The Covenant with Abraham

As described elsewhere, the Old Testament describes a dynamic covenant history between God and humankind. Among these seven covenantal changes, we read of several dialogues between God and Abram/Abraham, through which the Abrahamic covenant was sworn. The first dialogue lays out God’s plan for salvation history.

1 Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves." (Gn 12:1-3)

This is a quick introduction to the main covenant changes to follow in time. God promised he would make of Abraham a great nation. This is, of course, the nation of Israel, which grew up in Egypt, traveled to the land God promised, and settled there. It was during that travel that God swore His covenant oath with the nation of Israel through Moses. Next God promised to make his name great; this “great name” refers to a dynasty, a royal family. This royal family would be the dynasty of King David, which lasted many generations until the time of the Babylonian captivity. God swore His covenant oath with David, which promised such a long, dynastic line. Finally, God promised that by him all families of the earth would bless themselves. This was fulfilled in Jesus, the descendant of Abraham Who brought blessing to all humankind through the New Covenant. So, this first dialogue was a brief synopsis of the three historic covenantal changes to come.

As the narrative continues, God swears His covenant with Abram repeatedly, each time focusing on one of these three covenants to come as he promised above. He begins with the Mosaic covenant.

7 And he said to him, "I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess." 8 But he said, "O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?" 9 He said to him, "Bring me a heifer three years old, a she-goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon." 10 And he brought him all these, cut them in two, and laid each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11 And when birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, Abram drove them away. 12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram; and lo, a dread and great darkness fell upon him. 13 Then the LORD said to Abram, "Know of a surety that your descendants will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years; 14 but I will bring judgment on the nation which they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete." 17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, (Gn 15:7-17)

In this mysterious passage, we see images of the future covenant sworn at Sinai with Moses and the nation of Israel. The obvious reference is to Israel’s captivity as slaves in Egypt for 400 years. Less obvious, though, is the reference to the animals sacrificed. The heifer, she-goat, ram, turtledove and pigeon were all mentioned in the ceremonial law of animal sacrifice given to Moses. Likewise, the mysterious smoking pot and the flaming torch referred to the “pillar of cloud by day” and the “pillar of fire by night” that led the Israelites through the wilderness. That the animals were divided in half, with the smoke and fire passing between them represent of course, the divided sea, through which the Israelites passed unharmed; note that Ex 14:20 implied it was at night and dark when the Israelites passed through the sea, as Abraham also experienced here. The context of this narrative is the land – God will give him the land shown to him, the land of future Israel. But not to Abram directly; rather, it will be given to his descendants who will settle there and become a nation. This is the first swearing of the covenant oath with Abram.

God swore His covenant with Abram a second time. This time God focused on His promise to make a great name (dynasty) for Abram; the context is in the changing of Abram’s name (Abram means exalted father) to Abraham (father of a multitude), which implies, as the text below states, his dynasty shall rule a multitude of nations. Note the mentions of kings, referring to a royal dynasty.

1 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. 2 And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly." 3 Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4 "Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the father of a multitude of nation. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you. (Gn 17:1-6)

As the previous covenant oath focused on fulfilling the promise of land and nation, this time the focus is on Abrahams descendants. Now, every man has many descendants; what is the meaning of God promising Abraham many descendants, something so common? The literal sense is the fact that Abraham is very old and unlikely to sire children through his elderly wife, Sarah. Yet Abraham had already sired a child, Ishmael, through Sarah’s concubine, Hagar, ensuring Abraham descendants. God’s promise must, therefore, have a different meaning. As we read on, we learn that Abraham will have another son, Isaac, and it is that lineage that interests us. That lineage will generate the great King David who will change Israel from a single nation to an empire: a multitude of nations. That lineage will lead to Jesus, the King of kings.

15 And God said to Abraham, "As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her; I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall come from her." 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, "Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?" 18 And Abraham said to God, "O that Ishmael might live in thy sight!" 19 God said, "No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. 20 As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I will bless him and make him fruitful and multiply him exceedingly; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. 21 But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year." (Gn 17:15-21)

Even Sarai’s name is changed. Of interest to this story is that Sarah’s concubine, Hagar, was Egyptian (Gn 16:1). Sarah had been barren, so Abraham bore a son through Hagar; the son was Ishmael, a half-Egyptian boy. Here God clarifies that the promises of a kingly dynasty will not be through Ismael, but through a son of Sarah (Isaac). Now, Abraham and Sarah were from Ur of the Chaldeans (Gn 11:31), far north of Egypt. The key point is that Abraham, and therefore Israel, is not related to the people of Egypt; from the sons of Noah, Abraham is a descendent of Shem, while the Egyptians descended from Ham (Gn 10:6). Israel and Egypt became enemies after Egypt enslaved Israel.

