As the story of Scripture progresses through Genesis, we see the scene shift from global chaos, sin, and judgment, to single in on a single man named Abram (later changed to Abraham). We don’t know a lot about Abram’s background, other than that he is from “Ur of the Chaldeans” (Gen 11:28; possibly in modern-day Southeast Iraq) and that his father, his family, and his brother’s family moved from Ur to Haran (probably near Northern Syria). As far as we are aware, Abram would have come from a pagan background, not worshipping Yahweh.
However, the story states to us that one day the Lord appeared to Abram and told him to leave Haran and his father’s household, and go to an undisclosed land that the Lord would make known to him (Gen 12:1). This is then followed by a promise that the Lord would make Abram into a great nation with a great nation, and that Abram and his descendants would be a channel through which great blessing would come to all the nations of the earth (vv. 2–3).
This promise of land, offspring (descendants), and blessing is the beginning of what is known as the Abrahamic Covenant, an incredibly important promise to Abram, Israel as a whole, and the New Testament church. This is not the first covenant God has made with people in Scripture (see Noah in Genesis 9), but, as we will see once we get into the New Testament, this is important because it lays the groundwork for the hope of a Savior who will bring hope and blessing to all nations.
When Abram sets out to follow the Lord, he is seventy-five years old, and he and his wife have no children (Gen 11:30; 12:4). So for him to trust in the promises of the Lord that include becoming a great nation shows great faith on his part. As they move on, the Lord comes to him again and says his offspring who will inherit the land of Canaan will as numerous as the dust of the earth (Gen 13:16), and the stars of the sky (Gen 15:5). If you read the whole story of Abraham, this point of the promise is a cause for great wrestling and tension, and even the cause of mistakes.
But Abram trusts God to fulfill his promises, and the Lord counts that faith as righteousness (Gen 15:6). This verse is crucial to the concept of salvation by grace through faith that we believe today. Paul picks up on this in some of his writings as well, showing that just as Abram was considered righteous because of his faith in God’s promises, so we are considered righteous by faith in Jesus’ work on the cross.
The formal covenant with Abram comes in the rest of Genesis 15. The Lord reminds Abram of His promises and who He is, and then tells him to take some animals and cut them in half as a ceremonial covenant ritual. This was an oath of sorts: according to this custom, each party would walk between the animals as if to say, “If I break my end of the covenant, may I become like one of these.” It was a severe promise to make.
The interesting part of this all is that the Lord puts Abram to sleep, and only the Lord passes between the animals. By doing this, the Lord showed Abram that all of these promises have nothing to do with himself. Rather, in this particular covenant, the Lord is the only one with promises to keep, and nothing that Abram will do will stop his descendants from inheriting the land (even though they will first endure slavery for four hundred years), becoming great, and channeling God’s blessing to the whole world.
Abram’s covenant and story doesn’t end here. We’ll pick it up again after Easter, and we’ll see that he still made some mistakes, but in spite of these, the Lord remains faithful to his promises, and he forgives when we mess up and return to him in faith. Abram’s God, and our God, is a God who keeps His promises, and a God of never-ending love. What a great truth!