Introduction to the Bible: An Introduction to the Bible
by Rev. Ralph A. Smith
The Abrahamic Covenant
The Abrahamic covenant revealed the plan of salvation with greater clarity than ever before. In both the post-fall promise and the covenant with Noah the saving grace of God is revealed, but the plan of salvation is still rather obscure. With Abraham the promise of the new covenant is considerably expanded, providing a much clearer vision of the future salvation. Thus the Abrahamic covenant became the "reference covenant" for the rest of the covenants in the old covenant era. The Mosaic, the Davidic, and the Restoration covenants are all explicitly grounded in the Abrahamic covenant. The Noahic covenant and the post-fall promise function more like a "hidden foundation." They are actually referred to, but usually indirectly, by way of allusion and in figurative language, and much less frequently than the Abrahamic covenant.
The New Covenant also points especially to Abraham. Two of Paul's most important doctrines proclaimed the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant -- the doctrine of justification by faith (Rom. 4), and the doctrine of the gift of the Spirit as the essence of new covenant grace (Gal. 3). A third theme developed in Paul's writings, the understanding of the Church as the new people of God, the adopted children of Abraham, is an essential key to understanding the new covenant (Gal. 3:7-9, 14, 29). Thus, understanding the Abrahamic covenant is vital to the understanding of the whole Bible.
Before the call of Abraham, the world of that day, like the world of Noah, lacked a God-appointed world center. It also lacked a unified priestly system. Abraham's own family worshiped idols (Josh. 24:2), but there were some true priests. There was at least one true priest of God, Melchizedek, the king-priest of Salem (Gen. 14:18-20) and there were probably others -- at a later period in history Jethro, Moses father-in-law, was also a true priest (cf. Ex. 3:1; 18:1-24). The tribes were scattered throughout the world as a result of God's judgment on Babel. The multiplicity of languages and religious differences among them led to mistrust and conflict. There were also places, such as Sodom and Gomorrah, in which the pre-flood extremes of depravity were seen once again.
In these circumstances Abraham was chosen to the be the progenitor of a race of priests that would culminate in the Saviour of the world. From the time he was chosen, men were required to relate to God through Abraham. Those who blessed Abraham would be blessed and those who cursed him would be cursed (Gn. 12:1-3). Though a world-center was not established, a priesthood for humanity was. Wherever Abraham settled, he dug wells and built altars (Gen. 12:7,8; 13:4, 18; 21:33; 26:15) establishing that location as a "sanctuary" -- a simplified version of Eden and a temporary world-center. Most importantly, the covenant promised the "Seed of Abraham," the center of God's plan, who would bring blessing to the whole world.
The Five Points of the Covenant
1. With the new stage of covenantal development, God's revelation of Himself also advanced. God repeatedly manifests Himself to the Patriarchs, and those close to them, in various ways: in human form (Gen. 16:9; 17:1; 18:1ff.; 22:11, 15; 26:2, 24; 32:24ff.; 35:9), in "a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp" (Gen. 15:17), in dreams (Gen. 15:1; 20:3; 28:12; 31:11, 24; 35:7ff.; 41:1ff.; 46:2) and by His word (Gen. 12:1; 21:12; 22:1; 25:23; 31:3; 35:1). Also, there is a hint of the Trinity in the Angel of Lord, who is the Lord, but is also apparently distinguished from the Lord (Gen. 16:7ff; 21:17; 22:11, 15; 24:7, 40; 31:11; 48:16). God's name is especially "Almighty" (Gen. 17:1; 28:3; 33:20; 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; 49:24, 25), but He is also the God who sees (Gen. 16:13) and the Lord who provides (Gen. 22:14).
2. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the fathers of the race of priests, are naturally themselves priests also (Gen. 12:7ff.; 13:4, 18; 22:9; 26:25; 33:20; 35:1, 3, 7). Abraham is also the first man in the Bible to be called a prophet (Gen. 20:7) and Isaac and Jacob function as prophets (cf. Gen. 27, 49; Psa. 105:15). Joseph, as advisor to the king and the man who sees dreams of the future, was the classic prophet of the era. In a secondary sense they are also kings. Abraham judges kings (Gen. 14), Isaac is so powerful and rich that a king claims he is afraid of Isaac because his power is greater than the king's (Gen. 26:16), Jacob blessed the Pharaoh (Gen. 47:7), and Joseph became ruler of all Egypt (Gen. 41:40ff.). Perhaps their priestly responsibility had the most far reaching consequences: "in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed" (Gen. 12:3; cf. 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 27:29; 28:14), but these men themselves were, above all, the first prophets of God in a new age of prophetic revelation.
