Israel: three promises to Abraham and one to Moses

(first published in the Christian Graduate, 29.2, June 1976, pp.46-48)      Web Version January 2,000

by Robert Brow

C 1 - To your descendants I will give this land.

C 2 - I will make of you a great nation

C 3 - In you all families of the earth shall be blessed

We often speak sloppily as if there was only one promise to Abraham. We then add to confusion by mixing up Abraham's covenant with the agreement made with Moses at Sinai. Actually we must distinguish three quite different strands of promise to Abraham, which I will label C 1, C 2 and C 3. Later we will need to consider what was agreed upon with Moses under C 4.

The first promise to Abraham relates to territory (Genesis 12:1), the second speaks of physical descendants (12:2), and the third assures people of all nations that they can be blessed as spiritual children of Abraham (12:3 RSV margin). These three promises are repeated again and again to underline their immense importance.

After Lot had chosen for himself the much more fertile Jordan valley, God reminded Abram that [C 1] "All the lands which you see I will give to you and to your descendants for ever" and [C 2] "I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth" (Genesis 13:15,16).

As time went by Abram complained that he still had no heir, so the Lord took him outside, showed him the stars, and said [C 2] "So shall your descendants be" (Genesis 15:9).

Then there was that awesome scene when the sun had gone down on the five animals laid out by Abram as a covenant sacrifice. As the flaming torch passed between the pieces God spelled out the extent of the promised land: [C 1] "To your descendants I will give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river" (Genesis 15:18. N.B. This is the river Jordan, not the Euphrates).

A few years later, when Abram's name was changed to Abraham, the explanation is that he is to be the spiritual father of many nations: [C 3] "Your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations" (Genesis 17:5). The fruitfulness of his physical descendants [C 2] and their occupation of the land [C 1] was also re-affirmed on this occasion (17:6-8).

We should note in passing that the Arab nations descended from Ishmael are among the physical descendants of Abraham according to the promses made to both Hagar and Abraham (Genesis 16:10, 17:18-20 - see the book Ishmael the Arab). As a result of Abraham's plea, 'O that Ishmael might live in thy sight!' both the children of Israel and the children of Ishmael are to be multiplied.

C 2 and C 3 are both repeated together on the occasion of two major turning-points in Abraham's life. First they are given as a reason for being given God's plan for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, 'Seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and in him all nations of the earth shall be blessed' (Genesis 18:18 RSV margin). And then again the angel of the Lord reiterates the promises after Abraham has been willing to offer up his son and heir (Genesis 22:18).

Presumably Abraham made these three promises known to his children and grandchildren. In any case it is extremely significant that C 1, C 2, and C 3, in that order, are reaffirmed to Isaac when he was tempted to go back into Egypt, and to Jacob at Bethel as he fled from the wrath of Esau (Genesis 26:3,4: 28:13, 14). The fact that these promises are carefully repeated to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob should make clear that C 1, C 2 and C 3 are of the utmost importance in understanding God's purposes.

We know that C 1 was first fulfilled when Joshua entered the land according to Moses' instructions: 'you shall go with this people into the land which the Lord has sworn to their fathers' (Deuteronomy 31:7,23). The land was lost six centuries later when first the northern kingdom and then Judah went into exile. There was a return to the promised land after the seventy years of exile. And then another 600 years later the land was again lost to the children of Israel when Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70. The return to that land in 1948 is therefore a third occupation according to the promise.

According to Moses' own estimation of numbers the C 2 promise was already fulfilled by the end of the forty years in the wilderness: 'The Lord your God has multiplied you, and behold, you are this day as the stars of heaven for multitude' (Deuteronomy 1:10; 10:22). Whatever we may think of God's plan for the future of the Jewish people, it is quite obvious that the direct descendants of Abraham through Jacob have already been miraculously kept as a distinct nation for the past 3,500 years.

Whereas C 1 and C 2 refer to physical descendants of Abraham, C 3 can have its fulfilment only in the spiritual heirs of the covenant. In quoting Genesis 12:3 and 18:18 I used the RSV margin translation, ' in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed', because this was the translation adopted by Paul.' And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, "In you shall all the nations be blessed. So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham who had faith' (Galatians 3:8,9). In Genesis 22:18 and 26:4, where the Hebrew tense is reflexive, 'All the nations will bless themselves in your seed', we must presumably understand 'seek a blessing', 'find a blessing for themselves', or some such meaning which suits the New Testament fulfilment.

Paul gives a careful explanation of this promise for all nations in the fourth chapter of Romans. On the one hand Abraham is the father of the true believers among the circumcised (Romans 4:12). He was also destined to be the father of peoples of many nations because God had planned 'to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised' (Romans 4:11). In both cases 'it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants - not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of us all, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations"' (Romans 4:16, 17, quoting C 3).

What then of Moses? In his case we need to distinguish a fourth covenant promise. It is an agreement whereby Israel is to be a people of God, a priestly nation:

C 4 If you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:5,6).

The duties of this priestly nation were set out in the ten commandments and in various ceremonies and civil laws (Exodus 20:12, 33). Their constitution was written in a book, and sealed in blood. 'He took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, "All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient." And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, "Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you"' (Exodus 24:7,8).

