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The Background to God's Covenant with Abraham (Lesson 5.1)

1. THE BACKDROP PART I: The Descendants of Noah, Genesis 10

A) JAPHETH (Genesis 10:2-5): From the sons of Japheth, we're told, “the coastlands of the nations were separated into their lands. . .” (v5). We mentioned in our lesson with Noah that these names listed in verses 2-4 become especially significant in light of the last chapter of Isaiah. This is because in Isaiah 66 we're given what is probably the clearest Old Testament prophecy of the missionary labors that would take place in the New Testament age.1 Isaiah 66:18-21 describes the fulfillment the Great Commission. And in the midst of that passage in Isaiah, we are told that missionary laborers would be sent to places like Javan, Tubal, Meshech and Tarshish; these are the same places recorded in Genesis 10:2-4. It's the sons of Japheth who would be brought home to the Savior in the latter days. Noah said in Genesis 9:27, “May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem.” What's he saying? Well, the Jews would come from Shem—the Savior would come from Shem. But the sons of Japheth would be Gentile outsiders who would embrace the God of the Jews.

B) HAM (Genesis 10:6-20): In Genesis 9:20-27 we read how Noah cursed Canaan, the son of Ham, because of what he had done to him. Now, here in chapter 10, we learn about the impact this curse had on all of Ham's offspring: From CUSH (through Nimrod, verse 8) would come Babylon (v10) and Assyria (v11), pagan kingdoms that would later drive God's people out of their land into exile (Israel would be exiled by Assyria; Judah later by Babylon). From MIZRAIM would come not only the Egyptians2 (the nation who enslaved the Hebrews in the days leading up to the deliverance of Moses), but also the Philistines (v14), some of the worst enemies of the Old Testament church in the days of the judges and the kings. From CANAAN would come all the nations who made up the Canaanites (v19), the people who dwelt in the promised land that God's people had to drive out, and who became stumbling blocks to God's people later when they couldn't drive them out completely.

C) SHEM (Genesis 10:21-31): From Shem would come Eber (v21), which, in turn, is where we get the term Hebrews;3 because it would be through Eber's line that Abraham would come; and of course, through Abraham's line that the Messiah would one day come (as we'll find out later). We'll deal with Shem and his descendants in more detail below as we consider the ancestry of Abraham.

2. THE BACKDROP PART II: The Tower of BABEL, Genesis 11:1-9

A) The STORY of the Tower of Babel: God's command to Noah and his seed was to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1). The story of the tower of Babel describes for us how mankind rebelled against God by attempting to do exactly the opposite. Instead of filling the earth, they planned to stay in one place. And instead of seeking God's glory, they sought to make a name for themselves (11:4). Staying in one place and building a city seems to reflect a desire for security. On the other hand, building a tower and making a name for themselves seems to reflect a desire for significance. These two things: security and significance, are not bad things in and of themselves. The problem was that these men were trying to seek after these things apart from God. Instead of seeking the protection that comes from God they sought for it in high walls and man-power; instead of seeking the praise that comes from God they sought for it from those around them. The heart of their sin was self-sufficiency; “the tower is a symbol of human autonomy.”4 Some people think that the tower of Babel presents before us a picture of man-made religion; the men in this story are trying to climb up to God by their own works and effort. And it's a helpful analogy in some respects. But actually, the people in this story weren't trying to get to God at all; their whole goal was trying to find ways to live without Him. Actually then, these men were trying to exist without God—and trying to exist without God is the epitome of rebellion against God. They thought their tower was pretty great, but Scripture says that God had to come down to see it (v5). The Lord then confuses their languages (Babel means “confusion”), and scatters them abroad over the face of the earth (v9). All their efforts were for naught; and the very thing they feared came upon them after all. We're left with the truth of Psalm 127:1 ringing in our ears: “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.”

B) The SIGNIFICANCE the Tower of Babel: The tower of Babel points us backward to the rebellion of Adam in Genesis 3; for ultimately, their actions were the fruit of Adam's sin. It also points us forward, because from Babel would one day emerge Babylon, the city of destruction whose people are epitomized in Scripture as those who set themselves in opposition to God. We're also pointed inward, to examine our own hearts before the Lord. Those living in Babel had sought security and praise in things other than God. What ways do we do the same thing? What ways do we seek security and praise elsewhere? Even for those of us in ministry: What ways do we try to gain praise and significance through our ministry; or what are the ways that we try to do our ministry solely by means of our own efforts, or gifts, but apart from God? Lastly, we're pointed upward, to God, and what He's promised. The Lord would later say: “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; your reward shall be very great” (Genesis 15:1; cf. Psalm 3:3). What's God saying here? He's saying: Abram, you don't have to seek security in other things—because I AM your shield; and He's saying: Abram, you don't have to seek a reward anywhere else, because I'm going to lavish upon you rewards far greater than you could ever dream, Abram.5 So then, what we learn is that God knows how to protect His people, and God knows how to reward His people, and He's promised to do both.6

