The Promises to Abraham
For there to be a new covenant, there has to be a previous one. Scripture describes a series of covenants that build on one another. To understand much of the Bible, it is vital to be well grounded in the covenant made with Abram.
Yahweh (יְהוָה֙) instructed Abram to leave Ur of the Chaldeans, the land of his kindred, and journey to Canaan. He promised to make Abram into a great nation, bless him, make his name great, bless all the families of the earth through him and give the land of Canaan to his offspring.
“Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. When they came to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him.” (Genesis 12:1-7)
How important is this in God’s overall plan? We get a clue from Paul who said this promise, “preached the gospel… to Abraham“.
“And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” (Galatians 3:8)
Why did Paul single out this promise to Abraham to call the gospel? This will become clear as the narrative unfolds.
Abram believed God and demonstrated his faith through obedience. He left the land of his kindred and journeyed to the land of Canaan. Once in Canaan, God repeated the covenant promises to Abram.
“The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, “Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted.” (Genesis 13:14-18)
“On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.” (Genesis 15:18-21)
“Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall 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 you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” (Genesis 17:3-14)
God promised Abraham:
- His offspring would be many.
- His offspring would occupy all the land of Canaan forever.
- “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
It is important to emphasize that it required faith to believe these promises (Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:3, Hebrews 11:8-13). This was in no small part due to the fact that Sarah was beyond childbearing age and childless.
“And 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 moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.” (Genesis 17:15-21)
Just as God promised, Sarah conceived and gave birth to Isaac.
Imagine how puzzling and devastating it must have been to Abraham when God instructed him to offer this miracle heir, Isaac as a burnt offering! (Genesis 22:2) Nevertheless, Abraham trusted God and made preparations to kill his only son. Scripture records that God interceded at the last moment and provided a ram (a male sheep) to sacrifice instead. It was a test of Abrahams faith – and he passed.
Immediately, God repeated his covenant. He repeated the gospel.
“I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.“ (Genesis 22:17-18)
Tuck this away for later: Abrahams faith in God’s covenant promises is a key to understanding the identity of God’s chosen people.
Isaac was chosen as the next in line to receive the promise.
“Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” (Genesis 26:3-5)
Isaac married Rebekah. She conceived twins and they began to struggle with each other in her womb. When Rebekah consulted the Lord about it, he announced an important selection.
“And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23)
Sure enough, even though Esau was born first, God chose Jacob (officially the younger) to be the lineage through which the promises to Abraham would be fulfilled. This selection was purposely declared while they were still in the womb and Paul tells us why in Romans 9.
“though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls – she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Romans 9:11-13 – Paul quoted Malachi 1:2-3)
God conveyed the promises to Jacob also.
“And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:13-15)