THE LAND COVENANT
To gain an understanding of end-time events, the best place to start is in the book of Genesis. We’ll examine Adam’s fall into sin in Genesis 3, then move on to the covenant God formed with Abraham.
Let’s look at verse 15 as God curses the serpent that led Adam and Eve into sin:
“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between her offspring and your offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”
Most scholars agree that Christ is the seed of Eve prophesied here to “crush” or “bruise” the devil’s head. According to one view, Christ already defeated death and the devil. Another view looks forward to the day when death and the devil are cast into the lake of fire. A further dual view offers a longer process in which Christ himself first gains a personal victory over death and the devil, then later wins a full victory over his enemies—a victory in which we too can partake. Under this progressive timetable scenario, Christ’s resurrection is the first fruits of victory over death, but we must wait to join him in victorious resurrection.
Whether Christ has already fulfilled Genesis 3:15 or portions of this prophecy have yet to be fulfilled, the main theme of this prophecy is clear: Christ is our ultimate hope for salvation. The timing of when Christ fully destroys the devil depends on the resolution of other timeline-related questions. We’ll come back to this verse once we’ve developed more information.
As we move on from Adam past Noah to the Abrahamic covenant, we begin to enter an arena of controversy. Commentators offer vastly different interpretations of God’s covenant with Abraham, which has critical implications regarding the new covenant that we live under today. We must gain an accurate understanding of the Abrahamic covenant in order to understand the nature of our own salvation and the impending end of the age.
Injudicious readers often lump all Old Testament covenants together as one overarching contract between God and his people. But the Bible describes other covenants made to Noah, Moses, and David. Each covenant legally needs to stand on its own as a separate agreement, oath, or testament. The Old Testament covenants do not combine neatly into one contract, nor does that covenant simply get superseded by the new covenant when Jesus arrives on the scene. Each separate covenant has its own repercussions. Our preconceived notion of a two-covenant system (a single old covenant rendered void by a new covenant) blinds us to other possibilities. Our understanding of end-time events—and Christianity itself—suffers as a result.
There are two basic types of covenants: unilateral and bilateral. Both types are binding, with a breach of contract carrying a penalty for the offending party.
The specific penalties for breaking a covenant depend on the gravity of the covenant itself, whether a casual agreement, a blood oath, or something in between. But the covenants that God made with his people were of the strongest possible bond. Blood was shed to seal the agreements. In some of these biblical examples, this entailed an animal sacrifice. The implication was that violation of the terms of the covenant would result in new bloodshed—a penalty of death.
In a bilateral covenant, both parties agree to fulfill certain conditions. If either party fails to meet their responsibilities, the covenant is broken and the other party is not required to fulfill any remaining expectations. The breaching party is obligated to pay penalties for breaking the covenant.
A unilateral covenant is a strong promise or oath from one party to another party. Only the party that makes the oath needs to follow the specified terms. Nothing is required of the other party except to accept or reject that which is promised. If the party making the oath is in breach, then that party must pay a penalty. The threat of the penalty motivates the party making the unilateral covenant to fulfill the obligation and assures the recipient that the promise will be kept.
God’s offer of salvation is an example of such an unconditional covenant; an individual must receive God’s offer in faith and thus become a recipient of his blessings, or else reject God completely. We’ll take a closer look at the striking similarities between the Abrahamic covenant and the new covenant gospel message later in this book.
Abrahamic vs Mosaic
The Abrahamic covenant contains several distinct promises; however, the land aspect of the covenant is the most controversial and creates the most confusion.[footnote]For a full biblical description of the Abrahamic covenant, see Genesis 12:1–3; 13:14–17; 15:5–18; 17:1–10; and 22:16–18.[/footnote]
Abraham was given three main promises in the covenant God made with him.
- He was to be the father of many nations—a great nation of nations.
- All nations would be blessed through Abraham. Now, the focus of this promise is not Abraham himself, but one of his descendants. This promise points to the Messiah, the descendant of Abraham who would bless all nations. We see this promise gain clarity with the establishment of the 12 tribes of Israel, and God further affirms his promise in a covenant with David. In reading the New Testament, the Gospels leave no doubt that Jesus Christ was the Messiah, the fulfillment of this promise to Abraham.
- Abraham and his descendants would forever have a land of their own. But did this everlasting land promise refer to literal soil, spiritual dust, or both?
As promised, a multitude of nations arose from Abraham’s descendants. And the second part of the promise was also fulfilled: the tribe of Judah carried the seed of Abraham that ultimately bloomed in the son of Mary through whom the whole world would be blessed. But what came of the promise of a homeland? We learn that the main blessing of land went via birthright to Joseph’s children (Ephraim first, then Manasseh).[footnote]See Genesis 48.[/footnote] Unfortunately, within a few generations, the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh—and the entire nation of Israel—were living as slaves in Egypt. So God called out to Moses.
“Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Notice the difference in language from the Abrahamic covenant to the Mosaic covenant. God’s promises to Abraham demonstrate a one-way, unilateral covenant (unconditional upon the receiver), but God’s promises to Moses were part of a two-way, bilateral covenant—dependent on Israel’s obedience.
The apostle Paul explains that God’s promises to Abraham are irrevocable (Romans 11:28–29). Not even the creation of a new covenant could undo these underlying promises to Abraham. Paul also compares the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants:
“To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.”
So the Abrahamic covenant was an irrevocable promise (or oath) from God, where the blessings of the Mosaic law covenant were conditional upon the recipients of the nation of Israel keeping their side of the agreement. God would bless them in the land if they kept his laws.
It is inaccurate to merge the Old Testament covenants between God and his people, according to Paul. We should make note of the differences between the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant, and the new covenant. Each of these covenants has consequences for us today. The differences distinguishing the covenants are crucial and relate to the meaning of salvation, while providing insight into the most important end-time events. We can’t underestimate or look past the promises made to Abraham and simply jump to the new covenant.
So let’s take a closer look. Here the Lord reiterates his promises to Abraham:
“And he said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.’ But he said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’”
The promises God made to Abraham were unconditional gifts. Abraham’s only task was to make a series of animal sacrifices through which God would certify his covenant (Genesis 15:9–20). Abraham went into a sleep-like state while God gave him the land promise; Abraham didn’t need to agree to anything. He only needed to believe God.[footnote]God did institute the law of circumcision as a sign of the covenant—but not at this time.[/footnote]
“When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.’”
“For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself.”
Many today don’t understand the significance of Genesis 15:17–18, but this passage may help explain the basis of why Christ went to the cross. The use of a blood sacrifice to seal the covenant conveyed a clear meaning within that culture.
“The one who passes between the divided halves of the slain animals invokes death upon himself should he break the word by which he has bound himself in the oath.”
—Claus Westermann, Genesis 12–36: A Commentary[footnote]Claus Westermann. Genesis 12-36: A Commentary. Augsburg Publishing House, 1981, p. 225.[/footnote]
By sealing the covenant through a blood sacrifice, God swore that he would give up his life if he did not honor his agreement to give Abraham the land promised. Unbelievable? Let’s carry this further.
Abraham had asked God, “How am I to know?”—or, how was he to know he would receive the land? After this blood sacrifice, Abraham knew God’s promise was profoundly serious. Belief in God’s gift of the promises formed Abraham’s faith in God. Sound familiar? The same faith-by-grace concept is still used today. Remember, “God does not change” (Malachi 3:6).[footnote]Also see Hebrews 6:17 and James 1:17.[/footnote]
Now that we have some background, we can get back to Paul’s comparison of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants in Galatians 3. Keep in mind the word “inheritance,” as God uses it in his promises to Abraham. We will revisit this term later. Inheritance language in the New Testament invokes these promises from Genesis—specifically the promise of eternal life in a homeland.
Seed: Singular or Plural?
When it comes to understanding God’s redemption plan for all people, this Galatians passage is one of the most interesting in the Bible. It links salvation back to the first plan laid out in Genesis, then threads it all the way through to end-time events. We generally think of John 3:16 as the quintessential salvation verse, but this passage from Paul explains how to tie a nice bow around the entire Bible. Of course, if you insist on treating all Old Testament covenants as a single evolving contract, Paul’s teaching won’t make much sense at all. In that way, Galatians 3 provides a helpful litmus test for your beliefs about the gospel—and by extension the end times.
First, this passage shoots down many dispensational beliefs completely.[footnote]Dispensationalism is the belief that God reveals himself in stages throughout history, also changing or evolving how he extends salvation to the world.[/footnote] God doesn’t offer a gospel message of law to Old Testament saints and a gospel message of grace to New Testament saints. Indeed, the promises given to Abraham are the very basis for the salvation message. (The word Paul uses to describe the promise to Abraham—inheritance—is the same word he uses to describe New Testament salvation.[footnote]See Ephesians 1:11–14.[/footnote]) Christ came to fulfill God’s promises to Abraham. This will become clear when we look at the new covenant, which is connected to the Abrahamic covenant.
Notice how Paul differentiates between “offspring” and “offsprings” in Galatians 3 when trying to clarify the Abrahamic covenant. “Seed” or “offspring” are singular nouns but can refer to many people within a single group of people. But Paul wants to latch on to a solitary sense of the word.
This seems like a crazy argument at first glance, talking about one descendant of Abraham when the original context of the Genesis passage points to a plural group. This begs the question of whether the contradiction comes down to a mistranslation of the Genesis passage. Should English translators have presented Abraham’s offspring as a singular descendant?
