Saturday, December 5, 2015

Covenants Defined Part IV - The Law Revisited

Return to the Index

Moses accepts the tablets (the covenant) from God, then immediately breaks them in anger (Ex 32:19) upon seeing the idolatry in the camp. To make atonement he has the Levites stamp out the godless celebration by slaughtering the participants (Ex 32:28) before begging God for forty days to have mercy on them. Because God is gracious He tells Moses to make two blank tablets and come to meet Him on Mt. Sinai (Ex 34:1) where He’ll re-establish the covenant. The terms are the same except there’s an additional warning about not making a treaty with the inhabitants of the land lest they bring you into idolatry.
Historic Preamble: Ex 34:5-7
The parties: Same as before (Ex 34:10, 27)
The Promise on God’s side: I will do marvels with you (v10), I will drive out the people of Canaan (v11).
The Promise on Israel’s side: Omitted
Requirement of Fidelity: No treaty is to be made with the inhabitants of Canaan (Ex 34:12).
What else we learn about covenants from this: Once again there’s no mention of sacrifice, punishments for disobedience, or special signs. I surmise this is because all of that was already dealt with the first time around, and because without the human side it’s easier to see how much this covenant looks like the one made with Abraham. It also shows off the similarities and how this is a promise to Christ, given to grow our faith, and not about perfect obedience on the part of the people.



After this, the next mention of the word covenant in Leviticus 2 when it says “you shall not suffer the salt of the covenant to be lacking when you offer meat” (and there's another mention of salt in Num 18:19 when it says there’s a covenant of salt between Israel and Levi.) The one looks like it’s a fancy way of saying “season your meat” and the other looks like it’s a reaffirmation that Levi is the head of Israel. But I’m not sure. And since neither is a main thing nor a plain thing, I’ll shelve the investigation and move to the next instance of the word covenant.



On the advice of Baalam, the women of Moab begin to entice Israel to sexual immorality and idol worship (Num 25:1-2). God demands the life of the disobedient (Num 25:4-5), but everyone is so busy weeping that nobody bothers to act—even when it was right before their eyes (Num 25:6). Everyone that is except Phinehas. He gets up and kills the offenders as God demands (Num 25:8).
Historic Preamble: Num 25:11
The parties: God, and Phinehas (and his descendants after him Num 25:12-13)
The Promise on God’s side: I give you My covenant of peace a covenant of an everlasting priesthood (Num 23:12-13)
What else we learn about covenants from this: Heaven and Earth are called as witnesses, which means witnesses must be an optional element of covenants.
It also reinforces the idea that God covenants with those who have faith, and as a side note in that just as God covenanted with Levi before Sinai, so He covenants with Phinehas before Moab.



Because the people had rebelled 10 times (Ex 14:10-12, Ex 15:22-24, Ex 16:1-4, Ex 16:19-20, Ex 16:27-30, Ex 17:1-4, Ex 32:1-35. Num 11:1-3, Num 11:4-34, Num 14:3) God killed them in the wilderness and gave their children the right to the Promised Land. Before they go in to take possession of it God gives them the Deuteronomy (translated: second law) in Moab.
Historic Preamble: Deut 29:2-8
The parties: God, and Israel (and their children after them Deut 29:1, 14-15. Again the Levites head this covenant arrangement, Deut 31:9)
The Promise on God’s side: If you keep My commandments I will bless you (Deut 30:9) and prosper you (Deut 29:9).
The Promise on Man’s side: Omitted
Optional Clauses of Blessings, Disobedience, Definitions:
The Lord will not spare you, but will add to you the curses of this book and blot your name out from under heaven (Deut 29:20, 25, 31:16). Most of the three chapters are composed of the curses, followed by a song which calls the earth as witness against the people who will eventually break the covenant.
What else we learn about covenants from this: This time around Moses is explicit that the Lord has not given the people the eyes of faith (Deut 29:4), which just goes to show that someone in covenant isn’t necessarily saved. Also, this is very similar to how God passed the covenant of Abraham to Isaac.


