Covenant to the Patriarchs

8 Abraham, Chosen for Covenant

by Hubert F. Sturges, , December 2013

Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee: and I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing. Genesis 12:1, 2.

With God’s command to leave his home and relatives and go to a land that God would show him, Abram promptly obeyed and set out with his nephew Lot for the land of Canaan. In time, God would change Abram’s name to Abraham, which means the “father of many nations” (Gen. 17:5). God specially chose him to receive His covenant. Abram was not perfect, and, consequently, God led him through a series of tests in some ways more severe than He would give nearly any other human. By grace, Abram learned faith and became a towering figure in the purpose of God. “And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came” (Gen. 12:5).

The Call of Abram

When Adam and Eve sinned in Eden, God announced the plan of salvation based on the everlasting covenant He gave them. Through the prophesied Redeemer and the cross of Calvary, God bought back the human race and gave them a new probation, placing within them a conscience, an enmity against evil. This was the covenant of redemption, which became effective for the entire human race.

God next gave the covenant of redemption to Noah and his descendants. It was a covenant to preserve the human race and life on the planet. After the worldwide flood, the human race again turned away from God; and sin, apostasy, and idolatry were everywhere. God found, in Abram, a man who, like Noah, would respond to His special calling.

Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee. And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. (Gen. 12:1-3)

In this statement, God used the pronoun “I” five times:
• “Unto a land that I will shew thee “|
• “I will make of thee a great nation “|
• “I will bless thee, and make thy name great “|
• “I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee “|
• “In thee shall [I bless] all families of the earth.”

In the repeated use of “I,” God showed His personal interest in Abram and what He would do for him. This was the everlasting covenant and the essence of the new covenant. God also promised Abram His presence as Abram continued to obey God’s voice (Gen. 26:3-5).

In Abram, God would raise up a people to preserve His name among the nations of earth and prepare for the coming of the Messiah. For this purpose, God gave him promises as a foretaste of His covenant. Abram packed up his caravan and set out for Canaan. “They went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came” (Gen. 12:5).

Abram was seventy-five years old when he started his trip. He had one wife, the beautiful Sarai, but they had no children. How would God make of him a strong nation? How would all the families of the earth be blessed through one who had no son? (Gen. 12:3; 28:14; Gal. 3:16). Abram exercised faith in God in obeying His command to leave Haran and go “unto a land that I will shew thee” (Gen. 12:1). He believed that God would fulfill His covenant.

Promise of Protection; His Own Son to be Heir

When famine came to Canaan, Abram went to Egypt. After Abram’s return from Egypt, God again spoke to him, promising that Abram would have descendants “as the dust of the earth” and that God would give him the land on which he dwelt (Gen. 13:15-17).

Four kings from the east made war on five local kings (Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboim, Bela) in Canaan and held them in servitude for twelve years. The Canaanites rebelled but failed to gain independence. The kings from the east returned and sacked Sodom, confiscated their goods, and took prisoners, including Lot and his family.

Love of pleasure and wickedness characterized Sodom and the other “cities of the plain” (Gen. 13:12). The wealth of these cities had attracted the invasion of the four kings of the east. Behind the scenes was God’s hand, giving Sodom and the other cities of the plain a warning about their need to repent of their wickedness.

The capturing of Lot and his family roused Abram to action. Though a peaceful man, he mustered an army of 318 trained servants and joined with his friends Aner, Eschol, and Mamre, and pursued the Babylonians. They routed the Babylonian army by strategy and surprise in a night attack, rescued all the prisoners, and recovered the confiscated goods. They chased the Babylonians all the way to Damascus and beat them so severely that the Babylonians did not attempt another such attack against Israel for 1,000 years.

God did not plan for Abram to become a man of war. There was no need for Abram to trust in arms, for God would be his shield (Gen. 15:1). Concerned that he still had no son, Abram suggested that perhaps Eliezer could be his heir to fulfill God’s purpose (Gen. 15:2, 3). God responded by insisting that Abram’s heir would be his natural child, and his descendants would be as numerous as the stars (Gen. 15:4, 5). Abram believed God and his faith was counted to him as righteousness (Gen. 15:6).

