An Independent Land Covenant? – A Note

Bridging the portentous chapter 28 and the hopeful chapter 30, Deuteronomy 29 contains what is often referred to, especially in Dispensational literature, as ‘the Palestinian covenant.’[1]  Clearly the way the chapter begins must be taken seriously:

These are the words of the covenant which the LORD commanded Moses to make with the children of Israel in the land of Moab, besides the covenant which He made with them in Horeb. – Deuteronomy 29:1 

This “other” covenant is explicitly said to be “besides” the Mosaic covenant.  Taken in situ then there can be no complaint about distinguishing this covenant from the other covenants.  Certainly something is going on here.  Sailhamer contends that this covenant deliberately omits the necessary stipulations.[2]  If I understand him right he says this points the way to the replacement of the Mosaic practices with the coming New covenant.[3]

As I have just said, the language of regeneration is prominent in this passage.  So Sailhamer has a point.  But I prefer to see the covenant in Deuteronomy 29:1 as a reawakening of the national consciousness to the reality of the land rooted in the Abrahamic covenant but now conditioned within the Mosaic covenant.  The land is at the forefront of Moses mind but is also, of course, in the mind of all the people who are on the borders of Canaan (Deut. 29:2; 31:7; Josh. 1:11-15).  Since nothing is stated in the passage which enlarges on the land promise within the Abrahamic covenant (allowing for the promise of future regeneration which is a New covenant reality), I think the covenant in Deuteronomy 29-30 is then a case of God facing a timorous people with a restatement of the work involved in claiming the promised land.  If that is so, I think isolating a “Palestinian covenant” from the Abrahamic covenant is a little fruitless.  The stronger claim to the land is certainly in the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 15.

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[1] Examples of this would be respected teachers like Arnold Fruchtenbaum, and Paul Benware.   Benware calls the Palestinian covenant a “sub-covenant of the Abrahamic” – Paul N. Benware, Understanding End Times Prophecy, 56.  Fruchtenbaum sees this covenant as predicting the regathering of Israel to their land after God Himself has regenerated them. – Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, Israelology, 796-797.  Although he lists eight provisions of the covenant, he does not find an oath.  In fact, he admits that “The Palestinian Covenant is an enlargement of the original Abrahamic Covenant”, particularly the land aspect. (Ibid, 583).  In view of this the present writer prefers to see Deuteronomy 29:1-30:20 as a reiteration of the land promise within the Abrahamic covenant but now in terms of the theocracy.

[2] John H. Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch, 403-404.

[3] Ibid, 251

The Mosaic Covenant and Other Covenants

The Mosaic Covenant as a Historical Placeholder for Other Covenants

If the commandments in the ‘Ten Words’ on Sinai (Exod. 20) and all those that followed in their train were too stringent for a fallen people to keep, at least the covenant God made with Israel, and which they voluntarily entered into (in Exod. 24), distinguished them among the other nations of the world to the extent that they were preserved as a distinct people in continuity with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.[1]  So just as the Noahic covenant guarantees the perpetuation of the regulation and predictability of the rhythms of nature,thereby creating the stage of history for God’s program to play out upon, the Mosaic covenant acts to set the covenants with David and Phinehas within a theocratic outlook – even if both of these covenants transcend the temporary “old covenant” and are embraced by the coming New covenant.

That preservation through the Law, even when it was being reduced to formal hypocrisy, as it was much of the time (e.g. Isa. 1:2-23; Mal. 2:10-11), was enough to keep Israel from being absorbed into the peoples and cultures surrounding them.  The elaborate coverage of the details of the Tabernacle with its importance for ethnic and religious identity, and the whole Levitical system served to isolate the Jews enough to keep them separate, therefore guaranteeing their continuance.  Looked at this way the covenant with Israel in Exodus and Deuteronomy served as a place-holder for the covenants to follow; the ‘Priestly’, the Davidic and the New.  Not only that, but because the interests of the nation were indelibly intertwined with the Abrahamic covenant that covenant too was secured within the continuing people called the Jews.

Future Blessing and a Palestinian Covenant?

The Book of Deuteronomy finds Israel on the verge of entering into the land which God has promised them.  Up to this point the people have not distinguished themselves for their faith in God.  But the Lord is not going to remove the faith requirement out of the way.  What was true for the writer of Hebrews is true for Israel east of Jordan, “without faith it is impossible to please Him.” (Heb.11:6).  So Israel will have to face its foes; some of them (i.e. the city of Jericho – cf. Josh. 3:16; more sons of Anak – Josh. 15:13-14), look formidable.  But YHWH has promised to go before them (Deut. 1:30, 42; 20:4).  Moses reminds the people about the incident which cost the lives of twenty-four thousand people at Baal-Peor (Num. 25), and the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai (see Deut. 4:3-13).  Then he turns to their fortunes if they decline from the Law.  God will cast them out of the land and scatter them abroad (Deut.4:26-27)[2], but He will also do something about their plight “in the latter days” (Deut. 4:30).  The reason for this mercy is “He will not forsake you nor destroy you, nor forget the covenant of your fathers which He swore to them.” (Deut.4:31).  The “covenant of your fathers” is clearly not the Mosaic covenant which He is recalling to them.  God’s dealing with Israel is covenantally determined, but as we have seen, it is determined principally on account of the Abrahamic covenant, together with the ‘Priestly’ covenant (see below) and the covenant He will make with David. (more…)

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‘The Case for Jesus’ by Brant Pitre – A Review

Book Review: The Case For Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ, by Brant Pitre, New York: Image, 2016, 242 pages, hdbk.

I suppose that the first thing I ought to say is that this is not The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, nor is it related to the set of books spawned by it. This is a new work by a Professor at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans.

Coming from the desk of a Roman Catholic readers may want to question what I am doing even bothering to read it. My defense is that some Roman Catholic writers are well worth being acquainted with, and, in fact, ought to be read – though with the caveat that they are Roman Catholics. To name just a few, I think Jay Budziszewski is one of the best writers and speakers to recommend to a college student. Anthony Esolen and Benjamin Wiker are good guides on what to read and what not to read. Robert Barron, who coincidentally wrote the Afterword for the book under review, is worth your time on practically anything, creation and church doctrine apart. And a man who cannot find any benefit from G. K. Chesterton is a reflective sluggard indeed. Alongside of these Brant Pitre deserves a hearing, and especially this book.

The Case For Jesus is, I think, the very best book on its subject for a general audience. It is wonderfully written, very informative, conservative in its conclusions, and is a great faith-builder. Its thirteen compact chapters, which even with Barron’s contribution bring the book in at a mere 242 pages, including endnotes, comprise a consistent push-back against the slippery arguments of Bart Ehrman (Pitre’s main foil) and others like him.

The opening chapter sets the context for the discussions which follow. Of major concern to Pitre is the Telephone Game illustration of Gospel transmission used so effectively by the run of unbelieving scholarship. Anyone who has heard Erhman will be familiar with his mantra that the Gospels are anonymous, the titles we have being added much later. Actually, I have come across this belief even in evangelical authors. But Pitre dispatches this fiction very effectively – by a straightforward appeal to the facts. He points out in chapter two,

The first and perhaps the biggest problem for the theory of the anonymous Gospels is this: no anonymous copies of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John have ever been found. They do not exist. As far as we know, they never have. (15. Author’s emphasis).

The edifice which Erhman leans upon so heavily is made of air. All of the available manuscript and Patristic evidence points in the other direction. Erhman, a textual critic, is surely close to committing the unpardonable sin of his discipline – of ignoring all the textual evidence in favor of his preferences.

Pitre also asks how such well known and cherished writings managed to be copied and handled without their authors being identified. And how come there is complete unanimity in the ascription of the authors? (19).  Related to this is the question of the both internal (within the Gospels themselves) and external (writers outside the Gospels) evidence for whether we know who wrote the Gospels. These issues are covered in chapters three and four. Again, the evidence is “completely unambiguous and totally unanimous.” (39).

The fifth chapter ably handles the inaccurately called “Lost Gospels” while chapter six inquires whether the Gospels fit within the genre of ancient biographies. This impressive chapter closes with a short discussion about whether the Gospels should be viewed as verbatim transcripts. The author decides in favor of the position that word-for-word accuracy is not always present but,

On the other hand, the historical character of the Gospels does mean that the authors intend to record the substance of what Jesus really said and did. (81. Author’s emphasis).

Chapter seven examines the dating of the Gospels. Pitre deals with reasons for fixing the Gospels with a late date and finds them to be seriously flawed (89). This excellent chapter finishes off what I might call the first part of the book. From then on the next six chapters focus on who Jesus is.  They continue the high standards set by “part one”. Along the way Pitre works with several prophetic chapters from the Book of Daniel (Dan. 2, 7, and 9).  On the whole he addresses himself to these chapters with real competence, and always conservatively. The ninth and tenth chapters are concerned with Jesus’ divinity, while chapters eleven and twelve deal with the crucifixion and resurrection respectively. The resurrection in particular is skillfully handled, with a fine exposition of “the Sign of Jonah”(185-190).

