Genesis: The Book of God’s Kingdom – 17 (“Abraham: The Covenant of Promise”)
Since God made a covenant with Noah (the rainbow was the sign of this covenant), a lot of things happened. The world was covered with water and God wiped out all living creatures on earth, except for Noah and his children. He and his children were saved from God’s wrath – God’s wrath on a wicked and sinful people, but what happened soon after the Flood? Noah and his sons, altogether forgot about the reason why God wiped out man on earth – sin! And what did they, the sole survivors of the Flood, do soon after the Flood? They sinned! Noah became drunk and lay naked in his tent (Gen.9:21).
Ham looked on his father’s nakedness. Shem and Japheth instead covered Noah’s nakedness without looking on him. What the author of Genesis apparently wants to show is simply the contrast between the deeds of Ham and those of Shem and Japheth. That contrast becomes the basis for the curse and the blessing that follow. The significance of the contrast between the actions of the sons is seen from the author’s account of the Fall in Gen.3. In covering their father’s nakedness, Shem and Japheth were like Adam and Eve (Gen.3:7) and God (Gen.3:21), who did not look on human nakedness but covered it (Gen.2:25). Ham did not follow that lead. The sons of Noah belong to two groups of humankind, those who like Adam and Eve hide the shame of their nakedness, and those who like Ham, or rather the Canaanites, have no sense of their shame before God. To the one group there will be blessing and to the other there will be curse.
After this incident, we read about the Tower of Babel with the confusion of the inhabitants’ language and them being scattered “over the face of the whole earth” (Gen.11:9).
The focus of the author since the beginning chapters of the book of Genesis has been both on God’s plan to bless humankind by providing them with that which is “good” and on human failure to trust God and enjoy the “good” God had provided. The characteristic mark of this failure has been the attempt by humans to grasp the “good” on their own. The author has centred his description of God’s blessing on the gift of the land (Gen.1:28). The good land is the place of blessing. To leave this land and to seek another is to forfeit the blessing of God’s good provisions. It is to live “east of Eden” (Gen.3:24; 4:16).
In Gen.12, the focus turns to a man named Abraham and the next covenant – the covenant with Abraham – “The Covenant of Promise.” God told Abraham to move to the “good land,” the place of blessing when He said in Gen.12:1 ~ “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” In Gen.17 God also made a covenant with Abraham.
2. SCRIPTURE READING:
Gen.17:1-27 (ESV) ~ “When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, 2 that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, 4 “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. 7 And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” 9 And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant. 15 And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” 19 God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. 20 As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.” 22 When he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham. 23 Then Abraham took Ishmael his son and all those born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 25 And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 26 That very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised. 27 And all the men of his house, those born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.”
3. THE COVENANT OF PROMISE:
When we study this revelation and covenant by God with Abraham, there are a couple of things that stand out. Not only did God promise that a child would be born to Abram and Sarai but that kings would come from them.
Within the divine discourse (Afrikaans: “gesprek”) we have two predominant elements. The first is the changing of the names of Abram and Sarai. To change a name usually meant to change a person’s status or circumstances. In this passage, the new names served as reminders of God’s pledge of the promise.
The second idea is circumcision, the sign of the covenant. Signs were attached to covenants as reminders of the participants’ obligations and privileges under the covenant. In Gen.9, the rainbow was the Lord’s sign of the covenant with Noah. The ritual of circumcision was the sign to be performed by the people of the covenant as evidence of their participation in it.
In conjunction with this theological ideas in general, there is the specific instruction for Abram to walk before the Lord and be perfect (Gen.17:1).
This passage in Gen.17 or the covenant with Abraham can be divided into four general sections:
God’s assurance of the promise by the changing of Abraham’s name (vss.1-8),
God’s requirement of obedience by the institution of circumcision (vss.9-14),
God’s specific word on the fulfilment of the promise through Sarah (vss.15-22),
Abraham’s compliance with the sign of the covenant by faith (vss.23-27).
God’s assurance of the promise (vss.1-8): An important and interesting aspect of the Abrahamic covenant is that God sovereignly dictated the terms of His covenant with Abraham – there were no “agreements” or “contracts”, just God telling Abraham what to do, together with promises connected to the covenant and the essence (Afrikaans = “kern”) of the covenant is to be found in Gen.15:7-21 (Abraham had to provide animals which were cut in half and the two sides were put over against the other and a flaming torch moved between the pieces of meat) – the covenant would be a “bond in blood sovereignly administered.”
I’ve already mentioned the fact that God changed Abram’s name to Abraham. Abram’s initial name meant “exalted father” and referred not to the patriarch but to God as exalted Father. But when Abram’s name was changed to Abraham, it referred to the man himself as “father of a multitude” (vss.5-6). The effect was that every time people called him Abraham they re-iterated God’s promise that he would be a father of a multitude!
More important however, is that before God addresses Abraham, He introduces Himself to Abraham as “God Almighty” (vs.1). In the original language it was “El-Shaddai” which signifies God’s power (omnipotence) and sovereignty (Afrikaans: “God se almag en soewereiniteit”). In other words, this specific name describes God as the One who makes things happen by means of His majestic power and might. “El-Shaddai” is the same name that the patriarchs came to know God – we see this in Ex.6:3 ~ “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty…” This is also the name that God used of Himself about thirty-one times in the book of Job to encourage Job amidst his trials.
In vs.6 God told Abraham that kings would come from him and kings did come from him, but eventually, about a thousand years later, THE King arrived in the advent (Afrikaans = “koms”) of Jesus Christ, King of the Jews. This is why Matthew started his Gospel with the words ~ “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt.1:1).