A Covenant Ceremony

When God added the promise of land, Abram’s faith wavered (Gen. 15:7). He asked God, “Whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?” (Gen. 15:8).

God initiated a covenant ceremony with Abram, according to the custom of the people. At sundown, Abram fell into a deep sleep, “and, lo, an horror of great darkness fell upon him” (Gen. 15:12). The Bible does not explain the significance of these words. Several Bible verses tell us that God is light and the source of light (1 John 1:5; Rev. 22:5). Other verses associate sin and evil with darkness and the absence of God. With this as a background, the expression “an horror of great darkness” suggests that Abram looked into an eternity of darkness without life and without God. Such a great darkness Jesus looked into when He cried out on the cross, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46).

God then revealed to Abram that he and his descendants would be in Egypt 400 more years. It had been thirty years since Terah left Ur with Abram (Gen. 11:31). Adding another 400 years to their deliverance from Egypt would be a total of 430 years (Exod. 12:41).1 At the time of fulfillment there had arisen a king who “knew not Joseph” (Exod. 1:8). Fearing that Israel would side with the Hyksos, who had just been driven out, the Egyptian Pharaoh began to afflict them and enslave them. God delivered Israel after the fourth generation of their enslavement-on the very day that the 430 years ended (Exod. 12:41).

To complete the covenant ceremony, God, as “a smoking furnace and a burning lamp “| passed between” the pieces, totally consuming them (Gen. 15:17). In keeping with recognized custom, God pledged Himself to fulfill His covenant with Abram, though it would be 400 years before his descendants would possess the land. The long delay disappointed Abram, but God needed for him to show patience as He was giving more time for the Amorites to repent (Gen. 15:16).

Jesus would ratify the everlasting covenant of God on the cross. (Daniel 9 said that He would “confirm” it.) What then was this ceremony? God directed this ratification ceremony after promising land to Abram. Abram asked: “Lord God, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?” (Gen. 15:7). As a kindness to Abram, God again emphasized the promise of land (Gen. 15:18).

Did God twice ratify the everlasting covenant He gave Abram? God reassured Abram that he would receive the land by a covenant procedure in Genesis 15. This was a singular covenant, which God gave only to reassure Abram that his descendants would, in truth, receive the land. It contains no mention of the everlasting covenant, which Jesus would ratify by His sacrifice on the cross.

The Covenants of God with Abram

Before the creation, the three persons of the Godhead formed the everlasting covenant of God.2 The Father gave the Son, who came to earth as a man and died on the cross, and the Holy Spirit mediated grace to change the lives of sinners. Some instances of the covenant use other terms: the new covenant refers to the covenant’s ratification at Calvary after the ratification of other covenants. The covenant God called “My covenant” was His unique possession. Yet, He made the covenant for humankind. The covenant of grace, also called the covenant of redemption, describes the main purpose and action of this covenant, which was to bring salvation to earth. These terms all refer to God’s everlasting covenant.

Thirteen years later, God again appeared to Abram to tell him to “walk before me and be thou perfect” (Gen. 17:1). This may have been as a warning to Abram that he might not act again in mistrust as he did in attempting to gain an heir through Hagar.3 God is patient; this time He presented the covenant to Abram in greater detail (Gen. 17:1-8; 19-21).

God again promised that Abram would have a multitude of descendants. Abram believed Him and fell on his face in reverent awe, believing that God would do as He said. God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, meaning “father of a great multitude.” He would also be the father of nations and kings.4 The covenant again included the land where he lived and the covenant promise of His being their God: “And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God” (Gen. 17:8).5

The addition of circumcision as a token of the covenant may have been because of Abram’s mistake with Hagar. One should note that circumcision was not the covenant itself but was only the token of the covenant. (There will be more on this in our next chapter.)

