Like his father Avram before him, Scripture does not record G-d's covenant with Yitzchak first. Instead we are first told about another covenant:
Yitzchak's Covenant with Avimelech
Genesis chapter 26 gives us the next covenant described in Scripture. The chapter relates the following story:
Avraham has died and Yitzchak is living in the Land. There was a famine in the land and Yitzchak goes down to the city of Gerar to Avimelech, king of the Philistines. G-d tells Yitzchak not to go down to the land of Egypt. Yitzchak stays in Gerar and becomes rich and establishes a "great household" (verse 14). Avimelech sends Yitzchak away because he has become "too powerful" for the Philistines and so Yitzchak moves into the valley outside the city. There Yitzchak's servants dig wells and quarrels with the herdsmen of Gerar over who owns the water. Afterwards Avimelech comes with his advisor and his military commander and makes a covenant with Yitzchak. They state "we see plainly that the LORD has been with you" (verse 28) and pursue a covenant with him. It is this covenant with Avimelech that is found next after G-d's covenant with Avram.
G-d's Covenant with Yitzchak
In Genesis 17 G-d tells Avraham that He will establish His covenant with Yitzchak as "an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him" (Genesis 17:21). The details of G-d's covenant with Yitzchak are the same as those of G-d's covenant with Avraham.
- Introduction- Genesis 17:1-3
- The covenant is G-d's (Genesis 17:4)
- The covenant is made with Yitzchak (Genesis 17:19)
- The covenant is made with Yitzchak's descendants (Genesis 17:19)
- Covenant Responsibilities-
- Required actions-
- Every male of his household shall be circumcised (Genesis 17:10-11)
- Every male child of his household in the future shall be circumcised when he is 8 days old (Genesis 17:12)
- Servants or slaves who are purchased who are not of his lineage shall be circumcised (Genesis 17:13)
- A male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people (Genesis 17:14)
- Prohibited actions-
- G-d will make him exceedingly fruitful
- He will become nations (Genesis 17:6)
- Kings will come forth from him (Genesis 17:6)
- The Land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river Euphrates; the land of the Kenite and the Kenizzite and the Kadmonite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Rephaim and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Girgashite and the Jebusite, is given to him and his descendants after him (Genesis 17:8).
- G-d will be the G-d of his descendants (Genesis 17:7, 17:8)
["...to be G-d to you...", "...and I will be their G-d."]
- G-d will make him exceedingly fruitful
- An uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people (Genesis 17:14)
- Required actions-
- Conditions for perpetuation
- The covenant is specified to be for Avraham and his descendants throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant [l'brit olam] (Genesis 17:7)
- Enumeration of witnesses - none given
- Covenant sign- circumcision of males' foreskin on the eighth day (Genesis 17:10-13)
- Covenant seal- none given
The Covenant Belongs to G-d
Twice G-d refers to the covenant with Yitzchak as "My covenant" (Genesis 17:19, 21). As was noted previously in this series the ownership of and authority in His covenants is G-d's alone. Only He has authority to initiate a covenant and can bring something of value to the covenant. We have nothing to offer Him except that which already His.
A Covenant of Grace
As with all of G-d's covenants, this covenant with Yitzchak is extended as a measure of G-d's grace. Yitzchak did nothing to merit this covenant with G-d. We find that G-d had selected Yitzchak to receive the covenant before he was even born (Genesis 17:21). Continuing on in the theme of the series and paraphrasing the l'olam y'hay adam prayer of the ancient believers:
It is not in the merit of Yitzchak's righteousness but in the merit of G-d's abundant mercy that Yitzchak was shown grace and G-d established His covenant with him.
Yitzchak did nothing to merit this covenant with G-d, however, He does inform Yitzchak that the reason He would extend the covenant to him is because of Avraham's faithfulness to His instruction (Genesis 26:5).
An Everlasting Covenant
In Genesis 17:19 G-d describes His covenant with Yitzchak as an "everlasting covenant" [brit olam]. As we noted earlier in this series, the Hebrew word olam is also used in various passages to describe G-d's eternal and everlasting nature.
A Covenant of the Land
This is not a salvation covenant. It is the covenant through which G-d promises the Land of the kingdom being extended to Avraham's son, Yitzchak.
G-d Establishes an Oath with Yitzchak
As found in the study of G-d's covenant with Avraham, G-d says to Avraham that He "will establish" (Genesis 17:19,21) His covenant with Yitzchak as "an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him" (Genesis 17:21). Yet Scripture does not record G-d entering into a covenant with Yitzchak using the term brit. Does this mean that G-d went back on His Word and did not establish a covenant with Yitzchak?
May it never be!
There is evidence that G-d did make a covenant with Yitzchak. The evidence is that the covenant is clearly referenced elsewhere in Scripture: Exodus 2:24, Leviticus 26:42, 2 Kings 13:23. These all reference G-d's covenant with Yitzchak. So where in Scripture do we find G-d establishing His covenant with Yitzchak?
In Genesis 26:3 G-d tells Yitzchak that He will "establish the oath" which He swore to his father Avraham. What was the oath that G-d sword to Avraham? The oath is that He would establish His covenant with Yitzchak! (Genesis 17:21).
Language of the Promise
G-d uses the language of the promise He gave to Avraham:
- Multiply descendants as the stars of heaven (Genesis 22:17)
- "To your descendants I will give this land" (Genesis 12:7, 24:7)
- In you all the nations of the earth will be blessed (Genesis 18:18, 22:18)
Using these same terms in Genesis 26:4 G-d says to Yitzchak "I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed;"
Interestingly the sentence does not end there. G-d goes on to tell Yitzchak why He will do such a thing:
because Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments [mitzvot], My statutes [chukkim] and My laws [Torot... the plural of Torah]
This reaffirms what G-d stated to Avraham in Genesis 22:18 after he did not withhold his son at the akeidah1
Then the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, "By Myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies. "And in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice."
Traditional Judaism points to this Genesis 26 passage other, similar verses as evidence that the details of the Law given at Sinai were already known to the Patriarchs.2 They claim it is here that, as G-d is about to establish His covenant with Yitzchak, He informs him that his father kept G-d's charge, commandments, statutes, and laws and tells Yitzchak that he is expected to do the same.
Yitzchak's Name is not Changed
The details of the covenant given to Yitzchak are the same as those given to Avraham. The only significant difference is that Yitzchak's name is not changed as he enters into this covenant.
G-d gave Yitzchak his covenant name while he was as yet unborn. In the same verse where G-d promises to establish His covenant with Yitzchak He gives Avraham the name by which he will be known:
But G-d said, "No, but Sarah your wife will bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac [Hebrew: Yitzchak] and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.
Even before he was conceived in his mother's womb, Yitzchak had a covenant relationship with the G-d of all creation.
The next mention of covenant found in Scripture is in Genesis 31:44 and involves Yitzchak's son, Yaakov.
Footnotes1. Orthodox Union Glossary-A at http://www.ou.org/about/judaism/a.htm#akeidah [back]
2. Mishnah Kiddushin 4:14; Tosefta Kiddushin 5:17 [back]