What Was God’s Promise to Abraham?

May 4, 2012

 While we’re talking about how we read the Bible, whether it is clear and authoritative with regard to homosexuality, let’s consider Genesis 13:15; 15:7,18; and 17:8.  These are the key passages in which God gives Abram (renaming him Abraham) and his descendants all the land of Canaan forever.

It’s quite a promise.  It’s relatively rare for God to speak directly in the Bible. This is a specific, important promise that lasts forever.  And remember Abraham himself isn’t from Canaan (he’s from Ur in Mesopotamia); God appears to be promising Abraham land already claimed and settled by others.

These Genesis passages are, of course, the Biblical basis for some Jews (supported by some Christians) to claim that present day Israel has a God-given right to all of present-day Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and perhaps even more.  This claim helps fuel the conflict between Israel and Palestine, a conflict that endangers many other peoples and countries, too.

There are problems of interpretation here that illustrate some of the difficulties of reading the Bible.

What, for example, is the land that God promises? In Genesis 13:15, God promises Abram “all the land you can see.”  That’s not very specific.  In Genesis 17:8, the grant of land is “the whole land of Canaan,” a little more specific, but what is Canaan? How do we know its extent?  It is in Genesis 15:18 that the promise is made most concrete. “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates — 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”  That appears to be land, however, that stretches well beyond the boundaries of what anyone would consider modern day Israel.  It includes parts of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia.   (All these translations, by the way, are NIV.)

Next question: to whom is this land promised? The various Genesis passages have it  “To you and your offspring” and “To your descendants.” Does that just mean the Jewish people?  Many read the promise that way, looking to the descendants of Abraham (with his second wife, Sarah) through his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob from which derive the twelve tribes of Israel.  But Abraham had a first wife (Hagar) and from their son, Ismael, are descended various tribes or peoples who today call themselves Arabs.  Islam’s prophet Mohammed traced his ancestry to Ismael and Abraham, and Abraham is a prominent figure in the Koran.  Also claiming descent from Abraham in this complex genealogy are Midianites and Edomites. On this wider understanding of descendants, God‘s promise doesn’t at all sort out who should have claim to what lands in the modern Middle East.

But are we sure what “descendants” or “offspring” mean?  Of course these are modern English translations of ancient Hebrew words.  Do they mean (did they mean when uttered or when written down) biological offspring?  Was the promise made to all those who shared DNA with Abraham?  Or was God referring only to faithful religious followers?  Could God have promised Canaan only to those offspring of Abraham who worship the same God as Abraham and keep the covenant with God in the same way that Abraham did, as the Hebrew Scriptures understand that covenant?  That would again narrow down the promise to include only Abraham’s Jewish descendants.

It might help to know some ancient Hebrew (I don’t) to understand the meaning of this aspect of the promise.  It might also help to know precisely what it means to be a faithful Jewish follower of Abraham.  Perhaps that could take us into talking about schisms within Judaism.

Another hard question if we take “descendants” in the religious not the biological sense: do Jews, Christians and Muslims all worship the same God, just in different ways? Speaking for myself, I believe we all are descendants of Abraham, all called to worship the same God, each of us hearing only partially or imperfectly what God asks of us. I resist the temptation to inflate any specific human understanding of God’s will by saying this is the one and only true way. I don’t doubt the unity or clarity of God’s will; I just doubt our ability (certainly I doubt my ability) to understand it so perfectly as to cast out others into apostasy.

So what do we make of this Biblical promise? Is it something we are bound in faithfulness to respect? Does it lay an obligation on us?  Are we the ones expected to enforce the promise, or do we leave that to God to sort out? But if so, does God have any hands on this earth but ours? Are we erring by not faithfully following God’s promise to Abraham? Wouldn’t that require our taking sides in the conflict? But then do we know what the promise really means?

I don’t.  And as much as I revere the Christian Bible, I don’t see these texts in Genesis as providing the solution to the conflict in the Middle East.  It’s an important promise, but I don’t see these Bible texts as an unambiguous basis for action.  The questions, not the answers, are what are most important for me here: what does God promise us? What do we promise God in return?

Reading the Bible can be hard, and may not yield final, simple clarity – not on this matter and not on homosexuality, too.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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