Understanding God’s Everlasting Covenant
Unilateral Gift from the King
Confirmation of the Covenant
While the events of Genesis 15:17 illustrate an affirmation or oath element of a land grant, it uses the method of a covenant of parity to underscore the uniqueness of the covenant now being signified by God in covenant promise to Abraham. In the ancient Near Eastern culture, a covenant of parity was a covenant of promise between equals to do or to refrain from doing something that was mutually beneficial to both of the promising parties. The parity covenant was usually sealed by the promising parties walking together between the halves of a sacrificial animal, such as a bullock or a ram. In essence, the parties were giving witness to each other that if either should break his promise, or fail to uphold his side of the covenant, then what had happened to the animal would fall also upon him. This type of covenant had no connection to the suzerain covenant. The suzerain covenant was between a conqueror and his vassals, and involved specific stipulations which were binding on the weaker vassal nations. The suzerain covenant by its very nature was a covenant of unequalness.
Other instances of parity covenants in the Bible are found between Abraham and Abimelech in Genesis 21:22-32; and between Isaac and Abimelech in Genesis 26:26-31. In both cases the parties “made a covenant.” The literal translation of the word “made” is “to cut,” signifying that the covenants Abraham and Isaac formed with Abimelech were of a type similar to the one that we read about in Genesis chapter fifteen, being the common form of covenant in that culture. In both of these cases it was a covenant of promise to refrain from war over the denial of certain property rights (the wells of water). Not all covenants of parity involved the cutting of a sacrifice, but this type of covenant was always made between two equal parties and was for the purpose of settling a dispute and creating a binding peace between the two parties. Other examples of covenants of parity are found in 1 Kings 5:1-12, 15:16-20; and 20:31-34. In the last reference we find that Ahab not only gave his word, but he “cut” a covenant with Ben-hadad before sending him away in peace.
In Genesis 15, God restates the land grant covenant He made to Abraham when He called him out of Haran (Genesis 12:13), and now seals the promise with the ritual of the cutting of the pieces. Abraham did as he was instructed, cutting and laying out the slaughtered animals, evidently in anticipation of his participation in the covenant routine. “And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp that passed between those pieces.” (Genesis 15:17). God purposely chose this parity form of covenant when sealing His land grant promise to Abraham. By doing so, God was saying to Abraham, “Let what happened to these animals happen to Me if I do not keep My promise to you to give you an inheritance of children and land.” God was laying His eternal existence on the line in promising Abraham that He would give him an everlasting inheritance and the righteousness to obtain it. “In this covenant it is God as the suzerain who commits himself and swears, as it were, to keep the promise. It is he accompanied by a smoking oven and blazing torch who passes between the parts as though he were invoking the curse upon himself.”
In a covenant of parity it takes two to make the agreement. Variously, scholars have attempted to define what took place in this instance by (1) claiming that even though the Scripture does not specifically state that Abraham “walked” between the pieces, he must have done so because the covenant type demanded it; or (2) that God used this form of covenant intentionally but that only He passed between the pieces, making it a one sided promise, with the curse falling only on Him. The first explanation violates the everlasting covenant by making it a mutual affair between equals, an old covenant idea. The second explanation is also a violation of the parity covenant formula because there could be no covenant without a witness of equal stature to attest to the binding aspects of the agreement.
Is there a reasonable explanation which satisfactorily defines what took place that evening in ancient Palestine?
Yes:—Reading the Scripture we see that there were two entities that passed between the animal parts, “a smoking furnace and a burning lamp.” The Godhead was present that evening on the hills between Bethel and Ai. The glorious theophany was a demonstration of the everlasting covenant between the Father and the Son that They would restore humanity’s eternal inheritance should sin cause them to forfeit it. Both the Father and the Son passed between the pieces that evening giving visible evidence of the promise made from the foundation of the world. Present also as the eternal witness was the Holy Spirit who would testify of the truth of the everlasting covenant (John 15:26). The covenant of parity could not be made between God and Abraham, because no claim could be made that they were equals. The covenant of parity could only be made between members of the Godhead who were eternally equal.
