Making a Covenant with Abraham (Part 3)

Read the series so far.

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

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There are 6 Comments

J. Baillet's picture

Dr. Henebury, although I differ with you on many issues, I do appreciate your emphasis on the Biblical covenants and your attempts to provide a corrective to the Dispensational tendency to under-emphasize these covenants. You have provoked my thinking in these areas by your approach to these matters. In regard to points of agreement between us from your series so far, I offer the following, non-exhaustive list (with comments in parentheses not necessarily being points of agreement but my observations):

  • Understanding the Abrahamic Covenant is essential for understanding Biblical history as it unfolds thereafter. (I would suggest that Biblical history prior to Genesis 12 is essential for understanding the Abrahamic Covenant in the overall flow of Biblical history).
  • A covenant includes a promise but a promise is not in and of itself a covenant. (This does not mean that a reference to a promise is not also a shorthand reference to the covenant through the use of metonymy or synechdoche).
  • Essential promises within the Abrahamic Covenant include seed and land promises. The land promise is an essential aspect of the Abrahamic Covenant.
  • The dimensions of the land described in Genesis 15:18 extend from the River Euphrates to the Wadi el-Arabah.
  • The Abrahamic Covenant is perpetual; it is everlasting. This perpetuity applies both to the seed and the land promises.
  • God will fulfill the terms of the Abrahamic Covenant.
  • The dispensation from Abram to the giving of the Law is better described in terms of covenant relationship than of promise.

I hope to pose questions which will identify key points of disagreement for the purposes of illumination but now must be off to the office.


Don Johnson's picture

Paul Henebury wrote:

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).

I have always wondered at this. Were the Israelites free to revoke the covenant when the fraud was discovered? Is the wrath of God against Saul not the consequences of their ratification of the fraudulent covenant?

If a bigamist is discovered, the second marriage is no covenant in that it was fraudulently entered into. I suppose it is not an exact parallel, since the second marriage never was legit.

I know this isn't the main thrust of your article, but your mention of it raised these questions in my mind.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Paul Henebury's picture

Thanks for this helpful response.  

God bless you and yours,


Paul H

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Paul Henebury's picture

Good question.  The covenant oath was before the Lord and had to be stuck to (Josh.9:18-19).  I think the reason for this is very instructive.  It is because covenant oaths were not to be entered into lightly.  The fault of Joshua and the elders was that they were not alert to the deception of the Gibeonites.  But the Gibeonites knew that if they could get a sworn oath out of Israel they were safe.  I included this episode to underscore how intractable covenants are.  It is for this reason they bear a powerful hermeneutical authority throughout Scripture, and it is this authority that I believe binds the two Testaments together.  God's wrath comes because Saul, in his willfulness, ignored the covenant.

As for the bigamist illustration, I don't think it is analogous because while Joshua was free to enter into a covenant with the Gibeonites, whereas a bigamist is not.


God bless,


Paul H 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

J. Baillet's picture

No obligation to respond but questions to at least contemplate in regard to the following texts:

Genesis 12:7 Then the LORD appeared to Abram and said, "To your offspring I will give this land." So he built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him. (ESV)(boldface added).

Genesis 13:14-18 The LORD said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, "Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you." So Abram moved his tent and came and settled by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron, and there he built an altar to the LORD. (ESV)(boldface added).

Genesis 15:5-10, 18 And he [the LORD] brought him [Abram] outside and said, "Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them." Then he said to him, "So shall your offspring be." And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. And he said to him, "I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess." But he said, "O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?" He said to him, "Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon." And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. … On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, "To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, … (ESV)(boldface added).


IDENTITY OF THE OFFSPRING: Who are the offspring? What is the definition of “your offspring”? In context, are they all of the physical descendants of Abram by natural generation?

TIME OF FULFILLMENT: During what period of time will this group, “your offspring,” receive and possess this land? When does this time period begin? When does it end?

NATURE OF POSSESSION: What is the nature of the possession of this land? Does the nature of the possession change over time? What is its ultimate nature?

ABRAM’S POSSESSION: When, if ever, did, has, or will Abram receive and possess this land? What was, is, or will be the nature of Abram’s possession?

ALTAR/ANIMALS: What, if any, significance is there to Abram’s building an altar as related in Genesis 12:7 and again in Genesis 13:18? To the animals in chapter 15?

IMPUTED RIGHTEOUSNESS: What, if any significance, does the imputation of righteousness to Abram as set forth in Genesis 15:6 have to the land promise specifically and the Abrahamic Covenant generally?

ABRAM’S KNOWLEDGE: Do these chapters exhaustively relate all that God revealed to Abram at the time of the events described in these chapters of the Book of Genesis?

BASIS FOR ANSWERS: What in the text of these chapters in the Book of Genesis supports the answers to these questions?



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