A covenant is an agreement between two parties. There are two basic types of covenants: conditional and unconditional. A conditional or bilateral covenant is an agreement that is binding on both parties for its fulfillment. Both parties agree to fulfill certain conditions. If either party fails to meet their responsibilities, the covenant is broken and neither party has to fulfill the expectations of the covenant. An unconditional or unilateral covenant is an agreement between two parties, but only one of the two parties has to do something. Nothing is required of the other party.
The Abrahamic Covenant is an unconditional covenant. The actual covenant is found in Genesis 12:1–3. The ceremony recorded in Genesis 15 indicates the unconditional nature of the covenant. When a covenant was dependent upon both parties keeping commitments, then both parties would pass between the pieces of animals. In Genesis 15, God alone moves between the halves of the animals. Abraham was in a deep sleep. God’s solitary action indicates that the covenant is principally His promise. He binds Himself to the covenant.
Later, God gave Abraham the rite of circumcision as the specific sign of the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 17:9–14). All males in Abraham’s line were to be circumcised and thus carry with them a lifelong mark in their flesh that they were part of God’s physical blessing in the world. Any descendant of Abraham who refused circumcision was declaring himself to be outside of God’s covenant; this explains why God was angry with Moses when Moses failed to circumcise his son (Exodus 4:24–26).
God determined to call out a special people for Himself, and through that special people He would bless the whole world. The Lord tells Abram,
“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:2–3).
Based on this promise, God later changed Abram’s name from Abram (“high father”) to Abraham (“father of a multitude”) in Genesis 17:5. As we’ve seen, the Abrahamic Covenant is unconditional. It should also be taken literally. There is no need to spiritualize the promise to Abraham. God’s promises to Abraham’s descendants will be fulfilled literally.
The Abrahamic Covenant included the promise of land (Genesis 12:1). It was a specific land, an actual property, with dimensions specified in Genesis 15:18–21. In Genesis 13:15, God gives Abraham all the land that he can see, and the gift is declared to be “forever.” God was not going to renege on His promise. The territory given as part of the Abrahamic Covenant is expanded in Deuteronomy 30:1–10, often called the Palestinian Covenant.
Centuries after Abraham died, the children of Israel took possession of the land under Joshua’s leadership (Joshua 21:43). At no point in history, though, has Israel controlled all of the land God had specified. There remains, therefore, a final fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant that will see Israel occupying their God-given homeland to the fullest extent. The fulfillment will be more than a matter of geography; it will also be a time of holiness and restoration (see Ezekiel 20:40–44 and 36:1—37:28).
The Abrahamic Covenant also promised many descendants (Genesis 12:2). God promised that the number of Abraham’s children would rival that of “the dust of the earth” (Genesis 15:16). Nations and kings would proceed from him (Genesis 17:6). It is significant that the promise was given to an aged, childless couple. But Abraham “did not waver through unbelief” (Romans 4:20), and his wife Sarah “considered him faithful who had made the promise” (Hebrews 11:11). Abraham was justified by his faith (Genesis 15:6), and he and his wife welcomed Isaac, the son of promise, into their home when they were 100 and 90 years old, respectively (Genesis 21:5).
God reiterates the Abrahamic Covenant to Isaac and to his son Jacob, whose name God changes to Israel. The great nation is eventually established in the land where Abraham had dwelled. King David, one of Abraham’s many descendants, is given the Davidic Covenant (2 Samuel 7:12–16), promising a “son of David” who would one day rule over the Jewish nation—and all nations—from Jerusalem. Many other Old Testament prophecies point to the blessed, future fulfillment of that promise (e.g., Isaiah 11; Micah 4; Zechariah 8).
The Abrahamic Covenant also included a promise of blessing and redemption (Genesis 12:3). All the earth would be blessed through Abraham. This promise finds its fulfillment in the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31–34; cf. Luke 22:20), which was ratified by Jesus Christ, the son of Abraham and Redeemer who will one day “restore everything” (Acts 3:21).
Five times in Genesis 12, as God is giving the Abrahamic Covenant, He says, “I will.” Clearly, God takes the onus of keeping the covenant upon Himself. The covenant is unconditional. One day, Israel will repent, be forgiven, and be restored to God’s favor (Zechariah 12:10–14; Romans 11:25–27). One day, the nation of Israel will possess the entire territory promised to them. One day, the Messiah will return to set up His throne, and through His righteous rule the whole world will be blessed with an abundance of peace, pleasure, and prosperity.