Terah was born in the line of Shem and was likely among the people scattered at the tower of Babel (see Noah to Abraham family chart). Yahweh drew Abram, Terah’s son, out of the scattering to begin restoring the image of Yahweh in him. Yahweh took him from one of the judged nations and made him into a new nation that would belong to Yahweh. This was Yahweh’s act of grace and redemption in the midst of the sin and judgment at the tower of Babel.

When Yahweh came to him, Abram was living in the city of Ur, worshiping the Babylonian gods (Josh. 24:2). What would make Abram abandon all his gods and follow after this new and unknown god into a foreign land? First, in the ancient Near East one’s worth was found in the ability to have children. The fact that Abram and Sarai at such an old age could not have children would have been viewed as a judgment from the gods for some sin that they had committed. This may have caused them to be rejected by many in the community. Second, the gods used people and only blessed those who had somehow proven themselves or earned the blessing. For Yahweh to even talk to Abram, let alone offer him a promise of children and protection if he would only follow Him, would have been completely foreign to anything Abram had ever experienced.

The Promises to Abraham

Yahweh came to Abram and made him four promises, contingent on Abram leaving his home and following Him (Gen. 12:1-3).

The Promises

  • He would be given a land of his own (between El-Arish and Euphrates rivers).
  • He would be given many children who would become a great nation.
  • He would receive personal blessings and protection.
  • The world would be blessed through him.

Notice the requirement of obeying Yahweh in order to receive the blessings. If Abram had refused to leave, then he would have never received the blessings of Yahweh.

These promises were immediately tested in three ways. First, Abram had to actually leave his family and homeland (Gen. 12). Though Abram may not have had many reasons to stay in his own land, he did have his father Terah, and Yahweh never told him where or how far away the new land was, only to go (see Terah to Isaac family chart ). This was an incredible test of faith in this new God who had just spoken to him. Yes, Yahweh had revealed Himself to Abram in a way that no other god had, but could this new God actually offer Abram what He had promised? Yahweh not only speaks to Abram in Ur, but He then guided him into the land of Canaan. When he gets to Canaan, Abram ends up settling in two major locations. In Shechem and in Bethel he builds altars to Yahweh.

The second test was a famine in the land after Abram arrived, and without a command from Yahweh, Abram went to Egypt for safety (Gen. 13). There, he feared that pharaoh would take his wife, but Yahweh demonstrated that the pharaoh of Egypt was no match for Him and returned Abram to Canaan.

In the third test, the kings of Mesopotamia attacked the kings of southern Canaan and took Abram’s nephew Lot (Gen. 14). But Yahweh empowered Abram with his 318 men, and they took Lot back.

Yahweh demonstrated through these tests that He is a God who can speak to Abram, defeat kings, and is not limited to a certain region. The other gods had power only in their own particular lands. But Yahweh demonstrated that He is sovereign in all lands by acting in Mesopotamia, Canaan, and Egypt. This was a God who could and would deliver what He had promised. This was the God in whom Abram placed his faith.

The Abrahamic Covenant

In Gen. 15 Abram needed assurance that the promises of Yahweh would be honored. It had been several years, and Abram still had no child. To assure Abram of His promises, Yahweh made a blood covenant with Abram.

In the ancient Near East, when two kings would make a covenant with each other, they would both offer up an animal for sacrifice. They would cut the animals in half, laying a half on either side of a pathway. Then, one would carry a smoking pot and the other a flaming torch, and they would walk between the animals. They would each then swear that they would honor the covenant—or that what had happened to the cleaved animals would happen to them.

Yahweh made a covenant with Abram in the same way. Abram was put into a deep sleep because he could not physically walk with Yahweh and survive. Some have said that because he did not walk with Yahweh the covenant was unconditional. However, this does not seem to fit the text (the covenant does become unconditional, but not until Gen. 22). Abram sees both the smoking pot and the flaming torch, which represent two parties, not one. And, most importantly, Yahweh still uses the language of a conditional covenant after this event. In Gen. 17:1-2 Yahweh says that if Abram walks with Him, then He would confirm His covenant. This imperative to keep the commands in relation to the covenant is repeated again in Gen. 17:9. That obedience is necessary for the covenant to continue and that it still needs to be confirmed suggest that at this point the covenant is conditional.

The Requirements

  • Walk with Yahweh (obey Him).
  • Be blameless (repent of sins quickly).

The Blessings

  • He would be given a land of his own.
  • He would be given many children who would become a great nation.
  • He would receive personal blessings and protection.
  • The world would be blessed through him.

It was during the cutting of this covenant that Yahweh informed Abraham that his descendants would go into Egypt as slaves for four hundred years. However, they would come out of slavery with the wealth of Egypt, and then Yahweh would make them into a great nation (Gen. 15:13-14; Ex. 12:36).

