God’s covenant with Abraham related mainly to the land of Canaan, and the promise that his descendants would have title to it and occupy it fully. God had called him in Ur (Heb 11:8), with instructions to abandon his homeland and relocate to a land that He would show him (Gen 12:1; Act 7:3). On his arrival there he had liberty to travel the length and breadth of the land, but he never had ownership of any of it, except that he purchased a burial plot for Sarah at the end of her days (Gen 13:17; Act 7:5; Gen 23).
At his call, God added a range of ancillary promises to the promise that He would show him the land. Although childless, he was told that he would become “a great nation.” He would be blessed and enjoy personal greatness; he would be a channel of blessing to others, and it would be advantageous to take sides with him, and detrimental to be hostile to him (Gen 12:2-3).
After the split with Lot, God invited Abraham to survey the territory – north, south, east and west. This time the pledge was not just to show him the land as promised at Ur, but to give him and his descendants that land; “all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever ”(Gen 13:15 KJV). It was confirmation of the previous commitment, and immediately Abraham walked the length of the land, settling at Hebron (Gen 13:14-18).
Ultimately, God formally contracted Canaan to Abraham and his descendants (Gen 15). Having promised once more that he would be the progenitor of multitudes (vv1-6), again there was the promise of the land (v7). Abraham had learned in chapter 14 that God is “the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth” (v19); doubtless he understood that the Possessor had the prerogative to distribute it how He chose!
This Abrahamic Covenant was a one-sided contract whereby God pledged Canaan to the patriarch and his successors without strings attached (15:18); this was why God had brought him “out of Ur of the Chaldees” (v7). Abraham had accepted the promise of descendants (v6), but now he wanted a guarantee of the land (v8).
In ancient times, when two parties were entering into an agreement, there was an elaborate process involving sacrifices and the dividing of the animals. The “signatories” to the arrangement then walked between the pieces as an indication that they had struck a deal. Thus here, God demanded that various creatures be available for sacrifice as an integral part of the covenant ritual.
Notice that there was no requirement for Abraham to walk between the pieces because, as we have seen, this agreement was all on God’s side; no obligation devolved upon the patriarch. The miraculous element in the procedure would be that God alone, depicted in the smoking furnace and the burning lamp, would pass between the pieces of the sacrifices to satisfy Abraham’s request for a token that His word would be fulfilled. In situations where sacrifices like this were required, there was a foreshadowing of the unique final sacrifice of the Savior. Here, promised blessing was based on sacrifice, and thus it is with us with regard to our spiritual inheritance.
Abraham’s obedience should be noted. God’s command was “Take me an heifer of three years old” (v9). Scripture records, “And he took unto him all these” (v10). This was implicit obedience. The statement is so simple, and yet such simple obedience is crucial to our spiritual wellbeing and progress. “Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it” (Joh 2:5).
The latter verses of the chapter elucidate God’s promise to Abraham in verse 7. There the language is “to give thee this land,” with “thee” being a singular pronoun. In actual fact, Stephen indicated that Abraham personally was never regarded as having ownership of the land (Act 7:5). He was resident in it and God pledged it to him, but it would be his “seed” that would comprehensively populate and control it after expelling its former inhabitants. From God’s side, the fulfillment of the promise of the land to Abraham and his seed seemed like an accomplished fact more than four hundred years before it took place! I have “given this land” (v18). God’s intentions are often seen as accomplishments, as when justified people are said to be already “glorified” (Rom 8:30).
In legal affairs, title to land is drawn up carefully with boundaries well defined. Here, God delineates the territory that He promises to Abraham (vv18-21). The fact that the expanse is so clearly defined is conclusive evidence that this refers to a geographical location on earth; it should never be spiritualized to make it mean heaven!
At the conquest of Canaan, “the Lord gave unto Israel all the land which he sware to give unto their fathers” (Jos 21:43 KJV). The nearest that Israel came to enjoying it entirely was during the halcyon days of the kingdoms of David and Solomon. When the theocracy will be introduced for the last thousand years of human history, the Lord Jesus “shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth” (Psa 72:8 KJV). Finally, the Abrahamic Covenant will be completely implemented.
There were thirteen years of silence following the birth of Ishmael, and then God again appeared to Abraham confirming His former commitment regarding his descendants and the land. His promise was irreversible for it was “an everlasting covenant” (Gen 17:7), and Canaan would be for “an everlasting possession” (v8). [See also Psalm 105:8-13.] Even though Ishmael was fathered before Isaac, that covenant would be with the family stemming from Isaac; “Isaac … I will establish my covenant with him” (Gen 17:19). Indeed the covenant was reaffirmed to both Isaac and Jacob (Gen 26:3; 28:13-14; 35:11-12).
While the promise of the land was unconditional and irreversible, God ordered what He called “a token of the covenant betwixt me and you” (Gen 17:11), and Abraham and his descendants had to submit to the rite of circumcision. When the people of Israel lost sight of the promise of the land, they failed to circumcise their sons. During Moses’ 40 years at Midian when he was “content” there, he neglected to circumcise his sons, and for the 40 years when the people of Israel lost heart in the wilderness, not one of their sons was circumcised (Exo 4:24-26; Jos 5:5). Faith in the promise had gone, so “the token” was ignored. Let us rejoice that, despite Israel’s persistent rebellion, they are “beloved for the fathers’ sakes,” and God’s promises to them will be fulfilled, including the promise of the land, for “the gifts and calling of God are without repentance” (Rom 11:28-29).