[To learn more about the annual Evangelical Sunday School Lesson Commentary, visit www.pathwaybookstore.com.]
A simple search for the word covenant in the Scriptures yields an astounding 231 references; 206 of these (almost 90%) occur in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, the word is scattered throughout the Gospels, Acts, Pauline Epistles, and even Revelation, but is significantly weighted in the Book of Hebrews. Covenant is such a vital spiritual concept that it escapes no section of Scripture.
The Hebrew word for the action of creating a covenant is carat, which literally means "to cut." This referred to the literal bloodshed not simply associated with covenants, but required to put them into effect. Sometimes these covenants linked two people, such as that struck between David and Jonathan in 1 Samuel 20. The ancient practice of covenant-making between men involved slightly cutting one wrist and applying ash or dirt on the wound, then striking hands together so that not only was the blood mingled, but the wound was permanently scarred by a black mark. This marking was meant to forever remind the participants of the bond they had made before God.
Similarly, covenants between God and man involved the bloodshed of animal sacrifice. Often we rightly associate the practice of animal sacrifice with atonement; that is, the sins of the person are ceremonially applied to the slaughtered animal. However, the act was also to both remind and re-effect the covenant made between the one sacrificing and God. This radically distinguished the Hebrew sacrificial system from that of other pagan religions in the ancient Near East. Their sacrifices tended toward the appeasement of an angry God. Israel's was meant to remind the Jews of God's saving grace.
The centrality of covenant in Scripture appears in unlikely places that don't have animal sacrifices in primary view. The terms Old and New Testament, for instance, could equally be rendered Old and New Covenant, referring to the grounds on which God establishes relationship with His people. The ark which sat in the holiest room of the Temple and which Israel carried into battle was "of the covenant"—a constant reminder to the Jews of Yahweh who cared for them. But all of this started with a nomad named Abram, whom God chose to be the primary vessel through which He would reach all of humanity. With Abram, the initial covenant was made that would later produce Jesus himself.
I. COVENANT ESTABLISHED (Genesis 15:1-18)
The story of Abram continues in Genesis 15, beginning with the simple connecting phrase "after these things." Such phrases at the end of major scenes and chapters have the effect of moving the narrative along speedily. The writer gives us no breaks. The urgency is due to the fact that God is establishing a relationship with His chosen people starting with Abram, and it is foundational to everything else He will do in human history. So there is no time to lose. Specifically, the phrase connects chapter 15 to Abram's previous righteous alliance with God's priest Melchizedek, and his wise rejection of an alliance with the wicked city of Sodom.
A. The Covenant Established Through Abram's Faith (vv. 1-6)
1. After these things the word of the Lord came unto Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.
2. And Abram said, Lord God, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus?
3. And Abram said, Behold, to me thou hast given no seed: and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir.
4. And, behold, the word of the Lord came unto him, saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir.
5. And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be.
6. And he believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness.
Abram had just given up 10 percent of his plunder in order to bless the priest of God, and then untold amounts of riches in order to avoid conflict with the king of sinful Sodom. These things had not gone unnoticed by Yahweh, who assured Abram that his very life and his reward for such righteousness were secure in God's own self. This was all well and good to Abram, except for one massive problem—he had no direct heir. He confronted God head-on, contesting that he could never know this divine reward promised to him without an heir. After all, Yahweh's original word to Abram was to make him into a "great nation" (12:2). Abram's assumption was that the nation would grow from those in his household, but how he longed for a child from his own loins to fulfill the promise of God.
Yahweh had said the same thing in 13:15, 16, but perhaps it only now made perfect sense to Abram that God was speaking literally. He would in fact have flesh-and-blood offspring, and from that seed God would create a nation. Surely, Abram likely thought, If God can set the stars in place, He can fulfill this promise to give me children. Genesis 15:6 says, "Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness" (NIV).
