The Patriarchal Period, Abraham: His Call, His Altars, God’s Covenant

The call of Abraham was a watershed in human history. According to Usher’s chronology, he lived exactly halfway between Adam and Christ. The first eleven chapters of Genesis appear to have covered approximately two thousand years, and the period covered from Genesis 12 to the birth of Christ extends over the same length of time. The dispensations of conscience and of human government have run their course, and God is about to do something new. “The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Charran, and said unto him, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and come into the land which I shall show thee”, Acts 7. 1-3. Ur of the Chaldees at that time was a highly developed civilization, as Sir Leonard Woolley, the archaeologist, discovered in 1926. We are told that Abraham was wealthy. He was very rich in cattle, silver and gold, Gen. 13. 2. To obey God and leave the sophisticated environment of Ur and to go to Canaan was like leaving the West End of London and going to the Arabian desert. And yet he obeyed the divine call and stepped out in simple faith at God’s command, becoming a pilgrim and a stranger. He was God’s chosen vessel to receive a series of revelations of God’s purposes for mankind.

God’s Revelation of Himself to Abraham. God reveals Himself in at least four ways: in Creation, in His Word, in His Son the Lord Jesus Christ, and in His Names and Titles. Abraham is the head of a new line, the dynasty of faith, and God granted to Him a sevenfold revelation in a series of meaningful Names and Titles. They are:

The Glory of God, Acts 7. 2. His call.
Jehovah, Gen. 12. 1-4. A sevenfold promise of blessing.
El Elyon, Gen. 14. 18-24. The Most High God.
Adonai, Gen. 15. 2. Sovereign Lord, Proprietor, Victor.
El Shaddai, Gen. 17. 1. Almighty; The All-sufficient One.
El Olam, Gen. 21. 33. The Everlasting God.
Jehovah-Jireh, Gen. 22. 14. The Lord saw; the Lord provided.

Much destructive criticism of the O.T. is based on the misinterpretation and use of these majestic Names, displaying the bias and prejudice of men. To Abraham they were enlightening and a source of encouragement and blessing.

Abraham a Builder of Altars. The brief introductory outline of Abraham’s life in Hebrews 11. 8-10 pictures him living between two cities. The first, Ur of the Chaldees, the second, the city whose maker and builder is God. He abandoned the first, but with the eye of faith he anticipated the second. Between Ur of the Chaldees and the New Jerusalem, he pitched his transient tent and built altars. He became a pilgrim and a worshipper. Some pioneers plant flags after some brilliant achievement like the discovery of the North Pole, the ascent of Everest or the first landing on the moon. But the only thing Abraham ever built was an altar, a place of sacrifice, worship and revelation. In the long centuries between Adam and Abraham, the only altars mentioned are those of Abel and Noah. Genesis records that Abraham built four altars at critical points in his life of faith. They are milestones in progress, lapse and recovery. The places where he built his altars have significant names and meanings:

Sichem or Shechem, Gen. 12. 6-7, means “shoulder".
Bethel and Hai, 12. 8; 13. 3. Bethel means “the house of God".
Hebron, 13. 18, means “fellowship".
Moriah, 22. 9. “Jah provides”, v. 14 marg.

At each altar there was a fresh revelation of God and a promise of blessing. Whilst there is no mention of a blood sacrifice at the first three, we note that the word “altar’ means a slaughtering place. In Genesis 22, the fact that the wood, fire and the knife are mentioned, as well as the lamb for a burnt offering and the ram, shows that both Abraham and Isaac were familiar with the procedure of blood sacrifice on the altar as the means of approach to a holy God, and of calling upon His Name.

Righteousness and Inheritance, Gen 15. This chapter is one of the great fundamental passages of Scripture. It is divided into two parts:

The promise of a heavenly seed, vv. 1-6.
The land inheritance and the covenant, w. 7-21.

In the previous chapter, Abram had refused to take any of the spoils of war from the hands of the king of Sodom. Here God promises him that He would be his Shield from the reprisals of the defeated enemy and his exceeding great reward, which would be infinitely greater than anything he would get from the soiled hands of the king of Sodom. Then Abram brings up the question of an heir. God had promised that his progeny would be like the dust of the earth in number, Gen. 13. 16. Here God tells him, that instead of looking down at the earth, he should look up at the stars of heaven, and try to count them. Then comes the divine promise: “so shall thy seed be”. God gave him just three bare words (in the original Hebrew). Abram’s response of faith was: “he believed in the Lord; and he (God) counted it to him for righteousness”. These all-important words mark an epoch in divine revelation, in some respects one of the most significant in the O.T. No wonder Paul seizes upon it. It has been called “The Epistles to the Romans and Galatians of the Old Testament”. A man is counted righteous through faith in what God says apart from works. The verse is quoted three times in the N.T.: Romans 4. 3 emphasizes counted; Galatians 3. 6 emphasizes believed; James 2. 23 stresses righteousness. Simple faith rests on the Word of God apart from appearances. Paul’s argument of “faith without works” is based on Genesis 15; James argument that “faith without works is dead” is based on Genesis 22. Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son, counting that God was able to raise him from the dead, Heb. 11. 18-19. The two aspects together embrace the whole truth. The promise of a heavenly seed enfolded in it a far greater blessing, not apparent at this juncture, namely, the advent of the seed of the woman, Gen. 3. 15, the Lord from heaven, Gal. 4. 4-5.

The Land Inheritance and the Covenant, w. 7-21. At this point Abram asked for a sign confirming the promise which God had made. God graciously condescended to answer this by making a solemn covenant. Abram was commanded: “Take me an heifer of three years old, and a she goat of three years old, and a ram of three years old, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon. And he took unto him all these, and divided them in the midst, and laid each piece one against another: but the birds divided he not”. We are told that when the vultures came down upon the carcases, Abram drove them away. It is a graphic picture, a blood-stained pathway in the midst of the victims. It was God alone who was making the contract. The animals which died point on to more expansive truths in the Levitical offerings and to the meanings associated with each one, all of which find their complete fulfilment at the cross. The “vultures”, the emissaries of Satan, still attack that death which guarantees all.

The Details of the Covenant, w. 12-21. Verses 13-16 reveal the more immediate future of Abram’s seed. The four centuries of affliction and suffering of his seed in Egypt is predicted. This corresponds to the horror of great darkness which fell upon Abram, v. 12. But along with the darkness there is light. He is assured that he would end his days in peace and that his seed would be delivered from the oppression of their enemies, vv. 14b-15. The confirmation of all this was embodied in two symbols which, after dark, passed between the carcases, a smoking furnace and a burning lamp. It was the Lord alone who made the contract, indicating that He was committed to be their Personal Guarantor, and that the covenant is a gift of sovereign grace. No works or merit of man have any part therein. God alone does everything, and man is the recipient. God is the Testator; “there must also of necessity be the death of the testator’ if what He has willed is to become the portion of Abram and his seed. What mysterious depths are here!

The two striking symbols of God’s presence with Abram’s seed are the smoking furnace and the burning lamp. It is interesting that many years later both Moses and Solomon refer to the suffering of Israel in Egypt as the “iron furnace”, Deut. 4. 20; 1 Kings 8. 51. Not only in Egypt, but in subsequent ages, Israel has been in the furnace of affliction under God’s governmental hand. But He has pledged Himself to them unconditionally, and ultimately He will bring them into blessing and peace. The burning lamp would speak of the bright hope beyond their troubles and also of the testimony that they should be to this throughout their history. God would be the origin and energy behind the public witness of the seed. The flame might burn low, but it was not to be extinguished.

Another important statement here is that God was going to permit the Amorites to fill up the cup of their iniquity before He ejected and destroyed them. Their behaviour was a festering cancer that required deep surgery. God is longsuffering, though the vile practices promoted by Canaanite idolatry are so hateful to Him. He allows their rebellion and obstinate sin to come to a head, and then judgment is inevitably executed. This silences all objections to His governmental justice and judgment on wilfully guilty men and nations. It was on that “same day”, we read, that the Lord made a covenant with Abram concerning the land. The full extent of the land inheritance pledged to the seed of Abram was “from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates”, v. 18. This solemn and unconditional promise has never been fulfilled, but there is no doubt that it will be in the millennium when David’s Greater Son, the Lord Jesus, will be upon the Throne. For Him too there were to be the sufferings first and then bright glories to follow, 1 Pet. 1.11.


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