Covenants of Christ: Abraham and the Covenant of Promise

This post continues a series of reflections on a book by O. Palmer Robertson about the unity-in-diversity of biblical covenants.

[I will also note that my choice of the King James Version of the Bible does not reflect a “King James only” commitment on my part or the part of Wascana Fellowship. It merely reflects the fact that the King James version is one of the very few that is in the public domain, and that we cannot violate any copyright laws by using it.]

According to O. Palmer Robertson’s The Christ of the Covenants the collapse of the original covenant between God and the first humans led to a “covenant of redemption” that has lasted throughout subsequent human history. He has identified seven phases of this redemptive covenant. In previous posts we covered the first two: The covenant of commencement with Adam and Eve and the covenant of preservation with Noah and his family.

The third phase of the covenant of redemption is a “covenant of promise” that God makes with the patriarch Abraham. This covenant, like the ones with Adam and Noah, is established by a promise that begins with a command. Robertson immediately notes that God is entirely in charge of this relationship. This is not an “agreement” or a “contract” between equals. God dictates the terms of the covenant with Abraham. As I reread Genesis 12:1-3 I can’t help but get the feeling that saying “no” is not an option.

Gen 12:1  Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee: 2  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: 3  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.

As Abraham continues to remain childless he becomes understandably concerned about passing on the inheritance God has promised. Even though God specifies that he will bear a son he seeks reassurance (Gen. 15:8). Robertson’s states the significance well, so please bear with the extended quote below.

The Lord graciously assures the patriarch by formal ratification of a covenant-bond. He orders Abraham to present certain animals before him.

The patriarch needs no further instruction. He knows the procedure well. In accord with the custom of the day, Abraham halves the animals and sets the corresponding pieces against each other. The birds he slays, but does not divide.

At this point, the narrative indicates that the symbolic meat of the slaughter attracts birds of prey which attempt to devour the flesh which Abraham has prepared. The patriarch finds it necessary to intervene, and to frighten away the wild creatures with their rabid appetites.

… At the conclusion of these words of prophecy, Abraham witnesses a most amazing phenomenon. A “smoking oven” and a “flaming torch” pass between the pieces of torn flesh which had been arranged earlier (v. 17).

What is the meaning of this striking ceremony? Why does a visible manifestation of the godhead “pass between the pieces”?

… By dividing the animals and passing between the pieces, participants in a covenant pledged themselves to life and death. These actions established an oath of self-malediction [self-cursing]. If they should break the commitment involved in the covenant, they were asking that their own bodies be torn in pieces just as the animals had been divided ceremonially.

… In the case of the Abrahamic covenant, God the Creator binds himself to man the creature by a solemn blood-oath. The Almighty chooses to commit himself to the fulfillment of promises spoken to Abraham.

Abraham probably expected God to tell him to walk between the pieces. He probably never expected God Almighty himself to be the one to walk between the pieces to swear an unconditional oath that powerful!

We will cover aspects of its contents a little later in this discussion, after some of Robertson’s comments about its connection with other covenants. This covenant is so important that allusions are made to it in surprising contexts later in the Old Testament and even in several places in the New Testament.

One example is found in Jeremiah 34, in which wicked King Zedekiah attempts to curry God’s favour by entering into a covenant involving the release by all slave owners in Jerusalem of Hebrew slaves in accord with the Sinai covenant at Israel’s founding. They soon go back on their oath and take their slaves back, angering God even more. In response, God says, 

Jer 34:18  And I will give the men that have transgressed my covenant, which have not performed the words of the covenant which they had made before me, when they cut the calf in twain, and passed between the parts thereof, 9  The princes of Judah, and the princes of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, and the priests, and all the people of the land, which passed between the parts of the calf; 20  I will even give them into the hand of their enemies, and into the hand of them that seek their life: and their dead bodies shall be for meat unto the fowls of the heaven, and to the beasts of the earth.

