Abraham’s Relationship and Covenant Partnership with God

November 25, 2013 — Leave a comment

The story of Abraham and God’s covenant with him is very important to biblical theology and correct interpretation. Because much of what I write on this blog is based on the covenant made to Abraham and the promises provided to him by God, I’d like to share with you some important biblical observations about Abraham’s relationship and covenant partnership with God.

Abraham's Relationship and Covenant Partnership with God

Photo Credit: dalbera

I. God Calls Abraham with Conditions of Departure and Promises of Blessings
(Genesis 12:1-7)

A. How does God state his call to Abraham?

God stated his command with an active verb of “leave” and “go” (v. 1). God gives His call to “leave” and “go” because God had something planned for Abraham. God first told Abraham to leave everything that Abraham was familiar with which included his native country, relatives, and father’s family.

Then, God told Abraham to “go to” (v. 1) the land that God would show him. In this call from God to Abraham, there is no indication of a reciprocal relationship. Nothing is present to show that the call was conditional to what Abraham would have to do in order to ensure this call would be fulfilled.

Furthermore, God stated His call to Abraham in the future tense. God told Abraham that “I will show you” (v. 1) the land and that God “will make you into a great nation” (v. 2). Both of these verses imply a future tense of something that was going to happen in the future.

B. What is the force of the command to Abraham?

The force was God’s call to Abraham. Abraham probably knew of God or might have believed in Him, so the main force was that the God he knew about was speaking directly to him. The force of the command also appears to be that in order for Abraham to be blessed with a seed and to be a blessing to others, Abraham first had to go to the land.

This was encouraged by the fact that Abraham did not yet have a son; therefore the possibility of having a son would have been a good force to encourage Abraham to move.

C. What is the force of the promise to Abraham?

The force of the promise was to bless Abraham and make him famous (vv. 2-3). All the families of the earth are going to be blessed through Abraham (v. 3). God appears to have special provision for Abraham and his family.

The force of the promise is Abraham having gone to the land where he could have a seed and where that seed could be a blessing to others. In other words, the force of the promise was to have done what God wanted him to do.

D. What is the issue in response to this initial call?

Here are a couple of issues in response to this initial call:

1. Abraham had his immediate and extended family that must move.
2. He does not own the land he was moving to and did not appear to have the ability to purchase it.
3. Leaving his native country, his father’s family, and relatives was difficult to do.
4. Abraham did not know which land was waiting for him or where that land was because God only said “go to the land that I will show to you” (v. 1).
5. The land was already occupied.

Because the land God had promised to Abraham was already occupied, it could have become apparent to Abraham that the land was not promised to him, but to his seed.

II. God Specifies the Terms under which the Relationship with Abraham is Determined
(Genesis 15:1-6)

A. What is clarified in what God has promised?

It appears that Abraham had interpreted God’s earlier promise as his servant being his descendant. Because Abraham does not have any children he might have rationalized God’s promise to be a promise about his servant being an heir instead of a son by birth.

However, in Genesis 15:4, God specified that Abraham’s heir would be his own son, not a servant. And through that son, many people would be born (v. 5). Furthermore, not only would Abraham have an heir, but he would have descendants as numerous as the stars. God emphasizes the plurality of His promise when He says, “I will give this land to your descendants” (12:7).

B. What is the object of Abraham’s response?

The object of Abraham’s response is his discomfort with the possibility (or probability) that his servant, Eliezer, would inherit all of Abraham’s wealth. Because of this, all of the blessings God could give to Abraham would feel worthless if they all went to a servant instead of a traditional family heir.

It seemed to trouble Abraham that he did not have a son. The object is that God said in Genesis 12:2 that Abraham would be made into a great nation as well as in Genesis 12:7 God told Abraham that he was going to give that land to his descendants. It is apparent that Abraham might have been confused.

If God was going to make him into a great nation and give the land to Abraham’s descendants, does he need descendants?

