Abraham made covenants with God when he received the gospel, when he was ordained a high priest, and when he entered into celestial marriage. In these covenants, God promised great blessings to Abraham and his family. These blessings, which extend to all of Abraham’s seed, are called the Abrahamic covenant.
The Hebrew Bible makes reference to a number of covenants (Hebrew: בְּרִיתוֹת) with God (YHWH). The Noahic Covenant (in Genesis), which is between God and all living creatures, as well as a number of more specific covenants with individuals or groups. Biblical covenants include those with Abraham, the whole Israelite people, the Israelite priesthood, and the Davidic lineage of kings. In form and terminology, these covenants echo the kinds of treaty agreements in the surrounding ancient world.
In the Book of Jeremiah, verses 31:30–33 predict “a new covenant” that God will establish with “the house of Israel”. Most Christians believe this New Covenant is the “replacement” or “final fulfilment” of the Old Covenant described in the Old Testament and as applying to the People of God, while some believe both covenants are still applicable in a dual covenant theology.
Main article: Covenant of the pieces
The covenant found in Genesis 12–17 is known as the Brit bein HaBetarim, the “Covenant Between the Parts” in Hebrew, and is the basis for brit milah (covenant of circumcision) in Judaism. The covenant was for Abraham and his seed, or offspring, both of natural birth and adoption.
With Abraham multiple promised lands were given to his innumerable descendants (Gen 15:18-21; 17:1-9, 19; 22:15-18; 26:2-4, 24; 28; 35:9-13; Gal 3; Abr 2:6-11), with special ‘gathering’ and leadership roles assigned to the descendants of Joseph and his son Ephraim (Gen 48 and 50; Deut 33:17; 1 Chron 5:1-2; Psalm 80:2; Isaiah 11:13; Jer 31:6, 9; Ezek 37:15-19; Zech 10:6-12), and circumcision marking them as a peculiar people set apart (Gen 17:10-13).
In Genesis chapters 12–17 three covenants can be distinguished based on the differing Jahwist, Elohist and Priestly sources. In Genesis 12 and 15, God grants Abraham land and a multitude of descendants but does not place any stipulations (meaning it was unconditional) on Abraham for the covenant’s fulfillment.
By contrast, Genesis 17 contains the covenant of circumcision (conditional).
- To make of Abraham a great nation and bless Abraham and make his name great so that he will be a blessing, to bless those who bless him and curse him who curses him and all peoples on earth would be blessed through Abraham.[Gen 12:1–3]
- To give Abraham’s descendants all the land from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates.[Gen 15:18–21] Later, this land came to be referred to as the Promised Land (see map) or the Land of Israel.
- To make Abraham the father of many nations and of many descendants and give “the whole land of Canaan” to his descendants.[Gen 17:2–9] Circumcision is to be the permanent sign of this everlasting covenant with Abraham and his male descendants and is known as the brit milah.[Gen 17:9–14]
Covenants in biblical times were often sealed by severing an animal, with the implication that the party who breaks the covenant will suffer a similar fate. In Hebrew, the verb meaning to seal a covenant translates literally as “to cut”. It is presumed by Jewish scholars that the removal of the foreskin symbolically represents such a sealing of the covenant.
According to Weinfeld, the Abrahamic covenant represents a covenant of grant, which binds the suzerain. It is the obligation of the master to his servant and involves gifts given to individuals who were loyal serving their masters. In the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15, it is God who is the suzerain who commits himself and swears to keep the promise. In the covenant there are procedures for taking the oath, which involve a smoking oven and a blazing torch. There are many similarities between Genesis 15 and the Abba-El deed. In Genesis 15 and similarly in the Abba-El deed, it is the superior party who places himself under oath. The oaths in both, moreover, involve a situation wherein the inferior party delivers the animals while the superior party swears the oath.
The Abrahamic covenant is part of a tradition of covenantal sacrifices that dates back to the third millennium BC. The animals that are slaughtered in the covenant in Genesis 15 are considered a sacrificial offering. And it is that covenant which preserves the sacrificial element alongside the symbolic act.