Making a Covenant with Abraham (Part 8)

Isaac Blessing Jacob - Govert Flinck, c. 1638

Read the series so far.

Abraham, Isaac, & Jacob (Parts 2 & 3)

The sequel has Isaac making a pact with Abimelech after which the God of Providence gave him water. Since there had been quarreling over water sources the conflict was resolved by covenant (cf. Heb. 6:16), Isaac named the new place “Beersheba,” meaning “well of the oath.” God’s blessing came in conjunction with an oath which was clearly understood by both sides. The chapter ends by noticing Esau’s marriage to two pagan wives and the grief it caused to his parents. Notwithstanding, when it came time for the aged patriarch to pass on the mantle, his intention was to give it to Esau (27:1-4). It was only the subtlety of his brother, with the collusion of his mother, that prevented Isaac’s wishes from becoming a reality (27:11f.).

This brings up an issue which it is wise not to pass over. What are we to make of God’s role in all this? It would be impious to say that He was party to the deception, but as He predicted “the older will serve the younger” (25:23), we must assert that the Lord knew both that the circumstance would come about, and how it would arise. From this we can draw a further conclusion; that God’s “Creation Project” as I have called it, takes some unexpected turns, with the Almighty using even the sins and misdeeds of His creatures to accomplish His purposes. Therefore it is prudent not to envisage pathways to fulfillment from calculations based on our vantage point. We do not know what twists and turns history will take as it wends its way to the eschaton. Fulfillments will come to pass just as Yahweh reveals them to us, but we are in no position to divine the routes they will take.

When Jacob is sent out to Padan Aram to find a wife he is met by God, who, in the strange episode featuring “Jacob’s Ladder,” gives to Jacob the covenant promises:

And behold, the LORD stood above it and said: “I am the LORD God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants. Also your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south; and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Genesis 28:13-14)

We are midway through the Book of Genesis and these pledges of a specified land, seed, and international blessing are a recurrent theme from chapter 11 onwards. But what is the meaning of the language of “spreading out” (paras) in all directions in verse 14? The passage recalls God’s words to Abram after Lot had left for Sodom (Gen. 13:14-17), and the next verse appears to restrict the Hebrew words translated “land”1 to the Promised Land. As Leupold noted, the Hebrew term connotes a breaking through “in the sense of bursting all restraining bonds”.2 From the solitary situation at Luz, which Jacob calls “Bethel” (28:19), in which Jacob found himself as he headed out of the land, it must have looked as if all hopes of an eventual inheritance were wafer thin. At this exigency the word of God reaffirms the covenant oath. Unbeknownst to Jacob, he is going to find more than a wife.

The thirtieth chapter records the change in Jacob’s fortunes3 and his desire to depart from Laban. He departs in the next chapter after Yahweh appears to him, calling Himself “the God of Bethel” (31:13). This prepares us for Jacob’s wrestling with the Angel of the Lord at the border of the Promised Land and his renaming as “Israel” (32:28), meaning perhaps4 “God will strive” or “God strives,” but Jacob’s assailant appears to redefine it to stress Jacob’s struggle.5 As in the case of Abraham, the Divine pronouncement on the new name should be given precedence. The place received the name Peniel6, possibly signifying a change in Jacob’s character and outlook (32:24-30). The Divine faithfulness is seen again in the repetition of the covenant in Genesis 35:9-13.


There has been quite a build up to the appearance of the word “Israel” in the first book of the Pentateuch. When it appears in chapter 32 we get an immediate ethnic link between Jacob/Israel and the sons of Israel (32:32). This is everywhere the understanding of the name in the Old Testament, and, we shall argue, in the New Testament also.7

Genesis 37 and 38 detail two inauspicious moments in the history of nascent Israel; the disposal of the hated Joseph into the hands of Midianite traders going to Egypt by his own brethren, and then Judah’s marriage to a Canaanite woman and his conjugal encounter with his, unknown to him, daughter in law Tamar. The passage of time which must be kept in mind as one reads these episodes, plus the one concerning the rape of Dinah in chapter 34, do not augur well for the future of the tribes. The glorious provisions of the Abrahamic covenant which was their inheritance is put in jeopardy by the sons of Jacob. Just as with Jacob himself, this shows that the covenant could not hinge upon the characters of the men who were the recipients of it. Redemption would need to come to the physical descendants of Israel if the full benefits of the covenantal relationship initiated by God were to come about. But the covenant with Abraham, as the covenant with Noah, did not include soteriological provisions for the establishment of permanent satisfactory Divine-human association. These provisions, which must affect both humanity and its created environment, are given, as we shall see, in the terms of the New covenant. The important thing is that Israel holds an enduring place within this covenantal setup.

Joseph’s Dreams

The epic of Joseph is one of the greatest stories in all of literature. Through Joseph’s faith and discretion and God’s providential supervenience, the prediction to Abraham in Genesis 15:13f. is set in motion. Joseph, of course, is a Seer (cf. 1 Sam. 9:9). His rehearsal of two dreams which God gave him only deepened his brothers’ dislike of him.

Now Joseph had a dream, and he told it to his brothers; and they hated him even more. So he said to them, “Please hear this dream which I have dreamed: “There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Then behold, my sheaf arose and also stood upright; and indeed your sheaves stood all around and bowed down to my sheaf.” And his brothers said to him, “Shall you indeed reign over us? Or shall you indeed have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words. Then he dreamed still another dream and told it to his brothers, and said, “Look, I have dreamed another dream. And this time, the sun, the moon, and the eleven stars bowed down to me.” So he told it to his father and his brothers; and his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall your mother and I and your brothers indeed come to bow down to the earth before you?” And his brothers envied him, but his father kept the matter in mind. (Genesis 37:5-11)

This vision links up with the prophecy in Genesis 15 in that it predicts the arrival of the clan of Israel “in a land that is not theirs” to begin their four hundred year hiatus out of the land (cf. Gen. 15:13). Though no direct interpretation is given, it appears that his father and his brothers understood the significance of the dreams.8 The two are a pair, both featuring the obeisance to Joseph (n.b. “the sun, the moon, and the stars bowed down to me,” v.9). This presages the eleven brothers coming down to Egypt and bowing down before the Governor-Vizier in the days of famine (42:6). Jacob thought he and his mother would bow before Joseph, but that did not occur. The reason being that the purpose of the dreams was to predict Joseph’s future authority, perhaps not so much to describe actual events.9 But when Jacob came into Egypt in Genesis 46, it was Joseph who was second only to Pharaoh (41:40)10.

The thing to be realized is that for all its strangeness, the vision was readily understandable to those to whom it came. The “Sun” was Jacob, the “Moon” was Leah, and the eleven “stars” were Joseph’s brothers. The vision was of Israel (cf. Rev.12:1). It was not beyond their ability to comprehend God’s intentions. This is an important component of revelation, for without it revelation is not really occurring.11 Joseph’s second vision is utilized in the last Book of Scripture. The question which comes up then will be whether it has changed into the Christian Church or whether the actual tribes of Israel are still in view. A lot is going to depend on the trajectory ones theology takes in the interim.


1 See for example Carl B. Hoch, All Things New: The Significance of Newness for Biblical Theology.

2 Ross notices the scorn involved in the retort of Joseph’s brothers (Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing, 600).

3 Having said this one explanation is to interpret the “bowing down” in terms of the previous vision of Genesis 37:7-8 where only the brothers did obeisance to him.

4 I think it is worth noting that in this verse we find the only mention of a throne in the Book of Genesis. Additionally, explicit mentions of God and His kingdom are rare in the OT (2 Chron. 13:8; Psa. 103:19; 145:11-13). This should at least be borne in mind by scholars who find a kingdom theme in the first Book of the Bible.

5 One of my chief reasons for rejecting covenant theology is that its eschatology firmly focuses revelation on the Church and not to those to whom it originally was given. To offset this problem covenant theology has often taught that the Church is in the Old Testament, in spite, as we shall see, of the fact that no Church qua the Body of Christ is possible without the resurrection of Christ. This makes a nonsense of the idea of a God who reveals Himself in history, and also of progressive revelation.

6 Verses 13 and 14b use the common eretz, but verses 14a and 15 use adhama which is usually translated as “earth.” There is no discernible difference between “the land (eretz) on which you lie” (v.13), “your descendants will be as the dust of the earth (eretz)” in verse 14a, and “[I] will bring you back to this land (adhama) (v.15). They all have the land given to Abraham in view. But the extended promise “in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth (adhama) be blessed” can scarcely be taken that way, since the promise has future Jewish and Gentile salvation in view. See Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 242.

7 H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis, vol. 2, 774.

8 William J. Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel, 30.

9 The precise meaning is uncertain. Cf. John D. Currid, Genesis, vol. 2, 137.

10 See the discussion in Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 17:27-50:26, 559.

11 Heb. “The face of God.”

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J. Baillet's picture

The Covenant Promise to Jacob:

And behold, the LORD stood above it and said, "I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." (Genesis 28:13-15)(ESV).

North, south, east, and west. The four corners of the earth. The seed of Jacob will be as numerous as the dust of the earth, filling the earth.

The parallel Covenant Promise to Abraham:

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."  (Genesis 13:14-17)(ESV).

Again, the four corners of the earth with the seed of Abraham as numerous as the dust of the earth, being fruitful, multiplying, and filling it forever. The insurmountable word is "forever."




J. Baillet's picture

The land which will fulfill the promise to Abraham and his seed must of necessity be an eternal, everlasting land, world without end. Any occupation of a land for a finite duration may point to and provide hope of the fulfillment but would not meet the plain terms of the promise. The fulfillment cannot be a land of this age and of this earth, which are passing away and will pass away.

The Old Testament elders, those who had an ear to hear, understood this. They knew by faith and reliance upon the covenant promise of God that an eternal land was to be their inheritance.


Larry's picture


The land which will fulfill the promise to Abraham and his seed must of necessity be an eternal, everlasting land, world without end

Why is that? That's not what the word means. The semantic domain for 'olam that includes a long period of time, a lifetime (such as a slave forever), the priesthood, etc. So there is no reason to assert that the covenant of the land has to be "eternal, everlasting, world without end." The word quite plainly means long period of time, but not necessarily world without end or eternal as we think of it.

It seems to me that you create a problem for yourself because in Genesis 13:15 the land that is "forever" is land that Abraham can walk through. It is later defined as the land between the river of Egypt and the River Euphrates, the land of all the -ites (Gen 15:18-21). So if the word means "eternal, everlasting, world without end," then you have that particular piece of earth being "eternal, everlasting, world without end." It seems to me you have to equivocate on your own definition, or at least deny what the passage says. 

It certainly seems better to take both parts to mean what they would normally mean rather than try to force some other definition on them that creates bigger problems. 

J. Baillet's picture

I have taken forever to respond.

The Hebrew word ‘ôlâm or phrase ‘ad ‘ôlâm most certainly does mean eternal, everlasting, and without end. Although the word or phrase can mean “a long period of time,” the primary meaning is “ever” or “forever.” The first use of the word ‘ôlâm is in Genesis 3:22. God banished Adam from the Garden of Eden after his fall “lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—“. (ESV)(boldface added). Perhaps God was concerned that Adam would eat of the tree of life and live “a long period of time” before dying. (Note that Adam did live a long period of time and died, without eating of the tree of life). Ponder what the significance of that interpretation would be for our salvation—long life, not eternal life. Perhaps the Noahic Covenant set forth in Genesis 9 was merely a covenant whereby God promised not to destroy the earth by water “for a long period of time.” The “climate change” doomsayers may be right, and we had best be concerned that the rising sea levels will engulf the earth. Perhaps the covenant God made with Abraham as recorded in Genesis 17:7, “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you,” really means that He will be God to the offspring of Abraham “for a long period of time” and then cast them away. (ESV)(boldface added). The annihilationists might be right or purgatory comes after paradise. Abraham and Abimelech swore an oath, made covenant, and Abraham called “on the name of the LORD,” the God who lives “for a long period of time” before He fades into oblivion, and not “the Everlasting God.” (Genesis 21:33). The Open Theists may be on to something. The nature of God and His promises, the certainty of which is founded upon that nature, may be relative and not absolute.

