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  • Rıdvan Demir

THE COVENANT



Themes of fertility and childbirth are introduced early in Genesis with the words “be fruitful and multiply.” Ancestral narratives begin with Adam and Eve after the creation of the cosmos then continue with the narrative of Noah and the flood, which includes God’s first covenant with humankind. From Noah to Abraham, many generations live and die before God decides to make a special covenant with Abraham. This is the most important of all of God’s covenants to date and tells the good news that God will multiply Abraham’s descendants. Abraham’s descendants will be as unlimited as the Promised Land, and God will bless them. God renews his covenant with Isaac, Sarah’s son, and carries on the covenant even with Isaac’s son Jacob, and his children, the tribes of Israel. In Genesis, God chooses a clear lineage to confer his covenant, notably of Abraham’s clan.[1]


The primeval narrative ends with God making humankind “in the likeness of God”[2] and describes humankind through the ancestral narrative of Adam and Eve’s descendants. God created humankind and made it to increase. Then God chose Noah, one of Adam’s grandsons, for a new covenant. In destruction, God gave promise through one family. God will “destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life, everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with [Noah].”[3] Thus God entrusted the future of humankind with one family when he made thıs covenant. All of mankind was blessed through Noah. This leadership covenant is not one determıned by religious vıtalıty but is instead one of kinship ties.


This startling fact presents a religious possibility that is relational instead of doctrinal, passed on through children as much as scripture. These covenants carry the relationship between God and people through individuals like Noah. Indeed, we begin to see an enduring biblical truth in the words: ‘Be fruitful.’ Then God established “my covenant with you and your descendants [and] every living creature.”[4] This covenant concerned the continuation of all people. There is a particular significance made for humankind’s lineage and legitimacy. Covenants are not for God but are made through and for all humans and creation.[5]


The narrative of Abraham occupies the most powerful and important relationship with God, who establishes him as an inheritance of the earth. God said, ‘I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing to all people.’ In this, God exercises the freedom to bless and curse whom He will. Through Abraham, God communicates his seal across the dominion, and thus that all families of the earth shall be blessed.[6] Such divine promises of prosperity through a particular posterity are echoed many times in Genesis.


Covenant descendants, like the Promised Land, are wide but limited. Abraham’s offspring were to be like the dust of the earth[7] or stars[8] that continue forever, but they still spring from a single point, Abraham, who alone receives the honor: “The Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘to your descendants I give this land.”[9] Another son of Abraham was Ishmael. His mother, Hagar, was the second wife of Abraham and an Egyptian slave who posed an interesting dilemma regarding covenant lineage. Isaac, Sarah’s son, stands as the lone inheritor of God’s blessing. God not only chooses between families but children.


In Genesis, this becomes clear. Sarah was barren; having no children, she was substantively redeemed through fertility. However, we recall that Sarah offered her slave Hagar to Abraham as a wife. Abraham married Hagar, and she had Ishmael. When Sarah started to look with contempt on Hagar, the relationship between them changes, and Sarah sent Hagar away. But Hagar heard from an angel of God, who promised to “greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for the multitude.”[10] God promised to bless Ishmael and his offspring. In Genesis 17, Sarah is old, and Abraham begs God to favor Ishmael. Instead, God tells the good news that Abraham and Sarah will have a son, Isaac. [11] “As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful.”[12] Though Ishmael is not the covenant child, the Genesis pattern of covenants is repeated even outside the great covenant, and God promises to bless through lineage.


God continues His covenant with Isaac and orders that each Jewish child be circumcised. This is “my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offering after you.” According to Genesis, every future male child will be circumcised, and God reiterated the covenant from Abraham:


“This is my covenant with you: you shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations… I will make you exceedingly fruitful… I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring… for everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.”[13]



God gave land and political leadership to Abraham through Isaac and his offspring. Regarding this inherited possession and leadership, we must try to read the Hebrew Scriptures as being historically situated. This passage describes a historical event situated as an icon of an unrivalled past. A non-historical reading can be positioned in modern politics of the Middle East where fertility viz. a viz. Sarah is confirmed. Modern readers must recognize its historical context. Though God deemed this covenant as one which transcends time limits, it is constrained to family lines and certain lands.[14] The unique political language so common to the Genesis covenants is perpetually realized through lineage, in spite of seemingly historicity. Therefore, Gen 17:19-21, as a claim on God’s will, is inaccessible outside the text and its historical reading.


