The Significance of Abraham, Part I

Calvin Culver

We will not detail here the events of Abraham’s life; they are detailed in the pages of Genesis. Instead I will concentrate on the significance of his life.

By far the most significant events of Abraham’s life center around the covenant established with him by God. The record of this covenant can be found in the 12th chapter of Genesis, vv. 1-3 (NIV):

The Lord had said to Abraham, “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 you 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.”

This is the text of the Abrahamic Covenant. These promises are reiterated by God in 13:15, 16. We will begin our look at this covenant by outlining its major features.

The text of Genesis 12 marks the first time in the pages of Scripture that we encounter the covenantal agreement, and is confirmed as a covenant by God himself in 17:2 and 17:7. A covenant was a common binding legal agreement in the ancient world, though it is relatively unknown today. It is a distinctive form of agreement. Non-negotiable, it is an agreement in which one party sets all the conditions and makes all the promises; the other party can only accept or reject the terms, similar to the stipulations of a will.

In Genesis 12, God establishes the terms of the covenant and makes the promises; it is up to Abraham to accept the covenant or to reject it. The first promise God makes to Abraham is that “I will make you into a great nation” — that is, his descendants would become a distinct, recognizable entity, known far and wide. Abraham’s family, God has promised was to become a very special family.

In addition, God promises Abraham he will give his descendants a land in which to settle. This land — the land of Canaan  would belong to the Abrahamic nation exclusively and uniquely. These two promises — the promise of land and of a great people to settle there — are reiterated by God in chapter 13 and expanded upon in chapter 15.

These were the material and physical benefits of the covenant. But there was a spiritual side to the covenant as well, though it is doubtful that Abraham himself would have recognized such a spiritual/physical dichotomy in the structure of the covenant. Certainly no such dichotomy was intended.

The spiritual significance of the Abrahamic covenant was this: here, for the first time in history, God, the Lord and Creator of the universe, has in love, in mercy and in grace identified himself intimately with man. The God who had been offended by the sins of mankind, against whom man had rebelled, now says to man “I will be your God”. The “your” in this passage is in the plural, indicating that God intended not just Abraham but all his family and his descendants as well, including, as Hebrews makes clear, us today.

Thus, there is to be a new relationship, a relationship between God and man. But God will use this relationship to spiritually benefit other people as well. But the first requirement of the covenant
relationship was that Abraham was to abandon his other gods and serve God alone, first and foremost by living as if all that this new God had promised was already accomplished.

But how was Abraham to do this? To abandon the gods of his fathers, in Ur where so many gods were served, was a difficult command indeed. The decision was made, then, that Abraham was to leave Ur, the chief city of the world, and to journey west, to a land forgotten by time and history, where he was to settle and establish God’s new family. This, indeed, was the most dramatic example of the faith of Abraham found in the pages of Scripture. When at last he arrived in
Canaan, he marked the end of his travels by bowing down and building to God’s glory an altar of worship. He repeats this act again at a later date, thus signifying that once and for all he had abandoned his former gods for the glory of the one true God.

And he begins to live as if all the promises God had made had already come true. In Ur he had been a member of a clan, traveling around with his father Terah. Once in Canaan, however, he has assumed the attitude and life of a clan chief, though he had no clan. He commands Lot in all he is to do. He enters into negotiations with the inhabitants of the land. And he begins to call himself “father of multitudes”, though he was yet father of none. And when God asks
Abraham to throw all this away, to plunge his dagger into the heart of the promises which God had made, to sacrifice the offspring of his own
loins, the symbol and physical reality of all that God had done, he does not hesitate, but moves to obey. This is why the New Testament looks on Abraham as the great example of faith. With nothing but the word of God to guide him, he abandons all he had known – his homeland, his religion, his family, his culture — and moves to the backwaters of civilization. And, with only the voice of the Lord as his assurance, he assumes his position as the head of family of God.

And yet this covenant was no empty promise. Its central concept — the new relationship between God and man — together with its central command — to carry the word of this God and his salvation as a blessing to all the world — is a theme played throughout the pages of the Bible. For on the night of his death the Lord took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” Jesus set himself the task of ratifying and fulfilling the covenant that had been made with Abraham nearly two thousand years before. And, as the new heavens and earth are birthed at the end of history, as God finishes his work of regeneration and the pages of history draw to a close, God declares, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” And, through the covenant, the promise made by God to Abraham and to us all will be fulfilled and we shall dwell in the presence of the Lord forever.

Calvin Culver

Computers for Christ – Chicago