Biblical Covenants and Normative Hermeneutics (1)



In this installment of our series on what I have called “Biblical Covenantalism” I want to concentrate on the matter of interpretation as it relates to the Covenants of Scripture.  I have alluded to this in an earlier article, but I want to say more because I believe this matter to be so vital for a proper understanding of the Bible.

As is recognized by most Dispensationalists, many of those brethren who denigrate Dispensational theology for its “literalistic” hermeneutics do so because they insist upon the determining interpretive role of the various “genres” of Scripture.  Prophetic literature, for example, is to be understood according to the “genre” we call “apocalyptic”.

By utilizing the supposed insights of prophetic/apocalyptic genre, amazing transformations take place. Wild animals are changed into metaphors for our carnal passions (Isa. 11); detailed physical temple-plans are morphed into spiritual organisms (Ezek. 40ff); and seemingly inviolable promises are taken from the designees and altered so as to conform to what history after the cross is alleged to demand.

My concern in this article is to address this phenomenon of prophetic makeover.  How can God express Himself in the most forceful language of commitment to Israel and not mean what He is saying (Jer. 31-33)?  How can God make a solemn oath to accomplish stipulations which He and no one else has placed upon Himself and proceed to “expand” these stipulations beyond all recognition (Gen. 15)?   And what, if anything, gives Christians the right to re-interpret the language of God’s unilateral promises to the Patriarchs?  Where is the “wiggle room” in the covenant obligations which Jehovah placed Himself under?

Two Forms of Biblical Covenants

We have previously noted that a biblical covenant is a contract between two parties. The OT has two kinds of covenants. They are really two forms of the Suzerain-vassal treaties common in the 2nd millennium B.C. (the time of Moses).  The Sinai Covenant (Exod. 19-24; 32-34) is a good example of this first version.  In this form of biblical covenant the emphasis falls on the obligation of the vassal (Israel) to perform the will of the Suzerain (Yahweh) which it has agreed to perform upon oath. Failure to pursue the obligations of the covenant would result in the nation (not just certain individuals) being laid open to the curses affixed to the contract. Of course, the Mosaic sacrificial system was instituted within the covenant, at least in part, to stave off judgment. On the other hand, compliance would guarantee the blessing mentioned in connection with rewards of obedience contained within the covenant.  Thus, blessing was experienced now and again in Israel, but the stipulations were too stringent for them to ever obtain the full blessing.

This is where the second type of biblical covenant comes in. Examples of the second kind of covenant are those to Noah (Gen. 9), Abraham (Gen. 15:1-21; 17:1-8) and Phinehas (Num. 25). In these covenants, and others like them, it is not human obligation which is stressed but the unilateral obligation that God s freely entered into and has committed Himself to perform. Such a covenant is that which God made with Abraham. What is unique about this type of biblical covenant is that although it follows the Suzerain-vassal pattern, there is a special twist. As David Noel Freedman writes:

“Strikingly, it is the suzerain who is obligated, not the vassal. Then covenant is initiated by the suzerain who is obligated, not the vassal. The covenant is initiated by the suzerain, and is unconditional in the sense that no demands are imposed upon Abraham.” (Divine Commitment and Human Obligation, Vol. 1: Ancient Israelite History and Religion, 173)

Taking God’s covenant with Noah as an example, we note that God’s commitment to Noah (as the new head of the human race) was to never again bring a worldwide flood upon the earth. The rainbow is given as a token of Divine Self-obligation.

At this juncture, I wish to ask a hermeneutical question: “Did God mean what He said to Noah or did He really have a different fulfillment of His obligations in mind?” The answer, I think, is obvious.  So the Noahic Covenant is an example of this second kind of covenant – what Freedman calls a “Covenant of Divine Commitment” – and it means just what it says.  It ought not to be missed that it is on the basis of the literal meaning of God’s oath that we know, “The regular cycle of seasons and the orderly processes of nature will persist.” (Freedman, 174).  It is this which undergirds the Christian assurance of the uniformity of nature.  It is no insubstantial thing!

Now if we move on to examine the Abrahamic Covenant along these same lines, what do we find? We see another unconditional Divine Commitment, this time to Abraham and his descendants (the nation that will come through the promised seed – Isaac). Taking only one of the times in which God freely commits Himself to fulfill, I incite you to read Genesis 15:13-16.  Was this fulfilled literally?

Then, in verse 17, God, in the mysterious form/s of the “smoking oven and burning torch” is said to pass through the divided animals to seal the covenant. The specific covenant oath (“which was the central feature of the covenant ceremony,” 172) that God takes regarding the physical land then follows.

Another passage which throws light upon Genesis 15:17f. is Jeremiah 34:8-22, in which Zedekiah and the slave-owners in Judah are reminded by God that they are bound by a covenant similar to that of Genesis 15, wherein their forefathers agreed to release their slaves after six years of service in line with stipulations set down at Sinai. As Freedman takes up the narrative,

“The agreement here is described as having been ratified in the temple through a ceremony in which the participants were required to pass between the severed halves of a bull…In verse 18…the slave owners are condemned for violating their oath and repossessing the slaves whom they had released. Now the prophet assures them, God as the judge and executor of the curses of the covenant will make them like the severed bull.” (ibid, 172)

So the question arises once more, did God hold the citizens to the literal wording of this covenant or not? Certainly He did. If God held His creatures to the literal wording of the covenant would He not hold Himself to the same standard? Didn’t God Himself employ “literal” hermeneutics when forging these covenants?  And returning to the Abrahamic Covenant, I simply wish to ask a similar question: “Did God understand Himself to be committing to the literal sense of the words with which He bound Himself in Genesis 15:17-21?” The evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the affirmative. In fact, this is precisely how the later prophets understood the Divine obligation. E.g. Jeremiah 31-33; Ezekiel 36-37; Hosea 2:16-23.