We must also note that this covenant, as was the case with the Noahic Covenant, was not only made with Abraham, but also with his posterity (Afrikaans: “nageslag”). It was an everlasting covenant made with Abraham’s seed after him and the way that God maintain His covenant relationship with the descendants of believers – that does not imply that all children of all believers will be saved and it also does not imply that God will not save people from the children of unbelievers (e.g. Ruth, Rahab, etc.).
In vs.8 we see that this covenant would bring the recipients into a truly religious relationship with God.
God’s requirement of obedience (vss.9-14): In vss.9-14, the Lord institutes the sign of the covenant – the sign of circumcision. This sign of circumcision would apply to all who shared faith in the promise, for it carried a meaning of identification with the covenant. The sign of circumcision would be a reminder to God of the promises that He made, and it would be a reminder to the seed of Abraham to live in loyalty to the covenant.
There is also a warning attached to circumcision and that is that it should be executed and if not, such a person(s) would be cut off from God’s people.
A very important implication of the rite of circumcision itself, is a reminder that covenants are solemnised through blood (Afrikaans: “plegtige seremonie”). Circumcision inflicts blood and pain. Every Hebrew male from Abraham to Isaac to Moses to Jesus underwent this operation. Every instance symbolised the enduring, irrevocable nature (Afrikaans: “onherroeplike aard”) of the covenant.
Like all covenantal signs, circumcision could easily become an empty ritual. It had to be coupled with faith to have genuine meaning. The performance of circumcision simply meant that the participants were identified with the seed of Abraham. To be identified with the “spiritual seed of Abraham” required that a “spiritual circumcision” accompany the physical act, that is, the faith and commitment to the Lord be the motivation. The law said that God would circumcise the heart so that the people would be devoted to Him (Deut.30:6). Later, Paul said in Rom.2:28-29 that only circumcision of the heart, that is, being set apart by the Spirit, was praiseworthy before God. In both Testaments the true seal of fellowship with the Lord would be “circumcision of the heart.” The lesson behind the physical rite was that one must live by faith in the Lord and His promises, for unbelief is described as a fleshly heart.
Many commentaries [from a paedo Baptist viewpoint (Afrikaans: “suigeling-/kleindoop”)] correlate this sign of the Abrahamic covenant with baptism as the sign of the New Covenant and can therefore be performed on infants and adults alike (Old Covenant – the sign was circumcision / New Covenant – the sign is baptism). But a good case can rather be made for the Lord’s Supper being the sign of the New Covenant and not baptism, for the Lord’s Supper is expressly identified as such in 1 Cor.11:25 ~ “In the same way also He took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’” Moreover, remembrance, the key element of a sign, is associated with the cup ~ “Do this in remembrance of me.” As the believer takes the cup of communion, the New Covenant is perpetuated (Afrikaans: “voortgesit”) in the community of the believers. Naturally, even this “ritual” (as well as baptism) can be empty if it is not accompanied by faith.
God’s promise through Sarah (vss.15-22): As a sign that God would bless Sarai, that is, make her fruitful, he changed her name to Sarah. Both names mean “princess”, but the new name is a modernisation of the old pronunciation in order to mark this new beginning.
The thought of Sarah’s having children, let alone nations and kings, prompted Abraham to laugh (vs.17). Most probably this laugh represented doubt, but without ruining his general belief – his faith was limited in other words, whilst Sarah’s laughter was a result of unbelief, that is why God rebuked her and not Abraham.
Abraham’s compliance with the sign (vss.23-27): Abraham executed the ordinance of circumcision the very same day after God spoke to him. God’s command of circumcision was not only applicable on the promised seed through whom the covenant salvation would be accomplished, but also all the males of his entire household. This included those purchased with money, who were not of Abraham’s seed (slaves) ~ “He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant” (Gen.17:12-13). The benefits of the covenant are therefore, extended to all those for whose instruction in the things of God, Abraham and Sarah were responsible.
4. THE NEW COVENANT:
When we talk about the Old Covenant, it is appropriate to look more closely at the record of the original inauguration (Afrikaans: “inwyding”) of the New Covenant by the Lord Jesus Christ as found in the Gospels.
In presenting the cup to His disciples, Jesus says ~ “…for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt.26:28). The “pouring out” of Christ’s blood reflects the sacrificial language in the Old Testament, and the process by which the curses of the covenant were heaped on a substitutionary victim. Christ explains His death to be “unto remission of sins.” His death effects deliverance from the covenantal death-curse by the removal of the old covenant violations. Jesus offers His blood as the basis for deliverance from the curses of the covenant.
The Gospel of Luke adds a further dimension to this procedure by mentioning the “new” covenant established by Christ ~ “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). Not only does Christ’s blood remove the curse of the Old Covenant; simultaneously it introduces the blessed condition of the New Covenant. Now He offers Himself to us. He says ~ “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you” (Matt.26:26b-27).
5. CONCLUSION AND APPLICATION:
One obvious lesson to draw from Abraham’s life is that his faith wasn’t a blind faith; his faith was a settled assurance and trust in the One who had proved Himself faithful and true.
Another thing we learn from Abraham’s life is that faith is not hereditary (e.g. Matt.3:9, Luke 3:8, and Joh.8:39). The application for us is that it is NOT enough to be raised in a Christian home.
Even Abraham’s failures demonstrate that God, while not protecting us from the consequences of our sin, graciously works His will in us and through us; nothing we do will thwart His plan.
Abraham’s life shows us the following blessings:
One of unconditional faith in God Almighty.
One of unconditional trust.
One of unconditional obedience.