Although he never held any official position or led any army or wrote any books, by any measure Abraham is one of the most important human beings in history. Jews, Christians and Muslims trace their roots in him in one way or another. This man who lived approximately two thousand years before Christ is a central figure to the biblical storyline in both Testaments.
Now this book deals with covenants. And the covenant with Abraham is one of the most important covenants in the Bible. Moreover, if it is not correctly understood it leads to massive theological fallout. Therefore, we must take care to examine the Abrahamic covenant (or covenants if some writers are to be believed) so as to get clear in our minds just what its terms are. Does it envisage only one theological topic? Or does it cover several? To a large extent the answer to these questions turns on whether the Bible is to be interpreted back-to-front; from the New Testament back into the Old Testament.
The prelude to the Abrahamic covenant comes in Genesis 12:1-3:
Now the LORD had said to Abram; “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
And to this verse we must add verse 7:
Then the LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your descendants I will give this land.” And there he built an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him. (emphasis mine)
This is not a covenant itself but is a sort of historical precursor. It is of interest that the man who was chosen was not a very promising candidate.
What a pathetic sight is this man, trudging the dusty Mesopotamian roads, whose journey has come to a dead end northeast of Canaan. How could it be possible that one without such promise could hold so much promise?
In chapter 11 Abram is called from his home city of Ur and at the beginning of the next chapter we find the contents of the call. I am tempted to get sermonic and to bring out the many applicatory aspects of the passage. But my purpose here is only to examine what it was that the LORD said to Abram. What is the first thing that God promises Abram? It is “a land” (eretz). The land is not a mere geographical starting point for Abram, it will be essential to his call and the call upon his descendants, as verse 7 makes clear. So the land is the first element in the call. Next the LORD continues by promising that Abram will become a great nation. As Genesis 11:30 is at pains to emphasize, his wife Sarai was barren. This presents two large obstacles to Abram’s faith: the problem of how his descendants would get the land promised to them, and the problem of how on earth a barren woman would begin a nation. Why not choose a man who knew the terrain and who was respected already by the inhabitants? And why not choose a woman who was young and fertile? We see then that the conditions do not make faith easy. The whole crux of the Abraham saga turns on the difficulty of trusting God’s word.
The third part of the promise was that God would make Abram’s name great. This is in opposition to the ambitious humanism of the builders of Babel (cf. 11:4). This Mesopotamian émigré would become one of the most significant people in history. Three world religions trace their roots back to him, so there is no doubt that this has been fulfilled. The next part concerns the blessing which Abraham will be to the nations. This blessing to the nations would not of course come about via physical descendancy, as if all peoples could trace their ancestry back to Abram (as they can to Noah).
I will have more to say about these features of Genesis 12:1-3 further on, and it will be necessary to carefully distinguish the specific parts of this text as they are utilized by the Apostolic writers in due time. But let us take note of the important elements of the passage; elements which we must track as we proceed:
- The first part of the Divine promise stresses the land
- Abram will have descendants who will compose a great nation or people (goy)
- He himself will have a great name
- Finally, that all the families of the earth will be blessed through Abram
There is one more thing which we should note about what God said to Abram.
I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you
God’s commitment to this man is so fixed that one’s reaction to Abram determines God’s reaction to them. This ought not to be taken in the narrow sense as referring just to Abram’s person. The mention of land and the promise of a great nation stemming from him require that the ban would come upon those who curse Israel.
 Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty, 76
 Although I don’t want to make much of it, I have chosen to use the name “Abram” until he is renamed “Abraham” when he was ninety-nine in Genesis 17.