Now it is important to see that the New Testament is only new in relation to the covenant made with Moses. It is not new in relation to the promises made with Abraham. The newness is a new constitution for the people of God. This was already clear in the prophecy of Jeremiah. 'Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt' (Jeremiah 31:31-32, clearly referring to C 4).

In quoting these very words from Jeremiah the Epistle to the Hebrews declares that the old covenant is now obsolete. That C 4 covenant had provided a priesthood and tabernacle to serve as 'a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary' (Hebrews 8:1-9). To replace it Jesus has instituted a new C 4 covenant with Himself as the High Priest of the true tabernacle in heaven, and His own blood as the fulfilment of the animal sacrifices. The new kingdom of Christian (Messianic) priests (1 Peter 2:9) is no longer to administer a merely written law. They are 'to be ministers of a new covenant, not in the written code but in the Spirit' (2 Corinthians 3:6). The Spirit-taught ministry of the new people of God is to replace the previous teaching ministry of the Old Testament priesthood. 'This is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts . . . for they shall all know me' (Jeremiah 31:33-34, see Hebrews 8:10-13).

The New Testament therefore claims to be new in relation to the C 4 covenant with Moses. The firm promises to Abraham cannot be annulled. As Paul says, 'the law, which came four hundred and thirty years afterward does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the covenant void' (Galatians 3:17). What Israel after the flesh rejected was the new Exodus and Pentecost and the resultanttermination of the C 4 Mosaic covenant. Jews have never rejected, and there is no need for them to abandon, the full force of the covenants with Abraham.

What then, of the future of the physical descendants of Abraham? Paul does not contemplate the termination of C 1 and C 2. What he does discuss in Romans is the future of his own Jewish people as the priestly people of God under C 4. The continuing people of God are viewed as an olive tree. The Jews who refused to believe the Messiah's plan for a world-wide church are broken off. The breaking off was visibly obvious in the destruction of the temple in AD 70. No trace of the old Aaronic priesthood was allowed to remain. And Paul is willing to stake his whole ministry on the fact that believing Gentiles are grafted into the continuing olive tree (Romans 11:17-20). But we should beware. The grafting in was by faith. Lack of faith resultsin being cut off. Examples of churches being cut off in this way can be seen in the pages of history - Ephesus and all the churches of Asia Minor, the huge churches of North Africa, and no doubt others are in the same danger today.

Although Paul was excited about his ministry to the Gentiles, he was quite sure that God would one day restore the Jewish nation into the olive tree of God's people. 'God has the power to graft them in again' (Romans 11:23). The mystery of the new covenant under C 4 will involve an eventual softening and re-grafting of the children of Israel after the flesh into the continuing church: 'I want you to understand this mystery, brethren: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles comes in, and so all Israel will be saved' (Romans 11:25-26). Here the saving is not saving through faith under C 3, but saving for priestly service under C 4.

I like to think that we shall soon see that glad restoration. What would it involve? I can picture whole synagogues recognizing Jesus as they continue to be Jews after the flesh, retaining their own culture and synagogue organization. There would be no need to deny their Jewish heritage. Modern missions no longer ask Latins, or Africans, or any other race to abandon what is true and good in their background. All tribes and nations must organize churches that suit their history and temperament. Why, then, shouldJews be asked to deny C 2 or even C 1 when they believe? As we have proved, it is not the promises of Abraham which are abrogated in the New Testament.

How then does the C 2 promise concerning the land refer to the expected restoration of Jews to the people of God under the new C 4? Scripture does not tell us that one must precede the other. What is significant is that continued occupation of the land is contingent on obedience. 'You shall keep his statues and his commandments, which I command you this day, that it may go well with you, and with your children after you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which the Lord your God gives you for ever' (Deuteronomy 4:40; see also 5:33, 6:3, 11:8-21). We should not assume that Israel after the flesh must necessarily remain in the land that they now occupy. They have already been removed from that land on two occasions in their long history. God is in no hurry by our standards.

What is significant just now is that Israel as a nation in the promised land is facing an incredible confusion of voices. The strictly orthodox claim that only a return to the old C 4 Mosaic covenant can save them. The secularists assume that force of arms gave them the land, and it is force of arms that must keep it. Having been such a vehicle of blessing to others, is it not time for this ancient people to read their title deeds again. The only guarantee of the land, or their continuance as a people, is the God who promised both C 1 and C 2. If all nations of the world are to find God's blessings under C 3, how else is this to take place except through the Messiah? And how explain that millions of people of all nations read the Old Testament in their churches, and have found their blessings through the God of Abraham? Asking such questions leads inevitably to the real point at issue between Jews and their Christian cousins. Is the new covenant instituted by Jesus the God-ordained replacement for the C 4 covenant with Moses?

As we re-read these ago-old promises we may not like the kindness and severity of God (Romans 11:22). The fact is that three millenia of history give sufficient proof that the God worshipped by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob keeps his covenants and has a long, long memory. The continuing disputes about the promised land, and the disputes that seem so important to our unfaithful churches, both seem trivial in the light of God's long-term purposes. We are foolish to think we have a better idea. Happiness resides in reading, believing, and acting on the promises of God, and that is something both Jews and Gentiles could agree on.

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