Introduction to the Bible: An Introduction to the Bible
by Rev. Ralph A. Smith
What is a Covenant? (Part 2)
The essence of God's covenant is love, but the idea of a covenant also implies a formal relationship. The mutual commitment of a love relationship may be expressed in a legal form which makes the obligations of love explicit. A covenant is such a formal love commitment.
Again the analogy of the marriage is helpful. The fact that a wedding vow is a legal ceremony does not detract from the love which it expresses. Just the contrary. If a man professes love to a woman, but he refuses to assume legal obligations, the reality of his love is questionable at best. God's love for man is expressed in the legal form of a covenant in which God takes obligations upon Himself and calls man to be loyal to the covenant. The covenant, therefore, has a clear structure and may be expressed in formal legal language.
The book of Deuteronomy, the book of covenant love, provides us with our understanding of the covenant. The whole book is a covenantal document, structured in terms of a five-point outline which is used throughout the Bible to define the covenant. Ray Sutton explains the outline of Deuteronomy as follows.
Transcendence (Deut. 1:1-5). The covenant begins with an acknowledgment of God's absolute Lordship. He grants the covenant. He is the absolute King.
Hierarchy (Deut. 1:6-4:49). In this section of Deuteronomy, Moses describes the history of Israel in terms of God's leading and blessing. God gave Israel leaders, covenantal representatives. When Israel was faithful to God, she obeyed her leaders.
Ethics (Deut. 5-26). The central section of the covenant defines how God's people are to live so that they can be His holy nation. God's relationship with His people is an ethical relationship. They must be righteous to enjoy the blessings of the covenant.
Oath (Deut. 27-30). The covenant promises blessings for those who obey the law and curses for those who rebel. When God's people take the oath of the covenant, they call upon God to curse them if they disobey and to bless them if they obey.
Succession (Deut. 31-34). The final section of the covenant concerns the heirs of the covenantal blessings. God intends for the covenant to continue from generation to generation in godly families. Training children to follow God and working to pass the blessing on to the future is essential to true covenantal obedience.
Of course, the five-point outline is not the only outline of the covenant that has Biblical validity. James Jordan, in a inductive study of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, suggests that threefold (Trinity), fourfold (world foundations), fivefold (housebuilding), sixfold (man), sevenfold (sabbath), tenfold (law), and twelvefold (covenant people) organizations of the covenant material are also possible. However, although Jordan does not believe that the division of the covenant into five parts has any actual priority over other possible outlines, he shows that a five-point outline is used most frequently by Moses and is not an arbitrary invention of expositors.
Also, the ten commandments, according to North, Sutton, and Jordan, are structured as a twofold repetition of the five point covenant outline.
1. The first commandment, by teaching that God alone is to be worshiped, calls us to honor the transcendent Creator and Redeemer. By forbidding murder, the sixth commandment protects the image of the transcendent God.
2. The second commandment and the seventh are related throughout the Bible in the connection between idolatry and adultery. Both sins are perversions of submission to the God-ordained order.
3. The third section of the covenant, ethics, has to do with boundaries, which is also the point of the eighth commandment: "Thou shalt not steal." The third commandment demands that we wear the name of God righteously (IQ(J a call to obey His law whereby we show the glory of His name in our lives.
4. The fourth and the ninth commandments are both concerned with sanctions since the sabbath is a day of judgement in which man brings his works to God for evaluation; the command not to bear false witness views us in the courtroom participating in the judicial process.
5. The fifth and tenth commandments correspond to the fifth part of the covenant, inheritance/continuity. In the fifth, children, the heirs to be, are told how to obtain an inheritance in the Lord. In the tenth, we are forbidden to covet, a sin that leads to the destruction of the inheritance in more ways than one.
We have seen that the five-point outline of the covenant is 1) actually the outline of Deuteronomy, 2) repeatedly used in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and 3) the structural outline for the ten commandments. Thus, it may be used as a tool for Biblical exegesis and relating the covenant to the concrete details of daily life. Jordan lists the five points in broad terms that make the broader implications of each point clear.
1. Initiation, announcement, transcendence, life and death, covenantal idolatry.
2. Restructuring, order, hierarchy, liturgical idolatry, protection of the bride.
3. Distribution of a grant, incorporation, property, law in general as maintenance of the grant.
4. Implementation, blessings and curses, witnesses, sabbath judgments.
5. Succession, artistic enhancements, respect for stewards, covetousness.
We will use this five-point outline of the covenant to help analyze the various covenants in the Bible so that we may obtain a detailed understanding of each covenantal era. While the general structure of the covenant is the same, covenant revelation grows over time. To see the implications of the covenant for each era and observe the growth of the covenant, it is important to consider each point in every Biblical covenant.
As we shall see, the first point, the Lordship of the Triune God, is essentially the same in each covenant. However, God reveals Himself in each covenant in different ways so that His people come to a deeper understanding of Him. The second point concerns the representative system established on earth. In each age there are representatives in church, state, and family who are God-appointed leaders for His people, but the details of the system change in different ages. The third point covers the detailed commands for daily life that God gives to His people. These, too, vary from age to age, though the heart of the righteous demand of the law of God is unchanging. The fourth point, blessings and curses, varies, depending on the actual situation of the people of God. Also, the fourth point deals with covenantal ceremonies, our renewal of the covenant oath, the details of which change a great deal from covenant to covenant. The fifth point which deals with inheritance, varies with the second and fourth points in accordance with the covenantal situation of the people of God.
Before we consider each covenant era in detail, it is important to obtain a grasp of the overall covenantal structure of the Bible.
1. Sutton's original outline did not spell the word THEOS as the outline above, but the points are the same. See, Ray Sutton, That You May Prosper (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1987).
2. James B. Jordan, Covenant Sequence in Leviticus and Deuteronomy (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989), pp. 3-6. Jordan also suggests a threefold approach to the covenant in, The Law of the Covenant (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1984), p. 7: "In summary, the covenant has three aspects. There is a legal bond. There is a personal relationship. There is a structure within the community." He develops a four point and a twelve point approach in Through New Eyes, pp. 130-31.
3. Covenant Sequence in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, p. 6, 9-10.
4. Gary North, The Sinai Strategy: Economics and the Ten Commandments (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1986).
5. Op. cit. pp. 214-24.
6. Op. cit. pp. 10-13.
7. Covenant Sequence in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, p. 14.
The Covenantal Structure of the Bible: Introduction to
Berith.org is dedicated to applying the covenantal worldview to modern-day issues. It is a ministry of the Covenant Worldview Institute and the Mitaka Evangelical Church of Tokyo, Japan. The essays and books at Berith.org are (mostly?) written by Reverend Ralph Allan Smith, who has laboured as a teacher, pastor, and missionary in Tokyo since 1981, and as the director of the Covenant Worldview Institute since 1988. All feedback is welcome. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.