Definition of the Abrahamic Covenant
The Abrahamic Covenant is the first unveiling of God’s plan to have a people and to take them into his land. This covenant embraces both the Old and the New Covenants. The Old Covenant, made with Israel on Mount Sinai, functions as a temporary picture of what the New Covenant, the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, is all about. From the point of view of the Old Testament the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant is found in the Old Covenant. From the point of view of the New Testament the fulfillment of this covenant is found in the New Covenant.
The first mention of the word covenant with regard to Abraham is found in Genesis 17.
I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.
But the first mention of the covenant with regard to its content is found in Genesis 12.
The Lord had said 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 your 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.”
Here we have God interpreting his own word. We would not know that Genesis 12:1-3 is speaking of a covenantal relationship between Abraham and God unless we were told that it was so.
God is promising to make Abram (for his name had not yet been changed to Abraham) into a great nation. It is Israel under the Old Covenant that is called the children of Abraham (Psalm 105:6, Matthew 3:9, Acts 13:26). The promise of the land of Canaan, which will be the home of the children of Abraham, will not be discussed in detail until Genesis 15, but it is discussed in brief form in Genesis 12:7 where God told Abram that his offspring would be given the land of Canaan.
The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To our offspring I will give this land. So he built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him.
God next says that he will bless Abram. This blessing is described as making Abram’s name great. This can be ultimately seen in the description of Abraham as the “father of all who believe.” Abraham becomes the example of what true faith is all about. For us who live on this side of Pentecost the blessing of Abraham is all about the gospel message going out to the entire world. It is also true that God blessed Abraham physically with many descendants. This is fulfilled primarily through Isaac and Jacob and the nation of Israel, but also through his other son Ishmael and Jacob’s brother Esau. The ultimate fulfillment is found in the true people of God, the church. They are the true “children of Abraham.” The promise that God would curse all those who curse Abraham can be understood first in its most basic sense as referring to God’s treatment of anyone who is against Abraham. Ultimately, to reject Abraham is to reject the God of Abraham, and this results in eternal punishment, which is the ultimate curse of God.
It is only when we get to chapters 15 and 17 of Genesis that we get a clear understanding that Abraham was brought into a covenantal relationship with the God of heaven and earth. Without passages like Genesis 17:1-2 and Galatians 3:15-16 we would not be able to say that Genesis 12:1-9 is telling us about the content of a covenant that God made with Abraham.
It is with Genesis 15 that we find the covenant between God and Abraham being formally established. The chapter begins with the promise of God to provide an heir for Abraham since he and Sarah (at this point in the story Sarah’s name was Sarai) were not able to have children. God not only promises to give Abraham and heir, but through that heir he would give him many descendants. This is fulfilled through Abraham’s son Isaac and the nation of Israel, which was descended through the line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In addition to the promise of an heir and many descendants Abraham is also promised the land of Canaan.
It is at this point in the story that Abraham asks a question regarding the promise of the land, “O Sovereign L, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?” that God takes an oath where he promises to curse himself if he does not keep his promise to Abraham. This promise is called a self-maledictory oath. God is calling a curse on himself if he does not do what he promised. This oath is visibly portrayed to us in a ceremony.
So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.” Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. Then the birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away. As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure. When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates—the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Raphaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”
When God calls on himself a curse if he does not keep his promise he is saying that the death of the animals functions as a picture of what will happen to him if he does not keep his word. We do know that God cannot die. But this covenant making ceremony illustrates the fact that it is not remotely possible for God not to keep his word.
What can we say regarding the significance of the animals that were used to establish this covenant? It is true that the kinds of animals that were used were the same types that were used to perform the sacrifices of the Old Covenant. Beyond this observation not much can be said. I would only be guessing for there is no explanation in Scripture as to the significance of these particular animals that were used. What I just said would also apply to the description of Abram driving away the birds of prey from the animals prepared for the covenant ceremony.
Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.
Gordon Wenham, in his commentary on Genesis interprets the birds of prey as the Gentile nations who are seeking to attack Israel. Abram’s actions of driving away the birds of prey are a picture of God’s care for Israel. While this may be a plausible explanation I am not aware of any Scripture that could be used to prove that this is what God intended by this account. It does seem as though Wenham is making an educated guess, which is still just a guess, and nothing ought to be established on the basis of a guess.
What is the significance of the age of the animals, 3 years old, that Abram was required to provide? Peter Gentry quotes Wenham’s commentary that the age of the animals corresponds to the generations of Israelites that were in Egypt before the exodus under Moses. It is possible that this would be its meaning. We find that the age of the sacrificial animal can refer to the historical situation of the one doing the sacrifice. This appears to be so in the account of Gideon’s sacrifice of a bull in Judges 6:1,25, though the translation for the meaning of the phrase, “the one seven years old” could also be translated to mean “mature bull.” The problem is that the account in Genesis 15 would have to be saying that each generation is to be understood to be 100 years in length. I am not aware of any other passage in Scripture that would allow us to understand a generation in this sense. At the end of the day you still only have something that could be probably true. If our Lord wanted us to know what the age of the sacrifice meant he would have told us. I can only assume that the meaning of the age of the sacrificial animals is not really that important.
Finally, we come to the smoking firepot and the blazing torch that are used to signify God in the covenant making ceremony. Here we do have more biblical information to help us understand the significance of these items. I am indebted to Peter Gentry for his work on this issue.
In the vision given to Abram, a “smoking firepot and a blazing torch” pass between the dead pieces. What would these represent? When we remember that Genesis was a book given to the Israelite people at the time of entering the land of Canaan, we can see from that perspective, i.e., after the exodus event, that smoke and fire are symbols of God’s presence. The angel of the Lord first appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush (Ex. 13:21). At Mount Sinai, his presence is manifested by smoke and fire (Ex. 19:18; 20:18).
 Genesis 17:2 NIV
 Genesis 12:1-3 NIV
 The name change from Abram to Abraham does not take place until Genesis 17:5.
 Genesis 12:7
 Romans 4:11 NIV
 In the New Covenant era the believers are understood to be the true children of Abraham. The nation of Israel, the physical children of Abraham, functioned as a temporary, unbelieving, picture of the people of God. Galatians 3:8, Acts 3:25
 Genesis 21:14-21 NIV
 Genesis 36 NIV
 Galatians 3:29, Romans 9:6-9 NIV
 John 3:36, Matthew 25:46, Jude 7-8, Revelation 20:15 NIV
 Genesis 17:15-16 NIV
 Genesis 15:9-21 NIV
 1 Timothy 1:17 NIV
 In Leviticus 9:1-4 we find a list of various animals that were to be used in the various offerings in the setting apart Aaron and his sons as priests. You can also examine the types of animals used in the various offerings in the first seven chapters of Leviticus.
 Genesis 15:10-11 NIV
 Gordon J. Wenham, Word Bible Commentary: Genesis 1-15, Thomas Nelson, 1987, page 332.
 Gentry and Wellum, page 252.
 Judges 6:25 NIV
 Gentry and Wellum, page 251.