Making Promises to Abraham

We were talking about the hinge in Genesis by which the first half of the book flows into the second and connecting the two stories.We noted how the author puts together each story in such a way as to underscore a point which he wants the reader to hold on to. Structurally speaking the hinge of the book are those covenantal promises that God makes towards Abram. Now that assumes a lot but you have to read the last post to see why I said that.

In Genesis, if we were looking closely, another one of the key words that find quite a bit of repetition is Covenant. It’s all over the book (which is another reason why we have to think that this book is very likely not merely about the history of the world but dealing with specific things: we’ve mentioned blessing, cursing, favor, account of X, and now covenants).

Well, I talk about covenants in another post, but for now we’ll just boil it down to a fancy way of saying a package of promises which are either unilaterally enacted or bilaterally contracted. For a modern example, you can covenant with me to buy my house; I take your money, you take my deed—or the bank does. Whatever, you get the point.

We start seeing the beginning of God’s covenantal promises to Abram in chapter 12 though we don’t see a mention of a covenant (to Abram) until chapter 15. For the sake of provoking our memories let me just list this first wave of promises:

  • Promise 1: I will show you a land  (Gen 12:1)
  • Promise 2: I make you into a great nation (Gen 12:2)
  • Promise 3: I will bless you
  • Promise 4: I will make your name great
  • Promise 5: You will become a blessing (for others)
  • Promise 6: I will bless those who bless you (Gen 13:3)
  • Promise 7: I will curse those who curse you or treat you lightly
  • Promise 8: All the families of the earth will be blessed by your name

Immediately in the story we see one of God’s promises being fulfilled. Abram gets to the land! But a famine hits and Abram has to leave and go to Egypt. In Egypt Abram’s wife is taken by Pharaoh and added to his harem and God curses Pharaoh and his household. Two of God’s promises being immediately fulfilled. The mistake would be to assume since the author depicts a fulfillment of God’s promises, therefore God will not continue to fulfill that promise. Indeed, this will come up again later in the post when the author records Lot’s Rescue Part 1 and the Abimelech Situation Part 1.

Anyway, back to Gen 13, Abram, now a broken man from the Egypt situation gives Lot free reign to choose any portion of the promised land. Lot chooses apparently the juiciest part of the land but God turns Abram around to look at the entire land (Gen 13:14-18) and makes him a promise which, parenthetically speaking, is a combination and expansion of a couple of previous promises:

  • Promise 9 (or 1+2): The entire land has been given to Abram and his descendants forever. (Gen 13:15)
  • Promise 10 (3+4): I will make your descendants as the dust of the Earth (Gen 13:16)
  • Promise 11 (1+3+4): Walk the Land; I will give it to you (Gen 13:17)

Now of course these promises have a problem since the land is occupied (not to mention Abram is childless), but Abram is so secure in God’s promises (since he’s already been brought to a land he didn’t know and he has already seen God working out curses against those who cursed him) that he believes God and starts wandering through the land like a surveyor (Gen 13:18).

Abram’s nephew is kidnapped and Abram, with three hundred house trained soldiers, manages to hunt down an army and rescue Lot. His endeavor, blessed, his enemy cursed and finally Abram strengthened by the Melchizedek King of Salem. The man, a resident of the land, solidifies God’s words by calling Abram blessed because God is on his side (Gen 14:19-20.

Note again how later, when Abram winds up with Abimelech in a Pharaoh-like situation or once again when young Isaac winds up in the same situation with another Abimelech. God’s promise of cursing on those who treat them lightly winds up occurring as stated. God keeps repeatedly fulfilling the promises He’s made to Abram but the fulfillments don’t end God’s continued commitment to keeping his promises to Abram…even if he keeps expanding on the details and even if Abram falls into the same mistakes.

God’s promises, Gen 15, come to the fore when Abram receives a vision in regards to his future security and continuance of God’s promises. How would it occur if Abram was in fact old and a descendant of the household of Abram was a servant? God promises that Abram would have a child—which the man believes but goes about bringing about the promises of God as he has done before.

