Avram Covenants with Others
The very first mention of brit [covenant] in relation to Avram is found in the story of Lot's abduction during the sacking of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 14.
Then a fugitive came and told Abram the Hebrew. Now he was living by the oaks of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and brother of Aner, and these were allies with Abram.
The Hebrew phrase translated as "allies" [ba'ali brit] literally means "possessors of covenant" with Avram. We do not know the details of Avram's covenant with these men other than it allowed him to live in peace with them near the oaks of Mamre. This evidence of existing covenant relationship will play an interesting role as we read further about G-d's covenant with Avram.
G-d's Covenant with Avram
We find the details of G-d's covenant with Avram given in Genesis chapter 17:
Now 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. "I will establish My covenant between Me and you, And I will multiply you exceedingly." Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying, "As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, And you will be the father of a multitude of nations. "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. "I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings will come forth from you. "I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. "I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God." God said further to Abraham, "Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations.
"This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. "And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. "And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, a servant who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants. "A servant who is born in your house or who is bought with your money shall surely be circumcised; thus shall My covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. "But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant."
Then God said to Abraham, "As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. "I will bless her, and indeed I will give you a son by her. Then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her." Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, "Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?" And Abraham said to God, "Oh that Ishmael might live before You!" But God said, "No, but Sarah your wife will bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. "As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I will bless him, and will make him fruitful and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall become the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. "But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this season next year." When He finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham.
- Introduction- Genesis 17:1-3
- The covenant is G-d's (Genesis 17:4)
- The covenant is made with Avram (Genesis 17:4)
- Avram's name is changed to Avraham (Genesis 17:5).
It is by this name that he enters into G-d's covenant.
- Sarai's name is changed to Sarah (Genesis 17:15).
- The covenant is made with Avraham's descendants (Genesis 17:4)
but only his descendants through Yitzchak (Genesis 17:19)
- Covenant Responsibilities-
- Required actions-
- Every male of Avraham's household shall be circumcised (Genesis 17:10-11)
- Every male child of Avraham's household in the future shall be circumcised when he is 8 days old (Genesis 17:12)
- Servants or slaves who are purchased who are not of Avraham's lineage shall be circumcised (Genesis 17:13)
- A male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people (Genesis 17:14)
- Prohibited actions-
- G-d will make Avraham exceedingly fruitful
- Avraham will become nations (Genesis 17:6)
- Kings will come forth from Avraham (Genesis 17:6)
- The Land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river Euphrates; the land of the Kenite and the Kenizzite and the Kadmonite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Rephaim and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Girgashite and the Jebusite, is given to Avraham and his descendants after him (Genesis 17:8).
- G-d will be the G-d of Avraham's descendants (Genesis 17:7, 17:8)
["...to be G-d to you...", "...and I will be their G-d."] through Yitzchak (Genesis 17:19, 21) even though G-d promises to make a great nation of Yishma'el as well (Genesis 17:20).
- G-d will make Avraham exceedingly fruitful
- An uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people (Genesis 17:14)
- Required actions-
- Conditions for perpetuation
- The covenant is specified to be for Avraham and his descendants throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant [l'brit olam] (Genesis 17:7)
- Enumeration of witnesses - none given
- Covenant sign- circumcision of males' foreskin on the eighth day (Genesis 17:10-13)
- Covenant seal- none given
The Covenant Belongs to G-d
In the twenty-two verses that detail G-d's covenant with Avram we find the phrase "My covenant" nine times. G-d makes it abundantly obvious that the covenant is His. As was noted in the previous article of this series the ownership of and authority in His covenants is G-d's alone. Only He has authority to initiate a covenant and can bring something of value to the covenant. We have nothing to offer Him except that which already His.
A Covenant of Grace
As with all of G-d's covenants, this covenant with Avram is extended as a measure of G-d's grace. Avram did nothing to merit this covenant with G-d. We find that G-d approached Avram before he had faith. Scripture tells us that Avram was reckoned (chashav- considered, credited as) with "righteousness" as a consequence of his faith (Genesis 15:6). To once again paraphrase the l'olam y'hay adam prayer of the ancient believers:
It is not in the merit of Avram's righteousness but in the merit of G-d's abundant mercy that Avram was shown grace and G-d established His covenant with him.
An Everlasting Covenant
Three times in this passage (Genesis 17:7, 13, 19) G-d describes the covenant as an "everlasting covenant" [brit olam]. As noted previously, the Hebrew word olam is also used in various passages to describe G-d's eternal and everlasting nature.
As an expression of the character and nature of G-d (graceful, merciful, Savior, Sovereign, etc) it stands to reason that the covenant itself is eternal and is in this way also an expression of the Eternal G-d. The word olam is used one other time in this passage to inform Avram that the land of Kena'an will be an "everlasting possesion" for Avram and his descendants. This leads us to the next point:
A Covenant of the Land
This is not a salvation covenant. It is the covenant through which G-d promises the Land of the kingdom for Avraham and his children through his son Yitzchak.
Avram's Name Was Changed
Avram's name was changed to Avraham by G-d as he entered into the covenant. Traditional marriage was noted as a modern day example of covenant in the first article of the series. We see that example pictured here as well. Like a bride is given a new (last) name by her husband when she marries so, too, Avram was given a new name once he entered into covenant with G-d.
As was noted above Avram did nothing to merit the covenant with G-d. We should not, however, think that there was no reason or purpose behind G-d's selection of Avram. Scripture reveals that G-d's purpose in selecting Avram for this covenant in Genesis 18:17-19:
The LORD said, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed? For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him."
The "so that" passages in Scripture often reveal the "why" of a matter and here we find why G-d chose Avram: so that he might command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD. The additional "so that" in the passage reveals that it is as a consequence of Avram's obedience that G-d was able to bring upon Avraham all He had spoken to him.
The Sign of the Covenant
G-d made no stipulation for entry into Avram's covenant, however, once a male is in the covenant there is a covenant responsibility to become circumcised and to circumcise subsequent male children when they are 8 days old. It is interesting that G-d would choose a sign that is not readily visible or apparent to others. It is as if the sign is an intimate reminder that only the covenant participant, his family (parents, wife, sons), and the other men of his community would be aware of.
It is also interesting to note that all men in Avraham's household were required to be circumcised: "every male among you shall be circumcised" (Genesis 17:10). This included children of Avraham, slaves, servants... every male (Genesis 17:10-13). Every male in Avraham's household was to be included in the covenant and in the circumcision that signified it.
The Hebrew word brit is used twelve times in the passage above. It has been said that this indicates G-d's covenant with Avram would be extended through Yitzchak to Israel and then to each of the twelve tribes of Israel.
G-d says He will make a great nation of Yishma'el (Genesis 17:20) and we see the fruit of His promise in today's Arab world. It is interesting to note, however, that G-d never never says He will make a covenant with Yishma'el.
In Galatians 3:29 Paul points out that if we belong to Messiah then we "are Avraham's descendants, heirs according to promise". This begs the question: what is the promise?
In order to find it we have to back up a bit to the beginning of Genesis chapter 15. Here we find G-d speaking with Avram:
After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying, "Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great." Abram said, "O Lord GOD, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" And Abram said, "Since You have given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir." Then behold, the word of the LORD came to him, saying, "This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir." And He took him outside and said, "Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them." And He said to him, "So shall your descendants be." Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.
This passage provides some interesting observations:
- G-d offers Avram a reward which will be very great Genesis 15:1
- Avram's initial concern is about who will inherit his reward since he has no children - Genesis 15:2
- Avram is told that "one who will come forth from [his] own body" will be his heir - Genesis 15:4
- Avram believes G-d and G-d "reckoned it to him as righteousness" - Genesis 15:6
Let's start with Avram's concern regarding heirs:
Avram's initial concern is about who will inherit his promised land since he has no children. In Genesis 15:2, we see Avram asking of G-d "what will You give me, since I am childless...". In his words we can almost hear echos of his descendant Sh'lomoh who wrote "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity." (Ecclesiastes 1:2). It is almost as if Avram were saying "what's the point of you giving me this land if I will have no one to inherit it?". Through his words Avram is revealing what he truly desires: an heir. G-d hears and addresses Avram's concern by giving him a prophecy about his descendants: they will be like the stars of heaven.
What G-d promises to Avram is compensation
The Hebrew word used in Genesis 15:1 that is translated as "reward" is שׂכר (sakar - Strong's #7939. This word is found only 28 times in 25 verses of the Tanakh. It is translated in Genesis 15:1 as "reward" but it is translated in other places as "wages", "compensation", or "hire".1 What G-d promises to Avram is compensation: something given in exchange for something else (for example labor or service).
We can also understand the meaning of this passage by the words that were not used in place of sakar. For example, there is a Hebrew word dabar [Strong's #1697] which is sometimes translated as "promise", however, it literally means "word"2 as in "I gave him my word that I would be there for our appointment". There is another Hebrew word matan [Strong's #4976] that means "gift": something given freely without cost or condition3. While G-d's promise is unmerited the reward is clearly not a gift by the choice of word G-d used in this passage.
