The Covenant: Expressing Love
The question: if God loves us, how does he show it? The answer: he makes covenants. In the Old Testament God made several with various individuals and groups - because he loved them. God's covenants are always the result of His love. Not surprisingly, therefore, readers of the Bible must thoroughly understand the concept of the covenant, because it constitutes one of the major subthemes of God's word. In fact, the concept of covenant is so important to the Old Testament, that several theologies have been written which take it to be the central or unifying thought. While I disagree with such an assessment, nevertheless the importance of the covenant in God's dealings with people cannot be overlooked, since it is through covenants that God expresses his love to people.
What is a covenant? It is similar to what we today would call a contract or a treaty. It is a formal promise between two or more persons which gives certain guarantees, in exchange for certain responsibilities. For instance, when a person purchases a house, he or she must sign various papers promising to pay back the loan in certain set amounts for a certain set period of time. If the person fails to pay back the money, then the house is forfeited.
In discussing the biblical covenants, many theologians will refer to some of them as conditional, and others as unconditional - their idea being that certain of the covenants were nothing more than promises of blessing, with no strings attached, while others demanded obedience or else. However, to speak of the biblical covenants in terms of being either conditional or unconditional results in a somewhat misleading picture. If we say they are unconditional, we get the impression that it doesn't matter what the signatory to the covenant does; obedience is unnecessary. If we say that the covenants are conditional, we get the picture that at any moment an act of disobedience, a weakness, could abrogate the covenant forever.
Both positions cloud the reality of what is involved in the biblical covenants. God forms a covenant with an individual, as has been said, because he loves him or her. Such a covenant is permanent, and cannot be revoked. However, obligations are always assumed as a part of any covenant. "Covenant love" - hesed - becomes the operating principle. If an individual keeps the obligations of a given covenant, he or she will experience the affirmative side of "covenant love" - i.e. blessing. If, on the other hand, that person fails to keep the obligations of the covenant, he or she will experience the inhibitive side of "covenant love" - i.e. curse.
For example, if we see the nation of Israel in dispersion or suffering persecution, it is unwarranted to believe that God's covenant has been done away with. Rather, in that nation's suffering we recognize the clearest proof that the covenant is still in force (cf. Deut. 28-30). The principle for this is the same as it is for Christians - as Hebrews 12:5-8 so clearly records:
And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons:
My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines those he loves,
and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined - and everyone undergoes discipline - then you are illegitimate children and not true sons.
Only if a people were not chastised for their sin could we say they were not part of a covenant.
The writers of the Old Testament record that God made several covenants, the most important of which we will now discuss.
1. The Creation Covenant:
The first covenant God made with human beings is described in Genesis 1:28-30:
God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground."
Then God said, "I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground - everything that has the breath of life in it - I give every green plant for food." And it was so.
One more detail of this covenant - very significant for the future of the world - is expressed in Genesis 2:15-17:
God Yahweh took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
And God Yahweh commanded the man, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden: but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die."
This covenant that God made with the first human beings is simple and straightforward. God told them the following:
1. Be prolific.
2. Control the earth.
3. Control the zoological life on the planet.
4. Eat plants for food.
There is a single obligation - one plant is proscribed -human beings are not permitted to eat fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. There is a consequence for disobedience: death.
Unfortunately, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. As a result, God modified the covenant, thereby establishing what we might call a secondary covenant -or better yet, an appendix to the first covenant. This Adamic Covenant divides easily into three parts:
1. The Serpent
2. The Woman
3. The Man
This second covenant with Adam is primarily a negative one: curses are established as the consequence of failing to keep the first covenant. The covenant with the serpent may have more than the animal itself in mind, if the common interpretation is correct - that Satan has taken on the form of this animal (there are no explicit scriptural statement informing us that Satan is associated with this incident, however). In any case, the serpent receives certain punishments:
1. It would no longer be able to walk.
2. Hatred would exist between the serpent and the woman.
3. The serpent would injure the man.
4. The man would kill the serpent.
The woman receives the following:
1. Pain in childbirth.
2. Continued desire for sexual relations with her husband, despite the pain of childbirth.
There has been quite a bit of controversy over what the word here translated as "desire" means, since it occurs so rarely in the Old Testament (only in Genesis 3:16; 4:7; and Song of Songs 7:10. The word is teshuqah). Because of its use in Gen. 4:7, apparently in the context of sin's desire to dominate Cain, some have taught that the idea of Genesis 3:16 is that women, because of the fall, would desire to dominate man, usurp his rightful role, and take the man's place.
