The Abrahamic Covenant – Covenants – Part 3

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The land promised to Abraham via the Abrahamic Covenant1. Introduction

In the first two articles of this series, we have covered the basic theory of the covenants of the Bible. We also saw that YHVH does not break His covenants with us, even if we do not keep these covenants. In this article, we will now start looking at some of these covenants in a bit more detail. I do not intend to cover all the covenants in the Scripture but will select a few to discuss in detail. The first of these will be the covenant that YHVH made with Abraham. This covenant was preceded by the covenant made in Eden (Gen. 2:15–17; Gen. 3:15; Hosea 6:6–7) and the covenant that was made with Noah after the flood (Gen. 9:9–17). In this study, we will look at who Abram was and why he was chosen. Then we will analyze the details of the covenant and finally discuss the significance of this covenant for us.

2.Why was Abram selected?

In order to understand the covenant with Abraham, we first need to get a better understanding of who this man was and why YHVH chose him as the recipient of the covenant. Did he have any special merit or favor that made him stand out among the people?

As far a lineage is concerned, we know that Abraham was a descendent of Shem. Shem was the eldest son of Noah, and he was the one who received the blessing from Noah.

Genesis 9:24–27
24 When Noah awoke from his wine, he knew what his youngest son had done to him. 25 So he said, “Cursed be Canaan; A servant of servants He shall be to his brothers.” 26 He also said, “Blessed be YHVH, The Elohim of Shem; And let Canaan be his servant. 27 “May YHVH enlarge Japheth, And let him dwell in the tents of Shem; And let Canaan be his servant.”

Shem became 600 years old, implying that he was still alive in the days of Abraham. We do not know from Scripture where Shem lived, so we would not be able to determine if Abraham ever actually knew him.

Terah was the father of Abraham. He lived in Ur of the Chaldeans when his sons were born. We have no proof to determine which of his three sons were the eldest. We know that after his son, Haran had died, Terah took his family, and they left for the land of Canaan but only got as far as Haran where Terah later died.

Genesis 11:31
31 Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife; and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans in order to enter the land of Canaan; and they went as far as Haran, and settled there.

Not all of Terah’s sons decided to go with him. We know that his one son died, but we see another of his sons chose to stay in the land of the Chaldeans. Nahor decided to stay in the land of the Chaldeans and later became the grandfather of Rebekah, who would be the bride of Isaac. We know that they kept on worshiping idols because Laban’s daughter Rachel stole the household idols of her father. We also know that Terah served other gods.

Joshua 24:2
2 Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says YHVH, the Elohim of Israel, ‘From ancient times your fathers lived beyond the River, namely, Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods.

From this we can see that Abraham most likely did not have a very righteous upbringing in the house of Terah.

We have seen that Terah had lived in the land of Ur of the Chaldeans. Ur was a city in Mesopotamia that flourished on during the early dynastic period. The site has been identified as modern Tell el-Muqaiyer, 16 km west of the Euphrates river, about halfway between Baghdad and the Persian Gulf. This area is also known as the land of Shinar. We know from Gen 11:2 that this is where the tower of Babel was built. From the visions of Zechariah, we know that this is where “Wickedness” will be taken and worshiped.

Zechariah 5:8–11
8 Then he said, “This is Wickedness!” And he threw her down into the middle of the ephah and cast the lead weight on its opening. 9 Then I lifted up my eyes and looked, and there two women were coming out with the wind in their wings; and they had wings like the wings of a stork, and they lifted up the ephah between the earth and the heavens. 10 I said to the angel who was speaking with me, “Where are they taking the ephah?” 11 Then he said to me, “To build a temple for her in the land of Shinar; and when it is prepared, she will be set there on her own pedestal.”

From the background of Abraham, we see that we have no record of anything that would merit him any favor in the eyes of YHVH.  He was just another man growing up in an idol worshiping family in a very wicked land. He was chosen purely by the grace of YHVH.

