sarah became angry. She treated Hagar harshly—so much so that maid fled.
Hagar stopped by a spring in the wilderness and was met by an angel. He instructed her to return to Sarah, and promised her that her descendants would be great (Genesis 16:9-12).
This wouldn’t be the last time that Hagar would leave Abraham and Sarah’s tent. But the next time she was cast out. And still, God was faithful to her and Ishmael, saving them against certain death in the harsh wilderness (Genesis 21:15-19).
Abraham’s Sons: Isaac
Yet, the son whom God would perpetuate the covenant with was Isaac (Genesis 21:12).
Isaac and Ishmael grew up separately, after Hagar was cast out. The scriptures tell us that Ishmael became an expert archer and married a woman from Egypt. (Genesis 21:20-21) Meanwhile, Isaac stayed on with his parents, Abraham and Sarah, and grew into adulthood.
Later, Isaac married Rebecca, and together they had two sons: Esau and Jacob. And it was Jacob who became the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. Out of the tribe of Judah, the Messiah was born.
Through the Messiah Jesus, who was of the tribe of Judah, the whole world received hope. And here is the good news for us all—through the Messiah, we are all a part of Abraham’s family!
Just as Abraham believed and it was credited to him as righteousness, those of us who have faith in Jesus, are imputed with Christ’s righteousness, just as Christ takes on our sin and transgressions.
Why did God bless Abraham?
God has chosen descendants of Abraham to demonstrate His own kind and promise-keeping character to the world. And, to bless all the families of the earth!
When it comes to blessing all nations, God keeps His promise to Abraham. He uses Abraham’s family to demonstrate who He is to the rest of the world. God loves His creation, which includes all of us. He does not show favoritism or prefer one people group over another.
But God’s covenant with Abraham reminds us also of one other thing. It is a call for our hearts to be burdened with what burdens the very heart of God. This is a call to roll up our sleeves and dedicate our lives to His work.
In John 8:39, Jesus challenges the Pharisees when they said, “Abraham is our father”. Jesus replied, “If you were Abraham’s children, then you would do what Abraham did.” Those who have faith and are about the things of God are Abraham’s kin.
What does the Abrahamic Covenant mean for the Church?
The Abrahamic Covenant is a promise of hope for the Church. God distinguished Abraham from his family and his kinsmen and made a distinct people out of his descendants. This only happened because Abraham believed God, and had faith in His promises.
The Apostle Paul has this to say about Abraham in Romans 4:1-3 and 16-17:
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.
For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, (as it is written, A FATHER OF MANY NATIONS HAVE I MADE YOU) in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist.
Family of Faith through the Covenant with Abraham
Having faith brings us into the family of God, as one of Abraham’s descendants of faith. Paul expands on this in Romans 9:6-8:
“But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: THROUGH ISAAC YOUR DESCENDANTS WILL BE NAMED. That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.”
Abraham’s faith sets a precedence for future generations. It is not works or heritage that makes one right with God, but faith. This gives us a rationale for sharing the Good News with all: to the Jew first and also to the gentile.
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Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Melchizedek.” Encyclopedia Britannica, December 17, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Melchizedek.
Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Dr. Eli, and Rev. Jim Stowe. “What’s the Difference between Abram/sarai and Abraham/sarah?” Israel Bible Weekly. June 12, 2018. https://weekly.israelbiblecenter.com/the-meaning-of-the-hebrew-names/.
Parrot, Andre. “Abraham.” Encyclopedia Britannica, March 13, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Abraham.
Uveeler, Luba, and Norman Bronznick. “Avraham v’Pesalim” Ha Yesod: Fundamentals of Hebrew. Nanuet, NY: Feldheim Publishers, 1998.