Lecture 33: Genre of Covenant (Part 1) | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 33: Genre of Covenant (Part 1)

Course: Biblical Hermeneutics

Lecture: Genre of Covenant (Part1)


Let me read you something from Karl Barth. Karl Barth is the greatest theologian of the 20th century. It doesn’t mean you agree with him in everything he says, but his impact was greater than any theologian.  If you have to agree with somebody completely – the greatest theologian in my opinion in the 20th century has to be me. I am the only one I agree with completely.  [Laughter in audience]

Even then I have debates with myself. I don’t know. So I am not sure.

But KB is certainly the most significant and the most prolific writer in the 20th century.  On December 31st, 1962 he preached this sermon in Basel Prison.  Between 1954 and 1964, he visited the prisons some 28 times and would preach in the prison. Think of the man who was the most busy theologian of the 20th century but he still goes to prison and preaches to prisoners.

“‘My grace is sufficient for thee.’ 2 Corinthians 12:9. This is a very short text. A mere 6 words. The shortest I have ever preached on. The brevity is an advantage for you. You can contain it better. I might say in passing that every time I come here I am very concerned that no so much my sermon but that the text that it follows may really sink in and go with you. This time then my grace is sufficient for thee. The wonderful spice of its saying lies in its brevity. The 6 words are enough. Some of you may have heard that in the last 40 years I have written many books. Some large. I will freely and frankly and gladly admit that these 6 words say much more and much better things than all the heaps of paper with which I have surrounded myself with. They are enough which cannot be said even remotely in my books. What may be good in my books can be at most that from afar. They point to what these 6 words say. When my books are long since outdated and forgotten and book in the world with them, these words will shine with everlasting fullness. ‘My grace is sufficient for thee.’”

[Prayer]
Father in heaven we are thankful for a man who had such fame and notoriety and yet despite all his writings he knew that these 6 words of scripture were far more important than all that he had ever written.  Grant our father too that as we become more successful in the ministries that we are in and if fame should happen to come our way that we can learn from Karl Barth and his humility. And also be interested in only one thing. To have all people know that your grace is sufficient for all. Bless us now as we meet for we meet in Jesus’ name. Amen.

We have an exam next week. I will do it again like we did it the last time. As soon as you come to class we will have the exam first. Then afterwards we will have some more material and we will have that and then we will have one more day of class on the 3rd of December and then we will have the final exam. There s no class on the 19th because of various society meetings and then there is no class the following week because its Fall reading days. So after next week we have one more full day of class and then the final exams. We will talk about the examination later during the second hour. The second part of our time together.

We want to talk today about the genre of a covenant. The genre of a covenant. During the latter part of the 19th, early 20th century, a lot of work was done by what was the History of Religions school. 

And this school sought in the Middle East, parallels to Biblical texts. And this was needed and helpful. Sometimes you get carried away and if you see anything that looked related to what the Old Testament says, the New Testament says… well all Old Testament all New Testament referred to this kind of thing. Somebody referred to this kind of a thing as parallelomania, where people got crazy with parallels and all sorts of kinds of things.

An example of this that Dr. Bruce Metzger pointed out and that was in Mithraism which was one of the mystery religions at the time of our Lord. They found in one of the Mithrains, which was a cave where they worshipped, a carving of a picture in which people were meeting together and a loaf of bread was being passed and on it was the cross and someone went absolutely bonkers on it.  “See the whole doctrine of the cross of Jesus Christ goes back to Mithraism! You see here is the cross and Christianity borrows all of its ideas and understanding of the cross of Jesus from Mithraism.” Well after a while it became clear that nothing of the sort was true.

That the reason there was a cross on the bread was that it was a lot easier to break the bread if you had divided it into parts with the cross. You could break them in half a lot easier.  So there was a lot of this silliness going on, but a lot of very useful materials that were parallel were also being found. 

And they found in the A.N.E. – capital letters - Ancient Near Eastern literature, the especially the Hittites which were a group in Southeastern Turkey, a particular kind of covenant form, which soon as they began to see this, looked very much like the Biblical form of a covenant.  It was a covenant that looks very much like the one we have in the Old Testament.

When you have a covenant, you have agreements between people. There are essentially two kinds of covenants.

One is the Parity Covenant. Par – You shoot par in golf, you equals what the golf course says you should shoot. That’s a covenant made between equals. It’s the covenant that you may make among yourselves on something like that. You have various covenants in certain residential areas when you move in.  Everybody who moves in agrees and has a certain kind of covenant together like you can’t build a moveable garage in your lot or something like that or you can’t. We lived in an area where you couldn’t hang up your clothes to dry in your backyard. That’s a kind of a crazy one. Yeah. Well. Everybody who lived in that community had that kind of agreement. That’s a kind of a parity agreement.

But there was an another kind of agreement and it was named after the rulers that made this agreement. And the Suzerain was a – think of him as a king. And there was a Suzerainty treaty covenant or treaty form which was made.  It was not one made between equals. It was made by the Suzerain, the king and you could either take it or leave it.  It had to be a gracious covenant and people would generally accept it. But it was a one way covenant.  It was from the king to the people. Kind of like agreements we make in class about grades here.  They are not Parity covenants, they are Suzerain covenants. You have a Prof and the students.

Now, in these Suzerain covenants, as they looked at them, they noticed that it had a form very much like the kind of covenant form that would be found in the Old Testament - a Suzerain covenant form. Covenant treaty agreement, but let us use the term covenant because it is a term frequently found in the Bible.

Now, one of the great tragedies that we have is that, I think most people in the Baptist church tend to [? – hard to hear] what a New Covenant is.  And it plays a very very important role in the Bible.

Covenants – we don’t talk much as Baptists about covenants.  If you are Reformed you talk about covenants. If you are Presbyterian, you might talk about covenants. But Baptists don’t talk about covenants usually in our teaching and our preaching and the like. But, the Bible starts out with a covenant.  It starts out with a covenant where in Genesis 17, God makes a covenant with a man named Abram or Abraham.  In the 17th chapter of Genesis,

1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram,
and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be
blameless. 2 And I will make my covenant between me and you, and
will make you exceedingly numerous."

3 Then Abram fell on his face;and God said to him, 4 "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your
name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you
the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly
fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.
7 I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring
after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to
be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8 And I will give to you,
and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien,
all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their
God."
9 God said to Abraham, "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you
and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is
my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your
offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You
shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the
covenant between me and you. 12 Throughout your generations every
male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old,
including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your
money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. 13 Both the
slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be
circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting
covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the
flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my
covenant."

Now here is the beginning of the covenant that God makes with Abraham and through Abraham, his offspring and then into the New Testament.  Notice, its not Abraham and God haggling over terms of the covenant.   It is a gracious covenant, but it is made one-sidedly.  God dictates the terms.  Abraham can reject it, but there is no give or take in working out agreements other than that.

This is the way the covenant is and works and operates.  It is from top down.  Now that covenant is remembered in the book of Exodus.  Exodus begins that way.  In the 2nd chapter of the book of Exodus, we have in verses 23-25, that the people of Israel are in bondage, they are suffering and in chapter 2, verse 23,

“23 After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. 24 God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 25 God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”

So what is going to happen now in the Exodus is due to the fact that He had made a covenant with Abraham and He remembers that covenant.  That covenant continues throughout the Old Testament and then when we get to the New Testament, we get to Mark, chapter 14 and we have one of the two rites of the Christian church.

22 While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing
it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, "Take; this is my body." 23
Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all
of them drank from it. 24 He said to them, "This is my blood of the
covenant, which is poured out for many. 25 Truly I tell you, I will never
again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in
the kingdom of God."

Then we have in the book of Acts, Peter preaching and he has preached on the Day of Pentecost,  and in the next chapter he is in the temple witnessing and he makes these comments, beginning at Acts 3:22

He quotes the Old Testament and he says,

22 Moses said, 'The Lord your God will raise up for you
from your own people a prophet like me. You must listen to
whatever he tells you. 23 And it will be that everyone
who does not listen to that prophet will be utterly rooted out of the
people.' 24 And all the prophets, as many as have spoken, from Samuel
and those after him, also predicted these days. 25 You are the
descendants of the prophets and of the covenant that God gave to
your ancestors, saying to Abraham, 'And in your descendants all the
families of the earth shall be blessed.' 26 When God raised up his
servant, he sent him first to you, to bless you by turning each of you
from your wicked ways."

The Gospel message is that God has remembered the covenant that He made with the people of Israel.  And He sent His Messiah.  And then Paul, when He tells the Corinthians about the Lord’s Supper, he says, this cup is the New Covenant in my blood, do this as often you drink it, in remembrance of me.

So the essence at the heart of a biblical message is this idea of a covenant.  A covenant that God unilaterally makes with His people.  A covenant that looks like in its form – the Suzerain covenant form found in the ancient near eastern literature.

Now, lets look at a couple of covenants and see the material that makes up such a covenant.  A covenant usually begins and we have a covenant form in the book of Exodus, when God renews His covenant with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. Usually there is a preamble in which the person who makes this covenant identifies himself.  And in Exodus 20:1, God identifies Himself with the people of Israel and He says the following … uh actually in verse 2, this is 20.  Then God spoke all these words. 

“I am the Lord your God.”

So the covenant maker identifies Himself in the preamble. I am the Lord – the name that God gives to Moses to identify Himself, the I AM THAT I AM,  Yahweh the Lord, whose name you are not to take in vain. 

“I am the Lord your God.”

And now you have the covenant maker identifying Himself.  The word LORD in capital letters is the way we translate the Tetragrammaton, the sacred name for God, “Yahweh”.

Now after the identification of the preamble there is usually a historical prologue.  Sometimes – you will see in the next example, there is a very extensive and lengthy prologue. In this verse it is “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

So the covenant maker identifies Himself and tells what He has graciously done for this people, which they were not in any way deserving of.  They had no prior claim to this, but nonetheless this is what the covenant maker did. 

“I brought you out of the land of Egypt. Out of the house of slavery.”

There is always a gracious description of the character of God.  Now after this prologue and preamble, there are various stipulations that are given and the stipulations here are what we call the 10 commandments.

3 you shall have no other gods before me.

4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of
anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or
that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them
or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing
children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth
generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the
thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my
commandments.

7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God,
for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall
labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the
LORD your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your
daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien
resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and
earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day;
therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long
in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

13 You shall not murder.

14 You shall not commit adultery.

15 You shall not steal.

16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

17 You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your
neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything
that belongs to your neighbor.

Now here you have various stipulations that are given. Now please note – the stipulations are not given in order that God will make a covenant.  The stipulations are not for people to enter into this covenant.  Because the covenant’s already been made.

Those – you already have in historical prologue what God has done and has entered into this covenant with them so stipulations are not to enter into covenant but to remain faithful within the covenant already.

So what does that tell you already about faith and works here? The covenantal relationships exists before the command to keep the commandments. As one might say “the stipulations are to keep you within the covenant.” Not to cause you to enter into it. The covenant has been made graciously and now this is what you must do to remain in that covenant and faithful in it.

Oftentimes there is a provision for a continual reading of the covenant. In Exodus 24:7, we have something like this:

Then Moses took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of
the people; and they said, "All that the LORD has spoken we will do,
and we will be obedient."

So you have here, provision for the continual reading of that covenant to remind you are the people of the covenant and the terms of the covenant.