In a pattern consistent with his forebears, Scripture does not record G-d's covenant with Yaakov first. Instead we are first told about another covenant:
Yaakov's Covenant with Lavan
Genesis 31 relates the story of the next covenant described in Scripture:
At Rivka's prompting, Yitzchak has sent his son Yaakov away to her brother, Lavan [Laben], to get a wife for himself. Yaakov has traveled to Lavan and served him for 20 years and gained his treasured wife, Rachel after being tricked into marrying Leah. After Yaakov flees from Lavan with his family, servants, and animals, Lavan overtakes Yaakov's group and confronts them.
Yaakov defends his actions to Lavan and Lavan then proposes a covenant between them:
So now come, let us make a covenant, you and I, and let it be a witness between you and me."
Yaakov sets up a pillar and has his kinsmen gather stones into a heap as a witness of the covenant between them. Lavan and Yaakov then part ways. The details of the covenant are not given in Scripture but the general gist of what is revealed is that the covenant is one of peace between Yaakov and his family and Lavan and his family.
G-d's Covenant with Yaakov
In Genesis 17 G-d tells Avraham that He will establish His covenant with Yitzchak as "an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him" (Genesis 17:21). The first of these descendants would have been Yaakov. The details of G-d's covenant with Yaakov are the same as those of G-d's covenant with Avraham.
- Introduction- Genesis 17:1-3
- The covenant is G-d's (Genesis 17:4)
- The covenant is made with Yaakov (Genesis 17:19)
- The covenant is made with Yaakov's descendants (Genesis 17:19)
- Covenant Responsibilities-
- Required actions-
- Every male of his household shall be circumcised (Genesis 17:10-11)
- Every male child of his 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 his 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 him exceedingly fruitful
- He will become nations (Genesis 17:6)
- Kings will come forth from him (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 him and his descendants after him (Genesis 17:8).
- G-d will be the G-d of his descendants (Genesis 17:7, 17:8)
["...to be G-d to you...", "...and I will be their G-d."]
- G-d will make him 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
Twice G-d refers to the covenant with Yitzchak as "My covenant" (Genesis 17:19, 21). As was noted previously in 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 Yaakov/Israel is extended as a measure of G-d's grace and sovereign election. Yaakov did nothing to merit this covenant with G-d. Continuing on in the theme of the series and paraphrasing the l'olam y'hay adam prayer of the ancient believers:
It is not in the merit of Yaakov's righteousness but in the merit of G-d's abundant mercy that Yaakov was shown grace and G-d established His covenant with him.
It is interesting to note that, however, that, consistent with his past behavior, Yaakov attempts to wrestle the blessing from G-d (Genesis 32:26) rather than allow G-d to bestow it in His own timing and fashion.
We might be tempted to think that Israel did somehow merit the covenant since he was a son of Yitzchak. For example: it was somehow in the merit of his biological lineage that Yaakov was given the covenant of his fathers. We should be quick to point out that there were two sons of Yitzchak. In what merit was Yaakov chosen over Esav?
In Genesis 25:23 G-d indicated whom He had chosen before the sons were even born when He declared "the older shall serve the younger."
An Everlasting Covenant
In 1 Chronicles 16:17 and Psalm 105:10 G-d describes His covenant with Yaakov/ Israel as an "everlasting covenant" [brit olam]. As was pointed out previously in this series, the Hebrew word olam is also used in various passages to describe G-d's eternal and everlasting nature.
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 being extended to Avraham's son, Yitzchak, and now to Yitzchak's heir, Yaakov.
Yaakov's Name Is Changed
Yaakov wrestles with G-d (Genesis 32:24-25) and is renamed Israel (literally- he has power [as a prince] with G-d). It appears that it is in this moment that the baton of the covenant originally made with Avraham is passed to his grandson, Yaakov, who is renamed Israel.
Traditional marriage was noted as a modern day example of covenant in the first part 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, Yaakov was given a new name once he entered into covenant with G-d.
There is much debate among commentators about exactly what Israel means. The name "Israel" first appears in the Bible as the name given by G-d to the patriarch Jacob (Genesis 32:28), which can be translated as "God contended". Commentators differ on the original literal meaning. Some say the name comes from the verb arar ("to rule, be strong, have authority over"), thereby making the name mean "God rules" or "God judges". Other possible meanings include "the prince of God" (from the King James Version) or "El fights/ struggles".
