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Chapter 21: God’s Redemptive Work: Covenant and Incarnation

Question B: How is the covenant relationship to be understood?

1. Like almost everything else God uses in establishing community with us, covenant existed as an ordinary human institution before being taken up for his special purposes.1 Treaties were needed to cover relationships outside natural communities; such a treaty was a covenant. It had one essential component: the stipulation of some definite responsibilities which shaped the relationship.

2. The format of a typical covenant is as follows. There is a preamble setting out who is granting it (both parties can give covenant to each other or a superior can grant covenant to an inferior—for example, a powerful king to a vassal). A historical prologue often follows describing prior relationships; this history identifies the parties in relation to each other and provides the basis for the further relationship to be established by the covenant. The responsibilities of the relationship—often only a set of duties imposed on the inferior party—are then stated. Unlike the impersonal expressions of a legal code, the stipulation as to what must be performed has a personal character: “I” and “you.” Provisions generally follow for public reading of the covenant, so that those it binds will bear it in mind and fulfill it. Finally, the covenant is completed by a ceremony which puts it into effect and brings the relationship to life. This ceremony often involves an oath and an invocation of divine vengeance if the covenant’s stipulations are violated.

3. Chapters twenty and twenty-four of Exodus present the relationship between God and Israel as a covenant.2 The former chapter begins with identification and history, God’s acts in the exodus providing the basis for the relationship to be established. Then follow stipulations—the Ten Commandments. These require the people’s exclusive loyalty to God; they also regulate relationships among God’s people, since they must maintain their unity to stay in common allegiance to their covenant Lord. God does not take the customary oath, but swears by himself; witnesses are excluded, since God has no need of gods to guarantee his relationship with anyone (see Heb 6.13–18).

4. Chapter twenty-four of Exodus completes the account of the covenant. (The intervening chapters contain details of the law.) The agreement is read, and the people accept it. The covenant is sealed with the blood of bulls, sprinkled partly upon the people and partly on the altar. This blood is life, the very principle of vitality (see Gn 9.4). Thus it brings the covenant to life, puts it in force.3 After this, Moses and the other leaders beheld the God of Israel and had a meal in his sight—a sign of living together in the community which had been formed (see Ex 24.1–11).4

5. It is important to notice that God redeems first and then offers the covenant. Although the covenant contains stipulations requiring a certain style of life, their fulfillment is not a condition for entering the relationship but a requirement arising from the relationship one freely accepts. God provides law so that his people can cooperate freely in their valued personal relationship with him. Law is not a burden but a blessing and a real necessity for developing an orderly life in common, especially for people recently freed from slavery and used to arbitrary treatment.5

6. Unlike a human code of law, however, God’s commands, considered precisely as such, are not backed by imposed sanctions and enforced by a penal apparatus of police, courts, jails, and the like. Rather, in refusing to keep God’s law, failing to love him, following other gods, one inherently invites disaster, since other gods are false and powerless to save (see Ps 115.4–8; Wis 13.11–19).6

7. The reason why the requirements of life within the covenant are not impositions is that they follow from what God’s people are. Humankind is made in God’s image and shares in responsibility for creation (see Gn 1.26–29). Even after sin, the children of Man share in God’s glory and enjoy an almost godlike status (see Ps 8.5–10). Under the covenant, the challenge of being like God persists and is heightened for his people: “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lv 19.2). Created in God’s image and recalled from sin to his friendship, human persons are expected to be as pure and holy in their lives as God is in his. God’s people are expected to follow him.

In leaving Egypt, Israel responded to God’s call (see Hos 11.1). The people were led by Yahweh and walked after him (see Ex 13.21–22). The experience of following God hidden in the pillar of cloud or of fire is never forgotten. Israel always is called to follow her Lord, as a betrothed to follow her bridegroom (see Jer 2.2), as a flock to follow its shepherd (see Ps 80.2).

In a covenant relationship, a vassal follows in the retinue of his lord. To love one’s lord is to be ready to fulfill one’s covenant undertakings. One walks along with the leader under whose command one must be prepared, if necessary, to do battle. When the Israelites commit themselves to living in accord with the covenant, their promise is not to “follow other gods” (see Dt 6.14), but to follow Yahweh, “to walk in all his ways” (Dt 10.12; cf. Jos 22.5).

When Israel is unfaithful, it is like a whore (see Ez 23.1–10), who follows the enemy’s army. Sinners should turn back to their true Lord and follow him faithfully as they did in the exodus (see Hos 2.17). Then they will enjoy fully the power of his protection and the gentleness of his love.

To be safe is to stay close to God, to walk with him (see Mi 6.8). He takes the orphans, widows, and others who specially need help into his own family; he shakes the earth with his steps and makes rain fall when it is needed (see Ps 68.6–9). To such a protector, Israel prays: “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths” (Ps 25.4). Being kind, the Lord guides back to the safe path those who stray (see Ps 25.8–9). “Who is the man that fears the Lord? Him will he instruct in the way that he should choose” (Ps 25.12). “Fear” here means readiness to listen and follow.

The law is a guide to survival: “She is the book of the commandments of God, and the law that endures for ever. All who hold her fast will live, and those who forsake her will die. Turn, O Jacob, and take her; walk toward the shining of her light” (Bar 4.1–2). “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord” (Ps 119.1). God marches with his people, and they have nothing to fear; they go off on their own and experience disaster (see Dt 3l.8, 16–19). When they abandon God, his people are forced from their inheritance into exile (see Lv 26.33–41). But even then, a voice cries out in the desert, calling for a superhighway to be constructed for God and his people: “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain” (Is 40.4). Yahweh will lead his people back from exile.

1. On covenant: Delbert B. Hillers, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969), 28–70. A helpful brief treatment: William G. Most, “A Biblical Theology of Redemption in a Covenant Framework,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 29 (1967), 1–19; also G. E. Mendenhall, “Covenant,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 1:714–23.

2. The treaty form of the covenant is more perfectly exemplified in Deuteronomy, chaps. 5–28. See Dennis J. McCarthy, S.J., Treaty and Covenant: A Study in Form in the Ancient Oriental Documents and in the Old Testament (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1963), 109–40. However, the parallelism between the account in Exodus and the forming of the new covenant makes it appropriate to prefer Exodus for the present study.

3. See F. Laubach, “Blood,” and G. R. Beasley-Murray, “Sprinkle,” New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 1:220–25.

4. Some scholars dispute this interpretation of Ex 24.1–11, but others support it. See, for example, John Bright, The Kingdom of God: The Biblical Concept and Its Meaning for the Church (New York: Abingdon Press, 1953), 228; for this and the ratification ceremony in general: John E. Huesman, S.J., “Exodus,” Jerome Biblical Commentary, 3.67.

5. For a good treatment of this point and criticism of the excessive polemic of Luther against the law, see Karl Barth, Ethics, ed. Dietrich Braun, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (New York: Seabury Press, 1981), 89–93.

6. There is a false theology which reduces the legal aspect of commandments to a purely secondary and questionable development from a purely “personalistic” covenant morality. This theology fails to recognize the grounding of commandments as a whole in wisdom and reality. For a helpful analysis: Jon D. Levenson, “The Theologies of Commandment in Biblical Israel,” Harvard Theological Review, 73 (1980), 17–33.