Thomas Brooks (1608-1680) declared in his treatise “Paradise Opened” that all members of the Godhead were present when the everlasting covenant was made. “Consent of all parties, the allowance of the judge, and public record, is as much as can be desired to make all public contracts authentic in courts of justice; and what can we desire more, to settle, satisfy, and assure our own souls that all the articles of the covenant of redemption shall, on all hands, be certainly made good, than this, that these three heavenly witness, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, do all agree to the articles of the covenant, and are all witnesses to the same covenant?”
There was nothing greater that God could swear by except Himself. Paul helps us understand the covenant made with Abraham by describing the usual manner in which two men of equal stature swore to one another, “an oath for confirmation [which was] to them an end of all strife” (Hebrews 6:16; cf Genesis 21:22-32 ). As we have previously detailed, through the making of the covenant of parity two men would sware to one another that all strife between them would be at an end. While there was no “strife” between the Father and the Son, there was a conflict between God and His creatures, which the Godhead assumed upon themselves to remedy.
“For when God made promise to Abraham, because he could swear by no greater, He sware by Himself, saying, surely blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying I will multiply thee. And so, after he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise. For men verily swear by the greater: and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife. Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel, confirmed it by an oath: that by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us.” (Hebrews 6:13-18). God could find no one greater than Himself, so He made the oath “between” Himself. Christ confirms that He and His Father are co-witnesses in the plan of salvation. “And yet if I judge, My judgment is true: for I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent Me. It is also written in your law, that the testimony of two men is true. I am one that bear witness of Myself, and the Father that sent Me beareth witness of Me.” (John 8:16-18).
The “two immutable things” Paul mentions are first, the promise of God to give the land as an everlasting inheritance (and the righteousness required to receive the everlasting inheritance), which in itself should have been sufficient for Abraham’s enduring faith (Genesis 15:6). And secondly, the oath God made to Abraham in taking the curse upon Himself by “walking between the pieces,” constituted a more abundant assurance of God’s commitment to fulfill His promise. God’s promise and His oath are both immutable, unchangeable, enduring forever, and unamendable.
Thus the royal land grant is seen in its uniqueness as the embodiment of the everlasting covenant; a fully legal and immutable promise to Abraham and his heirs. It is the revelation of God’s plan of redemption, enveloping the entire scope of God’s redemptive covenant to save lost humanity from their sin and restore to them their everlasting possession—this earth made new. “It is essential to note that the covenant is unilateral in its inception and the curses are given to protect Abraham, not to induce his loyalty or obedience.” “The redemptive blessing to mankind is the ultimate promise and it is guaranteed as the gift of the King.”
It’s All About Inheritance—by Faith in the Promise
“When [Abraham’s] father was dead, He removed him into this land, wherein ye now dwell. And He gave him none inheritance in it, no, not so much as to set his foot on: yet He promised that He would give it to him for a possession, and to his seed after him, when as yet he had no child” (Acts 7:5). How could God say that Abraham had inherited the land when this verse clearly states that he never actually owned even the ground impressed by his sandals? Why did God call Abraham to leave his homeland in Ur and travel to a foreign country? (Genesis 12:1). Why did God tell Abraham that He was going to give him every part of the land of Canaan, everywhere he put his foot (Genesis 13:17) would be his, when in fact Abraham never owned anything in Canaan except a grave, and that he purchased for himself? (see Genesis 23:3-16).
The issue of inheritance was not about the physical dirt and bushes of Palestine. The covenant with Abraham encompassed much more than that. After describing Abraham and Sarah’s experience in conceiving the miracle child, Paul declares that: “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for He hath prepared for them a city … and these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.” (Hebrews 11:13-16, 39-40).
