God’s Covenant Within the Pentateuch

Like most Baptists, I grew up with Dispensational Theology as the only theology. I had never even heard of Covenantal Theology. I was intrigued with the books of Clarence Larkin and J. Dwight Pentecost. It was all I knew; and I consumed the theology. Initially, it was all about the end-times; after all, what else was there? We could be raptured at any moment! Yet, as I went into young adulthood, I realized there was more. It was a whole way of reading the Bible, of understanding the text, especially the covenants and how God related with humanity–but predominately, still the end-times (for me personally). Here is my confession: As I was reading The Left Behind series, I began to have my doubts about the eschatology of the Dispensational Theology. I knew what I was reading was fiction, but as I was growing in my studies of the rest of Scripture, I could not jive what I was reading in that series with what the Bible was saying. At that point I went on a theological journey and discovered Covenant Theology. I read books like Far As the Curse is Found by Michael Williams. I read the covenants for what they were,  without preconceived ideas (at least tried), and discovered that they read differently than I was ever taught. Williams (following McWilliams) would argue that there was an Adamic Covenant but rather than it being a covenant of works, it was indeed a covenant of grace. “Adam was required to obey the covenant instruction not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and Adam’s failure to obey would bring sin and death. But the sufficient condition for the covenant and Adam’s life within it was the father and kingly favor of God. What I am suggesting here is that life in covenant relationship with God was something that Adam enjoyed by God’s grace” (Michael D. Williams, Far As the Curse is Found, (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2005), 72). The sign (and blessing) within the Adamic Covenant (as all covenants have their signatures) was the tree of life itself (ibid., 51). Being a covenant of grace did not necessitate it to be an everlasting or unconditional covenant however. Upon Adam’s fall, the tree of life (sign/blessing) was forbidden and eventually removed, only to reappear in Revelation 22 when all things are restored and even made greater. I bring this part up simply because Alexander and Baker seemed to dismiss entirely the idea of an Adamic Covenant (Alexander and Baker, Dictionary: Pentateuch, 141-142), but instead wrote and argued against a creation covenant (Ibid., 139-143).

From here one would go to the Noahic Covenant, which as indicated by Alexander and Baker, was a retelling of the creation story (Ibid., 323-324), which would give credibility to a covenant with Adam. If Noah–the one from whom all life would come–received a covenant, would not the original one from whom all life would come also have received a covenant, even if not explicitly laid out? It would seem, at minimum, plausible. The Noahic Covenant was, like the Adamic, a covenant of grace. It’s sign and blessing was that of a rainbow. Unlike Adam’s covenant, this one is eternal. “God promises here are not contingent upon human response or behavior,” (Ibid., 140). However, like the Adamic, there are calls to obedience: no eating of blood, multiply and fill the earth (subdue it). “Thus, the primary obligation imposed on humanity is that of fulfilling the role appointed by God in the beginning,” (Ibid.).

Both Williams (p. 100) and Alexander and Baker (p. 143) would agree that the Abrahamic Covenant builds off the Noahic and the Mosaic/Sinaitic builds from the Abrahamic. One of the issues that I struggled with long ago was that of the Abrahamic Covenant not truly being a covenant of grace since to be part of the covenant one, if he were male, must be circumcised. If he was not, he was cut off from the people and the covenant. If, according to Alexander and Baker, God was narrowing the focus from filling the earth to simply making a nation that would bring blessing to the earth (Ibid., 356), this would seem to make perfect sense. God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants cannot be circumvented by allowing anyone to come in anytime they please, nor allowing anyone to stay in when they will not abide. Whether one sees Genesis’s chapters 12, 15, and 17 as one covenant expansion or as separate covenants, chapter 17 ultimately includes all the substance of the previous two (seed, land, and blessing), and incorporates circumcision as both a sign and blessing.  The sign to remind the male of God’s promises and a blessing for without it all the promises would be removed as he would be cut off. Thus, while the Abrahamic Covenant was one of grace in the same manner as the Adamic and Noahic (no one compelled God to make a covenant, but He did so out of grace), it was not unconditional, and so not in any real way, eternal (according to man’s standard).

It is not difficult, therefore, to see how the Mosaic Covenant is an extension or expansion of the Abrahamic. In one sense, one could say that it was a reissuance of Abraham’s to the entire nation, however in another sense, the Mosaic is better thought of as being encompassed within the Abrahamic (Ibid., 150). The sign of the Mosaic Covenant (as well as its blessing) is that of the Sabbath rest, not only Saturdays, but any and all Sabbaths. “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I the LORD, sanctify you,” (Ex 31:13, ESV; italics mine). Once again, to break the Sabbath is cause for being cut off from the covenant and thus the blessing. The Sabbath blessing was not the only blessing, but it was a sign of the blessed rest in God. One should not forget that according to 2 Chronicles 36:20-21, the Israelites were taken into Babylon so that the land could enjoy its Sabbaths that the people never kept; thus, not keeping the sign and so not keeping the blessings, but rather being cut off.

What is interesting is that Alexander and Baker only mention the Suzerain treaty in passing.  Williams (citing G. E. Mendenhall) notes six components of such a treaty paralleling with Exodus:

  1. Preamble – Ex. 20:2 “I am the LORD your God”
  2. Historical Prologue – Ex. 20:2 “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”
  3. Covenant Stipulations – Ex. 20:3-17 (The Ten Commandments)
  4. Public reading of the document – Ex. 24:1-11
  5. Deposit of the tablets – Ex. 25:16 (often 2 copies were made, 1 for the king and 1 for the vassal, leaving the possibility that the two tablets in Moses’s hands were identical copies rather than 5 to 5 or 4 to 6 commandments on each)
  6. Giving of blessings/cursings depending on adherence – the rest of the Old Testament (but predicted in Deuteronomy 28-30)
    (Williams, Far As the Curse is Found, 141-142)

Williams also pointed out that in giving this covenant, Israel was agreeing to have God as their King and they would be His servants (vassals – a kingdom of priests and holy nation). At the same time, God covenanted with the people to “fulfill his promised role as covenant overlord to his people,” (Ibid., 143).

Taking all this information together, one may define covenant as an initiative by a loving and gracious God to an undeserving people to show that love and grace through blessings, protection, and discipline. Each covenant goes deeper and wider, becoming deeply rich in its implications and widely spread encompassing 2 persons, then 8, then a nation, finding its ultimate and truest form in Jesus Christ given to all who believe.

Once again, you get to enjoy what I am studying in my Old Testament Survey class. Feel free to respond. I’d love to hear from you, even if it is about covenants.

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