Biblical Covenantalism

God Chooses One Man – Pt.2

Part One

Before moving on I should say that the promise to make Abram’s name great[3] is not a part of the covenant oath which God takes in Genesis 15.  It is worth noting that a covenant then is more than just a promise.  God can promise something without including it within a covenant.  As we shall see, a lot of confusion has come about by Bible teachers not taking care to differentiate between a promise of God within a covenant oath and a promise not housed within an oath.

The second part of Genesis 12 concerns Abram’s lack of faith and its fallout.  Although descending into Egypt and promoting a lie concerning Sarai (12:11-19), God averted the dire consequences of Abram’s decisions, and at the beginning of the next chapter we find him living in the south part of the Promised Land.  The ensuing story of the separation of Abram from Lot is not just the rehearsal of a necessary parting of the ways.  Despite the sermonic grist found in the deference shown by Abram to his nephew, Dempster is certainly right to point that his offering a choice to Lot about where to live threatened the promise.[4]  Still, verse 14 notes that it was “after Lot had separated from him”, that God invited Abram to survey the land “for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever” (13:15).  The Lord then repeated His promise about those descendants being great, at least in terms of number (13:16).  Although I do not think we should designate these Divine utterances by the word “covenant”, at least until chapter 15[5], it should be noted that in repeating His promises to the man He called out of Mesopotamia, God is reiterating His intention to do precisely what He told Abram He would do.

Before we can turn to the enactment of the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 15 we must pause to describe the meeting between Abram and Melchizedek in chapter 14:18-20.  Melchizedek is the king of Salem (which would become Jerus – salem), and he just appears[6] as “the priest of God Most High” (El Elyon).  Abram is returning from victory over the five kings who invaded Canaan, taking Lot captive.  His meeting with the king of Salem is not described as a shock meeting.  The narrative gives the impression that the two men knew each other.  Melchizedek acts as the priest of God to bless Abram, and it is in that role that he receives tithes from Abram.  We may wish to speculate about why Abram’s interactions with Melchizedek are not given more extensive coverage, but we must be satisfied with the little we have got.  Those three verses are referenced by the writer of Hebrews to make several important points.  Prior to speaking directly of this ancient king, his priestly role is spoken of via references to Psalm 110:4.[7]  The writer ties in the High Priestly function of the Risen Jesus with the Melchizedekian priesthood.  In doing so he makes the point that this priesthood is superior to the Levitical one which would be instituted later under the Mosaic covenant (Heb.7:4-19).  For one thing it is everlasting, and for another it is linked to “a better covenant”, the New covenant in Christ’s own blood.  Even the name Melchizedek, and his title, king of Salem, are not passed over, but the author of Hebrews stops to mention that his name means “king of righteousness”, and his title, “king of peace” (7:2), showing that these adumbrate Christ’s future role.

The coincidences which the NT writer picks up on look upon a second glance to be arranged.  Here we have a priest of God who appears on the scene to be almost forgotten by the time the Levitical cultus is established in the Book of Exodus.  But this man is situated in what would become God’s city, Jerusalem (city of peace or foundation of peace), and he officiates, at least for a time, as the priest of God in Abraham’s day.  More must be said about him, but it is enough to note that his possession of this priesthood gives Christ a non-Levite priesthood to step into in His mediatorship of the New covenant.  Further, it may indicate that just as Jesus assumes Melchizedek’s priestly role, He will also one day assume his kingly role over earthly Jerusalem, thus bringing the throne and the priesthood together as indicated in Zechariah 6:12-13.


 

[3] I want to notice that the name ‘Abram’ was not the name which God would make great, but the revised name ‘Abraham.’  That said, it does not mean that God is in any way misleading him, for: 1. It was the same person to whom God promised a great name, 2. The expanded name is clearly related to the first, and 3. God told Abraham that it was under that name that he would henceforth be known.  It wasn’t left up to the ingenuity of later interpreters to make the connection.

[4] Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty, 78

[5] Cf. William J. Dumbrell, The Search for Order, 35

[6] This is unusual in a book filled with genealogies.  I take this to be what is meant by the cryptic language of Hebrews 7:3.

