Genesis 15-17 God’s Covenant with Abram

We had the joy of a new teacher added to our team this week – Stephanie C.!  We are so glad she is sharing her heart with us.  We look forward to more from her in the future.

These last few weeks we have been journeying with Abram, the one God called out of Ur of the Chaldeans, and who has now been given an amazing promise.  You’ll recall from Genesis 12, God spoke these amazing words to Abram,

“Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.

         I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you;

        I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing,

       I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you, I will curse;

       and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. Genesis 12: 1-3


Here was Abram’s initial call and God’s promise to be with him, to show him the land, to bless him and make his name great—the very thing so many of those before him had sought on their own.  God even promises to bless the nations through him.  Such amazing promises from the Lord, even after sin and sinners remained in God’s flood cleansed world!  Last week, we followed Abram as he journeyed in the direction the Lord had said.  We were instructed by his obedience, we were baffled by his disobedience, and we were sympathetic to his temptation.  All the while, God was quietly asserting His will, bringing Abram and Sarai where they were to be.  We left last week with a restored Abram, following God’s commands and the victory God gave Abram in battle.  By the close of chapter 14, Abram remains without an heir. Having said “no thanks” to his shares in the spoils of war and still waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled, we can imagine the discouragement that may be setting in.  What has he gained from his loyalty and his desire for God’s glory?  Maybe some respect in the community.  He’s also gained enemies among half the surrounding nations.  Here, in this place, perhaps of discouragement, danger, and perhaps of doubt, God speaks.


Genesis 15:1

            After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:

            “Do not be afraid, Abram.  I am your shield, your very great reward.”


Here is a lesson in the goodness of God.  He, Himself, is the reward.  Surely, Abram’s reward would be very great, but it is only great because its source is a great God.  “Do not be afraid, Abram.  I am your shield your very great reward.”  What an immediate source of comfort.  God is aware of the enemies Abram has gained.  He is aware of the lack that Abram feels, and He calls Abram to live in faith that He is the source of all that Abram needs.  These are beautiful words to begin this whole section of the Abrahamic covenant.  As we continue looking at this covenant and just how much God is promising, let’s worship this God whose very being and presence is ours in Christ Jesus—a very great reward, indeed.  Let’s now consider three things about God’s covenant.  1. God’s covenant is unilateral.  2. God’s covenant persists in spite of our disobedience.  3. God’s covenant is public.

First, God’s covenant is unilateral.  I wish I had a better word for this, but this seems to be it!  Unilateral—meaning it is something undertaken by only one party.  We think of covenants as binding two parties, a wedding, a legal contract, and certainly God’s covenant with Abraham bound both He and Abraham, but it was ultimately God who undertook this covenant and He alone would see to it that it was fulfilled.  Unilateral.  Notice how God initiated this covenant with Abram.  It is not something Abram sought, nor is it something he should have expected.  These are certainly not promises Abram could claim as a result of his morality.  No, Abram is not seeking and asking big things of God right now.  In fact, it is just the opposite.  Even after God comes to Him with such reassuring words, we read,


Genesis 15:2

But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain

childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezar of Damascus?”


So, the patriarch known for his faith begins to question God.  Can you sense this questioning?  Have you experienced this in your life, a moment of despair, of discouragement, where you simply cannot imagine how God can do good to you.  How can God turn this bad situation for good?  Maybe you acknowledge, “God is sovereign.”  Oh, but what can He do?  Things are so messed up.  You are certain of the one thing you need, the one thing you lack, and if God comes to you with any other reassurance, it feels meaningless.  Abram asks, “What can you give me?”  I cannot say if Abram’s questioning here is sinful or not, but it is clear that he directs his doubts upward, that he names them, and that he acknowledges what he knows to be true in the face of them.  He calls God the sovereign LORD.  We, too, in moments of doubt, ought to face them, to take them upward to God and to remind ourselves of what we know to be true of Him.  Well, God knows that Abram is too fixated on the house that his own hands have built, so he takes him outside to look at the house that God built.


Genesis 15:5

He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”


Can this picture be any clearer?  What can God do?  He can create vast numbers of stars and galaxies by simply willing them into existence.  Is He powerful enough to keep the promises He has made to Abram?  Only He is powerful enough to keep these promises.  Abram only wants one child, and God says, “Can you even count what I can give you?”


And so, in verse 6, Abram’s response:


Genesis 15:6

            Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.


Amazing.  What has Abram done to gain favor with God, to be the recipient of such kindness? He has believed the LORD.  We look back at this and think—“yes, that’s how God says He will receive us, by faith.  We teach our children this downstairs.”  Imagine this, though, we’ve seen already the implied covenant that God would bless Adam with immortality and eternal life.  He was required to obey God’s order and refrain from disobeying his command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Death was the consequence of breaking that covenant, and right away we see how good man will be at keeping God’s covenants.  After the flood, we saw God making a covenant with Noah, promising never to destroy the whole earth by a flood.  The requirements for Noah and his sons were much the same as for Adam, in addition to refraining from eating blood and the protection of the sanctity of human life by a degree of human justice.  So, here, as God proceeds to declare a covenant with Abram, we expect to see what God requires of Abram.  We are looking for the consequences that Abram must suffer if he breaks the covenant.  And we are astonished!  He is declared righteous on the basis of his faith, before He has even done anything!

