Covenants

Covenant in Micah

Having seen the prophetic emphases of Amos and Hosea, I want to turn to Micah the Moresthite (c.742-685 B.C.).  He too brought scathing indictments against his people.  At one point he accuses them of having risen up as an enemy against their God (Mic. 2:8).  There is no let up until the end of chapter two where these enigmatic lines appear:

I will surely assemble all of you, O Jacob,
I will surely gather the remnant of Israel;
I will put them together like sheep of the fold,
Like a flock in the midst of their pasture;
They shall make a loud noise because of so many people.

The one who breaks open will come up before them;
They will break out,
Pass through the gate,
And go out by it;
Their king will pass before them,
With the LORD at their head. – Micah 2:12-13

Notice the mention of the remnant, which is always in Micah a reference to those among Israel who will be saved.  Verse 12 envisions a gathering of the remnant, but for all that it foresees a large company of people brought together.  The scene is one of restoration and peace.  The thirteenth verse is a bit more difficult to break down.  The identity of “the breaker” (parats) is settled once we understand the parallelism with “the king” and “the Lord” later in the verse.  This is none other than the great prophetic figure found in Genesis 3:15, 49:8; Numbers 24:8-9, 17; and Deuteronomy 18:15-19.  At this juncture, around the latter part of the 8th Century B.C., this noble personage is still somewhat of a dark figure.  But if we put these things together we come up with a victorious Hero who will vanquish Satan, a King from Judah who will lead a restored Israel, who will come in a future day, and who will also be the great Prophet of His people.

If we jump to chapter 5 we come across the well known prophecy in 5:2,

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
Though you are little among the thousands of Judah,
Yet out of you shall come forth to Me
The One to be Ruler in Israel,
Whose goings forth are from of old,
From everlasting

In this oracle Micah names the actual birthplace of the coming King.  Naturally, it is in Judah because that is where Jacob had predicted that He would come from.  The geographical connection between Micah 5:2 and Genesis 49:8 shows that they are speaking about one and the same person.  But the prophet adds a bit more information.  This Ruler is clearly connected with the Davidic covenant (even though the word cannot be translated as “king”).  The fact that there is a stable continuity between Jacob (c. 1850 B.C.), David (c. 1000 B.C.) and Micah (c. 700 B.C.) again shows that God’s covenant word does not alter its meaning or become “transformed” as the centuries pass.  Prophecy is steady so that faith in God can be firm.  Indeed, the added specificity of the birthplace of the Ruler necessitates this.

Of course, this side of Calvary the interpreter has to decide whether or not the passage is speaking of the first coming of Christ (I am assuming the identity of this Ruler is Christ), or of the second coming of Christ.  Believers in Micah’s day did not have this quandary.  For them the mighty Ruler to come will be born in Bethlehem, and this too is how the scribes inquired of by Herod saw it (Matt. 2:5-6), although they also called Him the Shepherd of God’s people.  More inferred than plainly taught, the function of this Ruler will be to bring unity and blessing to the nation corresponding to the covenants with Israel.  This certainly did not occur at the first advent.  But here we might begin to notice an important fact about predictions concerning this exalted figure, and that is that most of the prophecies concerning Him (Christ) hold the two comings (as we now know of them) together as one work.  We shall see this over and over again in Isaiah and other places (e.g. Isa. 9:6-7; 40:3-5; 52:13-53:12; 61:1-2; Zech. 9:9; Mal. 3:1-3).  The two comings are viewed together.  This same phenomenon is found in relation to Genesis 3:15; the crushing of the heel of the Woman’s Seed was at the Cross.  The crushing of the serpent’s skull by the Woman’s Seed is still in the future: in fact my opinion is that it awaits the closing of the thousand years in Revelation 20; the culmination of the Creation Project.

If we take this view of the two comings forming essentially one work it is apparent that the work of Christ is not yet complete.  Certainly the role of the Suffering Servant is finished (Jn. 19:30. Cf. Acts 3:13, 26), but there is much more to do!

But another matter confronts the reader of the verse: does this Ruler’s activity, though set in the future as to His role for Israel, declare to us that He has a special provenance?  He is said to be “of old” (qedem), “from everlasting” or “from ancient times” (olam).  How is this to be understood?  By any margin this is a mysterious statement.  Some more liberal commentators have tried to resolve the tension by making this statement refer to the Davidic line.[1]  But the subject under discussion is not the line of David but one particular Ruler from David’s birthplace.[2]  This individual has “origins” in the ancient past.  As McComiskey says,

The word qedem can indicate only great antiquity, and its application to a future ruler – one yet to appear on the scene of Israel’s history – is strong evidence that Micah expected a supernatural figure.[3]

Another writer has said that “The phrases of this text are the strongest possible statement of infinite duration in the Hebrew language.”[4]  The obvious ties to both the Davidic and the Abrahamic covenant should be noted.  This Ruler will bring about the full fulfillments of these great covenants.

Moving back one chapter the prophet gives us a depiction of the coming kingdom of the Ruler.  What we are told here will become common as we read the prophetic literature.  It is this-worldly but it is another world.  There is an evocation of tranquility that seems scarcely possible in our turbulent world.

Micah 4:1 locates the prophecy of 4:1-8 “in the latter days”, which, although it is not definite enough to place at the end of time (viz. after the second coming when Israel will turn to the Lord – Deut. 4:29-30), seems only to fit comfortably there.  The scene is idyllic, almost like the Arcadia of Virgil.  We read about the exaltation of the mountain of Yahweh.  Is this metaphorical only?  Perhaps: perhaps not.  It is too early in the Old Testament chronology to tell.  What is more certain is that people (am) of the nations of the world will go up to it.  This will not surprise any reader who remembers Genesis 12:3 or 22:18. Even the commission given to Israel in Exodus 19:6, although it was not fulfilled under Moses and Joshua, suggests to us that the Divine intention was for Israel to act as a spiritual magnet to the rest of the nations.  The second verse spells this out for us.  The peoples of the world are depicted as encouraging one another to go to the house of God (the Temple) in Jerusalem to worship.[5]

The next verse compliments verse 2 by describing the repentance which comes to the nations.  There is one (“He”) who causes this turning.  One can be sure that “He” is not a member of the United Nations.  No, this is either God above or it is God’s Representative here below.  The “Ruler” of 5:2 fits the bill nicely.  He is extraordinary in that He achieves what no man has come close to achieving: the cessation of war.  Here surely is the “Prince of peace” of whom Micah’s contemporary Isaiah speaks (Isa. 9:6).[6]

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Covenant in Amos

Amos (active c.765-760 B.C.)

Amos is a simple shepherd and gatherer of figs to whom the word of the LORD (dabar YHWH) comes.  He cries against both Israel (2:6) and Judah (2:4; 3:1).  A major concern of his is social justice.  Amos certainly has much to say by way of reproof to “the whole house of Israel”, and most of the first seven chapters concern themselves with the moral resistance of Israel to their covenant God.  However, despite the strong current of moral justice in the Book, when the prophet’s task is spoken of it is mainly in terms of prediction.

Surely the Lord God does nothing unless He reveals His secret counsel to His servants the prophets – Amos 3:7 (NASB)

The “counsel” that follows is a forecast of doom and captivity for the northern tribes.  But in chapter nine the prophecy begins to extend out beyond the time of the prophet.

Behold, the eyes of the Lord GOD are on the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the face of the earth; yet I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob,” says the LORD – Amos 9:8

The sins of Israel will be dealt with through punishment, but the nation itself will not be completely destroyed.  This will be a permanent refrain coming from the prophetic literature; judgment followed by restoration and blessing.  The big question is, when will this occur?

Just three verses later we find this promise:

On that day I will raise up the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down, and repair its damages; I will raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old; that they may possess the remnant of Edom, and all the Gentiles who are called by My name,” says the LORD who does this thing.

“Behold, the days are coming,” says the LORD, “When the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him who sows seed; the mountains shall drip with sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it.  I will bring back the captives of My people Israel; they shall build the waste cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink wine from them; they shall also make gardens and eat fruit from them.  I will plant them in their land, and no longer shall they be pulled up from the land I have given them,” says the LORD your God. – Amos 9:11-15

Everybody knows that a portion of this passage (i.e. 9:11-12) is cited by James from the LXX in Acts 15:15-18.  I shall of course deal with James’s use of Amos in the proper place, but in this context it seems pretty clear what is being set forth.  When put into the mouths of the prophets as Seers and foretellers, the phrase “on that day”or “in that day”, (which is especially common in Ezekiel), seems to indicate the future Day of Divine interposing; that is, the future “Day of the Lord” or its wonderful aftermath. [1]

For the prophet Amos and his contemporaries; indeed, for Jews in Old Testament times, the raising up of the booth of David would have had only  one meaning: the restoration of the Davidic line and kingdom in right relationship to and pursuance of God, enjoying the covenant blessings of God.