3. The Covenant

3.1 The form of  covenant

Except for the notes on the life of Terah and his death in Haran, we have no additional information.  The next text that we find is the calling of Abram. It is difficult to establish clearly from the text if Abram was called before or after the death of his father. We know that Abram was 75 years old when he was called by YHVH (Gen 12:4). Terah was 205 years old when he died (Gen 11:32) and he was 70 years old when the first of his three sons were born (Gen 11:26).

In Genesis 12, we have the record of Abram being called by YHVH.

Genesis 12:1–3
1 Now YHVH said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father’s house, To the land which I will show you; 2 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; 3 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.”

From this calling, we see that YHVH called Abram from where he was to a place that he would be shown. There is no record of Abram questioning who it was that was calling him. There is also no doubt recorded on the side of Abram in responding to the calling. He simply collected his wife, nephew and belongings and set off. In return, he would be given two blessings; a dynasty (a nation) and the protection of YHVH. His enemies would become YHVH’s enemies. Thus, we see two of the typical benefits of a royal grant treaty being given; the dynasty and the protection from the king to the vassal. What is still missing is the land or property that typically goes with this form of a treaty.

If we continue reading, we find that the promise of the land was given only after Abram arrives at Shechem. Here YHVH appeared to Abram and gave him the promise of the land. In this verse, we do not see any clear definition of what the exact extend of the promised land was. We also see the first of many altars being built.

Genesis 12:6–7
6 Abram passed through the land as far as the site of Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. Now the Canaanite was then in the land. 7 YHVH appeared to Abram and said, “To your descendants I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to YHVH who had appeared to him.

When the drought came to the land, Abram made his own plan and moved to Egypt. He only stayed there until Pharaoh discovered that Sarah was not only his sister but also his wife.  They were sent away from Egypt and returned to the Negev. After he had stayed in the land for a while (from the Negev to Bethel)  he became so blessed that he had to separate from Lot. Only after this separation was he given an indication of the physical extend of his inheritance. He was given not only an indication of the size of the land, but also an indication of the size of his dynasty.  His descendants would become so many that they cannot be numbered and the land would extend as far as he can see. We then have another calling from YHVH.  Abram was to walk through the length and the breath of the land. Abram moved his tents from the place between Bethel and Ai and then camped at the oaks of Mamre near Hebron.

Genesis 13:14–18
14 YHVH said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, “Now lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; 15 for all the land which you see, I will give it to you and to your descendants forever. 16 “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. 17 “Arise, walk about the land through its length and breadth; for I will give it to you.” 18 Then Abram moved his tent and came and dwelt by the oaks of Mamre, which are in Hebron, and there he built an altar to YHVH.

After the battle with the invading kings and the rescue of Lot, Abram has the meeting with Melchizedek, king of Salem. We see that Melchizedek blessed Abram and that Abram then tithed to Melchizedek. After this, YHVH appeared to Abram and Abram expressed his doubts/concerns regarding the promises that he has already received. In response to these questions by Abram, YHVH further detailed the content of the promises and then provided even more specific boundaries for the promised land – from the river of Egypt (Nile) to the Euphrates (modern Iraq). He also promised that the dynasty would come from his son, and that they would one day be as the stars in the heaven – uncountable. Please note that this verse is very specific to point to only one son (Genesis 25:5-6).  Not all the sons of Abram shall be the heirs of this covenant. We know that Abram ended up with eight sons (Genesis 25:1–4), including Ishmael and Isaac.  We also see here the reference to Abram believing the promise, and it being credited to him as righteousness.

Genesis 15:4–6
4 Then behold, the word of YHVH came to him, saying, “This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” 5 And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6 Then he believed in YHVH; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Genesis 15:18–21
18 On that day YHVH made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I have given this land, From the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates: 19 the Kenite and the Kenizzite and the Kadmonite 20 and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Rephaim 21 and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Girgashite and the Jebusite.”

Nehemiah 9:7–8
7 “You are YHVH Elohim, Who chose Abram And brought him out from Ur of the Chaldees, And gave him the name Abraham. 8 “You found his heart faithful before You, And made a covenant with him To give him the land of the Canaanite, Of the Hittite and the Amorite, Of the Perizzite, the Jebusite and the Girgashite— To give it to his descendants. And You have fulfilled Your promise, For You are righteous.