Fittingly, the final chapter is a brief meditation on the identity of Jesus Christ utilizing His question at Caesarea Philippi, “who do you say that I am?” We are left in no doubt about the answer:

In light of everything we’ve seen in this book, one thing is clear: if you are going to hold a theory that Jesus never claimed to be God, you had better be committed to eliminating a lot of historical evidence. (193. Author’s emphasis).

Indeed. Dr Pitre makes his case. And he is helped by a whole company of scholars, from Craig Keener, Richard Bauckham and Martin Hengel to John Meier and Joseph Fitzmyer, whose appearances are most felt in the endnotes.

So buy and read The Case For Jesus, digest its arguments, teach them to others. Do not commit the logical error of shooting the messenger because he is not a Protestant. The author has written a clever rebuttal to the croaking arguments of the skeptics, and I for one am very glad that he did.

Exodus and the Mosaic Covenant (pt.3)

Part Two

The Relationship between the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants

The covenant with Abraham was, as we have seen, the source from which the people of Israel were created.  But a people without a land can never truly be a nation, and Yahweh had promised that very thing (Gen. 12:2; 17:20; 21:18; 46:3; 48:4. cf. Deut. 7:6-8).  A nation’s identity is tied to its surroundings; the familiar topography which is recalled in its literature, poetry and songs (e.g. Psa. 137:1-6).  So God promised a specific territory to the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob for an everlasting possession (e.g. Exod. 32:13).  In fact, the last mention of Abraham in Genesis is in tandem with Isaac and Jacob and the land (Gen. 50:24).  There was an oath-based guarantee of Israel-in-the-land in existence hundreds of years before Moses brought the people to Sinai.

The first chapters of the Book of Exodus are full of allusions to the Abrahamic covenant.  Before He had even brought them out of Egypt Yahweh declared He would do so because of this covenant:

So God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. – Exodus 2:24

When God introduces Himself to Moses it is in the context of covenant remembrance (Exod. 6:1-8).[1]  The land is once more prominent:

And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and I will give it to you as a heritage: I am the LORD. (Exod. 6:8).

As the Mosaic covenant will be made with the people of Israel prior to them taking possession of the land (although there was a delay through unbelief – Num. 32:11), this indicates that that bilateral covenant was built upon the oath contained in the previous unilateral Abrahamic oath.  It follows from this that if the provisions of the Mosaic Law were violated (cf. also Deut. 27 – 30) – which was sure to be the case – the Divine oath uttered to the Patriarchs would be unaffected apart from the time of its fulfillment.[2]

Conversely, if it is assumed that the Sinaitic requirements overrode the promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, then the Mosaic covenant would be the ideal way to frustrate the revealed plan of God up to this point in the biblical narrative.  The Creation Project would have had to be rerouted so as to bypass human depravity and dereliction.  But that was not the case.  Moses knew that he could appeal to God’s covenant with Abraham and so ensure the survival of the disobedient nation.  When God threatened to destroy the people after the episode concerning the golden calf, Moses successfully interceded for them by claiming the Abrahamic pledges.

Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven; and all this land that I have spoken of I give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever. – Exodus 32:13

Moses is careful to include both of the main strands of the Abrahamic covenant, that is, land and seed (descendants), which concern Israel as a new nation created by God.  And we will see that this pattern repeated continually; one might say habitually, by the writing Prophets.

Even though Israel is spared through the intercession of Moses, and delivered through the waters of the Red Sea, there is no final salvation through the Mosaic covenant (cf. Rom. 3:19-20; 4:15)[3].  The covenantal nature of the Law, though it does not rule out an approach to God through sacrifice, does prohibit salvation on the basis of performance, cultic or otherwise (cf. Isa. 1:3-5).  Whether one is reading the Old Testament or the New Testament, a redemptive approach to God is always via God’s grace.  This is even more clearly true when one is referring to the eschatological salvation, that is, the telos of God’s covenantal plans.

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[1] Shortly afterwards we read about what at first sight looks like a contradiction.  God says to Moses that “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name LORD I was not known to them.” (Exod. 6:3).  Of course, God had used that name and Abraham knew and used it in addressing God (e.g. Gen. 13:4; 14:22; 15:2, 8).  But what was not made clear was the significance of the Name.  I don’t agree with the view that the editor of the Pentateuch retroactively placed the Tetragrammaton onto the lips of Abraham (e.g. Robin Routledge, Old Testament Theology, 92-94).  Childs seems to argue similarly, although he does notice that the context lays stress upon the character of God and not the name itself. – Brevard S. Childs, Exodus, 112-115.

