The Abraham cycle links the promise of land and a son to a series of covenants, or formal agreements, between Yahweh and Abraham. In Gen 12 and 15, they are free gifts of God, very much like the royal grants of kings to favourite courtiers. In Gen 17, it uses the language of mutual obligation treaties more typical of the Sinai covenant in Ex 19-24. To stress the importance of this theme, God announces his promise in the very first scene (Gen 12:2-3):
I will make of you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great so that you will become a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you. And all the peoples of the earth shall bless themselves in you.
The sense of the promise in this passage is very broad. Abraham will become a great nation, implying great numbers and large territory, and other nations will be subject to this nation’s fortunes so that they will pray for a blessing as Abraham had been blessed. It is made concrete and specific in later statements by God:
Gen 12:7 “To your descendants I will give this land.”
Gen 13:15 “All the land which you see I will give to you and your seed forever.”
Gen 15:5 “Look at the heavens and count the stars if you can. So shall your descendants be.”
Gen 17:4 “You shall be the father of a multitude of nations.”
Gen 18:18 “Abraham shall surely become a great and powerful nation, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed through him.”
All these promises are given to Abraham in theophany, which literally means an “appearance of God,” an overwhelming personal experience of God’s presence that affects the whole direction and quality of a person’s life. Let’s look at two of these scenes in detail, one from the older J and E epic, and the second from P.
Gen 15:1-21 contains many very primitive details, including the cutting of the animals in two and passing fire through them to consume them as an offering to God. There is a similar ceremony in the Mari letters of the 18th cent. BCE in Mesopotamia:
I sent that message to Bina-Ishtar, and she replied as follows: “I have killed that ass with Qarni-Lim, and thus I spoke to Qarni-Lim under the oath of the gods: ‘If you despise Zimri-Lim and his armies, I will turn to the side of your adversaries.’”
But the early part of Gen 15 is heavily theological with its reflections on the promises made to Abraham. Source critics have detected the hand of J in the frequent use of the name Yahweh, but also of E in mention of the Amorites in v.16, the theme of “fear not” in v.1 and the hints that Abraham is a prophetic figure in the use of the formula, “the word of the Lord came to Abraham,” in vv.1 and 4. There are other signs that this is not just an old tradition handed down. V.13 refers to the full period of Israelite residence in Egypt as 400 years, and so comes from the hands of the J or E editors themselves.
In its present form, the chapter expands the promise from a hope for an heir to a further promise of land, and stresses the total act of faith that Abraham made in this promise that would not be fulfilled until centuries after his death. The detailed covenant scene confirms what God’s word and Abraham’s faith in that word have already sealed. Indeed the very words of God’s promise in vv.5 and 18 are repeated by Moses to God on Mount Sinai in Ex 32:13. Thus the whole of Gen 15 becomes a prediction and preparation for the Sinai covenant. The words of God are not meant as a fake prophecy, but are basically due to the story-telling technique of J, which favours incidents that foreshadow the events of the exodus and after. By means of such hints, he ties the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph to the later traditions of the exodus, Sinai and life in the promised land.
The second major covenant scene comes from the hand of P in ch.17. God appears once more and renews his covenant with Abraham. This time there are no colourful ceremonies, nor is there any dialogue between God and Abraham. God speaks solemnly as El Shaddai, the God of majesty, and echoes in v.6 the theme of blessing from Gen 1:
I will make you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will bring nations out of you, and kings shall descend from you. I will establish my covenant between you and me and your descendants after you for all generations as an everlasting covenant to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. (Gen 17:5-7)
God’s words stress that the covenant will last through the times of the kings and never leave Israel. This, too, is the view of P, who wrote with a long view of history. Living in the time of exile, P offers the reassurance that the covenant remains in effect despite changing fortunes and even loss of the land. The author goes on in the rest of ch.17 to explain how the rite of circumcision will be a sign of the covenant.
P is thus able to present a way of keeping the covenant that does not require an independent state to live in or even temple buildings to worship in. We know that the practice of circumcision was very important to Judaism after the Babylonian exile of the 6th cent. as a sign of membership in the community. P in this chapter manages to bring together the promise and covenant themes from a later perspective than J but one which stresses the same message: what God did for Abraham was only a foretaste of what he would do even more completely later.