Genesis 17:7-8 - I will establish my covenant as an everlasting ..."

"I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God." (Genesis 17:7-8)

What does this covenant mean?

If we were to take this statement by God literally as translated, it would provide many problems. It would essentially mean the following:

- It would mean that God made a special pact only with Abraham and Abraham's children and Abraham's children's children.

- It would mean that if someone was not a direct descendant of Abraham (i.e., either a descendant of Ishmael or Isaac) then they would be left out of such a covenant.

- It would mean that the covenant automatically bears upon every descendant of Abraham - whether they want to be part of the covenant or not.

- It would mean that God gave the land of Canaan to Abraham and Abraham's descendants even though they never gained control over that land (as it is fought over and possessed by various invaders over the centuries).

- This would mean that God never really gave that land to Abraham's descendants since they never can control it.

- It would mean that God is saying that he is the God of Abraham's descendants - as if those descendants have no choice. Isn't God the God of everyone?

- It would mean that God excludes those who weren't fortunate enough to be born in Abraham's family. And this would also mean that if someone was born into Abraham's family, they would automatically be part of the covenant and have no choice about the matter.

The net of this literal translation and meaning basically portrays that according to the Israelites, God is not the Supreme Being. They are stating that God does not act with fairness to everyone. They are stating that God plays favorites with one family over another - and one tribe or race over another. This would essentially make God a racist.

Did Jesus' teachings support this interpretation?

Those who have brought forward this interpretation are part of the very same institution that Jesus - who was also a rabbi - rebelled against. This rebellion by Jesus included their misinterpretation of scripture. Notice that even though Jesus was also a rabbi, he did not proclaim ownership of any particular lands. At the time, the Romans controlled the lands that were supposedly given to Abraham and his descendants anyway.

Notice that Jesus' teachings did not focus on land ownership or territorial ownership at all. Rather, Jesus' teachings focused upon the spiritual world and our identities as spiritual. His focus upon returning to the spiritual world after the death of the physical body was illustrated by the conversation that took place between Jesus and the man hanging next to him as they were dying on the cross:
Then he [the criminal on the cross next to him] said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:42-43)
Because we can accept that Jesus understood the real intent and meaning of the scriptures, this and other statements of his illustrate that the "covenant" between God and Abraham is not related to inheriting land in the physical world, and the "promised land" is not some piece of land in the desert.

What is the real covenant?

The word "covenant" in the verses above is being translated from the Hebrew word ברית (bĕriyth). This word means a treaty, an alliance, a constitution, an agreement or a pledge - especially one of friendship - according to the lexicon. Now what kind of agreement, pledge, or alliance are we talking about here?

We should also note that God made covenants with many different people besides Abraham in the Old Testament:

God made a covenant with Noah (Genesis 6:18).
God made a covenant with Noah's sons (Genesis 9:9)
God (through Laban) made a covenant with Jacob (Genesis 31:46)
God made a covenant with Moses (Exodus 16:34)
The Ark of the covenant was carried by Moses' followers, priests, and Joshua's followers and priests (Exodus, Lev, Joshua)
David and Jonathan made a covenant with God (1 Samuel 23:18)
Jehoiada made a covenant with God (1 Kings 11:17)
Asa and the people of Judah and Benjamin made a covenant with God (2 Chron. 15:12)
Hezekiah made a covenant with God (2 Chron.29:10)
Josiah made a covenant with God (2 Chron 34:31)
Shekaniah made a covenant with God (Ezr 10:3)
Nehemiah made a covenant with God (Neh 1:5)
God made a covenant with Isaiah (Isaiah 42:6)

As we'll discuss below, all these covenants with God are bound with a similar set of traits.

Wasn't this between Abraham and God?

Many have assumed this covenant is between God and the entire Hebrew nation. The concept of covenant is hazily projected onto the entire Hebrew nation despite the fact that there were a host of different covenants discussed in the Bible - as addressed above.

We must look carefully at Abraham's activities because from these we can see the kind of "covenant" between Abraham and God.

As Abraham traveled, he built altars (temples) to worship God in various places, and worshiped God in these places:
From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD. (Genesis 12:8)

So Abram moved his tents and went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he built an altar to the LORD. (Genesis 13:18)

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. (Genesis 22:9)
Are these activities of someone who is marking his territories? Did Abraham stake out his territory and claim that now the land was in his possession? No.

Rather, Abraham was traveling about and erecting altars - temples - on behalf of the Supreme Being.

What is this activity? This is the activity of devotion. The activity of a missionary. Abraham was traveling to different places to pass on to others the need to devote oneself to God.

And just what is the motivation of such acts of devotion? Love. Abraham loved the Supreme Being. He loved God. And he was passing on that love to others.

What is the covenant of love?

Love is the purpose of worship. It is the purpose of erecting an altar.

Just consider what people do today as they put up all the photos of their family members on their mantles in their homes. Or a soldier who pins up a picture of his wife and kids when he is at war thousands of miles from home. Are they not erecting altars? And why are they doing this?

They are erecting altars because they are expressing their affection for the person or persons - a familial version of love.

And this is precisely the purpose of an altar or temple for worshiping God. It is to perform an act of love - because worship is theoretically an act of love.

