The Biblical Covenants: Abraham to Moses

In the last post, the biblical theme of covenant was explained, and we considered the Edenic, Adamic, and Noahic Covenants. It was discussed that God created the world so humanity would know and love Him. God enters into covenant relationships with humans so He can make His justice and goodness known and so humans may know how best to live in order to fulfill their purpose.

Regarding the covenants, we saw that after the creation of the world and humanity in Gen. 1-2, God reveals Himself to humans and establishes the first covenant with them. God wanted for humans to multiply and spread His image and glory across the globe. However, Adam and Eve (influenced by Satan) quickly broke their covenant with God, so God established curses upon Satan, humanity, and the earth. God also promised redemption and that a descendant of Eve would defeat Satan and lift the curses.

God eventually has to flood the earth because no humans besides Noah’s family trust and love God. After the flood, God confirms a slightly-altered form of the Adamic Covenant with Noah. However, similar to humans after Adam and Eve, Noah’s descendants quickly fall into depravity and God must intervene once again. After God’s intervention, the situation changes again on the earth, and it is necessary for God to make new covenants with humans.

In this post, I am going to discuss the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants. Similar to the last post, for each covenant, I am going to explain its stipulations, whether it is conditional or unconditional, and whether or not it has been completed. The Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants are two of the most important and intricate covenants, and it will be best to go into a little more detail with them in places. Because of this, there won’t be enough space to finish discussing the covenants in this post. So, I will cover the remaining covenants (Davidic, Land, and New Covenants) in the next post.

The Abrahamic Covenant

As mentioned, the situation for humanity changed after God’s intervention with Noah’s descendants. The Noahic Covenant included the command that humanity was to multiply and fill the earth. Yet in Gen. 11, Noah’s descendants are building a city and tower in the attempt to prevent themselves from “scattering” across the earth. In judgment, God confuses their language so many nations are formed, and humanity is spread across the earth as God intended.

The previous covenants had been made with Adam and Noah with the understanding that Adam and Noah were the heads of humanity. However, many nations were created at the Tower of Babel, so humanity did not have one person as its head anymore. This is the point in the biblical narrative when God chooses a specific nation to bring His glory to the world and to humanity. In particular, God chooses Abraham and his descendants.

The Abrahamic Covenant did not replace or nullify the Adamic and Noahic Covenants (these are still in effect today). Instead, the Abrahamic Covenant is added to and made specifically with Abraham and his descendants. This covenant is found in several places throughout the Abrahamic narrative in Genesis (12:1-7, 13:14-17, 15:1-21, 17:1-27, 18:17-19, 22:15-18). In it, God promises that three groups will be blessed: Abraham (personal blessings), Abraham’s seed (national blessings), and all nations (universal blessings).

There are about eight main provisions of the Abrahamic Covenant. Five provisions are personally for Abraham:

      1. Abraham’s name will be made great (Gen. 12:2c);
      2. Abraham’s descendants will form a great nation (Gen. 12:2, 13:16, 15:5, 17:1-2, 22:17b);
      3. Many nations will come from Abraham (Gen. 17:3-4, 6);
      4. Abraham, an old man, was promised a son with his wife Sarai (Gen. 15:1-4, 17:16-21); and
      5. Abraham and his descendants are given the land of Canaan (Gen. 12:1, 13:14-15, 15:17-21, 17:8).

Three provisions are for the descendants of Abraham, namely the nation of Israel:

      1. Israel will become a great nation (Gen. 12:2, 13:16, 15:5, 17:1-2, 22:17b);
      2. Israel is given the land of Canaan (Gen. 12:1, 13:14-15, 15:17-21, 17:8); and
      3. Abraham’s descendants will be subjected to bondage in Egypt (Gen. 15:1-4, 17:16-21).

Two additional provisions are blessings (or curses) that will be given to all nations through Abraham and the nation Israel:

      1. All nations ultimately will be blessed through Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 12:3c, 22:18); and
      2. Those who bless Israel will be blessed, but those who curse Israel will be cursed (Gen. 12:3).

As the provisions indicate, this covenant is meant by God to carry out the plan He had from the beginning, but to do so through a particular nation. Through Abraham and his descendants, a great nation will be formed that will bless all nations of the earth.

The Abrahamic Covenant is a new covenant in addition to the previous covenants. Genesis 15:18 says that God “made” (Heb. kārat běrît) the covenant with Abraham. As mentioned in the last post, God “making” a covenant is different from God establishing or confirming (Heb. hēqîm běrît) a previous covenant.

The Abrahamic Covenant is also an unconditional covenant. Genesis 15, where God makes the covenant with Abraham, includes a ceremony in which Abraham is asked to gather animals and bring them to God. Abraham halves a cow, a goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a pigeon and lays the pieces opposite each other (9-10). God, as a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, passes through the pieces while Abraham is in a deep sleep. Biblical theologians have explained that Ancient Near-Eastern covenants were made in this way, but both parties to the covenant passed through the pieces.1 When only God passes through the pieces, this indicates that there are no conditions Abraham or his descendants must meet to receive the provisions of the covenant.