We must go back to the Abrahamic covenant passages in Genesis to see if Paul is speaking literally or if he is using figurative language. There are numerous covenant passages, so we need to determine which one(s) Paul is referring to.
In the original Hebrew text and LXX Greek version of the Old Testament, close attention should be paid to the root word for seed (or offspring) in Genesis 13:15 compared to verse 16. Verse 16 clearly refers to a larger group of Abraham’s descendants. But in verse 15, the root is singular and may indeed point to an individual. As this is the verse in which the promise is delivered, verse 15 has profound implications for end times and the coming age. Let’s look at a few different translations of this key verse:
ESV: “All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever.”
YLT: “For the whole of the land which thou are seeing, to thee I give it, and to thy seed—to the age.”
NIV (including verse 16): “I will give all the land that you see to you and your descendants forever. And I will make your descendants like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone is able to count the dust of the earth, then your descendants also can be counted.”
See how from a root word meaning “seed” the translator can choose a word like “descendant”—or “descendants” as in the NIV example. This translation choice makes a huge difference. By decentralizing the focus from one anointed individual, it becomes possible to adopt many mistaken beliefs about the nation of Israel, salvation, and end times.
“Descendants” is not a good English translation of the root word because it forces a plural meaning where there should be ambiguity. The translator should not decide whether the writer of Genesis meant to point to one person or a group of people. The decision to remove ambiguity suggests a desire to shade the meaning of the text to fit an existing bias or preconceived notion.
Genesis 22:17–18 offers an even more egregious example of translator bias in a covenantal context. By needlessly using a plural form of the root, the translator threatens to create a tremendous amount of confusion.
ESV (22:17–18): “I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”
NIV (22:17): “I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies…”
KJV (22:17): “That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the Heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies…”
Notice how the translator gets to choose whether “seed,” “offspring,” or “descendant(s)” is used. Many English translations use the plural when the root word of the second “seed” of verse 17 is associated to the singular masculine. [footnote]See Hebrew example at https://biblehub.com/text/genesis/22-17.htm. Accessed June 7, 2019.[/footnote]
For argument’s sake, it doesn’t matter if the singular seed refers to Isaac, Abraham’s son, or Christ, his distant progeny. The main point is that the recipient of God’s promise is not supposed to be a nation or large group of people. By choosing “descendants” instead of “descendant,” the translator must further use the phrase “their enemies” to enforce the plural—and not “his enemies,” which appears in the original Hebrew and LXX Greek.
And so this case of translator bias or error results in a flawed notion that the entire nation of Israel was meant to inherit this promise within the covenant. Dispensationalists may point first to the NIV’s translation of Genesis, then to Paul’s contrary interpretation and call it evidence of God’s shifting plans. But Christ didn’t replace the nation of Israel as the primary inheritor of God’s promise to Abraham—he was the prophesied seed all along. We will examine many more similar passages.
Let’s consider another aspect of Genesis 22:18. This verse states that through Abraham’s offspring all nations would be blessed. A singular offspring—Christ—fits this description much better than a plural multitude of descendants. The Promised Land was ultimately Christ’s inheritance; he succeeded in blessing the nations through his work on the cross.
If God already had plans to fulfill his promises to Abraham through Christ, unilaterally blessing Abraham and his descendants without any conditions, why then did he give the law to Israel? Why did God give Abraham the law of circumcision? Hold on to these questions as we continue on.
Christians universally agree that Christ is the promised Savior of Abraham’s seed. The land covenant is the main source of debate. We need to understand how the land covenant relates to the kingdom of heaven.
Unfortunately, the land covenant aspect often gets lumped in with the Mosaic covenant and the nation of Israel. But as we’ve already noted, the Mosaic covenant is different from the Abrahamic covenant in many fundamental ways.
The new covenant does not replace the Abrahamic covenant—but it follows the same template. Just as Abraham received a promise of an inheritance—a homeland—we inherit in Christ a new heavenly home. Here’s the kicker: Abraham’s promised inheritance isn’t like the inheritance we receive in Christ; it’s the same inheritance.[footnote]See Romans 15:8 and Hebrews 4:2.[/footnote]
“In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”
The inheritance concept appears in numerous salvation passages. What do we inherit? The answer is the unconditional promise of eternal life in the land given to Abraham that Christ came to confirm and fulfill.
Peter states a similar future concept about receiving our inheritance:
“According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”
—1 Peter 1:3b–5
We will later revisit the concept of inheritance in conjunction with the land and eternal life. The key thing to remember for now is that it links back to a blood oath God swore to Abraham in which he pledged an eternal gift of land. This oath is “irrevocable” and “cannot be annulled,” as stated in the New Testament. The inheritance is still valid today.