The Abrahamic Covenant

The Abrahamic Covenant is a key foundation of the biblical story. God's everlasting commitment to it is a basic assumption throughout the bible, including the New Testament (e.g. Luke 1:55, 72-75). How you understand its application to the present age, and to the future, is a major variable in understanding the end time puzzle. This question is closely intertwined with how you understand the relationship between Israel and the Church, which is the subject of Romans 9-11.

The Abrahamic covenant is expressed in Genesis 12:1-7, 13:12-18, 15:1-21, and 17:1-22. It begins with Abraham's call in chapter 12, is formalised as a solemn covenant in chapter 15, and is reaffirmed in chapter 17 when circumcision is given as a sign of the covenant. The main elements of the Abrahamic covenant are that God promises:

1) to make Abraham's descendants into a great nation and bless them (12:2)
2) to make Abraham's name so great that all families on earth bless one another by his name (12:2-3)
3) to bless those who bless Abraham's descendants and to curse those who curse them (12:3)
4) to give them the Promised Land as their permanent possession (12:7)
5) to bless all nations on earth through Abraham's descendants (18:18)

The Abrahamic Covenant is different from the Mosaic Covenant. The Mosaic Covenant is the set of laws described in Exodus 19-24 and in Deuteronomy by which the Israelites were instructed to live in order that they might continue to live in the Promised Land under God's blessings.

A land covenant with the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
In Genesis 15, when Abraham and Sarah were still childless, God promised Abraham that he would give him so many descendants that counting them would be like counting the stars. In verses 13 to 14, God then told him that his descendants would be enslaved in a foreign nation for 400 years, after which God would deliver them and bring them out with many possessions. This was later fulfilled in the Exodus from Egypt. And in verses 18 to 21, God vows to give to Abraham's descendants the land from the river of Egypt to the River Euphrates, the land of ten ancient nations or tribes.

God confirmed this covenant in Genesis 17, when he gave Abraham the requirement of circumcision as a sign and ongoing reminder of his covenant. In 17:7-8, God made it a permanent covenant for all generations of his descendants after him. By this point in time, Abraham had a son, Ishmael, by Sarah's concubine, Hagar (see Genesis 16). In 17:15-21, God promised that Abraham would have another son by Sarah, whom they would name Isaac, and that the covenant would pass down through the descendants of Isaac, not of Ishmael.

Genesis 18:18 tells us, "…Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all the nations on the earth may receive blessing through him". In other words, the purpose of the Abrahamic covenant is not just to bless Abraham's descendants (Israel), but that the whole world will be blessed through his descendants.

In Genesis 26:2-5, God reaffirmed the Abrahamic Covenant to Isaac, "The Lord appeared to Isaac and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; settle down in the land that I will point out to you. 3 Stay in this land. Then I will be with you and will bless you, for I will give all these lands to you and to your descendants, and I will fulfill the solemn promise I made to your father Abraham. 4 I will multiply your descendants so they will be as numerous as the stars in the sky, and I will give them all these lands. All the nations of the earth will pronounce blessings on one another using the name of your descendants. 5 All this will come to pass because Abraham obeyed me and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.”

In Genesis 35:9-12, God reaffirmed his covenant to Jacob, "God appeared to Jacob again after he returned from Paddan Aram and blessed him. 10 God said to him, “Your name is Jacob, but your name will no longer be called Jacob; Israel will be your name.” So God named him Israel. 11 Then God said to him, “I am the Sovereign God. Be fruitful and multiply! A nation – even a company of nations – will descend from you; kings will be among your descendants! 12 The land I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you. To your descendants I will also give this land.”

In Genesis 48:3-4, Jacob recounted to Joseph what God had said when he appeared to him, "…The Sovereign God appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me. 4 He said to me, ‘I am going to make you fruitful and will multiply you. I will make you into a group of nations, and I will give this land to your descendants as an everlasting possession’".

The everlasting nature of God's land covenant with the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is a basic assumption throughout the rest of the bible and the end-time story. In Exodus 3:6, when God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, he identified himself as 'the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'. God was revealing himself as the God of the Abrahamic covenant who would honour and fulfil that covenant. In the birth narratives, both Mary and Zechariah affirm God's commitment to the Abrahamic covenant (Luke 1:55, 73). Jesus also speaks of God as 'the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob' (Matthew 8:11, 22:32, Mark 12:26, Luke 13:28, 20:37). By doing so, he affirms God's commitment to the Abrahamic covenant.

Boundaries of 'The Promised Land'
The land area described in the Abrahamic Covenant is known by Jews and Christians as 'The Promised Land'. It is sometimes also known as 'Greater Israel'. This implies that The Promised Land is an area of land greater than the modern State of Israel, and potentially greater even than historic Israel, even as it existed at its largest extent during the reigns of David and Solomon. The boundaries of the promised land are defined in the following scriptures:
Genesis 15:18-21, "That day the Lord made a covenant with Abram: “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates River – 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and Jebusites".

Deuteronomy 11:22-24, "For if you carefully observe all of these commandments I am giving you and love the Lord your God, live according to his standards, and remain loyal to him, 23 then he will drive out all these nations ahead of you, and you will dispossess nations greater and stronger than you. 24 Every place you set your foot will be yours; your border will extend from the desert to Lebanon and from the River (that is, the Euphrates) as far as the Mediterranean Sea".

Exodus 23:31, "I will set your boundaries from the Red Sea to the sea of the Philistines, and from the desert to the River, for I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you will drive them out before you".

Joshua 1:2-4, "…Cross the Jordan River! Lead these people into the land which I am ready to hand over to them. 3 I am handing over to you every place you set foot, as I promised Moses. 4 Your territory will extend from the desert in the south to Lebanon in the north. It will extend all the way to the great River Euphrates in the east (including all of Syria) and all the way to the Mediterranean Sea in the west.
Analysing these scriptures, some boundaries are clearer than others. The eastern boundary is defined by the River Euphrates. But the promise does not state how far along the Euphrates Israel's border should run.

The western boundary is defined by the Mediterranean Sea, also called the Sea of the Philistines because they lived along the Mediterranean coastline.

The south-western boundary is defined by the 'river of Egypt'. Scholars debate whether this is the River Nile, which would designate a larger territory including the Sinai Peninsula, or whether it refers to a seasonal wadi along the south-western border of ancient Israel, which would exclude Sinai. The latter view seems better supported by Exodus 23:31, which defines it running from the Red Sea (i.e. from modern day Aqaba) to the Sea of the Philistines (the Mediterranean). Augustine understood it this way, for he wrote, "We can see that this does not mean the great river of Egypt, the Nile, but from the small river which divides Egypt from Palestine, where there is a town called Rhinocorura" (City of God, Bk. XVI, Ch. 25, p. 685).

The south-eastern boundary is defined by 'the desert' and by the promise to both Moses and Joshua that wherever they set their feet would belong to Israel. Because this promise was given first to Moses, the Promised Land potentially includes the desert of their exodus wanderings. Traditionally, many Christian bible scholars have assumed that the Red Sea crossing was across the Bitter Lakes, and that Israel wandered around what is known today as 'The Sinai Peninsula'. According to that position, Mount Sinai is identified with Jabal Musa in Egypt. Modern research increasingly supports the position that the Red Sea crossing was across the Gulf of Aqaba from Nuweiba to modern-day Saudi Arabia. In that case, the true Mount Sinai is identified as Jabal Lawz in north-western Saudi Arabia, and the desert wanderings were around the Arabian Peninsula. So the Promised Land could include much of the Arabian Peninsula. This is consistent with many prophesies indicating that end-time Israel will conquer those left in Edom (e.g. Amos 9:12). By the time many of these prophesies were given, Edom was considered to stretch a long way south into the Arabia Peninsula, as far as Dedan (modern-day Al-Ula in Saudi Arabia) - see Ezekiel 25:13.

According to Joshua 1:4, the Promised Land extends northwards to Lebanon and includes all the land of the Hittites (interpreted as 'all of Syria' by the NET bible. Does this mean that Lebanon is included, or excluded? Although historically it was never included, Zechariah 10:10 prophesies that when God restores the northern tribes of Israel in the end times, he will settle them in Lebanon because there will not be enough room for all of them in Israel. And how literally should we understand 'all the land of the Hittites'. At the time of the Exodus, when this promise was given to Joshua, the Hittite Empire extended over Syria and the eastern half of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey).

At its largest extent during the reigns of David and Solomon, Israel subjugated Syria, which in earlier centuries had been a Hittite territory. Its north-eastern border did extend as far as the Euphrates, but only along a fairly short stretch of it. It did not extend down the Euphrates, through modern-day Iraq, towards the Persian Gulf. And its north-western border extended as far as Syria, but not into Anatolia. So it included 'some' Hittite territory, but not quite 'all the land of the Hittites'.

If you believe the land promises still apply to the future, then potentially the Promised Land could one day include Lebanon, Syria and even much of Turkey, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Such is the Zionist vision of a 'Greater Israel'.

