I love the Old Testament and today’s topic may be one of the most significant, albeit little known, passages in the Old Testament. Today we are going to read about the covenant God made with Abraham, then known as Abram, 4000 years ago.
A covenant is a promise, but it’s a little different than what we think of when we think of promises. Most of us know that promises should never be broken, yet they regularly are. As children, I’m sure many of us pinky swore that we would never tell a secret, but that promise is only as good as the person making the promise, and so many of those pinky-swearing promises were broken because of secrets too juicy to keep to ourselves. Now, if we did pinky swearing the way they were done in Japan where they originated, we would have a lot of children, and adults now, missing their pinkies! Yup, break a pinky promise and off with that finger!
A pinky swear like that is a bit closer in meaning to the idea of making a covenant. A covenant is a serious promise with serious consequences if you don’t uphold your end of the deal, but we’ll get more into what that looked like in the time of Abram later.
Events Leading to the Covenant
As we continue walking through our series, “The Big Story of God,” picking up the game-changing moments in this single story of God collected through 66 books written across nearly 2000 years, in what we call the Bible, we come to Genesis 12. To get you all up to speed:
- We began this series talking about Creation – or more specifically, about the Creator, God Almighty, who created everything out of nothing so he could be in relationship with us.
- We talked about what is known as, “The Fall” – the first sin ever, by Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. This sin brought separation into the relationship between humans and God. While it brought serious consequences, God immediately pointed to a future reconciliation in the relationship.
- In the story of Genesis, from the story of the Fall in Genesis 3 to Genesis 11, we read story after story of greater sin, hardening of hearts, and God’s judgment on the people for their wickedness. In these chapters we read of Cain killing Abel, God’s need to start over with humankind by destroying nearly everyone in a flood, and then his need to separate people by giving them different languages after they built the tower of Babel.
Covenant Initiated by God
The story written in Genesis takes an abrupt turn, beginning in chapter 12. It’s a game-changer for all of humanity for all time. But lets pick up the story back a couple verses where we are first introduced to the main character of the story, Abram.
Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there. Terah lived 205 years, and he died in Haran.
This is pretty boring stuff here, but it is all we know about Abram as we go into the following verse. That’s it. He hasn’t done anything spectacular. In fact, Joshua 24:2 shows Joshua telling all the Israelites that Terah, the Father of Abram worshiped other gods. Also, the fact that Abram’s family is from Ur, a city dedicated to the “moon god” makes it likely that Abram actually worshiped other gods. But, something extraordinary happens to this unlikely person in the following verse.
The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.
I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you;
I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.”
God tells Abram to go and leave everything he knows, and then God promises to make him into a great nation and make his name great.
Imagine this, out of nowhere, a foreign God just appears to Abram and makes this amazing promise. This moment was so impactful to Abram that he followed God, and verse 5 says that at the age of 75 years old he packed up his things and headed west toward Canaan.
There is one really important thing for us to understand about this promise God makes with Abram – this covenant is fully initiated by God. God takes the first step to redeem the people that have broken relationship with him. Just like God chose to create the entire world simply because he wanted relationship with humanity, God is again sovereignly choosing to make a covenant, a serious promise, with a nobody – an idol worshipper. There is not one thing to make us think that Abram earned this special privilege or that he somehow deserved it because of past actions.
Keep that in the back of your mind – Abram didn’t earn this special blessing – it just shows up as an amazing act of grace – unearned favor from the Creator of the World.
Covenant Based on Belief
The story continues for a couple chapters in Genesis, probably 5-10 years time, with Abram traveling, saving his nephew Lot, and occasionally being reminded by God about this promise. Then in Chapter 15 we find another encounter between Abram and God.
After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.”
But Abram said, “O Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascas?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”
Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars– if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
I find this dialog so interesting. God opens up by telling Abram, who had just won a victory against some opposing kings, “not to fear, I am your Shield.” Not only is God telling Abram that he will protect him, but He will also give him a great reward.
Now if I’m Abram, I’m again in awe that God is speaking to me, promising to protect me, and promising a great reward to me. But, that’s not Abram’s response. No – shockingly, Abram’s response is tied to his belief in the first promise – to be the father of a great nation. Abram basically calls the promise out and says, “Yeah God, I know about the reward, but none of that means anything if I have no children and my servant is my heir.”
That’s when God again reiterates the promise. He says, “Abe, come outside with me. I’m going to give you a son, and while that doesn’t sound like a lot, look up at the sky. See all those stars? That’s how many descendants you will have.” (And for us today, that might not sound like a lot of stars, you know, with all the light pollution, sometimes I only see a handful of stars when I look up at the night sky. But I’m sure some of you have be amazed when you have gone to some remote place and looked up. The number of the stars in the sky truly is amazing! And that is what God was promising to Abram.
Then in verse 6, we read Abram’s response. “Abram believed the Lord.” Basically Abram said, “You’re right. I trust you.”