Make no mistake—it was God who initiated things with Abram to begin with and who continued to institute His plan for the world through Abram's life. But Abram had a part to play. God initiated the plan; Abram effected it. The catalyst for all this was simple faith through and through. God peered into the heart of Abram after uttering this seemingly ridiculous promise that in his old age he would bear offspring, and God did not find doubt. He found belief. Was it that Abram wanted to believe so badly that he suppressed his doubt? Or did he immediately take God at His word? Abram now truly trusts this God who walks alongside him. And 20 centuries later, his act of belief became the basis for Paul's theology of justification by faith. Genesis 15:6 is quoted both in Romans 4:3 and in Galatians 3:6 as Paul explains that God found Abram righteous before the Law was given to the Jews, and God was reintroducing this Abraham-style faith in Christ.
One final word should be carefully said about Abram's belief. In the modern (or postmodern) Western world, we tend to associate belief with thinking. That is, I believe something when I mentally acknowledge its reality. The ancients had a much more comprehensive view of belief. Abram did not simply mentally assent to God's promise, he staked the rest of his life on it. He took the leap of his life into the arms of God by trusting that God would do what He said. This is why Paul could teach that such faith saves. And as James says (2:17), it is not distinct from action; one requires the other.
B. The Covenant Will Be Tested (vv. 7-16)
(Genesis 15:7-16 is not included in the printed text.)
After this startling announcement, God is quick to remind Abram that it is He who has allocated the Promised Land to his descendants. Even with his newfound belief, Abram wants greater evidence than God's word alone. So God instructs him to bring the elements of sacrifice, which he arranges in the traditional format. The halves of the animals are placed parallel to one another, so that a single path of blood drains out between the two rows. God's next word for Abram requires solemn, ceremonial preparation, yet even so it may be too overwhelming. So He brings Abram into a deep sleep before communicating the truth about how his offspring will come to inhabit the land. It will not be an easy path. It will be fraught with difficulty. They will be destitute strangers in another country for four centuries before God brings them back. The Amorites will be a major obstacle. This word was given to Abram to pass onto his descendants so that when the time of oppression in Egypt came, the people might remember that God's covenant was not null and void. Instead, God was setting them up to display His glory through them to the entire world.
C. Covenant Established Through Sacrifice (vv. 17, 18)
17. And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp that passed between those pieces.
18. In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates.
With the pieces of the sacrifice arranged in their proper place, the Lord caused a smoking pot and a blazing torch to pass along the center row created by the animal parts. These cryptic elements probably mirrored the typical tools of ancient sacrifice. The clay pot would have been used for baking, and the torch for fire. Sacrifices were usually cooked, then eaten, before the god being honored. This, however, was no ordinary sacrificial meal.
The practice of walking upon the blood flow between arranged animal halves in order to create a covenant between families is still practiced by the Middle Eastern nomadic Bedouins today—a practice reaching all the way back to Genesis 15. Here it accentuated the fact that God did not ask Abram to offer a sacrifice in order to effect a covenant, He did it Himself. Up until now in Abram's life, God had issued grand and glorious promises. To enforce the validity of these promises once and for all, God now "cut" a covenant with Abram, setting the promise in stone. Blood was shed and there was no turning back on His word. Abram's descendants could claim rightful ownership of the entire Promised Land, even when numerous other peoples oppose them.
II. COVENANT DOUBTED (Genesis 16:1-16)
We have gotten quite used to the roller-coaster progression of Abram's life. It seems that just when he is given a breakthrough word from God, the story takes a turn for the worse. After his initial calling, he fled to Egypt because of a famine. After God restored him, he was betrayed by his nephew. After rescuing Lot, he faced a sticky situation with the evil king of Sodom. Now, after God enters into solemn covenant with him, guaranteeing that a flesh-and-blood heir is on the way, the covenant couple gets impatient and acts hastily.
A. A Costly Misstep (vv. 1-5)
1. Now Sarai Abram's wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar.
2. And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the Lord hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai.
3. And Sarai Abram's wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife.
4. And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived: and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes.
5. And Sarai said unto Abram, My wrong be upon thee: I have given my maid into thy bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes: the Lord judge between me and thee.
The waiting must have been excruciating. Neither one of them was getting any younger, yet the miracle seemed as far away as the stars to which God had likened their offspring. Sarai, intelligent as she was, had an idea. Abram could become a father by sleeping with Hagar, the maidservant of Sarai.