3. THE BACKDROP PART III: The Ancestry of ABRAHAM, Genesis 11:10-32

The genealogy in Genesis 11:10-32 records the ancestry of Abraham. It's similar to the genealogy back in Genesis 5, in that both genealogies span the length of 10 generations. It also differs from the genealogy back in Genesis 5 in at least a few ways: First, we notice that people recorded in Genesis 5 lived a lot longer than they do now in Genesis 11.7 Secondly, the phrase that was repeated over and over again in Genesis 5, that “all the days of [[Adam] were [so many] years, and he died”, is missing here in Genesis 11. Thirdly, though it seems the covenant line in Genesis 5 was preserved faithful to the Lord, we come to learn that the covenant line in Genesis 11 had fallen into paganism. We know this because of what Scripture records in Joshua 24:2: “'Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “From ancient times your fathers lived beyond the River, namely, Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham. . .”'” So then, somewhere between Shem and Terah, the covenant line had fallen away from God into idol worship.

We can also mention something here about Abram's father. Again, we're told in Joshua 24 that Abram's father and grandfather served other gods. But notice that in Genesis 11:31, it wasn't only Abram and Sarai—but Abram's father Terah—that set out for the land of Canaan, the land of promise. On the way they stopped in Haran and settled there (v31).8 Later, Abram continued the journey; but Terah never made it; he died in Haran (v32).9 Why didn't Terah make it all the way to Canaan? What happened? Well, his name might give us a hint. In Hebrew, Terah means “delay.” Terah delayed. He went half way, but never made it home. And what a sober lesson for us. Never rest short of salvation. Being outside of Christ means no salvation no matter how close you got. There's no middle ground. Either we've come home to Christ and entered His rest or we haven't.10


The covenant with Abraham is the next stage in the Covenant of Grace:

I. The Covenant of Works with Adam

II. The Genesis 3:15 promise of a Redeemer:

A) The Noahic Covenant

B) The Abrahamic Covenant

C) The Mosaic Covenant

D) The Davidic Covenant

E) The New Covenant

The main passages involving the covenant with Abraham are Genesis 12:1-3; 15:1-21; 17:1-27; and 22:15-19. The covenant that God makes with Abraham is established with him and then confirmed throughout his life over the course of several years. The covenant isn't just confirmed to Abraham, but also to Isaac and then Jacob.11 Though the word “covenant” occurs only in Genesis 15 and 17, we also see covenant language and promises earlier in Genesis 12 with Abraham's call, and then again in Genesis 22 on Mount Moriah. So all these passages are important for understanding the covenant with Abraham.

God's covenant with Abraham is so central to the Scriptures, that it's been said that Genesis 12:1-3 is “the center point of the promises of the covenant of grace in the history of redemption. Everything before Genesis 12:1-3 is leading up to it. Everything after Genesis 12:1-3 in the Bible is fulfilling it.”12

The New Testament constantly refers back to God's covenantal dealings with Abraham to explain the foundation of our salvation in Christ. Our salvation is built upon God's covenant with Abraham. So we can only understand our own salvation to the degree that we understand God's covenant with Abraham.

Just as we saw in God's covenant with Noah, there are both temporal and eternal components in God's covenant with Abraham. God makes temporal promises (land, seed, blessing)—but behind the temporal promises were eternal realities. Just like all the other manifestations of the Covenant of Grace, God's covenant with Abraham is here to teach us about the Savior and salvation. In particular, we learn about:

1. The CALL of the Covenant of Grace: We learn about how God draws us to himself

2. The RECIPIENTS of the Covenant of Grace: We learn about who God's people are

3. The PROMISES of the Covenant of Grace: We learn about what we've been given in Christ

4. The NATURE of the Covenant of Grace: We learn about how sinners come into favor with God

5. The STABILITY of the Covenant of Grace: We learn about the security we have in Christ

6. The MARK of the Covenant of Grace: We learn about how we can know our faith is real

7. The SIGN of the Covenant of Grace: We learn about the badge God has given to His people


1 It even seems that this passage in Isaiah is describing the Gentile mission to the Gentiles.

2 Mizraim is the Hebrew word for Egypt; and Psalm 78:51 specifically references the Egyptians as the descendants of Ham.

3 “The designation 'Hebrew' (Hb. 'ibri' see 14:13) is derived from 'Eber' (Hb. 'eber).” (ESV Study Bible note on 10:21).

