God’s promise to Abraham

“And the Almighty said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I intend to do; seeing that Abraham will certainly become a great and mighty nation, and that all the nations of the earth will be blessed in him?’” (Genesis 18: 17-18)

Jews and Arabs alike are proud to have Abraham as their father, but many are not aware of the inheritance which they are meant to receive through him. What was the blessing promised to all nations through Abraham? And what did Abraham do to receive such a great promise?

“Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go out from your country, and from your people and from your father’s house and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing … So Abram left, as the Lord had told him … and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.” (Genesis 12: 1-5)

Abraham left his home and family in the territory now known as Iraq to go to the place where he would later receive what God had promised. Abraham’s journey is symbolic of all who respond to the promise of Paradise, and follow the way to obtaining it – even at the cost of countries, homes and families. We know that Abraham left his homeland with the hope of Paradise, because we are told that “he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10). The place that Abraham arrived at is today known as Israel or Palestine. This land of perpetual strife and conflict was clearly not God’s intended reward to Abraham and his descendants. The land of Canaan was not the Paradise to which Abraham was called, but rather the place in which Paradise will one day be revealed and located. Abraham spent the rest of his earthly life living in tents, “as an alien and stranger in the world,” looking forward to the time of the resurrection when God’s promise would be fulfilled.

By leaving everything for the sake of the promise, Abraham showed that he trusted God. Thus the Almighty began to show him in greater detail how the promise would be fulfilled.

“The Lord appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your seed I will give this land’” (Genesis 12:7)

For the first time, God revealed that His promise would be made good through one of Abraham’s descendants. By referring to “your seed” and not “your seeds” God was showing that the promise would not be fulfilled through the Jews or Arabs collectively, but to a single one of Abraham’s descendants. The prophets who came after Abraham started referring to this person as “the Messiah” (in Arabic, al masih ). By this time Abraham was about 80 years old and Sarah his wife had stopped ovulating and was beyond childbearing in the natural way. Abraham thought that the only way the promise could be fulfilled was thought a faithful servant whom he took as a son.

“But Abraham said, ‘O Sovereign God, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus? … you have given me no child, so a servant in my household will be my heir.’ Then the word of the Lord came to him: ‘This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.’ He took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the heavens and count the stars – if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your seed be.’” (Genesis 15:2-5)

Abraham’s inheritance would be through his seed, and that seed would be from his own body. Through this seed, Abraham would become the father of many nations, and the people who would become related to Abraham through that seed would be immeasurably vast. God’s promise to Abraham was confirmed with a covenant.

“In the same day, the Almighty made a covenant with Abram, saying ‘to your seed I have given this land’.” (Genesis 15:18)

A covenant is an agreement binding until death and ratified in blood. Although this is no longer a common practice in modern times, the handshake of today stems from two people cutting the palms of their hands and allowing their blood to mingle. Marriage also is a covenant, established by the blood on the sheets on the wedding night. The covenant God made with Abraham was spoken in the past tense (“I have given”) to indicate that the transaction had already taken place – in other words, that the act by which the inheritance had been vested on the “seed” was already complete. Thus we understand that Messiah through whom the promise would come already existed at that time. This was later confirmed by the prophet Micah:

“Out of you, Bethlehem … will come forth for me one to be ruler in Israel, one whose origins are from of old, from the days of eternity.” (Micah 5:2)

God’s covenant with Abraham was confirmed on Abraham’s part with the blood of the circumcision. “Then God said to Abraham … you are to undergo circumcision and it shall be a sign of the covenant between you and Me.” (Genesis 17:9-11)

“Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar; so she said to Abram, ‘The Lord has kept me from having children. Go sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can obtain children through her.’ Abram agreed to what Sarai said.” (Genesis 16: 1-2)

Without yet fully understanding how the promise would be fulfilled, Abraham and Sarah took matters into their own hands. Since they knew that the promised seed would come through Abraham they sought to produce an offspring through Hagar. This led to the birth of Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn. Abraham and Sarah had not understood that the Almighty intended to verify His promise by allowing the promised son to be born supernaturally (in other words, as the result of a miracle).

Sarah was 90 years old when she eventually gave birth to Isaac, and we are told that Abraham, who was then 100 years old, was “as good as dead”. As Isaac grew up, strife developed between Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael, knowing that he was the firstborn, found it difficult to accept that his younger brother would be the son through whom God’s blessing would eventually come to the whole world. We are told that Ishmael was the first son to be circumcised, that along with Isaac he buried his father Abraham and that when Ishmael died “he was gathered up unto his people”. This term – to be “gathered up unto his people” – is used in the Bible to speak of those who die faithfully, and are waiting to enter Paradise at the time of the resurrection. Ishmael was not excluded from the blessing, but had to accept that the promised Messiah would come through Isaac’s line and not through his.

“God also said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife … I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her … Abraham fell face down; he laughed and said to himself, ‘Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety? And Abraham said to God, ‘If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” Then God said, ‘Yes, but you wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his seed after him … When he had finished speaking to Abraham, God went up from him.” (Genesis 17: 15-22)

As the son through whom the covenant would be established, Abraham’s destiny was tied up in Isaac, and for this reason the Bible refers to Isaac as Abraham’s unique or only son. It was thus in respect of Isaac that the ultimate test of Abraham’s faith would be posed.

“Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will say to you.” (Genesis 22: 1-2)

The test was not so much whether or not Abraham would obey the command, but whether or not Abraham would continue to believe in the promise. The only way that the promise could be fulfilled subsequent to the death of Isaac would be if the Almighty could raise him back to life. The Bible later explains: “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, ‘It is through Isaac that your seed will be reckoned.’ Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead …” (Hebrews 11: 17-19).

But Isaac was preserved as a result of the substitute the Almighty had provided for him (referred to in the Koran as a “ransom”). The ram that was given as the immediate substitute was merely a symbol of the one who was to come. The true ransom was Jesus the Messiah, who would later suffer and die in the place of sinful man. Jesus would be born into the world as a descendant of Isaac 1600 years later when another miraculous birth would take place – this time through a young virgin.

In the intervening time the Israelites fell into sin, become unfaithful and suffered under God’s severe punishment. But the Almighty had preserved from among this people a faithful remnant through whom the promised seed of Abraham would eventually come. The prophet Isaiah explained: “But as the terebinth and oak trees leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.” (Isaiah 6:13) Many prophets were sent during this time to keep the hope alive of the coming Messiah. Solomon was one of these and prophesied concerning Jesus – “he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and save the needy from death … all nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed.”(Psalm 72: 12-17)

The Messiah came to bring forgiveness of sins by making the eternal covenant promised through Isaac with his own blood, and to obtain victory over death so that we too may have hope in the resurrection. Jesus was the first to experience the resurrection from the dead and has become for all who believe in him the way to eternal life. “Since the children have flesh and blood, Jesus too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and to free those who all their lives have been held in bondage by their fear of death.” (Hebrews 2:14-15)

We embark on Abraham’s journey when we put aside the things of this life – including homes and families, if necessary – and put our hope in the eternal promise and in the seed through whom that promise comes. In Jesus, the son of Abraham in the 42nd generation, the blessing promised to Abraham has come to all the nations of the earth.“He redeemed us so that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the nations through Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:14)

All who believe in him and walk the way of faith will inherit the Promised Land – the Paradise which God promised to Abraham. With them will be Isaac and Ishmael and all God’s faithful people from all nations and every generation.

“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar, the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with His promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.” (2 Peter 3: 10–13)