A Contradiction?

But now a curious tension arises when the first kind of biblical covenant – that stressing human obligation, is compared with the second kind – that emphasizing Divine Commitment. Israel was unable to keep its obligations to God and has been judged by God in line with the curses included (or embedded) in the Sinai Covenant. But God has promised to fulfill His commitments included in the oaths He took (e.g. to Noah and Abraham). And God is fully able to follow through on His commitments!

Is this tension between the covenants of Divine Commitment and Human Obligation irreconcilable? As Freedman expresses the problem, “Can covenant bond be broken – and at the same time persist? Can God sever a relationship as a result of covenant violations – and nonetheless maintain it is perpetuity?” (ibid, 177)

That is an interesting question. And it is made all the more interesting when one considers that Covenant theology requires the answer to be returned in the negative.

Whether one turns to Augustine, the great precursor of Covenant theology, who flatly denied any future hope to ethnic Israel and replaced Israel with the Church, or to Palmer Robertson, who uses the language of accommodation to absorb Israel into the Church and eradicate its national identity, what this form of theology demands is that the God who made oaths to Noah, Abraham (and David) did not actually mean what He said when He uttered them.

But Freedman, who is more liberal in his sympathies, can write: “The prophets were convinced that God’s commitment to Israel persisted in spite of and beyond the destruction of the nation.” (ibid, 177)

So can the tension be resolved so that both types of covenant can retain their literal sense?

“In the new age of the covenant – the new spirit and the new life – the conflict between the two covenant types is resolved in reciprocal fulfillment. Yahweh’s irreversible commitment to Israel flows into the blessings which he bestows on an obedient people who, through the power of his Spirit, fulfill all the requirements of the covenant.” (ibid, 178)

As a Bible believer who thinks God means exactly what He says, I believe Freedman has a point. So let me lower the boom:  If covenant language must be (a) specific, and, (b) mean what it says (literal), it stands to reason that the biblical covenants must be interpreted literally. And if they must be literally interpreted Covenant theology doesn’t have a leg to stand on! “The gifts and calling of God are without repentance” (cf also Gal. 3:15 on human covenants).  Next time I shall try to explain the implications of this conclusion.

Part Two

6 thoughts on “Biblical Covenants and Normative Hermeneutics (1)”

  1. Dr. Henebury,
    Would I be right in explaining the Abrahamic covenant as the overarching covenant over which all of the others (namely Old Covenant/Sinai, Davidic and New Covenant)are subservient?

    Let me try to illustrate it thus:

    |————–Abrahamic Covenant ————-|
    |—-Old Covenant—-||—-New Covenant—-|
    | |—–Davidic————————-|

    1. Will,

      Yes, I think it is important to find the roots of the Mosaic, Davidic and New Covenants in the Covenant with Abraham.

      As far as the Mosaic Covenant is concerned one finds the establishment of a theocracy. The Davidic Covenant supplies the King, and the New Covenant brings all the promises embedded in the Abrahamic covenant to their fulfillment – thus bringing the conditional and unconditional aspects of the covenants together. As Erich Sauer put it:

      “Naturally, there is no salvation for Israel merely because they are bodily descendants of Abraham. Much rather does the whole prophecy of blessing of the OT refer to the transformed and renewed Israel.” – Erich Sauer, ‘From Eternity to Eternity’, 159.

      So the root of the promises in the other covenants to Israel is the Abrahamic and the fulfillment is based in the New (of which the Church is associated in part).

  2. Hello Paul.
    I really enjoy this blog and your advocacy of dispensationalism.

    My question isn’t directly related to the content of your post, but it is in regard to the New Covenant.

    What is your take on Isaiah 42:6, 49:8 in regard New Covenant Theology’s emphasis on Jesus Christ Himself as our New Covenant. They explain that a covenant is a basis for a relationship with God and that Jesus is our basis for a relationship with God therefore He is our covenant. He is
    the new, indwelling covenant unlike the old Mosaic covenant God made with Israel. It makes Him who lives in us THE Covenant.

    As this perspective is new to me, I would appreciate any insight you may have to offer.

  3. Dan,

    New Covenant Theology might be described as an interesting halfway house between Covenant theology and Classic Dispensationalism. I can’t comment on the whole approach here, but the Isaiah passages relate to Israel and the land and ought to be viewed in theocratic terms – with Messiah as the Head and Guarantor of the Covenant terms.

    There is still an inconsistency in hermeneutics in New Covenant Theology which leads to wrong identifications of the covenant designees. For me, the same interpretation which leads them to reject the theological covenants and the artificial division of the Mosaic Law should lead them to place the two Testaments on the same footing hermeneutically and theologically. I.e. one does not “re-interpret” the other.

    I like the fact that NCT is less deductive than CT but it is still far too deductive for me.

    Does that help?

    Your brother,


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