This morning we continued our studies on the life of Abraham, looking at the covenants God made with him in Genesis 15 and 17. A covenant is defined as an ‘agreement, contract, pact or treaty’, an official word often associated with the law (the Latin word is ‘testament’, as in ‘last will and testament’ and, of course, the ‘Old Testament’ and ‘New Testament’ of the Bible.) There is a pattern to the covenants found in the Bible: the person making the covenant describes himself and what he has done and promises to do, and there is a list of obligations between the two parties.

Covenants can’t be divorced from relationships and promise. In Genesis 15, God appears to Abram again saying ‘Do not be afraid. I am your shield, your very great reward’ (Gen 15:1) and Abram talks to God about his big dilemma: how can this promise of God come true if Abram does not have a son and heir? God promises him he will have as many descendants as he can count stars in the sky, but Abram seeks confirmation (Gen 15:8 – I’m grateful that God listens and answers our questions and does not withhold confirmation from us!)

God’s response (Gen 15:9-11) talks about a menagerie, it seems! – a heifer, a ram, a goat, a dove and two pigeons! This can seem bizarre to us, but the underlying meaning of the word ‘covenant’ comes from the Hebrew ‘to cut‘ and the ancient custom was to cut or divide animals into two parts with the contracting parties passing between them. The underlying message of this was: “May I be torn apart like these animals if I fail to uphold my part of this covenant.”

What God is doing here (Gen 15:12-21) is indeed giving Abram the answer to his question as to how he could know that God’s promises to him would come true. He repeats and extends the promise, talking about this land Abram and his descendants will possess. Most commentators believe that verse 17 refers to the presence of God Himself: ‘a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces’, rather like the pillar of fire that would later guide the Israelites on their wilderness wanderings. God himself passes between the animals. God is here, confirming His promise. God’s presence is the thing that always makes all the difference.

Abram’s obedience does not seem particularly relevant here (he is in a deep sleep), but in Genesis 17 it is his ready response to God’s commands to circumcise all the males in his household which strikes us. This covenant is established some years later, when Abram is 99, just before the birth of Isaac. Again, this chapter starts with a declaration of who God is: ‘I am God Almighty’ (Gen 17:1) – El Shaddai, a further revelation of God’s character, another layer revealed to Abram through another name. Abram’s name is changed to Abraham (Father of Many Nations, affirming God’s promise) and circumcision is here given as the sign of the covenant that already exists between God and Abraham. It is an outward sign of an ongoing relationship, not the ‘proof’ in itself as it later became to many Jews (see Romans 2:29).

Abraham is still struggling to believe that God will do what He has promised: “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?”’ (Gen 17:17) He’s still wanting to sort things out his way, seeking God’s blessing on Ishmael. But he is ready to obey God, even though he does not understand Him. In that, he is our example: we often do not understand, but we can still choose to obey.

All the covenants in the Old Testament are shadows, however, of the new covenant to come. Jeremiah 31:31-34 hints at this and the book of Hebrews makes explicit the connection between the two covenants. Hebrews 8:6 reminds us that ‘the new covenant is established on better promises’. It reminds us of this ‘new covenant’ promised by God in Jeremiah 31:31-34. It tells us of the superiority of this new covenant over the old covenant, which could only ultimately hint at what would become possible through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the ‘mediator of a new covenant’ (Hebrews 9:15, 12:24), not the sacrifice of heifers and animals. It reminds us that Jesus ‘sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.’ (Hebrews 10: 9-10)

Every covenant was founded on the principle of the shedding of blood and of sacrifice. At the Last Supper, Jesus taught His disciples: ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’ (Matt 26:28) His blood, shed for us on the cross, ‘speaks a better word than the blood of Abel’ (Hebrews 12:24) and acts as the fulfilment of all that was promised through every other covenant which came before it.

“Your blood speaks a better word
Than all the empty claims I’ve heard upon this earth.
Speaks righteousness for me
And stands in my defence:
Jesus, it’s Your blood.” (‘Nothing But the Blood’, Matt Redman)

‘Nothing But the Blood’, Matt Redman