James L. Kelso

The following article first appeared in Perspective, Vol. XIII, No. 1, Winter 1972, and is reprinted here with permission. As you read this fascinating article, we suggest that you do so with your Bible opened to the book of Genesis. — Ed.

Thus far we have studied Abraham the business man, now we shall look at Abraham, the spiritual genius. The essence of the spiritual life of Abraham centers in the covenant which God made with Abraham. Just as Professor Mendenhall demonstrated the archaeological background of the Mosaic covenant, so Moshe Weinfeld has demonstrated the archaeological background (Hittite and Nuzi) of the Abrahamic covenant.1

In the Abraham story we have the “covenant of a grant”, i.e., a royal grant bestowed upon a most loyal follower of the king. Such a covenant contained six major features: (1) The king obligated himself to a loyal follower; but the servant was not obligated to the king, (as was the case in the Sinai covenant pattern). (2) The covenant was described in great detail, as in Gen. 15:1–21; 17:1–21. (3) The covenant applied to all the legitimate descendants of the loyal follower. No one could take the grant away from the loyal follower or his descendants. (4) The covenant was a reward for loyalty and good works done by the king’s faithful follower. (5) A curse was invoked upon anyone who violated the rights and privileges of the loyal follower. (6) The covenant was sealed with a sacrificial service such as in Gen. 15:9–11, 17–18.

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The detailed Abraham story however, does not begin with a covenant, but with three promises that were made to Abraham to test him for loyalty. Gen. 12:1–3 was both a command and a promise. It was not yet a covenant, although verse 3 uses the covenant terminology of section (5) above. Verse 3 also involves a question of Hebrew grammar. The more common grammatical usage would read “in you will all the families of the earth be blessed.” For theological reasons the Jews naturally reject this translation and read instead “by you all the families of the earth will bless themselves.”

A second promise was made to Abraham after he had graciously allowed his young nephew Lot to take land priority for pasturage (Gen. 13:14–17). This episode, incidently, shows that in God’s eyes shepherding was not the major life work of Abraham.

The third promise followed Abraham’s rescue of Lot and the other prisoners. But this time Abraham argued with God (Gen. 15:2–5). Then follows one of the great verses of all Scripture “And he (Abraham) believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Here is the first basic statement in all Scripture for the doctrine of justification by faith; and that statement is never improved on in Scripture, although it is vastly expanded and explained in the New Testament. Romans, Galatians and James all quote Gen. 15:6.

After this third promise Abraham swore allegiance to Yahweh and was accepted by Yahweh. The remainder of the chapter gives a detailed review of the covenant which Yahweh then made with Abraham. Of the six features of a “Covenant of Grant,” only the fifth is missing and it had already been mentioned in the promise made to Abraham in Gen. 12:3. The specific boundaries of the landgrant are given in Gen. 15:18–21. Not only does this Abrahamic covenant show God’s grace to the elect, but it also shows his mercy to sinners. Woven into the very fabric of this covenant are the words

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“The iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah showed the punishment that all the heathen of Palestine deserved, but God gave them a probationary period of 400 years in which to repent before Joshua’s conquest. Notice also the mercy of God to Hagar (Gen. 21:15–21).

In chapter 16 Abraham, at Sarah’s instigation, broke his covenant with Yahweh by accepting Ishmael as the son that God had promised him. In chapter 17 God challenged Abraham to be blameless, i.e., obedient; and instantly followed this with his promise that Abraham will have a multitude of legitimate descendants. This does not seem to be a new covenant as there is no sacrificial service to confirm it. But God reemphasized that Abraham would yet have legitimate descendants. In essence, God said “Let there be no more Ishmael episodes, but walk before me, and be blameless.” Abraham accepted the rebuke and fell on his face before God.

Then God renewed the covenant of Gen. 15, but two new features were added. (1) Abram’s name was now changed to Abraham and he was thereby elevated to a new rank of closeness to God. (Sarai’s name was also changed to Sarah). (2) God also ordered a special sign of the covenant to be applied to Abraham and all his descendants plus even his slaves, namely circumcision, a rite that was not practiced in Mesopotamia. In this chapter God used the phrase “my covenant” some nine times thus putting a supreme emphasis on the fact that everything is of grace. There is nothing here of the Sinai covenant. We must note, however, that God’s specific command to Abraham, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless,” was given to Abraham before the covenant was pledged. There were no provisions for disobedience here, however, as there was in the later Sinai covenant. And notice also that the covenant is specifically applied to Isaac but denied to Ishmael (Gen. 17:20–21).

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In Gen. 22:15–18 after the Moriah episode, there is another reference to Abraham’s progeny and the benefits they will bring to all mankind. This is especially significant when we recall that Abraham had proved faithless in the Ishmael episode but now in the Isaac episode he proved himself faithful under infinitely more tragic testing.

