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Covenants of God

Week Four: Abrahamic

“The Promises of a People and Place”

We are in week four of our series, Covenants of God. Let me stress again the REASON we are moving through this GRAND SWEEP of God’s promises in the Bible: SO THAT WE MAY HAVE A SOUND BIBLICAL WORLDVIEW. With all the competing versions of truth in our culture, we MUST have a thoughtful, accurate, and biblical understanding of WHO we are, WHOSE we are, and WHAT our purpose is in this life and the life to come. Would you agree?

First, we saw in the Creation story the Edenic Covenant, where God gives Adam a land grant of sorts—he is to cultivate the earth and tend it, enjoying all its bounty. There was the stipulation not to eat of the tree of knowledge between good and evil, for on the day he does, he will certainly die. With the help of the serpent, Adam and Eve broke the Edenic Covenant, which took us to Covenant #2—the Adamic Covenant.

This covenant was a series of curses to the serpent, woman, and man. But there was also blessings: (1) an act of grace by God in the killing of the first animal to make coverings of skin for them. And (2), the promise of a rescue plan through the offspring of woman, namely Jesus, who would crush the head of the serpent. We call this the proto-Gospel.

Last week we looked at the Noahic Covenant following the Great Flood that destroyed all human life—except that of Noah, his wife, his sons, and his sons’ wives—as well as every living creature that moved on the ground or flew in the air—except those creatures the Lord sent to Noah to put on the ark and tend until after the flood.

We went into great detail about the evil and violent state of humanity during the days of Noah, in contrast with the righteousness of Noah, who walked faithfully with God. God’s response to evil humanity is to start again—which leads to both worldwide catastrophe and second chances. Noah’s role was to aid the Lord in rescuing enough of the created order that a new start is possible to reintroduce Adam to their Creator. The flood is an act of God that rescued humanity from ourselves and offered our corrupt race a second chance.

When the waters receded, it was time for Noah to start over. That’s when we saw God enter into a covenant, NOT with to Noah and his family, but with the entire world for generations to come. NEVER AGAIN would the earth be destroyed by waters. The sign of this covenant is a RAINBOW. It’s visible, universal, and perpetual. The big take away of this unconditional, unilateral covenant is that God is in control of nature—the waters, the clouds, the wind, the rainbow…everything. Also, all sin has consequences, but there is also grace and redemption.

Ultimately, the Noahic Covenant paves the way for God’s people to be rescued through future promises and actions by God. This brings us to the fourth covenant— The Abrahamic Covenant.

How did we get here? After the flood and Noah’s sons—Shem, Ham, and Japheth—began to repopulate the earth, many years and generations had passed, God came to see that the people again wanted to be like God, making a name for themselves by building a tower to the heavens. It was because of this that God confused their language, causing the people to scatter across the land. The Bible then records the genealogy of Abram, tracing his ancestry back to Shem.

Abram, whose name means exalted father, was the son of Terah and the brother to Nahor and Haran. Nahor and Abram both married, as apparently did Haran since he was the father of Lot. But Haran died while Terah, the patriarch, was still living. Terah took Abram, Sarai, and Lot (not sure why Nahor and his family were not mentioned as going with the bet ab) with him from Ur of the Chaldeans and was making his way to the land of Canaan when he stopped in Harran and settled there. Terah died in Harran.

This sets the scene for the first encounter of Abram with God and is the first part of the grand Abrahamic Covenant. We’ll call this the INITIATION of the Covenant. Let’s read some verses from Genesis 12 as we look into the life of the great Patriarch of both the Jewish and Christian faiths. READ 12:1-9.

Here are some important points, I think, to this story:

