Making a Covenant with Abraham (Pt.6): Abraham’s Temptation to Spiritualize?

Part Five

With Abraham on Mt. Moriah

When we come to Genesis 22 we arrive at one of the key events in the Bible; the offering of Isaac, the son of promise to the Promiser.  The retelling of this story by Kierkegaard in his book Fear and Trembling poses the question of how Abraham could possibly have justified his actions to himself or to his son.  The philosopher’s conclusion is that he could not.  Neither in the three days’ journey and especially in the final moments before the intervention of God could he have been absolutely sure that it was God who commanded him.  For what was commanded seemed to fly in the face of what God had so deliberately promised.  But, as Kierkegaard so poignantly puts it, “Abraham is not what he is without this dread.”[1]

We have not got the character of Abraham right if we conceive of him performing his duty in the cold analytical strength of unperturbed trust.  Faith he had, and we must pay close attention to its form and function, but this was the man who buckled when dealing with Pharaoh (Gen. 12:15-20), and Abimelech (Gen. 20), and who implored the Almighty that Ishmael would be the chosen seed and so receive the inheritance of the covenant blessing (Gen. 17:18). It was Abraham who heeded Sarah’s bad advice in the matter of having the child who would be Ishmael (Gen. 16:1-2).  And this latter incident was nothing if not Abraham and his wife’s solution to the dilemma of God’s promising something that looked more and more improbable: that Sarah would herself give birth to an heir.

We might say that the conception of Ishmael was a hermeneutical conception before it was a physical conception.  Yes, Abraham was very human, and one can be sure that his ascent up the slopes of Moriah was a deeply troubling one; a time of crisis for him personally.  Yet, for all the confusion that must have penetrated his thoughts from the time God told him to sacrifice his son (and notice how the text stresses “your only, whom you love” – 22:2)[2], Abraham showed that the word and character of his God were more sure than his unaided reason and churned up emotions.  How could he put faith above reason?  He didn’t!  He put reason in service of his strong faith.  This is what the writer of Hebrews explains in an extraordinary passage:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, “In Isaac your seed shall be called,” concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense. – Hebrews 11:17-19.

Abraham concluded “that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead!”  His faith led his reason in the direction of a logical outcome which was guaranteed by the covenant oath which God had given to him.  The words of the covenant supported his faith, and his faith guided his reasoning.  This is the interpretative structure that I am proposing as the iron backbone of Biblical Theology.  If Abraham had not reasoned by faith in what God literally said, he would doubtless have succumbed to the sort of reasoning that comes easily to those of us whose faith does not aspire to reason that way.  Abraham would have reinterpreted the command, perhaps as figurative and typological, and would not have been ready to literally sacrifice Isaac.

A Critical Hermeneutical Lesson

There is a critical hermeneutical lesson to be drawn from this story and its commentary in the Book of Hebrews.  The temptation to reinterpret what God has pledged to do must not be overlooked or dismissed from our hermeneutical methods.  When our predisposition to reason independently  is also factored in (that is the default position we inherit from Eve), the re-interpretation of the Book of God via spiritualizing the words or devising a typology to fit our predetermined theologies should be viewed with suspicion.  What is clear is that the symbolical approach to God’s words can never duplicate Abraham’s faith in Genesis 22.  That faith did not venture on types and transformations.  Faith took God at His word!  For faith to be faith it has to take God at face value.  To proceed by another way is to introduce independent human reasoning into the scriptural situation and so to place a filter over what God is really saying so as to view it differently.  But the “literal” word is guided by the biblical covenants that lie easily identifiable upon the open pages of Scripture.  Our reinterpretations will always threaten to skirmish with those covenant oaths until one or the other gives way.

This episode and its interpretation by Scripture itself is to me one of the key hermeneutical guideposts in the Bible.  Not to stop and ponder it is to make a fatal mistake.  Abraham’s offering of Isaac in faith is surely one of the greatest exemplars of how to take God at His word and make faith drive reason rather than the other way round.  Here we have a hermeneutics from the inside (from Scripture itself) rather than a hermeneutics from the outside (from extra biblical sources).


[1] Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 41

[2] Humphreys brings this out very well when he says, “Now, at just the point at which the narrative reached certain stability – when the long-promised son and seed were granted, when in spite of all appearances God begins to secure the future of the one he chose for a special covenant and destiny – all is destabilized by a test devised by God, whose designs and purpose are not clear at all.” – W Lee Humphreys, The Character of God in the Book of Genesis, 139. Emphasis in original.

Making a Covenant with Abraham (Pt.5): Hermeneutics as a Test of Faith

Problems with the Promise and Fulfillment Motif?