Compensation implies work or service of some kind. What was the work or service that Avram performed? We found the answer earlier when we identified why G-d selected Avram in the first place: because he would teach his children G-d's ways and as a result "in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed." G-d tells Avram that his compensation for such work will be very great. Indeed it should be. We know what the service is that Avram performed but what is the compensation G-d offered in return?
There are two passages from the Greek Scriptures that reveal the answer. The first is found in Stephen's response to false charges that are brought against him:
And he said, "Hear me, brethren and fathers! The G-d of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, 'LEAVE YOUR COUNTRY AND YOUR RELATIVES, AND COME INTO THE LAND THAT I WILL SHOW YOU.' Then he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. From there, after his father died, G-d had him move to this country in which you are now living. But He gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot of ground, and yet, even when he had no child, He promised that HE WOULD GIVE IT TO HIM AS A POSSESSION, AND TO HIS DESCENDANTS AFTER HIM.
The compensation promised to Avram was the inheritance of the Land and an heir from his own flesh to inherit the Land. Romans 9 (which quotes Genesis 18:10) makes this latter part of the promise plain:
For this is the word of promise: "AT THIS TIME I WILL COME, AND SARAH SHALL HAVE A SON."
So the promise is in two parts:
- Avram would be given the Land.
- Avram would have descendants to inherit the Land after him.
Genesis 15:6 indicates that Avram believed G-d and his faith was credited to him as righteousness.
What is it that Avram believed?
His belief was apparently not that he would possess the Land because in Genesis 15:8 he asks G-d "how may I know that I will possess it?" Avram wanted some assurance on that point. It appears that Avram believed G-d regarding His promise of an heir but lacked the same level of faith regarding his possession of the Land.
Where Is the Promise?
So far we have seen the reward/compensation offered and the promise of heirs to inherit it but where do we find the actual promise? In Genesis 15:1...
After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying, "Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great."
Here is the Hebrew word dabar that was mentioned earlier. G-d gave His word to Avram in a vision... hence "the promise".
A modern example might be this: "Dad gave his word that he would take us out for ice cream and a few rounds of miniature golf if we both made straight A's in school this grading period." The reward here is "ice cream and golf" and is conditional upon "making straight A's in school" and that reward is promised: the reward has some additional assurances behind it. That assurance is the fact that it came from the dad who gave his word.
G-d made another declaration (a "promise" if you will) to Avram in Genesis 12:3. G-d stated "I will bless those that bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed." This is not part of the Genesis 17 covenant or of the Genesis 15 promise, however, as neither passage includes such language. While these are indeed G-d's statements to Avram they are not given within the scope of the covenant. As an example: one could tell his fiance that he will buy her a new car. While the promise is a consequence of their relationship it is not part of the marriage covenant.
Relating the Promise and the Covenant
Initially we examined G-d's covenant with Avram which is found in Genesis 17. We then examined G-d's promise to Avram which is found in Genesis 15. Aside from the obvious connection between the two that they both involve the G-d of Creation and Avram, son of Terah, how are the two related? Are the two related?
Let's examine the sequence of events in Genesis 15:
- G-d tells Avram his reward/compensation will be very great (Genesis 15:1).
- Avram responds with a comment about the lack of an heir (Genesis 15:2).
- G-d reassures Avram with the declaration that "one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir" (Genesis 15:3).
- Avram believes G-d regarding the promise of the heir (Genesis 15:6).
- G-d tells Avram that his reward/compensation will be the Land (Genesis 15:7).
- Avram asks G-d for some assurance that he might know that he would possess the Land (Genesis 15:8).
- G-d then instructs Avram to bring him three three-year-old animals and two birds (Genesis 15:9).
Our very first observation about Avram having covenant relationship with Mamre, Eshcol, and Aner comes into play at this point. In Genesis 15:9 G-d instructs Avram to bring Him "a three year old heifer, and a three year old female goat, and a three year old ram, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon." G-d does not tell Avram what to do with the animals but it seems clear that Avram already knew what to do with them: perform a covenant declaration ceremony. How did Avram know what to do? The answer is that he was already in covenant relationship with others and had performed this same ceremony this before. It is at this point that G-d proposes a covenant with Avram. The remainder of chapter 15 provides some details about the future covenant.
Verse 18 in the NASB states "On that day the LORD made a covenant with Avram..." which might lead us to believe that the covenant was initiated at that point. It should be noted, however, that the Hebrew word in the verse is not yas [made] but is karat [cut]. This is the same word used when G-d says "you shall cut him off from among his people" (e.g. Leviticus 17:10). It is used to indicate that the covenant had been offered through the ceremony of cutting an animal.
