Abrahamic Covenant

by Paul George

The Abrahamic Covenant is the unconditional, unbreakable, irrevocable promises God made to Abraham that began God’s relationship with the Jewish people. The Abrahamic Covenant establishes a unique bond between God and Israel. The Abrahamic Covenant promises God’s protection for the Jewish people. The Abrahamic Covenant grants the right for the Jewish people to occupy the land God promised Abraham he would give to Abram’s descendants.

Has God promised Israel permanent existence as a nation? Has He guaranteed Israel permanent ownership of the Promised Land and, therefore, the right to possess that land?

A number of the biblical covenants will determine the outcome of these important issues. Therefore, the approach that a person takes to these covenants is most crucial.

The Abrahamic Covenant involves three major issues. First, does it promise Israel permanent existence as a nation? Second, does it promise Israel permanent ownership of the Promised Land? Third, is the covenant conditional or unconditional in nature? If it is conditional, then the fulfillment of its promises is dependent upon the obedience of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their physical descendants, the people of Israel. If the Abrahamic Covenant is unconditional, then the fulfillment of its promises is dependent upon the faithfulness of God to His word, not upon human obedience.

The Parties of the Covenant

God established the Abrahamic Covenant with Abraham (Abram), Genesis 15:18 states, “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, ‘to your descendants have I given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates.” In Genesis 17:4, 6-7 God said to Abraham, “As for me, behold, my covenant is with you shall be the father of a multitude of nations.” “I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God to you, and to your descendants after you.” In Genesis 17:19-21 God said to Abraham, “Sarah, your wife, shall bear you a son and you shall call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall become the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this season next year.” When Isaac became an adult God established the Abrahamic Covenant with him (Genesis 26:1-4). Later God established the covenant with Abraham’s grandson, Jacob (Genesis 28:10-14; 35:9-12; 48:3-4). The instructions which Joseph, Abraham’s great-grandson, gave at the end of his life clearly indicate that he understood the Abrahamic Covenant to have been made with Abraham and his descendants, the people of Israel (Genesis 50:24-25).

Although God in Genesis 12:2-3 and 13:14-17, gave some of the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant the covenant was not formally established until Genesis 15:7-21. Genesis 15:18 specifically states “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram.” God formally established the covenant in the following manner: while Abraham slept a deep sleep, God, represented by a smoking oven and a flaming torch, moved between the pieces of animals that He had commanded Abraham to cut into two halves. Jeremiah 34:18 indicates that this procedure of passing between the halves of animals was a common way of establishing covenants in Old Testament times.

The Promises

God made three major promises in the Abrahamic Covenant. First, there were personal promises to Abraham. God promised to bless Abraham and to make him a blessing to others (Genesis 12:2), to make his name great (Genesis 12:2), to give him many physical descendants (Genesis 13:16; 15:4-5; 17:6), to make him the father of a multitude of nations (Genesis 17:4-5), to give him the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession (Genesis 13:14-15, 17; 15:7; 17:8), and to bless those who blessed Abraham and curse those who cursed him (Genesis 12:3).

Second, God promised to make a great nation of Abraham’s physical descendants (Genesis 12:2), to give the land of Canaan from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates River to Abraham’s physical descendants forever (Genesis 12:7; 13:14-15; 15:18-21; 17:8), and to give the Abrahamic Covenant to his descendants for an everlasting covenant (Genesis 17:7, 19). The Genesis 17:19 passage indicates that God intended the covenant to continue through Isaac, and Isaac’s descendants. The fact that God promised to give Abraham’s descendants the land of Canaan forever and the covenant for an everlasting covenant demands that Israel never perish as a people. Should Israel ever perish as a nation, it could not possess the land forever, and its Abrahamic Covenant could not be everlasting.

Third, God promised in Abraham all families of the earth would be blessed. (Genesis 12:3; 22:18; 28:14).

