3. Covenant with Israel

Covenant, Temple, and Kingdom

Chief among the “tools” God uses in the Old Testament to form a people through whom he may reveal himself to the world are Covenant, Temple, and Kingdom. Here’s the chart I presented in the first chapter tracing the fortunes of our three benchmarks of the biblical story.

ad hoc altar
Israel becomes a nation
United Kingdom under King David, Davidic successor promised, low point in exile
Temple built by Solomon, destroyed by Babylonians
New Covenant
New kind of kingdom promised
Temple rebuilt but not claimed by the glory of God


            These benchmarks, as the chart shows are interrelated and mutually effect other through the course of Israel’s history while each retain its own importance and focus. To remind ourselves, I have argued that the focus of covenant is the family of God, that of the kingdom is divine rule, and that of the Temple is the presence of God. This latter is the main theme of the biblical narrative, which the other two support and lead up to in their own ways.[1] As we begin our journey through Israel’s history it will be important to keep all this in mind.

God Begins Anew

            A creation of world and creatures. Pronounced “good” and “very good.” A catastrophe leads to a flood of judgment (Gen.6-8). A creational restart under a covenant with Noah with similar though not identical terms (Gen.9). God’s world is now broken. Humanity, though, is broken and performs no better than before. Gen.3-11 ends on the sour note of humanity’s arrogant striving to establish their own significance and security rather than receive them as divine gifts (Gen.11:4). These issues become icons for the struggle of the rest of the Old Testament story.

Both are a matter, finally, of belonging. Either we huddle together, build walls around us, provision ourselves with religion and all other good things we can gather, and count on that for our significance and security, or we receive these things from the Creator God who wants to graciously give us all that (and more) as his creaturely children. So it is, to be more specific, a matter of family.

What is a Covenant?

          The note of Sarai’s barrenness at the end of Gen.11 stands as an apparent epitaph to the dashing of God’s dream. He will not have his family nor his rightful rule over his creation. He will not have a home with his human creatures on which to abide with them forever. Or so it seems.

          But appearances can be deceiving, none more so than in dealing with the Bible’s God. This deity never accedes to his creature’s revolt, never acquiesces in his creation’s damaging, and never stops loving them or seeking his dream.

          But how will he do it? Since humanity a whole (adam - generic term for humanity) has turned away, God comes up with an audacious alternative approach.

-He will start small with just one people.

-He will start new by creating this people calling Abram and Sarai out of pagan Ur as its parents.

-He works slowly through the history and development of the cultures and practices of this people.

-He works from the future back to the present, from what this family will be and do to what they are at any moment before then. That is, he works by promise.

-He works subversively, from the bottom up, and counter-revolutionarily against the revolt of humanity against him to accomplish his aims for the whole world.[2]

          And all of this – a small new family through whose history God promises to set the world thrown upside-down by sin and evil right-side up again - leads us to covenant. A widely used term in the ancient near east, covenant “use(s) . . . family categories for those who are not bound by ties of natural kinship.”[3] That’s why, even though covenants are often political instruments or treaties between countries, the chief focus of their significance is this establishment of family ties.[4] Gentry and Wellman provide some detail:

“Two types of treaties in the ancient Near East are especially noteworthy: (1) the suzerain-vassal treaty and (2) the royal charter or land grant. The first type is a diplomatic treaty between a great king or suzerain and client kings or vassals. The focus of these treaties was to reinforce the interests of the suzerain by arguments from history and oath-bound affirmations of loyalty on the part of the vassal states, backed up by divine sanctions. The second type of treaty involves a grant of property or even a privileged position of a priestly or royal office given as a favor by a god or king. The focus of these treaties is on honor and the interpersonal relationship.”[5]

These treaty forms are somewhat fluid and tend to fall on a continuum so it is not surprising to find elements of both in biblical covenants. It is especially significant that the land grant form of treaty can include the gift of a priestly or royal office by the king or a god of the land granting entity. We have seen that the Bible’s creation stories style humanity as God’s image-bearer in what terms? Yes, that’s right, royal priests! And we will soon see that as God makes the Hebrews into a nation on Mt. Sinai he describes this people in very similar terms: “Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Ex.19:5-6).

          God’s covenant with Abraham, previewed in Gen.12:1-3 but formally laid out in Gen.15 and 17 is, in Walter Brueggemann’s helpful terms, unconditioned on God’s part but conditioned by its human recipients. God, unconditioned by anything else but the love that he is, unilaterally establishes a relationship with Abraham and Sarah. They have

-nothing to do with it,

-nothing by which to merit it or earn it,

-nothing that makes them special or noteworthy.