The Abrahamic covenant is not only totally different from the Mosaic covenant, but there is no “throw-back” of any feature of the Mosaic period in Genesis. Abraham and Moses not only lived in two uniquely different worlds but no Old Testament editor tried in any way to soften the glaring contrasts between these two spiritual giants. Abraham had no tabernacle with its minute ritual and special clergy. Abraham was given nothing like the detailed code of life demanded by the Sinai covenant. Abraham was not even furnished with the basic ten commandments. And yet, when we turn to the New Testament, it is Abraham who holds the place of honor and not Moses! Abraham is mentioned over seventy times in the New Testament and half of these are in the Gospels. The most striking reference of course, is John 8:56 where Christ said “Abraham rejoiced to see my day; and he saw it, and was glad.” (KJV)

There were only two specific sacrifices which God demanded of Abraham: (1) in connection with the sealing of the covenant (Gen. 15:9–11; 17–18) and (2) the burnt offering involving Isaac (Gen. 22:1–19).

Both sacrificial services were unique in the Old Testament. The oath-taking service in the Abraham story, however, does have a sacrificial parallel in the Surpu documents,2 where the oath is taken by holding a torch or by a furnace stove. In the Surpu documents, as in the Abraham story, the inferior party furnished the animals and the superior took the oath.

The second sacrificial service is interpreted by liberal scholars as a Canaanite human sacrifice, best known through

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the child sacrifices of Carthage and the episode in II Kgs. 3:26–27, where the king of Moab sacrificed his son in the hopes of gaining a military victory. Actually, of course, God had been testing Abraham’s obedience all these years in many varied ways, of which this was the climax of the covenant’s emphasis on Abraham’s posterity. Year after year Abraham, although promised a countless progeny, was denied even one son. Now after that promised son was finally given, God asked Abraham to give up that only son! Of course, God wanted Abraham and not Isaac! As soon as Abraham’s faith was equal to God’s command, the sacrificial knife was stayed and God substituted a ram. It was God’s own son who was later to be sacrificed at Mt. Moriah. The crux in the interpretation of the passage is Gen. 22:8, where Abraham said “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering.” Since Abraham actually believed what he said, then there is real reason to call him “the father of the faithful.” On the other hand, if Abraham were simply telling a lie to answer Isaac’s question, why did God ‘bless’ Abraham (Gen. 22:17)?

There does not seem to be anything unusual in the technique of Abraham’s other sacrificial services. But Abraham does show the uniqueness of the God he worshipped by building new altars to Yahweh, rather than using the old Canaanite ones that were available in all the cities where he stopped. He also specifically invoked Yahweh by name. Furthermore Abraham was his own priest in all episodes except the one involving Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18–20).

Melchizedek was the mystery man of the Abraham story. He appeared also in the Messianic Psalm 110 and later in the book of Hebrews, chapters 5 through 7. There are many interpretations as to Melchizedek, but the best assumes that Melchizedek, like Abraham, was a believer in the one and only true God. Melchizedek recognized Abraham as more honored of God and Abraham recognized the same in Melchizedek. Both recognized that Abraham’s victory was the gift

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of God and not due to the military genius of Abraham. (The same theme is echoed of Joshua’s victory in Ps. 44:3). We do not know why Melchizedek was chosen of God to be the recipient of Abraham’s tithe.

Since God is specifically mentioned here three times under the name El-Elyon, and since Melchizedek is his prophet to whom Abraham pays tithes, we shall now take up the various names for God in the Abraham story. The first term used for God is Yahweh (Gen. 12:1) and this is the common designation for God when he is specifically named. Elohim is the common generic term for God; it is literally “the totality of the Gods” or “the supreme God.” Adoni for Lord is occasionally used. In addition to the Canaanite name El-Elyon (Gen. 14) there is El-Shaddi in Gen. 17:1 where Yahweh identifies himself with El-Shaddi, and El-Olam in Gen. 21:33 where it is a synonym of Yahweh and immediately follows Yahweh.

Each of these three Canaanite names for God is specifically used in Canaanite mythology in the sense of “Creator,” i.e. “God of heaven and earth.” The best etymology for Yahweh is also “Creator” although in usage it also expands into “Provider” and “Redeemer” as seen in the Abraham story. The usage of the Canaanite deity names is puzzling to many conservative Bible students, but God is under no obligation to write Scripture after our thought patterns. Up to the time of Abraham we have what is often called “common revelation” i.e., the knowledge of God available to all men everywhere and always. But with Abraham God began a “special revelation” and from then on he was known as Yahweh. Abraham was no longer a polytheist, as was his father Terah (Josh. 24:2). We would call Abraham a monotheist. Gal. 3:7–8 summarizes it well: “So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In thee shall all the

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nations be blessed’ “.

Abraham’s spiritual life had much of the freedom of the New Testament covenant, for Abraham talked with Yahweh much as the disciples talked with Christ. Yahweh’s demands of Abraham were similar to those Christ made of his followers—immediate obedience to God without any intervening ritual or regulations. Both Abraham and the disciples were justified by faith, and faith alone. Obedience was the response of both Abraham and the disciples to their justification by God’s grace.

Abraham’s daily life, like that of Christ’s disciples, was certainly not above reproach. But the grace of Christ was sufficient for both. We, who live in the New Testament dispensation, are especially critical of Abraham’s betrayal of Sarah to Pharaoh and Abimelech so as to have his own life (Gen. 12:10–20; 20:1–18). Two striking verses come out of the latter episode. In Gen. 20:6 God said to Abimelech, “It was I who kept you from sinning against me”—a theme every Christian should remember every day of his life. And in the following verse God said of Abraham “He is a prophet, and he will pray for you, and you shall live.” Again everything is of grace! God chooses us not for what we are, but for what he can make us!

In striking contrast to Abraham’s attitude toward his wife Sarah, is his concern for his nephew Lot (Gen. 18:16–33). But this episode becomes something infinitely more important for in it God shows his concepts of both justice and grace which will govern the whole Old Testament dispensation.

From an archaeological viewpoint all features of the Canaanite religion which appear in the Abraham story belong to Middle Bronze I. In addition to those referred to earlier there are the following. In Gen. 12:6 there is the Canaanite sanctuary at Shechem with its oracular oak tree. At Bethel Abraham camped on the ridge east of Bethel, where even today the prehistoric natural altars with butchering flints

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are to be found. From this same campsite Abraham could look down on the great high place at Bethel, which is very similar to the one seen today at Jerusalem in the Dome of the Rock. It is uncertain whether the terebinths of Mamre (Gen. 13:18) were cultivated for their nuts, or whether they were a sacred grove. The tamarisk tree planted by Abraham after the covenant service at Beer-sheba may have been a part of the real estate covenant demanded by Abilelech. The homosexuality of the Sodom story (Gen. 19:1–11) was common among the Canaanites, who even had guilds of homosexual priests in their temples.

Now let us summarize the Abraham story as an archaeologists sees it. The story fits perfectly into the matrix of Middle Bronze I history and shows us a caravaneer chosen by God to be “the father of the faithful.” The Genesis narrative is essentially contemporaneous with the life of Abraham himself. There are no signs of anything significant in the later history and religion of Israel except circumcision. There are at most only a few editorial notes that may have been added at a later time. The longest are the geneology table from Abraham’s marriage to Keturah (Gen. 25:1–4) and the geneology table from Abraham and Hagar (Gen. 25:12–16).

There are a few items which still puzzle the archaeologists, but not a single one of them is crucial to the historicity of the Abraham story. They appear in the following verses of Genesis.

11:31 “Ur of the Chaldeans.” Is Chaldeans a later editorial supplement, or will the term actually turn up in a cuneiform document?

12:4 “Seventy-five years old.” The years in the Abraham story do not seem to be 365 day years. They appear to suggest an artificial chronology, since Isaac was born when Abraham was 100 years old, (i.e. the crux of the covenant hangs on Abraham’s natural born son.) But Isaac was not born until near the close of the narrative which deals with Abraham

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himself! The same chronological puzzles are in Sarah’s life. She died at 127 years of age.

13:7 “The Canaanites and the Perizzites dwelt in the land.” This seems to be an editorial addition, as it is not needed in the story. “Amorites” in Gen. 15:16 on the other hand, is essential to the story and is a historical accuracy.

21:32, 34 “Philistines.” This may well be an editorial updating of an earlier nationalistic name for the Negeb population. Aegean business men, however, were in Palestine and Egypt in Abraham’s day. Such people were later called Philistines in the days of the Judges.

23:2 “that is Hebron” seems to be an editorial note to tell the reader that “Kiriath-arba” was another name for the same city.

24:10 Some scholars think that the “ten camels” are a later editorial addition.

The final problem before us is how did this Abraham story come down intact and historically accurate? Since there is absolutely nothing of a cult in the Abraham story, it could not have been originally carried down by a priesthood. Therefore the story must have been carried down by the caravaneers themselves. These men at night, around their campfires, sang their songs, which ran from short ballads to long epic dramas like the Abraham story. This custom is referred to as late as the songs of Deborah, Judges 5:10–11.

“Tell of it, you who ride on tawny asses,

you who sit on rich carpets

and you who walk by the way.

To the sound of musicians at the watering places,

there they repeat the triumphs of the Lord,

the triumphs of his peasantry in Israel.”

The Abraham story was doubtless originally in poetic form and Albright says that much of Genesis 14 can even now be put into a rough metrical form. There is no clue, however, as to when this epic poem about Abraham was put into prose.

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But we know that whoever did the work was a genius at paraphrasing, for the story has come over with an uncanny accuracy, descriptive of “Abraham, the saintly caravaneer of the twentieth century B.C.”

Suggested Bibliography: By Wm. F. Albright — Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 163, pp. 36-54; Archaeology, Historical Analogy, and Early Biblical Tradition, Ch. II; Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan. Also The Anchor Bible, Genesis, by E. A. Speiser.

“These the Tablets you’ve been looking for Professor?”

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