C. In what sense is Abraham’s response passive?

Abraham’s response was passive because he did not doing anything nor did he offer to God to do anything in the future. The only response that might be observed was that he “believed” (v. 6). Abraham simply believed the Lord. He did not go out and try to have a son or do anything else as a result of God’s word.

And, in a way, there was nothing that Abraham could have done. At that point of time in Abraham’s life when him and Sarah had attempted to have a son for many years, the only way that they were going to have a son was through God’s providence. Only God could control and determine if and when a son would be born.

D. What has happened in Abraham’s faith as it is fashioned?

Abraham’s faith had grown as he trusted God to have Lot select the correct land (Genesis 13:8-11), to rescue his nephew Lot from Kedorlaomer’s army (Genesis 14:14-16), and God restating the promise that Abraham would have descendants (Genesis 13:14-16).

Through this process, Abraham’s faith was being fashioned because he was learning that God’s word and promises do not change. It would have been easy for Abraham to begin to think that God had changed His mind about His promise to provide a son. However, through this process Abraham was learning to trust God and to be patient to wait on Him while also realizing that God’s promises and word do not change.

III. God Formally Grants the Inheritance of the Land in Covenant Form
(Genesis 15:7-21)

A. What are the terms of the covenant agreement?

There does not appear to be any terms of the covenant agreements. However, Abraham presented a sacrifice as part of the covenant, but the sacrifice did not appear to be something offered in order that the covenant would be fulfilled.

Instead, it appears to be something he did in reverence to God. Genesis 15:13 tells the reader that Abraham’s descendants would have to be strangers in a foreign land and be oppressed as slaves for 400 years, which is part of the covenant. Again, there is a unilateral covenant from God where Abraham’s part was not discussed. No requirements were placed on Abraham as part of this covenant.

Two verses in chapter 15 lead the reader to see that there were no covenant agreements placed on Abraham:

1. “I am the LORD who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land as your possession” (15:7), and
2. “I have given you this land to your descendants” (Genesis 15:18).

The only term of this covenant was that Abraham needed to accept it and be sure that he occupied the land that God had given to him.

B. Why is it unilateral?

The covenant was unilateral because God gave nothing in response that Abraham had to do. There was not a reciprocal act that Abraham had to do in order to fulfill the terms of the covenant.

When God arrived to Abraham’s sacrifice, God passed through the sacrifice alone (Genesis 15:17). God did not require or even allow Abraham to participate in the sacrifice with Him, therefore signifying that the covenant was unconditional and unilateral.

C. Why is it unconditional?

The covenant was unconditional because there was no explicit warning of what not to do or explicit command to do anything. As has already been shared, Abraham was a passive recipient of the promise God had provided to him. The covenant being unconditional was also true for the descendants of Abraham who would be enslaved for 400 years as foreigners.

Nothing was told by God that these foreigners had to do anything. When looking at the biblical story from Genesis chapters 1-11, it appears that this covenant might have been unconditional because God knew that if it was a conditional covenant, it would not have been fulfilled. Example after example is shared in chapters 1-11 of Genesis that God’s people fail to be obedient to Him.

Because God needed to send his Son to die for the sins of His people, He might have decided not to make this covenant conditional because Jesus needed to come, therefore the covenant was not conditional.

D. What does inheritance include?

In a general use of the word, inheritance includes stewardship. It means that you have to maintain what you have been given. You have to defend it and fight off others who might try to steal it.

Abraham’s inheritance includes descendants of all the land from the border of Egypt to the great Euphrates River. This land was already occupied by more than 10 nations. Because the land was inhabited by ten nations, there must have been a large amount of land which Abraham was promised and it must have been discouraging to know that what was promised was occupied by so many people.

IV. God Tests Abraham in the Provision of His Heir
(Genesis 22:1-19)

A. What is being tested in God’s demand placed on Abraham?

Abraham’s faith that God was completely and wholly in control was being tested. More specifically, it was the faith of Abraham that God would fulfill the promise originally promised in Genesis 12.

