God Enters Covenants Not Contracts: Deconstructing Bad Bible ReadingAuthor: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Hebrew Bible, Hermeneutics
It is always more or less detrimental to the ascertainment of truth to allow our previous conclusions to assume the position of fixed and fundamental truth to which nothing is to be at any time added either in correction or enlargement. On the contrary, we ought rather to act under the conviction that we may be wiser today than yesterday” (Alexander Campbell, 1840)
A couple days ago I read an article on the Old Covenant vs the New Covenant. I disagreed with much of the article. One particular section of the article supposedly explained what a “covenant” was by saying a covenant was a contract (a few illustrations were drawn from corporate America and athletic contracts, etc). Then yesterday I came across the same notion of biblical covenants are contracts. All of this brought to my mind when I myself used that analogy years ago (Lord please forgive me) but this is the doctrine I grew up with. Now my purpose today is not to talk about the Old vs New covenant. My purpose is more basic. If we do not understand what “covenant” is we will not get any doctrine of Old Covenant and New Covenant right because we misunderstand what a covenant is in the first place. So with these introductory remarks I have offered ten bullet points on biblical covenants vs contracts. A proper understanding of “covenant” has a direct impact on our understanding of both Old and New Covenants.
Let the Text Speak
Restorationists commonly reduce the Bible to “Old Covenant” vs “New Covenant.” Simplistic equations are often made. Old Covenant is simply equivalent to 39 books of the Old Testament which are believed (wrongly) to be “nailed to the cross.” New Covenant then is equated with 27 books.
This is a fundamental misunderstanding. Twice Paul makes a statement that goes in one ear and out the other, as my mom used to say. In Romans 9.4 Paul lists off the privileges of Israel,
the giving of the law,
the worship” etc.
Lots of stuff to explore here but covenants is plural. Again in Ephesians 2.12-13, Paul speaks of the plight of pagan Gentiles as (Paul is not talking about Jews in the text), among other things, they are “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants“(CovenantS is again plural). But those Gentiles who are now in the Jewish Messiah have the blessing of the covenants they were aliens from previously. These covenants were not simply “nailed to the cross” rather the Gentile believer is now as much a part of Israel as any ethnic Jew and the covenants are now ours too. Nor does either Romans 9.4 or Eph 2.12-13 speak of some dichotomy of Old Testament vs New Testament.
Sirach 44.1-47.11 gives some insight into how Jews, in the time of Jesus and Paul, were thinking about God’s covenant and covenants with Israel. It is worth reading when trying to hear what Paul is saying when he uses the word “covenantS.” Paul clearly did not simply think “old covenant” meant the entire body of work denominated by Melito of Sardis as “the Old Testament.” Biblical covenants are not contracts.
Noah’s Flood and “Covenant”
The first time the word “covenant” occurs in the Bible is in God’s response to the aftermath of the destruction of his creation in the Flood. Genesis 9.8-17 reveals a great deal about what the Bible teaches about God’s covenant(s). Sadly many do not even know this covenant is in the Bible. When God saw the suffering and death of his good creation as a result of humanity’s sin, he made a unilateral announcement rooted in his sovereign will and regard for creation. His announcement was God’s utterly free choice to never destroy creation again because of human sin. The target of the covenant is both humanity and “every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth.”
This is a stunning covenant literally based on grace alone. As proof of the seriousness of God’s commitment to this covenant he surrenders his weapon of war – the Bow (people often assume the text says “rainbow” but it does not. The word “bow” is used for an archers weapon in other contexts in the Hebrew Bible though the rainbow probably is what we are meant to “see” ). The surrendered bow is the “sign of the covenant between me and the earth” (9.13). Humans are not asked if they will participate, animals are not asked if they will participate. God simply declared it so. The covenant is divine initiative, divine declaration, divine fiat, divine grace. This is an everlasting covenant and God yet keeps his promise. We learn a lot about covenants in the Bible right here. God’s covenant with all creation in Genesis 9 is surely one Paul knows was never abrogated (i.e. nailed to any Cross). God’s covenant is grace not a contract.
