At the end of Genesis, we have a summary statement given in the words of the dying Joseph regarding the identity of the Hebrew people: “And Joseph said to his brethren, ‘I am dying; but God will surely visit you, and bring you out of this land [of Egypt] to the land of [Canaan] which He swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob’” (Gen. 50:24). There are three elements in this statement that constitute the unique identity of the Hebrews. First, their monotheistic faith in Yahweh (or their relationship to Yahweh); second, their covenant lineage, or the promises that God made to their fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and third, the land of promise. In short, the heart of Hebrew identity is their relationship with Yahweh, and this relationship exists through a distinct lineage (covenant heritage) with a view to a promised land. Genesis emphasizes lineage, Exodus and Leviticus relationship to Yahweh, and Numbers and Deuteronomy the promised land (Dempster 29). While Deuteronomy and Numbers are not addressed here, the promised land still comes into play in Genesis through Leviticus.
What Is a Covenant?
A covenant may be unilateral or bilateral and it establishes a relationship between the parties with accompanying obligations (Dempster 73). According to House, a covenant is a “binding agreement that includes pledges, responsibilities and blessings” (69). Emphasizing God’s covenants with man, Samuel Renihan quotes Nehemiah Coxe as follows: “A declaration of [God’s] sovereign pleasure concerning the benefits he will bestow on [man], the communion they will have with him, and the way and means by which this will be enjoyed by them” (41).
It should be noted that covenant per se is not what makes the Hebrews unique among their cultural neighbors. Covenants, after all, were common practice in the ancient Near East, either between equal parties or unequal parties (e.g. a suzerain over a vassal) (Van Pelt, editor 61). What makes them unique is the one who covenants with them – Yahweh – and the nature of these covenants.
Following is a brief description of the two covenants that especially pertain to the identity of Israel as a unique people and nation – the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants. The Davidic Covenant, while certainly important in the life and theology of the Hebrews, as well as the New Covenant under Christ, is not directly related to the establishment of Israel as a unique people and nation, which is the focus of this essay. By the time of the Davidic Covenant, the Israelite nation and their distinct lineage is already formed.
The Abrahamic Covenant. Although God covenanted with Noah and his sons (Shem, Ham, and Japheth) immediately before and after the flood (Gen. 6:8ff; 9:8-17), this was a general covenant with language echoing that of the creation account in Genesis 1. It was, therefore, a “covenant through which God governs the kingdom of creation and its members, mankind” (Renihan 78) – a general covenant over all of creation. It is not until God covenants with Abraham (God changes his name from Abram to Abraham because of the promise to him; Gen. 17:5) that the unique identity of the Hebrews is born.
Abraham was of the line of Shem (Gen. 10:11ff). One day, Yahweh tells Abraham to leave his country and father and promises to bless him: “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” (Gen. 12:2-3). This blessing includes a promise of land, descendants, and the privilege of being a blessing to all nations (Dempster 75-6). On the hermeneutical significance of Genesis, Dempster notes the birth of Israel as a nation being “set within God’s larger purposes for the world and for creation” (23).
What is initiated in Genesis 12 is confirmed in Chapter 15 with a covenant ceremony wherein God unilaterally promises to fulfill all that He has said. The covenant is then expanded in Genesis 17 where a royal line is promised (“I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you” v. 6) and a demand of loyalty is given by way of a covenant sign (“This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised” v. 10) (Renihan 89-94).
A unique relationship with Yahweh, promises of land and a nation, along with the sign of circumcision, combine to form the Hebrew identity, and it all begins with Abraham.
After Abraham, God covenants with his son, Isaac, and then with Isaac’s son, Jacob. These, however, are not distinct covenants but are subsumed under the Abrahamic Covenant. God essentially repeats to Isaac and Jacob the promises He made to Abraham, such as being blessed with posterity, a nation, and a promised land. This is therefore a covenant renewal, not the institution of new covenants (Van Pelt, editor 64-5). It is nonetheless important for understanding the Hebrew lineage and God’s faithfulness. For instance, in Exodus 2:24 we read, “So God heard [Israel’s] groaning [under bondage to Egypt], and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob” [Emphasis added]. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are seen as the fathers of this covenant relationship, and God’s remembering signifies His faithfulness (cf. Ex. 3:15). This harkens back to Joseph’s words in Genesis 50:24.
Lastly, God changes Jacob’s name to Israel (Gen. 32:28), which is how the Hebrew people became known as the Israelites. Jacob’s twelve sons would become the fathers of the twelve tribes – Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, and Joseph (cf. Ex. 1:1-7).
The Mosaic Covenant. By the time Moses comes on the scene, the identity of the Israelites is well established, but there are still things left undone. While the Israelites had multiplied greatly (Ex. 1:7), just as God promised Abraham, they were still without the promised land.
After the exodus from Egypt, Israel arrives at the foot of Mt. Sinai. God speaks to Moses: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5-6). God then gives the Ten Commandments to Moses and Aaron (Ex. 20:1-17). Other sundry laws are given (Ex. 21-23) and Israel affirms the covenant (Ex. 24). Living in the land will require certain laws to be followed in order to properly represent Yahweh, worship Him, and remain in the land. This explains why the Mosaic Covenant is understood as a development of the Abrahamic Covenant, rather than a mere renewal (Renihan 105).
While the book of Exodus does include instructions on the tabernacle (the portable place of worship during the wilderness wandering prior to the building of the temple in the promised land) and priestly garments, it is the book of Leviticus that supplies the regulatory details concerning the various sacrifices and offerings. A detailed treatment of this is beyond the scope of this essay, however.
Leviticus is fundamentally concerned with worship and holiness, where worship is expressed by various sacrifices and offerings that constitute fellowship with God, forgiveness of sins, and thanksgivings (Baylis 127-8; cf. Dempster 107-8). At the heart of Leviticus is Yahweh’s concern for the holiness of His chosen people: “And you shall be holy to Me, for I the LORD [i.e. Yahweh] am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be Mine” (Lev. 20:26). We again see the notion of the unique identity of Israel as being holy to God; that is, they stand in unique covenantal relationship to Him.
Arguably the most important part of Leviticus is Chapter 16, where instruction on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) is given. Once a year the high priest would enter the holy of holies in the tabernacle/temple to present blood for the atonement of the sins of the people. “This shall be an everlasting statute for you, to make atonement for the children of Israel, for all their sins, once a year” (Lev. 16:34). As Baylis remarks, “The principle of substitution for sins is here firmly established” (129). This is just one of the many holy days that contribute to the distinct identity of the Israelites.
Many details of these covenants, as well as the promises, blessings, and laws associated with them, have been left out from this overview on the establishment of the Israelite identity in Genesis through Leviticus. The important takeaway from this study, however, is that the Israelite identity is fundamentally wrapped up in their covenantal relationship to Yahweh, which was initiated with Abraham and further developed with Moses. In short, a unique relationship to Yahweh, a distinct lineage, a promised land, and the observation of laws and holy days, all in the context of covenant, combine to form what is the identity of the Israelites. For a biblical summary of this Israelite identity we just observed, see Psalm 105.
Baylis, Albert H. From Creation to the Cross: Understanding the First Half of the Bible. Zondervan Publishing House, 1996.
Dempster, Stephen G. Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible. InterVarsity Press, 2003.
Guerin, et al. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. 5th ed, Oxford University Press, 2005.
Holy Bible. NKJV. Thomas Nelson, 1982.
House, Paul R. Old Testament Theology. InterVarsity Press, 1998.
Renihan, Samuel. The Mystery of Christ, His Covenant, and His Kingdom. Founders Press, 2019.
Van Pelt, Miles V., editor. A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: The Gospel Promised. Crossway, 2016.
 There is significant Edenic imagery associated with the promised land, but this is beyond the scope of this essay.
 Each of the biblical covenants are unique and play a significant role in God’s redemptive plan. Space does not allow for a full treatment of the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants, nor is it necessary for the purpose of this essay. For a fuller treatment on the covenants, see Renihan, Sam. The Mystery of Christ, His Covenant, and His Kingdom. Founders Press, 2019; Coxe, Nehemiah. Covenant Theology: From Adam to Christ. Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2005.
 This is a further unfolding of the promise God gave Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:15 of a serpent-crushing seed, hinting at a Savior to reverse the curse due to sin (cf. v. 21). The fuller revelation of the New Testament makes it clear that this promise is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, through whom the nations are blessed with the forgiveness of sins and an eternal inheritance through faith.
 Currid views the Abrahamic Covenant being inaugurated in Genesis 15, with Genesis 17 consisting of the institution of the covenant seal (Van Pelt, editor 63).
 Currid notes that the practice of circumcision was not unique among the Hebrews. Egyptians also incorporated it as “a sign of ritual purity,” especially in the context of temple service. However, he remarks that the uniqueness of Hebrew circumcision pertains to “inclusion in the covenant community established by the Lord” (Van Pelt, editor 64).
 The tribe of Joseph is later split into the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh.