Troublesome Topic: Was God’s Covenant with Abram Conditional, Unconditional, or Neither?

Genesis 17:1


And when Abram was ninety nine years old YHVH (read Adonai) appeared to him and said, “I [am] EL SHADDAI,

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before me

and be complete.”

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Now it happened that when Abram was ninety-nine years old THE ETERNAL AND PERSONAL GOD appeared to him and said, “I am, THE ALMIGHTY GOD, live before me in a way that is innocent and sound, not lacking anything I desire.”

God was being very clear about what He expected from Abram in this relationship. This covenant definitely placed some requirements upon Abram; it was not all on God’s plate.

It is not clear in Genesis 15 whether Abram passed between the slaughtered animals or not. Some people assume that Abram had to take his turn because that is how covenants were cut. If they are right, the text did not need to state it because it was common knowledge how covenants were cut. Others argue that only God passed between the dead animals because this was a royal grant covenant, and thus a “one way street.” Whichever position you take in this matter, it is obvious here in 17:1 that God was making some demands of Abram, and Abram was committed to the covenant as well.

Was it typical in royal grant covenants for the recipient of the grant to have demands placed on him? Yes, I believe certain expectations were assumed. If a King granted a special favor to a subject, it was expected that the subject would continue to be faithful, but the offer was not made on the basis of future loyalty. This brings up the issue of the “conditionality.” Much has been written about whether God’s covenants have been of a conditional nature or an unconditional nature. Here is another case in which we have asked the wrong questions and they have led us away from the right answers. It is an issue that the Bible never cares to address since the terms conditional and unconditional are not found in scripture. This is tantamount to measuring a board with a measuring cup, or measuring milk with a ruler. If the author of the Bible, God Himself, does not deem it necessary to address the issue, why should we make such a big issue of it?

For many years most people agreed with the popular view about what was conditional and what was not; but then there have come men and women who have found elements of conditionality in the so called “unconditional” covenants. As we shall see with the Davidic covenant, even those which seem to be “unconditional” covenants God treats as “conditional,” reason for which I say we should stop barking up the wrong tree.

God’s covenant with Abram was a way for God to prove how serious, how committed, and how trustworthy He was about His promise. Was Abram absolved from any responsibility? Of course not. Does that make God’s promise carry less weight?  Of course not. The primary requirement God placed upon Abram was to “walk before me and be complete,” as seen in the passage given above. He was also required to place a sign of the covenant upon himself, and he was given a new name. He was expected to accept and believe the meaning of his new name and change his attitudes and thinking accordingly.

The next lesson for the full version of this series is: Why Circumcision?



The reason this was mentioned was to remind Abram of God’s provision in the past and also of the punishment that will come for acts of disobedience.


The idea behind “walk” is to live or conduct one’s self properly. It is about how we act.


“complete” is difficult to express in one English word because of its depth and richness of meaning. The root idea is that of being “complete, whole, or finished.” Things like “integrity, being blameless, without fault, innocent, sound” are also part of this word’s intended meaning. It has been translated by some as “perfect” because of the idea of “not lacking anything.” Or we could say it means “being entirely in accord with truth.” Unfortunately, using just one of these English words or phrases does not adequately capture this word’s full impact. Using a phrase or two comes closer but expressing its full meaning would require a full paragraph, which is impractical. That is why someone invented footnotes.J

Does this word describe the person – “be blameless,” or does it describe the action – “live blamelessly?” An ancient Jew would probably say, “Yes, it describes both.” The original text includes the verb “be” but it goes with “walk” which means “live.” They are presented as two ideas, but the way we work them out in our lives shows they are basically the same things. In the translation column I use this word to describe the person, and in the paraphrase column I use it to describe his actions.

We become complete, mature, fulfilled and satisfied when, with God’s help, we obey God in every aspect of our lives. There is no room here for partial obedience. We are not the ones to choose what gets included in this covenant relationship; God has already chosen, and He said it includes everything.

How can we be “finished” before we die? Aren’t we always learning and growing spiritually? Yes, that is true. Thankfully, God sees the heart. He wants us to strive toward total obedience and complete faithfulness, and He accepts our feeble attempts rather than punishing us for being weak and imperfect. He punishes willful sinning but not simple weakness. We see many times in Scripture that God is good at balancing things that are hard for us to balance. Here we find that God is good at balancing His high standard (His holiness) and our weakness (His mercy and grace).