Diatheke not Syntheke
John Goldingay, renown scholar of the “First Testament” (as he calls it) has commented that when the Hebrew Bible was translated into the Greek LXX, there were a number of options on the table to the translators in rendering the word “covenant.” The LXX used “diatheke” rather than “syntheke” precisely because the latter could suggest “too mutual, too contractual an understanding of the relationship between God and Israel or the church.” Likewise, Walther Eichrodt, one of the leading OT scholars of the 20th century, noted in his chapter on the “Meaning of the Covenant Concept” in his older classic Old Testament Theology, vol 1, “The covenant concept includes … the defense against another danger, that of LEGALISTIC DISTORTION OF THE RELATIONSHIP… by which the attempt is made to degrade it to the level of an agreement based on mutual service between two partners of equal status” (his emphasis). These truths are clearly visible in the Noahic covenant but they are also clearly visible in the covenants with Abraham, Sinai, David and the “new” covenant. Biblical covenants are NOT contracts.
Let me illustrate my previous point with a few uses of “covenant” that are not normally known but reveal how God uses the notion in the Bible. In the Bible, “Leviathan” is a creature that does not serve any useful human purpose whatsoever. In fact Psalm 104.26 declares it was created for one purpose only, “to frolic” or “to play” in the deep. Its “purpose” is to play. This “useless” creature however has a “covenant” with God (Job 41.1-4, this is likely an expression of Genesis 9 but if not then God has an independent covenant. But it matters not at the moment to our discussion). Leviathan makes its “supplications” to the Lord. This covenant is, again, based on God’s own choice and will. Leviathan certainly would not imagine he actually brings anything of value to the covenant. The creature certainly did not earn this covenant. He just “is.” The covenant is from God the Creator to the creatures who benefits from God’s grace. Leviathan can’t even feed himself apparently (I am reminded of Sebastian or Casper when I think of how the Bible presents this creature of the deep that brings such delight to God). Biblical covenants are not contracts.
In our contemporary situation a number of false teachings lead us to misunderstand biblical covenants. The wide ranging false Protestant (especially American Evangelical) equation of biblical “law” with legalism-carnality-unspiritual-save-yourself point of view, is among the most heinous and parroted mindlessly by Evangelicals and Restorationists routinely. The second error is but a repackaging of the first. We have already mentioned it. That is the myth that covenants are understood as a “contract.” This false understanding pollutes our understanding of both the first 39 books of the Bible and the last 27. God does not have a contract with the Earth nor Leviathan. Nor does God have a contract with Abraham, Sinai, David or anyone else. God is not a businessman. God is creator, Abba, Savior, Redeemer, Lord. He has covenants not contracts.
In his covenant with Abraham, God of his own free choice (no one made him do it and there was nothing in Abraham that compelled God to do it – Abram was a pagan!), simply announces in Genesis 15, what had been true since Genesis 12. God announces his covenant. Period. He did not ask Abram if he wanted it. He already declared he would use Abram to do all the blessings in 12.1-3. In Genesis 15, Abram is asleep, or in a trance (Gen 15.1, 12)! Paul makes a major deal out of the fact that God entered into this covenant with Abram while he was “wicked” or “ungodly” (Rom 4.5). Not until Genesis 17, years later, does God ask Abram to “do” anything. The circumcision is but the “sign” of the covenant but the covenant was already a reality. Biblical covenants are not contracts.
Covenant of Love
When God delivered Israel from slavery she was already in a covenant with God. The Mosaic covenant was, and is, as much a covenant of God’s sovereign choice and grace as any covenant ever made. Half the book of Exodus narrates the “work” of God to deliver, to save, to redeem our ancestors, Israel, before he asks them to “do” anything. Yahweh essentially drags the slaves to the freedom of grace (see Exodus 14 – what a text!!). Deuteronomy explicitly states that God’s covenant at Sinai/Horeb was a matter of God’s grace (note carefully the words in 7.7-9). Indeed Moses declares Sinai to be a “covenant of love,” of “hesed” (7.9, 12). Moses waxes eloquently, and at length, on the undeserving nature of Israel, of her utter lack of faith of any kind in chapter nine. In exasperation he bursts out “You have been rebellious against the LORD as I have known you” (9.24, NIV. NRSV has “since HE has known you!). Israel is not in this relationship because of a contract. Biblical covenants are not contracts.
