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CovenantGod's Purpose, God's Plan
By John H. Walton
ZondervanCopyright © 1994 Zondervan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE PURPOSE OF THE COVENANT
COVENANTS IN THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST
Before embarking on a study of the biblical material, it is appropriate to discuss to what extent the ancient Near East is able to provide information that offers a contemporary cultural understanding of the covenant idea.
In Akkadian, the language of Babylon and Assyria, the terms mamitu and adu have been identified as being pertinent to the discussion of the covenant. The first term, mamitu, refers to an oath or a sworn agreement. While these oaths are typically sworn in the name of deity, they are not descriptive of agreements between God and man. The second term, adu, refers to a formal agreement, and is therefore more likely to overlap with the Old Testament concept of covenant. An adu is often finalized with a mamitu.
The term adu has been recognized as a loanword from Aramaic.
The agreement called adu was drawn up in writing between a partner of higher status (god, king, member of the royal family) and servants or subjects. It was typically made secure by magic and also by religious means (ceremonies, curses, and oaths).
Simo Parpola has suggested five distinct denotations for it:
Solemn promises made by God to a king,
A sworn agreement between gods,
A peace treaty between two great kings,
An agreement between a great king and lesser kings sought by the latter, and
Category one is of most interest for the present study, but Parpola offers only one example, and it is not a convincing one. Since neither of these terms is a cognate to the Hebrew term for covenant, and since neither represents agreements between God and man involving promises and election, I conclude that the extant literature of the ancient Near East offers no direct parallels to the covenant of the Old Testament.
THE MEANING OF BERIT
The Hebrew term for covenant is berit. Although a number of suggestions have been proffered for the etymology of the word, the two most common derivations are from Akkadian, birit (between, among) and Akkadian, biritu (clasp, fetter). In accordance with modern linguistic sensitivity, however, we must agree that etymology does little to contribute to our understanding of berit. The very fact that the cognate languages do not use a cognate term for similar concepts should warn us against making too much of an etymology, even if we were more certain of what the etymology is. The synchronic approach, preferred by today's scholars, insists that the lexical parameters of the word be defined in accordance with its usage.
In the Old Testament the term berit is used to refer to international treaties (Josh. 9:6; 1 Kings 15:19), clan alliances (Gen. 14:13), personal agreements (Gen. 31:44), legal contracts (Jer. 34:8-10), and loyalty agreements (1 Sam. 20:14-17) including marriage agreements (Mal. 2:14). In other words, on any level of society, a promise to do something would be formalized by means of a berit.
Covenant in the normal secular practice of the ancient world appears to have been a device whereby existing relationships which time, circumstances, or other factors have brought into being, were given the semblance of legal backing in the form of a ceremony whose major thrust was that of solemn commitment.
In this book, however, I am not as interested in discussing what a covenant is, as I am in discussing why a covenant was made. The former has little demonstrable impact on the latter.
DIFFERING VIEWS ON THE FUNCTION-PURPOSE OF THE COVENANT
Neither diachronic nor synchronic lexical analysis of the word berit provides an understanding of the purpose or function of the covenant that God made with Israel. All that can be said is that God entered into a covenant with Israel as a means of formalizing the promises he had made to Abraham and the agreement he had made with Israel. Questions remain, however. Why did God make these promises to Abraham? Why did God choose an elect people for himself? What was his purpose for taking a promise-covenant course of action? In attempting to answer these questions, it is essential to differentiate between purpose and function. There may be many different functions of the covenant, but if they are incidental or secondary, they may have little to do with the purpose of the covenant. Over the years many different positions have emerged that reflect on the significance of the covenant, not all of them mutually exclusive. Each will be examined in terms of its ability to explain the purpose of the covenant.
Covenant as Promise
Many have viewed the covenant as a vehicle by which the promise of God is formalized, defined, and protected. The promise itself is defined as the "eternal expression of God's will," and the "instrument that obligates God to act on behalf of his people." In this view, "The primary function of the promise covenant is to grant the inheritance." Interpreters such as Willis J. Beecher and Walter Kaiser have identified the promise as being the center of Old Testament theology and have likewise seen the covenants as simply giving shape and expression to the promise. The promise itself, then, concerns God's intention to bless, and more specifically, his intention to provide salvation.
Covenant as Grace, Redemption, or Heilsgeschichte
Evangelical theologies have consistently viewed redemption as being the focal point of all of the Bible. Classical dispensationalism attempted to balance covenant theology by focusing on the larger issue of the glory of God yet still affirming the fullness of the redemptive program. Nonetheless, it is very difficult to detect any difference in recent literature between dispensationalists and covenant theologians with regard to the thrust of the covenant(s): God's purpose is to redeem and bless his people, with the ultimate intent of bringing glory to himself.
While it would be difficult to disagree that this has been God's ultimate purpose since Creation, one experiences substantially more difficulty in establishing it as the purpose of the covenant. Neither the Abrahamic nor the Davidic covenants suggest anything of any kind of redemption. The covenant of Sinai speaks of God's deliverance of Israel from slavery, but no comparison is made between that deliverance and salvation from sin until the New Testament. The new covenant comes the closest to a discussion of redemption in the mention of forgiveness of sin. But in the Old Testament this forgiveness is not identified as either redemption or salvation, thus raising the question of whether such a concept was understood as central to the covenant idea.
It is important at this point to make some very necessary observations with regard to terminology. The term redemption is used extensively in theological literature, but is used for two significantly disparate ideas: God's deliverance of Israel from Egypt, Babylon, and other oppressors is referred to as God's redemptive activity. Likewise God's provision of personal salvation from sin is considered to be redemptive. Thus the term redemption is used to bind together issues that have little in common except for the attribute of God that brings them about.
Excerpted from Covenant by John H. Walton Copyright © 1994 by Zondervan . Excerpted by permission.
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