[7] See Hebrews 5:6, 10, & 6:20

 

A Reluctant Dispensationalist

Some of you know that I am a reluctant dispensationalist.  In writing this (actually re-writing it) I thought it appropriate to use my moniker as a title.   

Dispensationalists have not always done themselves many favors.  They have sometimes squandered the opportunity to make profound long term contributions to the Church through the publishing of detailed commentaries, biblical and systematic theologies and the like, for the sake of short term pragmatic and populist goals.  Bestsellers seldom influence the direction of biblical teaching for long, if at all.  And although the sin of academic obfuscation should be avoided and the merit of conciseness recognized, the Truth is properly respected when its deeps are probed and its channels explored.

For this reason, Dispensationalists are not, or should not be, fixated on the defense of a system.  Any approach to theology must be concerned with only one thing – its adequacy as an explanation of the whole Bible.  We may be persuaded that we have gotten certain things right.  That is a good thing.  But the last word will not be said in this life.  We must take seriously the obligation to explore and expound the Scriptures as we try to improve on what we know (and what we think we know).  The explanatory power of Dispensationalism has often been concealed behind the well-meaning but rather myopic views of its defenders.  Not that it doesn’t sorely need some trained defenders, but much more it needs knowledgeable and courageous exponents.

We have work to do to make Dispensational theology more prescriptive.  We like to call it a system, but we have often been less than adventurous in our proposals for a systematic expression of the Dispensational outlook in all areas of theology and its attendant disciplines (e.g. worldview and apologetics; biblical counseling).  “Why reinvent the wheel?” the satisfied objector complains.  Okay, I reply, but can’t we improve the wheel a bit?  Can’t we look the whole thing over and tighten things up here and iron out a problem or two there?  Can’t we make it run better and farther?

God has given us the Bible to understand Him, ourselves, and our world.  He has not just given the Bible to tell us how to get saved.  We understand from Scripture that we need a Savior and we discover who the Savior is and we discover our responsibility.  Therefore hermeneutics becomes extremely significant to the understanding of truth, reality, God, salvation, and destiny.  God invented communication in order for Him to communicate Himself to man.  From the beginning God created man to understand His revelation; even before the Fall.  God has done the same thing with His Word.  God has created man and given to him His Word in order for God to be understood.  Man has an automatic system of hermeneutics built inside of him in order to interpret God’s revelation.  Of course the affects of sin have perverted our ability to observe and understand revelation.  However, with the regeneration of the Spirit man’s ability is enhanced.  Without hermeneutics we cannot communicate whatsoever, whether reading, writing or speaking.  We need know the correct method of interpretation in order to distinguish between the Voice of God from the voice of man.

Craig Blaising, though identifying as a Progressive Dispensationalist, has shown that this straightforward way of reading Scripture is in agreement with the way performative language is understood (see his essay in The People, the Land, and the Future of Israel, eds, Darrell Bock & Mitch Glaser, esp. 160-161).  In my so-called “Rules of Affinity” I have tried to show that all the primary doctrines of the Christian Faith are drawn from either direct (word for word) affinities between biblical texts and doctrinal propositional statements or from “inevitable” conclusions based on the collusion of those direct affinities.  The Dispensational method of interpretation, which gives preference to these affinities, is therefore naturally geared to producing doctrines from one clear spring of vocabulary, not from a wider variety of murkier ones.

Personally, I am an avid advocate a “Dispensational” account of every aspect of Truth in theology and worldview.  But for this to become a reality I am convinced that it ought to stop defining itself by dispensations and begin opening up the possibilities of unifying itself around the biblical covenants and defining its system and procedures by them. Then a fully-rounded theology which includes all the corpora of theology, not merely ecclesiology and eschatology, will be created, with the result that a Dispensational worldview will be developed and proclaimed.  One may argue back and forth about the dispensations; their number and features, without abandoning “Dispensationalism.”  But one cannot ignore the biblical covenants without demolishing the whole project altogether.  I only wish the position that I love to be freed from the torpidity which is often the unintended outcome of defending a point of view rather than of strengthening it.  I am in sympathy with the Dispensational understanding of the Bible, and it has many advocates more able than I on its side.  My main qualm concerns its understanding of itself.  Many reflective dispensationalists will tell you that the dispensations themselves, both in definition and number, are not at the central core of what it’s all about.  But because the name has stuck it creates almost an apprehension to look beyond it.  The covenants stand there upon the open pages of the Bible but they are rarely heard outside of a prearranged ‘Dispensational’ recital.  Given their wings their power to organize, punctuate, and direct the eschatological movement of the Bible Story is unexcelled – and only “Dispensationalism” is in the right position to unleash their power.  But…those dispensations!