However, Irvin A. Busenitz pointed out that:
Women may desire to dominate or rule over man, but it is not a part of the punishment pronounced upon woman; it is just the essence, character, and result of all sin against God. Self-exaltation and pride always result in the desire to dominate and rule. Every person to some extent desires to dominate and rule over others - not just woman over man.
It simply wouldn't make much sense for God, in his judgment against rebellion, to tell her that she would rebel against God's will. Comparing the use of desire in Song of Songs 7:10, the proper understanding of the word in Genesis is clear: "I belong to my lover, and his desire is for me." Genesis 3:16 is a promise, reassuring Eve (and Adam), that despite her curse, she still would want sex with her husband; the command of Genesis 1:28 was still in force.
Finally, the man was cursed:
1. His work would be difficult.
2. His work would be unproductive.
3. He would physically die.
The promise of thistles infesting the ground does not necessarily teach that God invented these thorned plants at this point; rather, they became a problem from this time forward. Where before the land easily gave abundant crops, now Adam would work hard; instead of getting the expected yield, he would find many plants he did not want.
It should be noted that the curse on Adam applies with equal force to Eve and cannot be twisted to argue that only Adam - only men - should enter the work force. In the first place, even those women who choose (or are forced) to stay at home, work hard there and sweat just as much as any man. To argue that the curse means that only men must work is a very odd sort of special pleading, requiring a very narrow and peculiar definition of "work", inconsistent with its usage elsewhere. Secondly, to stress the universal nature of these curses against Adam (mankind, humanity), it must be noted that women die just as readily as men. Women are no less mortal.
Before beginning a discussion of the next covenant, called the Noahic Covenant, perhaps the stories of Genesis four and five should be examined. These two chapters contain the accounts of Cain and Abel, along with the genealogies leading to Noah. The Bible connects the beginning of human civilization with Cain and Abel.
1. The beginnings of agricultural life
Since people very early had to become food producers (after the fall they were driven from the ideal conditions in the garden and had to work hard for their food), they began to control nature by simple farming and animal raising. Both activities are closely related and began at nearly the same time according to Genesis 4:2, where we see the first two offspring of the first two human beings involved in these twin activities: Abel kept sheep, and Cain was a dirt farmer.
2. No Love:
In the lives of the first two humans born on the planet, a lack of true love is evidenced. This is not surprising. Previously, we saw that their parents lacked true love for God, since they had not obeyed him. Love requires obedience, and a keeping of the covenant (cf. Deut. 7:9-10 where the implication is that those who love God obey him. Those who do not obey hate him.). Love for God also required a correct knowledge of God and who he is. Adam and Eve failed to remember God was good; they assumed he was holding out on them.
So now, one of the children of Adam and Eve follows in their footsteps. He too, lacks love: he has no love for God, and, since he murders Abel, obviously no love for his brother, either. That he has no love for God is made clear by Genesis 4:5-7:
...but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. Then Yahweh said to Cain, "Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it wants to have you, but you must master it."
It needs to be stressed that the reason God rejected Cain's offering is not because the offering was sappy instead of bloody. It's clear from the later Mosaic legislation that blood sacrifices were not always necessary. Look at Leviticus 2:1-2:
When someone brings a grain offering to Yahweh, his offering is to be of fine flour. He is to pour oil on it, put incense on it, and take it to Aaron's sons, the priests. The priest shall take a handful of the fine flour and oil, together with all the incense, and burn this as a memorial portion on the altar, an offering made by fire, an aroma pleasing to Yahweh.
Or look at Leviticus 5:11:
If, however, he cannot afford two doves or two young pigeons, he is to bring as an offering for his sin a tenth of an ephah of fine flour for a sin offering. He must not put oil or incense on it, because it is a sin offering.