Now this is no small thing. Remember, by this time Abram is likely in his 80’s with a wife in her 70’s, who has never given birth. God has been making this same promise over and over for years, but Abram is still childless. God knows it’s not a small thing, and that’s why it says God credited Abram’s belief as righteousness. Righteousness is what we need to have our relationship restored with God. Righteousness is what was lost when Adam sinned. Yet, God looks at this imperfect man, this former idol worshipper, and marks his account of rights and wrongs as “Righteous” – all because of this belief in God’s promise.
Doesn’t this sound familiar to us as believers in Jesus Christ some 4000 years later. All the way back here – back at the beginning of God’s plan to reconcile humanity with himself, the terms of the covenant were based on belief in God’s promise. Abram didn’t earn this status of righteous because he stopped worshiping idols or because he left Haran (though he did both those things). He was credited (notice that word – we get things on credit when we are receiving the benefit without actually paying the full price yet) as righteous because of his BELIEF in the promise God made to him which is really a BELIEF in the God who made the promise.
Covenant Guaranteed By God
Let’s finish learning about this encounter.
He also said to him, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”
But Abram said, “O Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”
So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”
Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.
Here we see that even as Abram believed, he still wanted a sign to know that it would happen. Isn’t that all too common both through the rest of the Bible and in our own lives?
- Gideon speaks to an Angel of the Lord who does a miracle in front of him yet still asks for a sign from God.
- Doubting Thomas sees Jesus after his resurrection, yet needs to see his hands.
- We have very tangible moments with God one moment and then doubt his very existence and the experience the next.
Again, God patiently obliges, this time setting in place a formal covenant ceremony.
You see, God’s instruction for Abram to get a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtle dove, and a pigeon and to cut them all in half wasn’t that unusual to Abram. Given the time, and the practices of the nations of the near east, it was similar to us setting up an appointment with our lawyer who writes up a contract and has a notary public to sign off that he witnessed the signing of the contract between the parties.
In these covenant rituals, the animals were split in half with one half on one side and one half on the other side. Then both people entering into the covenant with one another would walk between the halves of the animals, signifying that if they broke the covenant, they would experience the same ill fate as the animals. Essentially, it was an extreme Japanese pinky swearing.
Here’s the amazing thing about this climactic point in the Old Testament. While God has Abram set up the ceremony, verse 17 says:
When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.
Do you understand the significance of this event? God didn’t walk through the dead animals alongside Abram, the 2nd party in this agreement. He walked through the animals himself in the form of a firepot and a torch. This is AMAZING! God basically said, “I will be the sole Guarantor that this promise I have made will be fulfilled. Abram, you can’t ruin this. I initiated it, I planned it, and I WILL see it through to completion.”
As we would expect, 25 years after God first appeared to Abram and promised he would be made into a great nation, after Abram had doubted God from time to time, after he had tried to fulfill the promise himself by sleeping with his servant, God fulfilled the promise of a son. At 100 years old, with his wife Sarah who was 90, he had a son, Isaac – a son of the promise.
Covenant Extends Beyond Abraham and the Promised Land
The covenant isn’t limited to the birth of Isaac. And it isn’t limited to the Israelites entering into the Promised Land God had promised to Abram’s family. And a really important thing for us to understand today is that this covenant isn’t limited to Abraham’s physical family, the Jews, and their stake in the East Bank, a minute portion of the Promised Land described in Genesis 15.
As this Covenant is part of the series, “The Big Story of God” we have to understand the breadth of this covenant which extends to us still today. Remember, this covenant was initiated by God and is tied to belief in the promises of God. Genesis 15 is one of the most often quoted chapters of the Old Testament from the writers of the New Testament. Looking back, the Apostles recognized that the promise God made with Abraham was not replaced with a new promise made through Jesus Christ. It was being fulfilled and brought to completion in Jesus Christ. It is through our belief in Jesus Christ that each one of us are credited as righteous, just like Abram.
That’s why Paul wrote in Romans 4:23-24
The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in God who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.
This is why God’s first promise to Abram also said, “And all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” This blessing for God to make a great nation through Abraham extends to everyone with faith like Abraham. Again, Paul describes in Romans 11 that the family of God is like a tree and the natural born descendants of Abraham are like branches that have been broken off because of unbelief – they didn’t share the faith of their father Abraham. And likewise, those of us who are not the physical offspring of Abraham, through our faith, are grafted into the tree just like a natural family member. In this way, the promise of blessing made to Abraham always has been and always will be available to every person on this earth.
It’s God’s Story, and he wrote one in which everybody is invited to be a part of his blessing.
Today, my challenge to you is to put your trust in God. I know sometimes you have doubts. Sometimes you wonder if all your spiritual experiences are just the result of too much hope. You wonder if all your time spent at church might be better spent doing something else. You wonder if the God you put your trust in will follow through on what you believe about Him.
Let me tell you, the God who I believe in, the Creator God, the star of the Bible, the God who initiated a plan to restore all humanity to himself, the God who has personally guaranteed to fulfill his plan of reconciliation, that God is worthy your trust. The blessings he spoke of to Abraham so long ago are so much grander than we could ever imagine.
I can’t wait to experience the fullness of those blessings, to one day sit with everyone who is part of the great nation that began with Abraham and to find perfect rest in the final Promised Land, the new heavens and the new earth. To God be the Glory!