But, there is more to this dynasty-related covenant oath than merely mentioning a descendancy of kings.

9 And God said to Abraham, "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your descendants after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He that is eight days old among you shall be circumcised; every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house, or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he that is born in your house and he that is bought with your money, shall be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant." (Gn 17 9-14)

All Christians know that circumcision is a practice of Judaism. Yet why would God prescribe such a practice? Again, it has to do with Egypt. From history, we know that circumcision was a common practice in the Middle East at that time, as a rite of passage when a boy passed puberty. A typical age for circumcision was the age of thirteen, the age of Ishmael when God swore this covenant with Abram (Gn 17:25). But, God’s covenant required circumcision at the age of eight days – this was something new. Therefore, Abram’s son, Ishmael, was not circumcised at the age of eight days according the covenant; he was circumcised at thirteen years of age according to practices of his people in Egypt. This was to clarify that Ishmael was not the son of God’s promise; Abraham’s coming son Isaac was the son of the promise. Isaac would be the first to be circumcised at the age of eight days, according to the covenant.

(Another reason for circumcision: Dt 30:6 mentions an analogous circumcision of the heart, leading to love of God. It’s as if our hearts are covered with a thick foreskin that keeps us from loving God as we ought; God will, metaphorically speaking, circumcise this foreskin from our hearts, enabling us to love Him. This work of God will be truly fulfilled in the Christian covenant.)

Why eight days? As explained elsewhere, the number seven represents the covenant, so why wasn’t the sign of the covenant executed on the seventh day? Here we see a hint of the New Covenant to come, the Christian covenant which is symbolized by the number eight. It was on the eighth day that Jesus rose from the dead; this is why Christians no longer hold the seventh day sabbath as holy, as it has been replaced by an even better covenant represented by the next day, the eighth day. No, we do not hold our Eucharistic liturgies on the 1st day of the week; we do so on the 8th day – the day after the 7th day, for the New Covenant comes after the Old Covenant. Throughout the OT, we see things occurring on the 8th day, covenantal images of the new and everlasting covenant to come. In this second covenant oath God swears with Abraham, He clarifies His promise of a kingly dynasty which finally produces the Davidic dynasty. But it ultimately produces Jesus, the king of Kings, who gathers all nations to Himself.

Finally, God swears His covenant oath a third time with Abraham. The narrative begins with the well-known story of God testing Abraham, asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac – the son of the promise; Abraham is perfectly obedient and God sent an angel to halt him even as he raised the knife to offer sacrifice. Abraham and Isaac offered a ram instead, then the angel spoke again:

15 And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, 16 and said, "By myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, 18 and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice." (Gn 22:15-18)

The phrase by myself I have sworn refers to the covenant oath in a very profound manner; this is the third time God swears His oath with Abraham and images of the third promise, the promise of the New Covenant through Jesus, are seen. First, and clearly foremost, this text immediately follows one of the most famous OT images of Christ’s passion: Isaac’s sacrifice by his own father. This is embedded in the oath formula, “and has not withheld your son, your only son,” which Christians can easily identify as applicable to God the Father giving up His only Son for us (cf. Jn 3:16). Also note God does not speak directly to Abraham, but through the mediation of an angel. So when the time of fulfillment comes, God speaks to Mary and to Zechariah through the angel Gabriel.

What is the meaning of the phrase, “all the nations of the earth bless themselves?” And how is this fulfilled through Christ? First, Jesus established a world-wide kingdom, a royal family inviting all people. So we see how the New Covenant embraces “all the nations of the earth.” But doesn’t Jesus bless us? Yes, He does, but how He does so is through His people. Our blessings are the life of God, that is His grace which flows to us through the sacraments. We administer the sacraments ourselves, we bless ourselves. Lowly priests offer the Eucharistic sacrifice and forgive sins. Couples administer the sacrament of matrimony to each other. All people, even non-Christians, baptize.

Conclusion: In the covenant God swears with Abraham, we see images of the three great covenants to come, that with Moses, that with King David, and finally that through Jesus Christ.