The Abrahamic Covenant

The Noahic Covenant anticipated a redemptive plan that would do something about the fallen human condition. Firstly, the covenant was made recognizing that the sinful condition of humanity had not changed (Genesis 8:21). Thus the spread of wickedness, which led to the Flood, would happen again. Yet in the Noahic Covenant God promised He would not destroy the world again. This implies that God planned to take a different approach to the problem of human sinfulness instead of destroying the world when its wickedness becomes intolerable and then starting the cycle all over again.

Secondly, though the Noahic Covenant still requires humanity to build a civilization that is consistent with God's will, there is no provision for the civilization to be in fellowship with God. But God's purpose for humanity, as expressed in the Creation Mandate, involves both. So unless God does something about human sinfulness, which is the barrier to fellowship between the holy God and fallen humanity, His purpose cannot be fulfilled. Hence there is still the need for another covenant that would address the problem of sin and thus make it possible for humanity to build a civilization that is both consistent with God's will and in fellowship with Him.

Beginning of Redemption

The rebellion of the Tower of Babel resulted in not only the people being scattered into nations according to clans, but also the whole world alienated from God. Genesis 11, right after describing how all this happened (verses 1-9), focuses on the lineage of Shem, the son of Noah from whom Abraham descended (verses 10-32). The flow of the text gives the impression that the solution to the problem of human sinfulness is going to come through Abraham.

Sure enough, in Genesis 12:1-3 God revealed a plan involving Abraham and his descendants with the goal that “all the clans (or nations) of the earth shall be blessed.” This global plan is obviously God's response to the global alienation. This redemptive plan is known as the Abrahamic Covenant. It is the beginning of the fulfillment of the promise God made in Genesis 3:15 to redeem humanity.

The Abrahamic Covenant is a promise God made to Abraham (and later to his descendants as well) to bless him and make him into “a great nation,” which turned out to be Israel, so that through them the whole world would be blessed. Hence God now chose one man and one nation to work out His global redemptive plan. On Abraham's part, he only had to leave his homeland, his father's household and his relatives and go to a place that God would show him. Abraham fulfilled his part and the place he was to go turned out to be Canaan, which Israel eventually inherited as their homeland.

The book of Joshua (24:2-3) highlights the fact that, like most people in the ancient world, Abraham was born and raised in a polytheistic household. Even if he did not actively worship the idols, he did not worship the Creator God before he was called to leave his polytheistic environment (cf. Walton, Matthews & Chavalas 2000: 46-47). The world as a whole was still alienated from God. But even then God was not left without a witness. In fact right in Canaan there was Melchizedek, king of Salem (the future Jerusalem), who was also priest of “God Most High,” which is another name for the Creator God (Genesis 14:17-22; cf. Psalms 78:35, 56). But God did not call Melchizedek, but Abraham instead, to be the channel of blessings to the whole world. Therefore God’s choice of Abraham “is not to be regarded as a reward for his righteousness before God, but as an act of free unmerited grace” (Keil and Delitzsch 1982: 228). And it was by faith that Abraham accepted God’s gracious offer, especially since he did not even know where God would lead him (Hebrews 11:8).

In New Testament terms, Abraham came to know God and became His channel of blessings “by grace through faith” and not “by works.” The only “works” (fulfilling God's conditions) Abraham did to receive God’s promise was to leave his homeland, his father's household and his relatives, thereby breaking all ties with his polytheistic past. But strictly speaking this was not really a condition, for the promise involves forming a new nation in a new homeland, as well as embracing a new belief-system. If Abraham refused to leave, it would amount to rejecting the gracious offer itself. It is like being given an offer, with no conditions attached, to work in another city with a company that is everyone's dream. To accept this unconditional offer one obviously has to leave one's existing home-city, employer and colleagues, as well as embrace a new work-system. Hence the Abrahamic Covenant is basically unconditional.

This is confirmed in Genesis 15 where God made two specific promises to Abraham, who was then in Canaan but still childless. God said He would greatly multiply Abraham's biological descendants, and that his descendants would possess Canaan. Both these promises, already introduced earlier in Genesis 13:14-17, are integral to the Abrahamic Covenant inaugurated in Genesis 12:1-3. They were given prominence here in Genesis 15 and later in Genesis 17 because they were of immediate concern to Abraham.

Genesis 15 ended with a ceremony in which God formally “signed” the Abrahamic Covenant to assure Abraham that His promises would be fulfilled. According to the custom of the day (cf. Jeremiah 34:18-19), the parties making a covenant would cut animals into two and line the respective parts in two rows. They would then walk together in between the parts, thus pledging to fulfill the terms of the covenant (cf. Hamilton 1990: 430-33). In this case only God “walked” between the animal parts; Abraham was in deep sleep. This means God alone “signed” the covenant and therefore He alone is obligated to fulfill the terms of the covenant. Hence God unilaterally and unconditionally guaranteed that His entire redemptive plan would be fulfilled.

However, there are a number of texts showing that Abraham had to be obedient to God for the terms of the covenant to be realized. For even after the covenant was formally “signed” in Genesis 15, God said to Abraham in Genesis 17: “I am God Almighty, walk before Me, and be blameless, that I may confirm my covenant between Me and you, and I will multiply you greatly ... and I will give to you and to your descendants ... all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession” (verses 1-2, 8). Note that the two promises introduced in Genesis 13 and highlighted in Genesis 15 were repeated here. God is undoubtedly talking about the same covenant (contra Williamson 2007: 84-91).

