This article is Part 3 of 3 where we look at what God promised the physical descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob (the Jews) in the Abrahamic Covenant.
The Calling of Abraham
The first mention of Abraham is in Genesis Chapter 11 where we learn that Abram (his name at first) is from Ur of the Chaldees, and is the son of Terah, has two brothers named Nahor and Haran and that Haran’s son (Abram’s nephew) is Lot and that Abram’s wife is Sarai (later changed to “Sarah“). It seems apparent that Abram knew God’s voice because when He spoke to him at the beginning of Chapter 12, Abram knew it was God. In verse 1 of Chapter 12 of Genesis, God speaks to Abram for the first time recorded in Scripture of two specific promises;
(1) that He will make him and his descendants into “a great nation” — a people.
(2) that he will give this people a very specific land.
As we will demonstrate below, God specifies throughout the book of Genesis that the “great nation” is a people of physical descendants of Abraham — and not just any physical descendants of Abraham! God is very specific who can and cannot be Abraham’s “heir” and thus, who Abraham’s descendants will be. For example, as we outline below, God specifies that Abraham’s heir cannot be through his servant Eliezer and cannot be through Hagar’s son Ishmael, even though Abraham is his father. Furthermore, God foretells in advance that Isaac’s heir will be though Jacob, and not Esau (Isaac’s firstborn son).
God is very particular that Abraham’s descendants i.e. “seed” (plural) are a very specific nation who are descended from very particular Patriarchs.
A Land and a People
The very first time God speaks to Abraham as recorded in Scripture, it is of of the two promises concerning a people and a land, in Genesis 12;
“The Lord said to Abram:
Go out from your land,
and your father’s house
to the land that I will show you.“
Then God spoke to Abraham of His promises, God says;
“I will make you into a great nation,
I will bless you,
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
I will curse those who curse you,
and all the peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.“
In Genesis 12: 1-3, God is contrasting the promises made to Abraham pertaining to two groups of people;
(1) to the “great nation” (singular) — a specific physical people, the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — the “great nation” (singular) with whom He makes an “everlasting covenant”. This group is a physical nation, the people of “Israel” that is derived from Abraham’s “seed” (plural).
(2) “all the nations (literally families) of the earth” (plural) — The word for “nations” is the word in Hebrew מִשְׁפְּחֹת meaning “families” refers to the Gentiles that will be blessed through a specific physical descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — a Jew, the Messiah.
God leaves no room for doubt that the “great nation” He will make of Abraham is a physical nation that would come through very specific physical offspring or “seed” (plural) of Abraham (i.e. through Issac and Jacob and in Genesis 22:15-18, He repeats the exact SAME promises to the exact SAME two groups of people as in Genesis 12:1-3! After Isaac was born and after Jacob became Isaac’s heir, God reaffirmed His covenant with BOTH the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (the ‘great nation’) as well as His covenant with “all the families / nations of the earth”;
“Then the Angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “By Myself I have sworn,” this is the Lord’s declaration: “Because you have done this thing and have not withheld your only son, I will indeed bless you and make your offspring as numerous as the stars of the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your offspring will possess the gates of their enemies.“
And all the nations of the earth will be blessed by your offspring because you have obeyed My command.”
Furthermore, God also reaffirmed the covenant He made with Abraham concerning his physical descendants to Isaac in Genesis 26:1-5 and to Jacob in Genesis 28:13-15 and in Genesis 35:9-12.
God’s Promises to Abraham were “a people” and “a land”
God made two specific promises to the physical descendants of Abraham in Genesis Chapter 12:1-3; that He will make of Abraham’s descendants into a great nation and that He will give this great nation a specific the land (verses 5-7) ;
“He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated, and the people he had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan. When they came to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the site of Shechem, at the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “I will give this land to your offspring.”
The term “offspring” is also translated “seed” (Hebrew זֶרַע), and is used here in its plural form and as we will demonstrate, refers to the physical descendants of Abraham, through Isaac and Jacob — the Jews. In this verse, God is speaking of a specific land (the land of Israel) that He will give to the Jewish people.
When Abram leaves Ur of the Chaldees, he takes Lot, his brother’s son, with him. Things get tense between Lot’s herdsmen and Abram’s herdsmen, so Abram gives Lot his choice to go one way and he goes the other.
After Lot separated from Abram, God said to Abram to look as far as he could see, looking north, south, east and west for He was going to give Abram and his offspring (“seed”, Hebrew זֶרַע) all the land that he sees, forever. In this case too, the word “seed” is in its plural form and refers to the physical descendants of Abraham, through Isaac and Jacob;
“After Lot had separated from him, the Lord said to Abram, “Look from the place where you are. Look north and south, east and west, for I will give you and your offspring forever all the land that you see. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust of the earth, then your offspring could be counted. Get up and walk around the land, through its length and width, for I will give it to you.”
Genesis 13: 14-17
The beginning of Chapter 15 of Genesis reads
“After these events, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision“.