The word inherit occurs sixty-two times in the Bible, thirteen times in the New Testament, all in the context of inheriting the promise of the new earth and eternal life to enjoy it. The words heir or heirs in a combined count occur twenty-eight times, most in the New Testament in the context of the Gospel. The word inheritance occurs 239 times in the Bible, the vast majority being concentrated in the books of Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, and the Psalms, where the discussion revolves around the literal occupation of the land of Canaan, or Palestine. It cannot be denied that, because of the promise God made to their father Abraham, the children of Israel did inherit the literal dirt and bushes of the land of Canaan. However, the inheritance was not given to the children of Israel because of anything they had done to deserve it. Moses makes this very clear: “Not for thy righteousness, or for the uprightness of thine heart, dost thou go to possess their land: but for the wickedness of these nations the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee, and that He may perform the word which the Lord sware unto thy fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Understand therefore, that the Lord thy God giveth thee not this good land to possess it for thy righteousness; for thou art a stiffnecked people.” (Deuteronomy 9:5-6).
Included in the promise of the inheritance of the land was the promise of rest—spiritual rest. When the Lord was grieved by the continued, irrational unbelief of His people, He finally adjudged them unfit to inherit His promise (Numbers 14:11-12). In behalf of the children of Israel, but also in defence of God’s character and claiming the promise of God’s longsuffering mercy toward sinners (vv. 13-19), Moses intervened to save the people from imminent destruction. The adults of the group were condemned to die in the desert without ever seeing the land they longed for, but those under 20 years of age were still eligible to inherit the promise given to their fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. However, even though they did enter into the physical land of Canaan, the apostle Paul tells us that they never succeeded in gaining the promise of spiritual rest, and the reason was the same: continued unbelief. “So we see that they could not enter in [to His rest] because of unbelief” (Hebrews 3:19).
Paul reminds the Jewish people of his day that, as a whole, they had never accepted the everlasting covenant given to Abraham (Hebrews chapter 3 and 4). They remain outside the everlasting rest God intended to bestow upon them if they would be faithful and loyal to His promises to their father Abraham. Paul makes it clear that he is discussing spiritual rest when he ties rest to the Sabbath (Hebrews 4:4-8), which is the sign of the everlasting covenant. “God gave the Sabbath to His people to be a continual sign of His love and mercy and of their obedience. As He rested on this day and was refreshed, so He desired His people to rest and be refreshed. It was to be a constant reminder to them that they were included in His covenant of grace. Throughout your generations, He said, the Sabbath is to be My sign, My pledge, to you that I am the Lord that doth sanctify you, that I have chosen you and set you apart as My peculiar people. And as you keep the Sabbath holy, you will bear testimony to the nations of the earth that you are My chosen people.”
Spiritual rest can only be obtained though faith in God’s finished work. “For we which have believed do enter into rest, as He said, As I have sworn in My wrath, if they shall enter into My rest: although the works were finished from the foundation of the world . . . For he that is entered into His rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from His. (Hebrews 4:2, 10). Throughout ancient Israel’s history, the Sabbath remained an issue and an outward sign of their continual unbelief (see Nehemiah 15:13-22; Isaiah 56:2-7; Jeremiah 17:21-27; Ezekiel 22:8, 23:38; and Amos 8:5). After the Babylonian captivity, in their legalism Israel attempted to build a hedge around the Sabbath formulating thirty-nine “father laws” which, by the time of Christ, added an accumulation of more than 600 man-made proscriptions concerning Sabbath-keeping. In part, it was against these obscuring encumbrances that Jesus proclaimed His condemnation of the Pharisees: “For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders” (Matthew 23:4). The Sabbath had lost its true meaning as a sign of faith, confidence and rest in God’s finished work of salvation.
Paul declares plainly that the necessary righteousness to obtain the inheritance does not come through the law or though law-keeping, but only by faith in the promise of God through Christ and His righteousness. “For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise.” “For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect” (Galatians 3:18; Romans 4:14; see also Galatians 4:22-26). Significantly, there were no provisions in the suzerain covenant for an inheritance of any kind. All the vassal could receive under the suzerain covenant was perpetual bondage to the suzerain. In contradistinction, the Gospel is all about inheriting—spiritual rest, eternal life, and the earth made new. For the everlasting covenant, we must look to a covenant that includes an inheritance. The only place we find this promise is in the covenant God made with Abraham; Sinai is devoid of any such provision.
