I was discussing the covenant between God and Abraham in Genesis 12, 15 and 17 with some of my students. I said that Abraham’s covenant can be summed up as ‘I will be your God and you (and your descendants) will be my people’ but they were very politely (they’re first years) disagreeing with me. Reading Genesis 12, 15 and 17, one gets the impression that the Promised Land is the focal point of God’s promises to Abraham. For example, it is the subject of a purpose statement in chapter 15:
He also said to him, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.” But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, how can I know that I shall gain possession of it?” (15:7-8)
This is followed by a covenant-making ceremony that confirms the sincerity of God’s promises regarding the land. Such passages would suggest that land is therefore the central element of God’s covenant with Abraham.
Seeing as the covenants in the rest of scripture, including Moses’ Covenant, the prophecies concerning the New Covenant and all later reflection upon covenant are share the promise ‘I will be your God and you will be my people’, I had presented this as evidence, but it was suggested that I am illegitimately reading later texts back into the Abraham stories.
There are at least two main reasons why the Abrahamic Covenant is about relationship and not land:
1. The Contextual Reason
Because we treat Genesis 1-11 as a Prologue, and perhaps simply because we’re prompted by chapter divisions to set hard lines between paragraphs, we often divorce Abraham’s stories in ch12 onwards from the chapters that precede him. The Prologue is key though, because it shows us Eden, destroyed as it was by the intrusion of rebellion and death, as well as introducing us to the promise of the ‘Seed of the Woman’ who would undo those evils. Abraham and his ‘seed’ (or ‘descendants’ and the English often renders it) emerge as clear candidates for the means by which mankind might be allowed to return to Eden. Of course, Eden is God’s original land and a pattern for the land promised to Abraham, but the important thing about Eden was clearly not real estate, but the life in the presence of God that it facilitated. Abraham and his ‘seed’ then are part of the solution to the loss of life with God. The promises given him (including land) are directed towards facilitating relationship with God again.
2. The Abraham Allusion
A more direct reason why the Abrahamic Covenant should be understood as relational arises out of the first verse of chapter 12. We often ignore the first verse, because the promises are listed from verse 2 onwards, and they seem to command pride of place. But in verse 1, God commands Abraham to: ‘Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you’. He’s being asked to trust God and to go to a new place and to leave his family behind. There clearly is a relational element even just in this, but I think that it’s even stronger if it is meant to read as an allusion to the marriage memory verse from Genesis 2:24:
“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.”
In marriage, a man and a woman leave their parents and form a new household. Abraham is commanded to leave his father’s household and to go to a new place belonging to God. If the allusion is intended, then verse 1 is not merely asking Abraham to take a journey. The allusion is a shorthand way of saying that Abraham was being invited to a new relationship: a new household belonging to God.
So even though the explicit promises of God have to do with land and descendants, that is all based on the implicit foundation of divine-human relationship. The explicit promises merely facilitate that.