God initiates the conversation and the covenant: “The Lord had said to Abram”
The covenant begins with a command: “Go from your country, your people, and your household to the land I will show you”
God is requiring Abram to do something unusual (unthinkable) in leaving his father’s household, his culture, his environment, most likely his polytheistic religious practices
God doesn’t even tell Abram where he is to go. He only tells Abram that he WILL show him.
Then God make Abram some very astounding promises:
Abram would be made into a great nation. Abram and Sarai are childless! Nations are born out of great child-bearing.
God will bless Abram. This typically would mean that Abram would be financially well-off, that he would be healthy, and that he would have a large, prosperous family.
Not only that, but Abram’s name would be great. Other people groups would know and revere the name of Abram. He would be a rock star! Okay, maybe not. But he would be famous among the tribal peoples of that region. That’s a big deal!
God also promises in this part of the covenant to not only bless Abram, but also to bless others who blessed Abram…AND to curse those who cursed Abram. E.g., God would be Abram’s patron…to protect him from the bad guys.
Finally, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, God promises that through the seed of Abram, ALL PEOPLES ON EARTH WILL BE BLESSED! Again, this is another Proto-Gospel Promise…a prophecy pointing to Jesus Christ.
We could spend the rest of our time talking about the significance of these FIVE promises found in verses 1-2; but there’s much more to cover in the Abrahamic covenant. And there’s ONE MORE PROMISE found in the verses we read. Did you catch it? Abram had obeyed the Lord and set out for the land of Canaan when God made this HUGE promise: “To your offspring I will give this land.” Here is a guy with no place to call home. He’s a nomad herder of sheep and goats. Now he’s being told that his offspring would not only be a great people, but a great nation because they would have a place! Huge promise! Let’s move to the second encounter between God and Abram. Let’s call it the REITERATION of the Covenant.

In Genesis 13 we read where the possessions of Abram and Lot had grown to the extent that there was not enough land to graze their respective herds. So, Abram gives Lot the choice of land to inhabit; he chose the lush plains of the Jordan that included the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and Abram continued to live in the land of Canaan. After that, the Lord spoke with Abram again. Here’s what he said , “Look around from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and the west. All the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”

Once again, the promise of PLACE and PEOPLE. These two things are inextricably connected. The promise is unilateral from God to Abram. Thinking back to Eden and the promise God gives Adam, I suggest to you that this is Abram’s Eden. It’s an everlasting promise of a place for him and his people. But that does NOT mean to me that God meant a physical land mass known as the nation of Israel (as we might think of today). Instead, it is a cosmic promise. Remember the Proto-Gospel promise? Through your seed all nations will be blessed. In the same way, through Abram, the people of God are promised a place in which to dwell. I would argue that this promise points to the New Jerusalem…the New Heaven and New Earth. It makes sense, doesn’t it?

Let’s look at the third encounter of God with Abram—and here we see one of the most significant and impactful ratification ceremonies of a Covenant Treaty in all of Scripture. Let’s give it the name RATIFICATION, since that’s what we will see here.

Before we do, we need a little background on Ancient Near Eastern covenants, which are often blood covenants. Remember us talking about the two different kinds of treaties? The parity treaty and the suzerain-vassal treaty? A parity treaty is a covenant treaty between two parties of similar position, while a suzerain-vassal treaty is between a greater party (a king usually) and a lesser party. In both instances there is the sense that the parties are establishing a “fictive kinship,” one where the two parties treat each other like blood relatives even when they are not. Of course, when it comes to a covenant with God, it ALWAYS a suzerain/vassal arrangement. God is God and we are not!

In the Bible as well as other ANE literature, the common phrase for a covenant ratification ceremony was “carat berit” or to “cut a covenant.” This was because an animal or group of animals were cut from head to tail, the two halves laid opposite each other, and the blood would run into a trough between the two halves. At a certain time in the ceremony, the vassal king would walk through the blood reciting the terms of the covenant, in essence saying, “May it happen to me as it has happened to these animals if I do not keep this covenant.”

Abram is now a resident of Canaan. He’s older but still has no children of his own. So, like many responsible patriarchs did in that culture, Abram chooses from among his faithful servants an heir to continue the family and take care of Sarai. Eliezer of Damascus is that chosen servant.

Chapter 15 begins with God initiating yet another promise to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.” Abram, struggling a bit in his faith perhaps, asks, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” God assures Abram his own offspring will be his heir. Not only that, but his descendants will be as numerous as the stars.

The writer of Genesis makes a huge statement at this point: “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” This is BEFORE any Law of Moses…this is BEFORE the blood of Jesus that makes us right with God. It is faith in the PROMISES of God that makes Abram right with God. Faith is trusting in the promises of God even when we can’t yet see them as reality.

Now God goes one step further. He again repeats the promise to give Abram the land he is currently inhabiting (Canaan) as his own possession. Wanting some assurances that God will do what he says, Abram asks how he can know that he will gain possession of the land.

THIS is where the story becomes EPOCH! Let’s pick up reading in verse 9 of Chapter 15. Just as with other blood covenant treaties, animals were cut from head to tail (except the birds). God causes Abram to fall into a deep sleep. The last time we saw that was in Eden when Adam was put to sleep to take out a rib to make woman!

A thick and dreadful darkness ensues. This is often the case with a theophany (which is an appearance of the deity in physical form). Then this smoking firepot/oven with a blazing torch passes between the pieces.

