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“The Kingdom of Speech” by Tom Wolfe

A review of The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe.  Audiobook read by Robert Petkoff, 2016.

This little book by the novelist and contemporary commentator on modern culture Tom Wolfe is worth the attention of anyone interested in the enigma of language.  An enigma it is, more especially if one does not understand language as God ordained.  Wolfe would appear to be an example of this point of view.

So if Wolfe does not connect language to the Creator, but rather sees it as an artifact, an invention of man, what use is this book to the Christian reader?  My answer is in two halves.  In the first instance Kingdom of Speech is a good book because Wolfe puts his finger firmly (and repeatedly) on the problem of incorporating the realities of speech within the confines of evolutionary grand narratives, whether Darwinian or neo-Darwinian, it makes no difference, since he shows how all its champions come up empty-handed.  He shows further, with the assured poise of a well-read researcher, and in entertaining prose that the problem of accounting for speech has eluded and is eluding the brightest of the “brights” from Darwin down to Chomsky.  That story itself is worth getting the book for.

But an added feature is that in posing the problem, the author presents the enormity of the task for the evolutionary purists, and while doing so spells out the “achievement” that language and speech is.  Alongside of this there are diverting examinations of the sort of conformity-at-all-costs peer pressure which has been exercised within the academy since before the publication of the Origin of Species.  One more exposure of how utterly fallacious the picture of how cool and disinterested the scientific establishment has always been is always to be welcomed.

But the second part of my answer sounds a note of caution.  While Wolfe is rightly dismissive of the usual accounts of human speech in evolutionary dogma, he replaces it with Daniel Everett’s view of language as artifact, which, though an improvement, is nonetheless unsatisfactory.

The book can be roughly divided between the compelling story of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, which is the most entertaining part of the book, and the more contemporary tale of the supremacy of the armchair linguist Noam Chomsky and the rise of the young field-hardened pretender, Everett.  Wolfe is well aware that Chomsky is a patron saint of progressives as well as of the scientific who’s who, and he unleashes both barrels of his furious irony upon him (for those of you who cannot get enough of this cruel pursuit, may I recommend the appropriate essays in David Berlinski’s Black Mischief).

He contrasts Chomsky’s ivory tower approach to his subject with Everett’s more down to earth empirical studies.  Everett lived and worked among an obscure Amazonian tribe called the Piraha (pronounced Pea-de-hah) for many years.  These people have an accentuated view of present experience; they are the ultimate empiricists.  Everett, who went there as a missionary, lost his faith when he couldn’t provide evidence to the Piraha which they could comprehend, of Christ’s existence (of course, the reality of Christian truth claims, along with very many other things – like the year 1564, or tomorrow, or the existence of Antarctica -, cannot be decided within the limits of a strict empiricism, unless one has been to the Antarctic!).

Anyway, Everett’s work threatened to overthrow the Chomskian paradigm and has therefore been vigorously opposed.  Still, the outcome of all of this is that at the time of writing, the phenomenon of speech is a mystery.

I give the book a cautious recommendation.  What it lacks is a good critique of Everett’s epistemological assumptions and any interaction with his thesis that language is just a tool for getting communication done.  As such, The Kingdom of Speech seriously lacks a proper ending.  In sum, it is entertaining, informative, iconoclastic, but without any thought of exploring the deficiencies of the feeble-looking speech as artifact thesis.  From all the eulogizing of speech which Wolfe has indulged in inside the book, this is a grave omission.

Messiah in the Pentateuch

I want to turn quickly to consider the picture of the Messiah in the story as we have it in the first five Books of Moses.  If one hesitates to bring to the Pentateuch what one already knows from the rest of Scripture, the picture of the Promised One is diminished but still of real interest.[1]

The main passages are in Genesis 3:15; 22:18; 49:8-10; Numbers 24:8-9, 17-19, and Deuteronomy 18:15-19.  These are the clearest scriptures.  Other passages, such as the offering up of Isaac (Gen. 22), and the Passover lamb (Exod. 12) are typological, but because they are types they cannot be viewed as revelatory or predictive within the framework of the Pentateuch as we have it.  We do not have information about whether the people in these stories knew and understood about the typology involved.  Even though it is fashionable in the current evangelical milieu to erect intricate whole theological structures based upon typology, this is most often done because of the retrofit-hermeneutics which reads the Old Testament in light of the New.  Since the design of this biblical theology is to conscientiously avoid doing such a thing I will be true to my persuasions and pass by typological foreshadowings.

As we have seen, the Seed of the Woman prophecy in Genesis 3:15 was aimed at the serpent, not our first parents.  It is also apparent that the curse concerns the eventual destruction of the serpent (who will later be identified as Satan) by a man (“he will crush your head”).  Hence, it is through a representative of the humanity which the serpent corrupted that his doom will be sealed.  From this text alone it is a leap to make the human Vanquisher of Satan a savior of humanity also.

The text in Genesis 22:18, which is often (though not always) taken as the place Paul appeals to for his “seed was Christ” doctrine in Galatians 3:16, is not as clear.[2]  Perhaps we would not see Christ in the story if the Apostle had not told us about it?[3]  Sailhamer calls our attention to Genesis 15:4 where God does set up a single-seed precedent (Isaac)[4].  But when all is said and done I don’t think Abraham’s willingness to offer up his son was understood at the time as being loaded with Messianic portents.

When the Lord Jesus said in John 8:58, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad”, He was not claiming that the Patriarch foresaw Christ dying on a Roman Cross for the sins of the world.  That is not what Jesus said.  He said that Abraham knew the He, the Messiah, would come, and that this knowledge made him glad. To put it in one sentence, Abraham knew the Christ would come.  Where did Abraham get this knowledge?  Perhaps through inference?  Maybe he put together the promise of the Vanquishing Seed of Genesis 3:15 with the coming descendant who would realize the three promises within the Abrahamic covenant?  This, at any rate, is plausible.

(more…)

An Independent Land Covenant? – A Note

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] Ibid, 251

The Mosaic Covenant and Other Covenants

The Mosaic Covenant as a Historical Placeholder for Other Covenants

If the commandments in the ‘Ten Words’ on Sinai (Exod. 20) and all those that followed in their train were too stringent for a fallen people to keep, at least the covenant God made with Israel, and which they voluntarily entered into (in Exod. 24), distinguished them among the other nations of the world.  It did this to the extent that they were preserved as a distinct people in continuity with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.[1]

Just as the Noahic covenant guarantees the perpetuation of the regulation and predictability of the rhythms of nature,thereby creating the stage of history for God’s program to play out upon, the Mosaic covenant acts to set the covenants with David and Phinehas within a theocratic outlook – even if both of these covenants transcend the temporary “old covenant” and are embraced by the coming New covenant.  Another way to say this is to imagine the people of Israel as connecting the Mosaic covenant to the New covenant brought upon Israel at Christ’s return (Isa. 61:2b-3; Jer. 31:31-37); a covenant that supersedes the old one, but without morphing the promises God made out of all recognition.

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

Future Blessing and a Palestinian Covenant?

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

Exodus and the Mosaic Covenant (pt.2)

Part One

Relationship

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

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

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

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

The Mosaic Covenant is Bilateral and Temporal

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

Abraham. Isaac and Jacob (Pt.3)

Part Two

“Israel”

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

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

Joseph’s Dreams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Pt.2)

Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[6] Heb. “The face of God”

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

Two Abrahamic Covenants?

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

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

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

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

God’s “No” to Ishmael

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

[3] Ibid, 89

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

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

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

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

Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God Chooses One Man – Pt.1

Although he never held any official position or led any army or wrote any books, by any measure Abraham is one of the most important human beings in history.  Jews, Christians and Muslims trace their roots in him in one way or another.  This man who lived approximately two thousand years before Christ is a central figure to the biblical storyline in both Testaments.

Now this book deals with covenants.  And the covenant with Abraham is one of the most important covenants in the Bible.  Moreover, if it is not correctly understood it leads to massive theological fallout.  Therefore, we must take care to examine the Abrahamic covenant (or covenants if some writers are to be believed) so as to get clear in our minds just what its terms are.  Does it envisage only one theological topic? Or does it cover several?  To a large extent the answer to these questions turns on whether the Bible is to be interpreted back-to-front; from the New Testament back into the Old Testament.

The prelude to the Abrahamic covenant comes in Genesis 12:1-3:

Now the LORD had said to Abram; “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.  I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you and curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

And to this verse we must add verse 7:

Then the LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your descendants I will give this land.”  And there he built an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him. (emphasis mine)

This is not a covenant itself but is a sort of historical precursor.  It is of interest that the man who was chosen was not a very promising candidate.

What a pathetic sight is this man, trudging the dusty Mesopotamian roads, whose journey has come to a dead end northeast of Canaan.  How could it be possible that one without such promise could hold so much promise?[1]

In chapter 11 Abram[2] is called from his home city of Ur and at the beginning of the next chapter we find the contents of the call.  I am tempted to get sermonic and to bring out the many applicatory aspects of the passage.  But my purpose here is only to examine what it was that the LORD said to Abram.  What is the first thing that God promises Abram?  It is “a land” (eretz).  The land is not a mere geographical starting point for Abram, it will be essential to his call and the call upon his descendants, as verse 7 makes clear.  So the land is the first element in the call.  Next the LORD continues by promising that Abram will become a great nation.  As Genesis 11:30 is at pains to emphasize, his wife Sarai was barren.  This presents two large obstacles to Abram’s faith: the problem of how his descendants would get the land promised to them, and the problem of how on earth a barren woman would begin a nation.  Why not choose a man who knew the terrain and who was respected already by the inhabitants?  And why not choose a woman who was young and fertile?  We see then that the conditions do not make faith easy.  The whole crux of the Abraham saga turns on the difficulty of trusting God’s word.

The third part of the promise was that God would make Abram’s name great.  This is in opposition to the ambitious humanism of the builders of Babel (cf. 11:4).  This Mesopotamian émigré would become one of the most significant people in history.  Three world religions trace their roots back to him, so there is no doubt that this has been fulfilled.  The next part concerns the blessing which Abraham will be to the nations.  This blessing to the nations would not of course come about via physical descendancy, as if all peoples could trace their ancestry back to Abram (as they can to Noah).

I will have more to say about these features of Genesis 12:1-3 further on, and it will be necessary to carefully distinguish the specific parts of this text as they are utilized by the Apostolic writers in due time.  But let us take note of the important elements of the passage; elements which we must track as we proceed:

  1. The first part of the Divine promise stresses the land
  1. Abram will have descendants who will compose a great nation or people (goy)
  1. He himself will have a great name
  1. Finally, that all the families of the earth will be blessed through Abram

There is one more thing which we should note about what God said to Abram.

I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you

God’s commitment to this man is so fixed that one’s reaction to Abram determines God’s reaction to them.   This ought not to be taken in the narrow sense as referring just to Abram’s person.  The mention of land and the promise of a great nation stemming from him require that the ban would come upon those who curse Israel.

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[1] Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty, 76

[2] Although I don’t want to make much of it, I have chosen to use the name “Abram” until he is renamed “Abraham” when he was ninety-nine in Genesis 17.