By contrast, Garrett believes “one could hardly more badly misread the text than to claim that Exod. 6 is the revelation of something new.” – Duane A. Garrett, A Commentary on Exodus, 252-253.  In his view God was saying that He was to be now known under the name YHWH.  But Motyer is surely correct when he says that “the character expressed by the name that was withheld from the patriarchs and not the name itself.” – J. Alec Motyer, The Revelation of the Divine Name, 15-16.  On top of this see Allen P. Ross, “Did the Patriarch’s Know the Name of the LORD?” in David M. Howard Jr. & Michael A. Grisanti, eds, Giving the Sense: Understanding and Using Old Testament Historical Texts, 323-339

[2] Kaiser observes, “The connection is undeniable.  The duty of obedience (law, if you wish) was intimately ted up with promise as a desired sequel.  Therefore, the transition to the coming time of Mosaic law should not be all that difficult for any who had really adequately listened to the full revelation of the promise in the patriarchal era.  But in no way was the promise-plan dependent on anyone’s obedience; it only insured their participation in the benefits of the promise but not on its maintenance.” – Walter C. Kaiser, Jr, The Promise-Plan of God, 61.

[3] “Ultimately, the people had to look to God for forgiveness and could not expect pardon by mechanically fulfilling the external requirements (Isa. 1:11-17; Mic. 7:18-20).” – Willem VanGemeren, The Progress of Redemption, 162

Exodus and the Mosaic Covenant (pt.2)

Part One

Relationship

The covenant Lord comes to establish a relationship.  This relationship is not yet predicated upon the finished work of Christ at Calvary, so the judicial element demands law.  Still, it also entails the fact that the God of the Law is the God also of grace.  If He were not, there would be no hope of relationship and the covenantal purposes of God would be reduced to futility.

The laws found in Exodus through to Deuteronomy are given, for the most part, to restrain Israel’s sin and to proclaim an ethics of human value, regardless of social status, and of the unity of communal life.[1]  The commandments can be summed up in two: Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:6.[2]

The 613 laws of the Torah can be boiled down to these two, but because these two are not realizable by corrupted humans, the other 611 spell out what this means in terms of living in a theocracy.

It must be recognized that it is a mistake to conflate the Pentateuch and the Law.  The Law does not show up until we are sixty-nine chapters into the Pentateuch.  Also, the role of faith is prominent in these books[3].

The Mosaic Covenant is Bilateral and Temporal

The covenant at Sinai was made with the children of Israel, who agreed to live as a Theocracy under God’s rule.  The covenant relationship was predicated on holiness.  While God’s holiness describes His Being and is absolute[4], fallen humanity does not possess the quality of holiness as a personal property.  As beings we are sinful (Isa. 61:6; Eccles. 7:20; Psa. 51:5; Rom. 3:23).  This means that any holiness we might “attain” is going to have to be God-approved.  This is especially the case if God is going to dwell in our midst.  In what is called “The Book of the Covenant” in Exodus 20-24[5] Israel discovers what external holiness looks like. (more…)

Exodus and the Mosaic Covenant (pt. 1)

More book excerpts

With the Book of Exodus we bid adieu to the Patriarchal period and are thrown into the misery of slavery and hopelessness.  Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are long dead.  The covenant promise is all but a forlorn hope.  Even Joseph’s eminence in Egypt has been forgotten; at least by those who matter.  Genesis ends with a small tribe of “Israelites” leaving their homeland and descending in to Egypt.

Yet the first half of the Book of Exodus contains some of the most compelling narrative ever written.  Exodus is a book about redemption.  The redemption envisaged in the early chapters is predominantly a deliverance from servitude.  Many who came through the waters were not saved spiritually, as the incident with the golden calf (Exod. 32) proved. Exodus is also a book about how God and sinners can meet on His terms.  The condition of this meeting was covenantally grounded; firstly in the Abrahamic covenant (Exod. 2:24), since the whole saga was predicted at the time God initiated His covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15:13-16.  But the relationship between the newly formed nation “Israel” and their God is one of theonomy; of law-keeping.  The Law that was to be kept was in the Mosaic or Sinai covenant (Exod. 20-24).  Unlike the other divinely instituted covenants in the Old Testament, the covenant with Israel was bilateral; both parties swearing an oath to perform their part.  Of course, Israel as all people, could not deliver on their obligations, and it was only by grace, mediated through the sacrificial system within the law, that salvation and blessing were made possible.

The great event which punctuates the history of Israel is the rescue of the people from the Egyptian might by the miraculous hand of God.  The exodus deliverance is often recalled by the Lord in His overtures to His wayward people (e.g. Deut. 7:8; 9:26; 13:5; 2 Sam. 7:23; Mic. 6:4; Neh. 1:10 etc.).  The covenant at Mt. Sinai was perhaps above all a covenant of identity.  It established Israel as a nation apart.  Even though they would continually depart from God and the Law God would never totally abandon them.  This rootedness of Israel’s hope, not in the Mosaic covenant but in the soil of the Abrahamic covenant is what assured the survival of the nation.  Moses clearly understood this when he pled for Israel in Exodus 32:14!  The Mosaic covenant does not abrogate the original Abrahamic covenant.  The first covenant is unilateral and unconditional[1], whilst the covenant with Moses and Israel is bilateral and conditional.  And because its demands were too high for sinners to meet, it was also a temporary covenantal relationship.

Nevertheless, it is by means of the Mosaic covenant that Israel was set apart and preserved historically.  Because Yahweh had redeemed Israel through the waters (a constant refrain in Deuteronomy), the nation, if not always the individuals in the nation, were special to Him.  Moreover, the covenant at Sinai was also a kind of marriage covenant between Yahweh and Israel; a metaphor which the Prophets will afterwards take advantage of as they call Israel to repentance.[2]  As I hope to show, the Lord’s willingness to take back His erring “wife” in a “new covenantal” relationship is one of the great examples of forgiveness and reconciliation. But only if He takes back the same wife!

The calling of Moses at the Burning Bush was not just the calling of one man, it was the beginning of the making a nation of God’s people.  The great redemption through the waters of the Red Sea (Exod. 14), and the provision of manna (Exod. 16), not to mention the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night (Exod. 13:21-22), show the care of Yahweh for His people.  Though there were challenges at Marah (Exod. 15) and afterwards, yet the God who called them would keep them.

So Israel comes to the Mountain of God to receive the Ten Commandments (ten words) and to institute the covenant of law.  But we must remember Exodus 19:6 where God tells the people that He wants them to be “a holy nation and a kingdom of priests”.  The meaning of this calling should not be missed.  Israel clearly has a ministry for the nation among the nations of the world.

Israel was to be kings and priests to God on behalf of the nations; they were to be… missionaries to the nations…, and they were to be partakers in the present aspects and coming reality of the “kingdom of God”.[3]

Verse 5 declares,

Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. (my emphasis)

Here there is a distinct intention behind the calling of the nation.  Israel is to be a “special treasure” (cegullah) to Yahweh “above” all the other nations of earth.  The intent, therefore, was for Israel to dwell among other nations on earth yet to enjoy a peculiar position in God’s sight.[4]  As His “peculiar people” they were to serve God alone in the midst of an idolatrous world.[5]  Israel was to be prized as a wedding ring is prized.  Indeed, as already indicated, the Prophets would invoke marital language when describing the covenant relationship.

What this shows, I believe, is that the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were destined to live with their God upon the earth surrounded by other saved nations to whom they would minister as priests.  This is what is taught in the “blessing” part of Deuteronomy 28: the LORD your God will set you high above all nations of the earth – Deut. 28:1

Then all peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the LORD, and they shall be afraid of you.  And the LORD will grant you plenty of goods, in the fruit of your body, in the increase of your livestock, and in the produce of your ground, in the land of which the LORD swore to your fathers to give you.  The LORD will open to you His good treasure, the heavens, to give the rain to your land in its season, and to bless all the work of your hand. You shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow. – Deuteronomy 28:10-12 (My emphases)[6]

This note is also struck in the Psalms.

(more…)

Abraham. Isaac and Jacob (Pt.3)

Part Two

“Israel”

There has been quite a build up to the appearance of the word “Israel” in the first book of the Pentateuch.  When it appears in chapter 32 we get an immediate ethnic link between Jacob/Israel and the sons of Israel (32:32).  This is everywhere the understanding of the name in the Old Testament, and, we shall argue, in the New Testament also.[1]

Genesis 37 and 38 detail two inauspicious moments in the history of nascent Israel; the disposal of the hated Joseph into the hands of Midianite traders going to Egypt by his own brethren, and then Judah’s marriage to a Canaanite woman and his conjugal encounter with his, unknown to him, daughter in law Tamar.  The passage of time which must be kept in mind as one reads these episodes, plus the one concerning the rape of Dinah in chapter 34, do not augur well for the future of the tribes.  The glorious provisions of the Abrahamic covenant which was their inheritance is put in jeopardy by the sons of Jacob.  Just as with Jacob himself, this shows that the covenant could not hinge upon the characters of the men who were the recipients of it.  Redemption would need to come to the physical descendants of Israel if the full benefits of the covenantal relationship initiated by God were to come about.  But the covenant with Abraham, as the covenant with Noah, did not include soteriological provisions for the establishment of permanent satisfactory Divine – human association.  These provisions, which must affect both humanity and its created environment, are given, as we shall see, in the terms of the New covenant.  The important thing is that Israel holds an enduring place within this covenantal setup.

Joseph’s Dreams

The epic of Joseph is one of the greatest stories in all of literature.  Through Joseph’s faith and discretion and God’s providential supervenience, the prediction to Abraham in Genesis 15:13f. is set in motion.  Joseph, of course, is a Seer (cf. 1 Sam. 9:9).  His rehearsal of two dreams which God gave him only deepened his brothers’ dislike of him.

Now Joseph had a dream, and he told it to his brothers; and they hated him even more.  So he said to them, “Please hear this dream which I have dreamed: “There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Then behold, my sheaf arose and also stood upright; and indeed your sheaves stood all around and bowed down to my sheaf.”  And his brothers said to him, “Shall you indeed reign over us? Or shall you indeed have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words. Then he dreamed still another dream and told it to his brothers, and said, “Look, I have dreamed another dream. And this time, the sun, the moon, and the eleven stars bowed down to me.” So he told it to his father and his brothers; and his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall your mother and I and your brothers indeed come to bow down to the earth before you?” And his brothers envied him, but his father kept the matter in mind. – Genesis 37:5-11

This vision links up with the prophecy in Genesis 15 in that it predicts the arrival of the clan of Israel “in a land that is not theirs” to begin their four hundred year hiatus out of the land (cf. Gen. 15:13).  Though no direct interpretation is given, it appears that his father and his brothers understood the significance of the dreams.[2]  The two are a pair, both featuring the obeisance to Joseph (n.b. “the sun, the moon, and the stars bowed down to me” – v.9).  This presages the eleven brothers coming down to Egypt and bowing down before the Governor-Vizier in the days of famine (42:6).  Jacob thought he and his mother would bow before Joseph, but that did not occur.  The reason being that the purpose of the dreams was to predict Joseph’s future authority, perhaps not so much to describe actual events.[3] But when Jacob came into Egypt in Genesis 46, it was Joseph who was second only to Pharaoh (41:40)[4].

The thing to be realized is that for all its strangeness, the vision was readily understandable to those to whom it came.  The “Sun” was Jacob, the “Moon” was Leah, and the eleven “stars” were Joseph’s brothers.  The vision was of Israel (cf. Rev.12:1).    It was not beyond their ability to comprehend God’s intentions.  This is an important component of revelation, for without it revelation is not really occurring.[5]  Joseph’s second vision is utilized in the last Book of Scripture.  The question which comes up then will be whether it has changed into the Christian Church or whether the actual tribes of Israel are still in view.  A lot is going to depend on the trajectory ones theology takes in the interim.

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[1] See for example Carl B. Hoch, All Things New: The Significance of Newness for Biblical Theology

[2] Ross notices the scorn involved in the retort of Joseph’s brothers.  – Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing, 600

[3] Having said this one explanation is to interpret the “bowing down” in terms of the previous vision of Genesis 37:7-8 where only the brothers did obeisance to him.

[4] I think it is worth noting that in this verse we find the only mention of a throne in the Book of Genesis.  Additionally, explicit mentions of God and His kingdom are rare in the OT (2 Chron. 13:8; Psa. 103:19; 145:11-13).  This should at least be borne in mind by scholars who find a kingdom theme in the first Book of the Bible.

[5] One of my chief reasons for rejecting covenant theology is that its eschatology firmly focuses revelation on the Church and not to those to whom it originally was given.  To offset this problem covenant theology has often taught that the Church is in the Old Testament, in spite, as we shall see, of the fact that no Church qua the Body of Christ is possible without the resurrection of Christ.  This makes a nonsense of the idea of a God who reveals Himself in history, and also of progressive revelation.

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Pt.2)

Part One

The sequel has Isaac making a pact with Abimelech after which the God of Providence gave him water.  Since there had been quarreling over water sources the conflict was resolved by covenant (cf. Heb. 6:16), Isaac named the new place “Beersheba,” meaning “well of the oath.”  God’s blessing came in conjunction with an oath which was clearly understood by both sides.  The chapter ends by noticing Esau’s marriage to two pagan wives and the grief it caused to his parents.  Notwithstanding, when it came time for the aged patriarch to pass on the mantle, his intention was to give it to Esau (27:1-4).  It was only the subtlety of his brother, with the collusion of his mother, that prevented Isaac’s wishes from becoming a reality (27:11f.).

This brings up an issue which it is wise not to pass over.  What are we to make of God’s role in all this?  It would be impious to say that He was party to the deception, but as He predicted “the older will serve the younger” (25:23), we must assert that the Lord knew both that the circumstance would come about, and how it would arise.  From this we can draw a further conclusion; that God’s “Creation Project” as I have called it, takes some unexpected turns, with the Almighty using even the sins and misdeeds of His creatures to accomplish His purposes.  Therefore it is prudent not to envisage pathways to fulfillment from calculations based on our vantage point.  We do not know what twists and turns history will take as it wends its way to the eschaton.  Fulfillments will come to pass just as Yahweh reveals them to us, but we are in no position to divine the routes they will take.

When Jacob is sent out to Padan Aram to find a wife he is met by God, who, in the strange episode featuring “Jacob’s Ladder”, gives to Jacob the covenant promises:

And behold, the LORD stood above it and said: “I am the LORD God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants.   Also your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south; and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed. – Genesis 28:13-14

We are midway through the Book of Genesis and these pledges of a specified land, seed, and international blessing are a recurrent theme from chapter 11 onwards.  But what is the meaning of the language of “spreading out” (paras) in all directions in verse 14?  The passage recalls God’s words to Abram after Lot had left for Sodom (Gen. 13:14-17), and the next verse appears to restrict the Hebrew words translated “land”[1] to the Promised Land.  As Leupold noted, the Hebrew term connotes a breaking through “in the sense of bursting all restraining bonds”.[2]  From the solitary situation at Luz, which Jacob calls “Bethel” (28:19), in which Jacob found himself as he headed out of the land, it must have looked as if all hopes of an eventual inheritance were wafer thin.  At this exigency the word of God reaffirms the covenant oath.  Unbeknownst to Jacob, he is going to find more than a wife.

The thirtieth chapter records the change in Jacob’s fortunes[3] and his desire to depart from Laban.  He departs in the next chapter after Yahweh appears to him, calling Himself “the God of Bethel” (31:13).  This prepares us for Jacob’s wrestling with the Angel of the Lord at the border of the Promised Land and his renaming as “Israel” (32:28), meaning perhaps[4] “God will strive” or “God strives”, but Jacob’s assailant appears to redefine it to stress Jacob’s struggle.[5]  As in the case of Abraham, the Divine pronouncement on the new name should be given precedence.  The place received the name Peniel[6], possibly signifying a change in Jacob’s character and outlook (32:24-30).  The Divine faithfulness is seen again in the repetition of the covenant in Genesis 35:9-13.

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[1] Verses 13 and 14b use the common eretz, but verses 14a and 15 use adhama which is usually translated as “earth.”  There is no discernible difference between “the land (eretz) on which you lie” (v.13), “your descendants will be as the dust of the earth (eretz)” in verse 14a, and “[I] will bring you back to this land (adhama) (v.15).   They all have the land given to Abraham in view.  But the extended promise “in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth (adhama) be blessed” can scarcely be taken that way, since the promise has future Jewish and Gentile salvation in view.  See Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 242.

[2] H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis, vol. 2, 774

[3] William J. Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel, 30

[4] The precise meaning is uncertain. – Cf. John D. Currid, Genesis, vol. 2, 137.

[5] See the discussion in Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 17:27-50:26, 559

[6] Heb. “The face of God”

Teloscompass

TELOS shorts: Questions & Answers

What with pastoring a church, teaching a weekly theology course at another church, dealing with the joys of a new baby girl, and working on the new house I am finding myself with too little time on me hands.  One of the things that is having to “give” is my beloved Telos Ministries.  The present website needs an overhaul and the newsletters aren’t getting our as they should.  Well, that’s life!

To keep something going I have been releasing some short videos on YouTube.  These address some questions that I have been asked.  They are mostly apologetic ones.  My aim has not to be detailed but to give a little guidance.

Here are the links:

“If Christianity is true why don’t many intellectuals believe it?”

“Isn’t Science more objective than Religion?”

“Is Christianity compatible with other religious worldviews?”

“Can Atheists be moral?”

“Why are so many Christians hypocritical?”

“Isn’t Christianity responsible for a great deal of bloodshed?”

“Hasn’t the Bible been changed?”

“What about those people who claim to have died and gone to heaven?”

 

None of these answers brims with philosophical profundity, but they point in the right direction nonetheless.

 

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Pt.1)

After Abraham

Having arrived at the crux of Abraham’s saga, which is the test of his faith as recorded in the twenty-second chapter, the story of Genesis moves to the death of Sarah and the purchase of a gravesite for her. Abraham bought the burial ground and the cave of Machpelah because although he had wealth, he was never a recipient of the land itself (cf. Gen. 37:1). When the covenant was being solemnized God had told His servant that he would go to his Fathers in peace, and his posterity would only claim the land after spending four hundred years in Egypt (Gen. 15:13-16, 18). This is the reason Abraham “waited for a city… whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10). He knew that he himself would not own the land of promise. Genesis 25:7-10 records Abraham’s death and burial.

From the emphasis which has been placed upon Isaac by Moses, the author of Genesis, one would have thought that he would receive about the same amount of treatment as his father did, but in truth there is not much about him by comparison with Abraham, or indeed his son Jacob. We are told God blessed Isaac (Gen. 25:11), and answered his petition for a child for Rebekah who was barren (25:21). When Yahweh spoke to him concerning the famine which was in the land, He said,

Dwell in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; for to you and your descendants I give all these lands, and I will perform the oath which I swore to Abraham your father.
And I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven; I will give to your descendants all these lands; and in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; because Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.” – Genesis 26:3-5

The Lord’s word to Isaac is to have faith and to dwell in the land. The mention of the plural “lands” no doubt refers to the possession of enemy territories within the bounds of the promised land (cf. 22:17). The reference to “the oath” in verse 3 brings both seed and land together again. We also see the refrain of blessing for the nations, as in 22:18. This, as we have seen, is best understood as a messianic expectation; all peoples of the earth will be blessed through the woman’s seed as per Genesis 3:15.

The comment about Abraham’s obedience shouldn’t be thought of as a conditional element to the covenant itself. God knew His man before He called him. It is important that we differentiate between the oath taken, which formalizes the covenantal bond between Yahweh and Abraham, from the conditional elements which keep obedient Hebrews inside the bond.  Abraham was obedient in the conditional aspects adjoined to the covenant, therefore he fulfilled the conditions. It is useless to speculate on what would have happened had he not circumcised himself and his household, or had become an idolater. The Lord chose a faithful man; a man with whom He could enact such a covenantal relationship involving such an immense and far-reaching teleological vision.

Two Sons

The birth of Isaac’s twin sons (in 25:21-23) provides an occasion for a reflection upon what God had said regarding nations coming from Abraham in chapter 17. In God’s providence, Rebekah had two sons; Esau and Jacob, who would become two distinct nations. Yet the birth was the subject of prophecy. The elder (Esau) was to serve the younger (Jacob). As we all know, as human beings go, Esau had more character than Jacob. But being the better man means next to nothing if you take a dim view of the promises of God; the only One who is truly good (Mk. 10:18). This was Esau’s folly. The tale is painful to tell:

Now Jacob cooked a stew; and Esau came in from the field, and he was weary. And Esau said to Jacob, “Please feed me with that same red stew, for I am weary.” Therefore his name was called Edom. But Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright as of this day.” And Esau said, “Look, I am about to die; so what is this birthright to me?” Then Jacob said, “Swear to me as of this day.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. And Jacob gave Esau bread and stew of lentils; then he ate and drank, arose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. – Genesis 25:30-34

The narrative is a masterpiece of brevity, but it graphically portrays the attitudes of the two men. In comes Esau from the hunt. He is famished. Jacob has been cooking, with an eye no doubt for an advantage. There is nothing subtle about Jacob’s words. He is quite blunt. He wants the right of the firstborn, which, in Esau’s case, is no less than the entitlement to the greatest covenant in the Bible, barring the New covenant.

This is no trifling matter. But it is treated by the hungry Esau in a way that almost defies belief. “What is this birthright to me?” he asks. Good question. It is God’s covenant pledge to him! No wonder the writer of Hebrews refers to Esau as a “profane person” (bebelos – Heb. 12:16).

When the Lord shows up to confirm His covenant to Isaac He does so in uncompromising terms:

Dwell in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; for to you and your descendants I give all these lands, and I will perform the oath which I swore to Abraham your father. And I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven; I will give to your descendants all these lands; and in your seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed. – Genesis 26:3-4

All the ingredients which one finds in chapter 12 are present here. The land is prominent, as is the blessing to the world. There is absolutely no reason to keep the latter and not to retain the former. Covenants are covenants. Abraham’s obedience is a model for his people after him (26:5) , but God’s obligations hold anyway. That is why Isaac’s lapse of faith and duty, which is recorded next (26:7), does not cause the blessings to be repealed.