In Genesis 22, the need for Abraham to be obedient to God is even more explicitly highlighted in an oath God made in response to Abraham passing a test of obedience. For in the oath God swore that He would surely greatly multiply Abraham's descendants and through them “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice” (verses 15-18). When this promise was passed down to Isaac, God said that just as He swore to Abraham, He would multiply Isaac's descendants and through his descendants “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; because Abraham obeyed Me ...” (Genesis 26:3-5).

This means even though God unconditionally guaranteed that the Abrahamic Covenant would be fulfilled, Abraham still had to be obedient to God for the terms of the covenant to be realized. Hence a divine promise that is received “by grace through faith,” and in that sense “unconditional,” does not exempt the recipient from obeying God and living a life that is consistent with His will. This is after all God's original purpose for humanity. In fact God’s redemptive plan involves redeeming humanity from sin so that God’s original purpose for humanity can be fulfilled. In other words, the very idea of redemption implies obedience.

But how can God unconditionally guarantee that He would fulfill the Abrahamic Covenant and yet its realization was dependent on Abraham's obedience? We shall resolve this apparent contradiction later when we look at Abraham's faith development. It is significant that when the covenant was further passed down to Jacob, Isaac's son, God did not say, “because Isaac obeyed Me ...” (Genesis 28:13-14). Hence the need to pass a test of obedience to secure the Abrahamic Covenant was limited to Abraham only. After he passed that test in Genesis 22, the terms of the Abrahamic Covenant will surely come to pass, no matter what happens to Jacob and his descendants.

The “great nation” that God promised Abraham consists of all the descendants of Jacob. It is known as Israel because Jacob's name was later changed to Israel to reflect his transformed character. Jacob had twelve sons, each fathering a tribe of the nation, except for Joseph whose two sons each fathered a separate tribe. This exception was the result of Jacob adopting the two grandsons as his own sons.

When God “signed” the covenant in Genesis 15, He spelled out the boundary of the land in Canaan that Abraham's descendants would inherit. But He also qualified that before his descendants possessed the Promised Land, they would be in a foreign land for 400 years. The specific reason given was that the current occupants of the land were not wicked enough to be justly dispossessed. What is not said is that Jacob and his sons also needed a safe haven where they could be fruitful and multiply into a nation before they possessed the land. This foreign land and safe haven turned out to be Egypt. Genesis 37-50 records how they ended up in Egypt and the book of Exodus records how Moses took the nation out of Egypt. The book of Joshua then recounts how Joshua led the nation into the Promised Land.

How did Jacob and his descendants end up in Egypt? It began with Joseph's older brothers selling him into Egypt. And in fulfillment of God's calling for Joseph, which was revealed to him in dreams before he was sold, he became the Prime Minister of Egypt. God put him there “to preserve life” in view of a great famine that would not only affect Egypt but also Canaan. When the famine came Joseph was able to sell food stockpiled from the preceding years of abundance. So his brothers came from Canaan to buy food, which eventually led to the whole family joining Joseph in Egypt.

Before Jacob died he gave divinely inspired predictions concerning each of his sons. Judah had the best future (Genesis 49:8-10). The scepter (kingship) shall not depart from the tribe of Judah “until he comes to whom it [the scepter] belongs, and the obedience of the nations is his” (NIV). In light of the prophetic books, this coming world ruler has to be the Messiah (or Christ). The book of Genesis ended with the death of Joseph in Genesis 50. Before he died he made his kinsmen swear that they would take his bones back to Canaan because he believed that God would fulfill His promise to bring them back to the Promised Land.

This broad outline sets the stage for a more detailed look at Genesis 12-50, focusing on the lives of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph. Before we do that it is important to point out that the development and fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant go way beyond Genesis 12-50. The clearest indication is that, as spelled out in Genesis 15, the 400 years sojourn in Egypt and the subsequent return to Canaan are part of the Abrahamic Covenant. This means the Mosaic Covenant, which God made with Israel at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:4-6), is a development and fulfillment of this covenant.

Also, the promise of a coming world ruler in Genesis 49:10, which is also part of the Abrahamic Covenant, is the basis for the Davidic Covenant in 2 Samuel 7. And since the New Covenant, promised in the prophetic books, replaces the Mosaic Covenant so that God's people could actually fulfill God's purpose for them (Jeremiah 31:31-34), it is also a development and fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant. Finally, the New Covenant is fulfilled in the New Testament (Hebrews 8:6-13); Paul could even say that the Gospel he preached to the Gentiles was announced in advance by God to Abraham when He said, “All the nations shall be blessed in you” (Galatians 3:8).

In other words, it takes most of the Old Testament as well as the whole of the New Testament to see the complete development and fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant. That is why even though this covenant is about God's redemptive plan for humanity and addresses the problem of sin so that humanity can fulfill the pre-Fall Creation Mandate, we will not see much of this in Genesis 12-50. Genesis 12-50 presents only the beginning of God's mission to redeem civilization. While this mission is being accomplished the world is accountable to God through the Noahic Covenant.

This quick survey of the covenants provides the larger context to understand the Mosaic Covenant, which when taken out of this context, is often misunderstood and even considered to be inconsistent with the Abrahamic Covenant. This cannot be the case if the Mosaic Covenant is a development and fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant.

Even though God's redemptive plan for the world is fully realized only in the New Testament, as far as how humanity should respond to God’s redemptive plan is concerned, it was already realized and embodied in the lives of Abraham (faith development), Jacob (character transformation) and Joseph (leadership development). This means we can learn from them how to respond to God’s redemptive plan today. We now turn to explore this teaching before moving on to the Mosaic Covenant.