Helping God out had never seemed so easy. They didn't need to wait a day longer! After all, God's promise had not specifically mentioned Sarai. It was through Abram's seed that the nation would be born. Sarai's proposal mirrored a common practice in this time period. Abram would sleep with one of the household servants in order to have a rightful heir. Although he didn't come up with the plan, Abram agreed with it.
Sometimes the ancient world seems so different from ours, and other times it looks just the same. Unsurprisingly, the sexual relationship between Abram and Hagar resulted in a strained love triangle. Because of her pregnancy, Hagar became proud and arrogant. Yet she must remain subordinate to Sarai.
Sarai was very angry, and she blamed Abram for everything. She gave him a tongue-lashing, even going so far as to invoke the sacred name of Yahweh. Their brilliant plan to see God's promise come to pass on their own terms had provided not joy, but strife upon strife. Despite this horrid mistake, God stepped onto the scene to give grace in the midst of the misunderstanding.
B. The Birth of Ishmael (vv. 6-16)
(Genesis 16:6, 7, 11-14 is not included in the printed text.)
8. And he said, Hagar, Sarai's maid, whence camest thou? and whither wilt thou go? And she said, I flee from the face of my mistress Sarai.
9. And the angel of the Lord said unto her, Return to thy mistress, and submit thyself under her hands.
10. And the angel of the Lord said unto her, I will multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude.
15. And Hagar bare Abram a son: and Abram called his son's name, which Hagar bare, Ishmael.
16. And Abram was fourscore and six years old, when Hagar bare Ishmael to Abram.
When Hagar could stand Sarai's harshness no longer, she left. In deep compassion, God dispensed "the angel of the Lord" to find her. God would not allow her to disconnect herself from Sarai and Abram and so lose out on His blessing over their household. In reward for her faithfulness, and perhaps in pity over her situation, God promised that He has heard her misery loud and clear, and her son should be named Ishmael, meaning "God hears." What is more, he too will become a great nation in its own right, although his birth into conflict will never be shaken loose. The nation born from him would live in constant conflict.
Scholars believe that Ishmael's descendants became the many Arab nations. If this is correct, the angel's prophecy has been completely true, as Arabs continue to live in dangerous conflict with Jews, even over the very Promised Land inhabited by Abram. Even with this forewarning, Hagar is comforted, creating a new designation for Yahweh as "You-Are-the-God-Who-Sees" (v. 13, NKJV).
Perhaps God made this obstacle into a stepping-stone for Abram after all. For at 86 years old, producing any child was no small feat. One imagines that Abram enjoyed a rush of pride in his new son, but also couldn't shake the stress of wondering when God would make good on the promise for Sarai also. In fact, he would wait another 13 years for the good news. God wasn't finished solidifying His covenant.
III. COVENANT SIGN REQUIRED (Genesis 17:1-13; Colossians 2:10-13)
Thirteen years have transpired between Genesis 16 and 17, and we are left to guess at the content of Abram's life during this interim period. We can suppose that he raised the young boy Ishmael, of course, and that he continued to wander the land God promised to his descendants. God has no qualms about taking another 13 years to shape Abram's heart in preparation for the next monumental step of his spiritual journey. The covenant divinely enacted in chapter 15 must now be divinely confirmed.
A. Covenant Confirmed (17:1-13)
(Genesis 17:11-13 is not included in the printed text.)
1. And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect.
2. And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly.
3. And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying,
4. As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations.
5. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee.
6. And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee.
7. And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.
8. And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.
9. And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations.
10. This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised.
The reappearance of Yahweh in Abram's old age served another distinctive purpose. The covenant had been sealed in blood by God himself in chapter 15. But now God had a rite for Abram to undergo. Perhaps doubt had again risen in Abram's heart over the truth of this covenant, so when the time was right, God steps onto the scene again to confirm the reality of the former promise.
Abraham was immediately struck by the introduction of a new designation for Yahweh—"the Almighty God" (v. 1). This name in its original Hebrew terminology is still spoken in the Christian church today: El-Shaddai. The name refers primarily to God's sovereignty; that is, God is the One who is in control. Therefore, He assured Abram that the covenant had not been forgotten. He would still have countless offspring, and God intended to confirm this truth once and for all.