Mt plea is for the biblical covenants to be given their rightful place and dispensations to be made subordinate to them.  This will do nothing but invigorate the whole enterprise.  Nothing would be lost; much would be gained.  And I think the enemies of Dispensational theology would be harder put to disparage it.

Frank's place

The Creation Narrative: Genesis 1 and 2 (pt.10)

Adam is Tested

In the next section (2:15-17) we read of God giving the man a straightforward command:

Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you may not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was an actual tree.  It is not called a symbol and need not be seen as one.  I agree with Merrill that we should not think of “good and evil” in this place as contrasting values so much as an idiom for comprehensive knowledge.[1]  Certainly, ethical knowledge would be included, since all knowledge bears an ethical stamp, but the innocence of our first parents does not at all lead us to think they were ignorant of the meanings of the terms “good” and “evil.”  God is communicating meaningfully to Adam, not speaking over his head.  Every word which God speaks to Adam presupposes his ability to receive and comprehend it.  Thus, the expression “to freely eat” was just as well understood as the designation “every tree of the garden.”  Again the warning “in the day you eat of it you shall surely die” was God speaking to a comprehending and responsive creature.  He was not speaking into the air.[2]

Because this is so I wish to re-emphasize the communicative aspect of revelation.  Words which cannot be understood, either because the hearer does not have the tools to understand them, or because they lack the capacity for language itself, are very poor conveyers of meaning and intention.  We cannot, without veering close to blasphemy, predicate such a thing of God.  Adam and Eve understood God’s every word.[3]

Although these verses refer to a prohibition, they in no case speak of a promise for obedience, or any Divine commitment to grant anything to the man and woman.  There is no trace of covenantal language in this section.[4]  And any and every attempt to read a covenant into Genesis 2 (or 3) requires the interpreter to bring along far more speculative material than textual material to fill out the content of such a venture.[5]

But then, why the prohibition?  We are not told outright, but one reason which I find useful is to test and deepen the level of trust and love between the man and God.  Sometimes in life we allow certain trusted friends to know more about us than we vouchsafe to others.  We feel that they are able to understand who we are more deeply because a level of trust has been reached which was not present at the start of our friendship.  Seen like this, God’s warning and testing of Adam was a means of developing the relationship and of teaching Adam more about God as Lord.  It was a test of friendship as much as a test of obedience.

Adam under God’s Instruction

Genesis 2:18-25 features two episodes in which Adam names those brought to him by God.  At first sight the two episodes don’t appear to be related at all.  In fact, the second one; the naming of the animals, almost seems to cut across the first: the problem of the man’s solitariness.  But as the passage is pondered it becomes apparent that what is happening is that the Lord is using the exercise of describing the animals to teach the man about his own situation.  It is noticeable that God does not simply inform the man directly that he does not have a helper and companion.  He sets Adam a course of study through which Adam himself arrives at that conclusion.  Thus, under the guidance of his God, Adam was coming to knowledge through reflecting on what he was encountering in God’s world.  I have no doubt that this is the way all our knowledge (as scientia) was to be gained and used; that is to say, knowledge gained either listening directly to what the Creator said about His world, or indirectly through the process of accruing knowledge by examining and reflecting upon the world under God’s tutelage.  Today the only access to this tutelage is through believing God’s Word.  Yet we remain hugely privileged.  It has rightly been said: (more…)

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Repost: ANSWERS TO THE 95 THESES IN ORDER

I have just returned from a nice rest with my family in Tennessee and will post a new item soon.  Meanwhile, here are the responses I gave to a group of Evangelical scholars who really have trouble with Dispensationalism.  I thought their objections and concerns were often unfair or wrong-headed, although sometimes they were just opposed to their own views.    

For those of you who have wished that yours truly would come into the 21st Century and list my answers to the 95 Theses Against Dispensationalism in order…well, you have your wish!

