Making a Covenant with Abraham (Part 6)

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Abraham’s Temptation to Spiritualize?

With Abraham on Mt. Moriah

When we come to Genesis 22 we arrive at one of the key events in the Bible; the offering of Isaac, the son of promise to the Promiser. The retelling of this story by Kierkegaard in his book Fear and Trembling poses the question of how Abraham could possibly have justified his actions to himself or to his son. The philosopher’s conclusion is that he could not. Neither in the three days’ journey and especially in the final moments before the intervention of God could he have been absolutely sure that it was God who commanded him. For what was commanded seemed to fly in the face of what God had so deliberately promised. But, as Kierkegaard so poignantly puts it, “Abraham is not what he is without this dread.”1

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Making a Covenant with Abraham (Part 5)

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Problems with the Promise & Fulfillment Motif?

John Sailhamer is a critic of the common evangelical dogma that teaches a “promise-fulfillment” way of looking at the two Testaments, because by setting things up that way, the almost irresistible temptation will be to interpret the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament, and in particular with the first coming of Christ culminating in the Gospel. Such an attitude threatens to turn the Old Testament, the Bible of Israel, and of Jesus and the Apostles, in to a book of colorful stories and sermon illustrations for New Testament preaching. 1

This might sound very good. As a matter of fact it does sound good to very many evangelicals. So good in fact, that it has often been assumed by pious minds as a natural implication of having a New Testament. But the “promise–fulfillment” idea so frequently recommended cries out for a bit of careful examination. The received wisdom is that we don’t start by reading through the OT to find its meaning, but that we begin by reading the NT, with emphasis on Paul’s Gospel, and we then interpret the OT through our understanding of the NT, especially our understanding of the work of Christ. Essentially what is being urged on us is the hermeneutical priority of the NT. Without the interpretive mindset we have gained from the NT, so the thinking goes, we are not in a position to rightly understand the OT. Hence, the OT is to be interpreted, not on its own merits, but by the NT. An earlier quote from Goldsworthy again makes this clear:

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Making a Covenant with Abraham (Part 4)

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Covenants & Promises

Two Abrahamic Covenants?

To make things a little more tricky, some scholars claim to see not one but two covenants made with Abraham by the Lord. This is the position of Paul Williamson as set out in his fine book Sealed with an Oath. Williamson believes that the thirteen year time lapse between Genesis 15 and 17, plus what he calls “significant differences … in terms of their covenantal framework and their promissory emphases” argue for two covenants.1

But the time gap is not in itself a problem for a divine covenant. Clearly it would take many generations for the descendants to appear. The issue is really over the repetition of covenantal language and what receives emphasis. What it boils down to for the two-covenant view is that Genesis 15 is said to be temporal and unilateral, whereas Genesis 17 is eternal and bilateral.2 Williamson sees the two covenants with Abraham as stemming from “the two separate strands set out in the programmatic agenda of Genesis 12:1-3.”3

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Making a Covenant with Abraham (Part 3)

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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.

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Making a Covenant with Abraham (Part 2)

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The whole episode in Genesis 15 is highlighted by the time stamp in verse 18, “On the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram.” Yahweh declares that He has already given the land to Abram’s descendants. Therefore, as we have said, the covenant serves to reinforce and amplify the plain and clear word of God.

But what about the dimensions of the Promised Land? Can they be determined? If they can, can we say that Abram’s descendants have received it all? Has the gift ever been fully given?

The answer to the question in part hinges on what is meant in verse 18 by “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.” Is the river of Egypt the Nile? Or is it a seasonal Wadi? The less usual term nahar for river (of Egypt) persuades most commentators that the Nile is not intended. Also, we should observe the fact that the adjective “great” (gadol) is used of the Euphrates only and not of the river of Egypt.

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Making a Covenant with Abraham (Part 1)

Detail from Abraham's Journey from Ur to Canaan, József Molnár

(This is another excerpt from the book I am trying to write.)

The Abrahamic covenant is pivotal to the history biblical which unfolds thereafter, and Genesis 15 is perhaps the key passage to understand with respect to it.1 The initiative is God’s, and it is here that God binds Himself by oath to perform the details of the promises He makes to Abraham. It will be useful to reproduce the first part of the chapter.

After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward. But Abram said, “Lord GOD, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” Then Abram said, “Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir!” And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir.” Then He brought him outside and said, “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness. Then He said to him, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to inherit it.” (Genesis 15:1-7)

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Following in the Footsteps of Faith Part 6: The Life-Long Process of “Faith Refinement”

Meeting of Abraham & Melchizedek, Dieric Bouts the Elder, 1464–67

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Listen sometime to an NFL or college football coach after they have just won a Super Bowl or national championship. Almost inevitably you will get some excitement about this achievement in their lives and how much it means to the players, etc. But that interview always seems to come back to this theme: “that was great, but it means that the coaches who didn’t make the playoffs have had this much time to get a head start on next season.” It’s a never-ending process.

On a much smaller scale I go through this each week with sermon prep. I study, pray, meditate, study some more, and form a message (hopefully from God) from the text for the week. I stand up Sunday and deliver a word from the Lord, then go home exhausted. Sunday night we do it again. Monday is a day of rest, and the cycle begins again on Tuesday.

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