The Apostle Paul asked, “Who are the Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises” (Romans 9:4). Paul nowhere intimates that these great privileges have been annulled, forfeited, or cancelled. As a matter of fact the three chapters of which this verse is a part (Romans 9-11) have as one of their purposes to emphasize that God has not cancelled His promises to Israel or transferred them to some other people. In Romans 11:1-2 Paul wrote, “I say then, God has not rejected His people has He? May it never be, for I am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew.”

What are those promises to Abraham; they are the promises of a people, a land, and a blessing. Chapters 28 and 29 of Deuteronomy clearly reveal the consequences if Israel disobeys the Lord–there will be drought, exile and suffering–to name only a few of the judgments. However, even if the promises of judgment are fulfilled, that does not cancel the promises of Israel’s future blessings, found in Deuteronomy 30.

Parts of the Abrahamic Covenant have been fulfilled. God did bless Abraham with great wealth and other blessings (Genesis 24:1, 35). God has made Abraham’s name great, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have respected his name for centuries. God has given him many descendants and made him the father of a multitude of nations, the nation Israel has descended from him through Isaac and Jacob; some Arab nations have descended from him through Ishmael. He did give the Promised Land to Israel after its exodus from Egypt (Deuteronomy 31:7-8; 32:45-52; Joshua 1:1-5, 10-11). In addition, Israel has never perished as a people. God has made great blessing available to all families of the earth through Abraham’s descendants, for example, Jesus Christ, who as a Jew was a descendant of Abraham, provided salvation for all mankind through His substitutionary death on the cross, burial, and bodily resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-4; 1 Timothy 2:5-6; Hebrews 2:9; 1 John 2:1-2). Thus, Jesus could declare, “salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22). In addition, Jewish prophets and apostles (Romans 3:1-2) wrote the majority of the Scriptures. God has blessed those people and nations who have blessed Israel, but He has judged those who have abused Israel.

Since parts of the Abrahamic Covenant have been fulfilled literally this would seem to imply that God intends every promise of that covenant to be fulfilled in that manner. In addition, it should be noted that some parts of the Abrahamic Covenant have not been fulfilled totally. Since God promised to give the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession to Abraham’s descendants, Isaac’s descendants, and Jacob’s descendants the Abrahamic Covenant cannot be completely fulfilled until at least the end of world history.

The most crucial issue related to the Abrahamic Covenant is the nature of the covenant, is the covenant conditional or unconditional in nature.

If the Abrahamic Covenant is unconditional in nature, not dependent upon Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the people of Israel, meeting conditions for the fulfillment of its promises, then every promise of that covenant must be fulfilled, including the promises that Israel would be given forever the land described in Genesis 15:18, and that the Abrahamic Covenant would be an everlasting covenant for Israel. This would mean that Israel would last forever as a people and that God has a future for that nation and its land. It would also mean that the Biblical prophecies concerning the future of Israel and its land are to be interpreted literally.

If the Abrahamic Covenant is conditional, dependent upon Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the people of Israel meeting conditions for the fulfillment of its promises, then not every promise of that covenant has to be fulfilled. Failure by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the people of Israel to meet the conditions could nullify the fulfillment of the covenant’s promises. In light of such failure, Israel would not have to be given the land of Canaan forever, the Abrahamic Covenant would not have to be an everlasting covenant for Israel, the Biblical prophecies concerning the future of Israel and its land could be interpreted allegorically or spiritualized.

Those who believe that the Abrahamic Covenant is conditional point to certain biblical statements such as, Genesis 12:1; 17:1-2; 22:16-18; 26:3-5 as their proof. On the surface, these statements appear to indicate that the Abrahamic Covenant is conditional in nature. Before that conclusion is drawn, however, several significant things should be noted.

First, the biblical statements that appear to indicate that the Abrahamic Covenant is conditional in nature were made years after God formally established the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15. When God formally established the covenant, He stated no conditions. This is significant, because, according to Galatians 3:15, once a covenant is established no conditions are added to it. Thus, to conclude that the statements of Genesis 17:1-2; 22:16-18, and 26:3-5 indicate that the Abrahamic Covenant is conditional is to say that God added conditions to the Abrahamic Covenant after it was established and thereby violated the principle of Galatians 3:15.

