The Abrahamic Covenant

The historical background

About 2000 BC agricultural ruin was apparent in Sumeria with the consequent famines and the collapse of the economy. Due to climate change, an overuse of the land and the silting of the Euphrates, more and more people migrated to the northern regions of Mesopotamia or towards the Levant (at that time Canaan). Enemies from Iran invaded the Sumerian lands and caused the population to flee. Ur of the Chaldees, situated on the Euphrates, according to Rawlinson, near the delta of the Persian Gulf, slowly dwindled in importance as it silted up and receded further and further south from the city which eventually fell into ruin around 450 BCE.

The population migrated and among them was a certain Abraham, an inhabitant, according to the Bible, of Ur of the Chaldees (Gen 11/31). In the early 1920s Leonard Woolley excavated the site and identified it as a Sumerian city. Abraham, the son of an idol maker, fled with the rest of the Sumerian migrants and took with him a thought drawn from the ruin of the Sumerian civilization: the ancient gods had failed them. His new idea was simple and powerful: there is only one God. He carried his monotheism with him on his flight to Palestine. It was an idea that would mark the three great creeds of the Middle East that recognize Abraham: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

To understand the narrative of why Abraham was being made the father of Ishmael and the Arabs, we must identify and understand the political situation which is in existence at the time Genesis was being composed, the Exilic period. What is the political situation?  The sons of Israel are not in possession of their land, they are in Exile. The northern kingdom, called Israel, went into Exile c.721 BC, carried off into captivity by the Assyrians, in 587 BC Judah is portrayed as being carried off into Exile at Babylon.

Abraham is not the father of Ishmael and the Arabs. It is a physical impossibility because of his advanced age. He was made their father because the author of Genesis evidently thought that as some tribes practiced circumcision, and as it was to his mind, "uniquely an Israelite rite," they must be related. Finally, Abraham and God are falsely portrayed as denying the Arabs (and kindred peoples, Ammonites, Moabites, and Edomites) any rights to the Promised Land, they should get out, and go back to their wilderness wastes, it is for Israel only to settle in. It appears to be a grab for land narrative. This continues to today.

The biblical texts

Gen 15/ 1-21 The Covenant text is a mix of J and E(lohistic). Abraham followed the Nuzi laws by adopting Eliezar as his heir. The covenant sacrifice narrative is interrupted vs 13-16 to repeat the patrirachal promise of land. The promised land limits are the Wadi el Arish which divides Palestines from the Sinai Peninsula (15/18-21).

Gen 17/1-27 The Covenant of Circumcision. Genesis 17 is a text from the P(riestly) tradition, inserted into the narrative. God reveals himself as El Shaddai which means 'The God of the mountain', 'The Almighty'. The account follows on from the creation covenant in Gen 1 and readjusts the JE account in Gen 15 to suit the P version. Circumcision and change of names from Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah were adopted by the Hebrews on entering Canaan as a sign of the covenant grace.

Epiphany (Gen 17/ 1; 12/1)

Gen 12/1: God reveals himself through his word by speaking to Abraham, an echo of the P narrative in Genesis 1. He is a family God, not one of the Mesopotamian pantheon.

New Covenant (Gen 12/2-3)

- Abraham to leave his land and go to a new land and a new identity.
- Blessing of Abraham and the nations
- Abraham was to be obedient and ready to sacrifice his son. (Gen 22)


- Father of a great nation.
- He is granted the land of Canaan. (12/7)
- Abraham will be blessed in fertility and prosperity
- The name of Abraham will be made great: authority and status.


- Exodus: loss of faith and idolatry (Josh.24/14)


- Sodom & Gomorrah and false idols. 
- Slavery in Egypt


- Of deliverance
- The Promised Land (Canaan)
- The sign was circumcision.

More information:

Bible origins

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