Central to the plot and storyline of Scripture are a series of covenants between God and his creation, especially with humans as deputies and stewards of his world. Early in the narrative the first man and woman rebelled and handed the kingdom of God over to the Evil One. With the flood and covenant with Noah and his descendants, God reaffirms his commitment to his creation and extends grace to humans. Giving us a second chance does not make us faithful covenant partners, but it does create history as an arena where God can work out his purposes to regain the kingdom. Below, I will outline the Abrahamic covenant and its importance to the biblical storyline of God’s kingdom unfolded through covenants.
The Abraham Covenant
At this point, God focuses his attention on one man, Abraham, and begins to work through him to restore an entire world destroyed by faithless and fickle covenant partners. In Genesis 12:1–3 the fivefold occurrence of the word “bless” matches the five occurrences of the word “curse” in the narrative to this point (Gen. 3:14, 17; 4:11; 5:29; 9:25) and shows the reader that God will begin to reverse the curse. This is confirmed by Paul in Romans 4:17 when he says, “the God in whom Abraham believed is one who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” His language comes from the biblical account of creation and shows that God is making a new start with Abraham, in fact a new creation.
If one traces the use of the words ‘blessing’ (Gen. 1:28; 5:2; 9:1; 12:2–3), ‘be fruitful’ (Gen. 1:28; 8:17; 9:1, 7; 17:6), and ‘multiply’ (Gen. 1:28; 9:1, 7; 16:10; 17:2; 22:17) throughout the book of Genesis, one can easily see that Abraham and his family inherit the commission and role of Adam and Noah in the storyline. Just as Adam was a king and priest, so Abraham continues in such an Adamic role. His life is characterised by an altar to worship Yahweh (Gen. 12:7–8; 13:4, 18; 22:9) and although he is not called a king, the King of Gerar treats him as an equal (Gen. 20:14–16), the inhabitants of Hebron designate him a “prince of God” (Gen. 23:6), and his military exploits in Genesis 14 place him on a par with kings. And the promises God makes to him in Genesis 12 constitute the stuff of royalty in the ancient near East.
Three or four episodes in the narrative are particularly prominent for the covenant between God and Abram/Abraham. First, in Genesis 12:1–3, 7 God makes incredible promises to Abram involving offspring and land (i.e., a place where his progeny can live and that they can call home). Then, in chapter 15, both of these promises are enshrined in a covenant. Later on, in chapter 17, after Abram and Sarai’s attempt to fulfill the promise of progeny through Hagar and Ishmael, God repeats his promises and confirms his covenant, adding the sign of circumcision and changing his name to Abraham. Some ten to fifteen years afterwards, according to Genesis 22:1, God “tests” Abraham and, upon his obedience, swears by himself in another mighty confirmation of the promises.
Below are some key points in the Abraham narratives:
- Giving the Covenant Promise: the Call of Abram (Genesis 12)
- Making the Covenant: the Promise of Descendants and Land (Genesis 15)
- Affirming the Covenant: the Sign of Circumcision (Genesis 17)
- Confirming the Covenant: Abraham’s Obedience and Confirmation of the Promises by Oath (Genesis 22)
I will give a very brief treatment of these chapters in this article, but for a fuller treatment see my chapters in Kingdom through Covenant.
1. See Peter J. Gentry, Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants, 2nd Edition (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 259–338.
Genesis 12: Giving the Covenant Promise
A proper understanding of Genesis 12 depends on grasping its literary structure:
The Giving of the Promise: The Call of Abram (Genesis 12)
The Divine Word: Command and Promise (Gen. 12:1–3)
1. I will make you into a great nation (Promise)
2. I will bless you (Promise)
3. I will make your name great (Promise)
BE A BLESSING (Command)
1. I will bless those who bless you (Promise)
2. I will curse him who curses you (Promise)
3. In you all nations will be blessed (Promise)
Abram’s Response: Obedience (Gen. 12:4–9)
1. Obedience (Gen. 12:4–6)
2. Confirmation (Gen. 12:7)
3. Obedience (Gen. 12:8–9)
The passage is divided into two sections: (1) the divine word to Abram and (2) Abram’s response. The literary structure in verses 1–3 is clearly marked: there are two commands in the Hebrew Text, (1) Go, and (2) Be (a blessing). Each command is followed by three verbs that indicate purpose or result. The command to “be a blessing” is frequently translated as a future tense, but this is grammatically incorrect and obscures the bipartite structure in the text.