Second, when the covenant was formally established, only God passed between the halves of the animals. A deep sleep came upon Abraham so that he could not move between them (Genesis 15:8-18). This indicated that the fulfillment of the covenant’s promises is totally dependent upon God, not upon Abraham meeting certain conditions. The only time that both parties of a covenant would pass between the pieces of animals was when the fulfillment of the covenant was dependent upon both parties keeping commitments.

Third, God formally established the Abrahamic Covenant in response to Abraham’s question, “O Lord God, how may I know that I shall possess it?” (Genesis 15:8). In the immediate context (v. 7) God had just reminded Abraham of the fact that He had brought him out of Ur of the Chaldees in order to give him the land of Canaan to possess it. In response to this reminder, Abraham asked God for proof that he would fulfill His promise to give him the land. God consented to give such proof and formally established a solemn covenant with Abraham as that proof. The point is that the purpose for the formal establishment of the Abrahamic Covenant was that of assuring Abraham that God would keep His word. The total focus of the covenant was the faithfulness of God to His commitment. The focus had nothing to do with the faithfulness or obedience of Abraham or his descendants, the people of Israel. If the fulfillment of the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant depended in any way at all upon the faithfulness of anyone other than God, how could that covenant accomplish its intended purpose?

Fourth, the Abrahamic Covenant was still in effect even after the patriarchs of Israel had sinned several times. Although Abraham had sinned several times (Genesis 16:20) after the covenant had been established, God later confirmed the covenant with his son, Isaac (Genesis 26:1-4). In spite of Isaac’s sin after that confirmation (Genesis 26:6-11), God later confirmed the covenant with his son, Jacob (Genesis 28:13-15; 35:9-12; 48:3-4). Even though Jacob and his sons were guilty of various sins (Genesis 37:18-36; 38:12-26), Joseph regarded the covenant to be in effect at the end of his life and was convinced that it would continue to be so into the future (Genesis 50:24-26). Several generations after Joseph, when the people of Israel were enslaved in Egypt, God made it clear to Moses that the Abrahamic Covenant was still in effect (Exodus 2:24; 6:2-8).

Fifth, even after the nation of Israel had sinned in numerous ways over the course of several centuries, King David regarded the Abrahamic Covenant to be in effect with Israel in his day (1 Chronicles 16:15-18). Why would David exhort Jews of his day to remember God’s covenant with Abraham if it were no longer in effect? Why would he exhort Jews to remember the covenant forever, and why would he specifically call attention to the promise concerning Israel’s possession of the land if at any point in history that promise of the covenant could be annulled?

Sixth, Moses promised that, even though Israel would become idolatrous and evil and would be scattered from the land and suffer because of its sin, in the latter days it would have opportunity to return to God and be obedient because God would not fail Israel, nor destroy it, nor forget the Abrahamic Covenant which He swore to their fathers (Deuteronomy 4:25-31). Several things should be noted concerning this promise. First, the same people, Israel, the descendants of Abraham, who would depart from God and be scattered from the land of Canaan (v. 26) would also have the opportunity to return to Him and be obedient in the latter days. This implies that the literal nation of Israel will still exist in the latter days and that God will have a program for that nation during that period of history. Second, the Abrahamic Covenant would still be in effect with the literal nation of Israel in the latter days in spite of its idolatry, evil, and traumatic history of dispersion and suffering. Surely, that would not be true if the continuation of that covenant with Israel were dependent upon the faithfulness or obedience of that nation. Third, Moses made it clear (v. 31) that this promise in Deuteronomy 4 would continue to be in effect because of God’s faithfulness. Even though Israel would fail Him, He would not fail Israel. He would be faithful to His covenant commitment that He had sworn to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Seventh, even after Israel had compiled its sordid record of sin throughout all its centuries of Old Testament history, the Holy Spirit indicated that the Abrahamic Covenant was still in effect with that nation and that that covenant had something to do with Israel’s deliverance from its enemies (Luke 1:67-75).

