After God promises Abraham that he will be made fruitful, He adds “I will make nations of you, and kings will descend from you” (17:6b). Thus, in Abraham and through the family that will spring from him, the earth will be filled, as Abraham, and God working through Abraham and his descendants, serves to fulfill that to which the original human pair had been purposed, and the divine image is rightly borne throughout all of God’s creation.
In the seventh verse of Genesis seventeen, God again takes up the language that is determinative of righteousness, justification, and right standing, saying “I will confirm My covenant as a perpetual covenant between Me and you. It will extend to your descendants after you throughout their generations” (17:7a). These descendants, as we now know, are composed of “nations.” This is more than one nation. This is many nations. As it echoes and intends to fulfill the Adam and Noah stories, and as it reverses what took place at Babel, this promise concerning the covenant extends to the whole of the earth and all of its peoples. As circumcision is not yet on the table, though it will be in short order, it would be extraordinarily difficult for the honest and forthright teller of the Abraham story, or physical descendant of Abraham, or one who has adopted the mark of circumcision so as to join the family of Abraham and so position themselves to experience the blessings of the covenant of the Creator God, to insist that this covenant and its promises are ultimately limited to one people bearing one mark, that being Israel.
Further speech continues to reveal the heart of God, and we can imagine Paul embracing the words of Genesis as vital to his mission and his Gospel, as we hear “I will be your God and the God of your descendants after you” (17:7b). Again, these descendants, whom God counts as His own, and from whom God expects recognition, are composed of a multitude of nations. There is to be no limitation here. On what basis might these people groups engage in a relationship with the God of Abraham? Naturally, it will be through believing the Lord, trusting in the terms and ends of His covenant, and so responding in faith so as to prove genuine loyalty to that God and His purposes for His image-bearers and for the whole of His creation.
Is this not what is proposed in the New Testament? Is there not a demand to believe in the Gospel (Jesus as Messiah/King) as that which brings righteousness (justification-covenant inclusion)? It is loyalty to Jesus’ claims about Himself, and the claims made about Him by His followers, that He was and is the Messiah/King of Israel and therefore God-manifest, that the New Testament demands. This response of faith puts those that believe in Jesus in the same category as Abraham, with God creating His covenant with Abraham (Abraham entering into a covenant relationship with the Creator God) based on a response of faith. It would be much later, as we pointed out, that Abraham bears any mark of this covenant, which will be circumcision. Until that time comes, Abraham’s belief in God, and in His power to bring His promises to pass, more than suffices.
Though we do not want to get too far afield from the analysis that we are doing, it seems worthwhile to make mention of the fact for those that believe in Jesus, the ongoing mark of the loyal response to Jesus will be the verbal and non-verbal confession that “Jesus is Lord,” with a life of love, mercy, and compassion in imitation of that Lord following the confession. For those that would insist that circumcision is necessary to be in covenant, Paul grips on to the words of the prophets and looks upon the continued confession of Jesus, in both word and deed, as the circumcision of the heart.
Having made it clear that God intends for the nations that fill the earth to be the beneficiaries of His promise and to be encompassed by His covenant, He adds: “I will give the whole land of Canaan---the land where you are now residing---to you and your descendants after you as a permanent possession. I will be their God” (17:8). Now how does this fit with the world-encompassing scope of the covenant and its promises that we have been discussing? This seems like a draw-down of substantial proportions. God has been talking about descendants and nations, with this provided its context by the filling of the earth with His glory (His divine image bearers inhabiting the creation in such a way that they reflect the glory of God in all creation), but now seems to limit the scope of the promise and Abraham’s descendants to one piece of land and one group of people that will come to inhabit that one piece of land.
Without being dogmatic (though we can certainly offer propositions in the utmost of confidence), it could be reasonably suggested that Canaan, because of the obvious connection between Abraham’s and Adam’s stories, is something of a new Eden. As Eden was for the entire human family, given the context of descendants and nations and kings that will flourish from Abraham, so too would be Canaan. Though it will not be a focus of this study, Paul most certainly enlarges Canaan. Through the lenses offered by the crucified and risen Christ, magnified by the words of the prophets of old, Paul comes to see Canaan (the promised land) as a microcosm of what God intends to do for His entire creation, celebrating that promise in the eighth chapter of Romans.