[K:NWTS 12/2 (Sep 1997) 3-16]

The Blessing of Abraham

Stuart R. Jones

The inheritance theme of Scripture is so pervasive that it deserves deeper consideration than a mere metaphor of salvation. This study proceeds with the view that the testamentary concept, as implied in inheritance, is an under-appreciated category for approaching the biblical data and related theological problems. One such problem concerns how to view God's covenant of grace and the relationship of election to this covenant. Though election controls the final outcome of covenant engagements, does such a theological conclusion justify the notion of a covenant with the elect?1 One implication of this study will be that a covenant with the elect does need not be regarded as scholastic artifice. In what may appear as an unrelated problem, the study has implications for the question of how diatheke should be translated in select places of the New Testament. This problem is centered upon a few texts such as Hebrews 9:15-18 and Galatians 3:15.2

Blessing and Spirit

It is the purpose of this study to suggest a relationship between testament and covenant in the Scriptures (particularly Galatians 3) that does not rest on the meaning of diatheke alone. It is contended here that a significant intersection or overlap of testament and covenant concepts exists in the New Testament, even where the term diatheke does not immediately appear. The "blessing" idea particularly supplies a concept which ties together the inheritance-testament theme with the covenant-conditionality theme of Scripture. Thus, election is seen to have a concrete point of reference with regard to the covenant, viz., in a testament. For Abraham, calling, blessing, promise are the concrete manifestations in redemptive history of his election. A more explicit exegetical connection of these elements will be seen in the case of Abraham's descendants (i.e., Isaac and Jacob, Rom. 9).  

Related to the blessing-election connection is New Testament pneumatology. The Holy Spirit is both the essence of the New Covenant blessedness (cf. 2 Cor. 3-4; Heb. 8-9) and the New Testament (will) legacy to the church. Since the weight of current opinion seems to favor subsuming the New Testament inheritance idea almost completely under covenant, it is necessary only to address the testamentary significance of the Holy Spirit and the blessing of Abraham.

Though this study argues for a greater place for the testament ideas in the structure of biblical theology, it is recognized that federal theology remains a key structure of biblical teaching. Paul's focus on the two Adams of Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 still must occupy a central position in any attempt to find an organizing principle for the biblical data. God's covenant with Abraham, however testamentally colored, must still reckon with the brokenness of the Adamic administration.

Suzerainty Treaties

Despite the caveat concerning federal theology, it remains the case that the Abrahamic covenant is too easily treated as a suzerainty treaty with superiority over the Mosaic covenant resting on temporal priority alone (cf. Gal. 3:17) or the ease and grace of the faith principle over the works principle. Once the testamental color of the Abrahamic covenant is duly recognized, it is possible to avoid connecting a suzerainty treaty emphasis with covenants where this emphasis is not applicable. The two elements of the Abrahamic administration which are easily misconstrued are the terms "blessing" and "promise" (cf. Gal. 3:14). Because suzerainty treaties have blessings and curses, it is easy to regard the blessing of Abraham as the positive reward for obedience or faithfulness in distinction from the negative sanction of faithlessness or disobedience. This is not the direction of Paul's argument however. Paul equates the entire Abrahamic administration with blessing and the entire Mosaic administration with cursing (Gal. 3:11-13).

The Mosaic covenant is after the model of a suzerainty treaty3 and this model constitutes the basis for its identification with cursing by Paul. No other outcome is possible where the power to fulfil the Suzerain's law is lacking. On the other hand, the Abrahamic covenant, with its blessing, is clearly based on something Paul calls "the promise" (Gal. 3:14, 16, 18; Rom. 4:13, 14, 16; 9:8, 9). The promises of God should not automatically be taken as synonymous with covenants or conditional rewards (cf. Rom. 9:4). When Paul speaks of the promise, it is in connection with being an heir, an idea closely connected to testaments and inheritances:

For the promise, that he should be heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if they which be of the law be heirs, faith is made void and the promise of no effect (Rom. 4:13, 14).

