Last week we zoomed in a bit closer on the culture, places, and key people of the Old Testament. This week our focus is on the concept and practice of covenant.
Place and People
I’m not super great at memorizing things…unless they’re accompanied by a catchy tune. 😉 But I have figured out over the years that sheer repetition helps me memorize important information, as well as, mnemonic devices. With that in mind, let’s review the key “shelves” and “hangers” that Dr. Richter has given us as tools to organize our Old Testament “closets.”
Three key places (our shelves): Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Canaan/Israel/Palestine
Five key people (our hangers): Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David
How I’ve memorized these things:
- When I go to say the word “Mesopotamia,” I can literally hear Dr. Richter in my mind sounding it out – she drags it out a bit, stressing the long O’s…almost like a catchy tune. So it sticks.
- I’m also a visual learner, so I can picture the crescent-shaped piece of land (hence its name, “The Fertile Crescent”) where these three lands flow into each other.
- As we looked at the “real space” of those earliest days of Old Testament history last week, we know that Adam, Noah, and Abraham were in Mesopotamia.
- Later, Moses led the Hebrew people out of Egypt after having been there 400 years…till they got to Canaan.
- Under David, God’s people became a nation (Israel).
- For the five guys (I think there’s a restaurant named that, yes? That’s a mnemonic device itself – association), I figured out a rough pattern involving their first initials. A, N, A, M, D. It doesn’t spell anything, but just seeing in my mind’s eye that the A’s alternate with the N and M has really helped me.
Not sure that helps you much – but the point is…we should try to put these places and people to memory!
“The ‘general law’ we will use to give order to the whole is one of the general laws that the Old Testament writers used to give order to their collection of documents: the concept of covenant. …The biblical writers were theologians. Contrary to popular opinion, they did not write this amazing book in some haphazard fashion, nor did they function merely as mindless stenographers. No, the biblical writers consciously organized their material in a systematic fashion in order to communication certain central truths. What we want to do, then, is to rediscover their system and allow their system to organize our closets” (Epic of Eden, page 69).
Dr. Richter goes on to say that covenant is a major structuring principle of our Scriptures. Just look at the Old and New Testaments – the Greek for “testament” comes from the Hebrew word berit…and both mean “covenant.” Therefore…the entire Bible is divided by the two great covenants – old and new.
And the five guys 😉 we are already on the verge of memorizing? They aren’t just “time” organizers in the Bible but also covenant organizers. (How handy is that? Nothing more to memorize!)
“…The theology of the Old Testament is organized around these same five figures. Most specifically, around five covenantal interactions – the agreement with Adam and Eve in Eden (Genesis 3), with Noah after the flood (Genesis 6), with Abraham regarding his descendants and the land of Canaan (Genesis 12), with Moses and Israel at Mount Sinai (Exodus 20), and with David regarding his dynasty (2 Samuel 7).” (Epic of Eden, page 70)
In her video lesson on covenant, Dr. Richter calls our five guys “covenant mediators in the great story of redemption.” Love that!
So, what is covenant?
In real time, a covenant, or berit, was a secular form the biblical writers borrowed. In their day, a covenant was an agreement enacted between two parties in which one or both made a promise under oath to perform or refrain from certain actions, which were stipulated in advance. Covenants were all over the ancient world.
Today, we could also look at our practice of contract writing and signing – we promise to do something, such as pay back a loan.
Covenants in the Old Testament could be made at the individual, tribal, or national level. But there was no stronger bond than that of family in that day. Don’t forget that we are studying a TRIBAL society, one arranged around and centered on family (betab). “One’s level of responsibility (and privilege) toward another member of the society was determined by blood. The more closely related, the greater the responsibility; the more distantly related, the lesser the responsibility” (Epic of Eden, page 71).
If you want to dig deeper into how this looked in the Old Testament, look at the story of Jacob and Laban. If you start in Genesis 29-30, you get the back story…where Laban promises his daughters to Jacob in marriage if Jacob would work for him, but then changed the terms of their agreement…multiple times. By Genesis 31 Jacob had “had it” with Laban and left Haran with all his wives and kids and livestock (Jacob had done well in Haran for all those years). Focus on verses 43-54 in chapter 30 to see the covenant Laban proposes to Jacob when he catches up to him.
Back to covenants in biblical times. How would a person in that culture go about establishing a covenant with someone who was not a relative? They created a legal, fictitious relationship – that’s how! And they actually called it “fictive kinship.” Basically, both parties agreed to act like…family! (Which, sadly, meant a lot more in that ancient culture than it often does in ours today).
For us, the thing in our culture that would most resemble the ancient idea of covenant or fictive kinship is marriage. We vow, or covenant, to faithfulness to one someone we aren’t related to…till death do us part.
Types of Covenants in Israel’s Day
In her book, Epic of Eden, Dr. Richter points out that the political landscape of the Ancient Near East (how scholars describe the space and time of this Old Testament era) was “cluttered with dozens of petty kings and kingdoms – so many people groups, so little space…” (page 72).
