The Nature of Covenantal Law

John C. Rankin (2013)

There are six major covenants in the Bible – the Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and Messianic. And they equal the essence of biblical revelation.

In these covenants law, Yahweh enters into mutual compacts with us, in first giving freedom in the Garden, then in protecting it in the face of sin as we look forward to the coming Redeemer.

In the order of creation, Yahweh makes the original covenant of freedom with Adam. When, following the reversal, and as Noah becomes the sole remaining remnant of the faithful lineage, the next covenant is given. Sin rushes in again, later leaving Abram as the sole remaining remnant of the faithful lineage, and he is given a covenant. When his line is enslaved in Egypt, Yahweh raises Moses up and he is given a covenant for the nation of Israel. Later, this covenant is rejected by Israel in favor of a pagan kingship, and Yahweh raises David up and gives him a covenant. And finally, this covenant is broken, the nation and city are destroyed, and the prophecy of the New Covenant of the Messiah is given. A detailed review is found in Chapter Nine of Genesis and the Power of True Assumptions (fourth book listed at teibooks.com)

The word for “covenant” is the Hebrew term berith. It involves the elements of establishing a legal relationship “between” parties, ritualized in a sacrificial meal where the food offering is “cut up” for that purpose. Thus, to “make a covenant” is translated by the idiom, “to cut a covenant.” In ancient near eastern societies, the closest allegiance known between two parties is that which involves blood relationships, and next to that is the loyalty derived from the oaths involved in “cutting a covenant.”

And uniquely, in biblical covenants, Yahweh Elohim first holds himself accountable to the promises he makes to the image-bearers of God. Pagan kings (and deities) do not do so. In other words, the difference between the power to give and it will be given, versus take before you are taken.

The late Meredith Kline, at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, pioneered our present understanding of covenant in the 1960s. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament aptly summarizes his observations:

“Here Kline shows the suzerainty treaty found in the ancient near east is the key to understanding the form of God’s covenant with ancient Israel. He maintains that the Ten Commandments and the entire book of Deuteronomy and such sections as Joshua 24 are all based on a covenant pattern which has:

“1. A preamble in which the suzerain is identified, 2. An historical prologue describing previous relations between the parties, 3. Stipulations and demands of the suzerain, 4. Swearing of allegiances with curses and blessings, that is Covenant Ratification, 5. Witnesses and directions for carrying out the treaty” (Vol.1, p.129).

Thus, most simply, we can list the five assumptions of a covenant:

1. Preamble; 2. historical prologue; 3. stipulations; 4. swearing of allegiance; 5. witnesses.

The Theological Wordbook also has two other observations concerning berith, relating to the nature of cultus and historical witness:

“D.J. McCarthy also warns that the covenant concept in the OT presents a very rich and complex tradition and that the covenant is not principally legalistic or moralistic but cultic, that is, tied to religious practice … Eichrodt finds that the covenant concept proves Israel’s religion was historical, that is, not the imagination of later generations. It also gave Israel great assurance of a beneficent God at a time when the deities were considered arbitrary originators of evil (ibid.).”

The word “cultic” is an academic term that refers to a separated community of worship that leads to action, from the Latin cultus, and it is also the root word for “culture” and “cultural,” and for the language of “cults” for extreme and self-insulating religious cultures (not in view here). Biblically, this means the “covenant community” of a people separated to the Lord, by calling and by choice. It has different manifestations across the millennia, culminating in the church.

In all six of the major covenants, these five elements are explicitly and/or implicitly present, reflecting the deeper biblical assumptions at play, back to Genesis 1-2.

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