Constitutive Blessings

The asymmetry between the Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic covenant in Galatians 3 and 4 calls for a close inspection of the blessing of Abraham. Blessings are not always conferred as a direct result of some faithful performance. In some cases, blessings are constitutive and seemingly unconditional. The Lord blesses the Sabbath day. He blesses his creatures at the time he gives them a propagation mandate. He blesses man at the time of his propagation mandate. These sovereign constitutive type blessings are akin to the testamental blessing (cf. Gen. 49). The patriarchal blessings, sometimes called testaments in pseudepigraphal works, are prophetic promises which constitute an heir and a future heritage.4 Because the essence of the Genesis 12 blessing is an inheritance, the patriarchal blessing-testament is superior to the suzerainty treaty as a model for understanding the blessing of Abraham. The blessing of Genesis 12 is given before any explicit covenant has been cut. To the extent any condition is joined with the blessing of Abraham himself, it is tied to his answer to the divine call. This will be considered below. The importance of the placement of blessing promise in Genesis 12 is that Paul treats it as qualitatively different from a law covenant (Gal. 3:14, 18). The subsequent theft of Esau's blessing also fits the dominant emphasis on blessing as constitutive and testamental during the time of the patriarchs.

Covenant of Grant

One historical legal instrument which supports a testamental color to the Abrahamic covenant is the covenant of grant.5 This instrument provides a better model than the simple suzerainty treaty for accommodating much of the data because under this arrangement, a faithful vassal might acquire far more than vassal blessings.6 Special loyalty could be honored with adoption by the suzerain. By adoption, the new son might become an heir and exchange vassal status for future dynastic head status. Though this model still contains the preliminary element of special faithfulness and service, it suggests the possibility of connecting covenant and testament conceptually. Under this model, covenant dominates and leads to testament. Yet once effected, sonship would presumably render earlier covenant vassal stipulations obsolete.

Heirs of the Covenant

The Abrahamic covenant, in the context of Galatians and Romans, appears to be a faith covenant. In Paul's discussion of Abraham in Galatians 3, however, there is a subtle distinction on which his argument is based. This subtle distinction bypasses the question of faith covenant. Abraham is a father rather than an example for believers (cf. Rom. 4:11, 12, 16; contrast Heb. 11:8, 17). The argument is that Abraham was made God's heir to the world (Rom. 4:13) and Christ is the single seed (Gal. 3:16) to whom this inheritance is transferred. Those in Christ share the inheritance because of their connection to the primary heir, viz., Christ. Abraham is our father. It is not so much the believer's faith which constitutes the believer an heir. It is Abraham's faith which constitutes Abraham as an inheritance holder and giver. Abraham's children are, in a sense, automatically entitled to the inheritance. The issue Paul is dealing with concerns who the true children-heirs are. Children of Abraham share Abrahamic faith—not Abrahamic blood. Faith is important as a mark of sonship identity. Paul's argument tends to emphasize the passive nature of faith as opposed to works of the law. On one level, faith is an acquired family characteristic.

Election and Promise

Galatians 3:18 states, "For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise. But God gave it to Abraham by promise" (AV). This is a key text for appreciating the testamental color of the Abrahamic covenant and requires that attention be given to Paul's usage of the term "promise."  

In theological terms, the Abrahamic covenant lends itself to explanations based on the doctrine of election. Abraham's unique calling by God from Ur and Haran have the appearance of election. The specific election argument of Paul in Romans 9 moves naturally from faith and promise to election. Paul's argument contains the same thread as that in Romans 4 and Galatians 3. Abraham is a father with a legacy. If abstract proof of the doctrine of election was all that mattered to Paul, he might have argued from the election of other Old Testament individuals and presented a catalogue of the elect on the pattern of the catalogue of faith saints in Hebrews 11. Focusing on the descendants of Abraham is more germane to the purpose of Paul's discussion. Paul is ultimately concerned with Jewish-Gentile ecclesiastical relation. As such he argues for Jewish-Gentile covenantal inclusion by faith. Election is one theological premise in the larger argument for faith alone.

The Romans 4 and 9 arguments are parallel to Galatians 3. In both letters Abraham is not given as a mere example of faith.7 He is the father of the faithful (cf. Gal. 3:9, 29). He has a special redemptive-historical place which goes far beyond the value of his example. In Romans 9, the promise to Abraham is cast in the context of four potential heirs over two generations. Isaac prevails over Ishmael and Jacob prevails over Esau. Paul draws two lessons from this process of heir selection. First, inheritance is not based on flesh ties alone. Second, inheritance choice has election lying behind it. As important as faith is in Paul's discussion, he does not say that faith is the immediate cause for Isaac or Jacob becoming heirs. Each case illustrates a point. Isaac's miracle birth is apart from flesh power. Jacob's legacy is purely a matter of sovereign choice.

When Paul says the inheritance is given to Abraham by promise rather than by law (Gal. 3:18), we need to see "promise" in the sense that Paul normally uses. If all Paul wanted to say is that the inheritance is by faith fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant condition, then we would expect promise to be defined more clearly as such. Comparing Galatians 3:18 with Paul's other references to promise, we discover that the promise contains an emphasis on sovereign discrimination characteristic of a testamentary-blessing.

Abraham-centered Redemptive History

These two points, promise and election, are the twin bases for Paul denying an Abrahamic covenant based on blood alone. If blood rites are not the basis of the Abrahamic covenant, then what sort of tie connects one to Abraham? Election alone is beyond human purview without some external sign of election. A supernatural birth distinguishes the believer as it distinguished Isaac. The key point of identity, however, is that sons of faithful Abraham have faith. It is a familial characteristic. Those who bear this defining familial characteristic are heirs presumptive of Abraham. It is not so much that their faith fulfills an Abrahamic covenant condition.8

Abraham has already received a covenant and inheritance based on his own faith. God fulfills his promises to make the inheritance descend on his faith family. In short, Paul's argument is more Abraham centered than we might expect. From this Abraham centered perspective, we see that a promise to Abraham is fulfilled by a Gentile faith family. These are the promised heirs of Abraham. The portion of the Abrahamic covenant which promises a seed and a multitude functions as a testament. This may explain the peculiar ambiguity we find in the diatheke reference of Galatians 3:15. If the Abrahamic covenant incorporates a testament, and if this included testament insures the priority of the Abrahamic covenant to the Mosaic covenant, then a testament sense of diatheke may refer to the covenant as a whole by synecdoche. The testament sense controls the outcome of covenant administration as the testament is controlled by election and calling.

Covenant Demarcation, Incorporation and Growth

The tendency to find suzerainty treaty principles in the Abrahamic covenant is probably attributable to the growth of that covenant and God's interactions with Abraham over time. In Genesis 15 where the covenant is cut, there is little or no suggestion of conditions being placed on Abraham. The covenant comes in response to Abraham's faith. In Genesis 17, the language of conditionality is suggested in the words, "Walk before me, and be thou perfect, and I will make my covenant between me and thee" (vv. 1-2). Following these introductory words we find a further call to covenant keeping in verse 9 and an articulation of the specific demand which is of concern to the Lord in verses 10 through 14. The demand is summarized in these words of verse 10: "Every man child among you shall be circumcised."  

The obedience of Abraham in his sacrifice of Isaac also connects to a later statement by the Lord that covenanted blessings will come to Abraham as a consequence of this act of fidelity (Gen. 22:16-18).