Thus, the promises of the covenant is that one of Abram’s sons would be an heir to a dynasty that would own the land from the Nile to the Euphrates. This nation would have the protection of YHVH. This is very typical of a royal grant treaty as we discussed in the first part of this series.

3.2 The type of the covenant

Now that we have established the form of the covenant as a royal grant, let us see what we can learn from the scriptures regarding the type of the covenant. The first type of covenant is the blood covenant. When YHVH appears to Abram in a vision, Abram asks YHVH how he would know that he shall possess these promises that YHVH has stated. YHVH responds to Abram in a way that a man of Abram’s time and stature would understand. He does the ritual of a blood covenant, but with some variations on the typical ceremony.

Genesis 15:4–21
4 But the word of YHVH came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 5 He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6 And he believed YHVH; and YHVH reckoned it to him as righteousness. 7 Then he said to him, “I am YHVH who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” 8 But he said, “O YHVH Elohim, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 9 He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. 12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. 13 Then YHVH said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; 14 but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” 17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day YHVH made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.”

We see the shedding of blood from animals, which would make this a blood covenant. It is also important to note that the ceremony was executed after the start of a new day. Furthermore, a difference from the normal ceremony, is that Abram is not required to pass between the pieces.  Only YHVH passed between the pieces in the form of a smoking oven and a flaming torch (Gen 15:17).  While all this was happening, Abram was asleep. This would be simple to understand if you remember that a Royal Grant required nothing from the vassal but loyalty. Only YHVH had an obligation to keep; nothing was required of Abram. We also see from the text the reason for this ceremony – because Abram asked for a confirmation that he would possess it. When the animals were split in two, Abram already knew what this ceremony was about. He had received the proof that he needed  about the promises of YHVH.  They were as sure as a blood covenant.

Once the blood covenant (also called a servant hood covenant) was established the next level would be a salt covenant.  The salt covenant is also referred to as the friendship covenant. What would be the event that raises the covenant to the next type? It would be the meal that Abraham had with the three men who came visiting his tent on their way to Sodom. We see YHVH in discussion with Abraham regarding the promise of a son within a year after the meal was served. We can thus conclude that this meal was seen as a friendship meal.

Genesis 18:1–10
1 Now YHVH appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, while he was sitting at the tent door in the heat of the day. 2 When he lifted up his eyes and looked, behold, three men were standing opposite him; and when he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth, 3 and said, “My Lord, if now I have found favor in Your sight, please do not pass Your servant by. 4 “Please let a little water be brought and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree; 5 and I will bring a piece of bread, that you may refresh yourselves; after that you may go on, since you have visited your servant.” And they said, “So do, as you have said.” 6 So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quickly, prepare three measures of fine flour, knead it and make bread cakes.” 7 Abraham also ran to the herd, and took a tender and choice calf and gave it to the servant, and he hurried to prepare it. 8 He took curds and milk and the calf which he had prepared, and placed it before them; and he was standing by them under the tree as they ate. 9 Then they said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 10 He said, “I will surely return to you at this time next year; and behold, Sarah your wife will have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door, which was behind him.

We see Abraham being referred to as YHVH’s friend in more than one scripture.

Isaiah 41:8–9
8 “But you, Israel, My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, Descendant of Abraham My friend, 9 You whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, And called from its remotest parts And said to you, ‘You are My servant, I have chosen you and not rejected you.

2 Chronicles 20:7
7 “Did You not, O our Elohim, drive out the inhabitants of this land before Your people Israel and give it to the descendants of Abraham Your friend forever?

James 2:22–24
22 You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed YHVH, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of YHVH. 24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.

Even as a friend Abram still remained a loyal servant of YHVH as is required by a blood covenant.  Proof of this can be found in the willingness to offer his heir, Isaac when this was requested by YHVH.  He did not hold back or remind YHVH of the promises regarding the heirdom of Isaac.  He simply took the young man Isaac with him and prepared to offer him to YHVH.

