In the beginning, God made a covenant with His creation through Adam. After the first man and woman breeched the covenant, all of humanity spiraled down into total corruption. God made a new start to creation through the flood and passed down his original covenant to a new generation, spearheaded by Noah. Yet the human heart remained wicked, showing that man on his own could not and would not turn back to his creator. Now we’ll focus on another new start, with Abraham as the “new Adam” and the nation of Israel as God’s “new creation.”
The Covenant with Abraham
In Genesis 12, God called Abraham to leave his home and go to the land of Canaan. Even though Abraham was already an elderly man with no children, God promised to give him an innumerable amount of descendants and to give this land of Canaan to his offspring. He also promised to bless Abraham, to make him a blessing to the nations, and to bless those who would bless him. In Genesis 15, God reiterated His promises to Abraham and sealed them with a covenant.
Over thirteen years later (in Genesis 17) God appeared to Abraham again, this time to reassure him of the covenant previously made and to give him further instruction on how to uphold it. First, God commanded him to “walk before (Him) and be blameless” (v. 1). As Gentry and Wellum explain, “when people walk before God, it means that they serve as his emissary or diplomatic representative”(GKtGC, p. 114). God called Abraham to obedience and holiness that he might serve as His representative on the earth, thus taking on his role as the new Adam. Abraham’s family was meant to show the world what it looked like to walk in right relationship with God, to love others, and to rightly steward the resources of the earth (GKtGC, p. 115). They wouldbless the nations by living in a way that bore witness about the love and righteousness of Yahweh. In true divine intentionality, God had called His people to Canaan— a land that was situated between the two superpowers of the day, Egypt and Mesopotamia. All trade and business routes at that time would have gone through Canaan, bringing people of various nationalities to the home of the Israelites. God would bring the nations to His covenant people that he might ultimately draw the nations to Himself.
Second, God commanded Abraham to keep the sign of the covenant— circumcision. God told Abraham that all the males in his household throughout all generations were to be circumcised on the eighth day. Why was circumcision an appropriate sign for this covenant? In the Ancient Near-East, the only men circumcised were those who were set apart for special divine service, such as the priest who was considered to be a son of the gods. Circumcision of all the males in Israel was meant to show that they were a people set apart and fully devoted to the worship and service of Yahweh. It was a symbol of their calling to walk blamelessly before Him. The fact that God commanded this to happen on the eighth day was significant. In Genesis 1, the creation account occurred over a period of seven days. The fact that God commanded His people to be circumcised on day eight is consistent with the idea of Israel as God’s new creation(GKtGC, pp. 121-122).
The Curse Undone
This covenant marked the beginning of the reversal of the curse given to Adam and Eve. Think back to the scene of the fall in Genesis 3. What did God do in response to the sin of Adam and Eve? He initiated a curse. From now on, the way that humanity related to God, to one another, and to the earth would be broken and distorted. Then he drove them out ofthe garden, the fruitful land He had given to His covenant people. In God’s covenant with Abraham, he initiated a blessing. He called Abraham to live as an example of how to relate to God, to others and to the earth. He promised to bring his offspring into a “land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:17 [ESV]). As Gentry and Wellum argue, “Through blessing Abram and his descendants, the broken relationship between God and all the nations of the world would be reconciled and healed” (GKtGC, p. 105).
However, remember what God had called Abraham to do—to walk before Him and be blameless. Though Abraham did often act in faith and obedience to the Lord (Genesis 22, Hebrews 11), throughout his life there were patterns of deception, faithlessness, and moral compromise (Gen. 12:10-20; Gen. 16). Like Adam and Noah before him, Abraham failed to keep the terms set out for living in a relationship with God and receiving His promised blessings. He did not walk blamelessly before Him or serve as His true representative to the nations. The same sin patterns were also present in his offspring as the covenant was passed down to Isaac, Jacob, and the nation of Israel. Since Abraham and his family did not uphold the covenant with complete faithfulness, they could not bring about the full reversal of the curse. God intended to keep the promises He made to Abraham and his offspring, but He would only do so through a perfectly faithful and obedient covenant partner.
So how would God fulfill His promises to Abraham and his offspring when they all proved to be serial covenant breakers? In Genesis 15, God gave Abraham a clue. When God made His covenant with Abraham, He did so through an old covenant-making ritual that was common in the Ancient Near-East. The two covenant parties would take animals and cut them in half. Then each party would pass between the halves, as if to say “’May I become like these dead animals if I do not keep my promise(s) and my oath’” (GKtGC, p. 110). Each party that passed between the animal halves promised his own life in exchange for breaking the covenant. Yet in this instance, only one party made that promise. Verse 17 says, “When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces” [ESV]. From the events of the Exodus, we clearly see that smoke and fire were symbols of God’s presence. God passed between the animal halves, but Abraham never did. God alone took ultimate responsibility for the fulfillment of both sides of the covenant. He would go to great lengths to ensure that His relationship with Abraham's offspring would never be broken. And if Abraham or his descendants failed to uphold their side of the covenant, God promised that He would pay the price for that failure with the shedding of His own blood.
Suggested Reading: Genesis 12-17
*The ideas in this blog series are a synthesis of Dr. Peter Gentry’s and Dr. Stephen Wellum’s presentation of the covenants in God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenant. For deeper study on this topic, I highly recommend this resource.
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