These stages of covenant growth add detail to what is entailed in covenant keeping while incorporating earlier covenant blessings. Such growth and development constitutes a potential problem for Paul's debate with the Judaizers of his day. If the covenant obligations of Genesis 17 are properly part of the Abrahamic covenant, then this covenant by itself seems to be an inadequate basis to refute the need for circumcision on the part of Christian Gentiles. Paul's answer in Galatians is to say, by analogy with the world of human laws, no one may add new conditions after a diatheke has been confirmed (Gal. 3:15). However we translate diatheke, this answer seems overly broad in dealing with the narrow issue of circumcision. It is an answer that adequately establishes the priority and primacy of the Abrahamic covenant over the Mosaic covenant, but does not seem to specifically address the circumcision issue already present in Genesis 17. This might seem like a fatal flaw in his argument against the Judaizers. Since we do not know the exact form in which the Judaizers made their case, we need to assume Paul's argument was on point. The manner in which Paul addresses the same concern in Romans 4:10, provides a finer sense of his logic in Galatians. In Galatians 3:6, Paul cites from Genesis 15. In Romans 4:3 Paul uses the same text and parses the Abrahamic covenant based on the timing of the justification declaration. The subsequent giving of circumcision, argues Paul, could not belong to the essence of justification.

Circumcision: One Line of Demarcation Considered

The ability to draw a line of demarcation within the Abrahamic covenant presents interesting hermeneutical possibilities. It suggests that the integrity of the Abrahamic covenant—as defined over several points in Abraham's life—is not absolute. At the very least, a new sign of the covenant, such as baptism, must be able to replace circumcision. At the most extreme, it may separate justification from the Abrahamic covenant. Paul's argument in Galatians, however, suggests that circumcision is distinctive of the Mosaic administration. Though the Judaizers may have drawn the Galatians into practices that were purely Mosaic in nature (cf. Gal. 4:10), Paul's statement in Galatians 5:2-3 suggests that circumcision also belongs essentially to the law of Moses:

Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law.

This implies that circumcision not only functioned as a seal, separate in time, of the righteousness of Abraham's faith (Rom. 4:11), circumcision also is the mark of Jewish identity as that identity is most sharply defined in the law of Moses. As such, native Jewishness, circumcision, and the law of Moses are intertwined in a way that Semitic identity, circumcision, and the Abrahamic covenant are not.  

This demarcation and incorporation of circumcision with Moses further suggests that circumcision in Genesis 17 was a proleptic bridge to the Mosaic covenant. It explains why the covenant renewal of Genesis 17 has some similarity to a suzerainty treaty as distinct from the blessing of Genesis 12 or the initial covenant cutting of Genesis 15.


The distinction between the early covenant of Abraham and its later accretions presents a classic case of defining continuity and discontinuity in covenant administrations. For Paul, the obvious continuity element from Abraham to the New Testament church is faith. On closer inspection, this continuity element of faith carries throughout the life of Abraham as well. In Romans 4:19-22 we see Abraham exercising the same faith in God, albeit in more challenging circumstances. Abraham's faith in a miracle at age ninety-nine is related by Paul to his justification (v. 22). The same faith continuity at the time of the Isaac sacrifice is given a New Testament stamp of contemporary relevance by James and the book of Hebrews.

These factors explain how Paul can insist on continued faith (versus a single instance of easy believism) while isolating the crucial moment of Abraham's life for New Testament believers in Genesis 15. Faith led to a covenant and that covenant concerned and incorporated the earlier blessing on Abraham. The covenant, in short, was an added assurance of the promised inheritance. As such, the essential nature of the covenant was testamentary and not a vassal treaty.

Justification Demarcation—Two Covenants

For Paul, the declaration of righteousness on Abraham is the means of drawing a line between the testamentary aspect to the Abrahamic covenant and the subsequent suzerainty tie to the Mosaic administration. The very nature of the inheritance covenant is that it coveys sonship, whereas the suzerainty treaty conveys servitude. This distinction of covenant types is the line Paul pursues in the so-called allegory of the two covenants (Gal. 4:24). The legal principle which inheres in both covenants is that a child inherits his mother's legal condition rather than his fathers. A free father can only beget slave children from a slave woman.9 The logic of Paul's argument is that a return to the slave mother (Jerusalem below and the law covenant) is a return to slavery and a rejection of sonship.

