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Did God invent the covenant?. Toward an Old Testament hermeneutic. Reads the Bible and thinks about it in linear. Assumes that every action and word cast in a positive light represents God’s ideal will. Ignores social and experiential context.

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Did God invent the covenant?

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Did God invent the covenant?

Toward an Old Testament hermeneutic

  • Reads the Bible and thinks about it in linear.

  • Assumes that every action and word cast in a positive light represents God’s ideal will.

  • Ignores social and experiential context.

  • This is not the way Adventist pioneers read the Bible (as evidenced by the way they handled texts regarding slavery and women in church).

  • This is not the way Reform Jews read the Hebrew Bible; they are very troubled by the way Christians handle the text as though it is not circumstantial and is not story.

Popular Biblical hermeneutics

  • Jesus on divorce: 1) In the beginning it was different than Moses; 2) Moses allowed you to divorce your wives because of your hard hearts. Matt. 19:4-8.

  • God on kingship: “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” 1 Sam. 8:7, NRSV.

  • Ellen White on the conquest: “God had made it their privilege and their duty to enter the land at the time of His appointment, but through their willful neglect that permission had been withdrawn….They had distrusted the power of God to work with their efforts in gaining possession of Canaan; yet now they presumed upon their own strength to accomplish the work independent of divine aid. ‘We have sinned against the Lord,’ they cried; ‘we will go up and fight, according to all that the Lord our God commanded us.’ Deuteronomy 1:41. So terribly blinded had they become by transgression. The Lord had never commanded them to "go up and fight.’ It was not His purpose that they should gain the land by warfare, but by strict obedience to His commands.” PP 392


“Still the patriarch begged for some visible token as a confirmation of his faith and as an evidence to after-generations that God’s gracious purposes toward them would be accomplished. The Lord condescended to enter into a covenant with His servant, employing such forms as were customary among men for the ratification of a solemn engagement. By divine direction, Abraham sacrificed a heifer, a she-goat, and a ram, each three years old, dividing the bodies and laying the pieces a little distance apart.” PP 137

About the Abrahamic covenant

  • Reads the Bible in its finished form.

  • Allows the reader to make value judgments about the texts of the Bible in light of the canonical whole.

  • Views the finished form of the text (Scripture) as bidirectional, having two kinds of functions: constitutive and prophetic.

  • Has spawned widely divergent views: Brevard Childs, James Sanders, James Brennemann, etc.

Canonical Criticism

  • Views the constitutive as the “major voice” of God’s will adapted to the will of the people and mediated through human writers.

  • Views the prophetic as the “minor voice” of God’s preferred will that the people reject or adapt.

  • Combines it with narrative criticism and asks

    • Is the text first within a narrative sequence?

    • Is the text tied to creation (the Hebrew Bible’s starting point)?

    • Is the text unique when compared with similar topics or contexts within the ancient Near East? Comparative Method

    • Any text for which the answer is “yes” to any of these questions is the minor voice of the divine preference.

My use of Canonical Criticism

  • If we want to hear God’s voice through Scripture, we must take it in its final form.

  • When we seek to resolve theological problems, we are really reading the Bible as Scripture, not merely as an ancient Near Eastern text.

  • Inspiration works through the Bible as a whole, and no one text of the Bible has the complete or perfect truth about God. Each is a piece of the whole.

  • The Bible was written in human rhetoric with human thought-forms.

  • God has always adapted His will to meet people where they are.

  • Therefore, one must take into consideration the ancient context and limit some things to a particular time and place.


  • God made a covenant with Abraham of faith.

    • Circumcision was the sign of this covenant

    • The binding of Isaac was a test of Abraham's faith.

  • God made a covenant on Sinai of works.

    • The people declared, “All that Yahweh has said we will do.”

  • Jesus ratified the new covenant with His blood—one of grace through faith.

  • The covenants were given by God as His ideal will.

  • They serve as a theme that ties much of the Bible canonically together.

  • Definition of covenant: “Bond by pledge or oath” (M. Weinfeld); popularly defined as “agreement.”

Traditional view of the covenants

  • God's covenant with Noah not to send another flood (Gen. 9:8-17).

  • God's covenant with Abraham (Gen. 15):

    • I will greatly multiply your descendants.

    • I will give you this land to possess.

  • God's covenant with King David (2 Sam. 7:1-17).

  • The New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34)

    • Jesus formed this covenant with his blood (Matt. 26:27-29)

    • This is the covenant of Hebrews (8:8-12; 10:15-17).

Covenants in the Bible

  • With a colleague?

  • With your best friend?

  • With your spouse?

  • With your boss or chair or supervisor?

  • With your pastor?

  • With your car dealer?

  • With your parents?

  • With your siblings?

  • With your children?

    Why did you make a covenant?

So have you made a covenant recently?

  • All relationships were defined predominately by economic, legal, and even political terms.

  • Marriage came to be seen as an economic agreement between families that would enhance the status of the families. Love was not a necessary ingredient, though it sometimes was a part of it.

  • Father-son and parent-daughter relationships operated within legal relationships of ownership.

  • Even friendships centered on obligations, legal agreements and formulations, and economic ties.

  • And of course the highest of human relationships involved treaties: parity or suzerain-vassal.

Relationships in the ancient Near East

  • Terms for compassion and mercy existed but overtime they became associated with legal reparation, sovereign bestowment, and treaty loyalty.

  • Consequently legal bonds were solemnly formed with rituals of enforcement.

    • In oath-taking, Babylonians visualized the gods touching their throats with water and oil indicating (Enuma Elish; B. Foster 387): “Off with our heads if we break this oath!” (Terms for throat and life are the same.)

    • Various groups cut up animals to indicate the same kind of enforcement for various bonds.

    • The Hebrew verb for making a covenant means literally, “to cut” a covenant.

What about love and trust?

This was done, not because they trusted one another, but because they did not trust anyone—without this enforcement to back up the bond.

  • The covenant with Noah was fairly one-sided:

    • The few stipulations are given before-hand and are not part of the formal covenant.

    • God promises not to send another flood.

    • Noah seems to play no part in this—though the preceding stipulations suggest a strong divine concern not to shed blood (as in murder).

    • God himself makes a sign of the covenant: a rainbow hanging in the clouds (Yahweh has hung up his bow).

    • Noah needs only to trust that Yahweh had.

    • The tower of Babel story demonstrates lack of such trust.

Applying my method . . .


Is this a covenant or a promise?

  • God initiates it.

  • His other party proceeds to reason with (bargain?) God.

  • The overriding question seems to be: how is my reward to be great when I am childless?

  • God promises descendants as many as the stars.

  • What does Abraham have to do? Trust, a trust God recognizes as indicative of a high moral character.

  • There is no cutting connected to this covenant at this point.

  • This is a covenant in the minor voice: God's ideal.

What kind of covenant is this?

“After these events, the Lord's word came to Abram in a vision, ‘Don't be afraid, Abram. I am your protector.’ Your reward will be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘Lord God, what can you possibly give me, since I still have no children? The head of my household is Eliezer, a man from Damascus.’ He continued, ‘Since you haven't given me any children, the head of my household will be my heir.’ The Lord's word came immediately to him, ‘This man will not be your heir. Your heir will definitely be your very own biological child.’ Then he brought Abram outside and said. ‘Look up at the sky and count the stars if you think you can count them.’ He continued, ‘This is how many children you will have.’ Abram trusted the Lord and the Lord recognized Abram's high moral character.” Gen 15:1-6, CEB

The Abrahamic covenant

“He said to Abram, ‘I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land as your possession.’ But Abram said, ‘Lord God, how do I know that I will actually possess it?” He said, ‘Bring me a three-year-old female calf, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a dove, and a young pigeon.’ He took all of these animals, split them in half, and laid the halves facing each other, but he didn't split the birds. When vultures swooped down on the carcasses, Abram waved them off. . . . After the sun had set and darkness had deepened, a smoking vessel with a fiery flame passed between the split-open animals. That day the Lord cut a covenant with Abram: ‘To your descendants I give this land. . . .” Gen. 15:7-20, CEB

The story doesn’t end there

  • Weinfeld refers to it as a “land grant.”

