As a child, my daughter Michelle loved Enid Blyton’s series The Secret Seven and The Famous Five. One bedtime as I read to her, we came within a few chapters of the end of the book. She begged me to read on, but I insisted that it was time for her to be tucked in and to go to sleep. “Promise me you’ll read the rest of the chapters tomorrow night,” she pleaded. “I promise,” I said with a smile. Next evening there was a faculty meeting that was prolonged and went on until dark. Michelle was sound asleep when I got home. Next morning as I was eating my breakfast a very irate child confronted me: “You didn’t keep your promise; you lied,” she blurted out.
“I didn’t lie,” I protested, “I was unable to keep my promise due to other circumstances.” Unpersuaded by my subtle distinction, she emphatically repeated her charge, “you broke your promise, you lied,” she said, and stomped off. I went to work that morning with a heavy heart and regretting that I had not left the faculty meeting earlier. Michelle has forgotten the incident and now, with three children of her own, was quick to forgive me when I recently shared with her how her dad had once disappointed her childhood trust in him.
It is important to recognize that God’s covenant is a sworn promise, an oath with which he binds himself to do something, and no circumstance can prevent or divert him from doing it. Hebrews assures us that God’s promise to Abraham and the oath he made to confirm it are both unchangeable, because “it is impossible for God to lie” (Heb. 6:17–18, NIV). A covenant, then, is an unbreakable promise (Judg. 2:1), a sworn promise or oath (Gen. 26:3; Exod. 6:8; Ps. 105:9; Ezek. 16:8), or a promise on oath (Deut. 6:23; 8:1; 9:5; Num. 11:12). Notice the conjoining of the associated words in Luke 1:72–73 (italics added): “Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham.” This is why the Septuagint translated the Hebrew word for covenant (berîth) with a Greek word meaning “testament” or “will” (diathēkē), that is, to prevent the divine promise being misunderstood as a mutual agreement.
Let us notice too that the New Testament uses the plural form “the covenants” (Rom. 9:4; Gal. 4:24), even “the covenants of promise” (Eph. 2:12); indeed there are five crucial covenants—the Noahic (Gen. 6:18; 9:1–17), the Abrahamic/Isaac/Jacob (Gen. 15–17; Ps. 105:8–10), the Mosaic (Exod. 19–24), the Davidic (2 Sam. 7:9–16; 27–29), and the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31–33). Furthermore, the covenant with Abram contained four distinct elements that deserve separate attention.
First, God promised a son to Abram, as his heir (Gen. 15:1–6). This was despite Abram and Sarai being beyond the age of childbearing. Yet Abram took God at his word, and the Lord approved of his response (v. 6). Through this promised son, Abram would become the progenitor of a mighty nation. In Egypt, they multiplied like the proverbial flies: “But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them” (Exod. 1:7). “The Lord your God has multiplied you, so that today you are as numerous as the stars of heaven. May the Lord, the God of your ancestors, increase you a thousand times more and bless you, as he has promised you” (Deut. 1:10–11)!
Secondly, God promised Abram that he would give his descendants the land of Canaan as a possession. God’s promises that he would make Abram “into a great nation” and give to his seed the land of Canaan (Gen. 12:2, 7; 15:2–5, 7) are expressed without direct covenantal language. Abram, who believed God’s word concerning an heir (Gen. 15:6), is less trusting regarding the promise of the land, for he incredulously asks: “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it” (v. 8)? It is then that God “cut a covenant” (Jer. 34:18) and reinforced his promise with a sacred and binding guarantee (Gen. 15: 17–21). As children, we often attested to the truthfulness of our word with a vow: “I cross my heart and hope to die, if I lie.” God’s symbolic passing between the severed carcasses seems to make a similar, though paradoxical, point (v. 17).
God’s promise to grant the land of Canaan to Israel as an “everlasting inheritance” is repeated frequently (Gen. 28:4; 48:4; Exod. 2:24; 6:8; 32:13; Lev. 20:24; Acts 7:5; 13:19), so it is no wonder it became known as “the promised land” (Heb. 11:9, NIV). God reasserts the promise he made on oath to Abraham, also to Isaac and to Jacob (Gen. 17:7–8, 19, 21; 50:24; Exod. 2:24; 6:8; 33:1; Lev. 26:42).