Did Abraham really trust to God what God had entrusted to him?

Prior to this, Abraham had trusted God and allowed God to bless him. Now, it was time to test in Abraham if he was not just willing to accept what God had provided to him, but was Abraham’s faith strong enough to give to God what God asked for in return?

B. Explain the components in Abraham’s response to God in His test.

Components in Abraham’s response to God in his test:

1. Altar: Made on top of the mountain.

2. Fire: Used for the burnt offering to ignite what had been sacrificed.

3. Wood: Was the item used to burn what was to be burnt as a sacrifice.

4. Knife: Used to kill the sacrifice before it would be burnt.

5. Isaac: Was what God originally said would be used for the sacrifice for God, not to God.

6. Lamb: Is what the Lord provided to Abraham for a sacrifice in place of Isaac after Abraham displayed obedience and faith.

The main component in Abraham’s response to God in His test was Isaac, Abraham’s only son. Abraham had waited 100 years to have a son. Furthermore, this was Abraham’s only son. If the son dies, then Abraham would be faced with the same sadness that he faced when he believed that all of his wealth would go to his servants.

C. What does this event contribute to the covenant partnership?

This event contributes to the covenant partnership because it shows that Abraham had faith in what God had already provided and that Abraham had faith that God would fulfill what He said He would do. It also shows that Abraham knew that God was the one who gave him a son.

If God gave Abraham a son, then if God wanted it back, it was rightly due to God, which Abraham displayed in his actions. This shows that Abraham was in relationship to God and that he would offer anything to God as part of their relationship.

D. Does the gift of Isaac represent a fulfillment of the covenant? Why or why not?

1. Yes.
The gift of Isaac was the ultimate fulfillment of the covenant because it was the ultimate reciprocal act to God. At that point in Abraham’s life there was probably nothing else that he cherished more than his only son, Isaac. Abraham, being willing to sacrifice his son was the ultimate fulfillment of the covenant because it showed that Abraham believed God would still provide a descendent to Abraham. It was an obedient act from Abraham because he believed that God would still fulfill His promise in some way, shape, or form, even if Abraham did not fully understand how.

2. No. 
Because the gift of Isaac did not represent a fulfillment of the covenant because the covenant was unilateral. The gift of Isaac was simply a way God was testing Abraham’s faith. It is possible that God had a level of faith and obedience that He wanted Abraham to be at. This “gift” was a way to see if Abraham had the faith and obedience that God wanted him to have.

V. Evaluate the Validity of Reasons to Support an Unconditional Covenant Partnership between Abraham and God

A. Definitions of Covenant and Abrahamic Covenant

The definition of the word covenant is an “arrangement between two parties involving mutual obligations.” 1 This mutual obligation characterizes the essence of a covenant relationship. A covenant, by definition, “is not merely a mutual acquaintance but a commitment to responsibility and action.” 2 A word that might epitomize the essence of a covenant is “faithfulness” which is acted out in the context of a covenant relationship. 3

The Abrahamic Covenant, according to the Tyndale Bible Dictionary, states that both partners assume responsibilities within the covenant relationship. 4 The Abrahamic Covenant relationship was fashioned in this manner: “God committed himself voluntarily to Abram and his descendants while requiring certain commitments from Abram.” 5 Those commitments from Abraham was to live a blameless life and to have faith. The blameless life was seen as Abraham’s part of the covenant. Because a covenant is based on relationship, and Abraham was in relationship with God, it was Abraham’s correct response and obedience to live a blameless life of faith.

B. Unconditional Unilateral Covenant In Spite of Acts of Disobedience

“Abram’s faith in the promises grew in spite of the acts of natural expedience.” 6 From the very beginning of Abraham’s call he was disobedient and unfaithful to God’s promise.

