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Covenants & Promises
The seventeenth chapter of the Book of Genesis affords us an occasion to distinguish between a covenant and a promise. This difference is seldom noticed in the literature, but it deserves our attention since it shows up a tendency to take things for granted which we ought perhaps to be more discerning about.
There is no problem with the idea that a covenant includes promise. All covenants are about what one will do or refrain from doing at a future time. In Joshua 9:15-21 the elders of Israel swear a covenant with the Gibeonites to be at peace with them because they were fooled into believing that they were not native to the land. They could not go back on the words of the covenant they had made on pain of Divine wrath, a wrath that did come upon Israel because of Saul’s breach of the promise made in the covenant (2 Sam. 21:1). But saying that promise is embedded in covenant is one thing. To attempt to assert that covenant is part and parcel of a promise is another thing altogether. The fact is, it is not reversible. All covenants contain a promise, but not all promises are covenants. This ought to be apparent upon but a little reflection. Promises do not contain covenants like covenants contain promises. A room may contain a computer but a computer does not contain a room.
Once we see this it becomes difficult to go along with the standard traditional dispensationalist designation of a “dispensation of promise” to adequately identify this epoch (which is said to cover the call of Abram to the giving of the Law). The central idea in the narrative is not “promise” but covenant relationship. In the story of Abram up until this time the focus has been upon land and posterity. Certainly important promises have been made, but the center of attention has been on God’s covenant, and a covenant is more than a promise.
To show this more plainly all we have to do is read the seventeenth chapter of Genesis. B Before coming to the main point let me comment on the details in the first half of the chapter. Many important things occur in this chapter, including the renaming of Abram (“exalted father”), as Abraham, which, as it denotes him “father of many nations”1 is more in keeping with the covenant God has made with him (17:4-5). Also, we find the covenant being termed “an everlasting covenant” by the Lord, a designation previously given to the covenant with Noah. But as God’s covenant with Abraham includes several promises, God takes the time to reemphasize these pledges. So, five times in these opening verses the phrase “you and your seed (zera)” is repeated. Among these descendants there will be “kings” (17:6), which in view of the setting is best interpreted as kings of the one nation included in the covenant (cf. 18:8). This is clarified by what comes next in verse 8:
Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.
The land promise again comes to the fore. It is well to note that just as “olam” (everlasting) describes the perpetuity of Yahweh’s relationship with Abraham and his physical descendants (17:7, 13, 19), so it equally appears to describe His decision to gift the land of Canaan to the nation who will spring from Isaac. If this situation is going to change in any way, one ought to be able very particularly to put ones finger on the event. It cannot be just “suggested at” by a certain way of reading the Old Testament. Because it is covenantally bounded, and covenants amplify clear statements, an equally clear alteration of the covenant terms must be identifiable. But there is a problem here. The terms which we have so far encountered are conspicuously one-sided. And by being designated perpetual they appear to be unalterable (cf. Heb. 11:13-17).
This might look like a hasty remark in light of the rite of circumcision which we read about in verses 10 through 14. I will revisit this later, but I ought to mention the fact that circumcision (which as practiced by Israel was unique in the ancient world),2 is tied formerly to the Abrahamic covenant as concerns Israel. This is why the rite can also be utilized as a token for the Mosaic covenant centuries later. The failure of Israel to keep the bi-lateral Mosaic covenant does not abolish the rite of circumcision for male Jews. The unconditional covenant with Abraham still has male circumcision for its sign.
But doesn’t the fact that eight day old males (or bought servants) have to be circumcised constitute a condition on the fulfillment of the covenant? And doesn’t the warning about being cut-off from ones people and the covenant show that the Abrahamic covenant is bi-lateral? Some have thought so, but the majority of commentators have correctly understood that the sign is not itself the covenant. Therefore, circumcision cannot be introduced as a condition to be appended to an already initialized and functioning unilateral and non-conditional covenant.
1 As everyone knows, the literal meaning of the name is “father of a multitude”, but we must allow the context to fill out the meaning for us. The “multitude” Abraham is to be the progenitor of is nations. Therefore, the more precise sense of the new name is “father of many nations.” (Gen. 17:5)
2 According to Peter Gentry. See Peter J. Gentry & Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 274
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.