This may run contrary to most people's concept of worship of God. This is because many of us do not really worship God. Many of us are attempting a business transaction with God. We assume activities that look like worship in order to receive something in return - be it salvation, wealth, protection or the protection of a relative, or some other request. We make the motions of worship in order to receive something in return. This is not worship. This is business.

Real worship is based upon affection and love. It is based upon being attracted to the person being worshiped and wanting to show affection towards that person.

Just consider a teenage girl who worships a rock star. She puts all the rock star's pictures on her wall and listens to and lip syncs all the rock star's music and copies the rock star's fashion styles. Is she doing this because she expects that the rock star will give her something in return? No, she is simply attracted to the rock star. She is showing her affection towards the rock star.

While this is not real love, it does illustrate the act of worship (but don't tell the teenage girl she isn't in love with the rock star).

Real worship of God is an act of spiritual love. Spiritual love is not like the affection for family members or rock stars. It is a love that goes beyond the physical body. It comes from the spiritual person.

Each of us is a spiritual person. We are not these physical bodies. These bodies are temporary vehicles we wear - which die. This is what Jesus was communicating to the criminal whose body died next to his. They were both going to the spiritual realm after the death of their bodies. Jesus was returning because of his loving relationship with the Supreme Being, and the criminal was returning because he reached out to God and Jesus during his persecution and was purified in his last moments.

The real "covenant" between Abraham and the Supreme Being is about love. A loving relationship naturally maintains a covenant of love. Abraham's activities of worship and his missionary works were an expression of his love. And the Supreme Being was returning that love in the form of supporting Abraham's mission and being there for him. This is why the Supreme Being appeared before Abraham so much. This is what happens in a loving relationship.

This form of the covenant was confirmed by Solomon, as he prayed:
“LORD, the God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below—you who keep Your covenant of love with Your servants who continue wholeheartedly in Your way." (1 Kings 8:23)
Other commitments (covenants) illustrate this same objective:
They entered into a covenant to seek the LORD, the God of their ancestors, with all their heart and soul. (2 Chron 15:12)

"LORD, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant of love with those who love Him and keep His commandments (Neh. 1:5)

I prayed to the LORD my God and confessed: “Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant of love with those who love Him and keep His commandments (Daniel 9:4)

What is everlasting?

This is confirmed by the use of the word "everlasting" (i.e., eternal) before the word "covenant." Is giving land to Abraham's descendants "everlasting"? Certainly not. We can see this even today, as so much of the lands supposedly being given to Abraham's descendants are now controlled by various governments unrelated to Abraham's descendants. Obviously, their possession of those lands was not eternal - the pure meaning of עולם (`owlam) - "eternal."

In fact, the word "everlasting" or "eternal" relates not to the temporary physical dimension at all. The word relates to the eternal spiritual world. This is the "everlasting" world. This is the world we are each from. Our physical bodies will all die, but the spiritual realm is eternal.

And the relationships of the spiritual realm are also eternal. This is God's statement to Abraham - that their loving relationship is eternal.

The fact is, God was not promising to give Abraham and his descendants any land. He was promising that Abraham's missionary activities would be productive throughout those lands, as this was Abraham's concern.

And God was speaking of Abraham's followers; not descendants of his physical body.

This is why God said "to be your God and the God of your descendants [followers] after you..." He wasn't talking about land. He was talking about spreading His message throughout the land. It was about love. And about following in Abraham's footsteps as one of Abraham's followers.

In fact, the phrases "you and your descendants" in these verses are taken from the Hebrew word זרע (zera`). While this word can certainly relate to offspring, it also means to sow, specifically the "sowing... of moral quality - a practitioner of righteousness" according to Gesenius's lexicon. In other words, the word can relate specifically to the results of passing on knowledge to others. This means the word can also mean "followers."

God does not grant special favors upon people based on the family they were born from. God is not a racist. Each of us has an equal opportunity to return to the spiritual realm. This is God's covenant with anyone who worships Him and learns to love Him.

And this is the basis for the covenant between God and Abraham: Abraham worshiped the Supreme Being with love, and conducted missionary work to pass on love of God to others. And the Supreme Being supported Abraham's work on His behalf.

This produced effectiveness for Abraham's work. In other words, Abraham was able to effectively change people's hearts and turn them from lovers of mammon to lovers of the Supreme Being. And this change of heart - through God's support - delivers a person back to the spiritual world.

Why was this so important to Abraham?

Again, love. Abraham loved not only the Supreme Being but also loved God's children. He wanted to help bring God's children home. This was his mission, and the Supreme Being supported that mission because this is God's cause: To bring us home to Him. God wants us back in His loving arms because He loves us and wants us to be happy.

And loving God and loving God's children is our true source of happiness.

We are currently away from God because we wanted to exercise our freedom to be away from Him. So He let us go and created this physical world for us to pretend to be away from Him. After all, love requires freedom.

But God still knows that we are only truly happy when we are loving and serving Him. This is because we are indelibly connected to Him. This is our nature.

Thus we can offer a more appropriate translation of the Hebrew text of these two Genesis verses:
"I will establish my covenant as an eternal covenant between Me and you and your followers after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your followers after you. Your missionary work will spread throughout the land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, and you will have many followers there; and they will make Me their God." (Genesis 17:7-8)