Monday, May 10, 2021

Anonymous Asks (144)

“Did God make any promises to Abraham that remain unfulfilled?”

I count 40 separate promises to Abraham made over the course of seven chapters and a period of (very approximately) 40 years.

How about that.

Mileage May Vary

Your mileage will certainly vary, for a number of reasons. For example, promises #3 and 4 could be considered a single compound promise if you like, but since they affect two distinct groups of people and could each stand alone, I am reading them as two separate promises.

Also, it can reasonably be argued that some of the later promises are simply restatements in other words of earlier promises (#21 is #19 restated; nevertheless, God said it twice). Also along these lines, there is the repeated promise to “bless” various parties, which could simply be a general promise of God’s good disposition toward a person, and taken as distinct from what follows it. But I prefer to think that each reference to blessing is explained by a subsequent clause expanding on the first promise, so that in my view promise #2 concerns the specific blessing of a great name, while promises #31 and #38 concern blessing by way of the multiplication of offspring for Ishmael and Abraham respectively.

Finally, other commands are given by God to Abraham (“You will call his name Isaac”) that could reasonably be interpreted as promises which were later fulfilled, but since nothing other than Abraham’s simple obedience to a command was required in order to make good on a “promise” of that sort, I am not including these.

In any case, the actual number of promises we enumerate is not as important as getting them all, and I believe we have a comprehensive list below.

Fire Away

So do any of these promises remain unfulfilled? You tell me.

Genesis 12:1-3

  1. I will make of you a great nation.
  2. I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
  3. I will bless those who bless you.
  4. Him who dishonors you I will curse.
  5. In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

Genesis 13:15-16

  1. All the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever.
  2. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted.

Genesis 15:1-5, 13-16

  1. I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.
  2. Your very own son shall be your heir.
  3. Number the stars … so shall your offspring be.
  4. Your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs.
  5. [Your offspring] will be servants there.
  6. [Your offspring] will be afflicted for four hundred years.
  7. I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve.
  8. Afterward they shall come out with great possessions.
  9. You shall go to your fathers in peace.
  10. You shall be buried in a good old age.
  11. [Your offspring] shall come back here in the fourth generation.

Genesis 17:1-8, 16-21

  1. You shall be the father of a multitude of nations.
  2. I will make you exceedingly fruitful.
  3. I will make you into nations.
  4. Kings shall come from you.
  5. I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant.
  6. I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession.
  7. I will be their God.
  8. I will bless [Sarah].
  9. I will give you a son by [Sarah].
  10. [Sarah] shall become nations.
  11. Kings of peoples shall come from her.
  12. I will establish my covenant with [Isaac] as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him (also verse 21).
  13. I have blessed [Ishmael] and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly.
  14. [Ishmael] shall father twelve princes.
  15. I will make [Ishmael] into a great nation.

Genesis 18:10, 22-32

  1. I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.
  2. For the sake of ten [righteous people] I will not destroy [Sodom].

Genesis 21:12-13

  1. Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.
  2. I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.

Genesis 22:17-18

  1. I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.
  2. Your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies.
  3. In your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.

Prepare to be Disappointed

If you thought I was going to follow this list of promises with a list of specific fulfillments for each one, prepare to be disappointed. That looks to me like a book-length project. Any regular reader of scripture who scans this list will immediately think of at least one and sometimes multiple ways in which each promise has been realized. What interests me more than piling up verse references is considering the different ways in which God has made good on his promises to the patriarch, his wife and children.

1/ Fulfillments Enjoyed and Anticipated

At least eleven of these promises were literally fulfilled, either fully or partially, in Abraham’s own lifetime. So while he looked for a city whose builder and maker is God, he also enjoyed many of the benefits of God’s blessing during his own earthly experience. Still, a full 3/4 of those blessings remained to be realized when Abraham died and was buried.

2/ Fulfillments Partial and Full

One could argue that promise #7 (offspring “as the dust of the earth”) was already fulfilled by the time Balaam blessed Israel in Numbers 23. “Who can count the dust of Jacob or number the fourth part of Israel?” the prophet concluded rhetorically in his first oracle. To Balaam, God’s promise was already fulfilled, whether he knew about it or not. And yet we can readily see that the host of Israel was only beginning to multiply at that point, would continue to multiply for at least another 3,500 years, and continues to multiply today.

3/ Fulfillments Literal and Spiritual

To enumerate the various ways in which the literal promises of fatherhood to Abraham have been fulfilled (Isaac, Ishmael, the sons of Keturah) is far less important than to recognize that the true value of Abraham’s fatherhood was fundamentally spiritual. Jesus told the Jews of his day, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” And the apostle Paul says to the Galatians, “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham,” admitting to Abraham’s spiritual family hosts of believers the patriarch could never have envisioned as his own sons and daughters, but who are his in the truest sense of all.

4/ Fulfillments in Israel and Christ

A full sixteen promises concern Abraham’s “offspring”. Again, in Galatians Paul distinguishes between promises made to “offsprings”, plural, and to “offspring”, singular, the latter meaning Christ. So then, there is a sense in which the Genesis 17 promises concerning offspring are fulfilled in Christ, but not all references to Abraham’s offspring are to Christ. When God says, for example, that Abraham’s offspring would come back to Canaan in the fourth generation, it is hard to see that as a specifically Messianic promise. On the other hand, “Your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies”, though true at some points in Israel’s history, is much truer of Christ than of the nation from which he came.

Promises That Remain Unfulfilled

If you take a good look at this list, I do not think you can find a single promise that remains unfulfilled in its basic, literal sense. However, it seems to me that a few await their final fulfillment at Christ’s return. The gate of the enemies of Abraham’s offspring will never be more fully possessed than at that time.

In summary, the multiple and varied fulfillments of these promises stand as powerful testimony to the reliability of God’s word.

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