The Abrahamic covenant: God’s promises and our response

Scriptures: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25; Romans 4:13-25

Guest speaker: Pauline Evans

The idea of an everlasting covenant is largely foreign to us today. We think mostly in terms of contracts, not covenants.

Some of us sign employment contracts. Probably many of us have contracts with a wireless provider. We use contracts to buy and sell property, to rent a house or apartment, when we hire someone to do repairs on our property.

Some contracts are more complex than others, but in general it is a promise to provide goods or services, in exchange for some kind of payment. We enter into contracts out of self-interest, because we want to get something. And we want to be sure we get at least as much as we put into the arrangement. And if the other party fails, we want a way to legally enforce them to do what they’re supposed to do – or give us compensation if they do not.

Contracts are generally short-term. Even the three-year union contract recently negotiated by the union at the college where I work is pretty short, in the context of a human lifetime. Contracts have specific requirements, usually to be done by specific dates, and when those requirements are met and those dates are past, the contract is ended, and often so is the relationship between the two parties. Often there is a clause written into the contract allowing you to get out of the contract early – if you pay a certain penalty.

Covenants are different. The covenant we are most familiar with is that of marriage. It is a lifelong relationship, and we are to give our all. Unfortunately, a lot of people in our society think of marriage more as a contract than a covenant. If they don’t get what they expected out of it, they want to get out of it early, just as you might consider moving to a different cellular provider.

But covenants don’t have exit plans. Covenants establish kinship of a kind, and it’s a relationship that continues even when one party fails. I read that one difference between contracts and covenants is:

In a contract relationship, at the first sign of breach you look for recourse: What am I going to get as a result of his error, how can I make money from his failure?

In a covenant relationship, at the first sign of breach you look for ways to fix it: What are we going to do together to solve this problem?

Covenants are about giving more than about getting. They are based on trust, not legal enforcement. They are accepted, not negotiated, because one has been chosen, not because one has earned a place in the relationship.

And covenants involve more than just the parties who make them. They may involve children, who have no say in making the covenant, and even those who are yet unborn. They involve the community, and covenants involve God, whether it is a covenant between God and people, or a covenant between people, calling on God as witness.

We don’t see contractual agreements in the Bible. We see covenants. And one of the most important covenants is the one which God made with Abraham. We first see His promises to Abraham in Genesis 12, where He promised descendants and blessing. Then in Genesis 15, He promises specifically a son, descendants, and land for them to live in.

In our passage this morning, in Genesis 17, He confirms the covenant. Now he promises not only that Abraham will become a great nation, but Abraham will become many nations. And He promises to make an everlasting covenant with them, to be their God, throughout all those generations. And this time he includes Sarah, promising that she will be the mother of nations.

In Genesis 15, God had solemnized the covenant with a blood ceremony, using a ritual form that was familiar to people of that day, where animals were cut in two and laid out in two lines, leaving a bloody pathway in between. Normally both parties to the covenant would walk through, signifying that if they failed to keep the covenant, they would face death as those animals had been killed.

But when God made the covenant with Abraham, he cause Abraham to fall into a deep sleep. Then a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch, representing God, passed between the pieces of the animals. So God took it upon himself to keep the covenant, not only for himself but for Abraham and his descendants. So when people failed to keep the covenant faithfully, the death that they deserved fell on God, in the person of Jesus Christ.

Now that doesn’t mean we are without obligations. Here, God tells Abraham to walk before Him and be blameless. Now that English word “blameless” might make us think of sinless perfection, but that’s not what the Hebrew meant. The Hebrew word meant whole or entire. It speaks of being wholehearted, rather than half-hearted or double-minded. It’s about consistent and habitual patterns of behavior.

Entering into the covenant relationship established new identities. God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, and Sarai’s name to Sarah. Now those aren’t really very different. Abraham means father of a multitude, whereas Abram meant exalted father, and both Sarai and Sarah mean princess. The significance was that those names were given to them by God, who at that time also revealed a new name for Himself, El Shaddai.

So how does Abraham respond to all this? First, we see that he fell on his face. This is a posture of humility, of reverence, of worship, of submission to God ‘s will. Our passage this morning does not include the verses about circumcision which was made the sign and seal of the covenant, but we do read there that Abraham immediately obeyed God, circumcising himself and all the males in his household.