Calling and the Spirit Legacy

In a conditional covenant, blessing follows fulfillment of conditions. In a testament, the patriarchal blessing normally comes near the time of death of the testator-patriarch. Abraham is blessed in Genesis 12 after his removal from Haran, but before he had walked with God for any recorded length of time. This circumstance may suggest to some that the blessing was neither testamental nor covenantal.10 Though testamental blessing normally is given in proximity to the death of the testator-blessing giver, the case of Abraham is unique. He is the first man put in the position of God's heir. Someone has to be first. God invests the inheritance in a vicarious father for redemptive purposes and Abraham is that father.

One circumstance suggests that the blessing of Genesis 12 has testamentary significance, apart from the content of the blessing itself (Gal. 3:8; Gen. 12:3). Abraham receives the blessing directly from God after abandoning his earthly heritage. The blessing of Abraham appears to follow upon the death of his father Terah (Gen. 11:32). The covenantal commentary on this event is contained in Genesis 15:7 in words which sound like the preface to the decalogue but which speak of inheritance: "I am the Lord that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaidees, to give thee this land to inherit it."

The calling theme in Scripture is underlined by the abandonment of the normal heritage for a better one. Elisha abandoned his home to follow Elijah (1 Kg. 19:19-21). At Elijah's translation to heaven, Elisha is granted a double portion of the prophet's spirit (2 Kg. 2:9-15). The double portion of spirit sets Elisha apart among the school of prophets as the one having the legacy of a first-born son. The New Testament analogue to this calling-legacy relationship is the gift of the apostolic office to those who followed after Jesus. These leave their earthly trades and family businesses to receive the legacy of an apostolic measure of the Holy Spirit.11 In Luke 22:28, 29 Jesus connects the sojourn of the disciples with him to the bequeathing of a kingdom to them.12 In Acts 1, the lot is used to appoint a vacant apostolic office in much the same manner as it was used to grant the tribes their inheritance (cf. Josh. 14:2; Ps. 16:5, 6).13 Counterpoised to this bestowal is Judas's acquisition of land by trading of his spiritual heritage for an abandoned unclean habitation.

The Luke 22 passage is also significant because of the dispute context to Jesus' testamental words. In a dispute about superiority among the twelve, Jesus grants a kind of superiority over the twelve tribes of Israel (cf. vv. 24 and 30). Though the pre-Pentecost spirit of the disciples is akin to the striving of Ephraim and Judah, the testament of Jesus subsumed Ephraim and Judah to the apostles. This settles the strife set in motion by the testament of Jacob in Genesis 49.


The basis of the spiritual testamentary grants we have considered is the solidarity of the heirs with the testator in earlier times. This solidarity entailed sacrifice of earthly benefit. Abram leaves Ur and Haran; Elisha leaves his home; and the disciples leave their normal lives. Calling away from one heritage leads to a new and better one (Mk. 10:28-31).

In an oblique way, David's grant of a heritage to Mephibosheth and later alienation of this heritage to his servant Ziba illustrates a similar point. The heritage is transferred on the mistaken assumption that Mephibosheth no longer was in solidarity with David. Ziba's apparent willingness to share David's trials became the basis of his elevation from servant to heir. Though based on bad information, this disposal of the heritage was evidently not revokable (2 Sam. 19:29). If David had any discretion it was merely to divide the inheritance, not to alienate it from Ziba. The irrevocable act of David further parallels the irrevocable act of Isaac's blessing on Jacob. The birth right was alienable, but not the blessing. This may add significance to the testamental words of Jesus making an explicit exception to blessing Judas (Lk. 22:22). There is no blindness, deception, or peculiar providence at work to grant him a kingdom legacy.

Willingness to answer a call and forsake one's heritage might be taken as fulfillment of a covenant stipulation, entitling one to the blessing of adoption (as in a covenant of grant). The chief difficulty with this theory is the lack of a covenant prior to Abram's call. The sovereign call and the willing response are suggestive of an extra-covenantal loyalty. The calling and blessing constitute part of the history which forms a basis for a later covenant. The blessing becomes incorporated into the covenant.

Further, the terms of a testament tend by nature to be a matter of private sovereign disposition. Good pleasure is on display in the opening of a will. God's good pleasure called Abraham and good pleasure resulted in blessing Abraham when the call was answered. In this sense, calling and response are acts of commitment without clear anterior bases.

When Jesus bequeaths a kingdom to those who continued with him in his temptations (Lk. 22:28), it is an inalienable blessing based on a relationship which reaches back to calling. Abraham walked with God after his call and did not realize his full blessing. Full blessings are eschatological. But the testamental foundation of those eschatological blessings was in place before the covenant with Abraham was cut. Before Genesis 12 was the reality of Ephesians 1:3-4, but this takes us outside the realm of redemptive history and the need for vicarious human fathers to stand in the place of God.

First Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Baltimore, Maryland

End Notes

1 Cf. Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) 31, "The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed." On the other hand, WLC 166 regards those outside the visible church as "strangers from the covenant of promise" and the infants of at least one believer as "in that respect [as a child of a believer], within the covenant, and are to be baptized." This issue of who is in the covenant has been of special concern to the Reformed Churches of Dutch background.

2 This issue has been dealt with by many. Of particular interest are treatments by Geerhardus Vos in "Hebrews the Epistle of the Diatheke," Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, ed. by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980), 161-233; Kenneth M. Campbell in "Covenant or Testament." Evangelical Quarterly 44/2 (1972): 107-111, and John Hughes in "Hebrews ix 15ff. and Galatians iii 15ff.; a Study in Covenant Practice and Procedure." Novum Testamentum 21/1 (1979): 27-96. This last study argues for retention of "covenant" as the uniform New Testament sense of diatheke. A concise presentation by Vos is also contained in the article "Covenant or Testament," Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, 400-411.

3 Cf. Meredith Kline's works, especially Treaty of the Great King (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963).

4 The existence of a testamental genre during New Testament times, modeled on Genesis 49 and perhaps the blessing of Moses, suggests a consciousness that the blessings of patriarchs were oral testaments.

5 Cf. Campbell, who uses the research of Moshe Weinfeld in "The Covenant of Grant in the Old Testament and in the Ancient Near East." Journal of the American Oriental Society 90/2 (1970): 184-203. See also F. F. Bruce, Commentary on Galatians (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982 [repr. 1992]).

6This point is made by Weinfeld. He recognizes the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants as "promissory" (p. 184). Weinfeld regards the structure of the suzerainty treaty as very similar to the covenant of grant, but states: "Functionally, however, there is a vast difference between these two types of document." This is because the obligation shifts from vassal to suzerain in the covenant of grant (p. 185). Both instruments are termed berith (p. 188).

7 In Galatians 3:6 the kathos introduction of Abraham has been taken by some to be the introduction of Abraham as example. Cf. comments of Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians (WBC; Dallas: Word, 1990), 112. Such a translation is unnecessary and peculiar in view of the considerable attention drawn to the Abrahamic covenant.

8 This does not exclude a conditional aspect to faith in other contexts, e.g., Acts 2:25, 26. Even the Galatians are expected to endure in faith.

9 This principle was accepted as late as the nineteenth century in America with the slave laws of the states.

10 Blessing also comes after the Isaac sacrifice of Genesis 22.

11 A special twist on this theme is found in the farewell discourse of John. The Holy Spirit-Paraclete is given to replace the soon-to-die Jesus. This prevents the disciples from being orphans. A legacy is normally received at the cost of becoming an orphan.

12 Though Vos rejects the translation "bequeath" for diatithesthai/diatithemai ("Covenant or Testament," p. 407) as unnecessary, and is backed by John Nolland in his commentary on Luke (WBC; Dallas: Word, 1993), the redemptive historical parallels suggest to me that Jesus is using his last words as a testament of kingdom transfer to the disciples.

13 Cf. Stuart Jones, "Life for Land." Kerux 2/1 (May 1987): 20-24.