Thirdly, God promised a special relationship with the descendants of the Patriarchs: “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God” (Exod. 6:7); “I will walk among you, and be your God, and you will be my people” (Lev. 26:12). “They shall be my people and I will be their God, in faithfulness and in righteousness” (Zech. 8:8). Consequently, Israel enjoyed a privileged and unique fellowship with God, which is frequently affirmed in the Old Testament: “you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples . . . but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:5–6); “for you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession” (Deut. 7:6; 10:15); “You only have I known of all the families of the earth” (Amos 3:2).
Patrick Miller rightly says that “the heart of the covenant is the deity’s claim: ‘I will be your God and you will be my people’.” In the light of this unique relationship, one can appreciate the significance of circumcision for male Israelites and later the post-exilic Jews (Gen. 17:9–14). It was a tangible reminder in their flesh that the “promised seed” was not to be sown in “foreign soil.” It was the mark of their being God’s chosen people. How astounding then that Paul, even though a radical Jew, could say that “circumcision (Jew) is nothing and uncircumcision (Gentile) is nothing” (1 Cor. 7:19; Gal. 5:6; 6:15; Col. 3:11).
Just as staggering is Paul’s application of the “heart of the covenant” to include the Gentiles in Corinth.
I will live with them
and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people . . .
I will be a Father to you,
and you will be my sons and daughters,
says the Lord Almighty (2 Corinthians 6:16, 18).
The fourth aspect of God’s covenantal promise is the assurance that through Abraham “all peoples on earth will be blessed” (Gen. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14; Acts 3:25). Three of the four covenant-promises were fulfilled in Moses and Joshua’s time: “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord” (Exod. 6:7–8); “Not one of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass” (Josh. 21:45); “Not one thing has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised … all have come to pass for you, not one of them has failed (Josh. 23:14–15; 1 Kings 8:56). However, this fourth promise was more a hope than a reality until the coming of Christ, the promised Seed.
It is this fourth element that Paul relies on in his argument with his opponents in Galatia: “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds’, meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed’, meaning one person, who is Christ” (Galatians 3:16, NIV). Of course, “seed” in context is a collective noun and refers to Abraham’s many descendants, as the images used (“stars of heaven,” “sand of the seashore,” and “dust of the earth”) make plain.
Although “seed” can be used as a singular (Gen. 17:19, see also Gen. 21:13; 2 Sam. 7:12; Ps. 89:3–4), Paul is not contextually expounding Genesis 17 where “seed” is used six times (vv. 7a, 7b, 8, 9, 10, 12). Rather he is declaring that Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of such promises and the singular therefore befits such an application of the text. Paul ignores the context and focuses on the word “seed” alone. The Law of Moses, which defined and separated Jew from Gentile, was “until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come” (Gal. 3:19, NIV). Thus the promise to Abraham is prior to the Law and its addition does not supersede the prior promise (v. 17). Heirs inherit; they do not earn nor do they deserve what they receive.
But what was the promise? (Paul uses the term “promise” eleven times in Gal. 3–4). “And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you’” (Gal. 3:8). Note the table below:
The blessing for Paul was not the land (“inheritance,” Gal. 3:18; 4:30) as such, but the assurance that all those who have faith in Christ—as Abraham had had in God’s word (Gen. 15:6)—are the true offspring of the Patriarchs. “For all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ with a resounding ‘Yes’!” (2 Cor. 1:20, NLT), to which we add our Amen to the glory of God. “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:26–29, NIV italics added). “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col. 3:11, NIV). And that is an aspect of the gospel that we are still struggling to heed.
Notes & References:
 References are from the NRSV unless stated otherwise.
 For a creative play on the dual (covenant/testament) meaning of diathēkē see Galatians 3:15 (the unchangeable nature of God’s promise and a last will and testament) and Hebrews 9:16–17 (the necessity of a testator’s death for a will to come into effect and likewise a covenant).
 Hence Paul refers to Isaac as the promised child (Gal. 4:23, 28)
 Abram (“the father is exalted”) then became Abraham (“the father of a multitude,” v. 5) and Sarai (“my princess”) became Sarah (“a princess,” v. 15).
 The metaphors of the stars in heaven (Gen. 15:5; 26:4; Exod. 32:13), the dust of the earth (Gen. 13:16; 28:14), and the sand on the seashore (Gen. 22:17; 32:12) are often used to describe Abraham’s descendants (Heb. 11:12).
 Patrick D. Miller, “Divine Command and Beyond: The Ethics of the Commandments” in William P. Brown (ed.), The Ten Commandments: The Reciprocity of Faithfulness (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 16.
 Notice that Paul refers to these quotations from the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants as “promises” (2 Cor. 7:1), but now describing believers in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile.
Norman H. Young is Conjoint Professor of Avondale University College.
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