The reference to those among Edom and the Gentiles who are God’s (“called by my name”) would remind hearers of God’s promise to Abraham to bless the nations in Genesis 12:3; 22:18; and in the case of the former, Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24:17-19 would come to mind.[2]  It does not mean that these people groups will be included in some expanded “Israel.”  There is a demarcation in the text which should not be trammeled by preferential kinds of eschatology – the kinds that have no place for a restored Israelite nation.

Later Obadiah would speak of “saviors” who would come into Edom once it became incorporated into Yahweh’s kingdom (Obad. 21).  Amos 9:11 comfortably embraces both Abrahamic and Davidic covenantal expectations.

What comes next involves several concepts which will be repeated in the prophets: (1) the unusual productivity and blessing upon the land (“the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him who sows seed” – Amos 9:13); (2) the return of Israel’s captives and the rebuilding of cities to dwell in; and (3) guaranteed perpetuity in the land that God gave them.[3]  Indeed, Amos records God’s pledge that the land of Israel is “their land” (Amos 9:15).[4]  So even though much of Amos is concerned with societal woes and short-term prophecy, the very end of the Book looks to the great hope of a united Israel in right relationship to God dwelling in its own land.  This would come to pass in the last days.[5]

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[1] I will have to examine “The Day of the Lord” in another place.

[2] See John H. Sailhamer, Introduction to Old Testament Theology, 250-251

[3] E.g. Isa. 35:1-2, 6-7; 55:13; Jer. 31:12; Ezek. 34:26-27; 36:33-38; 37:21-28; 47:12; Joel 2:18-19, 21-27; Zech. 8:11-13; cf. Lev. 26:40-45.

[4] In Ezekiel we read of God calling Israel “my land” (Ezek. 34:5) but then calling it “their own land” in settings both of rebellion (Ezek. 34:17), and of final restoration (Ezek. 37:21).  For Amos, it is still Israel’s land even when their sins have absented them from it (Amos. 7:17)

[5] See Gary V. Smith, Interpreting the Prophetic Books, 76; Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Preaching and Teaching the Last Things, 87; even William J. Dumbrell, The Search for Order, 79.  Although lying within the critical tradition, the assessment of Brevard Childs is that in Amos 9:11, “The discourse moves into the realm of eschatology (11, 13).  It turns on the possibility of a new existence after the end has come.  The promise concerns the raising up of the shattered ‘booth of David’ – that is, David’s larger kingdom, which can again lay claim on the land.  No human ruler can achieve this feat; the initiative lies solely with God.  The hope is miraculous and logically incomprehensible.  It is placed within the eschatological framework of the last days.” – Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 407

The Covenants in Hosea (Pt.2)

Part One

The Book of Hosea continues to pour out its condemnations of the malpractices of Israel (in particular the northern tribes spoken to ‘synecdocheally’ under the heading of the largest tribe, Ephraim), but at the end of chapter 5 there is a passage which expresses another truth that will seemingly run in tandem with God’s wooing of Israel as described in chapter 2:14f.

I will return again to My place till they acknowledge their offense.
Then they will seek My face; in their affliction they will earnestly seek Me. – Hosea 5:15

The scene is of God retiring from the scene until such a time as His people acknowledge the fact that they have continually sinned against Him.  The theme is found earlier in Deuteronomy 30:1-6 where the prediction of worshipful obedience transcends any state of affairs known after that time.

And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. – Deuteronomy 30:6

Here we have language which will much later be equated with the New covenant.  Perhaps we can see this better by reading the following passage from Deuteronomy 4:

But from there you will seek the LORD your God, and you will find Him if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul. When you are in distress, and all these things come upon you in the latter days, when you turn to the LORD your God and obey His voice (for the LORD your God is a merciful God), He will not forsake you nor destroy you, nor forget the covenant of your fathers which He swore to them. – Deuteronomy 4:29-31

Along with a clear nod to “the covenant of your fathers”, which refers to the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob[1], we see again the note of distress and then repentance, but specifically “in the latter days.”  It is my belief that Hosea 5:15 is alluding to this same eschatological situation.

This note of distress and restoration is seen in later prophets like Ezekiel 43:9-11 where the prophet is told to describe the temple vision to the people once they become ashamed of their sins.  Again in Jeremiah 29:11-14 there is a similar theme.  It is arguable that this latter passage more properly refers to the return from Babylon than to the eschaton, and we do not oppose the interpretation.  There is more going on there though, and I will try to address the eschatological undertones of the passage later when we reach Jeremiah.

The sixth chapter of Hosea continues with the same strain as chapter five ended with, and it is not easy to see why Hosea 6:1-3 is not Hosea 5:16-18!  Still, the verses are as they stand are these:

Come, and let us return to the LORD; for He has torn, but He will heal us; He has stricken, but He will bind us up.  After two days He will revive us; on the third day He will raise us up, that we may live in His sight.  Let us know, let us pursue the knowledge of the LORD. His going forth is established as the morning; He will come to us like the rain, like the latter and former rain to the earth.  – Hosea 6:1-3  

The first verse puts the words of repentance into the mouths of future Israel.  There is also expectant hope because of God’s hesed or lovingkindness (an important word for Hosea).  The enigmatic terminology of the “after two days” and “the third day” (which states the same thing in two ways since “after two days” is “the third day”) have been understood in many ways.  But since nothing definitive can be said about the designations it is perhaps best to take the meaning as “in a short time” or “it won’t be long” and leave it at that, although it could be three literal days between the repentance of the people and God’s saving response.  If the context is considered the speed of God’s revitalization of His people is contingent upon their acknowledgement of their offence.  Therefore, the two or three “days” response happens quickly upon Israel’s mass repentance at the end.[2]  As verse three makes clear, this is no half-hearted repentance; Israel will seek out the knowledge of Yahweh (contra Hos. 4:1; 7:16) with the eagerness with which they look for the life-giving rains.

As far as the famous covenant passage in Hosea 6:7 is concerned, I have already addressed the issue earlier in this work.  In summary, (a) the standard interpretation of covenant and new covenant theologians that the prophet is referring to the biblical Adam and some covenant in Eden is question-begging and indeterminate.  Even if Hosea was speaking of such a covenant, the impossibility of locating the terms of the oath make it a vain effort to follow this view.  (b) It is the opinion of many that the town of Adam (Josh. 3:16) is being referred to.  This would require some historical defection at Adam to which Hosea is pointing.  In that case the covenant he speaks of is the Mosaic covenant (as per Hos. 8:1).  (c) The third alternative is to translate adam as “dirt” and interpret the prophet as saying that the people have treated the (Mosaic) covenant like dirt.  As Douglas Stuart claims::

Here in Hosea [berit] “covenant” appears only for the second time.  In 2:20 [in the context of marriage] the term denoted the future universal covenant.  In the present passage the Mosaic covenant is clearly at issue.[3]     

Finally, (d) The fourth view translates the Hebrew phrase as “like men” and interpret it as the sinful human bent to transgress God’s Law.  Hence, in three of the four views the identity of the covenant in Hosea 6:7 is the Mosaic covenant.  The notion that it looks back to a nebulous covenant in Eden seems as unnecessary as it is indeterminable.

Despite the depressing repetitiveness of their sins, there will eventually be a return and a whole restoration in fulfillment of the covenants with Israel (14:1-8).[4]

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[1] So e.g., Scot J. Hafemann, “The Covenant Relationship” in Central Themes in Biblical Theology, eds, Scot F. Hafemann & Paul R. House, 25

[2] This way of understanding Hosea 6:2 has the advantage of treating the ordinal (“the third day”) as a very short time period and not a vast stretch of history.

[3] Douglas Stuart, Hosea – Jonah, 111

[4] For more comments about the identity of the covenant in Hosea 6:7 see chapter 5.

The Covenants in Hosea (1)

A Draft from the book ‘The Words of the Covenant’

Hosea (active c. 755-725 B.C.) is best known for his on/off relationship with the harlot Gomer and the message God entailed in it.  Hosea had married Gomer and she (predictably) committed adultery and was put away by the prophet.  But then the prophet was told to take her back!  What was the meaning of this story?

Upon the naming of his third child with Gomer we read this:

Then God said: “Call his name Lo-Ammi, for you are not My people, and I will not be your God.  “Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And it shall come to pass in the place where it was said to them, `You are not My people,’ There it shall be said to them, `You are sons of the living God.’

Then the children of Judah and the children of Israel shall be gathered together, and appoint for themselves one head; and they shall come up out of the land, for great will be the day of Jezreel! – Hosea 1:9-11

Here is a paradox.  God seems to be all through with Israel (“you are not My people”[1]).  And yet the very next assertion is taken from familiar words found in the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 22:17; 32:12), with the accompanying promise that Israel will yet see God’s blessing.  This theme of punishment followed by blessing occurs many times in the prophets (cf. Jer. 46:28).  Verse 11 foretells the future unification of the sundered kingdoms (cf. Ezek. 37).

Vital to the understanding of the first chapters of this book is the answer to the question of whether the woman whom the prophet marries in chapter 3 is Gomer or someone else.[2]  If it is indeed Gomer then it illustrates chapter 2 (on which see below) as well as the note of final grace and forgiveness which is prominent in the book.  Just as Gomer was married to Hosea and committed adultery against him but is taken back, so Israel was married to God, divorced but then re-married to Him (see 2:19-20).  In prophetic terms chapter 3 pictures God’s intention to stick to His covenant with Israel until the end, even though He will “put them away”, yet, at long last He will save the people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.[3]

Hosea 2 is sandwiched between the episodes of the prophet and his promiscuous wife which illustrate it.  It could be viewed as an expansion on 1:9-11.  The first half of the chapter envisages Israel as chasing after her various paramours but unsuccessfully.  God, her husband, will “hedge up her way” (2:6) so that finally she will come to her senses and return to Him (2:7).  This returning will come after punishment because Israel forgot the Lord (2:9-13).  But then the mood turns to one of comfort and blessing.  The about-face in verse 14 is quite attention-grabbing.  From the people’s willful neglect of their covenant Lord we might expect a full stop and a brand new idea.  But this is precisely what we do not get.  Instead it is God Himself who displays astonishing grace in promising to win His people back.[4]  It is God who will restore Israel.  He will save her.  Even the Valley of Achor, that notorious place of trouble, will become a theater of singing and hope (2:15).  Hosea references the Exodus which held special significance for the identity of the nation.  He then promises that “in that day”, some future day, the relationship between Him and Israel will be like that of a husband (Ishi) and wife (2:16).  This closest of all relationships is chosen by God and is found in other prophets (e.g. Isa. 54:5).  When one considers the message being communicated by the early chapters of Hosea, that of the marriage to and putting away of a prostitute and then the voluntary remarrying of the same woman, it speaks volumes of Yahweh’s respect for His covenants.[5]

The closing verses of chapter two are very expressive.  Within them one encounters God promising to “allure” Israel back to Himself so that His people call Him “Husband.”  Covenant is about relationship, and here we see the depth of the relationship that God wants, and intends to have, with Israel.  Who can read verses nineteen and twenty and not sense the great longing of God for the reconciliation and “betrothal” that these verses talk about?  That special connection will require an environment suitable for its expression, and so after they have renounced the false lords (baalim) of the past (2:16-17), the natural world will be adapted to provide a setting beautiful, peaceful, and productive.

In that day I will make a covenant for them
With the beasts of the field,
With the birds of the air,
And with the creeping things of the ground.
Bow and sword of battle I will shatter from the earth,
To make them lie down safely – Hosea 2:18

Now the Lord brings in the animal kingdom utilizing the creation language of Genesis 1.  The verse is a less well known companion to the famous “the wolf will lie down with the lamb” passage in Isaiah 11.  The peace in the natural world will be extended to the human world, where it is predicted that the weapons of war will be destroyed and people will live safely.

The “covenant” that will be made is a peace covenant encompassing the entire Creation Project.  The only covenant that has been made with the natural world is the Noahic covenant in Genesis 9:12.

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Repost: DOES DIATHEKE MEAN “LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT” IN HEBREWS 9:16-17?

Most of our English Bible versions translate Hebrews 9:16-17 this way (I have provided vv.15 and 18 for context):

And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. 16 For where there is a testament, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. 17 For a testament is in force after men are dead, since it has no power at all while the testator lives. 18 Therefore not even the first covenant was dedicated without blood. (NKJV, vv. 16-17 are in italics)

Or the ESV:

Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. 16 For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. 17 For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. 18 Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood. (ESV vv.16-17 in italics)

With the translation diatheke as either “testament” or “will” the reader is led to conclude that these verses are not talking about the new covenant. In verse 15 the Greek word diatheke is translated as “covenant.” The same translation (“covenant”) is repeated in v.18.

If I were to give all the occurrences of diatheke in Hebrews you would see that, apart from 9:16 and 17 the word is uniformly translated “covenant.” One doesn’t have to think hard about why this word is rendered as “covenant” in these 16 other instances. The contexts make it very clear that the writer is referring, either to the Mosaic Covenant or Law, or to the New Covenant which replaces it. And one doesn’t have to seek too far for proof of this. Hebrews 9:15 contrasts the “first covenant” with the “new covenant,” as does verse 18. The chapter itself reinforces the contrast and the appropriate translation “covenant.”

Why translate diatheke, which has been expressed as “covenant” everywhere else in the Book, as “testament” or “will” in vv.16-17? The answer is because it has been assumed that “the death of the one who made it” refers to a “testator” as per a modern “Last Will and Testament.” For we all know that when a person makes a will it only comes into force when they are dead. Thus, one writer stated,

In the New Testament the diatheke as a ‘last will’ is once brought into connection with the sacrifice of Christ… – Geerhardus Vos, “Hebrews, the Epistle of the Diatheke,” in The Princeton Theological Review, Vol. 13, No.4, [1915], 601.

But is he right? What is it in the context which demands the switch from “covenant” to “testament,” other than this assumption that a will is being referred to simply because of “the death of the one who made it”? It seems to me that the whole case depends upon the supposition that diatheke can only mean “last will and testament” in Hebrews 9:16-17. There are several reasons for believing this to be a faux pas:

1. The meaning of diatheke in Hebrews 9:15 is “covenant.” This is clear because the writer is referencing the Mosaic “covenant” in the preceding verses (vv.11-13). If the word meant “last will and testament” in v.15 the connection with the Mosaic Covenant in vv.11-13 would be lost and the writer’s whole argument rendered suspect. Such a switch would create an equivocation within the argument. That is, it would have the author mean two things by one word in a confusing way. This problem comes into sharp relief once chapter 8 is considered. The superiority of the “better covenant” (e.g. Heb. 8:6) demands it be contrasted with the Mosaic Covenant, and hence, that it be itself a true covenant and not a last will and testament. This understanding is assured by the contrast in 8:7 which see. Following on from this, Hebrews 8:8-12 gives the longest quotation of the OT by any NT writer. Is this quotation to do with a testament or a covenant? The answer is impossible to ignore. It is to a “covenant” (OT berith), not a testament!

2. But secondly, the meaning “covenant” makes perfect sense. George H. Guthrie, an acknowledged expert on Hebrews, writes:

Interpreters often have read 9:16-17 in terms of “will” or “testament,” but these verses should be read, in their context, as speaking of the establishment of a covenant… “The one arranging [diatithemi] it,” occurring in participial form, in 9:16-17, refers to the sacrificial animal that must die for a covenant to be established… This fits perfectly with the argument of 9:18-22, which deals with Moses’ inauguration of the Sinai covenant with the sprinkling of blood (Exod.24:3-8). – in G. K. Beale & D. A. Carson, editors, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old, 973.

3. When one adds to this the critical observations of P. T. O’Brien this position is weakened yet further. O’Brien’s full discussion can be found on pages 328-332 of his recent The Letter To The Hebrews (in the Pillar series). I shall condense his argument below using several quotes:

O’Brien says,

a. “As we have seen, the context of v.15 seems to demand the sense of ‘covenant’ because only covenants have mediators[underlining mine], while in v.18 mention is made of the ‘first diatheke‘, namely, the Sinai event and hence can only be a covenant.”

b. “What our author says in vv.16-17 does not correspond to any ‘any known form of Hellenistic (or indeed any other) legal practice.’ A Hellenistic will was secure and valid when it was written down, witnessed and deposited, not when the testator died. Further, the distribution of the estate could occur when the testator was still living.”

Indeed, don’t we see this very thing in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, where the son took his inheritance before the father had died?

c. The wider context of Hebrews with our author’s view of inheritance and his emphasis on the cult appears incongruous with the model of the secular Hellenistic testament.

from Peter. T. O’Brien, The Letter To The Hebrews, Pillar (2010), 329-330

I conclude from all this evidence, both internal and external, that there is no good reason for translating diatheke as “testament” in the sense of “last will and testament” in Hebrews 9:16-17. Thus, we commend the following translation of these verses as given below:

“For where a covenant is, there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it. 17 For a covenant is valid only over the dead, for it is never in force while the one who made it [the one who must die] lives.”

 

Exodus and the Mosaic Covenant (pt.3)

Part Two

The Relationship between the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exodus and the Mosaic Covenant (pt. 1)

More book excerpts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 5 declares,

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

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

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

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

This note is also struck in the Psalms.

(more…)

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Pt.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).

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[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.