  • Promise 12: You will have seed from your loins (Gen 15:4)
  • Promise 13 (2+3): Your seed will be countless (Gen 15:5)
  • Promise 14 (13a):  Your descendants will be strangers in a  foreign land—enslaved 400 years (Gen 15:13)
  • Promise 15 (13b): Your descendents will come out
  • Promise 16 (13c): They will return here after the sin of the Amorites is full (Gen 15:14)
  • Promise 17 (9b) To your descendents the land is given from the Nile to the Euphrates, to the land of the Canaanites.

Abram is indeed fruitful (with Ishmael via Hagar) but it was not by that route that God’s promises would evidently stand—the son was to come from Sarah which God fulfills in chapter 17.

Gen 17 opens with God speaking to a very old Abram (and still years before the man has Isaac) where he tells him

  • Promise 18 (2 + 13): I will give you a multitude of descendants (Gen 17:2)
  • Promise 19 (2+13+4+5): You will be the father of nations (Gen 17:4)
  • Promise 20 (4+19): Kings will descend from you (Gen 17:6)
  • Promise 21: I will confirm my covenant as a perpetual covenant between me and you and your descendents throughout generations after you (Gen 17:7)
  • Promise 22 (9c): I will give you and them the whole land of Canaan as a permanent possession (Gen 17:8)
  • Promise 23: I will be their God.
  • Promise 24 (18+9+12): I will establish my covenant with Isaac whom Sarah will bear
  • Promise 25 (18+20+13 +2)): I will bless Ishmael (Gen 17:16)
  • Promise 26 (25b): I will make Ishmael fruitful
  • Promise 27 (25c): I will make him a great nation (Gen 17:20)

What’s apparent is that God is ensuring Abraham with (1) seed/descendants (2) land/A Land (3) a nation/nation of nations (4) being a blessing/a blessing to all the nations;  that this covenant is perpetually unending; that this covenant can expand (since he has been expanding it already) but that the core of the covenant will always remain. Repeatedly we have God making, confirming, fulfilling, expanding and reiterating His promises in action. Action that ensured Abraham a future fulfillment by concretely fulfilling his promises before the actual man—he may not live to see the day that the promises are actually finalized, but he would go to his grave in peace knowing that God would act according to what he promised him (Gen 15:15).

Genesis 18:19 has the God further acting by speaking to in this way about Abraham:

“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will blessed? For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.”

The author is recording God’s point-of-view. Sure he keeps information from Abraham, but in no way is he trying to pull a quick one by Abraham. He’s going to destroy a city where Abraham has vested interest—the city where his nephew lives in. If God is really a blessing for Abraham, he should be concerned about Abraham’s people; so he tells him what he’s about to do.

With this Abraham becomes the type of man that becomes a blessing to even Sodom, staving off punishment by asking God at what point will He hold back His wrath. “Will the Judge of the Earth do what is right: What if ten people are in that wicked city, Lord, will you destroy it then?”

“No I won’t” and God even keeps that promise to the extent of pulling out the one righteous man in the city and his family to secure the proper outpouring of his wrath.

Abraham was so secure in God’s promises that come Genesis 22:4  when he arrives at the foothills of the mountain where he was told to sacrifice his son of Promise, he tells his servants “wait here: we’ll both be back” and journey’s on. The man expected to kill his son and have him miraculously given back to him.

That’s how serious he took the promises of God. They received the promises of God, welcoming them from a distance, knowing God would keep those explicit promises even if he blesses above and beyond that which they were expecting. (Heb 11:10-13)

Now someone might be tempted to jump to Galatians at this point; not me. Paul’s point, drawn from the situation with Abraham, isn’t derived solely from the promises to Abraham. The Christological aspects blossom out in the actualization of the Abrahamic Covenant in time, but I have to establish that by some notes on the historical outworking of this covenant.

That will be the next post.

Facebook Comments

2 thoughts on “Making Promises to Abraham

Leave a Reply