Saturday, October 27, 2007

Cutting a Covenant, and when Covenant People can't Cut it

One of the most valuable part of my education over thirty years ago at Gordon-Conwell Seminary was learning the nature of covenanting, or making treaties in antiquity. Meredith Kline, one of my OT professors was brilliant when it came to this stuff, as he had studied ANE covenanting and how it worked in detail, particularly how ancient suzerainty treaties worked, including Hittite ones and Biblical ones. If you want to read an interesting tiny book long out of print, read Kline's 'By Oath Consigned'. There are many insights that come from such a comparative study of ancient treaty making, but here are the salient points. You can also find some resources on line from Kline as well if you Google his name.

Firstly, as Kline showed in detail, there were various different sorts of covenants or treaties in antiquity, and the kinds which we find in the Bible are suzerain-vassal treaties. They are not parity agreements between equals. All such parity covenants, treaties, or contracts are not analogous to what we have in the Bible, because of course God does not relate to his people as equals.

In a suzerain vassal treaty/covenant, it is the suzerain who dictates all the terms, lays down the law, makes certain promises, and explains the sanctions if the covenant is violated. It is entirely at the discretion of the suzerain whether he cuts a new covenant with his people if they have not kept the old one. He is under no obligation to do so. It is also true, that if the covenant is basically kept by the people in question, then the suzerain has the option to renew it on the same terms, or on different terms, if he wishes. The point is, it is entirely at his discretion what happens in such matters.

Secondly, covenants while many were unilateral, were almost always conditional in nature. This is the very nature of a covenant with stipulations, which if they were not kept, the suzerain had obligated himself to enact the curse sanctions. Thereafter, it was up to the suzerain to decide whether even to do another covenant or not. Fortunately for us, the Biblical Suzerain, our God, has chosen to continue to re-up, either renewing (some of the OT covenants), or in the case of the new covenant, starting afresh with a new covenant, which promised to be more permanent.

Thirdly, there were a variety of kinds of covenants, just as there were a variety of kinds of treaties or contracts. Sometimes you will hear about a covenant being mainly a law covenant, or a covenant could be more like a promissory note, emphasizing promises. But in fact, so far as I can see all covenants in antiquity involved both stipulations by the Suzerain (rules and laws), and also some promises.

The old covenants in the OT involved both law and promises, both stipulations and obligations. There is no such thing as a 'grace' less or a 'promise' less covenant in the Bible, and in regard to this particular matter we should not contrast the old and new covenants.

The new covenant most certainly has laws. Paul calls these the Law of Christ (see Gal. 5-6; 1 Cor. 9). The old covenant certainly had elements of grace and promise as well. However, and this is the crucial point, because the stipulations and promises and sanctions are in various regards different between the various old covenants and the new one, it is clear enough the the new covenant is not simply a renewal of any of the old covenants. Paul does inform us that the new covenant involves the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham through Christ, but this is a different matter. God has chosen to carry over certain promises into the new covenant and have them fulfilled by and through Christ.

The form of ancient covenants was all basically the same: 1) historical preamble explaining why the covenant was made or what circumstances caused it to be made (cf. the description in 1 Cor. 11 as to how the Lord's Supper came to be celebrated); 2) covenant regulations or stipulations, such as the ten commandments; 3) promise or blessing sanctions if the covenant was kept (see Jesus' beatitudes and woes), and curse sanctions if it was not. All such covenants were inaugurated by means of a sacrifice.

There was often as well a covenant sign, and the sign itself usually was the sign of the oath curse, a reminder of what would happen if the covenant was not kept. For example, circumcision was a sign of the warning-- 'if you do not keep the covenant I will cut you and your descendants off'. What more graphic reminder of having yourself and your descendants cut off than the circumcision of the organ of generation, from which descendants come?

Notice as well that circumcision is a male specific covenant sign in Israelite culture, whereas baptism is a gender inclusive sign. This clearly enough signals a major difference between various old covenants and the new covenant. The sign of the covenant indicates something of the character of the covenant. There was a phrase we hear from time to time in Israelite literature--- 'to cut a covenant, 'karath berith'. This could refer to the cutting of its stipulations it in stone, or the cutting its sign in the flesh, but it meant that the covenant was inaugurated and valid.

In the NT we hear language about Christ's death being both like a circumcision, a cutting off, and like a baptism, a symbol of drowning by water ordeal (also a curse sanction), and further more Christian baptism is associated not primarily with repentance, but rather as Rom. 6 makes clear with death and burial--- of the old person. The reason for this is clear enough-- the covenant sign symbolizes the curse sanction.

