Author: Paul Henebury

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.


Abraham. Isaac and Jacob (Pt.3)

Part Two


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.


[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.


[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”


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.

Making a Covenant with Abraham (Pt.6): Abraham’s Temptation to Spiritualize?

Part Five

With Abraham on Mt. Moriah

When we come to Genesis 22 we arrive at one of the key events in the Bible; the offering of Isaac, the son of promise to the Promiser.  The retelling of this story by Kierkegaard in his book Fear and Trembling poses the question of how Abraham could possibly have justified his actions to himself or to his son.  The philosopher’s conclusion is that he could not.  Neither in the three days’ journey and especially in the final moments before the intervention of God could he have been absolutely sure that it was God who commanded him.  For what was commanded seemed to fly in the face of what God had so deliberately promised.  But, as Kierkegaard so poignantly puts it, “Abraham is not what he is without this dread.”[1]

We have not got the character of Abraham right if we conceive of him performing his duty in the cold analytical strength of unperturbed trust.  Faith he had, and we must pay close attention to its form and function, but this was the man who buckled when dealing with Pharaoh (Gen. 12:15-20), and Abimelech (Gen. 20), and who implored the Almighty that Ishmael would be the chosen seed and so receive the inheritance of the covenant blessing (Gen. 17:18). It was Abraham who heeded Sarah’s bad advice in the matter of having the child who would be Ishmael (Gen. 16:1-2).  And this latter incident was nothing if not Abraham and his wife’s solution to the dilemma of God’s promising something that looked more and more improbable: that Sarah would herself give birth to an heir.

We might say that the conception of Ishmael was a hermeneutical conception before it was a physical conception.  Yes, Abraham was very human, and one can be sure that his ascent up the slopes of Moriah was a deeply troubling one; a time of crisis for him personally.  Yet, for all the confusion that must have penetrated his thoughts from the time God told him to sacrifice his son (and notice how the text stresses “your only, whom you love” – 22:2)[2], Abraham showed that the word and character of his God were more sure than his unaided reason and churned up emotions.  How could he put faith above reason?  He didn’t!  He put reason in service of his strong faith.  This is what the writer of Hebrews explains in an extraordinary passage:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, “In Isaac your seed shall be called,” concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense. – Hebrews 11:17-19.

Abraham concluded “that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead!”  His faith led his reason in the direction of a logical outcome which was guaranteed by the covenant oath which God had given to him.  The words of the covenant supported his faith, and his faith guided his reasoning.  This is the interpretative structure that I am proposing as the iron backbone of Biblical Theology.  If Abraham had not reasoned by faith in what God literally said, he would doubtless have succumbed to the sort of reasoning that comes easily to those of us whose faith does not aspire to reason that way.  Abraham would have reinterpreted the command, perhaps as figurative and typological, and would not have been ready to literally sacrifice Isaac.

A Critical Hermeneutical Lesson

There is a critical hermeneutical lesson to be drawn from this story and its commentary in the Book of Hebrews.  The temptation to reinterpret what God has pledged to do must not be overlooked or dismissed from our hermeneutical methods.  When our predisposition to reason independently  is also factored in (that is the default position we inherit from Eve), the re-interpretation of the Book of God via spiritualizing the words or devising a typology to fit our predetermined theologies should be viewed with suspicion.  What is clear is that the symbolical approach to God’s words can never duplicate Abraham’s faith in Genesis 22.  That faith did not venture on types and transformations.  Faith took God at His word!  For faith to be faith it has to take God at face value.  To proceed by another way is to introduce independent human reasoning into the scriptural situation and so to place a filter over what God is really saying so as to view it differently.  But the “literal” word is guided by the biblical covenants that lie easily identifiable upon the open pages of Scripture.  Our reinterpretations will always threaten to skirmish with those covenant oaths until one or the other gives way.

This episode and its interpretation by Scripture itself is to me one of the key hermeneutical guideposts in the Bible.  Not to stop and ponder it is to make a fatal mistake.  Abraham’s offering of Isaac in faith is surely one of the greatest exemplars of how to take God at His word and make faith drive reason rather than the other way round.  Here we have a hermeneutics from the inside (from Scripture itself) rather than a hermeneutics from the outside (from extra biblical sources).


[1] Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 41

[2] Humphreys brings this out very well when he says, “Now, at just the point at which the narrative reached certain stability – when the long-promised son and seed were granted, when in spite of all appearances God begins to secure the future of the one he chose for a special covenant and destiny – all is destabilized by a test devised by God, whose designs and purpose are not clear at all.” – W Lee Humphreys, The Character of God in the Book of Genesis, 139. Emphasis in original.

Making a Covenant with Abraham (Pt.5): Hermeneutics as a Test of Faith

Problems with the Promise and Fulfillment Motif?

John Sailhamer is a critic of the common evangelical dogma that teaches a “promise – fulfillment” way of looking at the two Testaments, because by setting things up that way, the almost irresistible temptation will be to interpret the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament, and in particular with the first coming of Christ culminating in the Gospel.  Such an attitude threatens to turn the Old Testament, the Bible of Israel, and of Jesus and the Apostles, in to a book of colorful stories and sermon illustrations for New Testament preaching. [1]


This might sound very good.  As a matter of fact it does sound good to very many evangelicals.  So good in fact, that it has often been assumed by pious minds as a natural implication of having a New Testament.  But the “promise – fulfillment” idea so frequently recommended cries out for a bit of careful examination.  The received wisdom is that we don’t start by reading through the OT to find its meaning, but that we begin by reading the NT, with emphasis on Paul’s Gospel, and we then interpret the OT through our understanding of the NT, especially our understanding of the work of Christ.  Essentially what is being urged on us is the hermeneutical priority of the NT.  Without the interpretive mindset we have gained from the NT, so the thinking goes, we are not in a position to rightly understand the OT.  Hence, the OT is to be interpreted, not on its own merits, but by the NT.  An earlier quote from Goldsworthy again makes this clear:

[T]he one problem we have in the interpretation of the Bible is the failure to interpret the texts by the definitive event of the gospel.  This has its outworking in both directions.  What went before Christ in the Old Testament, as well as what comes after him, thus finding its meaning in him.  So the Old Testament must be understood in its relationship to the gospel event.  What that relationship is can only be determined from the witness of the New Testament itself.[2]

Because Goldsworthy is not interpreting the OT on its own terms, but through his own understanding of the NT, he is not hesitant about converting the covenantal promises of the land to Israel into a “true fulfillment” in Jesus Christ and the Church.  In this promise – fulfillment scheme, the OT does not serve up enough clear data to furnish its own interpretation.  But one might well ask, is there something wrong with the Old Testament or is there something wrong with the way some scholars look at it?[3]

The Birth of Isaac and the Hermeneutical Test of Faith

The next two chapters in Genesis (i.e. 18 and 19) are ostensibly about the judgment and destruction of the cities of the plain for their wickedness.  However, the three men who visit Abraham at Mamre are there for more than that.  One of the visitors is the Lord Yahweh Himself, as the text makes clear.  After the two angelic companions leave for the rescue of Lot in Sodom, the Lord tells Abraham,

I will certainly return to you according to the time of life, and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son. – Genesis 18:10

After hearing Sarah laugh at the promise, God reiterates it almost verbatim:

Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son. – Genesis 18:14

As the story moves on we read in chapter 21,

And the LORD visited Sarah as He had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as He had spoken.  For Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. – Genesis 21:1-2

In calling the reader’s attention to these verses I want to drive home the precision of God’s word.  God means what He says.  The tragedy of Ishmael is that Abraham and Sarah they did not take God at His word and instead attempted to help the situation along by a reinterpretation of His covenant words.  But the message of Genesis continues to be that God’s words are to be taken at face value.  The next chapter puts the seal to this truth, but before we study it, I should say something about the phrase “in you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him” in verse 18.  This statement, which is a close match to Genesis 12:3[4], is not to be construed as a coverall statement of the whole Abrahamic covenant, land promise and all, to be given to every saint in the entire history of redemption.  The words draw attention to an important aspect of the covenant; the seed promise that will eventuate in salvation offered to the nations through Jesus Christ.  But they do not extend to the promises of geo-political statehood or geographical location.  The phrase is repeated by Peter in Acts 3:25 in a very Jewish setting (see 3:12-13).  It appears then to have been understood by Peter in the same terms Abraham had understood it.


[1] E.g., “As Christians, we must return to the principles of Old Testament interpretation dictated by the New Testament.” – Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 54-55

[2] Ibid, 50.  The conclusion drawn from this way of reading the OT is that not only does it not reveal enough of God’s intent, but many of its prophetic assertions are in need of revision via the NT.  So Goldsworthy can say that “the earlier expressions point to things beyond themselves that are greater than the meaning that would have been perceived by those receiving these earlier expressions.” – Ibid, 123.  See also G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 431

[3] I simply pose the question for the time being.  Still, I cannot suppress the urge entirely.  In the words of John Sailhamer’s criticism of Geerhaardus Vos; “The divine promises as objects of faith in God were more important than their objective fulfillment… The lack of fulfillment of the OT promises was the primary means of teaching God’s people to look for spiritual and future dimensions of God’s promises.  Vos spiritualizes the OT’s lack of fulfillment.” – Meaning, 424-425.  It is this presupposition that invites typology to assume the upper hand in OT hermeneutics.

[4] The only change is the substitution of “families” (mishpachah) in 12:3 with “nations” (goyim) in 18:18.


Review: Eschatology: Biblical, Historical and Practical Approaches

Review: Eschatology: Biblical, Historical and Practical Approaches by D. Jeffrey Bingham and Glenn R. Kreider, editors.  Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2016, 501 pages.  

This book is a celebration of the work of Craig A. Blaising.  Though I am not a Progressive Dispensationalist, I do like Blaising’s writing.  He always approaches a subject from interesting angles, and usually makes important points.

The book is divided into the three sections of the subtitle, plus a beginning section on foundational matters.  The list of contributors is impressive and the table of contents is inviting.  But more important is whether the contributions are up to snuff.  On that score I can answer with a firm if not universal yes!  In this brief review I shall first turn to the most impressive essays and then say one or two things about what I might refer to as the more makeweight chapters.

First place for this reviewer goes to Daniel Block’s piece on Mosaic eschatology centered on the Book of Deuteronomy.  The essay presents a fine arrangement and handling of the salient texts, with good interaction with scholarship.  But its best part comes with the author’s treatment of Deuteronomy 4, 30 and 32.  This is an excellent piece of biblical theology.

Pretty close on its heals is the next chapter on “The Doctrine of the Future in the Historical Books.”  Although it did not interact with as many interpreters as Block, the writer, Gregory Smith, did use his limited pool of sources well.  He has many good footnotes, but too often relies on the same people (e.g., Merrill, Dumbrell, Kaiser, EBC).  This I think confines him to general conclusions instead of a decided stance.  He manages to convey the importance of the Davidic hope in the Historical writings, even if he leaves things a little open-ended.  Still, I learned a lot from Smith’s article and I recommend it.

The opening chapter is by Jeffrey Bingham and is a scholarly look at the answers given by the early church to the assailing of the two Testament canon by Marcion.  Bingham’s major thrust is that the Fathers recognized that theological continuity between the OT and NT was essential and also possible, whereas Marcion sided with a radical discontinuity (e.g. 45-46).  The article is informative and asks good questions, but Bingham runs out of space to answer them.  He does show, however, that the paths taken to minimize the perceived discontinuity problem are still with us and that Dispensationalism has not been given a fair hearing for its hermeneutical stability across the Scriptures.

John and Stefana Laing’s bold effort is entitled “The Doctrine of the Future, the Doctrine of God, and Predictive Prophecy.”  It ambitiously tries to bring the three ideas into unified focus and nearly succeeds.  It is well structured, well annotated, and well written.  Some of the notes were especially nice to have, either for apologetic or for theological purposes.  They include a lengthy footnote, for example, about the ecstatic behavior of pagan prophets in which they customarily lost control of their faculties (83 n.6).  This article, with its mix of thoughtful historical, theological and apologetic content, must have taken a lot of effort to put together within the imposed page limit.  For the most part I liked it, although I have to take issue with their repetition of the hackneyed line about the prophets being more ethical preachers (forthtellers) than predictors of the future (foretellers).  Sooner or later evangelicals will discover that the scholarly consensus has shifted back quite a bit.

I could write glowingly about several other pieces in this fine book.  George Klein on the Psalms, Mark Rooker on the Prophets, Glenn Kreider on the eschatology of Jonathan Edwards, and more.  Mark Bailey handles Dispensationalism well.  For readers interested in Jurgen Moltmann the chapter by Lanier Burns is a great one stop treatment, even if Barth and Pannenberg must be content with a brief but competent review by two German scholars.

I said I would refer to a few less impressive chapters.  For me Stanley Toussaint’s piece on eschatology and hope was just okay.  I was disappointed that he did not tie hope more poignantly to the resurrection.  Charles Ryrie wrote a short piece, “The Doctrine of the Future and the Weakening of Prophecy.”  I shall only say that if I ever reached his age I doubt that I could produce an essay as good as Dr. Ryrie, although I’m afraid it isn’t very good.  Finally, Albert Mohler on the application of eschatology to the contemporary situation was rather pedestrian.

