God’s Covenant with Abraham


What was God’s covenant with Abraham?

It started with the promises God made to Abraham in Genesis 12, then it was confirmed in Genesis 15, a covenant sign was added in Genesis 17, Abraham’s loyalty to the covenant was tested in Genesis 22; and later, the covenant was reaffirmed with Isaac (Genesis 26) and Jacob. (Genesis 28:12)


What promises did God make to Abraham in Genesis 12?

These blessings can be summarized as land, seed, and blessing.


What was the land promise?

God commanded Abram to leave his homeland and to go to a land that He would show him.  When he arrived at the land, God spoke to him.  The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your descendants I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD who had appeared to him. (Genesis 12:7)


What was the seed promise?

This was a promise that Abraham would have many children who one day would become a great nation. (Genesis 12:2)

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. (Genesis 17:1-6)


What was the blessing promise?

This was a promise that Abraham would be a source of blessing to all the families of the earth.

And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3)


How was the covenant confirmed in Genesis 15?

At this point in Abram’s life, he had no children, and the promise which God had given him was weighing heavily on him.  How could it possibly come true when he had no children?  Genesis records Abram’s anguish on this occasion:

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.” (Genesis 15:1-3)


How did God resolve Abram’s fears?

God gave Abram a visual picture of His commitment to His promise.  God took a heifer, a goat, and a ram and cut them into halves.  These halves he placed in such a way that a person could walk between the halves.  When the sun had set and it was dark, God repeated the promise (Genesis 15:13-16) and then had a smoking firepot and a burning torch pass between these severed animals.


What was the significance of this torch and the severed animals?

This was a self-maledictory oath.  The firepot and torch were symbols of God’s presence.  The severed animals were symbols of what would happen to the person who failed to perform their end of the bargain or, in this case, the covenant.  Passing between the severed animals was a symbol of taking this oath upon one’s self; basically, saying, “May what happened to these animals, happen to me if I fail to uphold my side of the bargain.”  The majesty of this particular moment was that God Himself, the Great Creator, takes upon Himself this oath.


What more about this covenant do we learn in Genesis 17?

In Genesis 17, God gives Abram a physical sign on his body to remind him of the covenant God had made with him.  The situation is much like in Genesis 15.  Again, time is passing by and nothing appears to be happening in terms of God keeping the covenant.  Abram even laughs at the idea of God still making good on His promise:

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?” (Genesis 17:17)

Then Abram suggests an alternative plan:

And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before You!” (Genesis 17:18)

But God insists that His original promise will be kept; not a word of it will fail.

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. (Genesis 17:19)


What is the sign which God gives Abram at this point?

This is the sign of circumcision.

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.” (Genesis 17:9-14)


What does this text mean by saying that circumcision will be the sign of the covenant?

This means that all those who are participants in Abraham’s covenant and expect to receive the blessings of it must receive the sign of that covenant.  Circumcision is that sign which marks a person as a participant in God’s covenant with Abraham.


Why did God choose the cutting off of the foreskin as a sign of being in covenant with Him?

The Bible does not explicitly say.  There are some clues, however.  Note Paul’s statement in Colossians where the “cutting off of the body of the flesh” is parallel to having our sin nature removed by being united to Christ. (Colossians 2:11)  Paul calls this the “circumcision of Christ.”  Jeremiah makes a similar statement:

Circumcise yourselves to the LORD and remove the foreskins of your heart, men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, or else My wrath will go forth like fire and burn with none to quench it because of the evil of your deeds. (Jeremiah 4:4)

From this, I conclude that circumcision pictured the removal of the foreskin of the heart which means the removal of that sinful part of the heart from which sin flows.  Thus, circumcision would  be a physical representation of having our sinful nature cut off or what in theological terminology we call regeneration.

For the doctrinal understanding of circumcision two facts are significant; first, it was instituted before the birth of Isaac; secondly, in the accompanying revelation only the second promise, relating to numerous posterity, is referred to. These two facts together show that circumcision has something to do with the process of propagation. Not in the sense that the [sexual] act is in itself sinful, for there is no trace of this anywhere in the Old Testament. It is not the act but the product, that is, human nature, which is unclean, and stands in need of purification and qualification. Hence circumcision is not, as among pagans, applied to grown-up young men, but to infants on the eighth day. Human nature is unclean and disqualified in its very source. Sin, consequently, is a matter of the race and not of the individual only. The need of qualification had to be specially emphasized under the Old Testament. At that time the promises of God had proximate reference to temporal, natural things. Hereby the danger was created that natural descent might be understood as entitling to the grace of God. Circumcision teaches that physical descent from Abraham is not sufficient to make true Israelites. The uncleanness and disqualification of nature must be taken away. Dogmatically speaking, therefore, circumcision stands for justification and regeneration, plus sanctification. (Romans 4:9–12; Colossians 2:11–13)  Vos, Biblical Theology, 90.Old Testament

Conybeare and Howson (p123) call it “an outward sign of inward things.”


Are there any other places in the Bible where we are taught the meaning of circumcision?