1. Introduction to the Series

2. Responses to Theses 1-6

3. Responses to Theses 7-9

4. Response to Thesis 10

5. Responses to Theses 11-17

6. Responses to Theses 18-23

7. Responses to Theses 24-25

8. Responses to Theses 26-30

9. Responses to Theses 31-36

10. Responses to Theses 37-40

11. Responses to Theses 41-45

12. Responses to Theses 46-48

13. Responses to Theses 49-52

14. Responses to Theses 53-56

15. Responses to Theses 57-60

16. Responses to Theses 61-67

17. Responses to Theses 68-70

18. Responses to Theses 71-74

19. Responses to Theses 75-79

20. Responses to Theses 80-81

21. Responses to Theses 82-85

22. Responses to Theses 86-89

23. Responses to Theses 90-95

24. Reflections on the 95 Theses (1)

25. Reflections on the 95 Theses (2)

Rio

The Creation Narrative: Genesis 1 and 2 (Pt.6)

Part Five

Image and Function in Genesis 1:26-28

Another significant fact related by these verses is our creation in the image and likeness of God.  We cannot here enter into all the debates about the imago Dei, but some few things should be said.

Firstly, God does not say ‘according to My likeness.’  He says ‘Our likeness’.  The “Let us” statement is no plural of majesty, since it appears to be ideational, and is to be understood (I believe) as a statement of plurality in the Speaker.  The question arises then, in what way is God a plurality?  This question is not fully answered until the NT era.  Or, on the other hand, and as much OT scholarship insists, is the plurality meant to convey some sort of heavenly council scene, such as one finds in ANE accounts of the assemblies of gods?

If the latter is the case then one will have to go outside of the Bible for added data to interpret the passage.  This indeed is what many scholars in the evangelical community do.  But if we pause for a moment and read the context we quickly see that such an interpretation must be wrong; for the Speaker goes on to say, ‘Let us make man in our own image, according to our own likeness.’  And, in line with the words/actions pattern which we have already noted, it says, ‘So God created man in his own image’, and underscores it right after with, ‘in the image of God he created him.’  That ought to clear up the interpretation.

“Man” (adam) here is plural: ‘male and female’.[1]  Both are made in God’s image.  There is no hint of a conversation between God and the angels (which would not mirror an ANE council of divinities anyway).  Angels are nowhere said to be made in God’s image and likeness.  Plus, creation is a grand prerogative of God.  Why would the Creator discuss His creative proposals with creatures?  Angels have no part in the work of creation (See Isa. 48:11).

The passage also states that man was to be given dominion over ‘all the earth’ not just Eden. This must be kept in mind when we reach chapter 2.  The dominion applies to the function of man and woman as God’s image-bearers.

In the third place, just what constitutes the image of God?  Again, many today would claim that the image includes the function as well as the constitution of man.[2]  Unsurprisingly, resort to ANE records features largely in their arguments.  But the text appears to make the function contingent upon the image.  In other words, man and woman cannot fulfill their function until they are made in God’s image.  This would restrict the image to at least our material and immaterial natures.

But then we must enquire whether the image assumes the material part of human beings along with our immaterial natures.  Here I think we are on safer ground if we define the image and likeness classically along non-physical lines.  If we make the image merely physical we run into the problem of what God looks like.  Our difference from the rest of the created realm is not just physical.  Fish and birds and cattle and creeping things differ physically one from another as much as we do from them, so it is doubtful that we image God merely physically.[3]

On the other hand, can we dismiss the possibility that both the soulish and the physical aspects of man image God?  Authors Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum point out that,

“the traditional view is inadequate… because it does not come to grips with the fact that “image” normally refers to a physical statue and cannot be exegetically validated as the author’s intended meaning or the first audience’s natural understanding of the text in terms of the ancient Near Eastern cultural and linguistic setting.”[4]

But this begs a rather crucial question.  Did Moses report the words God actually spoke in Genesis 1:26-27?  Nobody else was around, and certainly God meant what He said in the rest of Genesis 1, as we have seen.  That being so, the matter of whether people of the ANE living in or after Moses’ time (ca. the fifteenth century B.C.) thought “image” meant a physical statue is by the bye, and may even be anachronistic.  The context will have to tell us.  Gentry and Wellum opt for “rulership and sonship” as the image.[5]  But this leaves us with the problem of the spread of little rulers and sons of God upon the earth.  If everyone is a ruler then surely nobody is.  (and if “image” equates to sons, what about daughters?  In OT times – if we’re insisting on “cultural setting” – daughters did not enjoy the same rights as sons).  The biblical text leans toward thinking of the image primarily as non-physical and the body as the vehicle for the expression of the image in the extended world.