But after all is said and done I can give this book my recommendation.  It is not only a tribute to a fine evangelical scholar, it is a collection of solid articles, some of them super, on biblical eschatology.


Making a Covenant with Abraham (Pt.4): Covenants and Promises (2)

Two Abrahamic Covenants?

To make things a little more tricky, some scholars claim to see not one but two covenants made with Abraham by the Lord.  This is the position of Paul Williamson as set out in his fine book Sealed with an Oath.  Williamson believes that the thirteen year time lapse between Genesis 15 and 17, plus what he calls “significant differences…in terms of their covenantal framework and their promissory emphases” argue for two covenants.[1]

But the time gap is not in itself a problem for a Divine covenant.  Clearly it would take many generations for the descendants to appear.  The issue is really over the repetition of covenantal language and what receives emphasis.  What it boils down to for the two covenant view is that Genesis 15 is said to be temporal and unilateral, whereas Genesis 17 is eternal and bilateral.[2]  Williamson sees the two covenants with Abraham as stemming from “the two separate strands set out in the programmatic agenda of Genesis 12:1-3.”[3]

It is of little moment to the overall thesis of this book to have to decide whether Williamson is right.  But the two strands, which are certainly present, seem too interrelated to prise apart.  In Genesis 15 the seed promise is followed, naturally enough, by the land promise.  The one involves the other.  The boundaries of the land given to Abraham’s descendants (through Isaac and Jacob) are for Israel.  The international aspects of the promise are for Israel and the Nations through Messiah.  It is Williamson’s supercessionism which appears to force him to stress the national/international paradox the way he does.

Also, as I have shown above, the token of circumcision is not part of the covenant oath.  Moreover, circumcision pertains to the physical descendants who will be given the land, so the reasons which are adduced for separating Genesis 15 and 17 into two covenants become very strained.  Even scholars who are sympathetic to Williamson’s supercessionist approach have not been persuaded by his arguments.[4]  And when we look at later events it becomes even more difficult to try to keep apart what the narrative seems to want us to take together.[5]  It is better, therefore, to understand chapter 17 as providing further complementary revelation on the covenant God cut in chapter 15.

God’s “No” to Ishmael

Moving on to the second half of Genesis 17 (vv.15-22), we encounter Abraham’s advocacy for his son Ishmael.  The patriarch is anxious that his son not be excluded from the blessing of God.  It will help if we print the text below:

Then God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 “And I will bless her and also give you a son by her; then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be from her.”

17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, “Shall a child be born to a man who is one hundred years old? And shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”

 18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!”

 19 Then God said: “No, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him.

 20 “And as for Ishmael, I have heard you. Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall beget twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.

 21 “But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this set time next year.”

 22 Then He finished talking with him, and God went up from Abraham – Genesis 17:15-22                                  


The whole episode is very clear.  For all his father’s urgent pleading on his behalf, Ishmael is not and will not be a party to the covenant.  Despite the clear declaration of God that the covenant is established through Isaac and not Ishmael, it is surprising how many Bible readers miss this.

Nevertheless, the passage indicates that Ishmael is the recipient of Divine promises (cf. 21:13, 18).  This is proof that we should not treat automatically covenants and promises as if they were the same thing.  As it concerns the Abrahamic covenant, we should note that the national and land aspects of the covenant are just as particular (more so in the OT) as the international aspects (which become clearer as we draw towards the NT).  In the Pentateuch, the narrative will concentrate on the seed promise, and the land will never be far out of view.

This passage (Genesis 17:15ff.), is a locus classicus to prove that there is a difference between a promise and a covenant.  Covenants establish some kind of relationship between the parties[6], whereas promises do not necessarily include relationships.  Covenants are oath-bound, whereas promises are not.  Theologically speaking, covenants are strongly implicative, whereas promises may carry little or no future repercussions for the biblical storyline.


[1] Paul R. Williamson, Sealed with an Oath, 86

[2] Williamson notes a few other matters such as the international extent of the Genesis 17 promises.  Ibid, 87

[3] Ibid, 89

[4] See the discussion in Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 11:27 – 50:26, 195-199.