John Sailhamer is a critic of the common evangelical dogma that teaches a “promise – fulfillment” way of looking at the two Testaments, because by setting things up that way, the almost irresistible temptation will be to interpret the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament, and in particular with the first coming of Christ culminating in the Gospel.  Such an attitude threatens to turn the Old Testament, the Bible of Israel, and of Jesus and the Apostles, in to a book of colorful stories and sermon illustrations for New Testament preaching. [1]


This might sound very good.  As a matter of fact it does sound good to very many evangelicals.  So good in fact, that it has often been assumed by pious minds as a natural implication of having a New Testament.  But the “promise – fulfillment” idea so frequently recommended cries out for a bit of careful examination.  The received wisdom is that we don’t start by reading through the OT to find its meaning, but that we begin by reading the NT, with emphasis on Paul’s Gospel, and we then interpret the OT through our understanding of the NT, especially our understanding of the work of Christ.  Essentially what is being urged on us is the hermeneutical priority of the NT.  Without the interpretive mindset we have gained from the NT, so the thinking goes, we are not in a position to rightly understand the OT.  Hence, the OT is to be interpreted, not on its own merits, but by the NT.  An earlier quote from Goldsworthy again makes this clear:

[T]he one problem we have in the interpretation of the Bible is the failure to interpret the texts by the definitive event of the gospel.  This has its outworking in both directions.  What went before Christ in the Old Testament, as well as what comes after him, thus finding its meaning in him.  So the Old Testament must be understood in its relationship to the gospel event.  What that relationship is can only be determined from the witness of the New Testament itself.[2]

Because Goldsworthy is not interpreting the OT on its own terms, but through his own understanding of the NT, he is not hesitant about converting the covenantal promises of the land to Israel into a “true fulfillment” in Jesus Christ and the Church.  In this promise – fulfillment scheme, the OT does not serve up enough clear data to furnish its own interpretation.  But one might well ask, is there something wrong with the Old Testament or is there something wrong with the way some scholars look at it?[3]

The Birth of Isaac and the Hermeneutical Test of Faith

The next two chapters in Genesis (i.e. 18 and 19) are ostensibly about the judgment and destruction of the cities of the plain for their wickedness.  However, the three men who visit Abraham at Mamre are there for more than that.  One of the visitors is the Lord Yahweh Himself, as the text makes clear.  After the two angelic companions leave for the rescue of Lot in Sodom, the Lord tells Abraham,

I will certainly return to you according to the time of life, and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son. – Genesis 18:10

After hearing Sarah laugh at the promise, God reiterates it almost verbatim:

Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son. – Genesis 18:14

As the story moves on we read in chapter 21,

And the LORD visited Sarah as He had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as He had spoken.  For Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. – Genesis 21:1-2

In calling the reader’s attention to these verses I want to drive home the precision of God’s word.  God means what He says.  The tragedy of Ishmael is that Abraham and Sarah they did not take God at His word and instead attempted to help the situation along by a reinterpretation of His covenant words.  But the message of Genesis continues to be that God’s words are to be taken at face value.  The next chapter puts the seal to this truth, but before we study it, I should say something about the phrase “in you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him” in verse 18.  This statement, which is a close match to Genesis 12:3[4], is not to be construed as a coverall statement of the whole Abrahamic covenant, land promise and all, to be given to every saint in the entire history of redemption.  The words draw attention to an important aspect of the covenant; the seed promise that will eventuate in salvation offered to the nations through Jesus Christ.  But they do not extend to the promises of geo-political statehood or geographical location.  The phrase is repeated by Peter in Acts 3:25 in a very Jewish setting (see 3:12-13).  It appears then to have been understood by Peter in the same terms Abraham had understood it.


[1] E.g., “As Christians, we must return to the principles of Old Testament interpretation dictated by the New Testament.” – Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 54-55

[2] Ibid, 50.  The conclusion drawn from this way of reading the OT is that not only does it not reveal enough of God’s intent, but many of its prophetic assertions are in need of revision via the NT.  So Goldsworthy can say that “the earlier expressions point to things beyond themselves that are greater than the meaning that would have been perceived by those receiving these earlier expressions.” – Ibid, 123.  See also G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 431

[3] I simply pose the question for the time being.  Still, I cannot suppress the urge entirely.  In the words of John Sailhamer’s criticism of Geerhaardus Vos; “The divine promises as objects of faith in God were more important than their objective fulfillment… The lack of fulfillment of the OT promises was the primary means of teaching God’s people to look for spiritual and future dimensions of God’s promises.  Vos spiritualizes the OT’s lack of fulfillment.” – Meaning, 424-425.  It is this presupposition that invites typology to assume the upper hand in OT hermeneutics.