Anticipating the Human Form?

Reading the progression in Genesis 1, we follow a logical as well as a chronological order.  Dry ground comes before plants and trees.  The plant kingdom is readied before creatures are made to live off them.  The apex of the creation week is the fashioning of man from the dust of the ground.[6]  Man is God’s image-bearer: a stupendous privilege and responsibility, and he is given dominion over what God has just created.

(more…)

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The Creation Narrative – Genesis 1 and 2 (Pt.2)

Part One

The Bible’s Opening Verse

As has often been observed, the opening verse of the Bible does not give an argument for the existence of God.  In line with its claim to be the Word of God it assumes a position of Divine authority immediately.  Scripture has the right to tell us!  It does not pander to our fallen desire for proof.  The proof is in the address.  God will eventually reveal Himself as the “I Am” – the self-existent and self-contained One.  He does not argue His creatures into admitting that designation.  It is assumed at once.  When we open the Bible we are straight away presented with a choice.  The choice is between the claims of God as Creator or the claims of our own autonomy.  This claim to higher authority never desists in the narrative, and in every place where autonomy is portrayed the consequences of getting our authorities mixed up is dire.

“God created.”(Gen. 1:1).  This is a creation ex nihilo (from nothing), not a creation ex materia (from preexisting materials).  The verb bara (“created”) always refers to God as Creator; never to other makers of things.  He is “before all things.”[1]  There is no dualistic character to the universe: God and matter.  Matter is the stuff of the material world, but it is itself brought into being by the living God, who alone is eternal.  This is in distinct opposition to all other creation stories, ancient and modern.

Even the myth of stellar evolution and the Big Bang[2], which can only be fitted into the Creation story with violence, must itself give to dead matter what it needs to construct itself into stars and galaxies, planets and fauna.  Seen this way the Word of God begins as a straight-ahead challenge to the word of man.  Gerald Bray has observed,

almost all of the major church fathers wrote commentaries on the creation narrative in Genesis, because they understood that the Christian doctrine of creation was antithetical to what most ancient philosophers taught about the origin and nature of matter.” [3]       

The “heavens and the earth” form an independent clause, which indicates the likelihood that the first verse is a summary statement of what comes next.[4]  There is more than a hint of a kind of inclusio with 2:1, “Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts.”[5]  What was begun in 1:1 is “completed” in 2:1.  But, as we shall shortly see, this completion was not consummation.

A popular teaching in some circles is to see a time gap intervening between Gen. 1:1 and 1:2.  Exegetically speaking there is no warrant for such a thing.[6]  We ought never to allow pressure from the world to force upon us any rash employment of our imaginations, all for the sake of interposing our accommodations to naturalistic science.  The Word of God will often disagree with those who look at things independently.[7]  Any attempt to separate the first two verses by millions and billions of years is based on misunderstandings of a few passages in the Prophets and cannot be countenanced from Scripture.  Moreover, as with any intrusion of unscriptural reason, these overtures to contemporary science end up creating problems down the road.  The same must be said for “analogical” and framework interpretations.  The Bible as it stands supports nothing but a recent creation of the universe.[8]

Disorder but not Distortion

From the second verse onwards the perspective is that of an observer from planet earth, the place of the writer, although it is not the place of the true Author.  Moses[9] is writing here about things no human being witnessed.  His Source is the Creator. (more…)

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The Creation Narrative – Genesis 1 and 2 (Pt.1)

Creation and Communication

Without the creation of Adam and Eve the whole sequence of days which preceded them would be a rather futile exercise. If the sequence found in the Bible’s very first chapter is to signify anything as a sequence, it had to be an actual seven day sequence.  Otherwise it is hard to see why ordinal numbers would be used to describe the process.