[5] Just a few examples would be Genesis 28:4; 35:10-12, and Ezekiel 34:11-15

[6] See Sailhamer, Meaning of the Pentateuch, 433

Making a Covenant with Abraham (Pt.3): Covenants and Promises (1)

Part Two

The seventeenth chapter of the Book of Genesis affords us an occasion to distinguish between a covenant and a promise.  This difference is seldom noticed in the literature, but it deserves our attention since it shows up a tendency to take things for granted which we ought perhaps to be more discerning about.

There is no problem with the idea that a covenant includes promise.  All covenants are about what one will do or refrain from doing at a future time.  In Joshua 9:15-21 the elders of Israel swear a covenant with the Gibeonites to be at peace with them because they were fooled into believing that they were not native to the land.  They could not go back on the words of the covenant they had made on pain of Divine wrath, a wrath that did come upon Israel because of Saul’s breach of the promise made in the covenant (2 Sam. 21:1).  But saying that promise is embedded in covenant is one thing.  To attempt to assert that covenant is part and parcel of a promise is another thing altogether.  The fact is, it is not reversible.  All covenants contain a promise, but not all promises are covenants.  This ought to be apparent upon but a little reflection.  Promises do not contain covenants like covenants contain promises.  A room may contain a computer but a computer does not contain a room.

Once we see this it becomes difficult to go along with the standard traditional dispensationalist designation of a “dispensation of promise” to adequately identify this epoch (which is said to cover the call of Abram to the giving of the Law).  The central idea in the narrative is not “promise” but covenant relationship.  In the story of Abram up until this time the focus has been upon land and posterity.  Certainly important promises have been made, but the center of attention has been on God’s covenant, and a covenant is more than a promise.

To show this more plainly all we have to do is read the seventeenth chapter of Genesis. B Before coming to the main point let me comment on the details in the first half of the chapter.  Many important things occur in this chapter, including the renaming of Abram (“exalted father”),  as Abraham, which, as it denotes him “father of many nations[1]” is more in keeping with the covenant God has made with him (17:4-5).  Also, we find the covenant being termed “an everlasting covenant” by the Lord, a designation previously given to the covenant with Noah.  But as God’s covenant with Abraham includes several promises, God takes the time to reemphasize these pledges.  So, five times in these opening verses the phrase “you and your seed (zera)” is repeated.  Among these descendants there will be “kings” (17:6), which in view of the setting is best interpreted as kings of the one nation included in the covenant (cf. 18:8).  This is clarified by what comes next in verse 8:

Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.

The land promise again comes to the fore.  It is well to note that just as “olam” (“everlasting”) describes the perpetuity of Yahweh’s relationship with Abraham and his physical descendants (17:7, 13, 19), so it equally appears to describe His decision to gift the land of Canaan to the nation who will spring from Isaac.  If this situation is going to change in any way, one ought to be able very particularly to put ones finger on the event.  It cannot be just “suggested at” by a certain way of reading the Old Testament.  Because it is covenantally bounded, and covenants amplify clear statements, an equally clear alteration of the covenant terms must be identifiable.  But there is a problem here.  The terms which we have so far encountered are conspicuously one-sided.  And by being designated perpetual they appear to be unalterable (cf. Heb. 11:13-17).

This might look like a hasty remark in light of the rite of circumcision which we read about in verses 10 through 14.  I will revisit this later, but I ought to mention the fact that circumcision (which as practiced by Israel was unique in the ancient world[2]), is tied formerly to the Abrahamic covenant as concerns Israel.  This is why the rite can also be utilized as a token for the Mosaic covenant centuries later.  The failure of Israel to keep the bi-lateral Mosaic covenant does not abolish the rite of circumcision for male Jews.  The unconditional covenant with Abraham still has male circumcision for its sign.

But doesn’t the fact that eight day old males (or bought servants) have to be circumcised constitute a condition on the fulfillment of the covenant?  And doesn’t the warning about being cut-off from ones people and the covenant show that the Abrahamic covenant is bi-lateral?  Some have thought so, but the majority of commentators have correctly understood that the sign is not itself the covenant.  Therefore, circumcision cannot be introduced as a condition to be appended to an already initialized and functioning unilateral and non-conditional covenant.


[1] As everyone knows, the literal meaning of the name is “father of a multitude”, but we must allow the context to fill out the meaning for us.  The “multitude” Abraham is to be the progenitor of is nations.  Therefore, the more precise sense of the new name is “father of many nations.” (Gen. 17:5)

[2] According to Peter Gentry.  See Peter J. Gentry & Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 274