Furthermore, what are the consequences of breaking the covenant?  Death! That’s what’s going on here in 15:10.  Death is symbolized by the dead animals arranged on two sides. And who is it who walks between, taking that oath upon Himself, committing Himself to that end if the covenant is broken? It is God alone, symbolized by the smoking firepot and blazing torch.  What does Abram give God? Nothing.  He is asleep.  What does God pledge Abram? Everything—even unto His own death.  What mercy! We see this mercy in Christ’s cross—God in the flesh taking the punishment of death for those who have broken God’s law and being raised to life again to show that payment was accepted that all who believe on Him will have eternal life.  God alone will sustain the covenant. God’s covenant is unilateral.


Next, we see God’s covenant persists in spite of our disobedience.  Chapter 16 is replete with evidence of Abram and Sarai’s disobedience.  If Abram doubted that God could give him something great, something desired, Sarai doubted that God would.  She, too, looked around at her house full of everything but the sound of children, and she decided, like Eve before her, to take matters into her own hands.


Genesis 16:2

“So she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children.  Go, sleep

with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her.”


She knows exactly who is to blame for her circumstances.  God Himself has kept her from the one thing she must have, from having children.  Like Adam before him,


Gen. 16:2 “Abram agreed to what Sarai said.”


We should know the script by now, these sinful actions lead, not to the fullness and joy of this “First Family”, but to strife and discord.  Sarai’s maidservant despises her.  She mistreats her maidservant.  Abram keeps condoning sinful actions.  Even the physical fruit of this union, Ishmael, God says

“will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.” (Gen. 16:12)

It is easy to call out this unbelief at a distance, and to paint Sarai as a bitter woman, in ugly clothes that we would never choose to wear.  But what excusable lies may have been underneath these sinful actions?  What are the subtle ways that we doubt God’s willingness to be good to us and therefore run ourselves and our families headlong into fruitless strife?


We may think:

*Sure, God has a plan in the long run, but right now He is missing out on my potential.

OR, *I should be resourceful, shouldn’t I?  Maybe he will change things later, but right now, it’s up to me.

Maybe we think, *I’m capable, independent.  I have my goals, my plans, things to check off my list today.  I just don’t have room in life for something I can’t control.  God can do His work, while I’m busy at mine.


Aren’t we just like Sarai?  We can, we will control things…until everything backfires.  Then, who is it we turn on?  A friend, a sibling, a child, a spouse, God Himself? Gen. 16:5 Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering.”  Yet, even here, in the midst of unbelief and familial strife, God’s kindness is still pouring out.  He speaks yet more promises.

To this maidservant Hagar, so deeply wronged and maybe having done wrong herself, we hear God’s promise that He “will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.” Gen. 16:10.  God is not unaware of the muck Abram and Sarai have flung their family into.  He has seen Hagar, and she is now given a merciful view of God and His kindness, even toward her.

So, it is a merciful God who is making clear His kindness to all humanity, but His particular blessing on the children of the promise—the fruit of Sarah’s womb.


Finally, God’s covenant is public…13 years later!  Abram has been very patient waiting on God’s promises for 13 more years after the whole incident with Ishmael.

Genesis 17:3

Abram fell facedown and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations 5 No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.”

Abram now has to go by a new name.  Can you imagine the conversations he must have had?  “Wait, what are you calling yourself now? Abraham—as in father of many??”  God’s covenant has become part of Abraham’s public identity before the world and now everyone is aware of this promise that Abraham is believing in.

And yet, in spite of Abraham’s age, in spite of any skepticism, as we come to chapter 17, we read this amazing renewal, a confirmation of God’s covenant with Abraham, and it rings with such power and authority and publicity.  Almost the entire chapter is God speaking.  The God of the universe is declaring, yet again, the vast nature of His blessing upon Abraham, and God’s promise keeps getting larger!  We keep hearing this refrain, “and your descendants after you.”  This is now an everlasting covenant, and it is clear that God intends this to be a covenant with Abraham AND all in his household, INCLUDING those bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not his offspring, AND the generations after them!  It is mind-boggling to consider these promises to a man yet to bear a child with the wife of his youth.  What, then, is God declaring and why, at this time, when Scripture tells us Abraham and Sarah’s bodies were as good as dead? (Romans 4:19, Hebrews 11:12) Why now did God renew His covenant and make it so very vast in scope?  I wish I knew. J What is clear is that, beyond the continuing “bigger and better” description of His blessing, God’s covenant with Abraham now has a sign—circumcision.  God’s promises to Abraham are now public.  God’s glory would be known and displayed as the whole community of Abraham’s household took the sign of this covenant.  Obedience to God by undergoing circumcision was a clear act, on the part of all who would be in God’s covenant community.  God states, “Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people.  He has broken my covenant.” Gen. 17:14  And we see that Abraham, in faith, did just that.  On that very day, he and his son and all his household and community were circumcised.  God’s people today are not marked out by circumcision, but we are publicly identified with Him through baptism and membership into the body of Christ.  Have you taken these steps of public obedience to Christ?  Similarly, we don’t often take on new names these days, but we are called to live lives that are distinct from the world.  How are you making public the nature of your identification with Christ?

We serve a God who makes amazing promises.  From the beginning, He promised that all the world would be blessed through Abraham.  And this has come true through Jesus Christ.  Now, will we be those who receive God’s promises by faith?  Or will we live in unbelief?

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