Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what He has promised him.
This quotation from Genesis 18:18-19 offers further explanation of the covenant God made with Abraham, recorded in Genesis 17:1-21 and Genesis 12:1-2. It specifies the implication of “be blameless” in Genesis 17:1 (discussed yesterday) as “doing what is right and just.”
The context in which it appears is God’s discussion with Abraham about the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah. The Hebrew word translated “outcry” in Genesis 18:20 refers to “the cry of pain from those who are oppressed or violated.”1
In a world so rife with injustice that Sodom and Gomorrah are annihilated because of it,2 the Lord wants Abraham and his descendants to stand out by reflecting God’s righteous and just character.
As with ancient codes of law that reflected the nature of the king who decreed them, the covenant requirement to do what is right and just reflects the character of the Lord making the requirement.3
Because the Lord loves justice (Isaiah 61:8), He wants Israel to do what is right and just.
The Human Role in Covenant
While researching the notion of covenant over the past few days, I’ve struggled to understand whether the promises God makes actually depend on human action such as “doing what is just and right.”
On the one hand, the Bible is clear that God will carry out His purpose to bless the nations and restore shalom whether or not humans cooperate.
On the other hand, the Abrahamic covenant provides stipulations that Abraham and his descendants must meet for God to fulfill His promises.
Abraham is to “direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what He has promised him.”4
If God’s people fail to do what is just and right, then the earth will not be blessed by them. If the covenant depends entirely on Abraham and his descendants, then without their cooperation, injustice and disorder will continue indefinitely.
Based on my understanding of the Bible as a whole, however, God will not let His purposes be thwarted by human unfaithfulness. He will allow the course by which He arrives at their fulfillment to be affected by people’s actions.
God is Trustworthy and Reconciling
In accordance with my earlier definition of covenant, God remains faithful to His covenant with Abraham even when he and his descendants stray. The failure of one party to uphold his or her obligations, after all, is not sufficient to negate a covenant relationship.
As Professor Joseph Allen states, “It is God’s trustworthiness rather than human trust and loyalty that constitutes the inclusive covenant.”5
When humanity breaks its part of the agreement, severing relationship with God, God seeks reconciliation and reestablishment of the covenant. He so doggedly pursues relationship with His people that when they fail to fulfill their obligations, He offers opportunities for repentance and forgiveness.
In other words, He seeks restoration of right relationship, which we’ve seen is a fundamental expression of justice and righteousness. Thus God brings justice even when humanity falls short, for His faithfulness reaches to the heavens.6
God’s graciousness and quickness to forgive does not mean, however, that humans can take advantage of Him or escape the consequences of their actions. “On the contrary, God’s love expresses itself in quite unexpected ways, including in the form of judgment. But the Israelites voice the assurance that in all its forms God’s action expresses love.”7
Consider Israel’s enslavement in Egypt followed by 40 years of wandering in the desert. In all that time, God never renounced His covenant promise to make Abraham’s descendants into a great nation. He gives them the land He promised, but they suffer the consequences of their unfaithfulness along the way, undergoing immense suffering for hundreds of years before claiming the land.
Even after the Lord gives Israel possession of the promised land, they eventually become a scattered nation because of their unfaithfulness. They break relationship with the Lord, turning to other gods, and they face further suffering because of their choices.
All the while, God remains faithful to His covenant, always wooing His people back into relationship with Him.
1. Christopher J.H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 259.
2. Genesis 18:20, 24.
3. Eds. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 424.
4. Genesis 18:19 (NIV). The emphasis is mine.
5. Joseph L. Allen, Love & Conflict: A Covenantal Model of Christian Ethics (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1995), 40.
6. Psalm 36:5.