There’s some oddities in the Genesis account of Abraham that don’t seem to make a lot of sense if taken at face value. Abram is called and God makes a part of a covenant with him, only to reify the covenant in chapters 15 and 18. Why the tripartite covenant? Why not make it all at once? I suggest that it’s because we’re watching the maturation of Abram from priest to prophet, completing the tasks that Adam left undone in his sin.
The first time God speaks to Abram, he calls him out of idolatry (Joshua 24:1-2) and tells him to go to a land that he has never seen before. He lives by simple obedience here, not as a builder or planner of a new city (Hebrews 11:8-12) but as a faithful evangelist. In this stage, Abram is merely a priest. He builds altars, which are symbols of both the garden and of all creation and tells the people of the lands he travels through about the One True God, Yahweh. In Egypt, he successfully protects his Bride where Adam didn’t. Pharaoh has to go to a woman’s brother to gain permission for a wedding. If Damien Mackey is correct, then this Pharaoh was probably Khety III, a Pharaoh who has been recorded as noting a grace mistake being made that wasn’t revealed until after it was started. Other evidence suggests that he could have been a God fearer. Abram, by pointing out that he’s Sarai’s sister, is allowed to block a wedding between Khety and Sarai and allow the Seed to continue through Abram and Sarai as God had planned.
He then mediates a dispute between his tribes and Lot’s by separating them – just as God separated the land and the waters. He even gives Lot a plot of land that is “like the garden of the Lord” (Gen 13:10). Mediation of disputes signals the beginning of his kingship. In chapter 14, he saves Lot’s family from the kings of Shinar, Ellasar, Elam, and Goiim. Melchizedek, who is probably Shem, comes out of Jerusalem and blesses Abram’s ministry with bread and wine, a precursor to the Eucharist. Abram then pays him tithes, the inferior paying due to his superior. Abram has successfully defended his Bride, his family, refuted the Serpentine Egypt, and has defeated kings of non-holy nations. He can move on to king.
In chapter 15, God cuts a covenant with Abram. This is where we finally see that his faith was counted toward him as righteousness. As Wright and others have pointed out, tzedeqah/righteousness relates to covenants, showing why this phrase is used now rather than chapter 12. Abram is now a king: he has finally been promised land. Levite priests don’t have land, and neither did priestly Abram. Now that Abram is a king, he can be promised a specific plot of land.
Kings are supposed to be able to make sound judgments on their own based on their knowledge of God and his law. This is why Solomon’s wisdom is praised: Torah does not mediate disputes about parentage, but because Solomon is wise he can mediate the dispute. But here Abram “listens to the voice of his wife” (16:2) and takes Hagar as his wife and bears a child with her. Hagar and Ishmael run away and meet God.
In the next chapter, God is merciful and institutes the covenant of circumcision as a sign of the “cutting off” of old flesh. Abram must symbolically die in his flesh that the seed line may continue. His name is changed from Abram to Abraham, the father of kings. A son is promised again. This third visitation marks the transformation of king Abram to prophet Abraham. In chapter 18, three angels visit Abraham’s camp at the oaks of Mamre. These angels tell him that Sodom and Gomorrha’s sins have reached God and that their time of oppression is through. Abraham, knowing that Lot lives there, intercedes before God to save the city. Intercession in the Bible is the work of the prophet. So is standing on the heavenly council: the prophets directly speak to God and help deliberate on his decisions. Prophet Abraham notes that there is no fear of God in Abimelech’s house (Gen 20), so he stands against the king directly (another function of the prophet) and denies him access to Sarah. Prophet Abraham/Adam has defended the Bride again, and this time a fully matured Abraham can bear the promised Seed of God.
Finally, Abraham buries Sarah in the land that he was promised. Only a fully matured man can take the promises of God to fruition, but God is faithful to mature us if we wait on him patiently.