Summary of the Text
Ancient Lens: What can we learn from the historical context?
Last week, we looked at the story of Noah and how God became angry with the wickedness of the people, but decided to save Noah and his family because of Noah’s moral righteousness. What is known as the “Noahic” covenant speaks to God’s desire to never again bring destruction on humankind.
This week, we turn to the great patriarch Abraham and his covenant, which, as our text tells us “will greatly increase your [Abraham’s] numbers” (Gen.17:2). John Walton, (in the New International Version Application Commentary), argues that Genesis chapter 17 gives us “the most complete presentation in Genesis of the covenant promises and expectations” God makes of Abraham.
The Nature of a Biblical Covenant: Relationships Under Authority
Let’s begin with the definition of a biblical covenant, which will help shape the rest of our commentary. Scholar Michael Lawrence defines a biblical covenant this way: “Covenants are not merely contracts or promises. Rather, covenants are relationships under authority, with both obligations and rewards. The terms and benefits of the relationship are spelled out, and so are the consequences if the relationship is broken. But what is perhaps most significant about biblical covenants is that when God enters into a covenant, He must condescend to initiate it, He sets the terms, He provides the benefits, and He executes the judgment when the covenant is broken” (Biblical Theology, Crossway Books, 2010. p.31).
Let’s look at how this definition of a Biblical covenant takes place in Genesis 17. As Lawrence states, it is God who initiates, who “comes down” to speak with Abraham: “the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty…Then I (emphasis mine) will make my covenant with you.” (vs.2)
God’s covenants throughout the Bible are never between equal parties. Rather, as Lawrence states earlier, biblical covenants are “relationships under authority,” God’s authority. God initiates and God, as the superior party, sets the terms. Abram, knowing his place and having heard God’s voice, “fell facedown,” (vs.3) a sign of submission.
The Terms (of the Covenant) & Abraham’s Kingship
God sets his terms early in the passage, beginning in verse 1: “walk before me faithfully and be blameless.” If Abram accepts the terms and lives by them, he will be rewarded.
Derek Kidner, in the Tyndale Commentary series (Genesis), says that, “The striking feature of the stipulations is their lack of detail…the moral implications could be left unwritten (until Sinai), for one was pledged to a Master, only secondarily to a way of life.”
Nevertheless, as the Biblical scholar Claus Westermann puts it, “God orders Abraham (now representing Israel) to live his life before God in such a way that every single step is made with reference to God and every day experiences him close at hand” (Claus Westermann, Genesis 12-36: A Commentary, trans. J. J. Scullion (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1985, p.311). So now that Abram has received the terms of the covenant, God shares the promises which are to come should Abram remain faithful.
Now some of the promises made by God here are a repetition of the promises first made by God when God appeared to Abram in Genesis 12:
Gen. 12:1 The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
Gen. 12:2 “I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
Gen. 12:3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.
But God adds new elements to the Abrahamic covenant. Again, Kidner is helpful here: “Materially, the promise of land is unchanged, but nations and kings come into view” (Tyndale Commentary Series: Genesis).
As a way of signifying the promise God is making with Abram to be “a father of many nations,” (vs.4) God renames Abram “Abraham.”
Professor Bruce Waltke explains the etymological significance of the name change:
His [Abram] former name spoke of his noble God, of his noble ancestry, or of his own eminence; his new name speaks of his many offspring. This is the name God will make great (12:2). Abram, composed of ‘āb (“father”) and rām (“to be high”), means “Exalted Father, a reference either to God, Terah, or himself. His new name Abraham, by a word play of ‘āb (“father”) plus hām (hāmôn, “crowd”), sounds like “father of a multitude.” Although this etymology is disputed, this is how the text explains his name: “[because I will make you] the father of many nations [‘āb hāmôn]” (17:4-5)
Sarai, it should be mentioned, also receives a new name: “It appears that Sarai and Sarah are only older and newer forms of the same word ‘princess’; but the re-naming was a landmark and brought her specifically into the promise in her own right (verses 16, 19).” (Kidner, Tyndale Commentary)
Word Study: ‘olām
In verse 7, God tells Abram “I will establish my covenant as an everlasting (‘olām) covenant between me and you and your descendents for the generations to come” (vs.6). The same word is used in the Noahic covenant, God’s promise to never again destroy the earth. What is somewhat challenging for us is to fully understand what ‘olām means, especially in light of subsequent events in Israel’s history.
What does it mean for Abraham’s covenant to be ‘olām when the Northern Kingdom is destroyed by Assyria in 722 B.C. and Judah is sent into exile in 586 B.C.? A part of the answer lies in the fact that ‘olām has different shades of meaning based on the context in which it is written. When God says that His kingship is ‘olām, that is something that can’t be disrupted, and in which everlasting or eternal are a good translation. But in other contexts, ‘olām is better understood as an open-ended perpetuity than an absolute eternity. Professor John Walton is quite helpful here: “What, then, should be understood when the text speaks of a covenant that is ‘olām? The implication of the terminology is that these agreements are not temporary, not stopgap, nor are they on a trial basis. They are permanent in the sense that no other alternative arrangement to serve that purpose is envisioned.”
