From the flood to Abraham
‘The….clans of Noah’s sons…..spread out over the earth after the flood’ (Genesis 10 v 32). But the situation remained very similar to how it was before the flood – human beings remained arrogant, proud and disobedient – they thought themselves wise but they were actually misguided. They shared a common language and they sought to establish and make a name for themselves and so in order to prevent themselves being scattered all over the land, they decided to build a city in the plain of Shinar, with a tower that would reach up to the heavens. But God and some of the heavenly host came down from the spiritual realm of heaven and confused their language so that they did not understand one another and as a result the building project was abandoned and the people were scattered over all the earth (Genesis 11 v 1 – 9).
The origin of the Hebrews
One of Noah’s sons was Shem and in the generations that were descended from Shem, Abraham – or Abram as he was initially known – was born. Initially living in Ur of the Chaldees, Abram, Abram’s father Terah, Abram’s brother’s son Lot and Abram’s wife Sarai moved to and settled in Harran (Genesis 11 v 31). Abram is referred to in (Genesis 14 v 13) as ‘a Hebrew’ and this is the first occurrence of this name. Today the name ‘Hebrew’ is a name used to refer to Jews or Israelites – that is, the descendants of Israel – who was in turn a descendent of Abram. The word ‘Hebrew’ seems to have two possible origins. First, it was popularly understood to mean ‘descendant of Eber’. Abram was descended from Eber – Abram’s great, great, great, great grandfather. Second, the word ‘Eber’ is formed from a root word that possibly means ‘one who has come from the other side,’ probably, from the other side of the river Euphrates. So Eber, the ancestor or patriarch of the Hebrews (Genesis 10 v 21), was so called because he or his descendants crossed the Euphrates River and emigrated southwards, such that they remained on the other side of the River. As a result of this migration it may be that they did not have much to do with the building of the city and tower on the plain of Shinar.
Promises and Covenants
God came and spoke to Abram and in doing so He made promises to Abram and He also made a Covenant with Abram – God’s third Covenant, following on from the first Covenant with Adam and the second Covenant with Noah. God’s communications with Abram tend to lumped together as the ‘Abrahamic Covenant’ but in fact, God’s communications include these two distinct elements – promises and a Covenant. I think that it is important that these are separated and distinguished because the promises are applied to different groups of people from those covered by the Covenant. So I will go through the texts and tease out these differences.
Abram was given a command to leave Harran and go to a land that God was going to show him (Genesis 12 v 1). Then God gave Abram a promise:
‘I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you’ (Genesis 12 v 2, 3).
As a result of this encounter with God, Abram, his relatives and associates gathered all their possessions and went to the land of Canaan, where God gave Abram another promise:
‘To your offspring I will give this land’ (Genesis 12 v 7)
Some time later, God repeats His promises: ‘Look around from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring for ever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you’ (Genesis 13 v 14 – 17).
And later still God comes to Abram in a vision and declares:
‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward’ (Genesis 15 v 1).
There are a number of interwoven aspects to God’s promises to Abram:
- 1) Abram will be the head of a great nation
- 2) Abram will be blessed
- 3) Abram’s name will be great
- 4) Abram will be a blessing – all peoples on earth will be blessed through Abram
- 5) Abram is dear to God – those who bless Abram will be blessed by God, but those who curse Abram will be cursed by God
- 6) Abram’s offspring are going to be numerous – impossible to count
- 7) God is going to give Abram and his offspring a portion of land forever
- 8) God declares that He is Abram’s shield – his protector and defender
- 9) God declares that he is Abram’s very great reward
I want to note that apart from God’s command to go to the land of Canaan, which Abram duly obeyed, these promises by God to Abram are unconditional. God declared what He was going to do and how things were going to be. No other conditions, restrictions, limitations or terms were attached to these promises.
We now know from the New Testament that point 4 above includes the promise of a Deliverer, the One chosen, set apart and anointed by God, the Messiah. Jesus is counted as a descendant of Abraham. But at this stage, that is, in Abram’s time, such a notion was by no means clear.
A childless marriage
Abram became puzzled because he and his wife Sarai had no children and there was little prospect of Sarai becoming pregnant – they were getting on in years and Sarai was considered barren. So Abram spoke to God and said: ‘Lord, what can you give me? Because I remain childless such that the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus. You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir’ (Genesis 15 v 2, 3). But God repeated His promise to Abram is more specific terms: ‘This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.’ God took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the sky and count the stars – if indeed you can count them.’ Then God said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be’ (Genesis 15 v 4, 5).
Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness (Genesis 15 v 6).
The promises are inherited
God’s promises are not restricted to Abram and Sarai, they involve Abram’s offspring who are going to be so numerous that it will be impossible to count them. So who are Abram’s offspring? Who is it that will inherit the benefits of God’s promises? We may be inclined to think that it will be Abram’s fleshly descendants – his own flesh and blood – who will inherit these benefits, especially with God declaring that Abram’s immediate heir will be a son who is his own flesh and blood. But it is important to recognize that this is not the case. We now know that the heirs of these promises are those who, like Abram, believe God – who trust in and dedicate themselves to God, who believe and trust in God’s promises.
As revelation unfolded and more of God’s plan of Deliverance and Restoration was revealed, we know that the focal point of this faith becomes better defined. Faith in God becomes a dedicated trust in God through the One that God has set apart and anointed – the Messiah – Jesus. The offspring of Abram place their trust in God, believe God’s promises and patiently hope for and wait for the perfection or completion of these promises even though they do not yet see what they hope for. ‘Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring – not only to those who are of the law (Jews – Abram’s fleshly descendants) but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: ‘I have made you a father of many nations’ (Romans 4 v 16, 17). And again: ‘Abraham ‘believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Understand, then, that (it is) those who have faith (who) are (the) children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles (non Jews) by faith, and announced the good news in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’ So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith’ (Galatians 3 v 6 – 9). ‘If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, and heirs according to the promise’ (Galatians 3 v 29).
This means that those who have faith form the great nation that God is establishing: ‘Now to you who believe, this stone (Jesus) is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders (Jews) rejected has become the cornerstone,” and, “A stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the message – which is also what they were destined for. But you (who have faith in Jesus) are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God’ (I Peter 2 v 7 – 10).
If you are a Christian then you are an heir of God’s promises to Abram. You are part of a great nation that will be blessed by God. A portion of land is promised to you forever. This is part of your godly inheritance. God is even now establishing His Kingdom on earth. It has already been inaugurated and it has been secured and guaranteed by Jesus. God’s restoration plan for fallen humanity and a cursed earth is on course. As a Christian it is your destiny to belong to God’s Kingdom on earth. God has promised these things, swearing an oath on His own Name, and God cannot lie: ‘The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Harran. ‘Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you.’ So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Harran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living (Israel)’ (Acts 7 v 2 – 4).
The fulfillment of God’s promises
Did Abraham inherit the land that God had promised? No he did not. ‘[God] gave him no inheritance here, not even enough ground to set his foot on. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child’ (Acts 7 v 2 – 5). You see? These promises, of which you are an heir if you belong to Christ, are yet to be completed or perfected. There have been first fruits and tokens, shadows of what is to come, especially for Abram’s fleshly descendants, but the full substance and perfection of God’s promises is yet to be realised and when it is, then Abraham, like you, will possess his inheritance.
These promises are not a Covenant
Sometimes in my writings I refer to God’s communications to Abraham and label them as the ‘Covenant of Promise’. But this is not strictly correct and the difference has practical applications for us today. Nowhere in this text are these promises made by God to Abraham referred to as a Covenant. There is indeed a Covenant made by God with Abraham but these promises that I have been looking at here are not part of that Covenant. It is more correct to say that there are ‘covenants of the promise’ (Ephesians 2 v 12), but these Covenants only apply to Abram’s fleshly descendents – the Jews or Israelites.
The Children of promise
God’s promises to Abram, unlike His Covenants with Adam and Noah, are not universal – they are not promises made by God to all of humanity. Instead, these are promises that are made to Abram’s offspring, to those who have faith in God. If you are a Christian, then Abraham is your father in faith – he is the patriarch of those who have faith. So God’s promises to Abram are specific or particular in their application. Because those people who have faith in God are Abraham’s offspring – they are called the ‘Children of the Promise’ and no distinction is made when it comes to becoming one of the ‘Children of the Promise’, there is a great levelling such that there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, slave or free, rich or poor. None of these labels, categories or classes guarantees an automatic entry or ‘privileged pass’ into being a ‘Child of the Promise’ and neither do they prevent entry into membership.