[4] The only change is the substitution of “families” (mishpachah) in 12:3 with “nations” (goyim) in 18:18.


Review: Eschatology: Biblical, Historical and Practical Approaches

Review: Eschatology: Biblical, Historical and Practical Approaches by D. Jeffrey Bingham and Glenn R. Kreider, editors.  Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2016, 501 pages.  

This book is a celebration of the work of Craig A. Blaising.  Though I am not a Progressive Dispensationalist, I do like Blaising’s writing.  He always approaches a subject from interesting angles, and usually makes important points.

The book is divided into the three sections of the subtitle, plus a beginning section on foundational matters.  The list of contributors is impressive and the table of contents is inviting.  But more important is whether the contributions are up to snuff.  On that score I can answer with a firm if not universal yes!  In this brief review I shall first turn to the most impressive essays and then say one or two things about what I might refer to as the more makeweight chapters.

First place for this reviewer goes to Daniel Block’s piece on Mosaic eschatology centered on the Book of Deuteronomy.  The essay presents a fine arrangement and handling of the salient texts, with good interaction with scholarship.  But its best part comes with the author’s treatment of Deuteronomy 4, 30 and 32.  This is an excellent piece of biblical theology.

Pretty close on its heals is the next chapter on “The Doctrine of the Future in the Historical Books.”  Although it did not interact with as many interpreters as Block, the writer, Gregory Smith, did use his limited pool of sources well.  He has many good footnotes, but too often relies on the same people (e.g., Merrill, Dumbrell, Kaiser, EBC).  This I think confines him to general conclusions instead of a decided stance.  He manages to convey the importance of the Davidic hope in the Historical writings, even if he leaves things a little open-ended.  Still, I learned a lot from Smith’s article and I recommend it.

The opening chapter is by Jeffrey Bingham and is a scholarly look at the answers given by the early church to the assailing of the two Testament canon by Marcion.  Bingham’s major thrust is that the Fathers recognized that theological continuity between the OT and NT was essential and also possible, whereas Marcion sided with a radical discontinuity (e.g. 45-46).  The article is informative and asks good questions, but Bingham runs out of space to answer them.  He does show, however, that the paths taken to minimize the perceived discontinuity problem are still with us and that Dispensationalism has not been given a fair hearing for its hermeneutical stability across the Scriptures.

John and Stefana Laing’s bold effort is entitled “The Doctrine of the Future, the Doctrine of God, and Predictive Prophecy.”  It ambitiously tries to bring the three ideas into unified focus and nearly succeeds.  It is well structured, well annotated, and well written.  Some of the notes were especially nice to have, either for apologetic or for theological purposes.  They include a lengthy footnote, for example, about the ecstatic behavior of pagan prophets in which they customarily lost control of their faculties (83 n.6).  This article, with its mix of thoughtful historical, theological and apologetic content, must have taken a lot of effort to put together within the imposed page limit.  For the most part I liked it, although I have to take issue with their repetition of the hackneyed line about the prophets being more ethical preachers (forthtellers) than predictors of the future (foretellers).  Sooner or later evangelicals will discover that the scholarly consensus has shifted back quite a bit.

I could write glowingly about several other pieces in this fine book.  George Klein on the Psalms, Mark Rooker on the Prophets, Glenn Kreider on the eschatology of Jonathan Edwards, and more.  Mark Bailey handles Dispensationalism well.  For readers interested in Jurgen Moltmann the chapter by Lanier Burns is a great one stop treatment, even if Barth and Pannenberg must be content with a brief but competent review by two German scholars.

I said I would refer to a few less impressive chapters.  For me Stanley Toussaint’s piece on eschatology and hope was just okay.  I was disappointed that he did not tie hope more poignantly to the resurrection.  Charles Ryrie wrote a short piece, “The Doctrine of the Future and the Weakening of Prophecy.”  I shall only say that if I ever reached his age I doubt that I could produce an essay as good as Dr. Ryrie, although I’m afraid it isn’t very good.  Finally, Albert Mohler on the application of eschatology to the contemporary situation was rather pedestrian.

But after all is said and done I can give this book my recommendation.  It is not only a tribute to a fine evangelical scholar, it is a collection of solid articles, some of them super, on biblical eschatology.


Making a Covenant with Abraham (Pt.4): Covenants and Promises (2)

Two Abrahamic Covenants?