God retains ownership of the Promised Land
Although God promised the land to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, it is clear from many scriptures that God still claims ownership of the Promised Land. God calls it 'My land' in 2 Chronicles 7:20, Isaiah 14:25, Jeremiah 2:7 and 16:18, Ezekiel 36:5 and 38:16, Joel 1:6 and 3:2. In the Parable of the Tenants in Matthew 21:33-46, Jesus identifies God as the owner who plants a vineyard, and Israel is likened to the tenants. In Deuteronomy 28, God makes it clear that their ability to remain in the land and possess it is dependent upon them honouring the Mosaic Covenant. In others words they have to obey the set of laws expressed in Exodus 19 to 24, and in Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy 28 makes it very clear that if they disobey God's law, they will be driven out of the land and taken into captivity. But even if this happens, God's everlasting commitment to the Abrahamic Covenant is still assumed. In Deuteronomy 30:1-5, God promises that if they are driven out but later return to him and obey him, he will restore Israel to the land of their ancestors, even if they have been scattered to the most distant nations of the world. He promises that they will repossess it, and that he will then multiply their numbers more than he did their ancestors.

End-time Israel
In several end-time passages, God promises that Israel will conquer her enemies and that Israel's borders will be enlarged. Passages include:

Psalm 108:7-9 in which God declares his people's ownership of Shechem (in northern Israel), the Valley of Succoth, Gilead and Manasseh (which were the territories of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh on both east and west sides of the Jordan), Ephraim (roughly the same area as the occupied West Bank today), Judah (southern Israel including Jerusalem), Moab (central Jordan), Edom (southern Jordan and northern Arabia), and Philistia (Gaza).

Isaiah 26:15, "You have made the nation larger, O Lord, you have made the nation larger and revealed your splendour, you have extended all the borders of the land".

In Isaiah 54:2-3, God tells end-time Zion, "Make your tent larger, stretch your tent curtains farther out! Spare no effort, lengthen your ropes, and pound your stakes deep. For you will spread out to the right and to the left; your children will conquer nations and will resettle desolate cities".

In Amos 9:11-12, speaking about end-time Israel, God says, "In that day I will rebuild the collapsing hut of David. I will seal its gaps, repair its ruins, and restore it to what it was like in days gone by. 12 As a result they will conquer those left in Edom and all the nations subject to my rule…"

Speaking of the 'Day of the Lord' at the end of the age, when the Messiah will begin to rule as king, Obadiah 1:17-21 says, "But on Mount Zion there will be a remnant of those who escape, and it will be a holy place once again. The descendants of Jacob will conquer those who had conquered them. 18 The descendants of Jacob will be a fire, and the descendants of Joseph a flame. The descendants of Esau will be like stubble. They will burn them up and devour them. There will not be a single survivor of the descendants of Esau!” Indeed, the Lord has spoken it. 19 The people of the Negev will take possession of Esau’s mountain, and the people of the foothills will take possession of the land of the Philistines. They will also take possession of the territory of Ephraim and the territory of Samaria, and the people of Benjamin will take possession of Gilead. 20 The exiles of this fortress of the people of Israel will take possession of what belongs to the people of Canaan, as far as Zarephath, and the exiles of Jerusalem who are in Sepharad will take possession of the towns of the Negev. 21 Those who have been delivered will go up on Mount Zion in order to rule over Esau’s mountain. Then the Lord will reign as King!

Isaiah chapters 34 and 63 graphically portray the conquest and judgment of Edom. Revelation 6:14 and 19:15 allude to these passages and associate them with Jesus at his second coming.

Zephaniah 2:4-9 says, "Indeed, Gaza will be deserted and Ashkelon will become a heap of ruins. Invaders will drive away the people of Ashdod by noon, and Ekron will be overthrown. 5 Beware, you who live by the sea, the people who came from Crete. The Lord’s message is against you, Canaan, land of the Philistines: “I will destroy everyone who lives there!” 6 The seacoast will be used as pasture lands by the shepherds and as pens for their flocks. 7 Those who are left from the kingdom of Judah will take possession of it. By the sea they will graze, in the houses of Ashkelon they will lie down in the evening, for the Lord their God will intervene for them and restore their prosperity. 8 “I have heard Moab’s taunts and the Ammonites’ insults. They taunted my people and verbally harassed those living in Judah. 9 Therefore, as surely as I live,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, “be certain that Moab will become like Sodom and the Ammonites like Gomorrah. They will be overrun by weeds, filled with salt pits, and permanently desolate. Those of my people who are left will plunder their belongings; those who are left in Judah will take possession of their land.”
Isaiah prophesied that God would make Egypt and Assyria a special blessing to the earth, alongside Israel. Egypt and Assyria seem to be distinct and independent from Israel, but there would be a highway stretching across Egypt, Israel and Assyria, facilitating joint worship together in Jerusalem. This was never fulfilled in history. I expect it to have a future fulfilment during the Millennium:

Isaiah 19:21-25 "The Lord will reveal himself to the Egyptians, and they will acknowledge the Lord’s authority at that time. They will present sacrifices and offerings; they will make vows to the Lord and fulfill them. 22 The Lord will strike Egypt, striking and then healing them. They will turn to the Lord and he will listen to their prayers and heal them. 23 At that time there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will visit Egypt, and the Egyptians will visit Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. 24 At that time Israel will be the third member of the group, along with Egypt and Assyria, and will be a recipient of blessing in the earth. 25 The Lord of Heaven’s Armies will pronounce a blessing over the earth, saying, “Blessed be my people, Egypt, and the work of my hands, Assyria, and my special possession, Israel!”

Today's Jews are the descendants of the southern kingdom of Judah which comprised the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. Although they were exiled to Babylon in 586 BC, they later returned and resettled their ancestral homeland after Babylon fell to Persia in 539 BC. They were later driven out again by the Romans in 70 AD, but they preserved their cultural and ethnic identity in all the nations to which they were scattered. By contrast, the northern kingdom of Israel, comprising ten tribes, was exiled to Assyria in 722 BC and never returned. These ten tribes assimilated into the nations they were scattered amongst, and are now known as the lost tribes. However, many end-time passages prophesy that at the end of the age, God will not only restore the Jews to Israel, but also the descendants of the lost tribes. One such example is Isaiah 27:12-13, "At that time the Lord will shake the tree, from the Euphrates River to the Stream of Egypt. Then you will be gathered up one by one, O Israelites. At that time a large trumpet will be blown, and the ones lost in the land of Assyria will come, as well as the refugees in the land of Egypt. They will worship the Lord on the holy mountain in Jerusalem". This implies that when God gives Israel the full extent of the land he promised to Abraham, it will include all twelve tribes of Israel. Isaiah 11:10-16 is another important prophecy about this.

From my Premillennial perspective, the land promises of the Abrahamic Covenant will see their ultimate fulfilment during the Millennium. But will they be realised by ethnic Israel, or by the Church, or by both? The answer to this question depends on how you understand the relationship between Israel and the Church, which is the subject of Romans 9-11.
The Amillennial Perspective
Augustine believed that the land promises had their complete fulfilment in history, during the reigns of David and Solomon, and that there is no reason for Christians to expect ethnic Israel to conquer the Promised Land again in the future. He wrote, "However, the promise of God about the land of Canaan was not fulfilled though the great leader Joshua, by whom the people was brought into the land of promise. What Joshua did was to conquer and dispossess the nations of the land, and divide the country, as God had bidden, among the twelve tribes. Then he died; and the promise was not fulfilled in the whole period of the judges which followed his death. For the promise spoke of the land of Canaan stretching from a certain river of Egypt to the great River Euphrates. But this was by now no longer a prophecy for the distant future: its immediate fulfilment was awaited; and the fulfilment came through David and his son Solomon, whose dominion was extended over the whole area mentioned in the promise. For they subdued all those peoples and made them tributary nations. Thus under those kings the descendants of Abraham had been established in the land of promise, in the physical sense, that is, in the land of Canaan; and this meant that nothing further remained for the fulfilment of that promise which concerned worldly territory, except that the Hebrew people should continue in the same land in undisturbed stability, as far as temporal prosperity is concerned, through the successive ages of posterity, right down to the end of this mortal age, provided that they obeyed the laws of the Lord their God" (City of God, Bk. XVII, Ch. 3, p. 713).

Amillennialists understand the Promised Land to be a shadow that prefigures the eternal heavenly kingdom which Christians will one day inherit. They understand that the promises have been taken away from Abraham's natural descendants (ethnic Israel or the Jews) and given instead to Christians who are Abraham's spiritual descendants. As proof, they appeal to passages such as Romans 4:13, Galatians 4:21-31 and Hebrews 11:13-16.

My Conclusion
If the Promised Land was fulfilled in the past when Israel's territory reached its greatest extent during the reigns of David and Solomon, why did the prophets continue to prophesy about the future expansion of Israel's territory, as noted above, including details about which nations God's people will conquer (e.g. Zephaniah 2:4-9)? And why do so many passages prophesy God's end-time restoration of the twelve tribes and their reunification as one nation under Messiah's rule (Isaiah 11:10-16, 14:1-2, 19:24, 27:9, 65:9, Jeremiah 3:16-18, 30:1-24, 31:1-40, 33:1-26, Ezekiel 36:1-38, 37:1-28, 39:21-29, Hosea 2:14-23, 3:5, Amos 9:11-15, Obadiah 1:15-21, Micah 5:3-9, Nahum 2:2, Zephaniah 3:8-20, Zechariah 9:10-16, 10:3-12, 12:1-14, 14:5-21)?

Although Christians will ultimately inherit the whole world during the eternal age (Matthew 5:5, Romans 4:13), it still seems to me that scripture points to an intermediate Millennial age when Israel will occupy its Promised Land, and the boundaries of its territory will be extended as prophesied (e.g. Isaiah 26:15).

But that still leaves the very important question of Israel's relationship with the Church, both now and in the future.