This Covenant experience will guide participants in a comprehensive, in-depth study of the Bible over twenty-four weeks. Unlike the learning participants may have experienced in other groups, this in-depth study of the whole Bible emphasizes the biblical concept of covenant as a unifying pattern through all the books in the Old and New Testaments. It underscores the unique relationship that God chooses to have with us as God’s people. This relationship is grounded in the faithfulness of God’s love and on our ongoing commitment to stay in love with God while we share signs of that love with others.
Each episode connects to an aspect of this covenant relationship, which is summarized in the heading of each participant guide.
COVENANT TRANSLATES INTO ACTIONS—into how we behave in our everyday lives. That’s why the second module, Living the Covenant, focuses on how the community lives out their covenant in faithful love—how it’s applied to actual relationships in daily life.
The books included in these eight episodes examine the practical challenges of faithful covenant life. We explore leadership problems among tribal chieftains, kings and prophets, and spiritual and political crises. They look for practical wisdom and guidance in the teachings of Israel’s sages, the letters of Paul, and more.
And by demonstrating how people of vastly different cultures came together in a common purpose, they show how faithful love is the root of the covenant life.
Each participant in the group needs the Participant Guides and a Bible. The CEB Study Bible is preferred.
The Living Participant Guide is 8 weeks long, and has a lay flat binding making it easy to take notes in the generous space provided on each page.
The Living Participant Guide contains the following episodes:
Episode 9: Ruth, Esther, Song of Songs
Ruth, Esther, and Song of Songs are a part of the “Festival Scroll” and linked to sacred celebrations in Israel’s life. In the story of Ruth, both Ruth and Boaz risk caring beyond conventional expectations, displaying faithful, expansive love with consequences for Israel’s royal future. Esther risks everything to identify with her people and rescue them from a genocidal plot. Song of Songs displays the power and passion of a “crazy love” that also helps us understand God’s love.
Episode 10: Luke and Acts
Luke and Acts offer a vision of who God is and what salvation means. For the writer of Luke, Jesus is a prophet who reveals God’s heart and intention to remake human beings and the broader world through a new community gathered in Jesus’ name: the church. Living out Jesus’ prophetic role in the power of the Holy Spirit, the church continues God’s call to changed hearts and lives. Through Jesus and the church, God’s Spirit calls people to belong, serve, and love by welcoming those considered outsiders by the world.
Episode 11: 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings
In these books the prophets serve as truth-tellers to Israel’s kings. They stress that relationship rather than power is central to choosing what’s best for the people God loves. Kings are at their best when they are moved by compassion that trumps every preoccupation with power. Idolatry splits our attention and distorts our priorities, distracting us from the main thing: God alone is worthy of absolute loyalty and trust.
Episode 12: 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus
1 and 2 Thessalonians are written to a community Paul loves—a community suffering and anxious about Jesus’ return. 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus (pastoral letters) are written to Paul’s younger partners in ministry. While 1 Timothy is intimate, 2 Timothy reads like a last will and testament for Paul.
Episode 13: Wisdom—Proverbs and Ecclesiastes
Wisdom literature begins and ends with what is good for human beings in life. Starting with everyday insights gathered across time by courts scribes, these sayings are short and easy to remember. The wise person is one who understands these teachings and can apply them appropriately in real-life situations. Life is fragile and short, so wise people will enjoy family, friends, and the simple things in life.
Episode 14: Philemon, Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians
From a place where hope goes to die, an imprisoned Paul says that God is able to restore hope and encourages reconciliation between Philemon (home church leader) and his runaway slave (Onesimus). To the Philippians Paul passes on an early hymn that speaks of Jesus as the self-emptying, suffering servant exalted by God. Paul is a pastoral thinker and his words about slaves and masters must be understood in the context of Jesus’ expected return.
Episode 15: James, Jude, 1 and 2 Peter
These letters are written to churches suffering harassment and struggling to keep the faith when Jesus’ promised return hasn’t occurred. They are written in the voice of those closest to Jesus and speak to new circumstances and situations. Concerned about real-life issues like gossip and favoritism toward the rich, James is a practical book stressing who God is and what you should do about it. Peter writes to guide the church in a negotiated faithfulness that requires discernment.
Episode 16: Prophets—Isaiah 1-39 and the Book of the Twelve
The prophets express the feelings of God: God’s deep love for Israel and all of humanity, but also God’s deep pain, disappointment, and anger when the people fail to be a loving community of neighbors.They also communicate God’s yearning to call the people back to taking care of each other, especially those they are most likely to exclude (widows, orphans, strangers/immigrants). For prophets like Hosea, God has a parent’s heart and refuses to give up on a faithless people.
More Questions? Visit http://covenantbiblestudy.com/ for more information.
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Read an Excerpt
Covenant Bible Study: Living Participant Guide
By Abingdon Press
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2014 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Ruth, Esther, Song of Songs
Day 1: Ruth 1–2
Day 2: Ruth 3–4
Day 3: Esther 1–4
Day 4: Esther 5–8
Day 5: Song of Songs 1–2; 4:1-7; 5:10-16
Day 6: Covenant Meditation on Song of Songs 8:6-7a
Day 7: Group Meeting Experience with Ruth 1:8-18
For those who are suffering in the midst of a dysfunctional family
Your faithful love is priceless, God! Humanity finds refuge in the shadow of your wings. (Psalm 36:7)
For those who celebrate their identity in God's family
Heaven thanks you for your wondrous acts, LORD — for your faithfulness too — in the assembly of the holy ones. (Psalm 89:5)
POSSIBILITY OF LOYAL LOVE
The biblical understanding of the covenant relationship between God and God's people, and among God's people themselves, is shaped and informed by the actual covenants, or agreements, common in Israel's social life. The books of Ruth, Esther, and the Song of Songs explore the committed relationships that are the basis of a covenant.
Sometimes we wonder why these books (especially Song of Songs) were included in the scriptures. But they are an important part of the canon because they use marriage as an analogy for God's covenant love. The marriage covenant creates a new identity, making a family out of unrelated individuals, and unlike economic or political contracts, a marriage covenant expects faithfulness but also allows the possibility for love. Some think a covenant is a contract. A contract, however, is usually a last resort, invoked after a relationship has already failed and is unlikely to recover.
By exploring these stories of marriage relationships and the loyalty and love within them, we can learn more about the nature of covenant relationships in the Bible. We can also learn more about the relationship of women and men in biblical society. While biblical society was patriarchal, investing men with primary prestige and power, these are stories of strong women who work in and around male structures with strength, dignity, and integrity. For Ruth and Esther, their futures and the futures of their people lay in their hands.
Ruth is a beautifully written story of loss and recovery, famine and harvest, death and new life. The family of Elimelech and Naomi experiences a series of tragedies. Naomi loses the things that define her and faces an uncertain future. The family's very survival is in jeopardy. As a woman and an outsider, Ruth is the unlikely heroine. Her faithfulness to the covenant she made with her husband and with Naomi's family enables the family to survive.
The narrative of this family's destruction and reconstruction can be dated to the time of the exile, the time of Israel's national destruction. The exiled people of Israel were worried about survival and identity. In the narrative of Ruth, they heard a story of a foreign woman who ensures the family's survival and allows for a renewed identity. The story invites its hearers to consider whether God's covenant relationship is for Israel and Israel alone.
The book of Esther takes place in the Persian court. It was written when the people of Israel were no longer in their homeland. The events in the narrative take place during the fourth or third century BCE, the time of the Jewish diaspora, when Jews had been dispersed throughout the countries of the Mediterranean world. Many of the practices unique to Judaism were lost over the years as later generations of Jews took on names and practices that reflected the languages and cultures of their conquerors. In this new situation, assimilation was necessary for survival. Once assimilation became a way of life, the community had to determine what the core elements of Jewish identity were when their nation, king, temple, and priesthood were long gone. What were the terms of the covenant in Persia? Would God be faithful?
Esther can be described as a court tale, a narrative that portrays Jews living under foreign rule and subject to the laws of a king who doesn't know their God. In the majority of these stories, a crisis arises when the rules of the king stand in opposition to the covenant practices or God-given commands that are unique to Jewish identity as God's chosen people. In Esther, the reader is introduced to a community whose lives are in danger. The community is threatened not only with the loss of life but with the loss of identity, essential to survival. Esther finds herself in a place of privilege and must decide if she will identify with her people and thereby expose herself to the dangers they face as a community under foreign rule.
SONG OF SONGS
The Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon, is a collection of love poems that has long intrigued and confused its readers. Written in the late fourth or third centuryBCE, the expressions of affection and desire between the two lovers form a dialogue, or a call and response between the woman and the man. The poetry is sensual. It appeals to the senses of taste, touch, smell, sound, and sight, describing a human love that is without restraint. The sensuality of the poetry and the imagery of the garden evoke Eden's garden, with two people in a sanctuary where all their needs are met. However, as the poetry reveals, the lovers aren't always together. When they aren't together, the energy of the poetry is focused on being together. The lovers fill the space that separates them with language, imagining the dearly loved partner, making promises for the next meeting, or simply expressing the all-consuming desire to be reunited.
Both the woman and the man use symbolic language to praise the dearly loved partner and to convey the urgency of longing and desire. Metaphor and simile are used in analogies. The lovers use the language of familiar things to describe the indescribable. This symbolic language invites us to enter the garden of delights and experience agony with the lovers. Like the speakers, we know the experience of closeness and separation in our own relationships.
And like Israel, we also know what it is to be intimate with and alienated from God. Over the years, interpreters have taken the real and intense human love reflected in this poetry as symbolic of the love between God and God's people. The dialogue of the poetry invites us to embrace the dynamic of longing that comes from being apart and the joy that comes from being united because it sheds light on our relationship with the creator.
The Festival Scroll — Purim, Weeks, and Passover: In the Hebrew text of the Bible, Ruth, Esther, and the Song of Songs are grouped together within the festival scroll known in Hebrew as the Megilloth. These three narratives are associated with specific festivals that are a part of the Jewish calendar. Esther is associated with the celebration of Purim. The celebration of this holiday includes the reading and retelling of Esther's story. Ruth is associated with the Festival of Weeks (Hebrew Shavuot), a harvest celebration, and the Song of Songs is read during Passover. These three books continue to be part of the ongoing life in communities of faith. They demonstrate that the covenant is more than a contract. Rather, these books vividly present in story and song the responsibilities and privileges of a committed relationship.
Day 1: Ruth 1–2
Famine, loss, and exile
The book of Ruth is a beautifully constructed narrative with shifts in location and plot twists that create a crisis for the family of Elimelech and Naomi. These elements are also signs of comedy. In the story of Ruth these elements are used to explore the theme of identity. The characters in the story are subject to loss of identity through famine, migration, and death. For them (and us), key markers of identity are name, homeland, and people (including family, tribe, and nationality). In Ruth 1, the family moves away from their homeland, the men die, and — since lineage and descent are reckoned through males — the name or identity of this family is facing certain extinction.
The names of the characters provide clues to the reader: Elimelech means "my God is king." His wife's name, Naomi, means "full and/or pleasant." The names of the sons are Mahlon and Chilion, meaning "sickly" and "destruction," or "frail," respectively. Orpah means "back of the neck," and Ruth means "to saturate" or "to water." As you read, consider the extent to which the characters live up to their names or reputations.
Ruth's ethnicity as a Moabite is important. Though this story doesn't speak disrespectfully of the Moabites, they were despised by some Israelite writers. When the text describes Ruth as a Moabite, it is identifying her as a person who some would have considered an outsider of the worst kind. Early hearers of this story would have had contempt for the Moabites. Ruth's story forces us to think about how God may work through those we designate as "outsiders," "opponents," or "enemies."
What type of person would you (or the people in your zip code) think of as an outsider?
Day 2: Ruth 3–4
Redemption and restoration
The second half of the narrative about Ruth is focused on levirate marriage as a form of redemption. Levirate marriage is a practice that allows for the closest living male relative to "marry" a childless widow. This is for the purposes of providing a male child and ensuring that there is someone to inherit on behalf of the deceased for his surviving family members. It is a useful image of redemption because redemption means to buy back that which was lost. Boaz is the closest male relative who is willing to play the role of redeemer, but in this role he marries Ruth, a Moabite. Ruth's first marriage to an Israelite, Mahlon, occurs under the circumstances of famine, death, and displacement for the Israelite family. Her second marriage takes place during the season of harvest. Boaz is a dutiful redeemer, but he is impressed by Ruth's faithfulness. The term "faithfulness" is often used to describe God's undying commitment to Israel. In this story, a Moabite woman embodies that faithfulness and undying love that God has for God's people.
It shouldn't be lost on the reader that the redemption and restoration of the family involves a plan that takes place under the cover of darkness in Ruth 3, and at the city gate, a public place, during the day in Ruth 4. Similarly, God's work of redemption and restoration can take on a variety of patterns and include unlikely characters. David's genealogy at the conclusion of the book includes a Moabite woman.
How does Ruth's relationship to Israel's dearly loved king change the way Israel feels about the Moabites?
Day 3: Esther 1–4
This story is a court tale, a literary form used for the narratives in Daniel 1–6 and for the book of Esther. In this story type, the hero or heroine is in the court of a foreign king who is temperamental and easily manipulated by his advisors, who are enemies of the Jewish people. A crisis arises when the advisors convince the king to issue an edict that goes against a covenant practice central to the Jewish faith. In the book of Daniel, the king forces the main characters to take a stand on issues such as dietary teaching and worship practices and to risk their safety in order to abide by the instructions of God's covenant. The story ends with the triumph of the hero (Daniel), and the message to Jews in the diaspora is that God is faithful to the covenant and to God's people who are loyal to the covenant.
