The Law: Covenant Structure

Course: Old Testament Survey

Lecture: The Law: Covenant Structure


I. Covenant Structure

Let me now talk about the structure of the covenant, which is a far bigger issue in one sense than just the way the book of Exodus is organized. In the ancient world there were many covenants.

A. What is a covenant? A covenant is an agreement, a legal agreement, a binding agreement, that two people or groups make. There were many covenants between individuals. There were many covenants between whole nations. There are often covenants between a great king and the vassal kings that he had conquered and let live and were to exist under his domination or control. There are all kinds of ways you can have covenants but you have two persons or groups and they hammer out some kind of a covenant, an agreement.

B. In the ancient world covenants tended to have these six parts: preamble, prologue, stipulations, document clause, witnesses, and sanctions. Let me describe these and then talk about how they fit with regard to the material we are looking at today because really everything in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy somehow fits within this. Virtually everything in those four books. The book of Genesis is a little more special but virtually everything in the final four books of the first five, the Pentateuch, the books of Moses, is in the category.

1. A preamble is something that identifies who the parties to the covenant are. That is all the preamble is. It just tells you, “This is a covenant between x and y.” A preamble can be as simple as, “I’m the Lord God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, that is who I am, and you are my people.” Just that simple. Or just by saying, “I brought you up out of the land of Egypt,” that tells you who is who.

2. The prologue is a little bit of background information as to how it is that they came to this place. Really you can regard the first half of Exodus as prologue, some people have. They have called it the “Kingdom Prologue” because it tells you the story of how in the world thousands of people gathered at a mountain in the Sinai wilderness and became the people of the true and Living God. Where did they come from? Why were they there? How did they get there? How did they know enough to show up? The answer is told to you in Exodus 1-19. They started out by being a small group of Israelites, just seventy in all, and they came down to Egypt. The stories of the latter part of the book of Genesis are told in a very summational fashion in early Exodus. The things that you have read took place and finally a huge group grew up and then they were persecuted and suppressed but God protected them and delivered them, etc. Exodus 12 tells us that a large, mixed multitude went out with them, so the people who left Egypt were not just descendents of Jacob but were from various different ethnic groups. They all came together at Mount Sinai and this was all part of the plan of God. He had done it, he had arranged it. He had sent Moses, in the first place, to lead them out. It is something God put together. We find out that, in fact, God is saying, in effect, “You’re going to be my people because I’ve arranged the whole thing. I arranged for you to grow; I arranged for you to become a huge people; I arranged for others to join with you as they saw my mighty power among you and said I want in on that, I want to leave Egypt and join these guys; I sent Moses to deliver you; I brought you here to this place. So I am telling you now what you have to do to fulfill your part of covenant.” Thus the Pentateuch, as we have it, really is organized as what some scholars then call a suzerainty covenant. Suzerain is an old word for a powerful king. Not just any king. There are a lot of very weak and ineffectual kings but a suzerain is a great king over large territory and usually over some other lesser governors or kings or something. A suzerainty covenant is the type of covenant that is given by a superior to a group of inferiors. That is the idea. The Israelites did not say, “Okay, here are our proposals, what do you think? You give us ours and we’ll exchange them and work them over and see if we can hammer something out here at the bargaining table.” It was not that way. No, God said, “I’ve done all of it for you. You wouldn’t be here; you would still be stuck in Egypt as slaves. I’ve delivered you. I’ve done it in a way that you know is miraculous and supernatural. I’ve brought you here to this place. I’ve protected you all along the way. I’ve guided you with a pillar of fire and cloud and I’ve sent my angel before you and on and on and on, therefore I’m telling you. You are here all because of me and I’m giving you My law.” Still, though, it is an agreement. It is not just that God says, “Since I did those things you owe me the following and I’m through. That is it, I’m not giving you anything else, I gave you all I needed to.” No, God says, “I will do many things for you. You do these things for me as my vassals, inferiors, and I as your suzerain will do the following things for you.” This is something that the Israelites knew about. They knew about these kinds of covenants from Egypt and from Canaan and from generally living in the ancient Near East. They had heard about them, it was part of the general cultural knowledge of the day. It was not mysterious to them. It is like being somewhere and seeing a boat pull up and somebody says, “Come on, I’ll give you a ride.” You do not have to say, “What is that you’re riding on and what do you mean ride and won’t the water swallow you?” No, you can jump on a boat and go for ride if you want. People understand that all around the world, it is not some mystery. Likewise, in ancient times, these suzerainty covenants were well-known. There were probably parallels to them at almost every level. Probably in any village there would be some of these covenants. Families made them. People made them. Neighbors made them for various reasons and so they were very used to this whole thing. The Israelites knew and understood and received by God’s grace their constitution as a people in a form that was very familiar to them. The covenant contains preamble and prologue. There are two ways to look at it. You can say, basically, it is the book of Exodus or some people have said, “You know, you can really just say that the first few words of chapter 20 can be considered a kind of summation of both preamble and prologue.” In other words, verse 2, look at chapter 20:2. “I’m the Lord your God”, that tells you who I am and who you are, “who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” That again tells you who I am and you are. “I brought you out of Egypt,” that is where you were, you were slaves there and I rescued you from it. It does tell you in a summational fashion what the first nineteen chapters tell you.

3. Then come the stipulations. They are the biggest block. The stipulations are the laws, all the various laws of all the various kinds. The 613 commandments come in at this point. In any covenant the main part is the stipulations that tell you what the agreement is supposed to be. You do this; here are the laws, plenty of reminders. If you do this, I will bless you, I will protect you, I will watch over you, I will be your God, I will be among you, and give you good things. There are all kinds of interaction throughout the laws in terms of stipulations. Then the three final points.

4. Sanctions. These are what if you know anything at all about behavior modification, operant conditioning, B.F. Skinner. How many of you have heard of B.F. Skinner? How many of you have had a course with B. F. Skinner? I did, I really did, he is quite a guy. I was a sophomore in college. You know there are various ways to punish and reward and reinforce and so on and God knew that before B. F. Skinner figured it out. God knew this in advance of B. F. Skinner, I am not kidding you. The sanctions are that.

a. The sanctions are promises of benefits that will come if you keep the covenant. “If you keep my covenant, here are the things you’ll get.” It is sort of like what we might the carrot in the pair, the carrot and the stick, when you think about motivating an animal.

b. The sanctions also contained curses. “Here are the bad things that will happen to you if you don’t keep my covenant.” That’s the stick.

If you are thinking of operant conditioning here are the positive reinforcements and here are the negative reinforcements and punishments as the curses. So the term blessings and curses is employed. It was employed in the ancient world; it was employed in God’s covenant with His people Israel, we use that terminology. If you want to just translate those into positive reinforcements and rewards as well as negative reinforcements and punishments. That is what they are.

5. There is also then a list of witnesses. Why? In the ancient covenants that were outside of the Bible, the Egyptian and Babylonian and so on, they would list various gods and goddesses and they would say, “Hey you gods and goddesses, keep an eye on this and if you see any of my people, my vassals, not obeying this I expect you to get them.” It was almost like a prayer to the gods to help the king, help the sovereign, enforce the covenant. In the case of the covenant that we have here at Mount Sinai the usual witnesses are “heaven and earth”, another merism. Remember merism from last week, the expression of totality by citation of polarity. If you site heaven and earth as a constant, Moses says, “I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you this day you break this covenant, says the Lord, you’re in trouble.” Heaven and earth means all creation. So in a way the witnesses most commonly sited for the covenant are everything. Everything is watching, all creation is watching. “You are the focus of all creation in regard to your being faithful to me in keeping this covenant.” This is a big thing in creation. This is a big focus. “Don’t blow it,” says the Lord.

