The Heart of The Covenants

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Published:
November 20, 2019

The plural “covenants” in the title is important for there is no single over-arching covenant of grace in the scriptures, but rather a series of distinct covenants. There is also no covenant of works with Eve and Adam.[1] Nor shall I begin this essay with the covenant given to Noah,[2] but rather with the more important covenant that was vouchsafed to Abram.[3]

When God assured the elderly Abram that his own issue would be his heir and that from him descendants would multiply to be as numerous as the stars in heaven (Genesis 15:4–5),[4] he took God at his word and this was attributed to Abram as righteousness (v. 6).[5] However, when God then promised to give to him the land of Canaan, Abram’s faith faltered and he queried, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it” (v. 8)? God assured him of its certainty by “cutting a covenant” (Jeremiah 34:18).

Abram is instructed to sever several animals and to lay the divided carcasses out in parallel rows. That evening the divine presence passed between the two lines of carcasses and thus God bound himself with a covenant to keep his promise to give to Abram and his descendants the land “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates,” (Genesis 15:18). So what is a “covenant?” A covenant is a promise (Genesis 21:1–2; Judges 2:1), a promise on oath (Genesis 24:7; 50:24; Deuteronomy 6:23; 8:1), a sworn promise (Exodus 6:8; Deuteronomy 1:8; 4:31; Psalm 89:3; 105:9; Hebrews 6:13–17).

When God makes a binding promise, it is not a negotiated agreement between himself and others; it is more the Lord’s personal guarantee that he will fulfill his stated intentions. It is more like a last will and testament, and this is how it is sometimes understood in the Bible (see Galatians 3:15–17; Hebrews 9:16–18).[6] If we were to promise to leave, on our demise, our house to our children, my wife and I would then bind ourselves to that promise legally by making a last will and testament, and that is analogous to God affirming his promise by making a covenant—the beneficiaries have no control over the matter.

Thus, God’s covenant-promise to Abraham involved three elements.[7] First, that from his seed a multitude of descendants would spring up. Second, that they would possess the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession. And third, that they would be his people and he would be their God (“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 [seed] after you” (Genesis 17:7 italics added). The last promise, of a relationship between God and his people, is not only the heart of this covenant, but also of all the other covenants, as we shall see.[8]

This unique covenantal relationship between God and Israel is frequently affirmed: I will take you as my people, and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:7); “They shall be my people and I will be their God, in faithfulness and in righteousness” (Zechariah 8:8). These three promises were repeated to Isaac and Jacob (Israel) (Exodus 2:4; 6:8; 32:13; Deuteronomy 9:5).

The first fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and his heirs was during the Exodus period. “Not one of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass” (Joshua 21:45; 1 Kings 8:56). “Not one thing has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised … all have come to pass for you, not one of them has failed” (Joshua 23:14–15). First, the promise that Abraham would be the progenitor of a mighty nation was fulfilled in Egypt where they multiplied at the rate of the proverbial rabbit: “But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7). “The Lord your God has multiplied you, so that today you are as numerous as the stars of heaven” (Deuteronomy 1:10–11)![9]

Second, the promise that they would possess the land of Canaan as an inheritance came to pass. After wandering for forty years in the wilderness, the Israelites crossed the Jordan River into the land of Canaan and began to take control of it by force. “See, I have set the land before you; go in and take possession of the land that I swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give to them and to their descendants[seed] after them” (Deuteronomy 1:8). “After he had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance” (Acts 13:19; Deuteronomy 7:1).

Third, that the Lord would be their God and they his people. God assured the Israelites that the promise he made to Abraham “to be God to you and to your seed after you” (Genesis 17:7) had now come to pass: “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians” (Exodus 6:7). “And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Leviticus 26:12, see also18:2); “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; it is you the Lord has chosen out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 14:2 see also 26:17, 19; 29:13; 2 Samuel 7:24).

Another important covenant guarantees God’s promise to David and his heirs that his throne would stand forever (2 Samuel 7: 13–16; 1 Kings 8:23–26; Psalm 89:3–4; Isaiah 55:3; Jeremiah 33:19–22). This covenant is not centered in a nation, but in an individual. Again, the heart of this covenant is relational, but as David and his descendents are individuals it is couched in paternal terms (“I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me,” 2 Samuel 7:14).

The second fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham is the New Covenant, by which God promised a second exodus of his people from captivity (that is from Babylon (Isaiah 48:20; Jeremiah 33:26). Again it was about the land; specifically repossessing the land (“In those days the house of Judah shall join the house of Israel, and together they shall come from the land of the north to the land that I gave your ancestors for a heritage” (Jeremiah 3:18; 30:3; 31:8). The captives of Israel and of Judah shall return to the Promised Land united (Ezekiel 37:15–23) and be more numerous than they were before the exile (Isaiah 54:1–3). What of the sins of idolatry etcetera that caused the exile? “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34; 33:26).

