After the blessing by Melchizedek, God appeared to Abraham in a vision and said:
“Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield, your reward shall be very great.”
As I discussed earlier, God appeared to Abraham in Chapter 12 with a sevenfold promise, God then inaugurated the covenantal promises by blessing Abraham through the patriarch Shem, also known by his throne name as Melchizedek. After this inaugural blessing, Abraham probably expected more things to happen, but nothing did. If he was to become a great nation, he would expect that his wife Sarai would become pregnant. A full twenty five years passed with Abraham sojourning in the land that he did not possess and having no heir.
We can’t blame Abraham if he was a little confused at this point. God promised that he would make him a great nation, but he had no natural heir. Sarai had been barren all her life and was long passed the age of being able to have children. Abraham was now about one hundred years old. After God told Abraham that his reward would be very great, Abraham asked God how he could be rewarded if he had no heir. Abraham proposed that God make Eleazer, his chief servant, his heir, but God rejects this idea insisting that the heir would be a child coming from Abraham and Sarah. Through that child, he would make Abraham a great nation.
He then took Abraham outside his tent and showed him the stars. He told him to count them if he was able to and that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars:
“The Lord 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.'”-Genesis 15:5
St. Paul says in the Epistle to the Romans, that against all hope, in hope, Abraham believed and God counted it to him as righteousness.
Genesis 15:6 says that “Abraham believed and God reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
God then said that he would give Abraham the land. After all, how can one become a great nation with many descendants if the descendants had no place to call home? The idea of nationhood and the land were closely connected. Abraham asks for an assurance that these promises would be fulfilled. Some would say that he was wavering in his unbelief because he was asking for a sign. In actuality, what he was doing was asking for God’s covenantal promises to be ratified. It had been twenty-five years since God first spoke the covenantal promises, and the covenant had not been ratified yet. This was a perfectly legitimate thing for Abraham to ask. Covenant arrangements were very common in the ancient Near East.1
In the ancient Near East, covenants were made between unrelated parties in order to establish kinship bonds.2 In essence, covenants turned strangers into family. Two completely unrelated parties, through the making of a covenant, would take on all of the privileges and responsibilities that were normally found among family. We understand this today with the concept of marriage. Two biologically unrelated people are joined together in a marriage covenant that makes them as close as any family members can be. A covenant was more than a contract. It was very serious and had serious implications if the terms were broken. The parties were committed to each other personally, and not just legally.
There were three types of covenants made in the ancient Near East. The first type was a “kinship” covenant where both parties pledged obligations mutually (Genesis 21:31).3 The second type was a “vassal” covenant where the inferior party pledged submission and loyalty to the superior party (Genesis 17:9-14). The third type, what we have here, was called a “grant” covenant where the superior party pledged to benefit the inferior party.
Serious covenants such as these were made by making animal sacrifices, cutting the animals in half, and the obligating party or parties walking between the halves.4 Those who walked between the splayed animals would be saying that may the same thing happen to them if they fail to keep the terms of the covenant (Jeremiah 34:18-20).
This was so common that the expression for making covenant at that time was the phrase, “cutting a covenant.”5
The following passage is from Genesis 15:
“As the sun was going down, a deep sleep feel upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking post and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the LORD 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.”
Just like God bound himself to the created order through the covenant with Noah (post 14), he now bound himself in a covenant with Abraham guaranteeing that he would fulfill all of the promises that he had made to him. The fact that God alone, in the form of a theophany, walked through the animal halves indicates that God was making a grant covenant with Abraham. God alone would be responsible for fulfilling the terms of the covenant. Through this act, God solemnized his promise to make Abraham a great nation.
The sevenfold promise of Genesis 12 can be distilled down to three main features:6
-Abraham would be a great nation – fulfilled in the covenant under the Mosaic covenant (Deuteronomy 1) and prefigured in Genesis 15.
-Abraham’s name would be great – the idea of a great name implied kingship in the ancient Near East and was fulfilled in the Davidic covenant (2 Samuel 7) and prefigured in Genesis 17.
-Abraham would be a universal blessing – fulfilled in the New Covenant under Jesus (Matthew 26:26-28) and prefigured in Genesis 22.
The Abrahamic covenant is the foundational covenant in the Old Testament. It is from this covenant that God brought forth a nation from which the Messiah arose who is a blessing to all nations. Just as God ratified his covenant with Abraham through the broken bodies and shed blood of animals, so he ratified the New Covenant through the broken body and shed blood of his Son. The New Covenant includes people from all nations that partake in the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Matthew 26:27-28 says:
“While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.'”
Finally, consider the following question:
Do we have any modern examples of “covenant making” or is that an outdated idea? Please leave your comment below. Thank you!
- Lauinger, Jacob, “Approaching Ancient Near Eastern Treaties, Laws, and Covenants,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 136, No. 1, January-March, 2016, pp. 125-134, Published by: American Oriental Society, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7817/jameroriesoci.136.1.125?seq=1
- Balentine, Samuel E., editor, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology: Two-Volume Set, Vol. 1, p., 151-3, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 2015
- Balentine, Samuel E., editor, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology: Two-Volume Set, Vol. 1, p., 154
- Executive Committee of the Editorial Board, Kaufmann Kohler, Louis Ginzberg, Richard Gottheil, Isaac Broyde, Emil G. Hirsch, J. Frederic McCurdy, Jewish Encyclopedia, https://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/4714-covenant
- Hahn, Ph.D., Scott, A Father Who Keeps His Promises, pp. 93-110, Franciscan Media, Cincinnati, 1998
Bibliography and Sources:
Balentine, Samuel E., editor, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology: Two-Volume Set, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 2015
De Mieroop, Van, A History of the Ancient Near East, ca. 3000-323 BC, 3rd Edition (Blackwell History of the Ancient World), Wiley-Blackwell, Hoboken, N.J., 2015
Hahn, Ph.D., Scott, A Father Who Keeps His Promises, Franciscan Media, Cincinnati, 1998
Hahn, Ph.D., Scott, Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT., 2009
Voegelin, Eric, Order and History, Vol. 1: Israel and Revelation, classic reprint hardcover, Forgotten Books Publishers, London, 2018
Weinfeld, M., “Covenant Terminology in the Ancient Near East and Its Influence on the West.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 93, no. 2, 1973, pp. 190–199. JSTOR
Amazon Review: “This book is the fruit of an immense amount of research in the contemporary study of the Biblical covenant. No one who takes up the challenge to study it, whether scholar or not, will come away from reading it without being more astute in matters human and divine. The thesis of the book is masterly in its basic insight: life lived under Biblical covenant cannot be separated from life lived in relationships dictated by familial terms and ties. It is the family which is central to the Bible’s view of life for the simple reason that the family is central to life itself.”—James Swetnam, S. J., Pontifical Biblical Institute