First, we are going to identify the main verses from these readings that we refer to when we talk about the covenant. Familiarize yourself with these passages; there will be frequent references to them throughout the Bible.
a) We start in Genesis 12 when Yahweh says to Abraham, “Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’” (Genesis 12:1-3). This is confirmed when he moves from the city of Haran and arrives in the land of Canaan: “To your offspring [seed] I will give this land” (Genesis 12:7).
b) The covenant is confirmed again when Abraham returns from Egypt to Canaan: “Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, for all the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you” (Genesis 13:14-17).
c) It is declared again when Yahweh’s word comes to Abraham in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great” (Genesis 15:1). When Abram expresses his concern that he will have no descendant, no heir except for a servant of his household, Yahweh responds: “‘This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.’ And he brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be’” (Genesis 15:4-5). Abram responds by faith: “And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Afterward the covenant is confirmed by the ceremony described in Genesis 15:7-21.
d) The covenant is presented in even greater detail in Genesis 17 (I recommend reading the entire chapter again; I prefer not to copy all of it here.)
Second, based on these verses, let’s define the word covenant. In its most basic meaning, it is the acknowledgment of a relationship, made formal and permanent, between two people or parties. It identifies the people who participate in the relationship and describes its benefits and expectations. It is made notable by a ceremony that confirms its priority and assures the fulfillment of these benefits and expectations in the future.
Third, with a foundation in this basic definition, let’s expand it by noting some important observations about this specific covenant, the one between Yahweh and Abraham.
a) It identifies the participants. This is Yahweh’s covenant with Abraham, Sarah and their descendants. Notice that it is not a relationship among equals (like a contract or agreement); Yahweh is the One who initiates and places all of the parameters around the covenant. Yahweh is clearly God, and Abraham, Sarah and their descendants, His subjects. Yahweh can change Abram and Sarai’s names, but they cannot change Yahweh’s name!
b) It describes benefits. He freely grants them the entire land of Canaan (Genesis 12:7; 13:14-15, 17; 15:7, 18-21; 17:8). He promises them innumerable descendants (Genesis 12:2; 13:16; 15:4-5; 17:5-6, 16). He is going to bless and protect them (Genesis 12:3; 15:1). He will be their God, and they will be His people (Genesis 17:7-8). It is a covenant that will last forever (Genesis 13:15; 17:7-8, 13, 19), and the blessings of the covenant will go through Abraham and his descendants to all the nations (Genesis 12:3).
c) It identifies expectations. Abraham and his descendants are going to respond to Yahweh in obedience and devotion (Genesis 17:1, 7-8). They are going to circumcise all their sons on the eighth day after their birth (Genesis 17:10-14, 23-27).
d) It is made notable by ceremonies that confirm the priority of this relationship and assure its future fulfillment, like the ceremony initiated and completed by Yahweh in Genesis 15:7-21 and by the circumcision of Abraham and his household.
Fourth, let’s note the expression of the covenant in the narrative. The covenant is not a dry and forgotten document or the photograph of a long-forgotten ceremony; it is the confirmation of an active relationship. A participant daily enjoys the relationship set forth in the covenant! That’s what Abraham and Sarah experience in Genesis 12 – 18. In chapter 12, Yahweh treats a man of great power, authority and international prestige like Pharaoh according to the latter’s treatment of Sarah. Even though she is a woman of much lesser resources and authority than Pharaoh, she is protected and vindicated by Yahweh because she is a participant in the covenant. In chapter 13, even though Abraham and his followers are a tiny minority in comparison with the Canaanites, Yahweh protects them and their wealth from any harm. Yahweh gives Abraham victory over the four kings in chapter 14, blesses his son with Hagar in chapter 16 and even drops by his tent for lunch in chapter 18. Through it all, there is a continuing relationship between Yahweh and Abraham that is confirmed by the covenant.
As we continue to read the book of Genesis, keep your eyes open for references to the covenant, both in regard to Abraham and to his descendants.