Eighth, even though Israel committed the ultimate sin of rejecting the Son of God, Jesus, as its Messiah, the Apostle Peter still regarded the Jews, even the Jews who had rejected Christ, as children of the Abrahamic Covenant (Acts 12-15; Acts 3:25-26).

Ninth, the Abrahamic Covenant included a universal promise of blessing to all families of the earth through Abraham’s descendants, Isaac, Jacob, and the people of Israel. The fulfillment of this promise involved the coming of the Redeemer and the provision of salvation for all peoples of the world. If the Abrahamic Covenant were conditional, then the coming of the Redeemer and the provision of salvation were dependent upon the obedience of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the people of Israel. Such an arrangement would have jeopardized the coming of Christ and the whole program of redemption. It also would have undermined the certainty of fulfillment of many Old Testament messianic prophecies. It is a fact, however, that the Redeemer did come and Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the people of Israel provided salvation in spite of many centuries of disobedience. That fact practically demands that the Abrahamic Covenant be unconditional in nature. In addition, if it is unconditional in nature, then the fulfillment of all its promises, including promises to the nation of Israel, is dependent totally upon the faithfulness of God to His Word.

Now, someone may say that although the Old Testament prophets may have stated that, now in the New Testament, the Church is the so-called “New Israel” and the Church spiritually receives those future promises of blessing to Israel. However, this cannot be proved. Throughout Romans 11 the word “Israel” refers to the Jewish people. Therefore, when Paul affirms the future blessings for Israel in 11:26-27, why would he then inject the word with a different meaning? “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 11:26-27). Paul actually bases his theology of literal blessings for a literal Israel on Old Testament prophecies (Isaiah 59:20,21 and Jeremiah 31:33,34).

In Luke 1:31-33 seven promises were given to Mary. Five of them have already literally been fulfilled. Who has been given the authority to say that the remaining two will not also be literally fulfilled? Indeed, Christ shall receive the throne of His father David, and He shall rule over the house of Jacob forever, literally.

The promise, “I will take you from among the heathen, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land” (Ezekiel 36:24) will literally be fulfilled.

In the context of this chapter in Ezekiel, God is declaring how the exile of His people Israel has come about because of their own iniquity and idolatry (36:16-19). The punishment for this would be “exile” among the nations of the world. After a partial return from the Babylonian exile in 536 B.C., Israel later experienced a second stage of that exile in 70 A.D. with the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple. During the last two thousand years, Jews have been scattered literally to the ends of the earth. In those countries of exile, they would even give cause for the Gentiles to blaspheme God’s name because of their condition (36:20-33), in other words, when people see “the people of the Lord” in such a pitiable condition, there will be some scoffers who will mockingly declare that these people who had been chosen by the Lord are now profaning His name by their condition.

This raises an interesting question, how will the Lord prove to the nations that He exists and that He is not false to His word? The scattered exiles will be taken and gathered from every one of those nations to which they were previously exiled. They then will be brought back to the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. A people who were once exiled from their ancient homeland, losing both their ancient homeland and even their ancient language are returning to the land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Man can change the name of the land. Skeptics can give some lame explanation for this unique phenomenon in the history of mankind. The theologian can transfer God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the people of Israel to the Church. When this is done, they refuse to see the real significance of this restoration. They point to the secular nature of Israel’s society as evidence that God has nothing to do with this nation. They forget that Ezekiel also prophesied that the bones would come together without breath; the Spirit then blows upon them (37:1-14). In other words, there will be a restoration to the Land, in unbelief, before there will be a restoration to the Lord.

The God who was responsible for the exile and suffered profanation of His reputation during that exile is the same God who will honor His name by beginning the process of returning these wandering sons of Jacob to their homeland. In addition, He does, not because they deserve it. He is doing it because He is gracious, merciful and faithful. He is doing it to sanctify and magnify His great name before the Gentiles. Let us not be blind to witnessing His great work that is being done before our eyes. Yes, Israel still stands in need of the Messiah. However, it is hard to explain away the evident force of so many biblical promises. Even in their unbelief, the sons of Israel are a testimony to God’s faithfulness to His promises.

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