In the book, "The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17", Victor Hamilton makes the following observation:
The biblical world offers widespread evidence that animals were slaughtered in treaty contraction ceremonies. Some of these texts - but not all of them - suggest that the two parties to the treaty walked between the rows of freshly killed animal flesh, and in so doing placed a curse upon themselves if either party should prove disloyal to the terms of the treaty: May they, too, be torn apart if they are responsible in any way for violating the arrangement.4
In order to express their agreement to participate in a covenant each party would walk through the pool of blood left at the center of the two halves of each animal. There is no mention of Avram walking through the blood but we are told in Genesis 15:17 that a smoking oven and a flaming torch (visions of G-d?) passed between the pieces. Scripture is completely silent about Avram walking through the blood which is likely indicative that he did not do so. This may be done to show that the work and the covenant were entirely G-d's. Not even entering into the covenant was Avram's responsibility.
Please note that this ceremony does not commence the covenant: that comes later. This ceremony is akin to a betrothal ceremony where two parties agree to come together at some later time for the actual wedding. This ceremony occurs some 13+ years before the initiation of the covenant as recorded in Genesis 17.
Terror and Great Darkness
Genesis 15:12 relates that, at sundown, a deep sleep fell upon Avram as did terror and great darkness. Why? This was an "unconditional covenant" where G-d made all the promises and made no demands, right? Instead of suffering under great darkness Avram should have been dancing with great joy... but he was not. Again we must ask... why?
OPINION DISCLAIMER: It is the opinion of the author that Avram recognized there was more to come regarding covenant details and was in great fear that he was being asked to agree to a covenant with Almighty G-d without fully knowing those details. This is, however, merely one opinion. Let us return to the text...
At first glance Genesis 15 might appear to be G-d's covenant with Avram that is later "reaffirmed" in chapter 17. If we examine Genesis 17 closely we will find this to be an error. In verse 7 G-d states "I will establish [Hebrew: qoom] My covenant between Me and you" indicating the covenant has not yet been established. Both the original Hebrew of this passage and the Greek of the Septuagint indicate this statement is in the future tense. The covenant has been previously proposed in generic terms (chapter 15) but it is in chapter 17 that the details of the covenant are revealed as G-d initiates and establishes the previously proposed covenant with Avram.
This same "will establish" future tense phrasing is used in Genesis 17:19 and Genesis 17:21 where G-d indicates that He will establish His covenant with Yitzchak who is not yet born. Both the former example from verse 7 and the latter examples from verses 19 and 21 clearly indicate a future establishment of a covenant: with Yitzchak in the farther future and Avram in the near future.
A Picture of Messiah?
The imagery provided by the manner in which the Hebrew is phrased in the verses where the covenant is first cut and then later made with Avram is curious.
- In Genesis 15:18 the Hebrew wording states that G-d make [Hebrew: karat] a covenant with Avram (referring to the blood ritual ceremony).
- In Genesis 17:2 the Hebrew wording records G-d's words as "I will establish [Hebrew: natan] My covenant between Me and you...".
- In Genesis 17:7 the Hebrew wording records G-d's words as "I will establish [Hebrew: qoom] My covenant between Me and you...".
The Brown-Driver-Brigg's (BDB) Hebrew Lexicon defines the Hebrew word karat as "to cut" or "to cut a covenant"5. Karat is most often translated in the NASB as some form of "cut" (cut, cut off, cut down, etc).
The BDB Hebrew Lexicon defines natan as "to give" or "to bestow".6 Natan is most often translated in the NASB as some form of "give" (give, given, gives, gave, etc).
The BDB Hebrew Lexicon defines qoom as "to arise" or "to raise up".7 Qoom is most often translated in the NASB as some form of "rise" (arise, arose, raise, risen).
Placing these words in the order of the passages above we see:
- G-d cuts the covenant with Avram,
- G-d gives the covenant to Avram, and
- G-d lifts up the covenant with Avram and his descendants after him.
Messiah can be seen here:
- Messiah was cut when He was scourged and beaten for our transgressions,
- Messiah was given to die in our place, and
- Messiah was lifted up to be seated at the right hand of G-d.
The next mention of covenant found in Scripture also involves Avraham and is found in Genesis 21 but involves Avraham and Avimelech. Here we see the phrasing that they "made [cut] a covenant" (Genesis 21:32).
The next mention of a significant covenant in Scripture involves Avraham's son Yitzchak.
Footnotes1. New American Standard(r) Updated Edition Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible with Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Dictionaries Copyright (c) 1981, 1998 by The Lockman Foundation at http://www.lockman.org [back]
2. ibid. [back]
3. ibid. [back]
4. The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17, p430. 1994. Victor Hamilton. [back]
5. Brown-Driver-Briggs' (BDB) Hebrew Definitions. e-Sword. [back]
6. ibid. [back]
7. ibid. [back]