So, if the type of offering was not Cain's problem, then what was? Consider Isaiah 1:10-17:
Hear the word of Yahweh, you rulers of Sodom;
listen to the law of our God, you people of Gomorrah!
"The multitude of your sacrifices -
what are they to me?" says Yahweh.
"I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
When you come to meet with me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my court?
Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations -
I cannot bear your evil assemblies.
Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even if you offer many prayers,
I will not listen.
Your hands are full of blood;
wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight!
Stop doing wrong,
learn to do right!
encourage the oppressed.
Defend the cause of the fatherless,
plead the case of the widow.
Come now, let us reason together," says Yahweh.
"Though your sins are like scarlet
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the best from the land;
but if you resist and rebel,
you will be devoured by the sword."
For the mouth of Yahweh has spoken!
Cain had followed in his parent's footsteps, instead of obeying God. The problem with his offering was that it was done by rote, rather than from a heart filled with love for God.
God explains to Cain that if he does do right - if his offering is truly an expression of love - then it will be accepted. At this point the reader learns just how unloving Cain really is. Rather than repenting, rather than doing what is right, Cain reacts with hatred: he strikes out in frustration against his brother and kills him.
But after this expression of hatred, the reader sees another example of God's great love. Just as God did not immediately strike Adam and Eve dead for their disobedience, so God does not kill Cain. Still, Cain receives the inhibitive side of God's love, rather than the affirming side. He is cursed; the ground will no longer yield crops for him; and he is driven from his family, destined to become a restless wanderer on the earth (Gen. 4:12). In the midst of this curse, though, he receives some hope: to prevent Cain's death by revenge, God places a mark on him, and promises a sevenfold vengeance against the one who dares to kill him (Gen. 4:14-16).
2. The Noahic Covenant
The Noahic covenant is outlined in Genesis 9:1-17:
Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the Earth. The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the Earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.
"But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man.
"As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the Earth and increase upon it."
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: "I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you - the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the Earth."
And God said, "This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the Earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth."
So God said to Noah, "This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the Earth."
This covenant has two unique aspects to it. It is the first agreement between God and human beings explicitly labeled a covenant, and it is the only covenant which involves all living things on Earth.
God made the Noahic covenant with every person who has lived, or ever will live - since the time of Noah. It repeats much of the earlier covenant and may be summarized as follows:
1. Be prolific.
2. Animals will now fear people.
3. Animals may now be used for food, in addition to plants.
4. Blood is proscribed.
5. Murder of human beings is proscribed for both people and animals.
6. The death penalty is instituted for both humans and animals guilty of murdering a human being.
7. God promises never again to destroy the world with a flood.
8. The sign of the covenant is the rainbow.
Two things should be noted at this point: one, it is possible that the death penalty is instituted, not for murder in general, but for cannibalism in particular. Some have pointed out that the context of the proscription on murder is within a text discussing permitted vs. proscribed food.
The second point to notice regards the rainbow: God did not necessarily create it as a new phenomenon at this time, but rather simply filled it with a new meaning. In the same way, the later Patriarchal covenant, which makes a sign of circumcision, was not instituting a new mutilation. Circumcision was common in the Ancient Near East already; God simply took an available phenomenon and, by his explanation of it, made it into something new and significant.
3. Patriarchal Covenant.
In the years following the flood a man was born in Ur, a city in southern Mesopotamia; his name was Abram. Some time later, after Abram had married, his father Terah decided to move to Haran, in northern Mesopotamia:
Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot, son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law, Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But, when they came to Haran, they settled there. (Genesis 11:31)
After this move, at the age of seventy-five (Gen. 12:4), Abram had an encounter with Yahweh:
Yahweh said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people, your father's household, and go to the land I will show you.
I will make you into a great nation
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
Whoever blesses you, I will bless,
and whoever curses you, I will curse;
and all peoples on Earth will be blessed through you." (Gen. 12:1-3)
To summarize, God promised Abram four things:
3. Vengeance (positive and negative)
4. Positive consequences for the world.
Thus, with these few words, the foundation had been laid for what would become the Patriarchal Covenant. In Genesis 12:4, God tells Abram to move out, and go to another country. Abram obeys. Abram's obedience is a tangible demonstration of his love for God. As Moses would later write in Deuteronomy 7:9, the one who loves God, obeys him:
Know therefore that Yahweh your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands.
This is Abram's first act of obedience.
At this point, one might ask a pertinent question. The world population in the second millennium BC has been estimated at somewhere around ten million. Why did God select this one man, from all those millions, to bless him as he did? Why did God promise him nationhood, fame, and a positive influence on history? Why did God offer him special protection? Why did God promise retribution for those who mistreated him, and special favor on those who were good to him?
All that is certain is that God loved him. "Why" questions are rarely, if ever, answered in the Bible. All we can do, based on the data available, is simply to affirm that God loved this one man. As Paul wrote in Romans 9:13-16:
Just as it is written: "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated."
What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses,
"I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion."
It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy."
In the final analysis, all we know is that God, being God, can do anything he wants to do. He will have compassion (Hebrew raham) on whomever he wishes; he will love whom he decides to love; and he will establish a covenant with whomever he wishes. God has a free will. Should we question his decisions? Would you like it if someone asked you, "why did you choose the cherry-filled donut. I think you should have taken the banana cream!" God is, to verge on blasphemy and racism, "free, white and over twenty-one".
Part of our dissatisfaction with the available answers to the question of "why did God love Abraham and choose him?" is because we aren't getting the answer we expect.
Like the child who continually asks "why" no matter how many answers he gets, we don't really understand the answer. To answer we want, and which we will never get, is "God loved Abraham because he performed a certain good dead, making him worthy of God's love."
It doesn't work that way.
Love is the result of grace, not merit, not doing good. All the good that Abraham ultimately did was the result of the love God had for Abraham, not the cause of it. God's love is not performance based, it is not gained because of earning it. It is by grace. God loved and used Abraham - and later Samson, Gideon, Moses, David, and Jonah - even though they were reprobates who rarely "walked in the Spirit".
God loves Abram.
The sky is blue.
Gravity makes things fall.
At sea level, water freezes at zero degrees Celsius.
All these things are part of the nature of the universe. To ask "why" is to miss the point.
So. God loved Abram. He chose him to be the ancestor of the Messiah; and he promised certain other things.
The covenant is formally established in Genesis 15:1-21 and 17:1-22. In Genesis 15 God comes to Abram and assures him that he will have an heir, the product of his own body, and that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars. Abram's reaction to this promise is recorded in 15:6:
Abram believed Yahweh, and He credited it to him as righteousness.
From that one statement, at least three interesting points may be deduced.
1) What Constitutes Faith.
Faith can be defined as "accepting the reality of what God has said." Faith is not simply believing that something good will happen, or that it will "just all work out"; it is not "feeling warm about the possibilities of the future". One wrong definition of faith is, "belief in something for which there is no proof". Better, and more accurate to the biblical idea, faith is "fidelity to promises." Biblically speaking, it is simply accepting God's words as truth.
One day a man was having lunch with his friend, the skeptic. He said, "I have faith in God."
The skeptic looked at him and responded: "Prove it!"
"Okay," said the man, "To show you how great my faith in God is, I'm going to climb in an airplane, fly to 10,000 feet, and jump out - without a parachute! I have faith in God."
So, the faithful man boarded an airplane; when the altimeter reached ten thousand feet, he walked to the door. Opening it, he cried in a loud voice: "I BE-lieve! Oh God, save me! I believe you will!"
And then he jumped.
At his funeral, the skeptic commented, "He certainly proved to me he had faith."
Amusing, yes? What was the faithful man's problem? His faith was not able to save him, because he misunderstood what constitutes true faith. God has never, ever promised to protect some fool who jumps out of an airplane at ten thousand feet. Faith can only be held for something God has promised, not for any and every thing imaginable we want. Just as God did not say, "Let there be purple people with green spots", so God's promises are limited, too. Do not leap unless God tells you to.
2) God finds faith - accepting his words as reality - very important.
When God spoke at the time of creation, it resulted in what we describe as reality: the universe around us. When God said, "let there be light", light happened. When God said, "let plants spring up", they sprang up. Now in Genesis 15 He speaks to Abram, and Abram springs up.
3) God found Abram to be righteous because he obeyed; in obedience Abram thereby demonstrated his love for Him.
In 1 Corinthians 13:7 Paul writes that love "always hopes". So it should be when we think about our neighbor, and so it must be when we think about God. Abram "hoped". He always expected the best from God, believing that God would not lie. Notice that this failure to hope, to believe the best about God (i.e. to love God) was the reason for the downfall of Adam and Eve.
When God told Abram (whose name by then had been changed to Abraham) to go and sacrifice his son, Isaac (Gen. 22:2), he remembered what God had told him in Genesis 15:4-5:
Then the word of Yahweh came to him: "This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir." He took him outside and said, "Look up at the heavens and count the stars - if indeed you can count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your offspring be."
Both Paul and James have something to say regarding Genesis 15:6. First, look at what Paul wrote in his letter to the assembled believers in Rome (Romans 4:18-25):
Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, "So shall your offspring be." Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead - since he was about a hundred years old - and that Sarah's womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why "it was credited to him as righteousness".
The words "it was credited to him" were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness - for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification."
And James writes in his letter (James 2:18-24):
But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds."
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that - and shudder.
You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness," and he was called God's friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.
And so it is that his faith in God was demonstrated by what he did. Faith, of necessity, involves more than just mental assent. It requires behavior. Hebrew thought, as I've already pointed out, was rather concrete. Just as "knowledge" and "wisdom" are not differentiated in the Old Testament (the one who knows, uses that knowledge, or else he doesn't really know it. A knowledgeable person knows how to use his learning, and in Hebrew thought is identical to the wise person), so "faith" and "action" or "obedience" are not sharply differentiated. Abram's faith expressed itself in deeds that were righteous. By his deeds he demonstrated that he loved God. Genesis 22:12 records:
"Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son."
In Genesis 17 God appears to Abram when he is 99 years old, and informs him that "I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers." Then God reiterates the covenant:
"As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you; and I will be their God."
Then God said to Abraham, "As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep; every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner - those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant." (Genesis 17:1-14)
And so the Patriarchal covenant is settled. Abraham and his descendants are given the land of Canaan forever - on the condition that Abraham and his descendants be circumcised. In the New Testament it is clearly stated that Gentiles need not be circumcised in order to enter the New Covenant of Jesus Christ. Look at Galatians 5:6 (and also take a look at Acts 15):
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
As a result of this, it is clear that Gentiles do not have a part in the Patriarchal covenant - at least not as it relates to the promise of land; that promised land belongs alone to the physical descendants of Abraham. The Patriarchal covenant is the first covenant which is narrow and restricted to only one portion of the human race (though it will not be the last of that sort). Where the Adamic and Noahic covenants were for everyone, the Patriarchal covenant was for only one special group of people.
This is not to say, however, that this covenant would have no effect on the rest of the world! Nations would come from Abraham. Paul sees this spiritually fulfilled in the redemption of the Gentiles (Romans 4:16-25). Furthermore, God explained in Genesis 12 that all the world would be blessed through Abraham - and his descendant, Jesus the Messiah, has certainly done that!
He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.
Brothers, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say "and to seeds", meaning many people, but "and to your seed," meaning one person, who is Christ. What I mean is this: the law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise. (Galatians 3:14-18)
But we must be careful not to take from the Jews - those physically descended from Abraham - that one thing which was promised exclusively to them: the land of Palestine.
1. The Patriarchal Covenant promised land, offspring, protection to Abraham and his descendants. The entire human race was promised a blessing as a result. The sign of this covenant was the circumcision of Abraham and the members of his household.
2. This covenant was made because God loved Abraham; the promises resulting from it are an expression of that love (hesed).
3. The promise of land is restricted to the Jews. Palestine is theirs forever.
4. The Mosaic Covenant
Of the covenants in the Old Testament, the Mosaic Covenant is the most complicated, and also the most important for gaining a true understanding of the rest of the Bible. It finds its formal enthronement in the book of Deuteronomy, written in the form of a Near Eastern vassal treaty. However, instead of expressing the relationship between a large, powerful nation, and a smaller, weaker, subservient vassal nation, it expresses the relations between God and the nation Israel. A condensed version of this covenant is recorded in Exodus 20-23.
To fully comprehend the words of the prophets, or the wise men of Israel, or even Jesus Christ, it's necessary to have a thorough understanding of this covenant God made with Israel by the hand of Moses.
The primary feature of the covenant lies in its nature as a bond between God and Israel. The source of the covenant bond lies in God alone, who initiated it in love. The recipients of this offer of a relationship were God's chosen people, the Israelites. Why did God choose them? Because God loved them, according to Deuteronomy 7:7-8:
Yahweh did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because Yahweh loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
The essence of the covenant, it must be remembered, lies in the relationship between God and Israel, and though God is the one who instigated that relationship, nevertheless the relationship required a response from the people. God loved his people, called them, and drew them to himself, so they must respond to God in love. The law of the covenant expresses the love of God and indicates the means by which a person must reflect love for God. Look at Deuteronomy 10:12-11:1:
And now, O Israel, what does Yahweh your God ask of you but to fear Yahweh your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe Yahweh's commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?
To Yahweh your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the Earth and everything in it. Yet Yahweh set his affection on your forefathers and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations, as it is today. Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. For Yahweh your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt. Fear Yahweh your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name. He is your praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes. Your forefathers who went down into Egypt were seventy in all, and now Yahweh your God has made you as numerous as the stars in the sky.
Love Yahweh your God and keep his requirements, his decrees, his laws, and his commands, always.
The manner by which love for God is expressed is in obedience and service for him.
Thus, the Mosaic covenant - though very detailed and complex - can be summarized simply:
1. Love God
2. Love your neighbors.
3. Blessings will come from the expression of this love.
4. Curses will come from the lack of this love.
5. The Davidic Covenant
The Davidic Covenant is recorded in 2 Samuel 7:1-29 in great detail, though it may be summarized with the words of 7:16:
Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.
In some sense, the Davidic Covenant is a reaffirmation of the Patriarchal Covenant, because God says of David, just as he said of Abraham: "Now I will make your name great..." (2 Sam. 7:9). In addition, once again God assures the people of Israel a homeland (2 Sam. 7:10-11). What is new and significant about this covenant is the promise God gives David of a successor to the throne, and that there would never be an end to the successors; the throne of David was permanent. The successor might be punished, but this punishment would not be a removal of God's hesed:
I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with the rod of men, with floggings inflicted by men. But my love (hesed) will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. (2 Sam. 7:14-15).
The Davidic Covenant can be summarized as follows:
1. David's name will be great.
2. The nation will have a homeland
3. The nation will be freed from enemies
4. There will be a never ending string of successors for David
6. The Priestly Covenant
God promised an unending succession of priests in Numbers 25:1-15, Jeremiah 33:18 and Ezekiel 44:15ff. The fulfillment of this covenant is possible only if, as with the Davidic Covenant, we see it fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Since there is good evidence to suggest that Mary was a Levite (see Luke 1:5 & 36: Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron, and she was a "relative" of Mary).
7. The Recabite Covenant
In Jeremiah 35:1-19 the story of the Recabites is related. God promises, in 35:19 that "Jonadab son of Recab will never fail to have a man to serve me."
8. The New Covenant
The New Covenant is described in Jeremiah 31:31-34:
"The time is coming," declares Yahweh,
"When I will make a New Covenant
with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
I made with their forefathers
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them," declares Yahweh.
"This is the covenant I will make
with the house of Israel
after that time," declares Yahweh.
"I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
No longer will a man teach his neighbor,
or a man his brother,
saying 'Know Yahweh!'
because they will all know me,
from the least of them
to the greatest," declares Yahweh.
"For I will forgive them their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more."
This new covenant began with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is clear from Hebrews 8:7 - 9:28, where the above passage from Jeremiah is quoted and applied to the work of Christ. Some have imagined that the final fulfillment of the covenant waits until a time yet future, because, they say, we have not yet arrived at a time where it is unnecessary to teach others about Yahweh. If we had, college Freshmen would not be such ignorant fools.
Deferring judgment on college Freshmen, I must reply that with the indwelling Holy Spirit, it truly is no longer necessary for us to be taught about Yahweh, because he lives in each of us.
Notice especially 2 Peter 1:3 in this regard:
His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.
Those who would deny the complete fulfillment of the New Covenant have a tendency toward legalism, for they will deny the power and reality of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers.
The New Covenant may be summarized:
1. The law will be known internally
2. The people will be devoted to God
3. God will be devoted to the people
4. Teaching the law will no longer be necessary, since all will know it already; the Holy Spirit now writes the law on our hearts, making the external law unnecessary. This is the essential difference between the Old and New Covenants.
5. Sins will be forgiven.
It should be noticed that immediately following Jeremiah's description of the New Covenant, the Patriarchal Covenant is reiterated:
This is what Yahweh says,
he who appoints the sun to shine by day,
who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar -
Master Yahweh is his name:
"Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,"
"will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me."
This is what Yahweh says:
"Only if the heavens above can be measured
and the foundations of the earth below be searched out
will I reject all the descendants of Israel
because of all they have done," declares Yahweh.
"The days are coming," declares Yahweh, "when this city will be rebuilt for me from the Tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate. The measuring line will stretch from there straight to the hill of Gareb and then turn to Goah. The whole valley where dead bodies and ashes are thrown, and all the terraces out to the Kidron Valley on the east as far as the corner of the Horse Gate, will be holy to Yahweh. The city will never again be uprooted or demolished." (Jeremiah 31:35-40)
A question can be raised at this point: "This rebuilding of Jerusalem, is it a reference to the rebuilding during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, or does it refer to another, later rebuilding?"
I believe that Jeremiah's reference here to the rebuilding of Jerusalem must refer to a restoration and rebuilding after the coming of the New Covenant. Notice the progression in Jeremiah 31:
31:7-30 The restoration from Babylonian captivity
31:31-34 The New Covenant
31:35-37 Reaffirmation of the Patriarchal Covenant
31:38-40 The rebuilding of Jerusalem
It can be argued that the rebuilding of Jerusalem in 38-40 is simply an expansion on verses 7-30, explaining in some detail the rebuilding during the time of Ezra. The major problem with such an explanation, though, comes from the words of verse 40: "The city will never again be uprooted or demolished." The Romans, in case you hadn't heard, did a number on Jerusalem back around AD 70 - the Jerusalem which Ezra and Nehemiah had rebuilt between 400 and 300 BC - and the Jews were scattered throughout the world afterwards. Unquestionably, verses 38 - 40 must describe a restoration after the time of Ezra.
In the Old Testament, there is some confusion over the restoration of Israel from its captivity. Some passages speak of a restoration following repentance, while other passages speak of repentance following restoration. The criticism against those who believe the present nation of Israel is the predicted restoration comes from the fact that the modern state of Israel is secular, and the restoration resulted from a non-religious movement: Zionism. The current state of Israel exists primarily because of the guilt felt by the world following the Nazi Holocaust. Because there is no evidence of repentance, many have argued that the current nation cannot be the result of God's activity - and that it is not the fulfillment of prophesy (as if God doesn't work through human actions and natural events). However, not all the scripture passages speak of repentance as a prerequisite to Israel's restoration.
First, consider a passage which speaks of repentance preceding restoration, Deuteronomy 30:1-10:
When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come upon you and you take them to heart wherever Yahweh your God disperses you among the nations, and when you and your children return to Yahweh your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then Yahweh your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there Yahweh your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your fathers, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. Yahweh your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live. Yahweh your God will put all these curses on your enemies who hate and persecute you. You will again obey Yahweh and follow all his commands I am giving you today. Then Yahweh your God will make you most prosperous in all the work of your hands and in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your land. Yahweh will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your fathers, if you obey Yahweh your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
If this was all we had to go on, it would be clear that the current nation of Israel could not possibly be the fulfillment of prophesy. However, it is not so simple. Look at Jeremiah 23:3-8:
"I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number. I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing," declares Yahweh.
"The days are coming," declares Yahweh,
"when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch,
a King who will reign wisely
and do what is just and right in the land.
In his days Judah will be saved
and Israel will live in safety.
This is the name by which he will be called:
Yahweh Our Righteousness.
"So then, the days are coming," declares Yahweh, "when people will no longer say, 'As surely as Yahweh lives, who brought the Israelites up out of Egypt,' but they will say, 'As surely as Yahweh lives, who brought the descendants of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the countries where he had banished them.' Then they will live in their own land."
Hmm, an argument from silence - so not too useful. There is no mention there, one way or the other, of repentance. But, now, consider Ezekiel 20:30-44.
"Therefore say to the house of Israel: 'This is what the Lord Yahweh says: Will you defile yourselves the way your fathers did and lust after their vile images? When you offer your gifts - the sacrifice of your sons in the fire - you continue to defile yourselves with all your idols to this day.
Am I to let you inquire of me, O house of Israel? As surely as I live, declares the Lord Yahweh, I will not let you inquire of me.
"'You say, "We want to be like the nations, like the peoples of the world who serve wood and stone." But what you have in mind will never happen. As surely a I live, declares the Lord Yahweh, I will rule over you with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with outpoured wrath. I will bring you from the nations and gather you from the countries where you have been scattered - with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with outpoured wrath. I will bring you into the desert of nations and there, face to face, I will execute judgment upon you. As I judged your fathers in the desert of the land of Egypt, so I will judge you, declares the Lord Yahweh. I will take note of you as you pass under my staff, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant. I will purge you of those who revolt and rebel against me. Although I will bring them out of the land where they are living, yet they will not enter the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am Yahweh.
"'As for you, O house of Israel, this is what the Lord Yahweh says: Go and serve your idols, every one of you! But afterward you will surely listen to me and no longer profane my holy name with your gifts and idols. For on my holy mountain, the high mountain of Israel, declares the Lord Yahweh, there in the land the entire house of Israel will serve me, and there I will accept them. There I will require your offerings and your choice gifts, along with all your holy sacrifices. I will accept you as fragrant incense when I bring you out from the nations and gather you from the countries where you have been scattered and I will show myself holy among you in the sight of the nations. Then you will know that I am Yahweh, when I bring you into the land of Israel, the land I had sworn with uplifted hand to give to your fathers. There you will remember your conduct and all the actions by which you have defiled yourselves, and you will loathe yourselves for all the evil you have done. You will know that I am Yahweh, when I deal with you for my name's sake and not according to your evil ways and your corrupt practices, O house of Israel, declares the Lord Yahweh.'"
Restoration to the land comes through great tribulation, with repentance following the arrival of the people in the land. In the same way, Ezekiel 11:16-25 sees a return to the land preceding a return to Yahweh.
"Therefore say: 'This is what the Lord Yahweh says: Although I sent them far away among the nations and scattered them among the countries, yet for a little while I have been a sanctuary for them in the countries where they have gone.'
"Therefore say: 'This is what the Lord Yahweh says: I will gather you from the nations and bring you back from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you back the land of Israel again.'
"They will return to it and remove all its vile images and detestable idols. I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God. But as for those whose hearts are devoted to their vile images and detestable idols, I will bring down on their own heads what they have done, declares the Lord Yahweh."
Also note Ezekiel 37:11-14 and Zechariah 12:7-10 and 13:1-14:21.
These passages from the prophets seem to contradict Deuteronomy 30:1-10 (and other passages) which declare restoration comes only after repentance. How are all these verses to be reconciled?
The problem is analogous to the difficulty the Rabbis faced in explaining who the Messiah was to be and what he was to do. There were passages such as Isaiah 9:6-7 or Isaiah 42:1-4 which described the Messiah as a king who would save Israel from bondage. Then there were passages like Isaiah 53 which pictured the Messiah dying. The Rabbis reconciled the scriptures by postulating two Messiahs, one a king, and one a sufferer. The reality, of course, is one Messiah, but two visits.
In the same way, I believe the reconciliation of Deuteronomy 30 with the passages from the prophets can be found by postulating two different restorations: one in the time of Ezra, precipitated by repentance and a return to Yahweh; the second, after the founding of the New Covenant, precipitated by an act of God, with repentance and a return to Yahweh sometime after the return to the promised land.
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