God says to Abram;
“Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield;
your reward will be very great.”
Abram was frustrated because anything that God would give him would only be for his lifetime, because Abram didn’t have an heir and everything he had at that point, or would receive from God in the future, would become the property of his head servant, Eliezer.
Abram complains to God (:3);
“But Abram said, “Lord God, what can You give me, since I am childless and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” Abram continued, “Look, You have given me no offspring, so a slave born in my house will be my heir.”
Genesis 15: 2-3
The Lord answered Abram clearly and said that Eliezer will not be his heir but one who comes from his own body will be his heir.
God knew that He was going to bring Abram’s heir through his wife Sarai and that He would make His covenant with his physical descendants:
“This one will not be your heir; instead, one who comes from your own body will be your heir.”
Then God took Abram outside and said to him (:5);
“Look at the sky and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then He said to him, “Your offspring will be that numerous.”
In this case, the Hebrew word for “offspring” or “seed” is in its plural form and refers to the physical descendants of Abraham — and as we shall see, specifically through Isaac and Jacob.
In Genesis 15:6-8, when it came to having physical descendants, Abram believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness (:6) but when God spoke to him about the physical land they would inherit, Abraham wanted proof (:7)!
“Abram believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness.
He also said to him, “I am Yahweh who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.
”But he said, “Lord God, how can I know that I will possess it?”
God’s asks Abram to bring Him specific animals, split them down the middle and lay them opposite one another. This act is how covenants were made.
God’s Covenant with Abraham
God’s responds to Abram’s request for proof that his physical descendants would inherit the land by asking Abram to bring Him specific animals, split them down the middle and lay them opposite one another. This is how covenants were made, and the term in Hebrew for making a covenant is literally “to cut a covenant” (וַיִּכְרְתוּ בְרִית).
A covenant is an agreement between at least two parties where the terms of the agreement are set out and both parties accept them. In this case the covenant is made between YHVH and Abram but looking at another example of the covenant cut between Zedekiah and the people of Judah (Jeremiah 34:8–22) — in both cases at least one animal was killed, cut into two pieces and someone passed between the divided pieces.
The killing of an animal in making a covenant signified that those that entered into the covenant could expect the same fate as the animals if he violated his oath. The slaughtered animal(s) was both a ratifying sacrifice and symbolic of the curse for violating the covenant.
It is important to note that God alone ratified the covenant with Abram – and Hebrews 6:13 refers to this saying, He swore by Himself and furthermore, says why God swore by Himself;
“For when God made a promise to Abraham, since He had no one greater to swear by, He swore by Himself:
I will indeed bless you,
and I will greatly multiply you.
And so, after waiting patiently, Abraham obtained the promise. For men swear by something greater than themselves, and for them a confirming oath ends every dispute. Because God wanted to show His unchangeable purpose even more clearly to the heirs of the promise, He guaranteed it with an oath, so that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us.”
God swore by Himself to demonstrate that His promises were unchangeable, and these are His promises were to both the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (the Jews) and to the “nations”, the Gentiles;
(a) to the Gentiles that the “seed of the woman” and the “seed” (singular) of Abraham (Jesus) would be a blessing to “all the families of the earth”
(b) to the Jews that He would have an “everlasting covenant” with them and that the land was their “eternal possession”.
God alone ratifying the covenant (i.e. Abram did not have to walk through the cut pieces of animals as is normally the case) signified that if either side broke the covenant, God Himself would die!
We all know the story of what happened next…
Abraham was getting old and his wife Sarai was resolved she was not going to conceive, so she tells Abram to sleep with her handmaiden, Hagar so that he would have an heir to the promise of ‘the land’ and to bring forth ‘a great nation’. Abram obliges and Hagar conceives Ishmael. After Ishmael’s birth, at the very beginning of Genesis 17, God appears to Abram and reiterates the covenant he made with him when He passed through the animal parts — including the certainly of the Land as an eternal possession that He was giving to Abram’s descendants through a son that Sarai, Abram’s wife will bear;
“I am God Almighty. Live in My presence and be blameless. I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will multiply you greatly.”
Then Abram fell face-down and God spoke with him: “As for Me, My covenant is with you: you will become the father of many nations. Your name will no longer be Abram, but your name will be Abraham, for I will make you the father of many nations. I will make you extremely fruitful and will make nations and kings come from you. I will keep My covenant between Me and you, and your future offspring throughout their generations, as an everlasting covenant to be your God and the God of your offspring after you. And to you and your future offspring I will give the land where you are residing—all the land of Canaan—as an eternal possession, and I will be their God.”
Abraham Through Isaac – not Ishmael
Abraham was hoping God would simply recognize Ishmael as the heir to the covenant and the son of promise, saying to God “If only Ishmael were acceptable to you”(Genesis 17:18) but after Ishmael’s birth (Genesis 17:1-8), God appears to Abram and reiterates the promises He made with him when He passed through the animal parts — including the promise of the Land and in verse 15, God tells Abraham that his wife Sarai, whose name He will change to Sarah, will bear a son and that nations will come through her.