The Hebrew word ‘ôlâm can mean “a long period of time.” For example, Genesis 6:4 states, “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.” (ESV)(boldface added). The question is the usage in Genesis 13:15 and Genesis 17:8.

The King James and New American Standard translators chose the words “for ever” and “everlasting,” respectively. The New King James Version, New International Version, and the English Standard Version use the words “forever” and “everlasting.” They could have used the employed the phrase “for a long time,” but they didn’t. The New College Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary (1969, 1976) defines “forever” as “1. For everlasting time; eternally. 2. At all times; incessantly.” Alternative meanings, such as the hyperbolic meaning “he talked forever,” are derivative of the primary meaning. “Everlasting” is defined as “1. Lasting forever; eternal. 2. Continuing indefinitely or for a long period of time; perpetual. 3. Retaining color and form for a long time when cut or dried, as certain plants.” Again, the primary meaning is eternal and without end.

For sake of argument, I will assume that the meaning of ‘ôlâm in Genesis 13:15 and Genesis 17:8 is relative and not absolute. According to Joshua 21:43-45,

Thus the LORD gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. And the LORD gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the LORD had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one word of all the good promises that the LORD had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.

(ESV)(boldface added). I Kings 4:24 states,

For he [King Solomon] had dominion over all the region west of the Euphrates from Tiphsah to Gaza, over all the kings west of the Euphrates. And he had peace on all sides around him.

The period of time from Joshua’s conquest of the land until the death of Solomon was at least 450 years. This was a long period of time. The United States of America has been in existence for less than 250 years. If the meaning of ‘ôlâm is relative, then the land promise to the fathers has already been fulfilled. The finite copy and shadow has been fulfilled. The eternal reality is yet to come.

The land upon which Abraham walked is part of the creation which “has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth” eagerly awaiting its redemption, as are we. (See Romans 8:19-23; I Corinthians 15; II Peter 3). The land will be transformed and glorified, with its old, natural, temporal state passing away and its new, spiritual, eternal state arising from its ashes. Abraham's land is an eternal, everlasting land, world without end.


Larry's picture


A word only means something in a context which means talk of a "primary meaning" is a bit meaningless when the rubber meets the road. That 'olam means "forever without end" in some contexts is indisputable and therefore irrelevant here. That it doesn't always mean "forever without end" is also indisputable and that is very relevant. The question can only be answered by looking at individual contexts.

The appeal to Joshua 21 and 1 Kings 4:24 is unhelpful for several reasons: 

First, it is not in dispute. God can give to them all the land he promised at a given time without thereby canceling the promise. The promise is an ongoing promise, not one to be met and then done away with. As Galatians reminds us the law does not annul the promise. As the story unfolds, the inhabitancy of the land is an ongoing promise and a sign of God's blessing on their obedience. It was not a check box to be marked off, but a state of blessing to live and under. So Israel's inhabiting the land up to the time of Solomon does not necessarily fulfill the promise because the promise extended beyond that. Furthermore, their loss of the land for disobedience to the Law does not annul the promise which includes the land (Gal 4).

Second, the promise of the land is part of the Davidic covenant in 2 Samuel 7 where they are promised their land in peace, free from conflict. In the OT context that was the Abrahamic promise of the land. 

Third, the promise of the land is repeated in the New Covenant and in the prophets long after the time of Joshua and even during the exile. The New Covenant itself given around the exilic period in the sixth century BC contains the land promise and since that day, the land has not been inhabited in peace with a davidic king to rule over them. There is a promise of restoration to the land, which makes no sense if the land is actually heaven (because they couldn't be restored to something they had never possessed). And the landmarks in the NC are notable landmarks in Palestine, not in heaven. 

Fourth, such a narrow reading of Joshua 21 as a total fulfillment ignores the promise of Deuteronomy regarding the exile and the return. Deuteronomy promised removal from the land for disobedience and restoration from all the nations where they had been banished for repentance. When does that happen except in a premillennial view?

So I think your position just can't do justice to the text. It omits too many things.

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