Genesis 17:9 - "As for you, you must keep My covenant ..."

"As for you, you must keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come." (Genesis 17:9)

What is the covenant between God and Abraham?

What does the Supreme Being mean by "covenant" in this statement to Abraham? He is instructing that Abraham must keep it, and supposedly, all of his descendants.

As previously discussed, the word ברית (bĕriyth) being translated to "covenant" means, according to the lexicon, an alliance, pledge, agreement or ordinance. In fact, in this verse and the following verses, the word is being utilized in two different contexts.

The first context is the general "covenant" between God and Abraham: Based on the loving relationship that existed between them, and the loving service that Abraham conducted on God's behalf.

Just consider how a covenant works among humans. A person will commit to another in some way, and the other will commit in some way in return. This creates a bond between the two parties. Typically, a covenant will also require some effort on the part of one or both of the parties. This is the nature of a covenant: There are two elements - a relationship and a particular commitment.

In the case of Abraham and the Supreme Being, their relationship was one of love and devotion. Abraham was devoted to the Supreme Being, and the Supreme Being was loving, caring and supporting Abraham. Abraham was conducting service on the Supreme Being's behalf. This is illustrated in previous verses with Abraham's missionary work on behalf of God: Erecting altars (temples), worshiping God and passing on love of God to others.
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)
The second use of the word "covenant" will be laid out in the following verses, as the Supreme Being gives specific instructions, such as the need for circumcision. These instructions are connected to the central covenant between God and Abraham. But they are not the covenant in themselves, as we will show with the next verses.

Why Abraham's descendants?

Why do Abraham's descendants have to abide by the covenant between Abraham and God? Just by being born in Abraham's family means you have to abide by a covenant made by one of your ancestors?

Such a question assumes that the Hebrew word זרע (zera`) is being correctly translated to "descendants" - which it is not.

The Hebrew word זרע (zera`), incorrectly translated to "descendants" here, has a literal meaning according to the lexicon, of "seed" or "sowing," as well as "offspring." In this respect, it can related to descendants, but also to posterity. It can also related to the sowing of "moral quality" and when used figuratively, "a practitioner of righteousness." according to the Gesenius lexicon.

Thus "sowing" can refer not only to family offspring, but also to the sowing of knowledge. Those who inherit this "sowing" would thus not be "descendants," but rather, "followers."

This meaning is also illustrated in Jesus' parable of the sowing of the farmer's seeds (Luke 8:5-8), which also regarded teaching and followers:
"Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown." (Luke 8:8)
And this fits precisely within the context of this discussion. At this point Abraham had only one descendant, as Sarai was barren. With Hagar, Abraham bore Ishmael, who was, according to God's angel in Genesis 16:12, "a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone's hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers."

Later, Sarai gave birth to Isaac. Does this mean that only those in Isaac's family have access to the covenant and have to abide by that covenant?

No. Again, God is speaking of Abraham's followers, who would naturally abide by Abraham's covenant with God since they are following Abraham's teachings. That covenant, to love and serve the Supreme Being, would follow to Abraham's followers, since that is what Abraham was teaching. That was his mission.

Abraham's missions

Abraham had by that time already developed many followers as he had been conducting missionary journeys to different lands, which continued after this conversation with God.

Abraham traveled from Ur of the Chaldees, which was Abraham's birthplace, to Haran, then to Damascus. Then he traveled to Shechem, and then to Bethel. From there he traveled through the land of Canaan to Egypt. Then he traveled back to Bethel, and from there to Hebron in the Jordan Valley. Then he traveled to Hobah, and from there to Salem. Then he traveled to Hebron again, and from thereto Gerar in the land of the Philistines. From there he traveled to Beersheba, where he stayed for some time. This is where Isaac was born. Abraham eventually traveled back to Beersheba, then later to Moriah and finally back to Beershaba and then to Hebron, where he and Sarah both left their physical bodies.

Why did Abraham travel so much? In most of these travels, Abraham erected Altars to God and spread the teachings of love of God. As we have translated from earlier verses, the Supreme Being blessed Abraham's missions and empowered Abraham's missionary journeys throughout the lands of the Middle East to spread this philosophy of loving worship of the Supreme Being.

This is also consistent with the missions of those who followed Abraham, including Moses, Joshua, Eli, Samuel, David, Solomon, Job, Ezekiel and Jesus. They were all passing on the need for redeveloping our forgotten loving relationship with God. They were all exercising this "covenant" between God and Abraham to spread the philosophy of love for God.

As such, we can now offer a more appropriate translation of this verse:
"As for you, you should keep My covenant, you and your followers after you for the generations to come." (Genesis 17:9)