Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Suzerain Covenants in Scripture, IV: The Abramic Covenant

The Abramic Covenant is the third major covenant made between God and man. After His covenant with Noah at the conclusion of the Flood, an undisclosed period of time passes until we enter the life of Abram, a wealthy landowner from Ur. It is unknown exactly how much time passed between the Flood and the birth of Abram, but it was certainly a long period. Abram was born sometime around 2000 BC, and that is where the events of the Abramic Covenant become relevant.

Abram (later, Abraham; or, in Islam, Ibrahim) is identified by both Muslims, Jews, and ancient historians as the father of all Semitic-language peoples. This would include over 450 million people throughout the Middle East and North Africa, including (most notably) the Jews and Arabic-speaking Arabs.

The Abramic Covenant (Gen 12:1-17:16)

Suzerain Party - God the Father
Vassal Party - All Semitic races (Jews and Arabs, most notably)
Broker/Mediator for Vassals - Abraham of Ur
Right to Serve as Broker - Father of all vassals


Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before Me, and be blameless. "I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will multiply you exceedingly." Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying, "As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, and you will be the father of a multitude of nations. "No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings will come forth from you. I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God." (Gen 17:1-8)

The preamble identifies the parties and their relationship to one another. God is the suzerain party, and the descendents of Abraham are the vassals.

Abraham is the mediator (ambassador) of the covenant on behalf of the Semites, acting on his authority as their father. Because the covenant applies to Abraham’s descendents, those of us who are not of Arabic-speaking Arabian ethnicity or Hebrew descent are not (and have never been) bound to its commandments.

God’s promise to Abraham is that his offspring will become a multitude of nations, including kings, and that the offspring of Abraham will possess all the land of Canaan.

Historical Prologue

Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father's house, to the land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed." …So Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to him. (Gen 12:1-16:16)

The historical prologue recalls the history of how the suzerain has shown benevolence to the vassal in the past. In this covenant, four full chapters of Genesis (12-16) are devoted to recording God’s dealing with Abraham—this historical prologue shows how God made Abraham a wealthy man; protected Sarah from Pharaoh by revealing Abraham’s deception; settled Abraham in Canaan; gave Abraham military victory over the ten Canaanite kings; and how God promised Abraham a son.

Only the first few verses and last few verses of these chapters are shown above, for the sake of time.

Conditions and Terms

God said further to Abraham, "Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, a servant who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants. A servant who is born in your house or who is bought with your money shall surely be circumcised; thus shall My covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant." Then God said to Abraham, "As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and indeed I will give you a son by her Then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her." (Gen 17:9-16)

The conditions and terms of the Abramic Covenant are also spelled out in this passage. The condition of the covenant is Abraham's trust in God for impregnation, the renaming of Abram and Sarai to be Abraham and Sarah, and (most importantly) the act of circumcision of the males of the family.

The act of circumcision is the key requirement, and thus all Semitic Arabs and Jews must circumcise their sons or risk breaking the covenant between Abraham and God. It is not required for non-Abrahamic peoples (such as Gentiles) to be circumised, though neither is it outlawed. (It would certainly be wrong, however, for a Gentile to be circumcised and attempt to claim the promises of the Abramic Covenant; this would be trying to "steal" the right of the covenant.)

For God's part, He promises to ensure that the peoples of Abraham's descent will fill the earth--and true enough, approximately 1 in 12 people in the world today can claim descent from the once-childless Abraham.

Witness of the Covenant
"And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.” (Gen 17:11)

The act of circumcision was a requirement of the covenant. However, the lack of foreskin after the circumcision also serves as the witness to the covenant. It was intended to "set apart" these people from the rest of humanity, so that they are seen to be sons of Abraham, and to recall each time they view themselves that they will be fathers of vast nations due to the covenant between God and Abram.

Curses and Blessings

But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant." Gen 17:16)

God here pronounces a curse upon those who would violate the covenant. Those who violate the Abramic Covenant are supposed to be cast out from their nation. No Arab or Jew is supposed to tolerate the presence of a fellow Abramic descendent who refuses to become circumcised. He should be exiled from the nation, and those of Abramic descent should not do business with them.

The covenant between God and Abraham has probably been the most successfully-executed covenant of the Bible. Abraham's descendents--both Jews and Arabs--are widely circumcised and identify themselves as Abraham's descendents. Furthermore, God has certainly blessed this people, as in 4,000 years their population has exploded from a family of 4 to nearly half a billion people.

However, Christians should realize that though the Abramic covenant is quite interesting and informative, and helps us understand our "father in faith" Abraham, only Jewish or Arab Christians are bound to its requirements of circumcision--and only these groups have the promise from God for His special protection of keeping their races expanding throughout history. (Other races--such as Caucasians or African-Americans, do not have the comfort of this promise from God.)