Genesis 22:15–18
15 Then the angel of YHVH called to Abraham a second time from heaven, 16 and said, “By Myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies. 18 “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.”

We now see a further extension in the promise of the dynasty – “your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemy”.  This same blessing is pronounced over Rebekah by her family as she leaves to become the wife of Isaac.

Genesis 24:58–60
58 Then they called Rebekah and said to her, “Will you go with this man?” And she said, “I will go.” 59 Thus they sent away their sister Rebekah and her nurse with Abraham’s servant and his men. 60 They blessed Rebekah and said to her,
“May you, our sister,
Become thousands of ten thousands,
And may your descendants possess The gate of those who hate them.”

The expression “possess the gates of your enemies” can best be understood in its cultural setting.  Not only was the gate to the city the only way in or out of the city, it was also the place where most of the economical activities took place.  This is where goods entered the city and where the trading took place.  Because the trading took place here, it was also the place where the disputes took place.  Thus, we find that the judges/wise men gathered in the gates of the city to dispense their wisdom and settle disputes. Consequently, the gate became the centers for trade and justice in most cities. In 1 Kings 22:10 we find that also the kings and prophets would sit in the gate of the city.  Accordingly, if you possess the gate of your enemies, you have full control over all dimensions of life in that city. Furthermore, if you possess the gate of your enemies, you cannot be in the hands of your enemies.  It could therefor be interpreted that Abraham’s descendants would not become the permanent subordinates of another nation.

3.3 The parties to the covenant

Having understood the promises of the covenant as well as it’s form and type the next step would be to investigate the parties involved in this covenant. We know that the one party to the covenant is YHVH.  He is the party that does the granting of the promises of a dynasty, protection and land to Abraham.  However, looking at the other side is a bit more complex.  Who exactly did YHVH make the covenant with?

We know that it is Abram that is called and the promises are made to him. When Abram is called, we see that YHVH already includes the nations into the covenant as a recipient of some of the blessings. We see that YHVH promises that via Abram they will be blessed.

Genesis 12:1–3
1 Now YHVH said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father’s house, To the land which I will show you; 2 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; 3 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.”

Earlier in the article we have established that YHVH had chosen one of Abram’s sons as the heir. We see later that it would not be the first born of Abram, Ishmael, but the first born of Abram and Sarah, Isaac that would inherit the promises YHVH had made to his father.

Genesis 17:15–19
15 Then YHVH said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 “I will bless her, and indeed I will give you a son by her. Then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” 17 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?” 18 And Abraham said to YHVH, “Oh that Ishmael might live before You!” 19 But YHVH 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.

When Isaac was a grown man, YHVH appeared to him as he planned to go down to Egypt because of the drought in the land, like his father had done. He was instructed by YHVH to remain in the promised land, and YHVH confirmed again that his descendants would be the ones that carry forward the promises of the covenant. Thus, we see that the covenant has now moved with a specific son of Abraham to the next generation.

Genesis 26:2–6
2 YHVH appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; stay in the land of which I shall tell you. 3 “Sojourn in this land and I will be with you and bless you, for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath which I swore to your father Abraham. 4 “I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; 5 because Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws.” 6 So Isaac lived in Gerar.

Genesis 26:24–25
24 YHVH  appeared to him the same night and said, “I am the Elohim of your father Abraham; Do not fear, for I am with you. I will bless you, and multiply your descendants, For the sake of My servant Abraham.” 25 So he built an altar there and called upon the name of YHVH, and pitched his tent there; and there Isaac’s servants dug a well.

In the second generation after Abraham we again see that it is not the first born son that inherits the blessings.  From before the birth of Esau and Jacob YHVH had already given a prophecy to Rebekah regarding their futures.

