The Gospel of Israel, part 1 (the Promise to the Patriarchs)

And so it begins ...

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):

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.

Abraham and the Covenant of Promise
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.


Rafael said…

You are in good company with your last comment, that "all subsequent covenants (including the New Covenant) should be seen as sub-sets of this covenant with Abraham," since, I think, this is pretty much what Paul was arguing in Gal 3 and in Romans. But it strikes me as a little arbitrary (if I can risk seeming to contradict Paul!) to begin with Abram, since God seems (to me, at least) to enter into covenant with his creation from the very beginning.

You're right to stress the intended blessings for "all the families of the earth" as part of (the goal of?) the Abrahamic covenant. But I think, in Genesis at least, this universalist interest is rooted in Gen. 1.26–27; 5.1–2. In other words, Abram's covenant was not just about Abram or Israel (as you're suggesting), and it also isn't just about humanity (as Paul suggests in Rom 8), but about restoring creation itself. And humanity, as God's image in creation, was always intended to point creation to God.

Here are my thoughts on the Abrahamic covenant.
Teresita said…
Robin Parry: 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.

It is true that YHWH will never renege on his promises to Israel, but he never promised that all of Israel would continually reap the benefits of his longsuffering.

For it is written in Romans 9:27 Esaias also crieth concerning Israel, Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, a remnant shall be saved. And in another place, Romans 11:4-5 I have reserved to myself seven thousand men, who have not bowed the knee to the image of Baal. Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace.

Since Christ is clear that he is the only means by which men achieve eternal reconciliation with the Father, and since only a small fraction of those who are accounted Israel according to the flesh are also, like Paul and all the Apostles, also incorporated into the Body of Christ which is his Church, the use of the term "remnant" is appropriate at this time.

But Paul goes on to prophesy in Romans 11::26 that all Israel shall be saved by the Deliverer when the fulness of the Gentiles have come in, which implies a wholesale conversion at the end of human history.
Robin Parry said…

Actually I am in complete agreement with you. I have long held the rather contentious view that God entered into a covenant with creation in the very act of creation. Following Dumbrell I incline towards seeing the creation covenant mediated via Noah as a renewal of an existing creation-covenant.

So in fact I think that the Abrahamic covenant is a sub-set of the covenant with creation (and all other biblical covenants are sub-sets of the Abrahamic).

I started with Abraham to avoid getting tangled up in the early Genesis material (making an already long mini-series even longer). But you are correct - in my view.

Robin Parry said…

My views on Rom 11 will become a little clearer later in the mini-series. But basically I am talking about God's fidelity to Israel as a whole and not to each and every individual within it.

The remnent in Rom 9-11 (i.e., Jewish Jesus-believers) serve, in my view, as a promise of the fuller redemtpion for Israel yet to come (11:26). Perhaps more in a later post.

BTW - you seem to know an lot about the Bible. Have you ever studied it at College?

The Pook said…
I agree. I studied under Dumbrell when doing my BTh many years ago. Though it is not called such, I believe there clearly is a 'Covenant of Creation.' All the elements are there, such as covenant stipulations, blessing and curses, etc. The covenant with Noah is a re-iteration of the Adamic Covenant.

However, I think you have a problem if (as I seem to remember you do) you don't believe that all humanity is descended from Adam and Noah. If they are not, how can the covenant promises through Abraham apply to them?
Robin Parry said…

Adam is at very least a federal head of humanity representing the human race (and the union between Adam and humanity may have more metaphysical underpinnings than that). A covenant with Adam is a covenant with humanity even if a literal Adam is not the literal biological father of all humanity (and I did not think that I had made any comments one way or the other on Adam but I guess that my views are not hard to guess).

The Pook said…
How do you figure that? You can't make a covenant with a myth. That's just meaningless liberal mumbo jumbo isn't it? :.
Robin Parry said…
The pook

:-) I have no firm view on what exactly to do with Adam. Suppose that I thought there was a literal Adam but that he was not the biological father of us all (I slightly incline in this direction). In that case he could fulfil the function required - the representative 'head' of the human race. I don't see any obvious problems there.

Suppose that I thought that Adam was merely a mythical symbol for the human race. Then a covenant with Adam is a way of speaking of a covenant with humanity. I could live with that if I had to.

I have no theological problem with a more literal reading of the Adam story. My problem is more to do with what we 'know' about human origins from other sources. This seems to rule out an over-literal interpretation of the story.

I know that these are somewhat vague thoughts.