The first part and its three promises focus on Abram as an individual. God promises him nationhood, blessing, and a great name. To become a nation Abram must separate from his family and home territory in order to become a new people inhabiting its own territory. The implicit promise of land becomes explicit in Genesis 12:7.
The second command and its three promises focus on blessing for the entire world through Abram and his family. The fivefold occurrence of the word bless matches the five occurrences of the word curse in the narrative to this point and shows the reader that God will begin to reverse the curse through the covenant with Abraham.
2. “Bless” occurs five times in Genesis 12:2–3. “Curse” is employed in five instances in Genesis 1–11: 3:14; 3:17; 4:11; 5:29; 9:25.
The first promise of a “great nation” in 12:1 contrasts with the final promise in 12:3 “in you all the clans of the earth will be blessed.” The term nation is normally not used of Israel in the Old Testament. It means an organized community of people having governmental, political, and social structure. This contrasts with “clans” the term used for the other nations in the world in 12:3. A clan is an amorphous kin group between the extended family and tribe. Thus, the author is indicating that through the covenant with Abraham a kingdom ruled by God will come into existence and will be far more significant than all the so-called man-made kingdoms of this world (kingdom through covenant).
Genesis 15: Making the Covenant
In Genesis 15 the promises of Genesis 12 are formalized as a covenant. The first half (15:1–6) focuses on descendants or seed, while the second half (15:7–21) focuses on land. A ceremony, common for covenant-making in the ancient near East, is described in this chapter. Animals were cut in half and the halves arranged opposite each other. Then the parties remove their sandals and walk through the blood pooled between the pieces. Symbolically, a self-curse oath is enacted: may I become like these dead animals if I break my commitment in the covenant.
To this point everything is standard. But something strange occurs in Genesis 15: “the smoking firepan and the blazing torch”—clear symbols of the God who revealed himself in the burning bush and at Sinai at the Exodus—is the only member to pass between the pieces. Abram is in a deep sleep. This communicates that God guarantees the covenant for both parties. A major tension is introduced into the plot of Scripture. Since we know that humans are characteristically not faithful covenant partners, this covenant fore-tells God taking death on himself for a covenant broken by the human partner.
Genesis 17: Affirming the Covenant
The literary structure of Genesis 17 (like Genesis 15) is divided in two matching halves as follows:
Outline of Genesis 17
1. Yahweh’s intention to confirm his oath about progeny (Gen. 17:1–2)
2. Abram falls on his face (Gen. 17:3)
3. God promises descendants and the gift of land (Gen. 17:4–8)
4. The sign of circumcision given (Gen. 17:9–14)
1. Yahweh’s intention to bless Sarah with progeny (Gen. 17:15–16)
2. Abram falls on his face (Gen. 17:17–18)
3. God promises a son from Sarah (Gen. 17:19–22)
4. The sign of circumcision practiced (Gen. 17:23–27)
Chapter 17 is not, as a number of Christians suggest, a separate covenant from Genesis 15. The expressions and language in the Hebrew text clearly indicate that God is affirming or confirming the covenant in Genesis 15 after Abram and Sarah have attempted to provide solutions on their own and differently from God’s promise and plan. He is not making a new or separate covenant—otherwise Genesis 17:10 would entail a covenant sign but no content for the covenant. God reveals himself to Abram as God Almighty (El Shaddai). This name for God is characteristic of the patriarchal narratives and emphasises that the word of God to Abram is a powerful word bringing something out of nothing. God calls Abram to “walk before me and be blameless” (Gen. 17:1). Abram is to be an authorized agent or ambassador for Yahweh. He is placed in the narrow land bridge between Asia and Africa at the crossroads of the world to be a witness to the nations (see map below). Yet Abram has been less than blameless in relations within his family and also to the world. As God re-affirms the promise of descendants we see the establishment of the covenant formula, “I will be your God and you will be my people” initiated in Genesis 17:8. Finally, circumcision is given as a sign for the covenant in Genesis 15. It signifies a people completely devoted to the service of their God and the eighth day points forward to the new creation.