In the death of Christ God enacted the the curse sanctions of the Mosaic covenant on Jesus. And here is the crucial point---once the curse sanction has been enacted, the covenant is over and done with. It is abolished and finished. It is fulfilled and done away with. It becomes obsolete. This is made perfectly clear in the NT at various junctures.

For example, in Gal. 4 Paul likens the Mosaiac covenant to a child minder, a paidagogos, which one out grows when one comes of age. The job of Jesus, as Gal. 4 says that he was born under the Law to redeem those under the Mosaic Law out from under that Law. Or in 2 Cor. 3 Paul reminds that the glory of the Mosaic covenant was a fading glory. Notice that he is not saying it was a bad thing, just not a permanent covenant by any means. It has been eclipsed by the permanent glory of Christ and his new covenant. Or again, notice what Heb. 9-10 make so very clear. Christ is a mediator of a new and better covenant, and not only so he died as a ransom to set free those who needed to be set free from the penalty for the sins committed under the 'first' covenant (by which he means the old one-- see Heb. 9.15).

What is especially amazing about the death of Jesus from the perspective of covenantal theology is three things: 1) his sacrifice for sins is 'once for all', not only once for all time, but a ransom once for all persons (see e.g. 1 Tim. 2.6). Previous sacrifices only had a temporal and temporary benefit, and did not cover sins committed with a 'high hand' for which there was no forgiveness under OT Law. This is not true of the new covenant cut by Christ; 2) Christ's death exhausted God's righteous anger against sin committed under the old covenant, and indeed his general wrath against sin even of non-covenantal peoples. In other words, the curse sanction was exhausted on him, and so the OT covenant ended on the cross, in Christ's sacrifice; 3) but equally amazing is the fact that the inaugurating sacrifice for the new covenant was this same death of Christ. It served a dual purpose of ending the old covenant and beginning the new one, in the same act. It thus is the ultimate place where we see the convergence on God's justice and mercy, his holiness and his grace, in a single act.

There, is so much more I could say about all of this, but here are some of the implications:

1) when a new covenant is inaugurated, a suzerain may choose to carry over some of the promises and stipulations and sanctions into the new covenant, as well as adding to them new promises, stipulations, and sanctions. One of the reasons Christians get confused about the relationship of the old and new covenant is that they both have some of the same rules and regulations and features. This is hardly surprising since God, who makes these covenants, has not changed in character.

But it needs to be stressed, that only those commandments given as a part of the new covenant are binding on Christians. Thus for instance, Christians are not obligated to keep the sabbath, food laws, and a host of other stipulations we find in Leviticus. On the other hand, Christians are obligated to love their enemies, turn the other cheek, and leave retaliation or vengeance entirely in the hands of God. This is a striking difference between the old and new covenants. The reason why Christians keep the commandment'-- 'No adultery' is because Jesus stipulated it was part of his law for his disciples. Not because it is part of the ten commandments. In fact Jesus basically reaffirmed most of the ten commandments, but not the sabbath commandment. And as Mk. 7.15, he also declared all foods clean. This did not make him a Law breaker, because, in Jesus' view the new eschatological covenant was on the way, and the old one was in any case irreparably broken, and there remained only the curse sanction of the old covenant still to be enacted, something which he himself would endure on behalf of God's people on the cross.

2) The last supper has to be the most amazing Passover celebration ever. Here Jesus inaugurated a new way of celebrating it, with bread and wine symbolizing his body and blood. But notice that he is symbolically distributing the benefits of his death---before he ever died on the cross. That is, so sure was he of the outcome of the cross, and that it would be beneficial for his disciples that gave them tokens and pledges of the benefits before he even died. He was not simply celebrating a Passover meal--- he was inaugurating a new meal practice with new symbols and signs, for he was both the fulfillment of the old Passover, and the inaugurator of an entirely new one on the cross.

This is more than enough, perhaps too much to process all at once. But if you want more of this, then have a look at my two little books on the sacraments now out from Baylor Press--- 'Troubled Waters' and 'Making a Meal of It'. My third book in that series on the Bible as the 'Living Word of God' will be out next month as well.


Mike B. said...

All of my usual nitpickiness aside (such as the interpretation of Mk. 7:15), a few questions about the potential implications of these statements: If the reason for so much overlap in the covenant stipulations is because God’s character has not changed, then why should there be any difference in the stipulations at all? Are we suggesting, in saying that some stipulations have disappeared, that some of God’s laws are reflective of his moral character and some are not? Moreover, by saying that God has in fact, commanded stipulations that are entirely opposite of the previous ones (such as matters of judgment), are we suggesting that not only were the previous stipulations not reflective of God’s character, but actually contrary to it?

