Thursday, October 23, 2008

What Kind of Covenant?

Some readers of my book and blog ask, "What are the fundamental aspects of your theology/" In response to this question, I offer the next three postings. JCA

The issue dealt with in this article is foundational to the whole Christian enterprise. Here I am talking about the notion of covenant. The Bible is filled with the language of covenant. Indeed, the word itself figures prominently in the biblical witness. The relationship of God and humanity is usually described in terms of covenant. In fact, the Hebrew word for covenant appears over 230 times in the Old Testament. The Greek term for covenant appears 33 times in the New Testament. Usually, the point of departure for many of us is the Abrahamic Covenant. Some see the Adamic Covenant predating the Abrahamic. In this view, the Adamic is often thought of as a covenant of works and the Abrahamic as a covenant of grace.

There is likewise the notion of an old covenant and a new covenant present in the biblical witness. Generally, the old covenant is seen as the covenant that God made with the Children of Israel through Moses. The new covenant is seen as that covenant written on the heart by Christ through the agency of the Holy Spirit.

Often, Christians have relied on the notion of covenant in the ancient near east to inform them on their thinking concerning the concept of covenant. As Mendenhall points out (along with most other commentators), the ancient world recognized two basic kinds of covenants. The first was a parity covenant made between two equals. It might be thought of as “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” It is similar to the modern notion of contract in many ways.

The other type of covenant is referred to as suzerainty covenant. Such a covenant was made between a king or ruler and an inferior or vassal. Usually, it has been thought of as being comprised of six elements commonly found in ancient Hittite treaty texts. These six elements may be summarized as follows:


  1. Preamble: The main point here is to identify the author (the king) of the covenant.

  2. A review of the history between the vassal and the king: The emphasis here is on the benevolence of the king and the kindness shown to the vassal. It is assumed that gratitude is owed to the king for kindnesses shown.

  3. Stipulations of the covenant: The emphasis here is on the obligations owed to the king. In short, what does the vassal have to do?

  4. Provisions for reading the covenant: Provisions are made for a periodic review of the contents of the covenant.

  5. List of witnesses: These were normally the gods of both the king and the vassal.

  6. Curses and blessings: The results of fulfilling or not fulfilling the covenant.


Many commentators have pointed to the similarity between this kind of covenant and the Mosaic Covenant. In this case, the greater, God, gives the law to Moses. Throughout the Pentateuch we see the notion of cursings and blessings. This has often been contrasted to the earlier covenant that God made with Abraham. J.J.M. Roberts has spoken of another type of ancient covenant referred to as the royal grant which seems to apply here.

In the royal grant, a king rewards a subject by granting him land, exemption from taxes, office, or the like. What is unique about this covenant is the greater binds himself to the lesser party. In a parity covenant, two equal parties come to an agreeable contract. In the suzerainty covenant, the lesser receives benefit, but the greater calls all of the shots. The sovereign does not have to agree to anything, and penalty is imposed for the breaking of the covenant. But in the royal grant, only the greater is bound. Therefore it is an unconditional (apart from the one condition of acceptance) covenant or a covenant of grace.


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