God’s Promise to Abraham

In Genesis 12:2-3, God made a promise to Abraham that continued far beyond this patriarch’s lifetime. What was this promise? Does it still apply today?

When God began working with Abram (his name was later changed to Abraham), God gave him a command and an amazing promise. The command was “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).

Explaining the promise He would give Abraham in exchange for his obedience, God continued: “I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (verses 2-3).

This promise had multiple components, including the promise of multiple descendants, fame, divine protection and that Abraham through his descendants would be a blessing to all people. Abraham’s son, Isaac, and grandson, Jacob, were “heirs with him of the same promise” (Hebrews 11:9, emphasis added throughout).

Because of the multiple components that were part of this promise, it is also acceptable to refer to these components as promises. Indeed, this is how many translations of the Bible, including the New King James Version, translate Paul’s statement to the Galatians: “Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made” (Galatians 3:16).  

Our article “Promises to Abraham” explains that these promises were both physical and spiritual in nature. Physically, Abraham’s descendants would become a great nation. The spiritual blessing to all people was fulfilled in the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, a descendant of Abraham, through whom people of all nationalities may receive salvation (Acts 4:10-12; Galatians 3:16).

In this article, we will examine some of the components of the promises that were made to Abraham. As we will see, there are several additional passages in the book of Genesis that further explain what God was offering to Abraham and his descendants. In addition to Genesis 12:2-3, which we’ve already noted, here are a few more passages in this first book of the Bible that further expound upon the great blessing God was offering Abraham.

Genesis 12:7

“Then the LORD appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your descendants I will give this land.’ And there he built an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him.”

When Abraham left his country for the land God promised to show him, “he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8). After Abraham arrived in the land God wanted him to see, God announced that He would give this land to his descendants. As Abraham obeyed and grew in faith, God continued to reveal to him the blessings he and his descendants would receive.

Genesis 13:2, 14-17

“Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold. …

“And the LORD said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him: ‘Lift your eyes now and look from the place where you are—northward, southward, eastward, and westward; for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever. And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if a man could number the dust of the earth, then your descendants also could be numbered. Arise, walk in the land through its length and its width, for I give it to you.’”

God had promised to bless Abraham, and this soon became apparent due to Abraham’s personal wealth. Adding to what He had previously spoken, God now told this patriarch that his descendants would be numerous and that He was giving this land to Abraham and his descendants forever. God then encouraged Abraham to walk through the land—to check out the gift that he was being given.

Genesis 15:4-6, 18

“And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, saying, ‘This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir.’ Then He brought him outside and said, ‘Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.’ And He said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness. … On the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying: ‘To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates.’”

In response to Abraham’s statement that he was childless and that a servant was his heir, God told Abraham that his own child would be his heir and that through this child and subsequent generations, his descendants would become numerous, like the stars in the sky.

A significant detail here is that Abraham believed that what God had promised would indeed come about. Again, God repeats His promise of land for Abraham’s descendants—this time formalizing this part of the promise with a covenant that included specific geographical boundaries.

Genesis 17:1-8, 15-16

“When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless. And I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.’ Then Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying: ‘As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall be a father of many nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you a father of many nations.

“I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you.

“Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.’ …

“Then God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. And I will bless her and also give you a son by her; then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be from her.’”

Many years had now gone by since God had first promised Abraham that his descendants would become so numerous that they could be compared to the dust of the earth and the stars of the sky. But so far, Abraham and his wife had not had any children. They were both getting older, and it was looking like they would not have any children. God took this occasion to remind Abraham that He would multiply him “exceedingly.”

At this time God also changed Abram’s name to Abraham, saying he would become a “father of many nations,” and the name of his wife from Sarai to Sarah, saying she would be a “mother of nations” (Genesis 17:5, 16). Even though it didn’t look like Abraham and Sarah would ever have a child, God continued to repeat and add details to the original promise He had made to Abraham.

Genesis 18:17-18

“And the LORD said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing, since Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?’”

The setting for this passage is just prior to God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah due to the wickedness of these cities’ inhabitants. Here, in a remarkable verse, we see God’s thoughts on whether to share with Abraham what He is about to do. What apparently led God to share His plan with Abraham was the fact that Abraham would become a mighty nation and that all nations would be blessed through this man.

What this verse tells us is that this promise to Abraham was extremely important to God. God frequently brought up this promise in discussions with the patriarch; and here, it was apparently an important factor in God deciding to share with Abraham what He was planning to do to these cities.

Genesis 21:1-3

“And the LORD visited Sarah as He had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as He had spoken. For Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. And Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him—whom Sarah bore to him—Isaac.”

This passage shows that God was true to His word. Even though Sarah was “past the age” for having children, God miraculously allowed her to conceive and bear a son (Hebrews 11:11). “Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born as many as the stars of the sky in multitude—innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore” (verse 12).

Genesis 22:16-18

“By Myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son—blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.”

After Abraham showed that he was willing to sacrifice his only son—the one through whom Abraham expected God to fulfill His promise of many descendants, God repeated again the great blessing He said that He would give to Abraham. In addition to his descendants having numerous progeny, God told Abraham, “Your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies.”

While various interpretations of this phrase “gate of their enemies” range from having power and authority over others (legal transactions took place at the gate of a city) to controlling strategic land and sea gates, both of these concepts may have been intended. Seeing the many times God repeats the blessing, both are logical in light of God’s statement to Abraham: “I will make you a great nation” (Genesis 12:2). Great nations wield authority and control strategic land and sea gates.

Does the promise still apply?

Today it is commonly understood that Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of God’s promise to bless all families of the earth through Abraham. It is also acknowledged that Abraham’s descendants multiplied and eventually became the ancient nations of Israel and Judah. But does God’s promise to Abraham have any significance today?

While many people readily acknowledge that the blessing of Jesus Christ to all peoples continues today, they don’t know whether the physical promises to Abraham’s descendants are still applicable. Some think that the blessings were fulfilled and, hence, there is no continuance of the physical promises.

What the Bible teaches is that the physical blessings to these people will continue until and after Christ’s return. For example, Genesis 49:1 presupposes that the 12 sons of Jacob would grow into prominent nations and that they would exist “in the last days.”

During His New Testament ministry, Jesus told His disciples that in the future Kingdom of God, they would sit on thrones “judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:30). New Jerusalem will have 12 gates, each named after one of “the twelve tribes of the children of Israel” (Revelation 21:12).

The answer is that both the spiritual and physical components of Abraham’s promise still apply. The opportunity to receive salvation comes through the spiritual part of God’s promise to Abraham—the coming of Jesus Christ. Making sense of end-time prophecies is enhanced by understanding who the nations are today that are largely comprised of Abraham’s descendants. Be sure to read the articles in this section that provide keys to these nations’ identities.