Esther is a court tale with a heroine and with a twist. When Esther, or Hadassah (her Hebrew name), becomes queen, she finds herself in a position of privilege, but her identity as a Jew is unknown. We don't have any indication that she is observant of Jewish Instruction and practices. When Haman plots to kill the Jews and a crisis arises, Esther must decide whether or not she will reveal her Jewish identity and risk her life. If she doesn't, she can't save her people (Esth 4:13-14).
The narrative uses elaborate and excessive detail to describe the Persian Empire. By contrast, there is no mention of God. In Esther 4, Mordecai takes on the traditional signs of mourning, and Esther fasts. The turning point in the narrative comes when Esther decides to disclose her Jewish identity and face the king on behalf of her people. Her fate and the fate of her people lie on her shoulders.
Think of a time when you had a choice about disclosing personal information to a group or to another individual. Perhaps it was at school, at work, with friends, or in a congregation. What are the risks of disclosing or not disclosing identity?
Day 4: Esther 5–8
Once Esther accepts her role as a champion for her people, the narrative moves quickly to resolution. The action of the narrative is connected with banquets. The opening banquet in Esther 1 leads to Queen Vashti's expulsion. In the second half of the narrative, Esther's disclosure of her identity takes place through two banquets that she prepares for the king. The book concludes with the festival banquet of Purim, celebrating God's salvation of the people (Esth 9).
At the beginning of the story in Esther 1, the king and his queen are at separate banquets, and he sends a request to her, which she refuses. In the second round of banquets, the queen Esther invites the king and Haman to one banquet for the purpose of inviting them to a second one, where she makes her request known. Esther's decision to identify with her people leads to Haman's demise and allows for an edict that permits Jews to defend themselves against any who would attack them. This self-defense looks like revenge at the end of the book, and it raises concerns about how the experience of oppression can lead to similarly oppressive behavior when the power is reversed.
In an environment where God isn't readily apparent, how do we as readers discern God's presence in the story of Esther?
Day 5: Song of Songs 1–2; 4:1-7; 5:10-16
"Set me as a seal over your heart ... for love is as strong as death" (Song 8:6). The Song of Songs means "the best of all songs." It is about unrestrained, passionate love. The lovers talk to each other, and their dialogue celebrates the joy of being together. When they are apart, theirs is the language of longing, and their words fill the void created by the absence of the dearly loved partner.
It's hard to ignore the lush imagery of this poetry and how it evokes Eden's garden — the place where humanity and God were together. In the ancient Near East, gardens were walled for protection and often elevated. For this reason, in biblical tradition the garden also becomes a metaphor for Jerusalem, the holy city on a hill, where the temple is the point of contact for God and God's people.
The unmitigated passion and longing of this poetry has caused Jewish and Christian interpreters to gravitate toward allegorical and symbolic readings, seeing this human love as symbolic of the divine-human relationship. However, the experience of human passion and longing is a fitting lens through which to explore the power of relationship and the meaning of the covenant. Through the Song of Songs, we see with new eyes the depth of the agony we experience when we are separated from our dearly loved partner. The experiences of exile and life in the diaspora were challenging not only because of all the practical uncertainties. They were also times of deep longing for what was lost and for restoration of union with God in the garden, that place where the lovers are unencumbered and free to satisfy their desires.
Jot down some feelings or images that describe a time when you were passionate about a relationship, or deeply loved through a relationship. Now imagine what it would feel like to physically lose a relationship with that person. List some words that describe this feeling.
Excerpted from Covenant Bible Study: Living Participant Guide by Abingdon Press. Copyright © 2014 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsLiving the Covenant,
Episode Theme Title,
9 Faithful Love Ruth, Esther, Song of Songs,
10 The Spirit-Led Community Luke and Acts,
11 Leadership 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings,
12 God's Household 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus,
13 Discernment Wisdom: Proverbs and Ecclesiastes,
14 Reconciled Philemon, Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians,
15 Act Like a Christian James, Jude, 1 and 2 Peter,
16 Doing the Right Thing Prophets: Isaiah 1–39 and the Book of the Twelve,
Other Covenant Participant Guides,
Creating the Covenant,
Episode Theme Title,
1 Relationships Creating the Covenant,
2 Who Are We? Torah: Genesis,
3 Freedom and Instruction Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers,
4 God's Kingdom Gospels: Matthew and Mark,
5 Grace Letters: Romans and Galatians,
6 Witness Hebrews,
7 Logic of the Cross 1 and 2 Corinthians,
8 Covenant Renewal Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel,
Trusting the Covenant,
Episode Theme Title,
17 Life Together John; 1, 2, and 3 John,
18 Praise and Lament Psalms,
19 Tragedy Job,
20 Crisis and Starting Over Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel,
21 Exile and Renewal Isaiah 40–66,
22 Restoration 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah,
23 Hope Apocalyptic: Daniel,
24 New Creation Revelation,