To make things a little more tricky, some scholars claim to see not one but two covenants made with Abraham by the Lord.  This is the position of Paul Williamson as set out in his fine book Sealed with an Oath.  Williamson believes that the thirteen year time lapse between Genesis 15 and 17, plus what he calls “significant differences…in terms of their covenantal framework and their promissory emphases” argue for two covenants.[1]

But the time gap is not in itself a problem for a Divine covenant.  Clearly it would take many generations for the descendants to appear.  The issue is really over the repetition of covenantal language and what receives emphasis.  What it boils down to for the two covenant view is that Genesis 15 is said to be temporal and unilateral, whereas Genesis 17 is eternal and bilateral.[2]  Williamson sees the two covenants with Abraham as stemming from “the two separate strands set out in the programmatic agenda of Genesis 12:1-3.”[3]

It is of little moment to the overall thesis of this book to have to decide whether Williamson is right.  But the two strands, which are certainly present, seem too interrelated to prise apart.  In Genesis 15 the seed promise is followed, naturally enough, by the land promise.  The one involves the other.  The boundaries of the land given to Abraham’s descendants (through Isaac and Jacob) are for Israel.  The international aspects of the promise are for Israel and the Nations through Messiah.  It is Williamson’s supercessionism which appears to force him to stress the national/international paradox the way he does.

Also, as I have shown above, the token of circumcision is not part of the covenant oath.  Moreover, circumcision pertains to the physical descendants who will be given the land, so the reasons which are adduced for separating Genesis 15 and 17 into two covenants become very strained.  Even scholars who are sympathetic to Williamson’s supercessionist approach have not been persuaded by his arguments.[4]  And when we look at later events it becomes even more difficult to try to keep apart what the narrative seems to want us to take together.[5]  It is better, therefore, to understand chapter 17 as providing further complementary revelation on the covenant God cut in chapter 15.

God’s “No” to Ishmael

Moving on to the second half of Genesis 17 (vv.15-22), we encounter Abraham’s advocacy for his son Ishmael.  The patriarch is anxious that his son not be excluded from the blessing of God.  It will help if we print the text below:

Then God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 “And I will bless her and also give you a son by her; then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be from her.”

17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, “Shall a child be born to a man who is one hundred years old? And shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”

 18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!”

 19 Then God said: “No, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him.

 20 “And as for Ishmael, I have heard you. Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall beget twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.

 21 “But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this set time next year.”

 22 Then He finished talking with him, and God went up from Abraham – Genesis 17:15-22                                  


The whole episode is very clear.  For all his father’s urgent pleading on his behalf, Ishmael is not and will not be a party to the covenant.  Despite the clear declaration of God that the covenant is established through Isaac and not Ishmael, it is surprising how many Bible readers miss this.

Nevertheless, the passage indicates that Ishmael is the recipient of Divine promises (cf. 21:13, 18).  This is proof that we should not treat automatically covenants and promises as if they were the same thing.  As it concerns the Abrahamic covenant, we should note that the national and land aspects of the covenant are just as particular (more so in the OT) as the international aspects (which become clearer as we draw towards the NT).  In the Pentateuch, the narrative will concentrate on the seed promise, and the land will never be far out of view.

This passage (Genesis 17:15ff.), is a locus classicus to prove that there is a difference between a promise and a covenant.  Covenants establish some kind of relationship between the parties[6], whereas promises do not necessarily include relationships.  Covenants are oath-bound, whereas promises are not.  Theologically speaking, covenants are strongly implicative, whereas promises may carry little or no future repercussions for the biblical storyline.


[1] Paul R. Williamson, Sealed with an Oath, 86

[2] Williamson notes a few other matters such as the international extent of the Genesis 17 promises.  Ibid, 87

[3] Ibid, 89

[4] See the discussion in Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 11:27 – 50:26, 195-199.

[5] Just a few examples would be Genesis 28:4; 35:10-12, and Ezekiel 34:11-15

[6] See Sailhamer, Meaning of the Pentateuch, 433

Making a Covenant with Abraham (Pt.3): Covenants and Promises (1)

Part Two

The seventeenth chapter of the Book of Genesis affords us an occasion to distinguish between a covenant and a promise.  This difference is seldom noticed in the literature, but it deserves our attention since it shows up a tendency to take things for granted which we ought perhaps to be more discerning about.

There is no problem with the idea that a covenant includes promise.  All covenants are about what one will do or refrain from doing at a future time.  In Joshua 9:15-21 the elders of Israel swear a covenant with the Gibeonites to be at peace with them because they were fooled into believing that they were not native to the land.  They could not go back on the words of the covenant they had made on pain of Divine wrath, a wrath that did come upon Israel because of Saul’s breach of the promise made in the covenant (2 Sam. 21:1).  But saying that promise is embedded in covenant is one thing.  To attempt to assert that covenant is part and parcel of a promise is another thing altogether.  The fact is, it is not reversible.  All covenants contain a promise, but not all promises are covenants.  This ought to be apparent upon but a little reflection.  Promises do not contain covenants like covenants contain promises.  A room may contain a computer but a computer does not contain a room.