Genesis 22: Confirming the Covenant
Genesis 18–19 form the background to the final episode where God “tests” Abraham and upon his obedience confirms the promises with a mighty oath. What we see in Genesis 18 is that Abraham—in seeking to deliver his nephew Lot from the coming destruction of Sodom—begins for the first time to intercede as a priest for the nations on the basis of God’s own character. He begins to be a blessing to the nations. Note that in this text—as well as in four further texts (Gen. 26:3, 5, 24 [2x])—the fulfillment of the promises is directly tied to Abraham’s obedience. God guarantees his promises, but obedience is expected of his covenant partner. Classification of covenants as conditional / unconditional does not neatly match the data in the narrative.
The covenant with Abraham is the basis for the rest of the storyline of Scripture. As Abraham’s family becomes a nation, the Covenant at Sinai, renewed at Moab in Deuteronomy becomes the charter for defining their relation to God, to each other, to the stewardship of the earth and to the nations.
As the history of Israel details the failure of God’s people to be a faithful covenant partner God gives them a king to administer and manage the covenant. He makes a covenant with David and his line so that the king may represent the nation and fulfill the role the nation as a whole failed to fulfill (see 2 Sam. 7:1–17; Ps. 89:2, 28, 34, 38). Finally, with the Davidic line in decline, the prophets foretell a new covenant in which not only will God be faithful, but also his human partner as well (Isaiah 53–55; Jer. 31:31–34). Not only will Israel be rescued from her fallen state, but the nations will be incorporated into the one people of God and so blessing and salvation will come to all the nations (Isa. 49:1–7). Importantly, both of these covenants are building on the promises given to Abraham.
Several Psalms speak specifically of blessing and salvation coming to the nations through the reign of the coming Davidic king and through becoming part of the family of Abraham. Psalm 47 is a brief psalm inviting the nations to rejoice because Yahweh is the supreme sovereign over all peoples and has subdued them under Israel. At the end, the lyrics read as follows:
God reigns over the nations;
God sits on his holy throne.
The princes of the peoples gather
as the people of the God of Abraham.
For the shields of the earth belong to God;
he is highly exalted! (Ps. 47:8–9)
Note how “the princes of the peoples [plural] gather as the people [singular] of the God of Abraham.” Non-Israelite nations are included in the one people of God. The mention of the “God of Abraham” is sufficient to remind those singing this psalm that the inclusion of the Gentiles into the one people of God can be possible only through Abraham becoming father in a spiritual sense—namely, the model of faith, for a company of nations, as Genesis 35:11 intends.
Psalm 72:17 clearly indicates all the nations finding blessing through the future Davidic king:
May his name endure forever,
his name make shoots as long as the sun!
May they consider themselves blessed by him,
all nations call him happy!
As the apostle Peter heralds the good news about Jesus Christ in Acts 3:24–26, he sees it no less than the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham 2000 years later. The citation of Psalm 110 across the New Testament, moreover, shows the fulfilment of the covenant with David in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.
3. Matt. 22:44; 26:64; Mark 12:36; 14:62; 16:19; Luke 20:42–43; 22:69; Acts 2:33–35; 5:31; 7:55–56; Rom. 8:34; 1 Cor. 15:25; Eph. 1:20; 2:6; Col. 3:1; Heb 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12–13; 12:2; 1 Pet. 3:22; Rev. 31:21.
In sum, the call to Abram to depart from Ur to become a new nation is a powerful word initiating a drive towards the new creation and hence shapes the plot-structure for the rest of Scripture.
As Abraham’s family becomes a nation the Mosaic Covenant directs them on how to maintain a right relationship to God, to one another, to the earth as its stewards and thus how to be a light to the nations.
The covenant with David issues from the need to keep Israel on task in becoming a blessing to the nations and points forward to the coming king who establishes a new covenant that not only resolves the broken relationship between God and Israel but also brings salvation to the nations through his atoning death.
Understanding the covenant with Abraham, then, is essential to grasping the grace of God towards a broken world and his plan to bring a new creation. As such, it is a vastly important in the bible’s storyline of a kingdom that unfolds through covenant.