God also changed the name of Sarai to Sarah. God promised that Sarah, at ninety years of age, would have a son. Abraham silently laughed and offered, “O that Ishmael might live before thee!” (Gen. 17:18). God responded that Sarah would bear a son within the year and the son’s name was to be Isaac. The name means “laughter,” which is an appropriate name since Abraham and Sarah’s laughter of unbelief would turn into laughter of joy at the birth of their miracle child (Gen. 17:17; 18:12; 21:6). Isaac, and Isaac alone, would be the covenant son.

God presented the covenant to Abram with incredible promises right from the first. In the first four presentations, God gave promises; in the last three, He made a covenant. The covenant specified land in six of these seven presentations. God gave the covenant on each occasion, associated with significant events in Abram’s life. Here is a summary of the seven presentations:

1. Genesis 12:1-3. God called Abram to leave his kindred and go to “a land that I will shew thee:”
2. Genesis 12:7. When Abram arrived at Shechem, the Lord promised him the land of Canaan. Abram built an altar.
3. Genesis 13:14-17. Abram and Lot separated. God promised Abram land and many descendants. Abram settled at Mamre and built an altar.
4..Genesis 15:1-6. After the battle with the four kings, God came to Abram in a vision, saying: “I am thy shield.” It was not the will of God for Abram to be a man of war. God promised Abram protection, a naturally born son, and that his own descendants would be as numerous as the stars of heaven. Abram “believed in the Lord, and he counted it to him for righteous ness.”
5. Genesis 15:7-18. After God promised him land, Abram asked, “Whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?” God directed a unique covenant ceremony to ratify the promise of land. It would be another 400 years before the land would be theirs.
6. Genesis 17:1-19. God presented the covenant in greatest detail at this time. He repeated all the previous promises. He changed Abram and Sarai’s names to Abraham and Sarah. God repeated the term “My covenant” eight times and the term “everlasting covenant” three times. He gave circumcision as the “token of the covenant” (Gen. 17:11).
7. Genesis 22:16-18. “By myself have I sworn,” the Lord declared. God gave the covenant to Abraham the last time after Abraham obeyed God in going up the mountain to sacrifice Isaac. All nations were to be blessed through the seed of Abraham. Abraham understood this promise to include not just a multitude of descendants but the Messiah (Gal. 3:16).


1. “In the fourth generation, they shall come hither again” (Gen. 15:16). The language in these verses is difficult. The Egyptians did not enslave Israel while they were in Canaan or during the first part of their sojourn in Egypt. Their enslavement did not happen until the Egyptians drove out the Hyksos kings and Egypt regained its sovereignty.
2. The triunity of God was explained in chapter 1, “The Everlasting Covenant.”
3. Hagar’s story is found in Genesis 16. It seemed to Abram that God needed help to fulfill the covenant. Abram arranged to have a child by their maid Hagar. With her pregnancy, Hagar tried to usurp the place and authority of Sarai, causing trouble between Sarai and Hagar. When Ishmael was a teenager, he “mocked Isaac,” and Abraham banished him and his mother from the camp. God is forgiving and merciful, and He gave Ishmael a covenant (Gen. 21:13, 17-21).
4. The descendants (or “seed”) of Abraham would receive the covenant throughout history.
• Isaac (Gen. 26:2-5, 24)
• Jacob, with his dream of the ladder (Gen. 28:13-15), after he wrestled with God (Gen. 32:26-29), when he received the name Israel (Gen. 35:10-12), and when he was promised that he would return from Egypt to the promised land and become a great nation (Gen. 46:2-4)
• Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Lev. 26:42; 1 Chron. 16:14-18; Ps. 105:8-11, “the covenant which he made with Abraham, and of the oath unto Isaac; and hath confirmed the same to Jacob for a law, and to Israel for an everlasting covenant”)
• Moses (Exod. 3:5, 14-17, “The Lord is the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob”)
• The children of Israel (Exod. 4:29-31, “the Lord who looked upon their affliction”; Exod. 6:2-8, the same one who “appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob”; Exod. 19:4-6, “keep my covenant” and you will “be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people “| a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation”)
• Those who belong to Christ (1 Peter 2:9, 10, “ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people “| which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God”; Gal. 3:29, “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”)
5. Minus the land, this promise was echoed in the language of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31:33 and Hebrews 8:10.