Kingdom through Covenant Review: Ancient Near East Covenants and the Character of God (Part 2)

The main argument of Kingdom through Covenant is that the Covenants are the backbone of the entire Bible.  The thesis is that the Bible is best understood by God’s relationship to humanity, which is displayed in the Covenants He makes with mankind.

To begin with, in the English Standard Version of the Bible the term “covenant” can be found 295 times, spanning 37 books of the Bible.  At the very least it should be obvious that this is a crucial and important concept within Holy Scripture.  At crucial moments in the plot structure of scripture there are important covenants made:

  1. The Covenant with Creation (Gen. 1-3)
  2. The Covenant with Noah (Gen. 6-9)
  3. The Covenant with Abraham (Gen. 12/15/17)
  4. The Mosaic Covenant (Exodus 19-24/ Deuteronomy)
  5. The Covenant with David (2 Sam. 7/ Psalm 89)
  6. The New Covenant (Jer. 31-34/ Ezek. 33:29-39:29)

At no point in history has there not been a covenant between God and man, and thus it is through covenants that God develops His relationship with humanity.  Each covenant will be reviewed in future posts.

The concept of “covenant” as understood in the Ancient Near East is well documented and seen in Hittite Suzerain-Vassal treaties and Royal Charters or Land Grants.  In Hittite Suzerain Treaties, dating back to 1400 BC, which Deuteronomy takes the form of, the Suzerain (great king) makes known the obligations of his Vassal (the lesser king who serves him).  In Royal Charters, or Land Grants, the Suzerain is rewarding his vassal for good works already performed, or merely graciously giving him a gift.

God, in His wise and merciful love, does not come to humanity speaking in a foreign language and using concepts that have no relationship whatsoever to our experience.  Instead He spoke in the language of the day and used commonly known concepts to communicate clearly with His people.  Whenever an existing concept did not fit His intended purposes, He’d modify it.  This is will be clearly shown in future posts, but right now a brief look at the structure of Hittite treaties compared to the Mosaic Covenant will be sufficient to demonstrate the point:

Hittite Deuteronomy Exodus Treaties

One can see that Moses intentionally adopted the form of the Treaties of his day so that the people could immediately understand what sort of document they were looking at.  However, both Exodus and Deuteronomy also shares similarities with the Babylonian Hammurabi Law Code and Royal Charters of the day that had the blessings preceding the curses.  This means that Moses’ work was a mixed Genre: The form of a Suzerain Treaty and Royal Charter with the content of a Law Code.  The Israelites would have identified from the form and content that the documents were legally binding in the Heavenly court, gracious, and meant to be the guiding principle for life.

These covenant documents will be looked at in much greater detail later, but they make clear the point that the Bible adopts commonly known concepts and forms in order to communicate important truths.

What one should understand about a covenant is that unlike a contract the heart of the covenant is a relationship.    Covenants were normally made by stronger parties as a gift to weaker parties in order to establish what sort of relationship the two parties would have and contained the stipulations that would guide that relationship.  Covenants were about loyalty, were person-oriented and were concerned with the quality of relationship between the parties involved.  Marriage is an excellent picture of a covenant.

Normally, covenants were made between non-relatives and involved obligations, were sealed by an oath, and at times had witnesses.  The reason that covenants were normally made between non-relatives is because those born into a family are born into a covenant – parents are obligated to the children and children are obligated to their parents.  A quality relationship between the two parties is expected and does not need to be ratified by the making of a covenant.  Disloyalty to the family has never been respected in any culture because humans have been made to understand that the creation of life necessarily involves an implied covenant between the life-givers and the child.  This is a point worth remembering when we look at God’s creation of humanity.

Since covenants are about relationships and the covenants discussed in Kingdom through Covenant are between God and man, it’s worthwhile noting from the beginning what characterizes God’s side of the covenant relationship. When He revealed His name to Moses, He said:

“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7 ESV)

God describes Himself as abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.  This statement comes in what is called an explanatory chain, where “each succeeding stich makes more specific what the opening stich states in general terms.”[1]  This can be seen as:

Opening Stich:

The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding insteadfast love and faithfulness

Explanation:

A  – keeping steadfast love for thousands (of generations)

B  – forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin

B’ – who will by no means clear the guilty

A’ – visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation

This AB/B’A’ format is common within Hebrew literature as a teaching tool.  The Lord, gracious as He is, is once again using a commonly understood format to communicate His character to Moses.  And from this communication we learn what sort of God the Lord is, with whom we have entered into relationship.  Positively, His character of steadfast love and faithfulness results in faithfulness to many generations and the forgiveness of sin.  Negatively, His character of steadfast love and faithfulness results in condemnation of the guilty and the visiting of iniquity upon the 2nd and 3rd generations.  One may find it curious that when Israel sinned in the wilderness that the Lord only killed that generation – He did not kill the 2nd and 3rd generations.  It’s worth of noting the tension in the text, which we understand as being resolved in Christ (because God did not clear the guilty – Jesus suffered in their place, no punishment was skipped – and as a result of the cross the guilty are forgiven of their iniquity and sin).  Such tensions, at the time they were presented to Israel, required faith to believe were true, since they appeared to be contradictory and impossible.

The term “hesed” that is being translated as “steadfast love” has been commonly confused as “promise/covenant keeping steadfast love.” God’s “hesed” is not “covenant-keeping steadfast love”, but rather is the love that brings forth the making of the covenant in the first place. The difference being that if God’s love were only covenant-keeping then it would never have resulted in the salvation of sinners, as he wouldn’t have made a covenant with them to save them. God’s love is so much more than just covenant-keeping, it reaches out to those rightly damned and promises salvation.

These truths, that God uses concepts and words of His day, and God’s faithful and loving character, will be seen as present in each of the covenants as they are discussed.  What an encouragement it is to know that our God is faithful and loving – otherwise none of the covenants would stand for longer than a day, since the human partner is never faithful!


[1] William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, rev. ed.  (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 293.

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About salutations75

Born and raised Atheist turned Reformed Baptist.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Kingdom Through Covenant, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Kingdom through Covenant Review: Ancient Near East Covenants and the Character of God (Part 2)

  1. DewDrops says:

    English is not my first language and your writing style is easy to understand and clear, great job…

  2. Felicity says:

    Hey, I don’t know if you are still active on this blog, but I came across this post while searching for articles on checed and covenants(specifically the Hittite/suzerainty covenants). I am doing a contextual word study on the Hebrew word throughout the Old Testament, and only recently have I been considering the significance of checed within the context of the the historical concept of covenants. I’m trying to decide how significant it is to the interpretation of the word, and have heard very mixed opinions. I like what you said about God’s checed being beyond human covenants and structures, but I was hoping to hear a bit more of your opinion on it.
    I hope there is a chance that you get this message soon, I could really use some external input!
    Felicity

    • Hello Felicity,
      I’m glad you found my summary of Peter Gentry’s work helpful! The whole book is worth reading.
      If your goal is to understand hesed (or checed, however you want to transliterate it) in the Old Testament then you’re right to have concern for the context in which it appears, namely the context of covenant a covenants were understood at the time that the text in question was written.
      That being said, we also want there to be room for the Biblical author to intentionally modify the common concept of covenant (he would have to do this in an obvious manner) and for the term to have a developmental aspect (progressing in meaning over time – the prophets tend to pick up the concepts of Moses and build upon them).
      As long as you start off with a historical understanding and then look for (1) intentional modification of what society at large commonly understood; (2) development over time in scripture; I’m sure you’ll do well and come to some good conclusions!

      In terms of God’s hesed being beyond covenant-keeping, I’m using the context to come to that conclusion: God does more than keep covenants – He makes covenants with people who have already broken covenant with Him. Suzerians would kill their unfaithful partners, not make new covenants with them that guaranteed that the Suzerian would rescue and redeem their faithless partner. God, on the other hand, holds back on bringing down the punishments that were deserved under the first covenant and makes another covenant that will lead to the deliverance of the vassal from the deserve punishments under the first covenant! That’s quite a different approach from what was done historically. This type of hesed is more than just covenant keeping, it keeps the covenant and seeks to protect its partner from the negative stipulations of the covenant!

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