Twitter summary of this post: Gen 15 + 17 are selected narratives used to teach Israel under Moses about life in the covenant. It is both unconditional and conditional.
Earlier I looked at the differences between various ancient near east (ANE) treaties and how they related to the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. In this post I’ll look at the biblical evidence and whether the Abrahamic covenant was conditional or unconditional.
To begin, Richard Pratt shows how Genesis 15 and 17 have their orientation in the Mosaic period. Pratt gives a lot of evidence for this but I’ll just give a sampling.
1) In Gen. 15:9-10 Abraham gathers animals according to God’s command to prepare them for the covenant ceremony but he does not cut up the birds. Why? See Leviticus 1:17 which Moses just codified.
2) What’s the significance of Genesis 15:17 and the ‘smoking firepot with a blazing torch’? While this may confound modern readers, an early Israelite would have been reminded of the appearance of God in the form of the ‘pillar of fire and cloud’ leading them towards the promised land (Ex. 13:21-22; 14:19, 24; 33:9-10).
3) What about Genesis 17:1-2 where God calls Abraham to ‘walk before me and be blameless’? Israelites in the time of Moses would have got it. It was a familiar way of summarizing conformity to God’s requirements in the Mosaic covenant (Deut. 18.13). With this in mind, circumcision was a means of representing the covenantal requirement of a blameless life. Due to this, anyone who violated the requirement of circumcision would be cut off or placed under covenant curses (Gen. 17.4).
What’s the purpose of all this? Pratt points out that Genesis 15 and 17 are not comprehensive accounts of God’s dealing with Abraham. Instead they are selective narratives used to teach Israel under the covenant with Moses.
This really becomes clear with the different emphases with see in Genesis 15 and 17. In Gen 15, God’s promise is emphasized whereas in Gen 17, Abe’s responsibility is highlighted. The two passages do not represent two covenants. Instead, Gen 17 is a ‘confirmation and further explanation of the earlier.’ Gen 15 stressed God’s mercy so much that it appears like God’s covenant is unconditional. However, Abe’s actions in Gen 16 with Hagar show the need for Gen 17 where the rite of circumcision symbolizes Abe’s need to commit to loyal service. Abe’s experience here parallels Israel under Moses. God first delivers Israel from the bondage of Pharaoh. In the wilderness she turns away from God’s promises. Then in Exodus 19:4-8, God stresses Israel’s responsibilities, just like in Gen 17 with Abe.
Ok, now what to do with unconditionality and conditionality? Pratt points out there is a sense in which the Abrahamic covenant is both unconditional and conditional. In Gen 15:16-18 God promised that Abe’s descendants would come out of slavery and possess the land of Canaan. This is unconditional. Why? This is a step in God’s larger kingdom purposes. Abe’s descendants will possess Canaan as the ‘beginning point of a successful worldwide dominion (Romans 4.13). The Abrahamic covenant established an unfailing direction for God’s imperial plan.’
However, this covenant is not unconditional for individuals and families. If it was unconditional then what happened to Ishmael and Esau? In order to inherit the promise, one had to fulfill the condition of fidelity to the covenant. Without this condition, one would be ‘cut off’ from the people (e.g. receive a sentence of exile or death).
Pratt’s summary is appropriate:
In sum, there were sense in which the covenant with Abraham was both unconditional and conditional. Abraham was promised by divine oath that in one way or another his descendants would come out of Egypt and possess the land of Canaan. But at the same time, for particular individuals, families and groups to enjoy this promise, they had to fulfill covenant obligations.