What is a covenant and how does it work?
It is important to appreciate the fact that Israel’s law is given in the form of a covenant. What do we mean by this? A covenant is a formal, legal contract between two parties. There were in the ancient world what are called parity covenants in which an individual might make a formal, legal contract with another individual in business or commerce of some kind. But the kind of contract that the Bible presents to us, which we refer to as “covenant” is a contract that God makes with His people, Israel, in the form that is described as a suzerainty covenant. It is a covenant that we know by example from the ancient world.
God chose to deliver his law to Israel in a format that they would be familiar with. They would not find it mysterious or strange or novel or odd; it was something they knew that existed in the ancient world. He was in the position of the Great Sovereign, the Suzerain, and they were in the position of his subordinates or vassals. He had delivered them from Egypt; He had rescued them from 430 years of abject slavery. He had protected them miraculously. He had benefited them while they were oppressed so that they grew and had a greater growth rate than that of the Egyptians and did not have to experience the plagues even though the Egyptians had to experience all of them. Were spared from the death of the firstborn in the family which the Egyptians so agonizingly had to endure and so on. This meant that He was the one who had given them really everything. He was the Suzerain, they were the vassal. They were dependent upon Him. If He did not protect them, they were almost entirely vulnerable. That is illustrated by the times that they went to war and could not win against other forces except as God supernaturally aided them. So they were dependent upon them. He said, “I will bless you, protect you, I’ve done it so far, I’ll continue to do it and you, in return, are obligated to me to do certain things.”
Now, we understand contracts. We understand that if you make a contract with a bank to borrow money, you make certain promises to the bank. That you will make a payment periodically and that eventually you will pay back the whole amount plus interest. That if you default on those payments, there will be penalties of various kinds. If you try to cheat the bank there will be penalties of various kinds and so on. The bank in turn promises you that they will give you a lot of money that you do not have, that they have that you need, and that is what the loan is. And moreover, they promise that they will let you pay it back gradually, etc. once it is paid off they will not have any further claim against you. So the bank makes certain promises; you make certain promises and that is the way a covenant works.
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