Understanding Abraham’s relationship and covenant partnership with God is essential in knowing the different ways in which God calls and blesses His people. As we will see, the election of the people of Israel reveals much about the Lord and sets the line of descendants through which our Savior eventually came.
In this paper I will attempt to explain the conditions of Abraham’s departure from his present place and his promise of a blessing, the terms God defines for their relationship, the inheritance of Israel’s chosen land, and God’s testing of Abraham.
Before God’s people could eventually make it to their Promised Land, they must logically leave their current home first. As God is both wise and logical, the first instructions we see from God to Abram were to do just that. In Gen. 12:1, God requires Abram to uproot his entire family, leaving his relatives and family behind. While this must have been a terrifying prospect, leaving everything you had known behind, God assured them that he indeed had a land to show them. The purpose of this call was specifically election.
In His infinite grace, God had chosen Abram and required him to cut his ties from his past life in order to be bound and reliant to the Lord and his resources. Only through these resources, and Abraham’s obedience, could an effective partnership be formed. We see many promises within God’s conversation with Abram. One of the most profound promises, and possible farthest reaching, is God declaring, “I will make you a great nation” (Gen 12:2).
What an incredible promise! A nomadic herder, living in the desert, would grow and thrive to become a great nation.
I can only imagine Abram’s response to such an astounding promise. With this proclamation, God also promises his resources and protection saying, “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse” (Gen 12:3). Interestingly, God closes his promise with, “And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3). Many interpret this to be a foretelling of Christ’s sacrifice and consequently the blessing of eternal life. Unfortunately, following God’s decree, it doesn’t take long for Abram to slip up.
Instead of leaving his relatives behind as God commanded, he brought along his father and Lot. He also stopped in Haran for an unspecified time on the way. As all actions have consequences, God punishes Abram by delaying the possession of the promised-land. The Lord states, “To your descendants I will give this land” (Gen 12:7). Thus, Israel would not possess their land for some time.
It is fascinating to see how God continues to work through Abram. As Abram matures, God further defines the terms of the relationship between them. The Lord knows that Abram seems to lack faith in bearing an heir and commands him to not fear. God also declares that he will be a shield to Abram and that his reward will, “be very great,” adding to his previous covenant he had established (15:1). Abram still lacks faith that God will uphold the end of the bargain; he is heirless and old. He even goes to suggest that a slave born under his house could be his heir. God however has different plans and reassures Abram that he would indeed have an heir “who shall come forth from your own body” (Gen 15:4).
In an example of God’s great patience for Abram as he matures, He leads him outside and says, “Look toward the heavens and count the stars if you are able… so shall your descendants be” (Gen 12:5). This closely parallels one of God’s other proclamations, “I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if anyone can number the dust of the earth, then your descendants can also be numbered” (Gen 13:6). Abram does not have a response that would be typical of one who is asked something from God. In fact, he really doesn’t have to do anything.
His passive response is a sign of faith in God and proof that nothing is required of him other than realizing God choose him by grace. Finally, Abram learns that faith is a conviction that God will uphold His promise and declares His righteousness. One could say that the Lord is discipling Abram to a more mature faith. As this faith increases, God entrusts him with more revelation of His coming plans for His people. The Lord appears to Abram within a deep sleep and says, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years” (Gen 15:13)
As we take a look at the Abrahamic covenant, it is essential we define exactly what the conditions of the agreement are. While it is debated on who the covenant actually applies to, it is much easier to define what the terms specified by God are. To put it simply, this covenant is a one-way, unconditional promise. In ancient times the formal terms of a partnership were expressed in a promising covenant.
The ceremony in which this was solidified is not only interesting, but also very different from the pen and paper contracts of today. When Abram asked God how he will know if he shall possess the land he is promised, the Lord asks him to bring “a heifer three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a pigeon” (Gen 15:9). When the animals are gathered, Abram “cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other” (Gen 15:10).
After the ceremony was set up, a “deep sleep” fell over Abram. Part of this ancient tradition consisted of the two people entering into a partnership walking between the severed carcasses, thus finalizing the deal. In Abram’s case, a “smoking fire pot and a flaming torch” took the place of Abram and God walking through the sacrificed animals. This was specifically symbolic of the fact that God was taking on the entire burden of the partnership, with nothing required of Abram. God even assured that Abram could have no participation in the ceremony by putting him into the deep sleep.
Also of note is the fact that the smoking pot and the torch parallel that of the cloud and pillar of fire that would guide the nation of Israel in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Since God assumed all of the responsibility, and he is infallible, nothing could ruin his promise. After the ceremony was completed, God spoke to Abram and said, “To your offspring I give this land…” (Gen 15:19). Nothing is spoken of conditions of the partnership, only that it would be done.
Finally we come down to the task of analyzing the testing of Abraham by God. There are many stories of incredible acts of faith within the Bible, but this surely is one of the most moving. Now that Abraham finally has his heir he has so fervently desired, God puts him to the ultimate test. The Lord called out to Abraham and said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering” (Gen 22:2).
The events that follow show Abraham’s fierce faith in the Lord’s provision. He packs his bags, brings two servants and his son, and leaves to the mountain that God instructed. When he arrived at the appointed place, he leaves his servants behind and leads his son up to the mountain and prepares the sacrificial altar. Isaac then asks his father what they would use for the sacrifice, to which he replies, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Gen 22:8).
One can only imagine the emotions going through Abraham. As the time came for the sacrifice to be offered, he placed his son on the altar and raised a knife to slaughter his son. At that exact moment, the Lord called down, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Gen 22:12).
Abraham then saw a ram caught in a bush nearby and sacrificed it in Isaac’s place. This was truly a contribution to the covenant of God providing everything that would be needed to ensure that his descendants were as innumerable as the stars. I find it to absolutely be a part of the fulfillment of the covenant, without Isaac, there would have been no heir to continue the nation of Israel.
There are several points that are important to summarize when wrapping up the study of the covenantal partnership between Abraham and God. First, we see that God has chosen Abraham by grace, and not of Abraham’s own merit. Abraham was flawed just like any other man, and prone to disobeying God. This is proven when he brings his father and Lot on the journey God set him on.
We see that God has blessed Abraham with descendants as numerous as the sand on the beaches and a land for his offspring to settle in. This is a repeated theme throughout the book of Genesis, that his offspring would be innumerable and great. Through the nation of Israel, all the peoples of the earth will be blessed. Christ himself, humanities greatest blessing, came through the long lineage of the nation of Israel.
We also see that the partnership and covenant is unique. This promise is unconditional and unilateral, evidenced by nothing being required of Abraham and the contractual and sacrificial binding ceremony only being participated in by God. Finally, we see that God is already providing for his promise by giving Abraham a ram to sacrifice in place of his son in the land of Moriah. This not only proves that God is good, but that He requires absolute obedience and faith in Him.
This study has given me a much greater knowledge of the amazing partnership between Abraham and God. Through it I have learned not only God’s incredible provisions, but also the fact that a promise made is a promise kept. As God never changes, we too can be assured that any promise He has made to us will hold the same weight that it did to Abraham.