Also, another question. This new covenant: Are the stipulations, in fact, in any way explicitly delineated anywhere in the New Testament? The Old Covenant seems fairly easy to mark out, as it is, as mentioned, presented in covenant form, similar to many ANE covenants. Is the New Covenant anywhere spelled out, or is it something the form of which has been pieced together out of various scriptures by theologians and exegetes? Is it really safe to point to various moral statements made throughout the NT and assume these to be covenant stipulations? It seems safe to say that there is no book in the NT that functions comprehensively in this manner. The most explicit statement of the form of the New Covenant is given in Jeremiah 31, and in form, actually appears to be an unconditional covenant. This is remarkable, since while it does carry mention of God’s law (Torah/instruction), it appears to make God responsible for that law being carried out. The law’s place in the New Covenant appears to be a promise rather than a stipulation.

Moreover, if we say that the only commandments binding upon Christians are those mentioned or reaffirmed by Jesus, then what need have we of the Old Testament at all? Have we not essentially rejected the canonicity (authority as a rule of life) of the Hebrew Scriptures? They become nothing more than background stories for the New Testament, helpful, but far from essential. They carry no commanding moral authority. In all practicality, are we not behaving like Marcion?

That's enough for now. Curious to here how you would respond to these implications.

Derek said...

Thank you Dr. Witherington for your gracious response to my previous comment and for explicating the matter futher in this post. As you said, this is a lot to digest, but I do have a few questions.

No doubt the OT text is historically situated and thus influenced by the suzerain-vassal treaties of the ANE. However, I question that form as an adequate model for covenant in the Scripture.

First, God binds Himself in the covenant. Most of the time in treaties between unequals (such as between a suzerain and a vassal), the master does not levy any obligations on himself (Delbert R. Hillers) but not so with God. No doubt Israel is aware and even participates in these kinds of suzerain-vassal treaties (within their culture), but I believe the uniqueness of YHWH’S treaty is that He makes promises of His own (uncharacteristic of suzerain-vassal treaties).

Second, Jewish tradition does not do produce a legal reading of covenant (particularly Sinai--Moses). Instead, it has been suggested that Sinai could be understood under the metaphor of marriage. Hosea seems to express this metaphor, and if Hosea is a picture of God, Hosea does not divorce (break the covenant with) Gomer.

Third, it seems little attention is paid to the Abrahamic covenant. Should it not serve as a precedent for reading the Mosaic covenant at Sinai? As I read Genesis 15, it seems to me the point of the cutting of the animal into pieces was to demonstrate to one another the extent to which each party was committed to carrying out their covenantal obligations. My understanding is that by each party walking between the pieces (see Gen. 15:17, again, God committing Himself as well as Abram committing himself), they are in essence saying, "May I become like this cut up animal if I ever break my word." Without minimizing God's infinite supremacy, God comes down and obligates Himself for the purpose of relationship. Covenant, it seems to me, is relationally and redemptively oriented.

Fourth, if judgment always has a redemptive purpose, is the covenant really being broken/obliterated? Or could it be that the covenant is still intact, but rather than covenant blessings being poured out, the covenant curses are being enacted? Could it be that the covenant curses do not negate the covenant but rather seek to elicit repentance?

In the same vein, exile was perceived as God's judgment and if God has broken off the covenant (as such would be the case in a suzerain-vassal treaty upon enactment of covenant curses) what hope is there for Israel from that time until Christ?

Could the death of Christ be interpreted as God keeping His word and taking Abram's (and all of humanities place) with the broken pieces?

Finally, how do we respond to questions about God's "missing it" the first time, as if God got it wrong with the Law but got it right in the NT? Could it be that Jesus is God coming down to make sure no word of God fails (Mat. 5:18)--which is (in my mind) an extension of His holiness? Much more should be said here about what I mean by holiness, but I cannot now.

I hope this is perceived as it is intended, namely, a young minister trying to learn and grow. Thank you again.

God bless,


Brian said...


Your posts like this one always bless me.

Which covenant do you believe tithing falls under? This came up recently in an ecumenical Bible study I'm in. A lot of pastors preach on it, from Malachi 3 particularly. Appreciate your thoughts.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Friends:

The reason for the difference in the stipulations between various old covenants and the new covenant is perfectly clear-- Jesus and his death and resurrection complete changes the scenario, and the relationship, actual or potential between God and human beings. Read through Hebrews and I think you will see why.

Secondly, as Jesus himself says, various of the permissions and indeed commandments were given due to the hardness of human hearts. There is no allowance for hardness of heart when it comes to the eschatological covenant, after the giving of the Holy Spirit. Since the situation with human beings and their spiritual condition changes once redemption is made possible in Christ, various of the stipulations change. Indeed, God ups the ante-- "to whom more is given more is required".