  • The ceremony is typical of bonds made over land.

  • Here cutting involved, as in certain bonds.

  • If Abram had trusted God, just as he did in v. 6 with the promise of descendants, would this ceremony have been needed?

  • So it seems that God responds to Abram's lack of trust by saying, “OK, let's do some cutting.”

  • Who took on the cutting, virtually saying, “You may cut me in pieces if I do not fulfill this covenant?”

What kind of covenant is this?

  • V. Hamilton questions whether this involved taking on curses, since many of the similar bonds in the ancient Near East do not specify this.

  • B. Waltke believes that it does involve taking the curse and bases this on an 8th century Assyrian text.

  • Waltke's view seems to predominate.

  • Ancient Near Eastern texts often do not contain explanations of rituals. Hamilton's view is an argument from silence. The view that this ritual served merely to ratify the covenant, begs the issue: how did it do this?

  • Support for Waltke's view comes from the fact that the Hebrew verb “to cut a covenant” (karat) is the same verb as used when a person completely breaks a covenant with Yahweh in the words: “that life shall be cut off.” The cutting of animals, then, symbolizes the end result of breaking the covenant.


In earlier cases, the superior in the covenant would take on the curses of the covenant.

In later cases, the inferior would take on these curses.

Yahweh takes on the curses of the Abrahamic covenant!

God and the covenant

  • Abram consents to Sarai's suggestion that he take Hagar as a wife.

  • In doing so, he abandons trusting God to do the work of keeping his own covenant and fulfilling the covenant himself.

  • She bears him Ishmael.

  • God's response is to give Abram the sign of the covenant: circumcision.

  • It's as if God says, “It appears that since you think you have to make the covenant work yourself, you will need to do the cutting—on yourself and your descendants!”

The Story continues . . .

  • Abraham lies about Sarah again, this time to Abimelech, king of Gerar.

  • Then Isaac is born.

  • Ishmael becomes a problem to Sarah

  • At God’s command, Abraham sends Ishmael and Hagar away.

  • The final potential cutting, involves a test of Abraham, and it is a test of trust: God commands Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering.

And the distrust continues…

  • Part I involves

    • Abraham as Father

    • Isaac as his son, his only son, Isaac, whom he loves

    • Wood (that Isaac bears), fire, knife, mountain

  • Part II involves

    • Abraham as sinner and the one who offers the ram

    • The ram as the substitute for Isaac

    • Wood (that Isaac bore), fire, knife, mountain

The story is in two parts

  • Part I tells of a father who was willing to give up his son, but did not himself kill him.

  • Part II negates human sacrifice with these words:

    • “[Father,] Don't stretch out your hand against the young man [your son], and don't do anything to him.”

    • The ram, caught in the thicket by its horns represents an unblemished substitutionary sacrifice.

  • The only cutting in this aspect of covenantal relations between Abraham and God is what the sinner inflicts on the substitute.

  • Just as God took on Himself the cutting if the covenant were broken in Genesis 15, so symbolically, the substitute takes on the cutting of the broken trust of Abraham.

The meaning of the story

  • Original statement: “You saw what I did to the Egyptians, and how I lifted you up on eagles’ wings and brought you to me. So now, if you faithfully obey me and stay true to my covenant, you will be my most precious possession out of all the peoples, since the whole earth belongs to me. You will be a kingdom of priests for me and a holy nation.” Ex. 19:4-6, CEB

  • Response of the people (v. 8): “The people all responded with one voice: ‘Everything that the Lord has said we will do.’”