Circumcision—an Amendment to the Everlasting Covenant?
We have examined the everlasting covenant as it patterns the royal land grant formula. Because some see the rite of circumcision as an addition to the everlasting covenant, we must now address the next chapters in the Genesis narrative. Does Genesis chapter 17 add stipulations to the unilateral covenant given to Abraham in chapters 12 through 15? Does the “amendment” of the rite of circumcision change the everlasting covenant from an unconditional covenant into a conditional one? Does God add covenant stipulations and curses to an otherwise unilateral promise? What does God mean when He tells Abraham: “And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken My covenant” (Genesis 17:14)?
We must examine the message in chapter 17 within the literary structure of the entire narrative of Genesis 12 -25, which is divided into two sections: chapters 12-17 and chapters 18-25. The obvious change of scene in chapter 18 marks the end of one subsection and beginning of another, while chapter 17 functions as the pivotal text bringing in a summary of the previous five chapters (vss. 1-8) and advancing the reader to the realities of the promise in the chapters that follow (vss. 15-19). The focal element in chapter 17 is the rite of circumcision, but within the immediate context of the previously given royal land grant. Some insist that the rite of circumcision was an amendment to the everlasting covenant given in Genesis 15, and therefore changes the original covenant into a suzerain treaty which includes curses as well as blessings. “Arguing that the Abrahamic covenant follows the pattern of a Suzerain treaty, and is therefore conditional, Kline interprets circumcision as a covenant ritual depicting self-malediction in connection with the covenant curses . . . Most agree that the Mosaic legislation as found in Exodus and Deuteronomy follows the pattern of the Suzerain treaty. Kline, however, is in the minority when he states that the Abrahamic Covenant follows this same pattern or structure.”
Does circumcision constitute an amendment to the everlasting covenant that transforms what appears to be a unilateral promise on the part of God into a suzerain contract requiring the performance of certain stipulations on the part of the recipient of the promise? Why was circumcision given to Abraham?
The key to our understanding of the riddle of circumcision is contained in the previous chapter. After the everlasting covenant was signified in a most awesome manner, God declared the boundaries of the land grant by naming specific geological and clan identifiers, thus symbolically putting the “kudurru stones” in place. The next verse restates a known fact by emphatically declaring that Abram’s wife, Sarai, was infertile, incapable of the conception of the promised child. The reader is compelled to ask the same question Abraham asked in Genesis 15:2-3: What good does the promise of land do for Abraham if he has no heirs to inherit it after he’s gone? How can the gift be considered “perpetual” without a child who would inherit it after Abraham’s death?
Sarai produces an obvious human solution to the dilemma—a surrogate mother through the servant girl Hagar. “And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai” (Genesis 16:2). Condensed in rapid succession in the narrative is Abraham’s apparent willingness to accept this commonly condoned method for handling the barrenness of a wife, Hagar’s conception, Sarai’s anger over the slave’s arrogant attitude of superiority toward her mistress as a result of her ability to conceive Abraham’s child, the imminent birth of the child, Hagar’s expulsion from the family, God’s intervention, and Ishmael’s birth. At least nine months are contracted into the space of sixteen verses. In these sixteen verses we see the outworking of man’s attempt to fulfill the covenant promise of God. Instead of believing the word of the Lord, Abraham chose to listen to the words of his wife. “They reasoned that God had promised them a large family, but that since it was impossible for her to have children it was very evident that He intended that they should use some other means of bringing it about. Thus it is that human reason deals with the promises of God.” Human reasoning without faith resulted in disaster: violation of God’s “oneness” principle for marriage (Genesis 2:24), the needless contention between Abraham and his wife Sarai, conflict between Sarai and her servant, the manifestation of pride in Hagar, the near death of Hagar and her unborn child, and the birth of a child that would be the source of a constant struggle and distress until the end of time.