The people enter into the promise land and more or less immediately transgress the covenant terms (Josh 7:11, 15). But they repent, and by God’s grace, take possession of the land. At the end of his life Joshua, acting as a prophet (Josh 24:2), calls the people to make a covenant with God, to serve Him faithfully (Josh 24:25).
Historic Preamble: Josh 24:3-13
The parties: God, the people. (Joshua, the heads, chiefs, and officers above the people were the heads of this covenant Josh 24:1)
The Promise on Gods side: None given. Aside from asserting His right to their worship, God does not speak.
The Promise on the Peoples side: We will serve the Lord, for He is our God. We may be unworthy sinners, but nevertheless we will serve Him (Josh 24:18).
Optional Clauses of Blessings, Disobedience, Definitions: We will put away our foreign gods (Josh 24:23). If we don’t, God is just to harm and consume us (v20).
What else we learn about covenants from this: The longer the covenants go on, the more God recounts His goodness to the people. Abraham had a short list of what God has done for him, but the people of Joshua’s time had a much longer list. This is also the third (or fourth depending on how you count it) time the covenant is established, which is just like how Jacob received Abraham’s covenant.



Following the time of the judges there’s a covenant proposed between the people of Jabesh Gilead and Nahash the Ammonite for peace, but the terms Nahash gives are so cruel that the people don’t want to accept it (1 Sam 11:1-2). That doesn’t add too much to our understanding of what a covenant is, so let’s just throw in all the remaining  man-to-man covenants in the Bible and see if anything jumps out.

  • David and Jonathan covenant three times because they love each other in the Lord (1 Sam 18:3, 20:8, 16, 23:18).
  • The city of Hebron covenanted with David to be King over them (2 Sam 5:3). Later at Hebron all Israel covenants with David to be King over them (1 Chr 11:3).
  • Hiram king of Tyre covenanted with Solomon king of Israel, exchanging building materials for foodstuffs and land (1 Kings 5:10-12). Later God would judge Tyre for breaking this covenant of brotherhood (Amos 1:9).
  • The evil king Ahab made a covenant of peace with Ben-hadad. Ahab promises to spare his life and in return Ben-hadad promises to give the land and cities back to Israel (1 Kings 20:34).
  • Ephriam (the tribe of Israel) made covenants with Assyria and Egypt (Hos 12:1).
  • The priest Jehoiada made a covenant with Azariah, Ishael, Azariah , Maaseiah, Elishaphat, the captains of the guard to protect young Joash (2 Kings 11:4).
  • Zedekiah King of Judah covenanted with Nebuchadnezzar King of Babylon, but then broke it to make an alliance with Egypt (Ezek 17:13-19). He also covenanted with the people to release the slaves in accordance with the jubilee requirements of the Law and offered a sacrifice in the same fashion Abraham did (Jer 34:8, 15), but broke this one too (v18).
  • Job covenants with his eyes not to look lustfully upon a woman (Job 31:1).
  • Antiochus Epiphanes covenanted with the people to take away the sacrifices for God (Dan 9:27)
  • Marriage is a covenant (Mal 2:14).
  • Judas made a covenant with the chief priests to betray Jesus in exchange for money (Matt 26:15, Luke 22:5).


At first glance Job covenanting with his eyes and Judas with the chief priests appears to shake up our requirement of headship in a covenant, but after some reflection I think covenants were just how the ancient peoples did contracts. In our modern world we trust personal assurances less (perhaps because there are more of us, or perhaps because the invention of corporations demanded it) so when we enter into an agreement we use very specific language and compartmentalized task oriented performance requirements. In contrast they entered into a more holistic kind of agreement whereby they put their personal fidelity on the line. To them cooperation is about trustworthiness and relationship, to us it’s more about legal indemnity and clarity of purpose.
If that’s right then that would also explain why contracts look so much like covenants, and why modern theologians have such a hard time drawing a distinction between the two.
That aside, it looks like the only real take-away here is that covenants are very much like sworn promises, so let’s retool our definition just slightly to emphasize this:

A covenant is when one or both heads of families freely promise to do good to the other. Ongoing faithfulness to the promises is essential for continuing the new relationship.
Optionally there can be a historic preamble; witnesses; a declaration of the blessings of continuing in, or consequences for breaking these promises; a sacrifice signifying faith; or a sign of remembrance given.

No comments: