Although the principle of a generational covenant is seen earlier in the Bible, it is given its foundational structure in the covenant that God made with Abraham.
Genesis 17:7 I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your seed after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your seed after you.
God’s covenant promise to Abraham was that He would be the God of Abraham, and the God of Abraham’s children (seed). The phrase “to be God to you” connotes a special relationship of favor and blessing with God. Every succeeding generation that proceeded from Abraham and remained faithful to God’s covenant could claim this relationship, both for themselves and for their children. God gave the sign of circumcision to Abraham as the seal of the covenant that God made with him and his children – in fact with his entire household. Even slaves from other nations purchased by Abraham or born into his house were to be circumcised – every male that fell under Abraham’s household authority.
There are two misconceptions about the covenant with Abraham that tend to create confusion. One is that the covenant was only made with Abraham and his physical descendants, the Jewish people. The other is that the promises of the Abrahamic covenant were only physical, earthly promises – having little bearing on spiritual relationship with God and eternal salvation. The first misconception can be corrected by realizing that even from the beginning, God’s concern was not solely with the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God ultimately intended to bless ALL the families (Gen. 12:3) and nations (Gen.22:18) of the earth through the descendants of Abraham. Although this is ultimately fulfilled in Christ, it begins to be fulfilled in the old covenant. Foreigners could voluntarily join themselves to Israel and could dwell in the land. They were protected under the law and could participate in sacrificial worship (Leviticus 17:8-11). To fully join the covenant and share in the Passover meal, a foreigner had to be circumcised – along with all the males in his household:
Exodus 12:48-49 48 But if a stranger sojourns with you, and celebrates the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near to celebrate it; and he shall be like a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person may eat of it. 49 The same law shall apply to the native as to the stranger who sojourns among you.”
Therefore a stranger (foreigner) could join the covenant. However, even though neither he nor his children physically descended from Abraham, his children still came into the covenant with him! “Let all his males be circumcised”. God renews the covenant made with Abraham with the new convert, claiming his children and servants as well as himself. When his children grew up (if they remained faithful to the covenant), there can be no doubt that their children would also belong to God in the covenant.
The second misconception can be stated more fully as “the old covenants were filled with physical, earthly promises for a physical, earthly people – and the New Covenant is spiritual promises for a spiritual people. This, however, is a false dichotomy, because the old covenant is filled with spiritual blessings as well as spiritual obligations. “To be God to you and your descendants” implies a relationship with God that goes beyond receiving physical earthly blessings. It is a relationship that involves favor and blessings from God, as well as obligations to maintain the covenant in faithful obedience.
Also, the most specific earthly blessing of the Abrahamic covenant was the eternal possession of the land of Caanan. This promise appears to be transfigured in the New Covenant – from the specific land of Caanan for the Jews, to the world as a whole as the possession of God’s covenant people. For example:
Matthew 5:5 5 “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.
Romans 4:13 13For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith.
Ephesians 6:1-3 1Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2“Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise— 3“that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”
In Ephesians 6:1-3, Paul is taking a commandment directly out of the Mosaic Law, which originally pertained to the land of Caanan (Exodus 20:12), and transfigures it to apply to the entire earth.
Referring back to circumcision, it should be noted that although it was a physical sign cut into the flesh, this should not be taken to infer that it did not have a deeply spiritual meaning. The true meaning of what circumcision signifies is seen early on in the Mosaic covenant:
Deuteronomy 10:15-16 15 Yet on your fathers did the Lord set His affection to love them, and He chose their descendants after them, even you above all peoples, as it is this day. 16 So circumcise your heart, and stiffen your neck no longer.
Deuteronomy 30:6 6 “Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live.
Circumcision, then was not a purely carnal sign, representative of being a Jew and receiving the earthly blessing of the land, but was rather a symbol of a deeper reality: the circumcision of the heart. This is the putting off of the old man, the death of the flesh, and acknowledging the need for new life from God. Paul makes the significance of circumcision clear in Romans 4.
Romans 4:7-12 7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, And whose sins have been covered. 8 “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.”
9 Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, “Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” 10 How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised;11 and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, 12 and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised.
Therefore the covenant originally made between God and Abraham was spiritual – it pertained to faith, forgiveness of sins, and right standing before God. It was also familial, and generational – children were claimed by God and belonged in the covenant with their parents. They received the “seal of the righteousness of the faith” before being able to express active faith themselves.