Are you catching the significance of this event? The sovereign God of the universe condescends to a mortal who is questioning the promise God just made. [Isn’t is just like us to trust God one moment and question him the next? If WE were in charge, we probably not put up with us!]

Remember who’s supposed to recite the stipulations of a covenant? Who’s supposed to do the walking through the blood? Yet, we see our great and sovereign God demonstrating enormous love and grace. The Lord of the cosmos traversed the bloody alley in order to announce to Abram and his offspring that HE WOULD NOT FAIL! In essence, Yahweh is announcing, “May what happened to these animals happen to me if I fail to keep my oath.”

If we were to scan the history of Israel, we would see that the God of Abram never failed in his promises, but the children of Abraham clearly did. So, whose flesh SHOULD be torn to pay the price for this broken covenant? Abraham’s children. Instead, we see it was the God-man, Jesus Christ—the representative of humanity and the embodiment of Yahweh—whose flesh was torn to appease the broken stipulations of the oath. BIBLICAL WORLDVIEW ALERT!! It is here in this covenant that we once again get a glimpse of the Gospel!

We’ve got to hurry now finish up with the fourth encounter of God with Abram that we’ll call the SIGN of the covenant. Just as the rainbow was the sign of the covenant by God never to destroy the world by flood, there is a sign of the covenant God has made with Abraham and his decedents: circumcision.

In our story of Abram and Sarai in Genesis 16, we see that the old infertile couple decided to take matters into their own hands by producing a son through Hagar, Sarai’s servant. That brought a whole new set of problems, but it did NOT change the promises of God!

Abram is now 99 years “young” when Chapter 17 opens with another appearance by God. “I am God Almighty,” God says, “Walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will be greatly increase your numbers.” Abram falls down in worship. God continues: “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”

Mic drop! But there is one stipulation for Abraham and his descendants. Let’s read it picking up in verse 9 [READ 17:9-14]. The SIGN of the covenant—that God would grant Abraham a great nation, the land grant of Canaan, AND the promise to be their God—is CIRCUMCISION.

The practice of circumcision was NOT unique to Abraham and his descendants. There is extra-biblical and archaeological evidence that other ANE cultures practiced circumcision, either as a prenuptial rite, a purity practice or preparation into the priesthood of certain pagan religions. But circumcision for Abraham and his descendants is different in several ways:

Circumcision was a command and an initiation by God himself, not a decision of a tribe or nation.
It was performed on infants, a practice completely unique to the descendants of Abraham.
It was an important ethnic marker for Israel—setting them apart from their neighbors.
Circumcision was NOT a rite of passage, but a mark of God’s election of Abraham’s offspring.
Because a woman in this patriarchal society was identified by the men in her life, every woman in Israel was marked as members of the covenant.

What does all this mean? What is the big takeaway from covering all this material about the Abrahamic covenant? When we left Noah, we saw that one man and his immediate family are rescued to start over…to reintroduce the sons of Adam to their Creator. A bloodline has been identified. Now, with Abraham, one extended family is permanently welcomed into a covenant relationship with Yahweh. God chose Abraham. God called Abraham. He believed the promises of God and his faith was credited to him as righteousness. [We will see with the Mosaic Covenant that this extended family will become a nation, just as God had promised Abraham.]

Jesus is the Seed of Abraham through which the world might be saved. Whereas circumcision marked the children of Abraham (ultimately known as Israel…the Jews), BAPTISM marks the Christian. The promise of God to Abraham’s descendants—to be God to them—required NO decision of allegiance. By right of birth and bloodline, a child of Abraham was a child of the promise.

But for you and me, membership into the family of God—the New Covenant—requires a response…FAITH in Jesus Christ. And BAPTISM is the sign (the mark) of the New Covenant that distinguishes the follower of Jesus Christ from the community around us. If you have never been baptized and yet you put your faith in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, I encourage you to talk to me about taking that next step in your journey of faith.

For all of us, it’s important to know our heritage. Were it not for God’s election of Abraham and Abraham’s faith in the promises of God, we would not be here as followers of Jesus, who is the very Seed of Abraham. The Abrahamic Covenant sets the stage for the promises of God to rescue the world through his Son, Jesus Christ. We cannot disconnect ourselves from the Old Testament covenants of God.

Do you know who you are? You are a child of the promise…a King’s kid. But it all started with a Chaldean shepherd named Abram who became Abraham, father of a Great Nation.