The Gospel of Israel, part 1 (the Promise to the Patriarchs)
Looming large in any discussion of Israel's place in the purposes of God is the foundational promise to, and covenant with, the patriarchs. As far as I know, pretty much all Christian theologians agree on the relevant basics here. So I will state, without much supporting argument, what seems to me to be blindingly obvious.
Here are three relevant texts - first a promise, then a promise-covenant, then a mutual-agreement-covenant (there are some tricky issues on how the latter two relate to each other - one seems to be an unconditional promise and the other a conditional contract - with scholars taking a range of positions but I won't get into that. Actually I may have to in a later post - we'll see how it goes):
Abraham and the Covenant of Promise
Genesis 12:1-4 Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." 4 So Abram went, as the LORD had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.
Genesis 15:5-21 5 And [God] brought [Abram] outside and said, "Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them." Then he said to him, "So shall your offspring be." 6 And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. 7 And he said to him, "I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess." 8 But he said, "O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?" 9 He said to him, "Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon." 10 And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. 12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. 13 Then the LORD said to Abram, "Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete." 17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, "To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites."
Genesis 17:1-10 When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, 2 that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly." 3 Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, 4 "Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. 7 And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God." 9 And God said to Abraham, "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.
Genesis 1-11 serves as background to the Abrahamic covenant. Humanity set itself on a course away from the Creator - away from 'blessing' towards 'curse' (e.g., Eve and Adam, Cain, the flood generation, the towel builders). So God purposes to restore creation from curse to blessing (in Gen 1-11 the blessing/curse contrast has loomed large).
The covenant with Abram must be seen in this context - Israel's election is not merely for the benefit of Israel but also has the blessing of the nations in view (12:3). To that end God chose a man named Abram and his wife Sarai to be the means by which he would deal with the global problem of human sin.
God promised Abraham:
- Descendants through the line of his and Sarah’s future son, Isaac (17:15-21). Those descendants would eventually became a nation (Israel).
- A permanent land for those descendants in Canaan.
- Blessing for those descendants
- A relationship with those descendants (hence, the famous 'covenant formula', "I will be their God and they will be my people").
- Blessing for the nations through those descendants
Abraham's male descendants were to be circumcised as a sign of the covenant (17:10-14). And Abraham and his descendants were expected to obey God, as God's comment in Gen 18:19 makes clear:
Genesis 18:17-19 The LORD said, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19 For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him."
This covenant is an ‘everlasting covenant’ (17:7) and governs all of God’s subsequent redemptive dealings with Israel and the nations (including the Church). Over and over again in Israel's story God spares the sinful nation from annihilation when he remembers his covenant with Abraham. And later St Paul will say that as far as election is concerned Israel, even though she rejects her Messiah, is still loved by God on behalf of the patriarchs (Rom 11:28). This covenant is permanent and unbreakable. Nothing that the descendants of Abraham and Sarah can do will cause Yhwh to renage on it.
In my view all subsequent covenants (including the New Covenant) should be seen as sub-sets of this covenant with Abraham.