The promise to Abraham and his seed. When God calls Abram, He orders him to go the land that He would show him. That land was Canaan (Gen. 12:1). Once there, God gives him a promise: ‘This land I will give to you and your descendants’ (verse 7).
At a later stage the promise was restricted to Isaac and his descendants. (Ishmail was excluded.) On his deathbed Joseph says that this land had been promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (48:24). This was often repeated in subsequent books of the Bible and it is added that the land was promised or given to the fathers. In all cases it refers to the literal and physical descendants of Abraham.
Conditional or unconditional?
Was the covenant with Abraham conditional or unconditional? In Genesis 15 Abram is given the order to cut some animals in two and arrange them opposite each other. God, in the form of a blazing torch, then passed through the animals. Jeremiah 34:18-20 describes and explains the tradition of both parties then solemnly walking through the parted animals. It means: should I break this promise, I may be slaughtered like these animals and left as prey for the vultures. The preferred explanation of G.J. Wenham is that of Israel representing the offered animals while the heathens are represented by the vultures. When all had been prepared, Abram fell into a deep sleep and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. In that way the LORD clearly showed him the extent of alienation, danger and dread that would be part of the covenant people’s lives. That’s what his descendants were going to experience in Egypt. The fourth generation would leave Egypt and go to Canaan. This was an unconditional promise.
On the other hand, God’s covenant with Abraham, that seems to revolve around a reciprocal relationship, is confirmed in Genesis 17. The LORD requires reverence, faith and obedience. ’Walk before me and be blameless’ says verse 1. Then God focuses on His side of the covenant: ‘As for me…’ (verses 4-8). This is followed by what is required from Abram and his descendents: ‘As for you…’ (verses 9-14). Abraham fulfils the condition as far as obedience is concerned, and this results in an unconditional covenant for his descendants.
Could later generations of Jews spoil this promise of land ownership?
Canaan was promised to Abraham and his descendants but the patriarchs were not to allowed to take ownership because the sins of the inhabitants had not yet reached the climax in their time (Genesis 15:16). But a few centuries later the Israelites were allowed to carry out the judgment of God by killing the residents. The people of God did not receive the land outright at this point in time because grievous sinning on their part resulted in them being driven from the land (Deut. 4:27, 28:63, 29:28). But then something wonderful is written in verse 30: ‘When the people have been torn from the land and dispersed amongst the nations, God will again take pity on them. He will gather the Israelites from all the countries and bring them to Canaan. Then He will circumcise their hearts so that they will serve Him sincerely’ (verses 1-10).
In his prayer at the inauguration of the temple, it sounds as though King Solomon presupposes exile in the event of Israel being defeated by her enemies. For he prays: ‘Hear o God in heaven, forgive the sins of your people Israel. And return them again to the land that You have given their fathers’ (verse 34). When Josua says his farewells after winning the first war, he warns and implores the nation to cling to the commandments of God. In that way they would be able to continue living in the land. Disobedience would lead to their destruction (Josua 23:3-16).
The extent to which blessings are experienced depends on the faith and obedience of Abraham’s descendants. This can be gathered from the fact that God can alter the borders of favour and disfavour (Deuteronomy 11:22-25; 12:20; 19:8). The book of Judges records that the Israelites did not persevere in victory. They went off to serve other gods (1:19-36). At Bochim the angel accused the people and said that their enemies would continue to live in the land (2:1-3).
It stands to reason that the people can cause themselves to become unworthy to live in Canaan but in the end God will be merciful. The promise remains but successive generations will not share it equally.
Genesis 17:7, 13 and 19 speaks about a berit le’olam: an eternal covenant. The word ‘olam’ usually supposes continuity into a far distant future. Until when does this promise to Abraham last? An important passage regarding this is found in Jeremiah 31:35-37: ‘This is what the LORD says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the LORD Almighty is his name: “Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,” declares the LORD, “will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me.” This is what the LORD says: “Only if the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth below be searched out will I reject all the descendants of Israel because of all they have done,” declares the LORD.’
This means that the covenant people of Israel shall remain as long as the sun and the moon exists. And that is also the duration of the promise of the land. This is mentioned in closing in Jeremiah 31. In other words, this promise remains authoritative even today. The word ‘eternal’ implies this earthly dispensation at the least.