6. Finally, the documentation. Here there is just provision made that each party has a copy of the agreement. You know if you get a car loan or something, they will have a copy and you will have a copy. It is not unusual. We have an analogy of this, it is perfectly normal. They did the same thing. The vassal got a copy and the sovereign got a copy. Here is where a little detail might be worth appreciating. We are told that Moses comes down from Mount Sinai with two tablets, right. Many people have said, “Oh gee, they must have been little tablets because you can get quite a bit on a tablet. Cuneiform, the kind of writing of that day, you can get a lot on there. They must have been awfully small tablets, you know, the kind of thing he could put in his vest pocket or something, because he only got five of them on one. The Ten Commandments aren’t that long; you can read them there in one chapter. He must have had five of them on one tablet and five on the other, right?” No, that is highly unlikely. It does not say that all ten were on both tablets but it certainly is, from everything we know about the ancient world, the only likely scenario. What does Moses do? It takes a little bit of time because it has to get built and all that. Basically, Moses brings down both copies, God’s copy and Israel’s copy, and he places them together. Where? In the Ark. If you did your reading for today you know the Ark was built and they had it as a symbol of the presence of God and the primary content of the Ark was the two tablets. The Ark represents the place where the covenant, that is what the tablets are, the Ten Commandments being the key terminology and key concepts of the covenant. The Ten Commandments are put together, both suzerain’s copy and vassal’s copy, so that together in one place is symbolized at least, and hopefully properly and effectively eluded to, but at least symbolized the fact that this covenant is what unites God and his people.

II. Covenant = Extended Kinship

Recently a well-known scholar, Frank Cross, has said the best way to think of covenant is this—extended kinship. I think that is very helpful. When I read that I said, “Wow, that’s good, I like that.” I have not been using that term all these years in teaching but you are the first Old Testament Survey group to get it. I just thought that that was very succinct and helpful. What is the point here? Always a covenant defines a relationship. A covenant brings people together. That is what a covenant does. It produces a connection. In the ancient world, yes, there were technically covenants that are sort of parallel to a mortgage or a car loan or something, there were those. But even those, nothing of the quality of the Old Testament covenant, do bring people together who otherwise have no business. Now suddenly, you deal with each other. If you get a car loan you are going to make payments every month; they are going to look for the payments in the mail. If you do not send the payments in, they are going to contact you; at first very graciously and then more and more strongly. Suddenly you have a connection. You are in each others’ face after a while. It is amazing how that works. So it is in a covenant. Cross says, really what covenants do is produce a kind of extended kinship. You are obviously not related genetically or related by family but it is as if you become family, you become close. There is a connection made when a covenant is entered into. He uses the analogy of kinship to describe it. The person with whom you have a covenant becomes a relative of yours. That language actually gets used in Scripture. That is one reason why I was so pleased to see this; it put a couple of things together for me. We have mention made in the prophetical books, Amos for example, of the covenant of brothers among nations. You say, “How are nations brothers?” But all of a sudden if you realize, of course, the basic overarching idea is that of kinship and nations can enter into covenants and function like brothers on a grand scale. This is kind of an analogy between brothers in a family and nations that are neighbor states of one another. Brother covenants with nations probably referred to covenants among nations that are neighbors and that is what is referred to in the particular case of Amos 2, for example. So it works on the international scale, it works in the sense of God and the Israelites. What does God say to them? “You are my people.” This is fleshed out more and more strongly in Scripture but there are various places where he refers to Israel as his son or calls himself their Father, etc. In the New Testament this idea that we are God’s kin, we are his relatives and part of his family, is introduced in the strongest possible way to the new covenant, really, truly makes us God’s children and Christ’s brothers and sisters. It is a great thing. So the concept extended kinship I think it is very useful. I am very grateful that Cross worded it that way and it is not terminology that I had heard. In his latest book, he says, “Hey listen, here is what I think we ought to be thinking about covenant. We ought to think of it as representing extended kinship.” It is his big point of this book. It is his big issue in his latest book that has just come out. I think it is true. It is a good, helpful way of thinking about what covenant is. I want to make a couple of distinctions here that I hope will also be helpful.

III. Hierarchy of the Law

This is the kind of thing that I believe helps people when they are trying to understand how the hierarchy works. What you really have is this—you have a hierarchy of two and then ten and then 601. What in the world am I talking about?

A. The two commandments that sum up all biblical law as Jesus himself points out are: “Love God with your whole heart,” which is interestingly from Deuteronomy 6:5 not one of the Ten Commandments. Notice that? Not in the Ten Commandments. And Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” These were recognized in Judaism even before New Testament times, we believe. How so? Remember the story where a scholar, a “lawyer”, a scribe, comes to Jesus and says, “What are the two great commandments?” Jesus says, “What do you think they are?” He knows the answer, he says, “Love the Lord your God and Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said, “That’s right.” Then the guy doesn’t know what to say. He was trying to trip Jesus up and Jesus said, “Yeah, you got it.” So he says, “Well, who is your neighbor?” That gives Jesus the chance to tell the story of the good Samaritan that we have in Luke 10. He tells you, of course, your neighbor is anybody in need. To be a neighbor is to help people with needs. You are a need-helper, a need-meeter. That’s what you are, anybody, friend, foe, fellow believer, nonbeliever, whatever. But anyway, Jesus makes it clear reflecting what people were seeing anyway. This was commonplace knowledge, apparently, in Judaism that, of course, these two commandments really do capture the essence of all the law and the prophets. It is as if you were saying, “If you get these two commandments, all other commandments are footnotes to these; all the things the prophets say are footnotes to these; the whole rest of the Old Testament are footnotes to these.”

B. Then you have the ten. Now we call these the Ten Commandments. Do you know they are never called the Ten Commandments in the Bible. They are called the Ten Words. Special distinction is given to them. These are the Ten Words because they do occupy a particular category. They are the ones that are given directly by God; God writes them on the tablets. Everything else Moses hears, comes down, writes, teaches the people, and so on, Moses is the intermediary but God directly writes the Ten Words, and they are called words, debarim (dabar) in Hebrew, rather than commandments, mitswoth (mitzvah) or hoq, the two main words for commandments in Hebrew. That is a really interesting thing. Just a little terminological clue that there is something very special about them. If you will look at them the first four are describing what it is to love God with your whole heart. The first four commandments are, indeed, about loving God. Let’s look at those real quickly in Exodus 20. “Have no other Gods before me,” verse 3. “Don’t make any idols,” 4 to 6. “Don’t misuse the name of the Lord your God,” verse 7, and “Honor the Sabbath day, keep it holy, it is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.” Those are laws that focus on how you are to serve God, how you relate to Him. The final six focus on loving neighbor as self. So they go to the Leviticus 19:18 summation. “Honor father and mother. Don’t murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. Don’t covet.” These are about how you relate to people. The great division of the two great commandments then is reflected in a nice ratio. It does not have to be absolutely even; you’ve got four of one kind and six of another.

C. Then after that you have the remaining 601, some of them apodictic and some casuistic; that gives you all kinds of paradigms from which, again, you are following the ten. So in the 601, you are just trying to duplicate what is in the ten. You are just trying to specify in a particular instance what the ten tells you. The ten are just telling you what the two tell you.

D. Now this is interesting, very interesting, because lots of people will say, “There is none of this in the New Testament, we don’t have any law.” In fact, some New Testament believers got that misimpression. Paul had to deal with this constantly. Parts of several of his letters are devoted to telling people, “Watch out, you are being told that there is no law obligation on your part and you’re being sold a bill of goods by false teachers. They are telling you another gospel. They are mixing you up. Don’t fall for it.” Why? Because the two great commandments are certainly reiterated in the New Covenant. Are they not? Jesus himself says, “Hey this is it.” Paul mentions both of them in various ways. Paul says at the end of Galatians, “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” That means meet each others’ needs. That is what the commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself” means, that fulfills the law of Christ. He knew that Christ had taught those. Furthermore, the Ten Commandments or the Ten Words, but we so often call them the Ten Commandments so I will stay with it, the Ten Commandments are also reiterated in the New Testament in various ways. It would take a while to show you all that but you will see it. Even the Sabbath law, Paul says, “One person regards one day the same, all days the same, one person sets the Sabbath but you are still supposed to rest.” Rest and worship are still big, big parts of New Testament teaching. In fact, in the book of Acts in chapter 6 there is a place where the apostles are worried that if they have to get into any kind of food distribution they will neglect the ministry of the word in prayer, the ministry of the word in worship. They are afraid that it will prevent them from leading and giving Sabbath leadership, worship leadership, as they want to give. In addition you could argue also that there is one more. You could actually say there are twelve commandments that are renewed from the Old Testament and there is, in a sense, one more and that is because you have John 13:34 where Jesus says, “I’ll give you a new commandment, love one another.” I do not really think it is a new commandment, I think it is a way of making sure that people do not think that “love your neighbor as yourself” does not apply right within the church. I think that is what He is doing. It is not really a new commandment but he says it that way in John. “I will give you a new commandment, ‘Love one another the way I have loved you, love one another.’ This is how everybody will know you are my disciples if you love one another.” If you wanted to you could argue, “Well, there is kind of thirteen commandments in the New Covenant.” The key is that if these twelve are renewed in the New Covenant as I assure you they are, you are going to see them in various ways. Jesus mentions some, the apostles in their writings mention some. In total you can spot the Ten Commandments and certainly the two great ones. Then really the basics of the Old Covenant, the important overarching pricipial, crucial paradigms are actually shared by both covenants. Are they not? That is a nice interconnection. The great thing is, however, that the 601 are removed as specific things. What is in the 601? How to build the tabernacle takes up about eighty of them or something, I do not know what the number would be in total but it is an awful lot. We do not have to build a tabernacle anymore. How to sacrifice properly takes up a hundred of them surely. We do not have to do that anymore. How to handle civil law problems, what do you do with someone you catch breaking into a house and so on? That is different now because our kingdom is Christ’s kingdom and it is not of this world. He does not have a civil kingdom. So, we do not say that the church enforces laws like that. We live in whatever society we live in and those societies enforce laws. Civil law is now secularized; it is no longer “Israelitized” if you want to think of it that way. But we keep the essence of the Old Testament covenant. There is a general, “essential” unity between the Old Covenant and the New in that both have a legal obligation and these laws were not badly stated when God stated them. The two great commandments and the so-called Ten Commandments. They were not badly stated. They still have wonderful applicability and they are still very useful and they still give definition from which we can extrapolate, extrapolate from the paradigm, to good behavior. That is why Christians still teach the Ten Commandments. Martin Luther said in this regard, “Anybody who doesn’t teach the Ten Commandments ought to be kicked out of the church as an infidel. How can you possibly not teach the Ten Commandments?” It is so basic. You think you are Christians and your kids do not know the Ten Commandments. You better know those, they are basic. I think it is a guideline to us. Be sure that the kids in your Sunday School, the kids in your youth group, the adults in your church know the Ten Commandments and take them seriously. It is very, very important and valuable. They will provide real guidance for living a Christ-like life. These commandments help you follow Christ. They are not just some old, narrow restrictive things left over from a past era, they are good helpful guidelines from which you could extrapolate all kinds of good things.

IV. The Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is the biggest change from Old Covenant to New. That is the massive, dramatic, ontological, referring to the very being of people, adjustment from the old to the new. In the Old Covenant, did some people have the Holy Spirit indwell them, lead them, fill them? Sure. Mention is made of it in various places. Did most people have it? No. Most people knew the Holy Spirit’s influence mainly as part of their national identity. In the New Covenant every believer gets the Holy Spirit living in him or her. So much so that if anybody finds a disciple like Paul does in Acts 19 and 20 when he comes into Ephesus, finds believers there who had accepted John’s testimony about Christ but had not really been baptized in Christ, his first question is, he found some believers there and found they did not have the Holy Spirit, “You guys don’t have the Holy Spirit? What?” He says, “How were you baptized?” They said, “John’s baptism.” “Well, of course.” Then he baptized them in the name of Christ, they received the Spirit. That really is an indication of the way that we have got to remember how crucial the Holy Spirit is to the New Covenant. When Jeremiah says in Jeremiah 31, “I won’t have to write the law for them on tablets of stone, I can write it on their hearts.” I can put it in their brains, in other words. That is what the Holy Spirit does. The Holy Spirit interacts with your brain. That is one of the roles of the Holy Spirit.