Once we see this it becomes difficult to go along with the standard traditional dispensationalist designation of a “dispensation of promise” to adequately identify this epoch (which is said to cover the call of Abram to the giving of the Law).  The central idea in the narrative is not “promise” but covenant relationship.  In the story of Abram up until this time the focus has been upon land and posterity.  Certainly important promises have been made, but the center of attention has been on God’s covenant, and a covenant is more than a promise.

To show this more plainly all we have to do is read the seventeenth chapter of Genesis. B Before coming to the main point let me comment on the details in the first half of the chapter.  Many important things occur in this chapter, including the renaming of Abram (“exalted father”),  as Abraham, which, as it denotes him “father of many nations[1]” is more in keeping with the covenant God has made with him (17:4-5).  Also, we find the covenant being termed “an everlasting covenant” by the Lord, a designation previously given to the covenant with Noah.  But as God’s covenant with Abraham includes several promises, God takes the time to reemphasize these pledges.  So, five times in these opening verses the phrase “you and your seed (zera)” is repeated.  Among these descendants there will be “kings” (17:6), which in view of the setting is best interpreted as kings of the one nation included in the covenant (cf. 18:8).  This is clarified by what comes next in verse 8:

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.

The land promise again comes to the fore.  It is well to note that just as “olam” (“everlasting”) describes the perpetuity of Yahweh’s relationship with Abraham and his physical descendants (17:7, 13, 19), so it equally appears to describe His decision to gift the land of Canaan to the nation who will spring from Isaac.  If this situation is going to change in any way, one ought to be able very particularly to put ones finger on the event.  It cannot be just “suggested at” by a certain way of reading the Old Testament.  Because it is covenantally bounded, and covenants amplify clear statements, an equally clear alteration of the covenant terms must be identifiable.  But there is a problem here.  The terms which we have so far encountered are conspicuously one-sided.  And by being designated perpetual they appear to be unalterable (cf. Heb. 11:13-17).

This might look like a hasty remark in light of the rite of circumcision which we read about in verses 10 through 14.  I will revisit this later, but I ought to mention the fact that circumcision (which as practiced by Israel was unique in the ancient world[2]), is tied formerly to the Abrahamic covenant as concerns Israel.  This is why the rite can also be utilized as a token for the Mosaic covenant centuries later.  The failure of Israel to keep the bi-lateral Mosaic covenant does not abolish the rite of circumcision for male Jews.  The unconditional covenant with Abraham still has male circumcision for its sign.

But doesn’t the fact that eight day old males (or bought servants) have to be circumcised constitute a condition on the fulfillment of the covenant?  And doesn’t the warning about being cut-off from ones people and the covenant show that the Abrahamic covenant is bi-lateral?  Some have thought so, but the majority of commentators have correctly understood that the sign is not itself the covenant.  Therefore, circumcision cannot be introduced as a condition to be appended to an already initialized and functioning unilateral and non-conditional covenant.


[1] As everyone knows, the literal meaning of the name is “father of a multitude”, but we must allow the context to fill out the meaning for us.  The “multitude” Abraham is to be the progenitor of is nations.  Therefore, the more precise sense of the new name is “father of many nations.” (Gen. 17:5)

[2] According to Peter Gentry.  See Peter J. Gentry & Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 274

Making a Covenant with Abraham (Pt.2)

Part One

The whole episode in Genesis 15 is highlighted by the time stamp in verse 18, “On the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram…”  Yahweh declares that He has already given the land to Abram’s descendants.  Therefore, as we have said, the covenant serves to reinforce and amplify the plain and clear word of God.

But what about the dimensions of the Promised Land?  Can they be determined?  If they can, can we say that Abram’s descendants have received it all?  Has the gift ever been fully given?

The answer to the question in part hinges on what is meant in verse 18 by “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”  Is the river of Egypt the Nile?  Or is it a seasonal Wadi?  The less usual term nahar for river (of Egypt) persuades most commentators that the Nile is not intended.  Also, we should observe the fact that the adjective “great” (gadol) is used of Euphrates only and not the river of Egypt.  It seems, then, as if this “river” is the Wadi mentioned in Num. 34:5; Josh. 15:4, 47, and 1 Ki. 8:65, and is what is known as the Wadi el-Arabah[1], which leads to the Gulf of Aqaba, circumscribing the area known as the Negev (south).[2]  So if we take the southern part of the land to be the Wadi el-Arabah, and the northern part to be the Euphrates, we must then ask whether this land area has ever been truly inherited by Israel at any time in its history, and if it is to be inherited in the future.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, supercessionists believe that the promise of inheritance has already been fulfilled:

