Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM
The Abrahamic Covenant is a Covenant
Oaths are self-curses made before God or gods to establish the trustworthiness of promises or testimony. Oaths were religious tools for securing good faith between potential enemies so that they might have some relationship or safe interaction. Think of our common schoolyard oath, “Cross my heart and hope to die… stick a needle in my eye.”
We’ve all seen it. Someone is called to the stand to bear testimony in a court of law. They are asked to raise their right hand and swear an oath. “Do you swear that the evidence you are about to give will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” They usually reply, “I do.”
It begs the question as to the value of “testified under oath” when those giving testimonies don’t believe in God. The godless don’t fear the consequences of lying beyond the punishment that men might give them if they are caught lying.
What is a Covenant?
Now, Covenants are more elaborate literary frames around the making of an oath. Indeed, The Anchor Bible Dictionary defines covenant as, “an agreement enacted between two parties in which one or both make promises under oath to perform or refrain from certain actions stipulated in advance.”1
In the Ancient Near East, there were (1) different kinds of covenants, (2) different sorts of relationships between those who make them, (3) different categories of promises that covenants might contain, and even (4) different styles of establishing them. Thus, even though there are hundreds of covenants in Scripture, the average believer is not likely to be able to name more than two or three.2
Since the Abrahamic Covenant is so vital for the Jewish People, honored and sealed in the circumcision of their sons even today, let’s lay the foundation for understanding Ancient Near Eastern covenants in general, so that we can apply what we learn later to the Abrahamic Covenant.
The Shape of a Covenant
The standard covenant form, other than a basic oath, is called a Suzerain-Vassal Treaty. An agreement made between an emperor lord and a lesser ruler, nation, or person. Think agreement between Greater & Lesser.
There are basically seven aspects involved which may or may not all be included depending on the situation. The Mosaic covenant is a Suzerain-Vassal Treaty between Greater Yahweh and lesser Israel, so let’s use it as a running example.
- The party issuing the treaty has a preamble or introduction. See Exodus 20:1a “I am the LORD your God…”
- There is a historical prologue where the mutual history of those involved is written out. It is a big “You owe me” declaration. See Exodus 20:1b “…who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
- There were stipulations listed. See Exodus 1:2-17, which lists the ten commandments. They are expanded in the Book of the Covenant in Exodus 20:22-23:33 and expanded again through Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
- Provisions for deposit of the text. Copies of the treaty were usually kept in sacred places such as the shrines of the gods or goddesses invoked as witnesses. See how Yahweh gives two tablets of the ten commandments in Exodus 32 (one for each party) which Moses breaks over the incident of the golden calf. Yahweh gives two more in Exodus 34. Both sets are placed, according to Moses in Deuteronomy 10:5, inside the Ark of the Covenant before the Lord.
- Periodic public readings of the covenant were also arranged as a reminder to both parties of the specifics of the treaty. Deuteronomy 31:9-13 and 24-26 detail this reading as to occur every seven years. We actually find this reading in Joshua 8 and another renewal in Joshua 24.
- A list of divine witnesses was made. These witnesses were expected to wreak vengeance if an individual did not maintain his side of the treaty. The Exodus version has no other witnesses given, as Hebrews 6:13 notes, “For when God made a promise to Abraham since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself.” The Deuteronomy version, however, does call witnesses. Yahweh calls nature itself to witness against Israel should they prove unfaithful.
- Blessings and curses were evoked. If the covenant was not kept, these gods were to destroy the individual and all that belonged to him. If the individual kept the treaty, these gods were to bless and protect. Often curses were assumed in the way the covenant is enacted. Sometimes they are painfully drawn out as we find in Deuteronomy 28.
Types of Covenants
These covenants usually had some form of ratification ceremony, which was often directly related to aspects of the curses. These acts often symbolized the ingestion of the curses, such as in Exodus 24, we have the communal meal on the Holy Mount before a revelation of Yahweh. Other times they acted out the violence of the curses, which we will see in the Abrahamic Covenant when Yahweh passes between the severed parts of the animals. Sometimes public pronouncements were made to accept the consequences of the covenant, such as the cry of the people in Joshua 24:24, “The LORD our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey.”
Covenants can also be made between equals. These are usually covenants of peace, like an armistice, which we see between Laban and Jacob in Genesis 31 or even covenants of familial bond like we see when Jonathan gives David his robe and armor in 1 Samuel 18.
Covenant ratification acts, i.e., the professions or antics associated with actualizing a covenant often became shortcuts to enacting commonly known covenants where all the parties understood the stipulations, curses, and blessings without having to state them publically or write them.
So, covenants of peace and protection were automatically made by eating from someone else’s table… whatever form that table took. We see this all over scripture, but most explicitly in Joshua 9 when Israel covenanted peace and protection with the Gibeonites by tasting their disgusting rations. This is the reason for Saul’s reluctance to eat from the table of the witch of Endor, in 1 Samuel 28, and the cause of her insistence that he does… given his penchant for killing witches.
Sometimes you might find someone employing family language like father, brother, etc. We see this in 1 Kings 20:32 when the king of Israel declares of Ben-hadad, with whom he’d been fighting, “Does he still live? He is my brother.”
Sometimes simple gestures enact covenant bonds, like seizing hands, grabbing someone’s garment hem, or, as noted above, giving garments.
One special form is a covenant of grant, where a Suzerain bequeaths a blessing to a subordinate who has pleased him or her in some special way. There are three powerful examples of these in Scripture: The Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis 15 which is a land grant; the Phinehas Covenant in Numbers 25, which is a priest grant; and the Davidic Covenant in 2 Samuel 7, which is a dynasty grant. This is an important realization when trying to interpret them in Scripture and when trying to understand their impact on Biblical theology as a whole.
Look for this discussion to be continued in the second part of this blog.
1The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1st ed., s.v. “Covenant” (New York: Doubleday, 1992).
2We have yet another problem in this lack of awareness, which I cannot cover in full here. That is treating covenant like an idea and not a literary or social form. Here the believer confuses promises and covenants and finds covenant everywhere some agreement is worked out. Failing to understand the nature of covenants, they fail to both see the ones that are dancing before their eyes and intuit their presence in plain sight.