Thus, and unconditional unilateral partnership must have been established.  It is believed before Abraham’s call from God in Genesis 12 that he had some faith in God based on his ancestry and close proximity to Noah, but in spite of that belief in God there are numerous acts of disobedience that display his lack of faith in God.

One of many acts of disobedience that showed God’s unconditional covenant partnership was when Abraham and Sarah attempted to have an heir with Hagar, the Egyptian servant of their household. Abraham and Sarah were not waiting for God to provide the heir that He had promised.

Instead, they tried to do what they could on their own to create an heir for their estate. (Perhaps they thought that God’s word about having an heir meant they needed to have an heir through a servant since God had not allowed Sarah to bear a child. This is a possible interpretation of the text, but not likely to be true.)

Again, it is observed that God fulfills the promise to Abraham even though Abraham and Sarah act in disobedience to God. This showed their lack of faith in what God had promised, yet God still provided an heir.

C. Unconditional Unilateral Covenant Because God Walks Alone

The end of chapter 15 tells of the main event that established an unconditional covenant relationship with Abraham. In this event there was an unconditional covenant given to Abraham that:

Prepared for the covenant ceremony to take an oath by brining animals

God says that 400 years of oppression will occur before the descendent arrives

Covenant ceremony sealed the promise of the inheritance. 7

There is nothing in this event about what Abraham must do in order for the covenant to be fulfilled. God does not provide anything for Abraham to say, do, or sacrifice. This is shown in how God continues to reveal his covenant promise to Abraham in spite of his acts of disobedience and deception seen throughout the Genesis narrative.

In this event it is also important to note that God passes through the sacrifice alone. God walking through the sacrifice which Abraham provided showed that it was an unconditional covenant guaranteed to happen with Abraham being a passive observer or recipient, evidence by the fact that he slept and watched God pass through the sacrifice alone. 8

D. Abraham’s Response in Obedient Faith Fulfills the Only Requirement of the Unconditional Unilateral Covenant

“Abraham’s response in obedient-faith brought him into an active partnership with God in the covenant program.” 9 This was the only condition as part of the covenant. Nowhere did God state explicitly that He wanted Abraham to be faithful to Him, yet this was and always is a desire of God. The fact that God says that the command to sacrifice Isaac is a “test” shows that there was one small tiny requirement of the covenant.

And, as was quoted from in the Tyndale Bible Dictionary article earlier, a covenant maintains a responsibility of both parties, and that responsibility implicitly placed on Abraham was his obedient faith. That requirement was an inner requirement of Abraham’s faith to God. Nowhere did God say He wanted gifts, sacrifices, or anything else. God provided not commands or statutes that must have been kept in order for the covenant to have been fulfilled. Instead, God simply wanted Abraham’s heart, obedience, and faithfulness to Him.

The only condition necessary for the covenant to be fulfilled was Abraham’s obedience and faith that God wanted him to have. The ultimate sign of the unconditional covenant partnership with God was that God wanted to know that Abraham would be willing to offer his son. God did not want a sacrifice, He wanted Abraham’s obedience. God did not want an external act, He wanted an internal state of heart.

Question: What implications are there for Bible study and theology based on Abraham’s relationship and covenant partnership God?

Notes:

  1. Philip W. Comfort and Walter A. Elwell, eds., Tyndale Bible Dictionary: A comprehensive guide to the people, places, and important words of the Bible (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), 323.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid, 324.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Elliott Johnson, “Old Testament History I,” unpublished class notes for OT102 (Dallas Theological Seminary, Fall Semester, 2013), 24.
  7. Johnson, “Old Testament History,” 28.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid, 31.

Christopher L. Scott

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Christopher Scott is Small Groups Pastor at Rocky Hilly Community Church in Exeter, CA. He has more than ten years of experience leading volunteers, running nonprofit programs, and teaching the Bible in small group settings. He holds a bachelor's degree from Fresno Pacific University and master's degree from Dallas Theological Seminary.

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