While we might assume that the exile would lead the people of God to abandon their hope in the Abrahamic covenant, the opposite was actually the case. As biblical scholar Eugene F. Roop notes, “this gift of an unending covenant” (God, seed, land) will become “a critical affirmation for Israel in the time of the exile in Babylon, enabling them to hope for the future.
Eugene F. Roop, Believers Church Bible Commentary: Genesis, 1987, p.122.
Ἰησοῦς Lens: How do we point to Jesus?
Abraham is an archetype of kingship in the Bible. He is called to be righteous and to keep his people righteous. But we can see fairly quickly that the terms of the covenant will not be kept by Abraham’s descendants “Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come.” (vs.9) Therefore a new covenant must be made, but this new covenant is very much unlike the Noahic, the Mosaic, or even the Abrahamic covenants.
This covenant will be based on what God, through his Son Jesus, will do for us. This new covenant of grace is in some ways a radical departure from the covenants of the Old Testament. Instead of telling us what we must do to keep the terms of the covenant, the Father sends His own Son to take care of the terms.
But this covenant, as some have said, costs nothing and everything at the same time. We can never earn it, we can never buy it, but when we grasp what it means about the very nature of God, our lives ought to be one never-ending thank you to the God of the universe. Our hearts have been restored through Jesus, and our lives are meant to be a response to that restoration project.
Modern Lens: How does this touch our heart, life, emotions, thoughts and relationships today?
God’s covenants are meant to demonstrate God’s love and advocacy for us. Unlike the gods of Israel’s neighbors, The LORD is not arbitrary, nor does God require the kind of sacrifices that Israel’s neighbors were used to (in fact, Biblical scholars believe that Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac is in fact, God’s way of showing us that that is not what God requires). God wants our hearts, certainly, to be aligned with His will, but only because God knows that is what is best for us. God’s covenants throughout scripture are His way of saying, “I am for you,” full stop. Sending his Son to the cross is the ultimate example of this “God for us” reality.
What are we to make of this covenant in light of the larger narrative of Abraham’s life? Preachers may want to demonstrate the fact that Abraham is about as human a character as they come. He is willing to follow God’s directions, even leaving his homeland with the belief that God will come through with his covenant promise to bring him to an even greater place, where Abram will become the “father of nations.”
But just as Abram had the faith to leave his homeland, at times he attempted to take difficult circumstances into his own hands. In the very same chapter (12) that Abram is given the call to leave his homeland, he lies to the Egyptians about the identity of his wife, fearing that they will kill him and take Sarai for themselves. This episode is a clear example of Abram’s lack of faith that God would intervene on his behalf. Having a child with his wife’s servant Hagar is another example of Abram’s lack of faith. And yet God does not forsake Him.
Rather, I think it is safe to say that Abram is much like us. He believes, he has faith in the promises of God. But at times he wavers. He takes matters into his own hands, assuming that attempting to control life will result in a better outcome than trusting God will protect him. Don’t we do the same thing? We say we believe in God’s promises, but at times we grow restless and we try to control our circumstances, rather than opening ourselves up to what God might be doing through those circumstances.
But ultimately God knows what is best for us. When we are willing to turn our hearts over to God, good things happen, just as good things happened to Abram when he trusted in God’s rescuing hand. One of the more challenging events in Abraham’s life is the decision to have a child by Hagar. We see the damage that is done relationally to Abraham’s entire extended family, most notably with his wife Sarai.
Ultimately, this broken relationship leads to Ishamel’s departure from the family, who will ultimately end up becoming a nation himself, often fighting against his younger brother Isaac’s descendants. Abraham dropped the ball a number of times throughout Genesis. But at the end of the day, he kept believing, kept heading in the direction that God’s covenant required of him. Maybe there is a model in there for us, who also are heading in a specific direction as God’s adopted children. May we continue to run the race marked out for us, to God’s glory.
Stuart Strachan Jr.
Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. His primary passion is equipping the saints for the ministry of the church (Ephesians 4). He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.
In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.
God’s love entails a covenant commitment on the part of with us, and that covenant commitment means a promise to be with us and for us, and God’s covenant is shaped toward our redemption.
Scot McKnight, Biblegateway.com
God’s promises are meant to move and motivate us. They are meant to instill hope. They are meant to give us courage. They are meant to defeat feelings of loneliness, inability, and fear.They are meant to give us peace when things around us are chaotic and confusing. God’s promises are meant to blow your mind and settle your heart. They are his gifts of grace to you.
In your heart of hearts, you know you could never have earned the riches that he pours down on you. His promises are meant to leave you in awe of him and in wonder at the glory of his grace. His promises are designed to be the way that you interpret and make sense of your life.
I am amazed at the numbers of believers I meet who are in some state of spiritual paralysis because they no longer believe the promises of God. Because they don’t believe the promises of God, they don’t have much reason to continue doing the radical things that God calls every one of his children to do. When doubt replaces awe, you will soon give up on all the gospel disciplines of the Christian life.
Your problem isn’t that life is hard. Your problem is that you’ve lost your awe of the God who made the promises that once motivated the way you dealt with life. Do you stand with hope and courage on the awesome promises of God? Or do you walk through the quicksand of questioning their reliability?
Taken from Awe: Why it Matters to Everything We Think, Say, and Do by Paul David Tripp, © 2015, pp.101-102. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.