God’s Covenant with Abraham

By James Jacques Joseph Tissot c. 1896–1902

The second of the six covenants God made with people in the Bible is the covenant He made with Abraham, called the Abrahamic Covenant. This covenant, promised in Genesis 12 and made in multiple stages in Genesis 15, 17, and 22, is the second time the word covenant occurs in the Bible. It gives insight about God’s plans for Abraham, his descendants, the land of Canaan, and the whole of humankind. It also shows God’s sovereignty and grace and lays the foundation for understanding God’s intent to bring salvation to the world through Israel’s Messiah.

Historical Situation

Ten generations after Noah, humankind was living scattered throughout various geographical areas of the world. The scattering began at Babel during the days of Nimrod and Peleg with the confusion of human language (Gen 10:25; 11:1–9). At some point, people started worshipping pagan gods (Josh 24:2). A man named Abram, descended from Noah’s middle son Shem (Gen 9:24; 10:21), lived with his father’s household. His father’s name was Terah, his nephew’s name was Lot, and his wife’s name was Sarai. God came to Abram and told him to leave his father’s house and go to a land that God would show him. This land was Canaan. God promised to give Canaan to the descendants of Abram, whom God renamed Abraham (Gen 12, 17).

Covenant Structure

In Genesis 12, God promised Abraham that He would make Abraham a great nation, a great name, the source of blessings to the families of the earth, and inherit the land of Canaan. The making of the covenant took place after Abraham’s journey to Egypt, rescuing Lot from captivity, and meeting with Melchizedek (Gen 13–15). It has many of the parts common to Ancient Near East covenants. The different parts are as follows:

Identification of the Parties. The clearest statement of the covenanted parties is in Genesis 17:7. Here, God says this covenant is between Himself, Abraham, and Abraham’s descendants.

Review of the Relationship. Among Genesis 12, 15, 17, and 22, the closest thing to a review of the relationship between God and Abraham is Genesis 17:5, where God changes Abram’s name to Abraham and says He has made Abraham the father to many nations. There is also the repeated promise toward Abraham’s descendants, including their multiplication, Egyptian bondage and deliverance, and inheritance of the land (Gen 12:7; 13:14–16; 15:12–16, 18–21; 17:8; 22:17).

Terms of the Covenant. There are four major parts of the Abrahamic Covenant. All four parts are promises God made to Abraham. These parts are:

  1. personal blessings to Abraham (Gen 12:3; 17:3–6; 22:17);
  2. national/kingdom blessings to Abraham’s seed (Gen 12:2; 17:3–6; 22:17);
  3. land blessings to Abraham’s seed (Gen 12:7; 15:18–20; 17:8); and
  4. blessings to all nations through Abraham’s seed (Gen 12:3; 22:18).

Three of the four promises are amplified and clarified later throughout the Old Testament. The land blessings are repeated in the covenant God made with Israel in the plains of Moab, sometimes called the Deuteronomic or Palestinian Covenant (Deut 29–30). The national/kingdom blessings are repeated in the covenant God made with King David, sometimes called the Davidic Covenant (2 Sam 7:12–16; 1 Chr 17:11–14; Ps 89). And the blessings to all nations, as well as the land and kingdom blessings, are repeated in the New Covenant (Jer 31:31–34; Ezek 16:60–63; 37:21–28).

God’s initial promises required Abraham’s obedience to leave his father’s house, which he did (Gen 12:1–9). This obedience came in the context of a faith-based relationship with God before the covenant was formally ratified, so it was not a condition of the covenant.1 There is also the requirement of male circumcision, which was cause for removal of the individual from identification with Abraham’s descendants (see Blessings and Curses below).

List of Witnesses. No witnesses are explicitly named. In Genesis 18, God visited Abraham to inform him that he would soon have a child with his wife, Sarai, whose name God changed to Sarah. She overheard this amplification of the covenant (vv. 10–15). And when God tested Abraham by telling him to sacrifice his son, Isaac, Isaac and Abraham’s two servants witnessed this covenant renewal (Gen 22:1–19). Implicitly, Abraham’s descendants in their generations have also witnessed the continuance of the covenant (Gen 26:2–5; 35:9–15; Ex 2:24; 32:13).

Blessings and Curses. The blessings are the promises God made to Abraham as the terms of the covenant. Based on God’s ratifying the covenant without Abraham’s participation, these promises are binding only for God (see Ratifying the Covenant below). The singular curse is being cut off from identification with the descendants of Abraham and the corresponding blessings. This curse falls only on uncircumcised males. It is not a condition for nullifying the whole covenant; it specifically applies only to the person who breaks the covenant.

Preserving the Covenant. The Abrahamic Covenant has no instructions for preserving and reviewing the terms of the covenant. The terms were relatively simple, being a set of promises God made to Abraham and his descendants. The only requirements on the part of Abraham or his descendants was Abraham’s initial obedience, his commitment to walking with God, and Abraham and his descendants’ receiving the sign of circumcision for being included as beneficiaries of the covenant.