There is a personal aspect to the New Covenant; it is an intimate religion, where the law is written on the heart (Jeremiah 31:33), where of course it always should have been written (Deuteronomy 5:29 NKJV, and so it is in the NT—2 Corinthians 3:3; Hebrews 8:10; 10:16). The heart of the covenant is still central: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:1, 33; 32:38; Ezekiel 36:28; 37:23, 27). So the New Covenant is new in circumstance but not in content. It is God’s promise to restore Israel as a nation and the land as their inheritance. The God-people relationship is intact. The forgiveness of past iniquities is new as is the personal heart religion that Jeremiah emphasizes. So we turn now, finally, to Ezra and Nehemiah.

Ezra–Nehemiah labored to implement the prophetic vision of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Second Isaiah, including the repossession of the Promised Land and the purity of the elect nation. In their endeavor to achieve the latter all the foreign wives and their children were dismissed (“All these had married foreign women, and they sent them away with their children,” Ezra 10:44; Nehemiah 10:28; 13:1, 3), as foreign women led the elect into sin (Nehemiah 13:26, 30). The people of God made a promise or sworn covenant to God to send away the foreign wives and their offspring (Ezra 10:3–5).

Nehemiah rehearses the history of Israel from the call of Abram from Ur of the Chaldeans until the Exodus and the command “to go in to possess the land that you [God] swore to give them” (Nehemiah 9:15). The giving of the Law of Moses was especially emphasized (God “came down also upon Mount Sinai, and spoke with them from heaven, and gave them right ordinances and true laws, good statutes and commandments,” v. 13). Israel’s long history of transgression is blamed for the nation’s suffering right down to Ezra and Nehemiah’s own day (vv. 16–37).

However, God is exonerated because he fulfilled all his promises for he is righteous (v. 8) and he is “the great and mighty and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love” forever (v. 32; Ezra 3:11). Therefore, all the leaders and people who had remained separate “from the peoples of the land” made a written covenant-oath “to adhere to the law of God,” and “to walk in God’s law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the Lord our Lord and his ordinances and his statutes” (Nehemiah 10:28–29). 

The stark nationalism that began with Moses and that Ezra and Nehemiah emphasized, hardened in the centuries following their writings (see the Books of Maccabees).Thus, in his effort to incorporate Gentiles into the covenant community, Paul faced a formidable history of Jewish separation from Gentiles. He found a solution in the promise that “all the Gentiles shall be blessed in you [Abraham]” (Galatians 3:8a; Genesis 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14; Acts 3:25). For Paul, that promise was true gospel, since scripture had thus “declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham” (Galatians 3:8b).

For him, the advent of Christ, the truly promised seed, had made the separation of Israel a temporary situation, for in Christ “those who believe are the descendants of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7), “for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith” (v. 26). The gospel’s country is a better heavenly one (Hebrews 11:16), its people is diverse (Colossians 3:11), it provides forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:28; Hebrews 10:18), and the heart of its covenant is now universal (“I will be their God, and they shall be my people,” (2 Corinthians 6:16; Revelation 21:7). It’s sometimes referred to as the New Covenant (Luke 22:20; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Hebrews 9:15), but that’s another story.

 

Notes & References:

[1] Hosea 6:7 is a place name and not a reference to the Edenic Adam.

[2] The covenant in Genesis 6:18; 9:9–17 confirms God’s promise to Noah never again to inundate the earth with a flood (see Laurence A. Turner, “The Rainbow as the Sign of the Covenant in Genesis IX 11-13,” Vetus Testamentum 43, [1993], 119–124).

[3] The name Abraham does not occur until Genesis 17:5.

[4] It is also described later to be as numerous as the grains of sand on the seashore (Genesis 22:17; 32:12).

[5] Biblical references are from the NRSV unless indicated otherwise.

[6] Hence the somewhat pejorative coupling of Old and New Testaments.

[7] The name change coincided with the promise of him becoming the “father of many nations,” Genesis 17:5 (NIV); Romans 4:17.

[8] “The heart of the covenant is the deity’s claim: ‘I will be your God and you will be my people’” (Patrick D. Miller, “Divine Command and Beyond: The Ethics of the Commandments” in William P. Brown (ed.), The Ten Commandments: The Reciprocity of Faithfulness [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004]16).

[9] Which is as God promised the patriarchs (Genesis 15:5; 26:3–4; Exodus 32:13).

 

Norman Young is a Seventh-day Adventist Christian theologian and New Testament scholar. He recently retired as senior lecturer at Avondale College in New South Wales, Australia.

Photo by Melinda Gimpel on Unsplash

 

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