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Genesis 12:1-3 as the Initial Grant of the Abrahamic Covenant

Posted by Matt Postiff March 3, 2011 on Matt Postiff's Blog under Dispensationalism 

Some interpreters have suggested that the text in Genesis 12:1-3 is not a statement of the Abrahamic Covenant (AC) because it does not use the Hebrew covenant word "berit." The covenant is given in Genesis 15, which does use the special term.

When I heard this interpretation some years ago, I was skeptical because I had been taught otherwise. To be sure, when I initially heard this interpretation, I did not consider the omission of the key covenant term. I recently have been preaching through Hebrews and the subject of the AC arose at Hebrews 6:13-15. Someone asked me a question after the sermon about this interpretive issue.

After having re-studied the issue (see below), it seems that there are overwhelming grounds to understand that in Genesis 12:1-3, God initially grants the promises of the AC to Abram. These promises consist of national, personal, and international provisions. The national promises include a reference to a land which we know as the promised land. Some of the provisions have been fulfilled, in particular, the personal provisions to Abraham. The national and international provisions are in process of fulfillment and/or are awaiting their full realization.

There are three key reasons why I believe the AC is initially granted in Genesis 12:1-3.

1. Promissory nature of Genesis 12:1-3.

The AC is a unilateral promise of God to grant certain blessings to Abraham, his seed, and the nations of the earth. The language of Gen 12 seems to have a strongly promissory atmosphere about it. Since the covenant is almost completely, if not entirely, unilateral, it is reasonable to see a one-sided giving of the covenant with no “cutting” mentioned between parties as being a legitimate giving of the covenant promises.

2. Verbal and conceptual similarities of Genesis 12:1-3 with the other AC texts.

The following table shows the data used to establish this argument.

Genesis 12

Genesis 15

Genesis 17

See Also

v. 1 : Get out of your country…to a land

v. 7 : I will give this land

v. 7 : brought you out of Ur…to give you this land to inherit it

v. 16 : they shall return here [to this land]

v. 18 : To your descendants I have given this land

v. 8 : I give to you and your descendants…the land

13:15, 17 : all the land…I give to you

26:3-4 : For to you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham

28:4 : that you may inherit the land

28:13 : I will give you and your descendants the land

35:12 : the land which I gave…I give to you

48:4 : I will give this land

v. 2 : make you a great nation

v. 4 : one who will come from your own body

v. 5 : So [as many as the stars] shall your descendants be.

v. 2 : multiply you exceedingly

13:16  I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth

18:18 : Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation

22:17 : multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore

26:4 : I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven

28:3 : make you fruitful and multiply you

28:14 : your offspring will be like the dust of the earth

35:12 : Be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations

v. 2 : bless you, make your name great

14:19-20 : Blessed be Abram of God Most High…delivered your enemies into your hand

22:17 I will surely bless you (NIV)

v. 3 : blessing and cursing

27:29 : may those who curse you be cursed, and those who bless you be blessed

v. 3 : in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed

v. 4-6 : you shall be a father of many nations

v. 16 : she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples…

18:18 : all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him

22:18 : In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed

26:4 : in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed

28:14 : in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed

Genesis 15:18 uses the covenant term “berit” so it seems that this chapter marks the official “cutting of the covenant.” The close associations between this text and Genesis 12:1-3 substantiate that 12:1-3 is at least somehow related to the AC, if not the initial granting of it as I understand.

Genesis 17 uses the term “covenant” about 13 times.

The similarities of chapter 12 with the many clear references to the AC throughout Genesis weigh in favor of taking 12:1-3 as the initial offer or grant of the AC. It certainly demonstrates intent on God’s part to do things for Abraham that were included in the later “official” statements and reiterations of the covenant.

Some of the texts referenced above do not use the specific term “berit” in reference to the AC promises (Gen 13, 18, 22, 26, 27, 28, 35). But coming as they do historically after the giving of the covenant, it would seem to be a stretch to say they are not the covenant or restatements thereof. The use of “berit” should not be used as a determining factor as to whether the covenant is present; rather, the idea of the covenant is what is important.

Further, I do not believe that any passage in Genesis offers a more complete statement of the covenant than Genesis 12. The passages after Genesis 12 unfold one or two aspects of the covenant, but do not explicitly state them all.

3. NT Usage of Genesis 12:1-3.

Genesis 12

NT Reference or Allusion

7 : to your descendants I will give this land

Acts 7:5 : “But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child.”

Of course, the land promise is also given in Gen 13 and 15 before Abram had a child. By Gen 17 Ishmael was born, so he had one child by then.

3 : in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

Acts 3:25 : “of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying to Abraham, `And in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.'”

This text not only refers to Genesis 12, but also 18:18, 22:18, 26:4, 28:14. Note that it cannot refer to Gen 15 because Gen 15 does not contain a complete statement of the covenant.

Gal 3:8 : this is a similar quotation of 12:3, 18:18, etc.

7 : land promise

Heb 11:8 : “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance.”

Note the term inheritance as it suggests that God has promised something to Abram at the point of his initial calling.

Hebrews 6:13-15 refers to the oath-backed covenant; it is quoting specifically from Genesis 22:16-18.

I believe the strongest argument for seeing the AC in Gen 12:1-3 is that the NT quotations of the covenant in Acts 3:25 and Gal 3:8 refer to Genesis 12 and 18 and following chapters of Genesis, but they do not and cannot refer to Genesis 15 because that statement of the covenant does not include the specific portions about personal blessing, blessing and cursing, and all the families of the earth being blessed. Genesis 15 is primarily about the land and Abram’s inheritance of it. His descendants are also included in the promise, but the promise says nothing about the personal or international aspects of the covenant.

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