Ratifying the Covenant. Genesis 15:9–19 records the ratification ceremony. God told Abraham what animals to sacrifice. Abraham made the sacrifice, including cutting the sacrifices in half. At twilight, God caused Abraham to fall into a deep sleep. Then God prophesied what would happen to Abraham and his descendants during the next 400 years. Finally, God manifested His presence and passed between the pieces of the sacrifice. That God alone passed through the pieces of the sacrifice marked the covenant as unconditional, being completely dependent on God alone.2

Sign of the Covenant. Genesis 17:10–14 identifies male circumcision as the sign of the covenant.

Theological Notes

Nation of Israel. From Genesis 12 on, God’s dealings with the descendants of Abraham show how God planned to bring forth the nation of Israel, through which He would send the Jewish Messiah, by whom He promised to bring atonement for sin and salvation from eternal death to both Israel and the nations. There are different views about God’s plan for Israel. The different views represent one of the major debates in modern Christianity.

Character of God. God is loving. Some have wondered how a loving God could drive the Canaanites from their land. The covenant terms in Genesis 15 answer this question—there was nation-wide practice of sexual and reproductive sin. These practices included incest, homosexuality, bestiality, and infant sacrifice (Lev 18). The nation-wide practices of these corruptions of the beautiful gifts of marriage, sexual intimacy, and procreation were severe violations of the created order (Gen 1:27–28; 2:21–25) and just grounds for the Canaanites’ disinheritance from the land. (For more discussion of God’s loving nature, see the Theological Notes section of Chapter 2 above.)

God as provider. Genesis 22 is a significant renewal of the Abrahamic Covenant. Here, God “tested” Abraham by instructing him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, the child God promised to Abraham and Sarah many years before. God did not test Abraham because He was unsure about Abraham’s commitment to Him. He tested Abraham to show Abraham that he was wholeheartedly trusting God. Hebrews 11:17–19 gives very important commentary on Genesis 22, explaining that Abraham, by faith, offered Isaac, “concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead” (v. 19). Isaac, then, became a prophetic promise of the Lamb of God, Jesus, the only-begotten Son, whom God provided to become our once-for-all, eternal sacrifice for sin (John 1:29; 3:16; Rom 3:21–26). After God restrained Abraham, Abraham named the site YHWH Yireh, or “The-Lord-Will-Provide” (NKJV).

Interestingly, Abraham’s father, Terah, is named among those who worshiped pagan gods (Josh 24:2). Yet, the living God called Abraham out from that situation into a faith-based relationship with Him. God then covenanted Himself with Abraham, promising to bless Abraham and His descendants, with no strings attached to the covenant itself. This reveals God’s character as loving and generous toward those who are undeserving of His gracious blessings. This reinforces the goodness and love of God, the ultimate source of all that is good (Matt 7:11; Jas 1:17).

Plan of Salvation. The blessing to the nations is a prophetic promise that God would bring the possibility of salvation to the entire world. Paul specifically takes up this issue in Galatians 3–4. Some of the key points in Paul’s line of thought are:

  1. the blessing is the gospel, including salvation coming to the Gentiles (Gal 3:8);
  2. the promise of the blessing supersedes the conditions of the Mosaic law (Gal 3:16–18);
  3. the purpose of the Mosaic law was to guard Israel until Christ came (Gal 3:19–23);
  4. all who have believed in Christ are heirs of the gospel promise (Gal 3:26–29); and
  5. the Holy Spirit confirms believers as heirs of the gospel promise (Gal 4:1–6).

It is important to point out that Paul is specifically talking about God’s promise to make Abraham a blessing to the nations. He does not mention the other three parts of the Abrahamic covenant (see Terms of the Covenant above). How Paul’s line of thought relates to the whole Abrahamic Covenant is part of the debate about Israel in modern Christianity. One view is that Paul is referring to the fulfillment of the whole Abrahamic Covenant. Another view is that Paul is referring to the fulfillment of only one part of the covenant. Still another view is that Paul is previewing of what fulfillment of the covenant will look like for Israel in the future. There are other views as well, but these are the three main views in traditional Christian theology.

Nature of the Covenant. This covenant is a set of promises God commits Himself to involving Abraham and his descendants. Those promises are unconditional and eternal (see Terms of the Covenantabove). Abraham’s initial obedience of leaving his father’s house and following God’s leading to the land of Canaan was his faith-response to God’s command before the covenant was ratified. Individual descendants might disinherit themselves through disobedience by not receiving the sign of circumcision, but this does not nullify the whole covenant.


The second series of events in the Bible where the word covenant occurs is the Abrahamic Covenant. God made this covenant with Abraham and his descendants. It has four key parts and is very important for understanding God’s plan for the salvation of humankind. There are different views about the promises for Israel and the land of Canaan. Regardless, the covenant reveals God as sovereign and loving. It also provides the historical and theological foundation for the later Deuteronomic, Davidic, and New Covenants.


  1. J. Arthur Thompson, “Covenant (OT),” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Eerdmans, 1979), 1:792. Logos Bible Software.
  2. Steven B. Cowen, “Covenant,” in Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, ed. Chad Brand, Charles Draper, and Archie England (Nashville, TN: Holman, 2003), 357. Logos Bible Software.

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