          In truth, as Paul tells us, it was while we were at war with God, revolting against him, that he reached out and laid loving hold of us in Christ (Rom.5:8-10). And that all begins to unfold here in Gen.12.

This covenant, unconditioned and unilateral on God’s part, while conditioned and bilateral on Abraham and his family’s part, is also asymmetrical. God’s unconditioned laying hold of us is decisive and generative; Abraham’s response (either obedience or disobedience, covenant-keeping or covenant-breaking) conditions the way this relationship plays out but not whether it remains intact or not. That always remains with God and the witness of the Bible is that God never gives up on us and does all things necessary and possible to keep us his people, the people of his creation-dream. Here’s that “grace super-abounding where sin increases” motif we saw in Gen.1-11 playing out in a covenant key!

What all this mean, I believe, is that our long-standing debates between God’s sovereignty and human freedom, faith and works, grace and law, that seem to pit God’s activity and human activity against each other are misplaced. Rather than opposed these pairs should be seen asymmetrically related with each having a positive function within that relation.

-God’s sovereign action initiates and secures the life of his people/human freedom responds to God’s action and expectation and the quality of the relation, though not the relation itself, is governed by the people’s response.

-faith and works are that by which we are saved and how we show we are saved respectively. Overemphasis on one or the other to the degree that their differing roles are obscured calls forth the differing polemics of Paul and James in the New Testament.

-In terms of covenant this means that God’s liberation of the people from slavery in Egypt establish his relationship with this people. The Law he gives on Mt. Sinai in its aftermath are the way the people were to show their gratitude and demonstrate to the world what being this God’s people is all about.

          As someone has well said: We are not saved by our works, but we’re not saved without them either. Adopted into God’s family, we will begin to evidence the family character in the world.

God’s Covenant with Abraham

Covenant is implicit in the creation stories. Because all is well at this point there is no need for a formal articulation of God’s relationship with his human creatures. The first mention of covenant is in Gen.6:18 looking forward to the covenant made with Noah on behalf of the post-flood world (Gen.9). The covenants God makes after the catastrophe in the garden with this new people he is creating to be his family and who will bear the hope of the whole world begins in Gen.12. Abraham and Sarah are a new Adam and Eve and the land God promises to them a new Eden, that is, a place where God may dwell with his people. God is expanding the boundaries of his garden Temple!

 “To the world in its rebellion and alienation                                            God promised blessing and restoration.                                                         The Lord chose Abraham and his descendants                                                     as bearers of that promise for all peoples.”[6]

          N. T. Wright echoes this: “Abraham emerges within the structure of Genesis as the answer to the plight of all humankind. The line of disaster and of the ‘curse’, from Adam, through Cain, through the Flood to Babel, begins to be reversed when God calls Abraham and says, ‘in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed’.”[7]

This covenant is made a formal covenant in Gen.15 (reaffirmed in Gen.17[8]). The striking thing in the Genesis 15 covenant is its emphasis on the unconditional and unilateral commitment of God to Abraham and his family. The strange ritual God arranges in vv.7-21 makes this point in a most memorable way. At the Lord’s direction Abraham arranges halved carcasses (except for the birds) of a variety of creatures to form a path between them. At sundown Abraham falls into a deep sleep with the promise of God to be with Abraham’s people even through a 400-year sojourn in a foreign land before he brings them back to the land of promise. In the darkness a “smoking fire pot” and “flaming torch” pass through the carcasses. This ritual has been identified as the making of a “self-maledictory” oath. Making this oath carries the death penalty on its transgression. The Lord is taking on his shoulders alone the making good of the promises he has made to Abraham. Abraham does nothing but sleep through the whole thing!

This episode epitomizes one of two great “covenant” words in the Old Testament, hesed.[9] No one English word suffices to translate this word, so we have to make several words do duty. For my money “unquestionable loyalty” gets at it. And in Israel’s world, as in ours, loyalty, genuine loyalty is a chief mark of true love. So we have to color “love” in there too. The ritual of the “self-maledictory oath” carries all of this in its performance and import.

Gen.17 is a reaffirmation of the covenant that emphasizes the conditioned response of the people. God bids Abraham to “walk before me and be blameless” (v.1) and this clues us into its emphasis – identity. Abraham is to live out his identity as God’s representative for the new creation promised to him.[10] God requires circumcision for all the males of the community as a sign of their belonging to him.[11] An identity-marker, that’s what circumcision is (and why baptism, the mark of entry into and belonging the church, is it corresponding reality in the New Testament). Thus God renames Abram as Abraham and Sarai as Sarah as symbols of the new identity of the community.

And what is the identity of the community which circumcision signifies membership in? You will by this point, perhaps, not be surprised to learn that circumcision marks out it bearers as priests. Drawing on the Egyptian background with which Abraham was familiar, Gentry and Wellum point out that

-in Egypt circumcision was an initiation rite for priests, demonstrating the complete devotion of those circumcised to the service of their gods.

-the king-priest in Egypt was believed to be the son of the god, and in circumcision was consecrated to him. Thus, Israel as the firstborn son of Yahweh (Ex.4:22–23) undergoes circumcision as a sign of their total consecration to their God.

-while in Egypt only the priests had to be circumcised, in Israel every male underwent the ritual cutting on the eighth day. They and their women and children were all priests.[12]

A further indication is God’s intent to use only the child of promise, Isaac, as the promise-bearer and not Ishmael, a child of Abraham and Sarah’s inability to wait. Ishmael will indeed be blessed but not the promise-bearer because that is not his identity.   

          Identity is crucial. Integrity can only come from identity. We can only be who we are if we know who we are. This leads us to the second great word in the Old Testament which captures what covenant is all about, emeth, “truth” or “faithfulness.” This seems clearly what the covenant reaffirmation in Gen.17 is about. In this regard it is important to note that here in vv.7-8 we have the first instance of the “covenant formula” in the Old Testament: “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.”[13] This formula reminds Israel of whose they are, who they are, and what they are to be about in the world.

          Thus, hesed and emeth, as pictured in God’s undertaking the “death march” in the ritual of the “self-maledictory oath” and in God’s command to Abraham (and his people) to “walk” in the world as who they are called and equipped to be, give vivid expression to key dynamics in the covenant life of God’s family.[14]

          Such a relationship, marked with hesed and emeth, comes to God’s people in Christ too.

                             Though we are unworthy,
                              the Lord has made us his own in Christ.
                             God has chosen us as his servants for the sake of the world
                              and destined us to be his daughters and sons,
                              giving us love and life,
                              calling us to worship and honor him.”[15]

          The thread of this covenant runs throughout the rest of the Old Testament like Ariadne’s Thread. Nehemiah’s great confession of the people in Neh.9:6-8 launches from it. The people in Babylon are encouraged by the prophet to “Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many” (Isa.51:2). And perhaps most strikingly, in a psalm praising God’s rule over the nations, we read, “The princes of the people gather as the people of the God of Abraham.” Hear that? The pagan princes gather together as the people of the God of Abraham. Remember that part of God’s promise to Abraham that “in him” all the nations will be blessed? This psalm pushes us to include this universalistic horizon within our sense of what God is up to with Israel.

          God’s covenant with Abraham became the foundation stone for the people of Israel. It was the non-negotiable commitment of God to this people that gave them (and the world with them) a future, a destiny; it was the faithful response of these royal priests that gave them a duty of freedom and a delight in knowing and serving God in the world.

[1] We could say that that Temple is the number 1 goal of the story while Covenant and Temple are 1A.
[2] As we will see later on, Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom of God echo many of these themes.
[3] Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, God's Kingdom through God's Covenants: A Concise Biblical Theology (Crossway. Kindle Edition.) Kindle Locations 814-15.
[4] As we move into the New Testament the language of “adoption” so prominent in Paul picks up this covenantal theme of the establishment of non-natural family ties.
[5] Gentry and Wellum, God's Kingdom through God's Covenants. Kindle Locations 820-825.
[6] A Declaration of Faith, ch.3, ll.2-5.
[7] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 262.
[8] Notice that, in Genesis 17, the usual expression for initiating a covenant is not used in Gen.17 but rather an expression that Gen.17 is reaffirming a covenant already initiated (Gen.15). Gentry and Wellum. God's Kingdom through God's Covenants (Kindle Locations 2130-2132).
[9] Even though hesed does not occur in this passage.
[10] “. . . when people walk before God, it means that they serve as his emissary or diplomatic representative.” Gentry and Wellum, God's Kingdom through God's Covenants (Kindle Locations 2085-2086).
[11] The obvious patriarchal bias here must be acknowledged. Females were members of the community by virtue of their relationship to circumcised males. But when this sign of membership becomes baptism in the New Testament males and females both received this mark and operated as equals in the community. This is the way the New Testament “transfigures” the good news found in the Old Testament in the light of Christ.
[12] Gentry and Wellum, God's Kingdom through God's Covenants, (Kindle Locations 2225-2231).
[13] See 2 Cor.6:16 and Rev.21: 3 for uses of this covenant formula in the New Testament.
[14] More on this can be found in Gentry and Wellum, God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants, ch.6.
[15] A Declaration of Faith, ch.3, ll.10-15.


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