• What Is A Covenant?

    Posted Jan 15th, 2010 By in Pastor Brian's Blog, Why We Believe What We Believe With | No Comments

    The idea of God relating to us covenantally doesn’t appear out of thin air. In fact, the form of many of the Biblical covenants is nearly identical to older, secular covenants of the ancient Near East. This became the context for God’s gracious revelation to his people. God in his mercy has condescended to speak to us in a way that we can understand. Had he not, his revelation would have been unintelligible and, worse yet, he would have been unknowable.

    God in his mercy has condescended to speak to us in a way that we can understand.

    The secular treaties of the ancient Near East were done between suzerains and vassals. Vassals were those in need and suzerains were those who could help. A vassal might actually be a king, but a king with less power and fewer resources than the suzerain. But help came at a price, of course. So if the suzerain agreed to help, the vassal also agreed to show allegiance to the suzerain for their aid and support. This agreement would be ratified in the form of a covenant. What gets very interesting is the way these agreements took shape.

    For starters there was a preamble. In the preamble the name of the suzerain king would be identified. Second, there would be a historical prologue. In the prologue the suzerain would recount his gracious dealings with the vassal and describe his past support. Perhaps he had rescued them from a stronger army. It’s in this context that the Bible is revealed and we read, “I am the Lord your God (preamble), who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…(historical prologue). From here stipulations would be added. Because of the suzerain’s gracious dealings there were certain covenantal stipulations that were agreed. If they were fulfilled then the vassal could expect protection and provision. However, if they remained unmet then they could expect the very judgment of the one who had earlier defended them. These were the sanctions. Finally, two copies of the covenantal agreements were drafted and deposited into the sacred temples of each party. Periodically these documents would have been read publicly as a reminder of the covenantal agreement between the two parties. Parenthetically, this very well could be why God revealed his 10 words (commandments) to Moses and called for it to be written on two tablets. Two tablets were used not for five commandments on each, but for ten commandments on each; and as a copy for each party and as a reminder that each party carried.

    Basically, then, a covenant is an agreement between two parties, an agreement that carries with it stipulations and sanctions. Hopefully you can see how similar this pattern is to the structure of the Biblical covenants (cf. Gen. 15; 17; Ex. 20; Josh. 24). And, in that light, hopefully you can see how this sheds light on the Biblical text and offers helpful insights to our understanding.

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    Pastor of New Life La Mesa Presbyterian Church in San Diego, CA.

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