The Making of an Unconditional Covenant
In making his covenantal promise to Abraham, God enacted a ceremony in which a smoking firepot and flaming torch passing between animals that had been divided. The fire pot and torch likely represent God. They call to mind God’s revelation of himself in fire in Exodus at the burning bush and at Sinai (McKeown, Genesis, THOTC, 93). The significance of passing through the pieces is indicated by Jeremiah 34:18: “And the men who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make them like the calf that they cut in two and passed between its parts” (cf., Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 250-56). Notably, in Genesis 15 God placed Abram in a deep sleep. God passed through the pieces himself. This indicates a unilateral promise by God to fulfill the land promise for Abraham. Furthermore, the unilateral promise includes Abraham’s physical seed (Gen. 15:18), defined in this passage as those who sojourn in Egypt for four hundred years before returning to dispossess the inhabitants of the land (Gen. 15:13-16).
Reckoning with Conditional Statements
Complicating the unconditional cutting of the Abrahamic covenant are statements like the one found in Genesis 22:16-17: “because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you. . . .” These statements seem to introduce an element of conditionality.
The order of events in the Abraham narrative is important for making sense of the causal statements in 22:15, 18. God already made an unconditional promise that Abraham’s seed would be as numerous as the stars in the sky (15:4-5). God had alone passed between the cut animals, indicating that he alone was responsible for upholding the covenant. How can God now say that he will bring to pass covenantal blessings because of Abraham’s obedience?
Two facts are significant here. First, Abraham does enter this covenant by faith. Second, Genesis 22 outlines a test for Abraham. His faith is tested to see if he truly trusts God’s promises when God commands him to do something that would seem to put those promises in jeopardy. Abraham demonstrates his faith in God’s promises by trusting that God would raise Isaac from the dead if need be. Abraham has already entered into the covenant by faith in Genesis 15. But here his faith is shown to be a reality.
When God says he will do certain things because Abraham has obeyed, God is saying that the covenant really will be fulfilled according to God’s prior commitments because Abraham demonstrated the reality of his faith.
In this way Genesis 22 aligns well with James 2. Abraham was justified by faith much earlier, as Genesis 15:6 attests. But in the sacrifice of Isaac, his works fulfilled this faith. The narrative does not allow the conclusion that Abraham merited the promises due to obedience or even due to perfect faith. He sinned in chapter 20, in the very year that Sarah was to conceive. Nonetheless, God kept his covenant promise and Isaac was born in chapter 21.
The Abrahamic Covenant in Israel’s History
The way the covenants play out in Israel’s history confirm the unconditional nature of the Abrahamic covenant.
For instance, when God says in Hosea 1:9, “Call his name Not My People, for you are not my people, and I am not your God,” he indicates a reversal of the Mosaic covenant in which God promised, “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God” (Ex. 6:7; cf. Lev. 26:12; Dt. 27:9). The latter phrase of Hosea 1:9 could be translated, “And I [will be] Not I Am to you,” a reversal of the name God revealed to the people at the time of the exodus (Ex. 3:14). The import of the language is that the people have so violated the Mosaic covenant that it is as if they are now like the Gentiles―they are not God’s people and God is not their God.
Following this word of judgment, there comes a word of promise: “Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered” (Hos. 1:10). Since this is an allusion to the Abrahamic covenant, the implication is that their violation of the Mosaic covenant which leads to them becoming “Not my People” is backstopped by the Abrahamic covenant. Because of God’s promises to Abraham, “in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘children of the living God.’” Violation of the Mosaic covenant could lead to them being not my people, but the promises of the Abrahamic covenant ensure that they will one day be identified as God’s children.
Notice the land aspect of the promise. It is not only that Israel will once again be identified as the children of God. This will happen in a particular place. Since the judgment was given to Israel in the land, this implies a return to the land is part of their restoration. This is confirmed in verse 11: “And they shall go up from the land, for great shall be the day of Jezreel.” This interpretation is debated. Some understand verse 11 to directly indicate a return from exile (Andersen and Freedman, Hosea, AB, 209; Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, WBC, 36, 39). But, “land” in this interpretation would refer to the Gentile lands that Israel returns from. This seems to be an unlikely use of the term (Garrett, Hosea, Joel, NAC, 73).
It seems more likely that verse 11 refers to a flourishing of the people within the land. As Dearman observes:
[T]he meaning ‘go up from’ for the verb ‘ala, at least in the sense of ‘to depart,’ does not make sense in this context. The verb may be used here in an agricultural sense, however, as in ‘growing up’ or ‘increasing/flourishing’ (Deut. 29:23 [MT 22]), rather than in its more common geographical sense of departing. A positive agricultural connotation would make good sense in this context. Israel will sprout and flourish in the land. Furthermore, the use of the verb may be yet another Hosean pun. It may well imply a ‘flourishing’ for the people of an exodus-like scale. [Hosea, NICOT, 105-6; cf. Garrett, 73.]
This interpretation of Hosea 1:11 is consistent with other parts of Scripture. Leviticus 26:40-45 moves from the pronouncement of the curse of exile upon Israel for breach of the Mosaic covenant to the promise of restoration due to the Abrahamic covenant: “I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land” (Lev. 26:42). Milgrom comments, “This is to say, the essence of the covenant with the patriarchs is the promise of the land” (Leviticus, AB, 2335). Andrew Bonar observes, “Here we have, so to speak, a permanent fact, or truth, on which to rest the proof of Israel’s restoration to their own land. It is this: the covenant with their fathers contained a grant of the land” (Leviticus, 491). Hartley says, “This phrase means that he will bring the survivors back to this land of promise in order that it might again be inhabited” (Leviticus, WBC, 470).
Future restoration to the land is also predicted in Deuteronomy’s anticipation of the new covenant (30:3), and in Ezekiel’s statement of the covenant (Eze. 36:33-36). Further, these promises are stated in such a way that it is difficult to apply them to other than ethnic Israel. For instance, in Ezekiel 36 the Israelites who return to the their formerly desolate lands are distinguished from the nations who come to know that God is the Lord.
Progressive covenantalists are strangely averse to granting that the nation Israel will be restored to the promised land. Richard Lucas argues that though Romans 11 promises the future salvation of Israel, it does not promise additional blessing, such as land (“The Dispensational Appeal to Romans 11 and the Nature of Israel’s Future Salvation” in Progressive Covenantalism). But this fails to take into account passages such as Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 30, and Ezekiel 36 in which the nation’s repentance is tied to a restoration to the land.
It remains unclear to me why the fulfillment of an unconditional land promise cannot be fulfilled as part of a wider fulfillment of the land theme that covers the entire world and all of God’s redeemed people.
This is part of a series of posts on Progressive Covenantalism and the land theme in Scripture: