In the first post on the Covenant and Promises made by God to Abram/Abraham, I looked specifically at God’s Promises to Abram and the recipients or heirs of these promises. But God also made a Covenant with Abram and his offspring, His third Covenant following on from those with Adam and Noah, and this forms the theme of this post. Both the Covenant and the Promises contain similar elements or aspects – for example, possession of an area of land – and this is one of the reasons why the Promises and the Covenant are often inadvertently merged together by Christians as if the Promises to Abram constitute part God’s Covenant with Abram. But this is a mistake, because the Promises and the Covenant apply to different groups of people. We need to be aware of this difference and to keep it in mind or else when it comes to practical day-to-day Christian living, we will end up using wrong principles.
It was quite a while after making His promises with Abram that God then made a Covenant with Abram: ‘On that day the Lord made a Covenant with Abram and said, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates – the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites’ (Genesis 15 v 18 – 20). And there it is, as I have just indicated – God’s Covenant to Abram contains reference to the possession of land – in fact the Covenant refers to the same area of land as the Promises that God made to Abram earlier. In the same way, both God’s Promises and God’s Covenant to Abram contain references to Abram’s offspring. With regard to God’s Promises it is ‘those who have faith (who) are (the) children of Abraham’ (Galatians 3 v 6). This means that ‘If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, and heirs according to the promise’ (Galatians 3 v 29). However, when it comes to God’s Covenant with Abram, then Abram’s offspring constitute Abram’s fleshly descendants through his son Isaac.
A childless marriage
When God made this Covenant, 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 it was considered that Sarai was unable to have children. 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 in 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).
Birth of Ishmael
However, the years passed and still ‘Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children’ (Genesis 16 v 1). In such circumstances it was considered customary for a husband to take one of his servants as a concubine. Sarai ‘had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, ‘The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.’ Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived…..So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne’ (Genesis 16 v 1 – 4, 15). However, when God had declared that ‘a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir’ (Genesis 15 v 4), it was not Ishmael that God had meant.
God’s Covenant with Abram
Thirteen years later God appeared to Abram again: ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make my Covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.’ Abram fell face down, and God said to him, ‘As for me, this is my Covenant with you: you will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram [which means ‘exalted father]; your name will be Abraham, [probably meaning ‘father of many], because I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my Covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.’
Then God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you must keep my Covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my Covenant with you and your descendants after you, the Covenant that you are to keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the Covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner – those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My Covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting Covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.’
God also said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai [meaning ‘my princess’]; her name will be Sarah, [meaning ‘princess of the multitude’]. I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.’
Abraham fell face down; he laughed and said to himself, ‘Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?’ And Abraham said to God, ‘If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!’
Then God said, ‘Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac [meaning ‘he laughs’]. I will establish my Covenant with him as an everlasting Covenant for his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. But my Covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.’ When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him [to the spiritual realm of heaven].
On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him……And every male in Abraham’s household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him’ (Genesis 17 v 1 – 23, 27).