Without regard to the exact meaning of his new name, our primary observation is that Yaakov's name was changed as he entered into covenant relationship with the G-d of his fathers.
As we examine the generations involved in this covenant we see:
- G-d chooses Avraham so that he will instruct his children in the way of the Lord (Genesis 18:17-19)
- G-d gives Avraham a single son, Yitzchak, through whom the covenant will be passed (Genesis 17:19, 21)
- G-d gives Yitzchak two sons but, before they are even born, G-d determines with which one He will establish His covenant. The elder son despises his birthright (Genesis 25:34) and so the covenant and the blessings of the firstborn are given to only a single son: Yaakov/ Israel.
Not everyone who is of physical lineage from Avraham is a partaker of the covenant. Avraham had Yishma'el (through Hagar) who was not party to the covenant. Avraham also had 6 other children through his second wife, Keturah, (Genesis 25:1-2) who were also not party to G-d's covenant. Yitzchak had two sons and only one was a participant in the covenant with G-d. Paul points out this very fact in Romans 9:
But it is not as though the word of G-d has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham's descendants, but: "THROUGH ISAAC YOUR DESCENDANTS WILL BE NAMED." That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of G-d, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants. For this is the word of promise: "AT THIS TIME I WILL COME, AND SARAH SHALL HAVE A SON." And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that G-d's purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, "THE OLDER WILL SERVE THE YOUNGER." Just as it is written, "JACOB I LOVED, BUT ESAU I HATED." What shall we say then? There is no injustice with G-d, is there? May it never be! For He says to Moses, "I WILL HAVE MERCY ON WHOM I HAVE MERCY, AND I WILL HAVE COMPASSION ON WHOM I HAVE COMPASSION." So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on G-d who has mercy.
The history of the patriarchs and their children shows that, truly, G-d will choose with whom He will covenant. This fits perfectly with the Hebrew meaning of covenant: choosing and illuminating a selection.
G-d Blesses Yaakov
As we found elsewhere, G-d established his covenant with Yitzchak by way of honoring the oath made to Avraham. The events in Scripture that record when the covenant was established with Yitzchak do not include the Hebrew word brit although the covenant is described using that specific word elsewhere in the Tanakh.
Readers of Scripture face the same dilemma with Yaakov. There is no explicit, detailed record of G-d establishing a covenant with him yet there are specific references to G-d's covenant [brit] with him. For example:
If they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their forefathers, in their unfaithfulness which they committed against Me, and also in their acting with hostility against Me- I also was acting with hostility against them, to bring them into the land of their enemies or if their uncircumcised heart becomes humbled so that they then make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and My covenant with Abraham as well, and I will remember the land. For the land will be abandoned by them, and will make up for its sabbaths while it is made desolate without them. They, meanwhile, will be making amends for their iniquity, because they rejected My ordinances and their soul abhorred My statutes.
Similar declarations are made in Exodus 2:24, Exodus 2:24, 2 Kings 13:23, 1 Chronicles 16:17, and Psalm 105:10-11.
In Genesis 32:9-12 we see Yaakov beseeching G-d for deliverance from Esav's hand. Yaakov reminds G-d of the promises He had made (in Genesis 28:13-15). He reminds G-d of the promise using the language G-d had used in His promise to Avraham: "I will prosper you and make your descendants as the sand of the sea." The verse in chapter 32 uses the "sand of the sea" phrasing although the earlier verse (in chapter 28) uses slightly different wording ("dust of the earth"). The phrasing found in this passage is consistent with G-d's promise to Avraham:
And behold, the LORD stood above it and said, "I am the LORD, the G-d of your father Abraham and the G-d of Isaac; the land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your descendants. Your descendants will also be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
In this "promise" passage we see both aspects of the covenant with Avraham extended to Yaakov: the land and descendants to inherit it. It is on the basis of this promise that Yaakov appeals to G-d for deliverance.
The next few references to covenant (brit) found in Scripture point back to the G-d's covenant with the patriarchs (Exodus 2:24, 6:4-5). Following those, the next instance of brit records that G-d spoke of His covenant at Sinai.