The sinai covenant

  • Title

    • “Treaty of Rea-mashesha mai Amana, the great king, the king of the land of Egypt, the valiant, with Hattusilis, the great king of the Hatti land . . .”

  • Introduction

    • “These are words of Rea-mashesha mai Amana, the great king of the land of Egypt, the valiant, with Hattusilis, the great king of the Hatti land, his brother, for establishing [good] peace [and] good brotherhood. . . .”

  • Long list of gods: witnesses of the treaty (Assyrian)

  • Stipulations (suzerain-vassal stipulations are longer)

  • Curses and Blessings

    • Only curses in Assyrian suzerain-vassal treaties.

Elements of a parity treaty (Egyptian-Hittite)

  • God speaks the prologue and stipulations like a suzerain-king would.

  • Moses writes down the Book of the Covenant.

  • Moses builds an altar and dashes sacrificial blood against it.

  • He reads the Book of the Covenant to the people.

  • The people respond that they will obey it.

  • Moses takes sacrificial blood and dashes it on the people, saying, “See, the blood of the covenant.”

  • God holds a covenantal meal on Mt. Sinai with representatives of Israel.

Covenantal Rituals

  • Some of its features were patterned after a parity or brotherhood treaty (prologue [?], blessings).

  • Many of its features resemble a suzerain-vassal treaty (stipulations, curses).

  • Purpose: to bring Israel from polytheism to monotheism.

  • It was based upon cutting: the dashing of blood.

  • It was not based so much upon a promise, though Exodus 19:6 could be taken as such.

  • It was predicated upon strict obedience rather than trust.

What kind of covenant was the sinai covenant?

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

The new covenantJeremiah 31:31-34

  • God casts the old (Sinai) covenant in the context of a marriage covenant, not a royal treaty.

  • The new covenant is built on promises God himself will fulfill.

  • The cutting of this covenant takes place in the heart as God inscribes his law there.

  • This covenant is also depicted in terms of marital intimacy:

    • “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

    • They will all know me from the least of them to the greatest.”

  • God will forgive their iniquity and forget their sin.

Features of this covenant

  • The new covenant seems to anticipate an Israelite response of “How?”

    • “I will put my law within them.” . . . “How?”

    • “I will write it on their hearts.” . . . “How?”

    • “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”…“How?”

    • “They will all know me.”

  • The new covenant is built on one-to-one intimacy with God

    • To know the Lord, biblically, prophetically, is as close as sex.

    • The heart of the problem, as we said in the beginning, has been trust. Human beings want something tangible to enforce trust and trustworthiness. God knows that we can only trust Him if we come to know that He can be trusted.

Breaking this down…

  • The heart of sin is not external disobedience, but distrust that has alienated us from God.

  • The Sinai covenant was a divinely mediated response to a society steeped in legal enforcement of transactional agreements. In such a society, one forgave, but one did not forget.

  • Forgiveness born of divine love creates love and restores trust.

  • Once the intimacy of the relationship has been restored, the sins that drove that relationship apart are gone, swallowed up in God's love that creates a response of love.

And forgiveness?

  • Just as God humbly walked among the animal parts, taking on the cutting of Himself should the covenant be broken, and

  • Just as Abraham willingly gave up his only son, and

  • Just as the ram received the cutting by a sinner,

  • So God in Jesus, allowed human beings (us) to cut his body and break his heart, to show us what distrust leads to and to reveal that we could love and trust Him, and thus to restore the broken relationship.

  • “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

  • Matthew 26:28, NRSV

How has God done this?

  • The minor voice of Scripture calls us to trust in God as the basis of our relationship with him now and for eternity.

  • It calls us away from an externally enforced relationship built upon externally driven obedience.

  • It calls us to love Him because He first loved us.

  • It calls us to trust Him because He has demonstrated His trustworthiness at such cost.

  • It calls us to an intimacy of knowing him as fully as spouses know each other.

The minor voice of scripture

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