Genesis 25:21–26
21 Isaac prayed to YHVH on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and YHVH answered him and Rebekah his wife conceived. 22 But the children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is so, why then am I this way?” So she went to inquire of YHVH. 23 YHVH said to her, “Two nations are in your womb; And two peoples will be separated from your body; And one people shall be stronger than the other; And the older shall serve the younger.24 When her days to be delivered were fulfilled, behold, there were twins in her womb. 25 Now the first came forth red, all over like a hairy garment; and they named him Esau. 26 Afterward his brother came forth with his hand holding on to Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob; and Isaac was sixty years old when she gave birth to them.

We see the prophecy states that the first born will serve his younger brother.  This is exactly the opposite of the tradition, where the oldest brother is blessed with the double portion.  We know from the scriptures, that via the actions of Esau and the plans of Rebekah, Jacob received the blessing of the first born. A part of this blessing would be the heirdom to the promises made to Abraham and Isaac. We see specifically the blessings of protection and also the ruling over other nations that was added to the promise to Abraham after he was willing to sacrifice Isaac. This blessing happened in the promised land, which could explain the reason for the land to be omitted from this blessing.

Genesis 27:27–29
27 So he came close and kissed him; and when he smelled the smell of his garments, he blessed him and said, “See, the smell of my son Is like the smell of a field which YHVH has blessed; 28 Now may YHVH give you of the dew of heaven, And of the fatness of the earth, And an abundance of grain and new wine; 29 May peoples serve you, And nations bow down to you; Be master of your brothers, And may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be those who curse you, And blessed be those who bless you.”

During his flight from his brother Esau, YHVH appeared to Jacob in a dream.  In this dream Jacob got personal confirmation of the promises made to Abraham now being transferred to him.  In the message from YHVH he got the confirmation of all three the major promises of the covenant: dynasty, land and the protection of YHVH.

Genesis 28:12–15
12 He had a dream, and behold, a ladder was set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven; and behold, the angels of YHVH were ascending and descending on it. 13 And behold, YHVH stood above it and said, “I am YHVH, the Elohim of your father Abraham and the Elohim of Isaac; the land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your descendants. 14 “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. 15 “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.”

This lineage is also confirmed by a number of other scriptures including:

Exodus 6:2–4
2 YHVH spoke further to Moses and said to him, “I am YHVH; 3 and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as Elohim Almighty, but by My name, YHVH, I did not make Myself known to them. 4I also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they sojourned.

Psalm 105:6–11
6 O seed of Abraham, His servant, O sons of Jacob, His chosen ones! 7 He is YHVH our Elohim; His judgments are in all the earth. 8 He has remembered His covenant forever, The word which He commanded to a thousand generations, 9 The covenant which He made with Abraham, And His oath to Isaac. 10 Then He confirmed it to Jacob for a statute, To Israel as an everlasting covenant, 11 Saying, “To you I will give the land of Canaan As the portion of your inheritance,”

We see that the people that inherit the blessings of the promise to YHVH are not the ones that would have a natural claim to the inheritance. It is also not possible for them to have earned it by their works. It is rather via the mercy of YHVH that both Isaac and Jacob got the inheritance; the same as Abraham.  This will of YHVH is also a topic that Paul explains in detail in his letter to the Romans:

Romans 9:9–16
9 For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; 11 for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that YHVH’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, 12 it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” 14 What shall we say then? There is no injustice with YHVH, is there? May it never be! 15 For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on YHVH who has mercy.

Does this mean that all the direct descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are the sole recipients of the promises? We know from the first promise to Abraham that all the families of the earth would be blessed via this covenant and that the land would be given to his descendants. Paul explains this in his letter to the believers in Galatia.

Galatians 3:7–9
7 Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. 8 The Scripture, foreseeing that YHVH would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations will be blessed in you.” 9 So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer.

According to the words of Paul, YHVH knew that He would justify all believers (direct descendants or not) via Y’Shua, the seed of Abraham, and that by their faith in Y’Shua they would become partakers in this covenant. Paul makes this connection between the Messiah and Abraham a bit later in this letter.

Galatians 3:16
16 Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Messiah.

Romans 4:9–12
9 Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, “Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” 10 How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; 11 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, 12 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.