God said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, do not call her Sarai, for Sarah[e] will be her name. I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she will produce nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”
Who are these “nations” (plural) that will come through Sarah?
Sarah bore only one son, Isaac and the “nations” that God foretold come through him.
God specified that Abraham’s physical offspring or “seed” (plural) would be through Isaac and NOT Ishmael (Genesis 17:19) and that it was through Isaac that God would confirm His covenant with Abraham;
“But God said, “No. Your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will name him Isaac. I will confirm My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his future offspring. As for Ishmael, I have heard you. I will certainly bless him; I will make him fruitful and will multiply him greatly. He will father 12 tribal leaders, and I will make him into a great nation. But I will confirm My covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this time next year.”
Abraham through Isaac and Jacob – not Esau
God was very specific that Abraham’s physical offspring / “seed” (plural) would be through Jacob and not Esau (Genesis 25:23) and foretold this;
“These are the family records of Isaac son of Abraham. Abraham fathered Isaac. 20 Isaac was 40 years old when he took as his wife Rebekah daughter of Bethuel the Aramean from Paddan-aram and sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife because she was childless. The Lord heard his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. But the children inside her struggled with each other, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?”So she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her:
Two nations are in your womb;
two people will come from you and be separated.
One people will be stronger than the other,
and the older will serve the younger.“
Genesis 25: 19-23
Isaac’s wife Rebekah had twin sons; Esau and Jacob and God said (Genesis 25:23) that “two nations” were in her womb and that the “older shall serve the younger“. The first born son was Esau, who under ordinary circumstances would have been the heir to Isaac, but God foretold that he would serve his second born twin brother, Jacob. As God said would happen, Esau sold his birthright to Jacob, effectively making Jacob as if he were the “first born son” — fulfilling the promise that the “older would serve the younger.”
The “two nations” that Isaac’s wife Rebekah bore were:
(1) Jacob’s descendants, the 12 Tribes of Israel. This is the nation of “Israel”.
(2) the descendants of Esau. The descendants of Esau are listed in Genesis 36 and verse 6 says that Esau moved some distance away from his brother Jacob to another land called Se’ir, also known as Edom (or Idumea). The nation which came from Esau are the Edomites.
The Physical Descendants of Abraham – a “people” forever
God promised through the prophet Jeremiah that Israel, the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would always exist before Him. In Jeremiah Chapter 31, immediately after promising to give the Jews the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-33) because they broke the Mosaic Covenant (the Law) that He gave them at Sinai, God promised in Jeremiah 31:35-37 that as long as the sun shines in the day and the moon and the stars shine at night, that Israel will be a nation before Him. He promised that only if the heavens above and the foundations of the earth below can be measured, will He reject Israel’s descendants because of all they have done;
“This is what the Lord says:
The One who gives the sun for light by day,
the fixed order of moon and stars for light by night,
who stirs up the sea and makes its waves roar—
Yahweh of Hosts is His name:
If this fixed order departs from My presence—
this is the Lord’s declaration—
then also Israel’s descendants will cease
to be a nation before Me forever.
This is what the Lord says:
If the heavens above can be measured
and the foundations of the earth below explored,
I will reject all of Israel’s descendants
because of all they have done—
this is the Lord’s declaration.”
We know that both of these promises still exist because “it is impossible for God to lie”;
“Is God a man who lies, or a son of man who changes His mind? Does He speak and not act, or promise and not fulfill?”
It is our belief that only reason that the Jews still exist and that they are back in the land is because of His faithfulness to His word — to keep the covenant that He made and swore by Himself to uphold, even if the Jews broke it, which they did.
God was clear in Scripture, that the penalty for the Jew’s disobedience (even the rejection of His Messiah) was exile from the land (Leviticus 26: 30-33).
The Jews were exiled in 70 CE after the death of Jesus and for more than 2000 years were in exile from the land He gave them as an “eternal possession”, but as He promised, the Jews would never cease to be a people before Him. Even though in WWII 2/3 of the Jewish people were wiped out), God promised (Jeremiah 31:35-37) that as long as the sun shines in the day and the moon and the stars shine at night, that Israel will be a nation before Him and He has been faithful to His word. He returned the Jews to the land He gave them because He is faithful to His word and said that it was their “everlasting possession” (Genesis 17:7-8).
Israel is still Israel.
Part 2 on God’s Promises to the Gentiles in the Abrahamic Covenant can be found here: http://www.jewishrootsofchristianity.ca/gods-promises-to-the-gentiles-in-the-abrahamic-covenant/
Part 1 on Paul’s use of the term “Israel” in the book of Romans can be found here: http://www.jewishrootsofchristianity.ca/pauls-use-of-the-term-israel-in-the-book-of-romans/