The Meaning of the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 12)

by Dr Stephen Sizer

We must begin our consideration of the Abrahamic Covenant not in Genesis 12 but Genesis 2. The covenant began with Gods creation of a paradise, represented in the garden. This was the place where people could receive all of God's blessings and commune in fellowship with Him. This is where the image of land begins in the Bible. This land of paradise was lost in the Fall but a foretaste of heaven is reflected in the imagery of the promise made to Abraham.

      12:1The Lord had said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. Genesis 12:1

In Genesis 15:18 God is more specific and indicates the extent of that land, "On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates" (This prophecy has been fulfilled in so far as Ishmael's descendants do indeed extend throughout the Middle East. Neither Ishmael nor Isaac had been born when this promise was given). In Genesis 17 the promise is repeated and amplified.

      17:1When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, "I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. 2I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers." 3Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, 4"As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. 5No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. 6I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 7I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 8The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God." Genesis 17:1-8

The promise that God is going to give access to the land again is restated to Moses and the land is described as flowing with milk and honey in Exodus 3:8 and a number of other passages in the Pentateuch.

      8So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey--the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Exodus 3:8

These images are paradigms. The land of the Bible is not and never ever did flow with milk and honey. It is a beautiful land but the biblical imagery points to a restored paradise in the future. From the very beginning this Old Covenant shadow would have to wait for the New Covenant for the actual fulfilment of the promise. The land in the Old Covenant was not an end in itself.

The tabernacle, the place of worship in the Old Covenant was never intended to have a settled location in God's plan of redemption. It pointed to Christ who would tabernacle among His people in the incarnation and since Pentecost through the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. The sacrificial system could never atone for sins but only foreshadow the ultimate sacrifice of the sinless, perfect Son of God. So the patriarch Abraham receives the promise of the land but he himself never possessed it. This is not to spiritualise the promise away. It will ultimately be experienced in paradise. This was the promise of the covenant, not the permanent and everlasting possession of the Middle East. In Hebrews 11 we learn that by this non-possession the patriarch learned to look forward to the city with foundations whose architect is God. This is the only legitimate interpretation of the Abrahamic Covenant.

      10For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11By faith Abraham, even though he was past age--and Sarah herself was barren--was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore. 13All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. 14People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16Instead, they were longing for a better country--a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. Hebrews 11:10-16

It is important to stress once again, in Hebrews, heavenly does not mean allegorical or spiritual or non-literal. It is just the reverse, as C.S. Lewis tries to describe in Great Divorce, the heavenly is the consummate true state of things, it is the consummate true reality. In the same way, the heavenly Jerusalem, the heavenly city for which the Patriarchs were looking is not a nebulous ethereal idea. It is the ultimate reality which we can only foretaste in our present state.

It is significant to note at this early stage in Genesis how the role of Jerusalem is central. Abraham paid tithes to Melchizadeck, the priest king of Jerusalem (Genesis 14:20). At this significant place Abraham offered his son Isaac as an offering to God (Genesis 22). But in both these shadowy events pointed to the greater realities of the New Covenant, ultimately realised in the heavenly priesthood of Christ after the order of Mechizadeck (Hebrews 7) and the once for all sacrifice of the Son of God at Calvary.

One more thing about the Land. The Land never belongs to Israel in the Torah. The Land belongs to God. Land cannot be permanently bought or sold. It cannot be permanently given away, let alone stolen or confiscated. The Land is never at the disposal of Israel for its national purposes. Instead it is Israel who are at the disposal of God's purposes. The Jews remain tenants in God's Land.

      23" 'The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants. Leviticus 25:23

There are four aspects to the Abrahamic covenant. Any interpretation of the land aspect of the Abrahamic covenant cannot be divorced from the other strands of the covenant. As Christians we have no difficulty in seeing the fulfilment of the promise in the person and work of Jesus Christ. In Him God has indeed first, blessed people of all nations, second, by drawing them into a covenant relationship with God in which, third, there is now neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, members of one holy nation. If these three strands of the one covenant find their fulfilment in Christ in His Church, how can we put the promise concerning the land into a totally different category?

Don't be misled by the statement God made to Abraham that the land would be "an everlasting possession." Insisting on literal fulfilment is a double-edged sword. In 1 Chronicles 15:2, for example, David insists that the Levites would carry the ark of the Lord and minister before Him for ever. Is that being fulfilled literally on earth or figuratively in Christ? In 1 Chronicles 23:13 God promises that the Aaronic priesthood would continue "for ever". Is that being fulfilled literally now on earth or figuratively in Christ? In 2 Chronicles 33:7 God says that he has put his name in the temple in Jerusalem for ever. Is that being fulfilled literally now on earth or figuratively in Christ and the Church? In 1 Chronicles 23:25, God promises that He has come to dwell in Jerusalem for ever. Is that being fulfilled literally now on earth or figuratively in Christ and the Church? Likewise in 2 Samuel 7:12-16, God promises that a descendent of David will sit on his throne for ever. Is that being fulfilled literally on earth or figuratively in Christ? Let me address another form of wooden literalism Christian Zionists are particularly partial to.

You will find some who insist that because the Jews have never literally occupied the entire land promised to Abraham, from the Nile to the Euphrates, this promise must still await future fulfilment. Hence their support not only for the settlement of the West Bank but the rest of the Middle East. Such reasoning ignores the way the Old Testament writers themselves understood the promise made to Abraham. God reaffirmed that same promise to Joshua.

      Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them. (Joshua 1,6)

The question then arises, did Israel do so? While it is true that, notwithstanding the aspiration depicted on the modern Israeli national flag, the Jews have never exercised political sovereignty over all the land between the Nile and the Euphrates. Nevertheless the Book of Joshua makes clear that the covenant promise was indeed regarded as having been fulfilled in that generation.

      So Joshua took the entire land, just as the LORD had directed Moses, and he gave it as an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal divisions. Then the land had rest from war. (Joshua 11,23)

      So the LORD gave Israel all the land he had sworn to give their forefathers, and they took possession of it and settled there. The LORD gave them rest on every side, just as he had sworn to their forefathers. Not one of their enemies withstood them; the LORD handed all their enemies over to them. Not one of all the Lord's good promises to the house of Israel failed; every one was fulfilled. (Joshua 21,43-45)

It is significant that we are told Joshua took 'the entire land' because the Lord had given 'Israel all the land he had sworn to give their forefathers'. To the claim that certain promises have yet to be fulfilled, Joshua is emphatic, 'Not one of all the Lord's good promises to the house of Israel failed; every one was fulfilled.'

Likewise, Nehemiah, writing after the second exile, looked back to the first exile and could testify in praise to God for the fulfilment of the promises made to Abraham,

      You gave them kingdoms and nations, allotting to them even the remotest frontiers... You made their sons as numerous as the stars in the sky, and you brought them into the land that you told their fathers to enter and possess. (Nehemiah 9,22-23)

These passages record the first re-gathering of the Israelites to the Promised Land. Nehemiah even refers in the past tense to the fulfilment of the metaphorical promise to make Abraham's descendants 'as numerous as the stars in the sky' (cf. Genesis 22:17). Since the promise given to Abraham concerning the Land is to be understood as intimately bound up with the covenant relationship with and blessings for all peoples of the world, to insist on an interpretation that now gives people of Jewish origin an exclusive title deed to Palestine in perpetuity runs contrary both to the promise itself within its Old Covenant context as well as its New Covenant fulfilment. The four strands of the Abrahamic covenant comprise a package deal and are interwoven together not only in pre-figurement and in their fulfilment in and through Christ.