Golden Calf & God’s Covenant
Nothing illustrates the non-contractural nature of God’s covenants – especially Sinai – than the story of the Golden Calf. Briefly, the events of Exodus 19-24 are God’s “new covenant” (I use the term metaphorically but it is still a “new covenant” as it is the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham – this is important btw) with Israel. Sinai is the coming of fruition of the “promises” that God had made in the covenant to Abraham. I shall be your God, you shall be my people, I will dwell with you. This is why in Exodus 24.1-11 the text, stunningly, says that Moses, Aaron, etc “saw the God of Israel” and they “ate and drank” in his presence.” The intimacy of the covenant parallels the intimacy of marriage. Thus Israel “experiences” God in a way that no human had since Adam and Eve. While Moses is on the mountain the “covenant” is broken.
I call Ex 32-33 the story of Israel cheating with the bellhop on the honeymoon! It is an earth shattering crises of the Sinai covenant. It is Genesis 3 all over again. The new covenant, the marriage of Yahweh and Israel, is shattered with infidelity – heinous sin. The promises of faithfulness by Israel (cf 24.3) prove to be fickle lies. Yahweh responds as any wounded lover, a husband or wife, would respond. He threatens to destroy the people. IF this was a contract this would be a simple matter. The deal is off. But that is not what happens.
First, though people are in fact punished for this crime against God – there are consequences to sin. But this next fact is glaringly overlooked or will even be denied, there is not a single word of repentance in Exodus 32 and 33, only Moses’s intercession.
Second, God on his own free will announces that he will forgive.
Third, it is at this point we have the divine revelation of the divine name, the John 3.16 moment of the Hebrew Bible in which God declares that he is “merciful, gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in hesed” (34.6-7) which becomes one of, if not the, most important text in the Bible (it is quoted and echoed dozens of times in the Hebrew Bible). Then stunningly on his own free act of grace God announces “I hereby make a covenant with you” … with who? the guilty as sin adulterous Israelites – our ancestors. Then the remainder of chapter 34 is basically a restatement of chapter 19. This the first covenant renewal. There is nothing contractual about this marriage covenant of Yahweh with Israel.
Covenant, like Marriage, is a Mutual Commitment
A covenant often, not always, involves mutual commitment. This mutual commitment in some covenants does not translate into contractual though. This is, partly, why the Bible so frequently presents God’s covenant as a marriage to a wife or as father’s relationship to children. There are commitments in such relationships but they are not contractual.
In the marriage covenant, we believe that both commit themselves to the other. But we would never say that one person makes a commitment on the CONDITION that the other does (i.e. “I will love you if you love me” or “I will be faithful if you meet my needs”). In fact we deny this in the “vows” when we confess before “witnesses” that it is for “better or for worse” etc. This would underestimate the element of faith and RISK in every relationship. A contractual understanding of marriage is a perversion of the marriage.
In business contracts, the “conditions” of the contract are specifically calculated to reduce the RISK and potential cost to one party (say a bank) and this essentially eliminates the element of faith/trust. This can be good practice in some areas of life and there is nothing wrong per se with a contract in some areas of life. But what a wrong world it would be if parenthood or marriage was reduced to such concepts. Parents do have obligations to their children but those commitments are not conditioned on the child’s gratitude, behavior or anything else. Ideally the child will grow to love and respect the parent. But only a fool would say that the parents obligation to the baby was conditioned upon the baby’s love and respect for the parent. In the marriage we build into our vows “in sickness and in health” and good times and in bad because the marriage is a covenant and not a contract. A husband should love and care for his wife even if she was never able to do anything at all … like Leviathan’s covenant with God. Biblical covenants have obligations but they are radically different than a contract. As Eichrodt stated so eloquently, biblical covenants exclude and protect biblical faith from the perversions of legalism and the distortion of the “relationship” the Bible sees creation having with the God of Israel. Biblical covenants are not contracts.
Covenants are Not Contracts
I believe that “covenant” is one of the fundamental concepts for understanding biblical faith whether in the so called Old Testament or the New Testament. Covenant pushes us out of legal categories and into relational ones. God’s covenants are all – without a single exception – a matter of his grace. The covenant making God is the “self-giving” God. He gives of himself, he coughs up the price from himself, for the sake of his creation. Covenant calls us into a binding and exclusive relationship with the One who loves us with a passion that even eternity will not reveal the depth. A healthy, passionate, marriage is indeed the best commentary on the meaning of what covenant means. I feel sorry for the wife that has a husband that believes he has a contract with her – what a miserable life. I feel sorry for those who so misrepresent biblical faith by claiming we have contracts with God.
God has no contracts but he does have covenants of love. Understanding this truth can change the way we read the Bible.