The two covenants with Abraham – Part 1 (Genesis 12)

This post, and the next few posts, will examine the way that the word “covenant” (בְּרִית) features in Genesis 12–22, which one of the key foundational texts for Galatians 3.

(This post is part of a series. See here for an introduction to the series.)

It is common to speak of “the Abrahamic covenant”. However, if Genesis 12-22 is read seriously as a single narrative whole, it is clear that two different covenants are being described in the story of Abraham.

Some scholars believe that the two covenant descriptions are simply different versions of the same covenant that have undergone different textual histories. Weinfeld sees a single covenant with Abraham throughout Genesis 12–22, which was originally unilateral, without any human obligation (Gen 13:15).[1] According to Weinfeld, the exile forced Israel to reinterpret the promises, adding conditional elements that are reflected in later accretions to the story (e.g. Gen 22, 26:5).[2]

It is unlikely that Paul himself would have identified such “early” and “late” elements in the text. Rather, he would have read Genesis as an integrated narrative whole. Hence, for our purposes, the most helpful analyses of the Abraham story are those that take its final form seriously. We will largely follow Williamson’s detailed synchronic reading of the Abraham narrative.[3]

The Abraham story occurs in the context of universal human need. God’s creation of the world and his “blessing” of all humanity (Gen 1–2) has seemingly been negated by human disobedience which called forth a “curse” (Gen 3). As disobedience reaches its full measure, God regrets his creation of humanity (Gen 6:6) and sends a flood in a great act of “uncreation” followed by “recreation”.[4] God then makes a covenant (Gen 9:8–17) with the humans and animals who survive the flood. This covenant affirms God’s choice to maintain his original creational intent despite humanity’s continued sinfulness (Gen 8:21–22).[5] The Babel incident, where humanity attempts to build a tower that reaches to the heavens in order to make a “name” for itself (Gen 11:4) but is thwarted by God (Gen 11:6–7), shows decisively that this will not be achieved by independent human effort. Genesis 11 ends with humanity, composed of various “nations” (Gen 10), dispersed across the earth and confused (Gen 11:9). The story of Abraham is God’s answer to how he will fulfil his covenant in the face of human sin and the curse on creation.

Williamson describes a narrative arc in Genesis 12–22 that begins with a twofold set of promises from God to Abram (Gen 12:1–3), includes the details of two related but distinct covenants based on these promises (Gen 15, 17),[6] and concludes with a solemn oath of ratification (Gen 22:16–18).[7] The two distinct promises (Gen 12:1–3) are, firstly, nationhood (Gen 12:1–2c), and secondly, international blessing (Gen 12:2d–3). The first promise is a geopolitical promise to Abram: a promise of land and descendants (together constituting nationhood) that will give Abram a great “name”. The second promise is a universal promise through Abram: that in him all the families of the earth will be blessed. The second promise is clearly based upon the first, but even so it is quite distinct.

Even though there is a clear connection between the blessing promised to Abraham [12:1–2c] and the blessing promised through Abraham [12:2d–3], a failure to demarcate these two prospects unfortunately obscures the meaning of this programmatic text in the Abraham narrative.[8]

To be continued …

[1] Weinfeld, TDOT 2:270.

[2] Weinfeld, TDOT 2:270–72.

[3] Paul R. Williamson, Abraham, Israel and the Nations: The Patriarchal Promise and its Covenantal Development in Genesis (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 315; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000).

[4] Williamson, “Covenant”, 139.

[5] Williamson, “Covenant”, 140.

[6] Williamson, Abraham, 220–34. See pages 188–216 for a detailed defence of both continuity and discontinuity between the two covenents.

[7] Williamson, Abraham, 217–59.

[8] Williamson, Abraham, 230, emphasis mine.

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