Yahweh actually appeared to Abram this time. Initially he had only spoken to him (12:1), and later He appeared in a vision (15:1); but here, as in 12:7, there is some sort of an appearance of God. In response to this overwhelming epiphany, Abram fell prostrate before God. His life was about to definitively change forever.
First, Abram's name was changed. The old name meant "esteemed father," while the new name, Abraham, meant "father of many." Abraham was likely too awestruck by the presence of God to recognize the irony of the situation, for this "father of many" still had not one fully legitimate blood-heir in his household. Second, when Abraham's promised offspring arrived and the nation began to multiply, they were commanded to physically mark themselves in a distinguishing manner through circumcision.
God then gave specific instructions concerning how this circumcision was to be ceremonially carried out by all parents of newborn boys throughout every Jewish generation (17:11-13). In fact, the covenant of circumcision was to extend to any and all males under Israeli households, including servants and other employees. As God had effected the covenant through the shedding of blood in chapter 15, he expected Abraham to shed blood to confirm it here. The bloodshed on the male sex organ, symbolizing the blessed continuation and propagation of the Abrahamic race (Israel), would be a constant reminder to the people of their history and their dependence on El-Shaddai.
B. Covenant Sign Transformed (Colossians 2:10-13)
10. And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power:
11. In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ:
12. Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.
13. And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses.
For thousands of years, the Jews have continued to obey God's covenant of circumcision with Abraham. In fact, mostly for health reasons, the practice of circumcision is common for Gentiles in modern developing nations, especially the United States. This makes it easy to forget that during the time of the early church, circumcision was one of the most pressing theological issues to be found. In fact, it often threatened to divide the fledgling new faith community. The Book of Galatians, for example, reveals that fundamentalist Jewish-Christian leaders had infiltrated the church by preaching that salvation depended not only on Jesus Christ, but also on the covenant of physical circumcision—a problem dealt with decisively by the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. The apostle Paul led the charge against this unsound doctrine in both instances. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul explained why the covenant of circumcision was still intact, but in a different way.
It is not that the new covenant abolished the things of the old, particularly the sign of circumcision. Instead, through Christ, God had transformed the sign of circumcision from a physical, human act to a supernatural, spiritual one. Through the mystery of salvation as evidenced in baptism, Jesus himself "cuts" into our heart and marks us forever, undoing the destruction of the uncircumcised, sinful nature, and placing us in right standing with God the Father. It is amazing to think that this powerful reality began with a desert nomad named Abraham, yet it is true. Modern-day Christians are indebted to him for paying the price to be the first one to enter a covenant with Yahweh, so that Jesus could later come and enact an eternal covenant.
We cannot understand the nature of God's relationship with people as taught by Scripture without grasping the vital concept of covenant. Its rituals, as expressed in Abraham's life, can seem a little archaic to us—sacrifice, circumcision, bloodshed. Yet as the New Testament proves, these were a sign of things to come. For Jesus Christ, the ultimate sacrifice, enacted a new covenant for us through the shedding of His own blood. The story of Abraham helps us to anticipate the gospel message through his covenant with God.
GOLDEN TEXT CHALLENGE
"HE [ABRAHAM] BELIEVED IN THE LORD; AND HE [GOD] COUNTED IT TO HIM FOR RIGHTEOUSNESS" (Genesis 15:6).
The Lord saw that Abraham now understood that all His promises were received by faith and all blessings that came to people were by God's unmerited favor; they were not deserved or earned—they came purely because God wanted to bless humanity. Abraham felt his own unworthiness and inability to keep the covenant in his own strength. God counted Abraham's faith as righteousness.
The greatest blessing of all is God's gift of His Son, Jesus Christ, for the salvation of everyone who believes on Him. Just as Abraham seemed physically incapable of keeping the covenant by having children, we are spiritually incapable of pleasing God by ourselves. We can be saved only by believing that Jesus saves us.
To learn more about the annual Evangelical Sunday School Lesson Commentary, visit www.pathwaybookstore.com.