Old Covenant Part 2

By Sean Finnegan

We pick up where we left off last time and cover the rest of the old covenant, stepping back to view it from a broad perspective.  In this session we’ll provide answers to the following: What is the old covenant as a whole? What is at the core of the old covenant? How did God enter into agreement with Israel’s second generation?

1. Definition: What Is the Old Covenant?

Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy contain the historical circumstances, instruction, legal parameters, blessings, and curses in God’s covenant with Israel (the old covenant).  Although God had entered into a covenant with Israel at Sinai, forty years later he entered into the covenant a second time.  Peter Gentry explains:

“[T]he directions or instruction (tora) encoded in the covenant at Moab cover more adequately the situations of life in Canaan than the directions or instruction (tora) encoded in the covenant at Sinai.  Thus the instruction in Deuteronomy reshapes the covenant at Sinai for life in the land.  There is a whole new context and situation even though it is the same covenant.” [1]

Structure of Deuteronomy as Suzerain-Vassal Treaty

  1. Preamble                                        1.1-5
  2. Historical prologue                   1.6-4.4
  3. Stipulations                                  4.45-26.19
  4. Document clause                       27.1-10
  5. Appeal to witness                      27.11-26
  6. Blessings and curses                28.1-68
  7. Solemn oath ceremony           29.1-30.20

Whereas modern constitutions focus on the function of the government and the rights of the people, the covenant God made with Israel is much more comprehensive, spanning Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  Furthermore, these books contain a good deal of historical narrative and heart language interwoven with the legal material.  Though some Christians have traditionally segmented the old covenant into ceremonial, civil, and ethical laws, these categories present problems.  A better delineation scheme sees this covenant in terms of (1) way of life, (2) laws to obey, and (3) worship system.  Regardless of how one divides it up, the result of God’s covenant with Israel was nothing short of the creation of a nation.  Israel would enjoy not only the solidarity of a shared history and loyalty due to ethnic ties, but also a bond as a result of the unique way of life God was calling them to live.

2. Heart: What Is at the Core of the Old Covenant?

At the very core of the covenant is love (chesed) and faithfulness (emet).  We see this clearly in the most important commandment in all of Scripture—the shema (Deuteronomy 6.4-15).

Deuteronomy 10.12-17 contains further heart language, including both how God set his affection on Israel and that he wants them to circumcise their hearts rather than stiffening their necks.

From Genesis to Deuteronomy, we find God’s desire repeatedly expressed as, “I will be your God and you will be my people.”  (Genesis 17.7-8; Exodus 6.7; Leviticus 26.12; Deuteronomy 4.20; 7.6; 14.2; 26.17-18; 27.9; 28.9; 29.13)  This is covenant language par excellence.

What God wanted in the beginning, he still wanted when he called Abraham.  He still wanted it when he called Israel to be his people.  His desire is to have a people in a committed loving and obedient relationship with him.

3. Agreement: How Was the Agreement Made?

Deuteronomy 26.16-19 briefly summarizes the covenantal agreement.  Steven
Guest explains:

“It is at this moment that the suzerain Yahweh steps forward, and—as anticipated by and as required by this solemn and sacred ceremony—makes his gracious and awesome offer: “I will be your God.”  But his declaration does not stop there.  He continue by asserting fully the stipulations commensurate with the obligation which he has assumed: “You will walk in my ways, you will keep my statutes, my commandments, and my ordinances, and you will listen to (obey) my voice.”

In response—recognizing the incredible privilege of having Yahweh as their God—vassal Israel acknowledges its unique relationship that is the result of Yahweh’s ancient oath to the patriarchs and states, “We are your people of special possession, just as you promised us; we will keep all your commandments.  You will set us on high above all the nations you have made—for your praise and fame and honor; and we will be a people holy to Yahweh our God, just as you promised.

Thus this text reveals that Yahweh initiates the covenant by committing himself to be Israel’s God and by reiterating the attending stipulations of that covenant.  Believing Yahweh’s promise…to make them his people of special possession, Israel verbally commits herself to keep all Yahweh’s commandments.”[2]

After Moses spells out the blessings and curses, the time came to solemnize the covenant.  (Deuteronomy 29.2-3, 10-15; 30.15-20)

Once entered, God sees this covenant with Israel very much like a marriage.  In fact, the book of Hosea makes this understanding explicit as God calls his bride a prostitute for cheating on him with the gods of the nations.  This ironclad covenantal heart-commitment accounts for the torrid language we find throughout the prophets as they give voice to God’s heartbreak and jealous fury.

Still, much is left unclear at this point in history.  How will God work through the offspring of the woman to bring crushing defeat to the serpent of old?  How will he fulfill his promise to Abraham to make his descendants a blessing to the nations?  For these questions and more, we must wait for our next session when we consider the Davidic Covenant.

[1] Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), p. 437.

[2] Steven Ward Guest, “Deuteronomy 26:16-19 as the Central Focus of the Covenantal Framework of Deuteronomy” (PhD diss., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2009), p. 122.

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