Also, without observers capable of recognizing and wondering after God’s wonders around them, God’s disclosure, and with it what we call Theology, would be a moot: and so would everything else beyond the Divine Eternity.  God did not have to create to satisfy any longing within Himself.  Although the ideas within the mind of the Creator which led up to Him becoming a Creator are not vouchsafed to us, we must realize that since love is communicative at its core, any creation by the God of love would be language-based.  This is why the creative days lead up to man and God’s speaking to man.  Man is communicative through language for the main purpose of talking back to God in love.  A loving Creator will make a talking creature; someone to converse with and who will talk to Him.  This is what human beings are.  This is our status, our purpose in the world.  Without mankind the world is just a great museum.

To create, the Lord of all things had to impose a purpose upon things. Something for them to do which, though it might reflect His glory in some way, would also make it other than His own majesty. Creation has an integrity all its own. Though it all depends on God moment by moment, yet it has its own God-given value, and is as real as its Maker.

Within this created reality God has placed human beings. Though not hailing from the same conservative viewpoint as myself, Wright and Fuller sum up the Bible’s opening account admirably.

The creation story of Genesis remains unique among the many myths, legends, and scientific explanations provided by the ancient and modern worlds. The opening phrase sets the tone for the whole presentation: ‘In the beginning God…’ God stands at the beginning of all things as their Creator. And this God is not a capricious deity or a blind force; he is not a mere ‘principle of order’; he is a person, who created a good and beautiful world which reveals his glory, his power, and his love. And in the center of this marvelous creation is man, the climax of God’s work, set here as a steward, responsible to his Creator for all he does with the world over which he is given dominion. – G. Ernest Wright & Reginald H. Fuller, The Book of the Acts of God, 49

We “know” God and we image God (Gen. 1:26-27). Thus, “Theology”, the knowledge of God and His works, is the first knowledge available to man. It is the source and context of all other knowledge open to his ken. It does not appear so now because there is something radically wrong with how man thinks.  His source and context has shifted more onto himself than his Maker.  Our plight is, therefore, in a deep sense, hermeneutical. Our interpretation of our environment was intended to be a Divine – human co-operative affair.  All the masses of knowledge which we would acquire would be “wise knowledge” (chokmah), informed by our relationship with our benevolent Lord.  To anticipate the end of the story, this is how it will be after Jesus returns, and in the eternal kingdom.  So the Book of Proverbs reminds us that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge,” (Prov. 1:7), where “knowledge” is a synonym for wisdom (as seen in the companion verse, Prov. 9:10).

God the Creator stands behind all true knowledge (as opposed to ‘knowledge falsely so called’ – 1 Tim. 6:20).  And as Adam and Eve came from the hand of God they appear as knowing, communicating beings, fully able to hear and learn from God. The devastation of the Fall, which warped our environment and our senses, instilled in us an independent path of interpretation. It also had the effect of lessening our cognitive powers. As magnificent as are the achievements of men and women (at least from our own point of view), they would pale in significance when compared to what a civilization of perfectly functioning humans could achieve together under God’s tutelage.

The first two chapters of the Bible transport us to a time before the entrance of sin. A time led up to by a meaningful progression of creative work. But as we have said, it was rendered meaningful because God made the man and the woman to understand Him.

Part Two

Aspects of Biblical Interpretation – Telos on YouTube

I have been recording short video presentations on various themes.  The aim is to cover subjects in Biblical and Systematic Theology, Apologetics and Worldview, and other matters briefly and clearly, yet without being too simplistic or too technical.  The first mini-series we have done is on Themes in Biblical Interpretation.  The series, as well as other materials, can be viewed at the TELOS YouTube channel.

Here are the first three:

The Noahic Covenant and the Interpretation of Scripture

In his Commentary on the Book of Genesis the Reformer John Calvin notices that a reason for God’s covenant promise to Noah was to encourage him in the hard task of obedience in the building of the Ark. By way of application he writes,

For then do we freely embrace the commands of God, when a promise is attached to them, which teaches us that we shall not spend our strength for nought…It is especially necessary that the faithful shall be confirmed by the word of God, lest they faint in the midst of their course; to the end that they may certainly be assured that they are not beating the air, as they say; but that, acquiescing in the promise given them, and being sure of success, they follow God who calls them. – John Calvin, Commentaries on the Book of Genesis, Vol. I, 258

Calvin is right to fasten on the encouragements to faith of a divine covenant (though interestingly, Calvin interpreted Genesis 2:17, a common proof-text for the “covenant of works”, negatively as requiring meritorious works and not faith.  (See Daniel P. Fuller, The Unity of the Bible, 181-182).  But note that his application is on target only if God’s promise means what it says; otherwise faith can find no assurance in what God said. It is a moot point, or ought to be. But it is routinely overlooked in biblical and systematic theology. Covenants become malleable in the hands of many writers. It is our opinion that this contributes in a major way to the disagreements between scholars over just where the biblical covenants function in God’s program.

We might ask, ‘How many people take Genesis 9:11, which include the terms of the covenant with Noah, typologically or spiritually or allegorically?’ The answer would be, ‘nobody.’ And that simple answer is very significant, because it means that this first covenant is interpreted uniformly in what we call a “literal” way. The words of verse 11 mean what they say:

The LORD smelled the soothing aroma; and the LORD said to Himself, “I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done. “While the earth remains, Seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” – Genesis 8:21-22

If this is compared with what God said to Himself in 9:11 we see a close correspondence:

I establish My covenant with you; and all flesh shall never again be cut off by the water of the flood, neither shall there again be a flood to destroy the earth. – Genesis 9:11

This again shows that there is agreement between God’s thoughts (“the LORD said to Himself”) and God’s words in the covenant oath. This brings a certain welcome rigidity to what God says in His covenant. There are over sixty ancient Near Eastern covenants or treaties which have been discovered, and the terms all mean what they say (not that we take our lead from extra-biblical sources). In point of fact, many of these treaties specify in the clearest terms the cruciality of the words in the covenant oath, explicitly saying that the words themselves are inviolate.

To give just two examples taken from a reliable and accessible resource (The following are from Readings From the Ancient Near East, eds. Bill T. Arnold & Bryan E. Beyer, 97-98): From the first part of the second millennium B.C. there is a covenant between two brothers, Abban and Yarimlim pertaining to lands which includes the line,

Abba-AN is under oath to Yarimlim, and also he cut the neck of a lamb. He swore: I shall never give back what I gave you.

The central core of the oath which Abban made to Yarimlim is plain and clear. It cannot suffer typological or symbolical transfiguration into some other thing. Although this covenant is conditioned upon Yarimlim’s fidelity to Abban, the oath binds his successors, and therefore cannot undergo any alteration of meaning without being made void.

In another example (14th century B.C.), Hittite king Suppilulima makes a treaty with Mattiwaza, king of Mitanni, witnessed by a host of gods on both sides. It includes the warning:

If he breaks it or causes anyone else to change the wording of the tablet…, If you, Mattiwaza, the prince, and you the sons of the Hurri country do not fulfill the words of this treaty, may the gods, the lords of the oath, blot you out…

What is noteworthy about this is that the wording, and so the meaning of the wording, is sacrosanct. It is not open to reinterpretation, and the pantheon of gods is called upon to ensure against such a thing. This is standard procedure for ANE covenants, in fact, for all covenants. The reason for it is because the oaths must be unambiguous and must mean what they say. I might go further and say that the choice of words as conveyors of accurate meaning is a sine qua non of covenants and treaties.

Going back to the Bible, the well known example in Joshua 9 where the Gibeonites fooled Joshua and the elders into making a covenant with them makes this point well. As Golding correctly says,

When the Israelites discovered how they had been deluded, they were furious, but could not go back on their oath, which had been solemnly sworn with God as witness (v.19). – Peter Golding, Covenant Theology, 70 (My emphasis)

In like manner, the covenant cut by Laban with Jacob in Genesis 31:44-54 makes the same point. The pile of stones (31:46) acted as “a witness” (31:48, 52) to the terms of the covenant (31:52):

This heap is a witness, and this pillar is a witness, that I will not pass beyond this heap to you, and you will not pass beyond this heap and this pillar to me, for harm. – Genesis 31:52

If after striking this agreement Laban would have rose up, strode past the heap and knocked Jacob to the ground, only one of two understandings of his actions would be possible. Either Laban would be knowingly violating the words he just agreed to keep, or, he would have dishonestly and disingenuously made an oath which he knew whose words he knew full well he would not keep. Either way he would have broken his bond. (more…)