Eventually, under Solomon, Israel claimed the land from the Euphrates to the border of Egypt, just as the Lord had promised originally to Abraham (Gen. 15:18; Ex. 23:31; cf. 1 Kings 4:21; 2 Chron. 9:26).[3]

If it is indeed the case that Genesis 15:18-21 was fulfilled in Israel’s past then is there anything more to be said?  Hasn’t that oath of God been satisfied?  There are problems with such a view.  One such difficulty is how anticlimactic the whole thing is.  Abraham gets called away from his homeland with the promise of a land in which he will remain a sojourner all his life.  The nation that springs from him spends four hundred years out of the land in Egypt.  When they return they quickly apostasize and begin to splinter into factions.  When they do finally “inherit” the whole piece of real estate in the days of David and only fully with Solomon (a mere eighty years maximum), it all ends with an unceremonious division of the nation and the land amid gradual declension until the descendants of Abraham are shipped off as captives back to pagan Mesopotamia in shame!  In the history of nations this would be hardly worth a mention, let alone an honorable one.  If the hope of the land covenant was extinguished so early, as Robertson and many other covenant theologians think, the fulfilling of God’s unilateral promise to Abram leaves little grounds for any tangible hope for Israel.  It is one of the main purposes of the present book to show that this way of telling Israel’s story is fatally wrong.

Returning to the question of the land’s dimensions, Ronald B. Allen says that the land promise includes parts of ancient Aram as well as Canaan.  He writes,

Although the period of conquest and the later expansions under Saul, David and Solomon began a fulfillment of the extent of the promises, the pattern was still only a partial fulfillment. 

Citing Charles L. Feinberg, Allen believes the land promised in Genesis 15 would range over 300,000 square miles.[4]  This is considerably bigger than the land occupied at present by the nation of Israel.  If Feinberg’s estimate was right, God would still have covenantal obligations in regard to the land coverage itself, never mind the promises of perpetuity included in the covenant.

As we have seen, it is an act of purely arbitrary interpretation to divide the seed promise from the land promise in this crucial chapter of Scripture.  As far as the biblical history has come to this point, there is no reason to create such a cleavage in our understanding of the narrative.  We must suspend judgment on what we think we know and allow the story to unfold at its own pace, marking carefully the outworking of God’s covenants as they come into view and drive the teleological and eschatological picture as it is steadily forming.[5]

Genesis 16 contains the story of the birth of Ishmael.  Ishmael was born after Abram had been in the land for ten years (16:3).  He was not the son of Sarai but of her handmaiden Hagar.  Like Adam many centuries before Abram had listened to his wife in contradiction to the word of God.  The pragmatic solution which Sarai devised is still being felt by us today.  This ought to remind us how placing our reasoning above the clear statements of God is always dangerous.  It has been the cause of many theological errors.  Despite the temptations to problem solve for God, we are never in a position to alter His timetable, nor His meaning.  Basic hermeneutics should seek to be guided by this rule.


[1] Also known as Wadi el- Arish

[2] See David M. Fleming, “Wadi”, in Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, 951

[3] O. Palmer Robertson, Understanding the Land of the Bible, 9.  It is not uncommon to find supercessionist author’s skipping the vital details of Genesis 15:8-21 in their argumentation.  See also Peter J. Gentry & Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 423-424.  An example of this is Sam Storms’ book, Kingdom Come.

[4] Ronald B. Allen, “The Land of Israel”, in Israel: The Land and the People, H. Wayne House, General editor, 24

[5] To cite John H. Sailhamer, “We must keep our eye on the author and follow him throughout his work.” – The Meaning of the Pentateuch, 154

Making a Covenant with Abraham (Pt.1)

This is another excerpt from the book I am trying to write.

The Abrahamic covenant is pivotal to the history biblical which unfolds thereafter, and Genesis 15 is perhaps the key passage to understand with respect to it.[1]  The initiative is God’s, and it is here that God binds Himself by oath to perform the details of the promises He makes to Abraham.  It will be useful to reproduce the first part of the chapter.

After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.  2 But Abram said, “Lord GOD, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”   3 Then Abram said, “Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir!”  4 And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir.”  5 Then He brought him outside and said, “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”  6 And he believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.  7 Then He said to him, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to inherit it.” – Genesis 15:1-7


Sometime after the blessing from the priest of God Yahweh Himself appears to Abram and reiterates His word of promise.  The interchange is instructive.  Abram’s immediate response to the vision of God is to ask about a child (cf. 11:30).  If the land was going to go to his descendants (zera – “seed”) as God had said (13:15-16), then something needed to happen about Sarai’s condition.  As every Bible reader knows, God was to do something about that – eventually!  But Abram has been brooding on the promise.  And he and his wife would certainly have been sensitive on the matter in any case.  He is quite forward with God.  There is an air of desperation and even irony in his words; “what will you give me, seeing I go childless…You have given me no seed.”

