Exploring God’s promises to Abram in and outside of God’s Covenant with Abram
Father of nations
When it comes to God’s promises to Abram concerning nationhood – promises that were made outside of the later Covenant, Abram is described as the father of those who have a faith in God that is credited to them as righteousness. This group of people constitute a holy nation (I Peter 2 v 9), whose members are drawn from many earthly nations over many generations. They constitute the ‘children of promise’. When it comes to God’s Covenant with Abram however, Abram is the father, the head – through Isaac, his son with Sarai – of a fleshly line of descendants who in due course come to constitute the nation of Israel – the ‘children of Israel’ – also known as the Jews.
Possession of promised land
When it comes to the gift and allocation by God to Abram of a portion of land, in terms of God’s promises to Abram outside of the later Covenant, Abram did not inherit the land – ‘[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). So this promise has yet to be fully or completely fulfilled. This land is something that God has promised to those who have faith in God that is credited to them as righteousness, but the ‘children of promise’ have not yet received it. With regards to God’s Covenant with Abram, most of us are probably familiar with the story. God’s Covenant was subsequently confirmed with Abraham’s fleshly descendants through Isaac. So, for example God said to Isaac: ‘Stay in this land for a while, and I will be with you and will bless you. Because to you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham’ (Genesis 26 v 3). The Covenant, with its promise of land, was similarly confirmed to Isaac’s son Jacob, whose name was changed to ‘Israel’, meaning ‘prince of God’ or ‘one who prevails with God’. Thus it is that the inheritors of the promises in God’s Covenant with Abraham/Isaac/Jacob are known as the ‘children of Israel’. Abraham/Isaac/Jacob’s fleshly descendants, the Israelites, ended up being in slavery under Pharaoh: ‘As the time drew near for God to fulfill his promise to Abraham, the number of our people in Egypt had greatly increased. Then ‘a new king, to whom Joseph, (a fleshly descendant of Abraham/Isaac/Jacob), meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. He dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our ancestors by forcing them to throw out their newborn babies so that they would die. At that time Moses was born…’ (Acts 7 v 17 – 20). The ‘children of Israel’ left Egypt under the leadership of God and Moses and they subsequently entered the land of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua and when they did so, God’s promises to Abraham were partly – but only partly – fulfilled. ‘The Lord our God said to us at Horeb…..Break camp and advance into the hill country of the Amorites; go to all the neighbouring peoples in the Arabah, in the mountains, in the western foothills, in the Negev and along the coast, to the land of the Canaanites and to Lebanon, as far as the great river, the Euphrates. See, I have given you this land. Go in and take possession of the land the Lord swore he would give to your fathers – to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – and to their descendants after them” (Deuteronomy 1 v 6 – 8).
The subsequent story of the ‘children of Israel’ became one of alternating obedience and disobedience despite their privileges and the borders of the land of Israel expanded and at other times contracted. The ‘children of Israel’ failed to keep subsequent Covenants made with them by God and this resulted in periods of captivity, overthrow and expulsion from the land that was promised to them by God. Nevertheless, it is important to note and remember that God gave this land to Abraham’s descendants – the ‘children of Israel’ -as an everlasting possession (Genesis 17 v 8). There is a sense then in which this promise that was made within God’s Covenant to Abraham has not yet been fully completed or brought to perfection.
Ishmael and God’s Covenant with Abram
In God’s Covenant with Abram, when it came to Ishmael – Abram’s son with his concubine Hagar – God declared that:
Ishmael will be fruitful – the father of twelve rulers and a great nation
The birth of Ishmael caused discord between Sarai and Hagar and this discord was increased when Isaac was born. ‘[Isaac] grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham, (Ishmael), was mocking and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be counted. I will make the son of the slave (Ishmael) into a nation also, because he is your offspring” (Genesis 21 v 8 – 13). Abraham was comforted by God’s promise to make a great nation from the descendants of Ishmael, so Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away and they wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba. Hagar found a wife for Ishmael from the land of Egypt (Genesis 21 v 9 – 21) and Ishmael’s wife became the mother of twelve sons and one daughter. Not much is recorded concerning the later life of Ishmael. He was present with Isaac at the burial of their father Abraham and we know that he died at the age of 137 years (Genesis 25 v 17, 18). Ishmael’s sons, (the Ishmaelites), peopled the north and west of the Arabian peninsula and eventually formed the chief element of the Arab nation – the wandering Bedouin tribes. They spread over the wide desert spaces of Northern Arabia from the Red Sea to the Euphrates (Genesis 37 v 25, 27, 28; 39 v 1), ‘their hand against every man, and every man’s hand against them’. At the present time they mainly hold to the Islamic religion and look to Mohammed as their spiritual father, just as the Jews look to Abraham.
What this means for us today
All of humanity is assigned under the Adamic and Noahic Covenants. However, if you trust in God such that your faith – your dedicated, trusting obedience to God – is counted as righteousness, then you belong to the ‘Children of Promise’. Being part of this group does mean that the obligations of the Adamic and Noahic Covenants are therefore rescinded or withdrawn. In the good news of the gospel it is revealed that if you turn to and trust God through Jesus – the One chosen and anointed by God to be the Deliverer – then on your behalf, Jesus fulfills all of the obligations that these Covenants stipulate. In addition, your past disobedience and failings are forgiven – the debt that you have incurred is paid for by Jesus your Advocate. If you have access to the Scriptures or Bible, and to the message of the gospel and apostolic teaching that the Scriptures contain, then it means that the way in which these Covenantal obligations are fulfilled by God for you is fully and completely explained and revealed – you have a more complete explanation than the generations that trusted God before the coming of Jesus the Messiah. Those of us who have the gospel and the scriptures have the privilege of having the path of restoration, reconciliation and deliverance explained more completely than those people who do not have access to the Scriptures or gospel but who nevertheless trust God. Abraham did not possess insights into the path of restoration, reconciliation and deliverance. ‘Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things’ (I Peter 1 v 10 – 12). The ways and means by which God has chosen to restore fallen humanity has only gradually been revealed. Nevertheless, the faith of these prophets and patriarchs was counted as righteousness. Even before Abraham: ‘By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead. By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: ‘He could not be found, because God had taken him away.’ Because before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God and without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith’ (Hebrews 11 v 4 -7). Abram was not the first to have faith in God, but it was with Abram that God made His promises and Covenant – making him the father of those who have faith.
Belief in Jesus is not the key factor but faith in God – dedicated, obedient trust in God – that in some way He will deliver and restore his fallen creation. In the gospel and in the revelations concerning Jesus the Messiah, we have the privilege of seeing God’s way of righteousness revealed in a fuller, more complete and perfect way.