We also know that Abraham responded with faith. He believed God and His promises. His initial promise to Abram, over two decades earlier, to make of him a great nation, might have seemed hard to believe even then. Abram was 75, and he and Sarai were childless. Now in Genesis 17 Abraham is nearly 100 years old, and Sarah is only about ten years younger.

From a purely human point of view, for Abraham and Sarah to have children at this point is impossible. Ninety-year-old women do not have babies. (Frankly I can’t imagine a ninety-year-old woman wanting to have a baby. If I were to find myself pregnant now at age 53, I don’t think my first reaction would be joy.)

Abraham and Sarah’s first reaction to the news she would have a baby was laughter. The idea was, on the face of it, preposterous. Yet Paul tells us in Romans that Abraham did not weaken in faith when he considered the physical facts of his body and Sarah’s. “In hope he believed against hope,” that God would do what he had promised.

Now, I was curious what that phrase means, “he believed against hope.” There’s an English phrase, “hope against hope,” but I wondered, was that really the same meaning as in the Bible? So I looked it up in the dictionary, and guess what? The English phrase comes from the Bible, right here in Romans 4. So I guess it means the same thing.

And there is apparently no special meaning that you get from looking at the Greek words. They mean pretty much what it says it means. He hoped against hope. From the interpretations that I’ve read, it means about what you might expect: against all human expectation, he believed that God was able to give him that child, to him and Sarah.

The word that is different from English is hope. “I hope it doesn’t snow more today.” Now, I have no reason to have confidence that it won’t – regardless of what the weather forecast says – we know how well they predict the future. I just wish that it won’t snow anymore.

But Abraham’s hope wasn’t wishful thinking. It was confidence based on the promises of God. And that faith, Paul tells us, is what was counted to him as righteousness. Not his obedience, not his circumcision, not his good deeds – and we know from Genesis that he was a brave man, he was generous, he was compassionate.

There were Jewish rabbis in Paul’s time who apparently believed that Abraham somehow obeyed the Mosaic law, even though he lived hundreds of years before Moses. They thought that God had somehow revealed the law to Abraham ahead of time.

Now, God certainly could have done that, but there’s nothing in Scripture to indicate that He did. For the Jews in Paul’s day, circumcision and the law of Moses were so tightly tied to their sense of being God’s people that they just couldn’t think that God would accept anybody apart from circumcision and the Mosaic law.

But Paul tells us that’s exactly what God did with Abraham. In Genesis 15 it says that Abraham’s faith was counted as righteousness. That’s not only two chapters but about thirteen years before Genesis 17, when he was circumcised.

So if an uncircumcised man like Abraham could be counted as righteous, so can we. Because the promises weren’t just for Abraham, or even just for his physical descendants, but for all his spiritual descendants, for us who share the faith of Abraham.

Because Abraham’s faith wasn’t primarily about whether Sarah could have a baby at age 90. That was just the specific circumstance in which his faith was lived out. His faith was in God and His promises. Our faith is in the same God, and in all His promises – many of which were fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It’s not about faith in the abstract sense. Our culture likes the idea of spirituality, as long as it’s a vague, unspecific spirituality that’s not too closely tied to organized religion. And our culture likes the idea of faith – believe in yourself, believe in humanity, believe in love and goodness. But our culture doesn’t like so much biblical spirituality, which is rooted in Jesus Christ, that proclaims that he is the way, the truth, and the life, and the only way to the Father.

That is the hope to which we are called. That is how all nations of the earth are blessed through Abraham’s descendant, as God promised in Genesis 12. In Christ we are joined to the new covenant established in his blood.

Paul says that Abraham is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not. We were dead in our sins, unable to choose God. But God chose us – that’s how covenants work.

We didn’t earn our place as covenant people, and we certainly cannot negotiate the terms of our relationship with God. We accept His gracious covenant, and commit ourselves to a lifelong – and that’s eternal life-long – relationship with our covenant God.

So let us rejoice in God’s grace, that He included us in His covenant people. Let us believe Him, as Abraham did, and have confidence in all His promises. Let us live as covenant people, faithful and obedient, so that we fulfill our purpose in life, to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

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