The Mosaic Covenant

As God’s promises were unfolding, He brings the Jews out of Egyptian captivity and leads them to the land of Canaan. At this point in the narrative, God is partially fulfilling His promise to Abraham that Abraham’s descendants would live in the land of Canaan. Another promise that God is partially fulfilling is His promise that Abraham’s descendants would bless all nations. The nation Israel was supposed to succeed where Adam and Noah failed. It was supposed to act as a nation of priests who would bring God’s glory to the world.

Thus, God instituted the Mosaic Covenant with the nation Israel to guide them in fulfilling their role. The Mosaic Covenant is found in Ex. 19-40 and is supplemented by the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. There are 613 stipulations in the covenant, and obviously there is not enough space to discuss them all here. Instead, it will suffice to highlight major aspects and purposes of the covenant.

Regarding several major aspects of the Mosaic Covenant, the 613 stipulations of the covenant included:

      1. Instructions for blood sacrifices meant for the temporary covering of sins;
      2. Diet restrictions in addition to the restriction from the Noahic Covenant;
      3. More trespasses considered punishable by death (e.g., idolatry, adultery, etc.);
      4. The reinstitution of circumcision as a sign of submission to the covenant; and
      5. The institution of the observance of the Sabbath as a sign of the covenant.

These major aspects of the covenant may seem arbitrary, but they all help to serve the major and minor purposes of the covenant.

As mentioned, the major purpose of the covenant was to help Israel fulfill its purpose of being a nation of priests that would bring God’s glory and blessings to the world. In addition to this major purpose, the Mosaic Covenant had several minor purposes that help give an idea of how God intended to use Israel to fulfill its purpose. There are at least five minor purposes of the Mosaic Covenant that are mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments:

      1. The covenant was meant to show God’s holiness and how people must act to live in God’s presence (Lev. 19:1-2; Rom. 7:12);
      2. The covenant showed Israel how to properly worship God (e.g., Lev. 23);
      3. The covenant distinguished the Jews as a distinct people from the rest of the nations (Deut. 7:6, 14:1-2);
      4. The abundance of commandments in the covenant served to magnify and reveal the sins of the Israelites (Rom. 3:19-20); and
      5. The covenant, in revealing sins, was meant to drive the Israelites to faith in the promised seed of the woman (Gal. 3:24-25).

The diet, clothing, and lifestyle restrictions all set Israel apart as a holy people unto God, and all of the commandments were meant to highlight the sins of the Israelites and drive them to faith in God. So, the covenant was meant to show the Israelites how to live as a faithful, holy people in God’s presence in the promised land. If they lived as God wanted them to, they would not only be blessed in the land, but they would also show God’s glory to the world as the nations saw what it was like to live as God intended.

The Mosaic Covenant was a conditional covenant added to the unconditional Abrahamic Covenant between God and the descendants of Abraham. God explains that if the Israelites keep the commandments in the covenant, then God will greatly bless them (Ex. 19:5-6, Deut. 28:1-14). However, if the Israelites disobey the commandments and break the covenant, they will be greatly punished and cursed (Deut. 28:15-68).

The Mosaic Covenant is no longer in effect unlike the Adamic, Noahic, and Abrahamic Covenants. As mentioned, two purposes of the Mosaic Covenant were to show the world how God’s people must act and to induce faith in the promised seed of the woman. However, Jesus Christ, the promised one, came to the earth, lived a sinless life, and completed a once-for-all atoning sacrifice for the sins of all people. Thus, Jesus fulfilled the purpose of the law, and it is no longer necessary. Jesus’ sinless life provided the ultimate example of how to live in right relationship with God, and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the ultimate proof that faith in God leads to eternal life and the lifting of the Adamic curses.

Conclusion

As shown, the biblical theme of covenant continues through Genesis all the way into the New Testament. God created the world so humanity would know and love Him, and so God enters into covenant relationships with humans. He does this to make His justice and goodness known and so humans may know how best to live in order to fulfill their purpose.

After the creation of the nations at the Tower of Babel, God chooses a particular nation to fulfill His purpose. He promises Abraham and Abraham’s descendants that He will bless them and through them all the nations of the world will be blessed. After God brings the Jews into the land of Canaan, He gives them an additional covenant to guide them in their purpose of serving as His holy nation of priests. Although the Mosaic Covenant is no longer in effect, the Abrahamic Covenant is. So, in the next post, the Davidic, Land, and New Covenants will be discussed, and it will be shown how each of these covenants provide greater details as to how the Abrahamic Covenant will be fulfilled.

For visual learners, here is another great video regarding the biblical theme of covenants created by Timothy Mackie and Jonathan Collins of The Bible Project:


Footnotes

  1. For example, see Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants: A Concise Biblical Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), ch. 6.


*The featured image of God speaking to Abram is from The Kingstone Bible, vol. 2, p. 3. Image used with permission: © 2015 Kingstone Comics.

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