As for Derek's comments, Hillers is absolutely wrong in what he says. Ancient kings often made promises and bound themselves to do things in king vassal treaties, just as God does in the OT. There is no substantive difference on this point.

It is not an issue of God missing out the first time. Keeping the covenant is not just up to God. It is also up to God's people, and it is they who broke the deal, not God. Once the curse sanctions are enacted, that particular treaty or covenant is over.

The notion of one covenant in many administrations does not work. Indeed, Paul refutes it by the differing ways he treats the Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic covenant in Gal. 4-5.

As for the question about tithing, the new covenant does not mandate tithing for Christians. Jesus speaks of it to Pharisees, but they were not under the new covenant, at least not yet. What Christians are called to is something more, and higher than tithing-- truly sacrificial giving, following the example that Jesus himself pointed out--- the widow with her two mites.


Ben W.

Mike B. said...

Thank you for the response. There is much that I could say on this subject, but I will try to keep it very compact. My only question for the moment is this:

That certain allowances and commandments were made for the hardness of the heart: What exactly does that mean? Jesus' statement regarding divorce (to which I assume you are referring)is, unfortunately for us, far from self-explanatory.

Ben Witherington said...

It refers to the difference between those who are God's people under the new covenant, and have the Holy Spirit, such that sin no longer reigns in their life, and those under the old covenant who were not yet empowered in that way, and so more concessions needed to be made to the hardness and fallenness of the human heart.

Mike B. said...

Sorry to keep prodding. You may feel free to move on to more important things at any time, but I find this subject very interesting. I appreciate your comments.

If we say that God, in his judgments made concessions for human sinfulness, then these judgments fall short of being perfectly righteous. In other words, because man is sinful, God permits them to sin in certain particular areas, not prohibiting it. If this is the case, then can the law truly serve its function as being the "knowledge of sin?"
Is the law "holy, just and good," as Paul claims, or is it in some way weakened by human sinfulness?

What is more, Jesus was did not entirely prohibit divorce, but allowed it in one circumstance. His teaching on it is actually remarkably similar to that of the Torah, though more specific. Nor is his expression of God's contempt for divorce something new. God spoke the same thing through the prophet Malachi, that God hates divorce. So can this really be considered a change under the new covenant?

One more difficulty with the hardness of the hearts issue: Your argument seems to be that under the old covenant, when people did not have the Holy Spirit, God needed to make allowance for that lack of empowerment. He made the covenant easier to keep, in other words. This would seem to suggest that God fully expected people to be able to live under the provisions of that covenant without breaking it. If this is the case, then what need was there for a new covenant at all (see Hebrews 8:7)? If there were no fault in the old covenant, and God's people were able to obey it without the aid of the holy spirit, then what need was there for a new, stricter, spirit-empowered covenant?

James Pate said...

Thanks for the post, Dr. Witherington. I have some problems with parts of it.

1. For one, I think that there is a sense in which the law is still authoritative for Christians. And I'm talking about the Old Testament law here, not the law of Christ (which Christians are also under). Throughout the NT, when Jesus or Paul refer to a moral principle such as "Do not commit adultery" or "Honor your father and mother," they do so with reference to the Old Testament law, on Old Testament authority. They do not say that there is a new covenant that includes similar principles as the OT, but they appeal to the OT as authoritative.

2. Why would God include the Abrahamic promises in the new covenant? Why is Abraham a part of the new covenant at all, since it is a new covenant, a fresh start?

3. One thing I don't understand about Paul: he acts in places as if all human beings were under the law until Christ came, but he acts in other places as if the law were only for the Jews. Do you have a way to reconcile this?

James Pate said...

And let me say something else: I think we can still use concessions. I agree with you that the NT does not grant them in the case of divorce or other things, but I feel there are a lot of hard hearts even under this new covenant (mine included).

Jesse said...

I have a question of my own to join in the conversion with. It concerns this way of reading the NT as comprising an exhaustive set of new covenantal stipulations by which the Law of Moses is rendered wholly obsolete insofar as it tells us what obedience to our Lord looks like. Of course we see a great overlap, but if what you say is true, that can possibly be explained by the Law of Moses only loosely fitting God's complete will for men because men's hearts were hard and needed a stepping stone for the true and complete Law, which is the NT.

The question I have is this: Should not this theology predict that the apostles of Jesus (and maybe Jesus Himself?) would have a complete disregard for the OT scriptures as having any authority on the life of a Christian? Wouldn't they be careful not to use OT commandments to direct Christian living? This I see as the litmus test for this theology.

Jumping ahead, since you might or might not agree that this is an adequate test (and I would like to know what you think), there are many passages where the apostles seem to quote OT commandments as authoritative. To just point out one, