Relevant Biblical Passages: Genesis 6:18, 17:2; Exodus 19:5; Jeremiah 31:31-34
Covenant Primer: Noah, Abraham, Sinai, David, New Covenant. At several specific points in human history, God has established a “covenant” with His people: With Noah after the flood, with Abraham after he was called out of Ur, and with Israel at Sinai.
The “new” covenant is a more tantalizing concept. Christians usually identify it with the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But the promises of a “new” covenant appear in the Old Testament and give every evidence of simply being a promise of a “renewed” covenant, not something brand new. Thus there is continuity even while God promises something new. The following themes are worth exploring
- Noah. The first time the Bible actually uses the word “covenant” is in connection with the story of the flood. In his initial message to Noah, God promises to establish his covenant with Noah, preserving him and his family from the devastation brought about by the flood (Gen. 6:18). Then after the flood, God declared a covenant with Noah and all living creatures that the earth would not be destroyed by water ever again. The rainbow was the sign of that universal covenant (Gen. 9:8-17). How does this universal covenant relate to the later covenants with Abraham and Israel, and with the renewed universal covenant in Jesus Christ? Would such a covenant be reassuring, unsettling, or both?
- Abraham. According to Joshua 24:2, by the time human history had reached down to the time of Abraham, other gods were being worshiped by Abraham’s own family. Though the word “covenant” is not used in the record of God’s initial conversation with Abraham, it is implied in God’s promise to make of Abraham a great nation and to make him a blessing to all humankind (Gen. 12:1-3). In Gen. 15:12-21, the word “covenant” is used in connection with God’s promise to give Abraham’s descendants the land then occupied by the Canaanites and others. In Genesis 17, God promises Abraham numerous offspring (17:2) and again promises to give him the land of Canaan as a “perpetual holding” (17:8, NRSV). In this instance, God mandates circumcision as the sign of His covenant. How can the Abrahamic covenant be universal when the land is promised only to Abraham’s descendants? Ishmael was actually circumcised before Isaac was even conceived (if the chronology in Genesis is accepted at face value). Shouldn’t his descendants also have a place in the land of Canaan? To what extent could circumcision be a sign of a universal covenant, especially since it involves only the male and becomes optional in the New Testament (cf. Acts 15)?
- Sinai. In the story of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, the term “covenant” becomes quite prominent. The following are the more significant passages:
- Exodus 2. Early in the narrative of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, Scripture declares that God “remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Exod. 2:24), even though Genesis does not use the term in connection with Isaac and Jacob.
- Exodus 6. In his conversation with Moses before the plagues came upon Egypt, God repeats His promise to remember His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, a covenant which meant occupying the land of Canaan (Exod. 6:2-8).
- Exodus 19. Just before the Sinai revelation, God promised to make Israel a special people, “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:6). But now there is a condition: “If you obey my voice and keep my covenant” (Exod. 19:5). Interestingly enough, the term “covenant” is not used in the decalogue chapter itself (Exodus 20).
- Exodus 24. After the Sinai revelation, Exodus refers to Moses’ reading of “book of the covenant” in connection with the people’s acceptance of God’s expressed will (24:7). Moses dashed some of the “blood of the covenant” on the people as part of the confirmation proceedings (24:8).
- Exodus 31. In Exodus 31:12-17, God refers to the Sabbath as a “sign” that God is the one who sanctifies Israel (31:13); and the Sabbath is designated a “perpetual covenant” (31:16.), a “sign forever between me and the people of Israel” that “in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed” (31:17).
- Exodus 34. In Exodus 34:10 God’s “covenant” is that He will perform marvelous deeds never before seen by any nation. And these signs will be seen by all Israel’s neighbors. The passage continues on to speak of God’s intention to drive out the native Canaanites from their land and give it to Israel. In the commands which follow, the dominant interest is in ritual and religion, those aspects which are most likely to be at risk because of inappropriate contact with Canaanites. After these commands detailing how Israel is to remain separate religiously, God again writes the ten commandments on stone tablets. As in Deuteronomy 4, the ten commands are here explicitly identified as “covenant” (34:27-28).
- Deuteronomy 4. In Deut. 4:13, 14 appears the sharpest and clearest equation of the ten commandments with the “covenant,” and specific language which separates the decalogue from the other Mosaic legislation: Only the decalogue falls in the category of “covenant”; the remaining legislation is described as “statutes and ordinances.”
- Deuteronomy 5. In contrast with the account in Exodus 20 which describes the first giving of the law, the preface to the second giving of the law uses the word “covenant” (5:2), though the tidy distinction which separates “covenant” as ten commandments from the rest of the Mosaic legislation disappears because the whole account is prefaced by a reference to “statutes and ordinances” (5:1)
Given the use of the term “covenant” in Exodus and Deuteronomy, to what extent can the Sinai covenant be considered “universal”? Is the decalogue universal in a way which God’s specific covenant with Israel is not? What encouraging message is implied by the fact that God gives the decalogue a second time and renews the covenant after the golden calf incident? (Cf. Exodus 34).
- Davidic Covenant.Psalm 89 celebrates God’s covenant with the house of David – and deplores its apparent shattering. That same covenant with David is alluded to in the new earth prophecy in Isaiah 11:1 (“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse…”) and remembered in Jeremiah 33:14-26 with great specificity of detail. How can it be said that Jesus fulfilled that “royal” covenant when its true fulfillment is removed to a new world and out of the realm of history in which it was originally given?
- New Covenant. Christians too easily overlook the fact that the well-known promise of a “new” covenant appears in both Testaments: Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Hebrews 8:8-12. In many ways it would be better to translate the phrase as “renewed covenant,” rather than simply “new” covenant. And it is important to note that it was clearly intended in the first instance to be realized within an Old Testament context which had not yet heard of Jesus Christ. To what extent does the “renewed” covenant point to a universal covenant that encompasses all humankind? How would the “renewed” covenant be better than the original one?