Q&A: The Abrahamic Covenant

The Abrahamic Covenant

Question

It seems to me that the Abrahamic covenant is found in Genesis 12, 15, and 17. All three chapters seem to describe one even that is spread across many years. God swears a maledictory oath so that Abram will know he can trust in God's promise. There are no implicit, tacit conditions listed in Genesis 15. However, Genesis 17 explicitly calls Abraham to take a maledictory oath to himself and his progeny. So, in Genesis 15 God says, "I am doing a work and I alone will accomplish it." In Genesis 17, Abraham responds by saying, "I want to be a part of that work and I place myself under the penalty of death if I break this covenant." Hence, sacramental oaths are two fold: (1) they positively represent the gospel promises of covenant life and love; and (2) they hold out the threat of condemnation for breach of contract. Is this right?

Answer

I wouldn't count Genesis 12 as part of the Abrahamic covenant. There's no real covenant there (no promise, no oath, no ceremony, no covenant language, etc.). There's only an offer. I would, however, add Genesis 22, where the covenant is extended to include Isaac as the successor.

As far as Genesis 15 is concerned, I think there are implicit conditions even if there aren't explicit conditions. For one thing, Genesis 15:1 speaks of a "reward" or "wages" (Hebrew: sakar), which implies that Abraham will have to do something to earn his blessings (i.e., keep the conditions of the covenant). For another, the earlier chapters of Genesis establish the pattern that God's covenants are conditional (e.g., Adam's probation, Noah's prohibition against murder), which should lead us to expect that Abraham's will be conditional as well.

Beyond this, Genesis 17 uses the vocabulary of "confirming" (Gen. 17:7; Hebrew: qum) the covenant that already exists, whereas Genesis 15 uses the vocabulary of "establishing" or "creating" (Gen. 15:18; Hebrew: karath) a covenant. This supports your desire to treat Genesis 15 and 17 together as a single covenant. But it also implies that if there are conditions in Genesis 17 (e.g., "walk before me and be blameless" in Gen. 17:1, and circumcision in Gen. 17:10), there were already conditions in Genesis 15. Otherwise, Genesis 17 would take back what Genesis 15 had already freely given.

Moreover, any unconditional covenant between God and man creates an ethical dilemma. Specifically, God's character requires that evil be cursed and punished, and that good be blessed. An unconditional covenant, by definition, operates outside these parameters. If an unconditional covenant to bless were made between God and fallen humanity, God would be required: (1) to curse and not bless fallen humanity by virtue of his ethical character; and (2) to bless and not curse fallen humanity by virtue of God's covenant promise.

There are only two ways I can see around this dilemma: (1) God can redeem fallen humanity and thereby ensure that humanity is good enough to be blessed, thereby circumventing the dilemma; and (2) God can refrain from making unconditional covenants with fallen humanity. The second solution includes no difficulties. The first solution, however, requires that God redeem every person included in the unconditional covenant — it requires universal salvation. Since universal salvation is out, the solution would seem to be that God does not make unconditional covenants.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.