As I have said, at the most rudimentary level covenants are for the purpose of reinforcing plain speech about specific momentous things. They do this formally in the terms of the covenant and its obligations upon specified parties. God holds human beings to the very words of their covenant oaths (Jer. 34:18; Ezek. 17:15c). The Bible also indicates that God “keeps covenant” (Deut. 7:9; Neh. 9:32; Dan. 9:4). We would expect no less from Him who cannot lie and who does not change.
Of all verbal communications, written and oral, surely the most steadfast and adamant are covenants. And surely the least ambiguous and fluid would also be covenants?
The Oaths in the Covenants
The oath is the decisive ingredient in any covenant. We have already taken a look at the oath which the people took in answer to God’s Book of the Covenant in Exodus. Now we need to examine, if only briefly, the oaths of the other Divine covenants which can be easily spotted in Scripture. (There are certain covenants of a speculative nature which it is impossible to pin down in the text of the Bible. These include the three theological covenants of Reformed covenant theology; the so-called “Adamic” and “Edenic” covenants of some sectors of Dispensational theology; and the “Creation” covenant of New covenant theology).
As nearly all non-evangelical scholarship recognizes, the first covenant one comes across in Scripture is the one God made with Noah. Its oath is found in Genesis 9, with a possible personal oath in 8:21-22.
Surrounded by a preamble (9:8-10), and a sign of remembrance (9:12-17) the covenant oath is found in 9:11:
Thus I establish My covenant with you: Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood; never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.
This is the specific thing that God binds Himself to. The form the covenant takes and the source-critical issues with the passage need not detain us. Neither am I here bothered with the problem of whether the Noahic covenant is entered at Genesis 9 or whether it signals a perpetuation of a previously established covenant (Cf. W. J. Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation, 24ff.). The sole concern here is with showing just what it is that God pledges to do in the covenants, and to demonstrate the clarity of those commitments. That God takes His own oath literally is proved by Isaiah 54:9:
For this is like the waters of Noah to me; for as I have sworn that the waters of Noah would no longer cover the earth, so I have sworn that I would not be angry with you, nor rebuke you.
Since this is the first clearly defined and specific covenant, and since it “provides the biblical-theological framework within which all subsequent divine-human covenants operate” (Paul R. Williamson, Sealed with an Oath, 68), the fact that its terms are so clear and are universally acknowledged by all believers should not escape our notice. Nobody believes the Noahic covenant can be transformed or reinterpreted to mean something other than what the plain words of the oath say it means. It is a hard-and-fast marker telling us that God will maintain the present order until the New Creation. If other Divine covenants can be treated differently then we must have two kinds of unilateral Divine covenants in the Bible, and the uncertainty creeps in again.
The Abrahamic covenant has its basic outline in Genesis 12:1-3, although we don’t get a covenant oath until chapter 15. Even the famous promise which elicited Abram’s faith-righteousness was not part of the covenant proper, but it does show that God is as good as His word, and that to have faith in that word requires that its terms are unambiguous and unequivocal.
On the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying: To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates.. – Genesis 15:18
This corresponds with Genesis 12:1c – 2a, & 7; 13:14-15 and concerns the land. Williamson believes that ch. 15 is a separate covenant than that in ch.17. I demur, but it is worth noting that Williamson calls the land covenant unilateral (Ibid, 87).
But there is more which the LORD swears in this covenant. When He changed Abram’s name and before giving him the token of the covenant (which has been kept) God said,
Then Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying: “As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall be a father of many nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you. Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God. – Genesis 17:4-8
And to this must be added Genesis 22:
And the Angel of the LORD called to him a second time out of heaven, and said: By Myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son – blessing
I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies (Cf. Heb. 6:13-17).
Hence we see three specific elements in the Abrahamic covenant:
1. The land given to the physical seed of promise (cf. 35:1-12)
2. Inextricably tied to this is the promise that Abraham’s descendants through Isaac will become a nation (cf.12:2)
3. Abraham becoming the father of many nations (although not necessarily through Sarah – 18:18)
Because of 17:1-2 Williamson thinks this is a bilateral agreement and so separate from the covenant in chapter 15. I shall deal with that later. But the passage above does give an expansive view of this covenant. As well as recalling the land aspect of the covenant, this passage harks back to the promise of Genesis 12:3; 15:5 about all the families of earth being blessed through Abraham. It is important to notice that this expression is tied to Abraham’s physical descendants (see also 19:19), and does not seem to contemplate his spiritual descendants as Paul does (see Rom. 4:9-18; Gal. 3:8-16, 29). But this is because there is a missing element. The crucial part that has to be supplied is Genesis 22:18, which brings in Christ (Gal. 3:16). Thus, in Paul the corporate is included in the One (Jesus) through the same faith as Abraham. And since righteousness obtained by faith apart from physical lineage leads to salvation, the Apostle can conclude that we are all Abraham’s seed through faith unto salvation.
But this does not rub out the connotations of being “the father of many nations”, and the promise of Genesis 12:2 & 7; 15:3-4 concerning Abraham’s physical descendants through Isaac (cf. 17:21). If it did, the spiritual seed (in Christ) could not be realized because Jesus had to come through the physical line of Abraham to be the Christ, and we had to be in Christ to be considered within the third aspect of the Abrahamic covenant.
As many have pointed out, the threefold elements of the Abrahamic covenant are taken up and amplified in the “Land”, Davidic and even New covenants. That these connections can even be seen is owing to the fact that the covenants mean what they say, and what they say is clearly identifiable in the covenant oaths.
The series closes off next time…