3. The law of God was revealed to the Patriarchs in greater detail than we know. Abraham, for example, offered birds according to the rules later recorded in Leviticus (cf. Gen. 15:10 and Lev. 1:17), and Judah knew the laws of the Levirate (Gen. 38:6ff.). Though by grace God chose Abraham and made him what he was, it is also true that God blessed Abraham because of his righteousness: "For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him" (Gen. 18:19). When the Lord spoke of this to Isaac, He said that Isaac would be blessed "Because that Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws" (Gen. 26:5). Whatever the precise details were, it is clear that Abraham had a revelation of God's law and obeyed it.
4. Abraham was blessed of God and was chosen to be a blessing to the world. As always, God took the initiative in dispensing His blessing. He called Abraham and selected him as a channel of blessing for the world. Abraham received the blessing by faith (Gen. 15:6) and showed the reality of his faith by obedience (Gen. 26:5). Isaac and Jacob, too, received the blessing of the covenant and passed it on to the children of Jacob (Gen. 26:3ff.; 27:28f.; 28:3f.; 49). The book of Genesis ends with a prophetic picture of Abrahamic covenant blessing extending to all the families of the earth: the children of Israel live in the best part of Egypt (Gen 47:6, 11) and Joseph is on the throne of Egypt providing bread for the world (Gen. 41:57).
5. God's promise to Abraham is well known: "And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed" (Gen. 12:2-3). Abraham, however, would not see these blessings in his own lifetime, at least not in their fullness. The ultimate blessing of the Abrahamic covenant was in the final blessing: "in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed." Paul was referring to this when he wrote: "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" (Rom. 4:13).
The promise that those who blessed Abraham would be blessed and those who cursed him would be cursed means that, in the end, only those nations who believe in the God of Abraham will survive, other nations will disappear. At the same time, it is promised that the blessing of Abraham will extend to "all families of the earth," which means that the whole world must someday be converted. We do not face a future of most nations gradually disappearing, but of nations converting to Christ.
Since all those who are converted become the children of Abraham, Abraham inherits the world through the spread of the Gospel, as Paul explained: "Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham. . . . That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. . . . And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Gal. 3:7-9, 14, 29).
Man's Covenantal Response
Until they are led to Egypt at the end of Genesis, the Patriarchs were faithful to God. Though they all sinned in some form or another, they were great leaders of the faith. The sons of Jacob were less impressive, though they too clearly repented of their sin against Joseph (Gen. 42:21) and the book of Genesis ends with them all living in harmony and faith (Gen. 50:18-21). At the beginning of Exodus, however, the children of Israel are enslaved (Exo. 1:8ff.). The Pharaoh was certainly ungodly, but the real reason for the Hebrews being in slavery was that they had broken the covenant and committed idolatry (Josh. 24:14; cf. Lev. 17:7) and were therefore under the curse of the covenant. They had to be disciplined by God to be brought back to Him. As before, the covenantal age ended in failure and sin on the part of man, and, once again, that lead to a greater revelation of God's grace.
God's Covenantal Judgment
God blessed the Patriarchs for their faithfulness and disciplined them when they sinned. He led them in mysterious ways and worked wonderful miracles for them: "When they were but a few men in number; yea, very few, and strangers in it. When they went from one nation to another, from one kingdom to another people; He suffered no man to do them wrong: yea, he reproved kings for their sakes; Saying, Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm" (Psa. 105:12-15). Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob learned through their experiences of His power and goodness.
When their descendents departed from God in Egypt, He sold them into slavery -- as He also would do later in Israel's history -- to turn them back unto Himself. The children of Israel in their tribulation cried out to God and He sent Moses and Aaron to save them. God granted them a new covenant with greater revelation and greater grace.
The Covenantal Structure of the Bible: Introduction to
Berith.org is dedicated to applying the covenantal worldview to modern-day issues. It is a ministry of the Covenant Worldview Institute and the Mitaka Evangelical Church of Tokyo, Japan. The essays and books at Berith.org are (mostly?) written by Reverend Ralph Allan Smith, who has laboured as a teacher, pastor, and missionary in Tokyo since 1981, and as the director of the Covenant Worldview Institute since 1988. All feedback is welcome. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.