With the two great superpowers, Mesopotamia and Egypt, on either side of our little “land bridge” called Canaan, the various and numerous people groups in this Canaanite area often united as allies to defend themselves against one of the superpowers OR subjugated themselves to one of the superpowers to protect against other nations that threatened. These very real situations created two sorts of international alliances in that day and age: parity treaty and suzerain/vassal treaty.
The PARITY treaty was made between two or more nations who were more or less equals, and the responsibilities of both parties were “typically limited to military alliance against an outsider” (page 73).
- So if one member of the parity treaty was attacked, all members of the parity showed up to defend it.
- Or if a superpower was on the move to get more land/resources, all in the parity would unite to resist.
- And sometimes the parity allowed for shared trade routes.
- In the parity treaties, the parties involved described each other as “brothers” – in other words, they would behave as if they were brothers.
- A good biblical example of a parity treaty happens in 2 Chronicles 18. In a quickly summarized fashion, this story happens in the era of the divided monarch when Ahab ruled the Northern Kingdom and Jehoshaphat ruled the Southern Kingdom. Ahab went to Jehoshaphat to propose a parity treaty to ally against Ramoth Gilead. The story is full of great things to study, but for our purposes, you can get an idea of how two equal nations would ally to stand up against a common enemy.
The SUZERAIN/VASSAL treaty was made between a nation of greater power with a nation of lesser power. The greater power had the right to “demand submission on the part of his weaker ally” (page 73).
- Partners referred to each other as “father and son” or “lord and servant.”
- The suzerain had authority over the land and people of the vassal nation.
- The suzerain had some obligations in this relationship, such as providing military protection to the vassal.
- Often the suzerain initiated this relationship by gifting his vassal with land – but it would mean the vassal owed his territory and his throne to the suzerain.
- This happened after the Assyrians exiled the northern tribe of Israel – they actually gave the northern lands of Israel to another vassal and put a king in charge of it. This other vassal would have been given their “own land” but would’ve been loyal to the suzerain, Assyria.
- Vassals were expected to pay an annual tribute, or percentage of his gross national product, to their suzerain.
- Vassals also had to help with the suzerain’s army – offer soldiers, housing, access, etc – as needed.
- And vassals were committed to the one suzerain – they couldn’t make a treaty with another suzerain. The biblical term for this kind of loyalty was hesed. More on that to come.
- A great biblical example of a suzerain/vassal treaty is in Joshua 9-10 when Joshua and Israel treatied/covenanted with Gibeon to be their suzerain. The Gibeonites initiated (deceptively as you read the story) this relationship by “claiming to be Joshua’s ‘servants,’ …inviting Joshua to become their suzerain” (page 75).
Features of the Berit
My oldest son deeply desires to go to law school, so he’s already been taking undergraduate classes on law. I’m amazed at how quickly he has picked up on the “legalese” – that language of the legal world that so many of us find terribly difficult to follow and understand. But aren’t we grateful for people who can write contracts that are legally binding! If it were up to me to write a contract, I’d leave out and miss entire sections that need to be there in order for it to be binding.
Interestingly, the ancient covenants also had content and sections that were not only identifiable but necessary for the berit to be binding.
- Things like an OATH. An oath is the promise to follow-through. I think of the oath witnesses take today as they promise to “tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me, God!”
- There’s also the OBLIGATION – that thing expected of one party…what were they obligated to by means of this covenant?
- And all covenants were secured with SACRIFICE, the actual blood of an animal shed in a ritual act. Basically, a sign of the binding nature of the covenant.
- In the Joshua/Gibeonite story, the Gibeonites “cut a berit” with Israel (which was common language in that day). Their covenant was sealed with an oath and a sacrifice. Quite literally, the animal sacrificed is cut in two (Epic of Eden, page 75).
- Covenants would also list BLESSINGS, the good things that would happen if the covenant was kept, and CURSES, the bad things (consequences) that would happen if the covenant was broken.
- Ancient covenants used FAMILIAL LANGUAGE, such as brother, father, or son, depending on the type of treaty.
- There would be a swearing of COVENANT LOYALTY, which was called hesed. It connotes love, mercy, loving kindness, and forgiveness, and literally means covenant faithfulness or loyalty.
- Finally, a lot of the ancient covenants used “love” and “hate” language; they were actual political terms of that day. These words communicated OBEDIENCE rather than sentiment. For example, LOVE meant to keep the covenant, while HATE meant failing to keep the covenant.
- Look up Romans 9:13 where it says that Jacob was loved by God and Esau was hated by God. In her video lesson Dr. Richter posed the question, “Could it be that God was speaking in covenant language, not speaking His sentiment but referring to Jacob as the one with whom the covenant was made?”
There’s so much we need to learn from this notion and practice of COVENANT. Covenant becomes the structure of the Old Testament – more specifically of redemptive history.
- We’ll draw from the foundation we’ve laid here for the rest of our study.
- We’ll see how God used covenant to speak to His people in a way they would understand.
- We’ll start to see how covenant carries right into the New Testament and our faith in Christ.
Next time we meet here, we’ll take covenant to a little deeper level – that of treaty. If you’re like me, you’ll be AMAZED at what Dr. Richter uncovers and connects for us.
Covenanting to meet you here next week,