From this last quote by Paul we get confirmation that both the direct descendants (the circumcised) and the gentiles (uncircumcised) will share in the covenant if they have faith as Abraham. Paul also confirms that Abraham did not receive his righteousness by circumcision, but by faith.

3.4 The sign of the covenant

Twenty four years after calling Abraham, YHVH appeared to Him to discuss the covenant with him. During this appearance we see that YHVH changed his name from Abram to Abraham. YHVH then gave Abraham the sign of this covenant – circumcision.

Genesis 17:1–14
1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, YHVH appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am YHVH Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. 2 And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face; and YHVH said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be Elohim to you and to your offspring after you. 8 And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their Elohim.” 9 YHVH said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. 13 Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

According to the Lexham Bible Dictionary1 circumcision was not unique to the descendants of Abraham. It was also practiced in other cultures like Egypt and Syria-Palestine. We also see some reference to that in Jeremiah 9:25-26.  In most cases, it was used as a fertility sign. We also see a couple of very specific instructions here that made this different from what the other nations were doing:

  1. The circumcision had to be done on the eight day.  Other nations performed the ritual during adulthood or as a sign of adulthood.
  2. Only males were to be circumcised. Other nations used to circumcise both male and female.  We know this because the customs still exists in some of these cultures.

For more details on this topics, read the detailed discussion by Tim Hegg in his paper titled: Circumcision as a Sign: The Theological Significance2

We also see that YHVH clearly stated that the males who do not follow His instruction to have themselves circumcised, will be cut off from the people.  Thus they will not be considered as part of the covenant.  Based on this we also have the commandment that men must be circumcised before they may partake in the Pesach meal. The Pesach meal is the commemoration of the salvation of the nation of Israel from Egypt. We know that the men that came out of Egypt were circumcised (Joshua 5:5) and considered part of the people. Thus, if you want to be part of the people that celebrate their salvation from Egypt, you need to be part of that people as defined in Genesis 17:14.

Exodus 12:42–49
42 It is a night to be observed for YHVH for having brought them out from the land of Egypt; this night is for YHVH, to be observed by all the sons of Israel throughout their generations. 43 YHVH said to Moses and Aaron, “This is the ordinance of the Passover: no foreigner is to eat of it; 44 but every man’s slave purchased with money, after you have circumcised him, then he may eat of it. 45 “A sojourner or a hired servant shall not eat of it. 46 “It is to be eaten in a single house; you are not to bring forth any of the flesh outside of the house, nor are you to break any bone of it. 47 “All the congregation of Israel are to celebrate this. 48 “But if a stranger sojourns with you, and celebrates the Passover to YHVH, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near to celebrate it; and he shall be like a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person may eat of it. 49 “The same law shall apply to the native as to the stranger who sojourns among you.”

As the inheritance is part of the covenant, it was crucial for the males of Israel to be circumcised before they lay claim to the land.

Joshua 5:2–5
2 At that time YHVH said to Joshua, “Make for yourself flint knives and circumcise again the sons of Israel the second time.” 3 So Joshua made himself flint knives and circumcised the sons of Israel at Gibeath-haaraloth. 4 This is the reason why Joshua circumcised them: all the people who came out of Egypt who were males, all the men of war, died in the wilderness along the way after they came out of Egypt. 5 For all the people who came out were circumcised, but all the people who were born in the wilderness along the way as they came out of Egypt had not been circumcised.

There is a lot of speculation as to why men were not circumcised in the wilderness.  Some of the theories state that it was to dangerous, because of health issues, to do it in the wilderness, while others claim that it was pure disobedience of the nation. Why is their reference to circumcising the sons of Israel again?  Were these sons circumcised before? This question leads us to another of the theories that claim that maybe the men were circumcised in the wrong way.  Could it be that they followed the Egyptian way by simply making a small incision to get blood? We really do not know the real reason, but we know that they had to be circumcised before that could take hold of the land.

