The two covenants with Abraham – part 2 (Genesis 15, 17 and 22)

In the previous post we saw how Genesis 12:1-3 makes two distinct but related sets of promises. The first set of promises involves blessing to Abraham (Gen 12:1-2c). The second set of promises involves blessing through Abraham to the world (Gen 12:2d-3). Following Paul Williamson’s analysis, we will now see how these two sets of promises issue in two distinct but related covenants in the rest of the Abraham story.

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

Genesis 15 and 17 describe two distinct but related covenants (i.e. “elected relationships of obligation under oath”) based on the two sets of promises in Gen 12:1–3. The first covenant (Gen 15) is related to nationhood (heirs and inheritance) without any explicit mention of international blessing, while the second (Gen 17, which is dependent upon the fulfilment of the first) is related to the international significance of Abraham and his seed.[1] Apart from the obvious (but often overlooked) fact that the two covenants are separated both in time (by at least 13 years, cf. Gen 15:2, 16:16, 17:1) and in the story of Genesis (by the obvious fact that chapter 16 occurs in between chapters 15 and 17), there are numerous other significant differences between chapters 15 and 17.[2] The chapters have different structures,[3] and describe different rituals. Genesis 15 is a unilateral covenant,[4] while Genesis 17 describes bilateral commitments. Genesis 15 describes a temporal covenant, fulfilled once the nation had taken possession of the land, whilst Genesis 17 describes an enduring covenant (עוֹלָם Gen 17:7). There is a shift in focus from the single nation (Gen 15) to the multitude of nations (Gen 17). The “nation” (i.e. Abraham and his seed) is the result of the Genesis 15 covenant but the partner in the Genesis 17 covenant. This is paralleled by the name change from Abram to Abraham (Gen 17:5). There are two distinct covenantal oaths: the oath of the Genesis 15 covenant (see Gen 24:7),[5] and the oath of the Genesis 17 covenant in Gen 22:16–18 (see below).[6]

The covenants do not stand alone, but are integrated into a story that focuses on Abraham’s faith and loyalty. There is a causal connection (sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit) between Abraham’s faith and loyalty, and the making of the covenants. In chapter 15, God makes a promise of abundant seed to Abram despite Abram’s childlessness (Gen 15:1–5). Abram believes God, and this is accounted as righteousness (Gen 15:6). Then God makes a unilateral covenant of land (inheritance) with Abram (Gen 15:7–21).[7] There is also an explicit connection between Abraham’s loyalty to God and the establishment of the Genesis 17 covenant:

When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly”. (Gen 17:1–2 ESV)

“Walking before” the LORD and “being blameless” means primarily loyalty and devotion to God. It is the moral prerequisite for the establishment of the eternal covenant between God and Abraham.[8] This covenant is that God will make Abraham the father of a multitude of nations (Gen 17:4–7). Whilst this covenant encompasses the first covenant of physical seed and inheritance (Gen 17:8), it goes far beyond it.

[T]he central promise in Genesis 17 closely relates to Abraham’s phenomenal expansion in a multinational sphere. Abraham will be a ‘father’ to this international company, not in the sense of being their progenitor, but rather through his special status and the particular responsibilities that he will discharge on their behalf.[9]

God will make a covenant to bless all nations through Abraham and his physical seed, provided Abraham is loyal to God.

In the “Aqedah” (“binding”) incident (Gen 22:1–13), Abraham fulfilled the conditions of loyalty by not withholding his “only son”. Abraham showed his willingness to sacrifice the very “seed” that was the basis for the promises. This was a display of supreme loyalty to God—an outworking of Abraham’s faith in the One who could fulfil His promises despite overwhelming odds.[10] Once Abraham had displayed the necessary blameless walk before God, the covenant spoken of in the future tense in Genesis 17 is ratified by a solemn oath and becomes a reality (Gen 22:15–18, cf. 26:4b–5). Even though the seed is not, in the end, sacrificed, a sacrifice is still an important factor in the ratification of this covenant (Gen 22:13-14). The God who ratifies the covenant by oath is the same God who has just provided a sacrifice.

[1] Williamson, Abraham, 99–113.

[2] Williamson, Abraham, 99–113.

[3] Williamson, Abraham, 113–19.

[4] see further Williamson, Abraham, 135–40.

[5] Williamson, Abraham, 139–40.

[6] Williamson, Abraham, 234–53.

[7] Williamson, Abraham, 124.

[8] Williamson, Abraham, 174–76.

[9] Williamson, Abraham, 157–66 (166).

[10] Williamson, Abraham, 234–58.

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