Throughout the Abrahamic narrative God proved that He is more than able to deliver on His promise. Abraham’s lack of faith which resulted in his marriage to Hagar, necessitated the institution of the rite of circumcision. “Human enterprise and strength would not be the means by which God would fulfill His promise to Abraham regarding the seed. Circumcision, the cutting away of the foreskin, revealed this explicitly. Coming on the heels of God’s renewed promise to Abraham regarding his progeny and his installation as a father of a multitude of nations [Genesis 17:4-8], the sign of circumcision upon the organ of procreation must be interpreted within the narrative flow as relating to the method by which the complication (absence of children and age of both Abraham and Sarah) would be resolved. The promise would come, not by the strength of the flesh (which the ‘Hagar plan’ represented) but rather by above-human means.”
Circumcision of the flesh was symbolic of the true circumcision of the heart, which is righteousness by faith. “Circumcision of the heart is that condition of the heart by which we will ‘love the Lord’ our God, ‘with all the heart and with all the soul.’ Then you see that that which this circumcision in the flesh was to Abraham, was simply a sign, a token, that they could see in the time when God was teaching them by object lessons—a token which they could see, signifying that which they could not see.”
“For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: but he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.” (Romans 2:28-29). “And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised. For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect: because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression. Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all.” (Romans 4:12-16). “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:29). “And ye are complete in Him, which is the head of all principality and power: in whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ.” (Colossians 2:11).
Why did Christ become a curse on the tree? That the blessing of Abraham might come on you and me. Why did He redeem us from the curse of the law? That the blessing of Abraham might come on you and me. What is the blessing of Abraham? [Congregation: “Righteousness by faith.”]. Christ died that you and I might be made righteous by faith. Brethren, isn’t it awful when a man will rob Christ of the very thing for which He died, and want righteousness in some other way? Isn’t it awful? Brethren, let us believe in Jesus Christ. … Then, when we as a people, we as a body, we as a church, have received the blessing of Abraham, what then? [Congregation: “The latter rain.”]. The outpouring of the Spirit. It is so with the individual. When the individual believes in Jesus Christ, and obtains the righteousness which is by faith, then the Holy Spirit, which is the circumcision of the heart, is received by him. And when the whole people, as a church, receive the righteousness of faith, the blessing of Abraham, then what is to hinder the church from receiving the Sprit of God? [Congregation: ” Nothing”]. That is where we are. What is to hinder, then, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit? What holds back the outpouring of the Holy Ghost? [Voice: “Unbelief.”]
In Genesis 15 Abraham was “accounted righteous” by his faith in God’s promise to him that he would have children as innumerable as the stars of the heavens. “Since faith is the depending upon the word of God only, for what that word says, being justified by faith is simply being accounted righteous by depending upon the word only. And since the word is the word of God, dependence upon the word only is dependence upon God only, in the word. Justification by faith, then, is justification—being accounted righteous by dependence upon God only; and upon him only because he has promised.” Even though he previously had been given every evidence that God was more than capable of producing that which He had promised, Abraham’s faith wavered and he attempted to fulfill God’s promise though his own power. Circumcision showed the utter futility of depending upon the flesh for the fulfillment of God’s promises. It added nothing to the covenant God had previously made with Abraham. “For we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness. How was it then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised” (Romans 4:9-11).
Appropriately, circumcision of the organ of procreation was used by God to demonstrate to Abraham that the promised seed could not come through ordinary human effort, but through divine intervention. “The promises of the covenant come by Divine action directed in grace toward Abraham. He must receive the promise on the basis of faith (15:6) without relying upon the flesh. This is the heart of the covenant and it is to this that circumcision points. Circumcision is an outward sign to Abraham and to his progeny that the promised seed in whom ‘all the nations of the earth would be blessed’ would not come by human effort (as did Ishmael) but rather by the miraculous power of the Divine. In this way circumcision marked the necessity of faith as the promise of the seed was anticipated by each subsequent generation.” For all subsequent generations who would follow, the sign of circumcision would remind them that salvation cannot come through human effort, but only by divine intervention in the human predicament and by our uncompromising faith in that divine promise and supernatural work.