4 ESV Study Bible note on Genesis 11:1-9.

5 Jay Sklar notes the play on words here: “in contrast to humanity's desire to make a name [Heb. Shem] for its own glory, the Lord himself, through the line of Shem [“name” ] will make Abram's name great.” (Sklar, Notes on the Pentateuch, p50).

6 One of the questions that confronts us here is simply: Will we live and spend ourselves here on earth for the glory that fades away, or for the glory that endures forever? A few powerful examples to me personally: 1) The city of Tyre in Ezekiel 26: Tyre was a coastal city that was one day absolutely beaming with glory. But the Lord declares that in the end, He would bring the waters up over the city, and bring the residents of Tyre down to the pit along with “the people of old” (v19). It seems to be an allusion to the rising of the tides that would gradually cover the area where this prestigious city was once situated. And isn't the glory of the world just like that? It flourishes like the grass for a moment, but in the end it fades away; for it is not a glory that endures. 2) Many film stars now who are out of their prime: Just 20 years before, they were basking in all the glory the world could afford. But now they've gained weight, they've aged; they're no longer being cast for the big films or asked to be interviewed on the late night shows. There's nothing wrong with aging and gaining weight—it happens to all of us! But the point is that this is the glory they (many of them) were living for. And now, after just a few short years, it's already fading and shriveling up. The lesson for us: Don't live your life for the glory that fades and withers. Live for the glory that lasts forever.

7 This could be because of the nature of the catastrophic atmospheric changes that took place in the flood. Remember, it wasn't just rain that came down in the flood—rain lasting for 40 days can't flood the earth—we're told that “the floodgates of the sky were opened” (7:11), which were the waters that God had placed “above the expanse” in Genesis 1:7. So something massive was happening here environmentally that may easily have affected life expectancy in a major way, to say the least.

8 We don't know exactly how long they were in Haran before Abram left for Canaan, but the fact that they “settled there” (v31) implies it was a long time. This was more than just someone getting sick or needing to pick up more supplies in Haran.

9 There is some ambiguity about whether Abram left Terah in Haran before or after Terah had died. The account in Genesis seems to imply that Abram left Terah in Haran while he was still alive, and that he continued to live in Haran another 60 years before his death. We come to this conclusion by simply calculating the numbers: Terah was 70 years old when he had Abram (v26); Abram was 75 years old when he left Haran for Canaan; and 70 + 75 would make Terah 145 years old when Abram left Haran; we're told in verse 32 that Terah lived to be 205 years old, which would mean that Abram left his father Terah in Haran and he continued to live there in Haran an additional 60 years. But in Acts 4, Stephen says that Abram only left Haran for Canaan after his father had died. Three main solutions have been proposed: 1) In Acts 7, Stephen is speaking of Terah's spiritual death. Having begun his spiritual journey to Canaan, he apostatized in Haran 60 years before his death, at which time Abram left Haran for Canaan. 2) Stephen is following an alternate text (the “Samaritan Pentateuch”), which says that Terah died when he was 145 years old (rather than 205). 3) We don't actually know who it was that was born to Terah when he was 70 years old, as 11:26 tells us: “Terah lived seventy years, and became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran.” It's likely that Abram is mentioned first, not because he was the first-born, but on account of his importance in the story. In this case, Terah had his first son when he was 70 years old, but didn't have Abram until he was at least 130 years old.

10 One more application here: We never know what God is doing. If we were to just take this passage of Scripture at face value, without knowing what would happen in Genesis 12 and beyond, it would seem to us that Terah is very much the focus of the story. It's not Abram who takes along his father Terah, but “Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram's wife; and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans. . .” (v31). Terah seems to be very much the main character and central figure of the story in verse 31. From the outside looking in, we would think this story is about Terah; we would think God is at work in Terah; God is drawing this man Terah to himself. But all along, God's purpose was actually for Terah's son. All along, God's plan was to use Terah to draw Abram. The lesson? We never know what God is doing. Often we are wrong; and often, He is drawing to himself those we don't expect.

11 Exodus 6:4 speaks of the “covenant” (singular) God made with “them” (plural): It was the same covenant being confirmed.

12 Quote from Ligon Duncan from his Covenant Theology course.


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