Little did he know that many more years were to pass by until God finally came through.  At a time when all hope seemed lost, God showed He was as good as His word.  This ought to remind the reader that God will perform exactly what He has said He will do in regard to Abraham’s descendants (national Israel in the context – 15:13) although it appears to many that their time is passed.

The Lord’s reply reassures Abram that his original expectation based on God’s promise (12:2a), was accurate.  “This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir.” (15:4).  And yet, every reader of the Bible knows that his trial of waiting for a son was far from over.  But Abram did believe what God said to him, not only about an heir, but also about his descendants.  Faith in God’s promise is faith in His character, and God’s character can only be trusted if His words can be trusted.  Abram’s faith in the promise glorified God and God’s response was to justify Abram as righteous before Him.

The context is very clear that the content of the declaration by God concerning the stars of the heaven and the sand on the seashore evoked trust in Abram and that God reckoned that trust as righteousness to Abram’s account.  Abram was not presented with a message about a crucified and risen Messiah.  He wouldn’t have known what crucifixion was in any case.  When the Apostle uses Genesis 15:6 in his argument for justification he repeats the content of the message while observing the response of God to Abram’s faith (Rom. 4:3-5; Gal. 3:6-7).  The onus for Paul is on the faith in God, not on what Abram believed.[2]

Upon the heels of this faith/righteousness transaction the very next thing that comes up is the gift of the land (15:7).  For the writer of Genesis, as in the Old Testament generally, the seed and the land belong together.  They ought not to be separated in our theology.  It is to the subject of the land that the chapter now turns.



A Protracted Providence

My readers know that I don’t go in for autobiographical writing at my blog.  But here is a brief note about my celebration of God’s living providence.  Perhaps it will encourage one or two of you?

The beginning of September 2016 finds me fuzzy headed with limbs aching after moving to our new home, only four miles away from our old one.  The new place has three bedrooms with space for a fourth and plenty of yard.  The old house was a two-bedroomed rental where we crammed the four kids (two girls, two boys) for the past three years since coming to California from Texas.  Although it had a nice view we are glad to be out of the old house (actually a modular home built in the 70’s); the plumbing was always blocking up somewhere, the wiring was downright unsafe and the walls were covered by that faux dark wood paneling which epitomes the decade in which it was installed.  Added to this was the fact that our landlord was, let’s say, less than stellar.  We’re glad to be out.

That said however, we must be thankful to God for providing the house for us in the first place.  When we got the “green light” to move back to California in 2013 our house in Texas sold fast and we needed a place in NorCal quickly.  Finances were an issue and the Lord helped us out with a house that would work.  It was also situated in a community which we would not have moved to otherwise: a community in which we have made many friends and have done some (I trust) worthwhile ministry.  My wife and I thought we would be living in the modular for between 6 and 12 months.  God had other ideas.  Our resolve has been tested.

Among these major tests I might mention two.  First there was the challenge of trying to understand why God had lead us here in the first place.  The ministry we had envisaged working with (or working with TELOS), quickly turned out to be a poor fit personality wise.  There were several matters involving this other party’s extended family which I shall not go into here; and which were not all this person’s fault it must be said.  But the upshot was that the reason I thought we were coming to California was not the reason that God brought us here, and I was left for no small period wondering if I should stay or go – although I sensed strongly that I needed to stay.  The reason the Lord has us here has only really become apparent in the last eight months.  I was made Senior Pastor of the Church I have been serving at and my salary was duly increased (though we still make do on far less than most people think).  For however long God has us here I intend to bring an increased focus on the Bible as His Word to man and to expound it and counsel with it as best I can.  The results of my efforts must be left up to Him.

The second test for the Henebury family has been the surprise of a new arrival in the clan.  With  limited resources, only two bedrooms and four kids already, one extra seemed too much to deal with for me and my longsuffering homeschooling wife.  We have all been praying for God to somehow provide a three bedroom house for us to move in to; which is no small supplication in an area where affordable houses are scarce and the Pot “industry” artificially buoys the house prices.  But our prayers have been answered.  August 3rd saw the safe arrival of our beautiful daughter and August 25th saw us starting to move into our new house.