BTW - is your first name 'the'?

The Pook said…
Sorry, I should have signed off with my name. Visit my blog if you want to know more about me!

re Adam, without wanting to go into a whole discussion about it, I'm very agnostic as to whether we really DO know what the Western world says we know about origins. I'm not convinced by everything CMI or Answers in Genesis say either, they use the same kind of tendentious arguments as the evolutionists sometimes. I'm not a literal 24 hr 6 day creationist (nor am I a 'long-ager' either). However, I'm certain that much so called evolutionary science is 9 parts fundamentalist materialist dogma, philosophy and wishful thinking, with almost no concrete evidence whatsoever. I find it utterly unconvincing as science, and don't believe it is rationally necessary to accept it as true at all.

That said, I'm content to accept the bible as it comes and not try to harmonize it with either theistic evolution OR capital 'C' Creationism.

- Greg
Robin Parry said…

I think that there are problems with neo-Darwinianism (problems that some of the creationist and ID critiques pick up on) but you go much too far in saying that "so called evolutionary science is 9 parts fundamentalist materialist dogma, philosophy and wishful thinking, with almost no concrete evidence whatsoever." The case for evolution is much stronger than that and there is some very impressive concrete evidence (especially in recent work in genetics).

I am not a scientist so I try not to imagine that I am the best placed person to assess the evidence but the recent genetic evidence does seem to my non-scientific mind to come pretty close to proof for common descent. But I am happy to be wrong about that. As I say, I am not a scientist.

A very good recent defence of theist evolution that considers both the most recent science and the theology (and a critique of ID) is Denis Alexander's new book "Creation or Evolution: Must we choose?" (Monarch, 2008).

We have a great debate book on the issue coming in 09 in which an evolutionist and an ID person debate the science and a creationist and a theistic evolutionist debate the theological implications of neo-Darwinism. It will be called "Debating Darwin". The science chapters pro and contra are both very good (albeit a bit stretching).

The Pook said…
I'm not impressed by the so called genetic evidence. Like everything else it is not evidence but interpretation of the evidence. And the more we know about DNA the more it favours the ID arguments. But I don't want to digress any further from your biblical theology topic.
Robin Parry said…

No problem. Perhaps one day I will post on ID (just for fun).

Unknown said…
I tracked with you until the very last sentence: "In my view all subsequent covenants (including the New Covenant) should be seen as sub-sets of this covenant with Abraham."

The new covenant, it seems to me, is a little more than a nonchalant subset. One might think of it as a "fulfillment of the covenant God made with Abraham."

That is: Abrahamic—Beginning; Mosaic (and Davidic)—penultimate; Jesus—Ultimate
James Pate said…
Here's something that puzzles me about Abraham, justification, and circumcision. Paul makes the point in Romans that Paul was justified by faith before he was circumcised, which shows that one doesn't need to be circumcised to be saved. Fair enough. But Paul seems to treat circumcision as optional. His point is the Gentiles shouldn't have to do it. But is it optional in Genesis 17? No. Those who didn't do it would be cut off from their people. So much for Paul's "you can be saved without circumcision" argument, unless, of course, I'm missing something.
The Pook said…
I think you meant that Abraham (not Paul) was justified by faith before being circumcised?!

Circumcision is the sign of the covenant with Abraham. But the ultimate purpose of the covenant is to be the justification of the Gentiles (by faith) through Abraham's Seed. Paul's point is that justification does not come by being circumcised, either to Jews or to Gentiles. Abraham believed God and was accounted righteous before, not after he was circumcised. As an outworking of the justifying faith that was already there by believing God, he accepted the seal of the covenant. But since the purpose of that covenant is now fulfilled in Christ, the sign is no longer needed, and in fact can become now a sign of unbelief when insisted upon in a way that detracts from the justification that comes by faith in Christ.
Robin Parry said…

I almost agree with Pook. I suspect that Paul's point is that the fact that Abraham was justified by his faith before he was circumcised shows that Gentiles (who are not circumcised) as well as Jews (who are) are justified on the same basis - by faith and not by circumcision. Nevertheless, it does not follow that circumcision is optional for Jews as you worry (only that circumcision is not and never was what justifies) nor that the sign is no longer needed for Jews (as Pook suggests). It was, he says in Rom 4, still a sign and seal of the covenant. Paul still sees Jews as 'the circumcised' but believes that if circumcision is what justifies then there is no hope for Gentiles AS GENTILES. This is contrary to Abraham's experience and to Paul's gospel.


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