When God tests Abraham and his orientation to the covenant, limited fertility/heirs are challenged. Isaac seems to be relegated to a place of dereliction. Through the attempted slaughter, Abraham’s obedience passes the test. God blesses him through Isaac, and the covenant is renewed. Abraham and God’s people are informed again that their offspring will possess many lots,[15] and before death, “Abraham gave all he had to Isaac.”[16] After the death of Abraham God blessed his son Isaac.” [17] But when God’s covenant continues with Isaac, his father Abraham warned him that he must not marry a Canaanite but have relations with Jews. To save Abraham’s covenant with God, Isaac married Rebekah who was related to Abraham.


When Rebekah was expecting, God tells her the good news that she will have twins, Esau and Jacob, but one will be more powerful. Interestingly, the traditional expectations are rejected in God’s covenant. The older brother will serve the younger.[18] Thus the covenant of God continued with Jacob. But why does God bless one who cheats his brother? Can we say that one who deceived his brother will never deceive his people when he has God’s covenant himself? These questions can only be responded to with: ‘God choose.’


It is difficult to understand why God chose a man who deceived and lied to his father, a holy man. Jacob married family, not a Canaanite, as Abraham told his father. Jacob married sisters: Leah bore six sons and one daughter while Rachel bore Joseph and Benjamin, whom Jacob favored. So Jacob's offspring, slaves, animals and properties were as promised to Abraham and Isaac. On the other hand, Esau married Uncle Ishmael’s daughter,[19] confirming that God’s covenant lives through Isaac’s line alone.


Truly, God gave many things to Isaac and his son Joseph. When Joseph became governor of Egypt, he said that God sent him to save the covenant offspring. ‘It was not you who sent me to Egypt, but God.’ The will of God was realized in Abraham’s offspring. Jacob heard God say: “I am the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there, and I will also bring you up again; and Joseph’s own hand shall close your eyes.”[20] So Israel (Jacob) settled in Egypt, but Joseph married Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera. They had two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. Stilll, fertility is transferred as the substantive means for which covenant inheritance can be activated. When Jacob dies, he blesses his younger grandson, Ephraim, and says this young boy will be a great people. When Joseph dies, he said: “‘God will surely land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.’ So Joseph made the Israelites swear to take his bones. Israel’s descendants multiply and become a great people.


I finish my paper drawing attention to the signifance of interfaith dialogue, and thus peace in the Middle East today. Without a historical reading of Hebrew Scriptues, it is difficult to explain the New Testament viz. a viz. Islam or explain the Quran viz. a viz. the New Testament. Both tradition derive from Abraham, and thus can be concidered the offspring of Abraham. Jesus and Muhammad (peace be upon all of them) are also of that covenant, they follow the lineage, God’s “everlasting” covenant with Abraham’s offspring, including Jewish promised land.


All religious traditions must acknowledge the “historical reading” in order to promote peace. However, we must recognıze the overarchıng cırcumstances that ınform socıal realitıes. God chooses the limits.

[1] First name was ‘Avram’ means “Ab (a divine name) is lofty”, second name of him was ‘Avraam’ (or Abraham) means “father of a multitude”. God has given this name to him. See gen. 17:5. [2] Gen. 5:1-2. [3] Gen. 7:17-18. [4] Gen. 9:7-11. [5] See Gen. 9:18. [6] Gen. 12:2-3. [7] Gen. 13:16. [8] Gen. 15:5. [9] Gen. 15:18-21. [10] Gen. 6:11. [11] Gen. 17:16, 19. [12] Gen. 17:20-21 [13] Gen. 17:3-8. [14] Gen 15:3; 17:7; 17:8; 17:13; 17:19; for Jacob, 48:4 [15] See, gen. 22:1-19. [16] Gen. 25:5. [17] Gen. 25:11. [18] See Gen. 25:23. [19] Gen. 28:9. [20] Gen. 46:2-4.

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