Two things are striking about this description. The first is the description about cutting a calf and walking between the pieces. The people of Jerusalem probably did not literally walk between pieces of a calf, but God obviously sees whatever they did as the equivalent. God had made a promise with Abraham and had kept it. This allusion to walking between the pieces was a reminder from their own history that God keeps his promises. This reminder highlights the peoples’ failure to keep their own promise to God.

The second striking thing is the reference to the fowl and wild beasts eating their dead bodies. That brings to mind Abraham needing to chase away the wild animals from the sacrificial animals that had been cut in half. The implication is that there will be nobody (not even “Abraham”) to intervene on their behalf in the day of Jerusalem’s judgment. What has ceremonially been done to the sacrificial animals is what happens to the covenant-breaker, including what would have happened if Abraham had not intervened. Jeremiah is not the only prophet who is aware of the implied Abrahamic curse. The identical curse appears about bodies being eaten by wild animals in 1 Kings 14:11; 21:24 and 2 Kings 9:10. It also appears in a lament about the fall of Jerusalem in Psalm 79:2-3.

Robertson marks the equivalence of the covenant inauguration ceremony of sprinkling the blood of a calf on the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai with that of cutting the animals in half and walking between the parts. According to Robertson, “Sheer statistical considerations may have occasioned the substitution of the blood-sprinkling ritual for the ceremony of walking between the pieces. An entire nation hardly could be paraded between the pieces of slain animals.”

Contents of the Covenant of Promise

According to Robertson, God promises redemption to Abraham’s descendants. A cursory examination of what God promises in Genesis 15 initially made me wonder how he concluded that.

He had promised that Abraham and his descendants would inherit a land that he would show them in Gen. 12:1-3. Abraham would be great, and become a blessing to “all the families of the earth.” Those who bless him will be blessed and those who curse him will be cursed.

In Chapter 15 God elaborates on the promises, explaining a delay while promising to deliver Abraham’s descendants from foreign oppression after 400 years. God also promises that Abraham’s descendants will possess a specific piece of property – the land of Canaan. In no way does this nullify the promise that Abraham’s name would be great. Nor does it nullify the promise that Abraham will be a blessing to all peoples.

Somehow Robertson translates all of this into the simple statement, “By the solemn ceremony described in Genesis 15, God promised redemption.” The question of what Robertson means by “redemption” may be answered in more than one way.

Robertson may be referring specifically to the redemption of the descendants of Abraham from slavery in Egypt. God’s redemption would then be a very specific kind of liberation of a specific people at a specific time in their history. It certainly was an extremely important event in the life and history of Israel. It was certainly a turning point in their relationship with God.

But I doubt that this explanation is in keeping with Robertson’s contention that each covenant God makes with human beings is a step toward the greater redemption of all humanity from sin and death. Robertson seems to want to make this “covenant of promise” about a much greater redemption than that of Israel from Egypt.

No doubt he is following the lead of the Apostle Paul, who says, “And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen [non-Hebrews] through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed” (Gal. 3:8).

Robertson sees Jesus’ sacrifice as fulfilling the type of the sacrifice of Abraham. Jesus, as God, puts his own body on the line and takes the penalty for disobedience to the Old Covenant onto himself. As true as that is, how Jesus fulfills that type actually belongs within the discussion of the Mosaic covenant of law. Outside of the Mosaic covenant Robertson’s analogy breaks down for the reason below.

The important point for this part of the covenant of redemption – the covenant of promise – is that Jesus’ sacrifice makes resurrection possible, enabling God to fulfil his promise to Abraham that his family will have a permanent inheritance and that all nations will be blessed through Abraham’s family.

In other words, far from sacrificing himself because he is defaulting on his promise to Abraham, God is actually dying in order to fulfill it!

That is truly an awe-inspiring act on God’s part!

About John Valade

I facilitate and teach in Wascana Fellowship. I have been married to Wanda since 1984. M.Div. from Briercrest Seminary, SK in 2011 and B.R.E. Canadian Bible College (now Ambrose University College) in 2000.
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