We have called our baby daughter Charis-Anne.  Me and my wife do not go in for the strange attention grabbing monikers which parents – even Christian parents – burden their offspring with.  She will be called “Anne.”  But I attached “Charis” because despite some tough years the Lord has indeed been gracious to me and my family and I wanted to mark it clearly with a meaningful gesture.  I have not been deserving of God’s kindness, but He gave Grace anyway!

God Chooses One Man – Pt.2

Part One

Before moving on I should say that the promise to make Abram’s name great[3] is not a part of the covenant oath which God takes in Genesis 15.  It is worth noting that a covenant then is more than just a promise.  God can promise something without including it within a covenant.  As we shall see, a lot of confusion has come about by Bible teachers not taking care to differentiate between a promise of God within a covenant oath and a promise not housed within an oath.

The second part of Genesis 12 concerns Abram’s lack of faith and its fallout.  Although descending into Egypt and promoting a lie concerning Sarai (12:11-19), God averted the dire consequences of Abram’s decisions, and at the beginning of the next chapter we find him living in the south part of the Promised Land.  The ensuing story of the separation of Abram from Lot is not just the rehearsal of a necessary parting of the ways.  Despite the sermonic grist found in the deference shown by Abram to his nephew, Dempster is certainly right to point that his offering a choice to Lot about where to live threatened the promise.[4]  Still, verse 14 notes that it was “after Lot had separated from him”, that God invited Abram to survey the land “for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever” (13:15).  The Lord then repeated His promise about those descendants being great, at least in terms of number (13:16).  Although I do not think we should designate these Divine utterances by the word “covenant”, at least until chapter 15[5], it should be noted that in repeating His promises to the man He called out of Mesopotamia, God is reiterating His intention to do precisely what He told Abram He would do.

Before we can turn to the enactment of the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 15 we must pause to describe the meeting between Abram and Melchizedek in chapter 14:18-20.  Melchizedek is the king of Salem (which would become Jerus – salem), and he just appears[6] as “the priest of God Most High” (El Elyon).  Abram is returning from victory over the five kings who invaded Canaan, taking Lot captive.  His meeting with the king of Salem is not described as a shock meeting.  The narrative gives the impression that the two men knew each other.  Melchizedek acts as the priest of God to bless Abram, and it is in that role that he receives tithes from Abram.  We may wish to speculate about why Abram’s interactions with Melchizedek are not given more extensive coverage, but we must be satisfied with the little we have got.  Those three verses are referenced by the writer of Hebrews to make several important points.  Prior to speaking directly of this ancient king, his priestly role is spoken of via references to Psalm 110:4.[7]  The writer ties in the High Priestly function of the Risen Jesus with the Melchizedekian priesthood.  In doing so he makes the point that this priesthood is superior to the Levitical one which would be instituted later under the Mosaic covenant (Heb.7:4-19).  For one thing it is everlasting, and for another it is linked to “a better covenant”, the New covenant in Christ’s own blood.  Even the name Melchizedek, and his title, king of Salem, are not passed over, but the author of Hebrews stops to mention that his name means “king of righteousness”, and his title, “king of peace” (7:2), showing that these adumbrate Christ’s future role.

The coincidences which the NT writer picks up on look upon a second glance to be arranged.  Here we have a priest of God who appears on the scene to be almost forgotten by the time the Levitical cultus is established in the Book of Exodus.  But this man is situated in what would become God’s city, Jerusalem (city of peace or foundation of peace), and he officiates, at least for a time, as the priest of God in Abraham’s day.  More must be said about him, but it is enough to note that his possession of this priesthood gives Christ a non-Levite priesthood to step into in His mediatorship of the New covenant.  Further, it may indicate that just as Jesus assumes Melchizedek’s priestly role, He will also one day assume his kingly role over earthly Jerusalem, thus bringing the throne and the priesthood together as indicated in Zechariah 6:12-13.


[3] I want to notice that the name ‘Abram’ was not the name which God would make great, but the revised name ‘Abraham.’  That said, it does not mean that God is in any way misleading him, for: 1. It was the same person to whom God promised a great name, 2. The expanded name is clearly related to the first, and 3. God told Abraham that it was under that name that he would henceforth be known.  It wasn’t left up to the ingenuity of later interpreters to make the connection.

[4] Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty, 78

[5] Cf. William J. Dumbrell, The Search for Order, 35

[6] This is unusual in a book filled with genealogies.  I take this to be what is meant by the cryptic language of Hebrews 7:3.

[7] See Hebrews 5:6, 10, & 6:20


God Chooses One Man – Pt.1

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?[1]

In chapter 11 Abram[2] 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:

  1. The first part of the Divine promise stresses the land
  1. Abram will have descendants who will compose a great nation or people (goy)
  1. He himself will have a great name
  1. 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.


[1] Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty, 76

[2] 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.