Already in the Old Testament, it becomes clear that the outward, physical sign of circumcision is meant to point to an inner, spiritual reality.  Consider these verses:

  • So circumcise your heart, and stiffen your neck no longer. (Deuteronomy 10:16)
  • Moreover the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live. (Deuteronomy 30:6)
  • Circumcise yourselves to the LORD And remove the foreskins of your heart, Men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, Or else My wrath will go forth like fire And burn with none to quench it, Because of the evil of your deeds. (Jeremiah 4:4)
  • Behold, the days are coming,” declares the LORD, “that I will punish all who are circumcised and yet uncircumcised— (Jeremiah 9:25)
  • You shall say to the rebellious ones, to the house of Israel, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “Enough of all your abominations, O house of Israel, when you brought in foreigners, uncircumcised in heart and uncircumcised in flesh, to be in My sanctuary to profane it, even My house, when you offered My food, the fat and the blood; for they made My covenant void–this in addition to all your abominations. “And you have not kept charge of My holy things yourselves, but you have set foreigners to keep charge of My sanctuary.” ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “No foreigner uncircumcised in heart and uncircumcised in flesh, of all the foreigners who are among the sons of Israel, shall enter My sanctuary. (Ezekiel 44:6-9)

Paul uses the same language when he explains what real circumcision is.

For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision.  So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?  And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law?  For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh.  But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God. (Romans 2:25-29)


What else does Paul teach about circumcision?

In Romans 4, Paul writes:

Is this blessing [of justification] then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, “FAITH WAS CREDITED TO ABRAHAM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.”  How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised. (Romans 4:9-12)

Here Paul says that circumcision was both a sign and a seal of the righteousness which he had by faith.


What does Paul mean here by seal?

A seal was something used to authenticate; see p2708.  For example, a letter from a dignitary would be sealed to guarantee to its recipient that it really was from the person who had signed it.  The sepulcher, in which Jesus was placed, was sealed to ensure that it had not been opened. (Matthew 27:66)  Paul talks of the seal of his apostleship. (1 Corinthians 9:2)   In this context, Paul teaches that circumcision is the seal of one’s justification.  In other words, it was a visible sign to the person that the promises God had made to this person in the covenant, He would surely keep.  Every time a person saw his circumcision, he would be reminded that God would not fail to perform all that He had promised.


Is this verse a general statement of what circumcision meant for all Israelites or did circumcision mean this only for Abraham?

This verse teaches us what circumcision meant for all the circumcised people of God.  Paul’s teaching here is clearly in line with how the Old Testament saints understood circumcision; i.e. an outward, visible sign of an inner, spiritual reality.  There is nothing in this chapter which would lead us to believe that Abraham was unique in this regard.


What happens next in God’s dealings with Abraham?

We are told of how God tested Abraham’s loyalty to the covenant.


How is this done?

After the birth of Isaac, God commands Abraham to take him and to offer him as a sacrifice.


How does this test Abraham’s loyalty to the covenant?

Because at this point in Abraham’s life, the fulfillment of the covenant is completely bound up in the person of Isaac.  If Isaac is removed, then the fulfillment of God’s covenant becomes impossible.  Abraham is brought to the end of all human possibility.  All that is left for him is to fall back on God’s promise and to trust that God will work it out. (Hebrews 11:19) Against all hope, he believed in hope. (Romans 4:18)


Is this the last we hear of God’s covenant with Abraham?

No, this covenant is reaffirmed with Isaac (Genesis 26) and then again with Jacob. (Genesis 28:12f)


What else are we taught in the New Testament about this covenant?

That the fulfillment of the promises God made to Abraham are not merely physical such as many children and the land of Palestine.  There is also a spiritual fulfillment.


Explain this.

As stated above, God had made three basic promises to Abraham; land, seed, and blessing.  These blessings would have a double fulfillment.  The first is the literal, physical fulfillment which was realized in the nation of Israel.  God set apart the sons of Jacob to be a holy nation and a holy people living in the land God had promised to Abraham.  The New Testament, however, has almost nothing to say about this physical, literal fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham.  The authors of the New Testament place all their focus on the spiritual fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham.


What is the spiritual fulfillment of the land promise?

First, one can read this in Romans 4 where Paul writes:

For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world [κοσμος] was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. (Romans 4:13)

Here, it’s not the land of Palestine that was promised to Abraham, but the entire world.  This is already a clue that more was promised to Abraham than just the literal land of Palestine.

Second, note what this author says about Abraham and the land:

By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going.  By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:8-10)

This author says here that Abraham, even when he was living in the land of promise (i.e. the land of Palestine), was still living there as a pilgrim and foreigner.  The reason is because he was not satisfied with the land of Palestine.  This was not all that God had promised him; hence, he was looking “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” (Hebrews 11:16)  The same author says later:

For you have not come to a mountain that can be touched and to a blazing fire, and to darkness and gloom and whirlwind, and to the blast of a trumpet and the sound of words which sound was such that those who heard begged that no further word be spoken to them.  For they could not bear the command, “IF EVEN A BEAST TOUCHES THE MOUNTAIN, IT WILL BE STONED.”  And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, “I AM FULL OF FEAR and trembling.”  But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:18-24)

Here the author shows that there is another Jerusalem and another Mt Zion beyond the literal, physical city of Jerusalem.  There is a heavenly Jerusalem and this is the land to which believers have come and which they now possess as an inheritance.


What does the word “inheritance” mean in this context?

The word “inheritance” generally refers to the assets of a father passing to his sons or the heir after his death.  In Israel, this was a sacred thing and ones property was never to pass to another tribe.  Recall the incident with the daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 27) and Naboth. (1 Kings 21)  In the New Testament, however, the word is almost exclusively used to refer to the blessings of salvation.

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