What is theological significance of this sign?  We know that it cannot be the definite mark of inclusion into the covenant.  This would imply that females are not part of this covenant. In his study, Tim Hegg comes to the conclusion that the sign means more:

The male headship which God established at creation continues in His dealings with Israel. It is not as though the woman is unimportant or of less worth. The Israelite woman figures equally into the covenant as does the male. But the responsibility for the maintenance of the society and clan (family) is placed in the hands of the male. Unless one is willing to admit to complete androcentrism in the Patriarchal times, the conclusion seems inescapable that circumcision was not the definitive mark of every covenant member. For certainly women figured in as bona fide members of the society and covenant. Rather, the fact that circumcision was reserved specifically for the male speaks again to the issue of offspring. Since the man was the head, the offspring would be reckoned by his name, and the inheritance would come through being related to him. Thus, the matter of offspring is, in this legal sense, one which pertains to the male alone.

We may conclude, then, by answering the question “why circumcision?” in this way: God chose a ritual which was common and known to Abraham, a ritual which was tied to marriage and procreation. But, in making these two distinctions, He communicated the essence of the covenant, that is, faith in El Shaddai. For the cutting away of the foreskin of the eight day old male marked the reality that the Seed could only come by Divine intervention. 2

We see that the seed that inherited this covenant, had to pass through the sign of the covenant. The seed that became Ishmael never passed through the circumcision of Abram, but the seed that became Isaac passed through the circumcision of Abraham.  The seed that went from Abraham to Y’Shua always passed through the sign of this covenant.

4. The significance of this covenant for us

We know that some of the promises made to Abram (and Abraham) have been fulfilled. His own son, Isaac, did become the heir of his house.  His seed has become uncountable as the stars in the heaven. Although his seed did take possession of the land, they have not yet inherited the full extend of what was promised.  We still await this promise when all the children of Abraham will return to the promised land, from the Nile to the Euphrates.

We see that in order to be part of this covenant we need to believe as Abram believed.  In Romans 4:9-12 we saw that it was through faith that Abram was credited as righteous. The same would be true for us, we need to have faith in the Elohim of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob if we want to share in the blessings of this covenant.

In his discourse in Romans 4, Paul explains that YHVH’s covenant with Abraham took on new life in Y’Shua, who is the promised One in whom “all the families of the earth shall be blessed”. Paul quotes from the Prayer of Confession made by David:

Psalm 32:1–2
1 How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered! 2 How blessed is the man to whom YHVH does not impute iniquity, And in whose spirit there is no deceit!

We see that Paul explains how we get to this state:

Romans 4:16
16 For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all,

Galatians 3:28–29
28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Y’Shua the Messiah. 29 And if you belong to Messiah, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.

We should also remember that the promise is not only about the land, but also the protection of the King for the dynasty (descendants) of the vassal (Abraham).

Genesis 12:3
3 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.”

In the next article we will look at the Sinai covenant in more detail.

References:

  1. Barry, John D., and Lazarus Wentz. Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2012.
  2. Tim Hegg, Circumcision as a Sign: The Theological Significance; Evangelical Theological Society Northwest Regional Meeting April 21, 1990; http://www.torahresource.com/EnglishArticles/CircumcisionETS.pdf

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Comments (6)

  • The Prophetic significance of Yom T’Ruah « Set Apart People

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    […] My name” that will be called from the North (Assyria), South (Egypt), East and West to return to the land that was promised to the seed of Abraham. Those who are called by His Name could be interpreted as the people who accept the authority of […]

    Reply

  • Jane Smith

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    Actually, Shem was the middle son. Japheth was the oldest (Gen 10:21) and Ham was the youngest (Gen 9:24).

    Reply

    • Schalk

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      Hi Jane,

      We agree on the fact that Ham was the youngest.
      With the position of Shem and Japheth it is a bit more complicated. The problem starts with the text in Gen 10:21 that can be interpreted in two ways:

      Also to Shem, the father of all the children of Eber, and the older brother of Japheth, children were born.

      or according to the NASB translation notes also:

      the brother of Japheth the elder

      We see Shem’s name always mentioned firsts when the sons of Noah are mentioned (Gen 5:32, Gen 6:10, Gen 7:13) which could allow us to provide preference to Shem being the first born.

      However, this point is not definite!

      Reply

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