The Covenant Sign

In Gen. 17 Yahweh came to Abram once again to assure him that He would fulfill the promises He made. He did this by first giving Himself a new name, then by changing Abram and Sari’s identities, and then by giving them a sign to further bind the covenant.

First Yahweh reveals Himself to Abram as El Shaddai (Gen. 17:1), which has been commonly translated as “almighty God,” yet this is too vague of an understanding. Though the origin and meaning of the name is uncertain, it is clear from its context that it carries the idea of Yahweh as the source of fertility and life (Gen. 17:1-8; 29:31; 30:22-24; 35:11-18; 43:14).

In the ancient Near East one’s name communicated personality and identity. Often people would either name their child after themselves or wait several months so that the name they chose would communicate something about the child’s personality and character. Abram’s name meant “exalted father,” most likely referring to his father Terah. However, Yahweh changed it to Abraham, which means “father of a multitude” (Gen. 17:5). Yahweh makes the promises of the covenant a part of Abraham’s very identity. He then changes Sarai’s name, which means, “my princess,” to Sarah, meaning “royal princess from whom kings will come.” Abraham’s new name emphasized the multitude of the seed, whereas Sarah’s new name emphasized the royal nature of the line. Finally, Yahweh gives them the name Isaac for their son, which means “he laughs,” a shortened form of “may God laugh,” signifying divine approval.

The sign for the covenant was the circumcision of Abraham and all of his male descendants. Circumcision is connected to the idea of the seed of life (Isaac), was more hygienic, and was a protection against the child sacrifice of the surrounding Canaanite culture. In this Yahweh shows His interest in blessing Abraham and his descendants but also in protecting them physically and spiritually.

Isaac and Ishmael

The conflict between Yahweh’s kingdom and Satan was seen most clearly in Abraham’s life through the birth and life of Ishmael (see Terah to Isaac family chart).

It was Abraham’s lack of understanding and faith in Yahweh that even led to the birth of Ishmael. Yahweh promised that Abraham and Sarah would have a son, but they decided they could not wait for Yahweh and instead produced a son through Abraham and Sarah’s maidservant, which was legal in the ancient Near East (Gen. 16:1-3).

Once Ishmael was born, he became an instrument of Satan in order to cause conflict in Abraham’s family. First, he became a reason for his mother Hagar to want to replace Sarah, since Hagar could have children (Gen. 16:4-6). Second, Ishmael himself would begin to mock and attack Isaac. Hagar and Ishmael became not only a source of conflict in the family but also a threat to Isaac as the chosen seed of Yahweh (Gen. 21:8-10).

In the ancient Near East, the firstborn typically received the name of the family that brings headship and the greater part of the inheritance of the father. This is why Ishmael as the firstborn was a threat to Isaac as the chosen seed. However, Yahweh went countercultural and gave the firstborn title to Isaac.

The Sacrifice of Isaac

Before Yahweh could make the Abrahamic Covenant, He had to test Abraham. We know from the beginning that Yahweh had no intention of allowing Abraham to sacrifice his son because we are told that it was a test (Gen. 22:1). On one hand, Abraham knew Yahweh well enough by this time to know that He did not approve of child sacrifice and had promised him Isaac, but at the same time he knew that Yahweh expected obedience. Abraham was not just offering his son up to Yahweh but was also offering up the promises of Yahweh since they were bound up in the life of Isaac. Why was Abraham willing to do this? Abraham believed that he could sacrifice Isaac and that Yahweh would raise him from the dead (Heb. 11:17-20). Abraham told his servants that he and Isaac would come back from the hill (Gen. 22:5), and he told his son that Yahweh would provide a lamb (Gen. 22:8). Abraham knew Yahweh so well that he reasoned that if Yahweh was asking for Isaac’s sacrifice (through whom the promises would come), and since He was all powerful and good, then Yahweh simply intended to raise Isaac from the dead.

Isaac demonstrated just as much faith in Yahweh as Abraham did, for he willingly offered Himself up as a sacrifice for his father and the covenant. As a young man between the ages of 12 and 18, he could have easily overpowered and outrun a man over 100 years old, yet he did not. This event becomes a typology of what Christ would later do. Likewise, it is on this hill, Moriah in Jerusalem, that the temple of Yahweh would later be built (2 Chron. 3:1), which was a typology of Christ as well.

It is after Abraham’s act of faith that Yahweh makes the covenant unconditional, not only for Abraham but all of his descendants as well (Gen. 22:16-18). Thus this covenant is for all people who place their faith in Yahweh’s one day blessing the whole world (Jn. 3:16) through the nation of Israel (Jesus), which will bring and restore the kingdom of Yahweh on earth (Rev. 21).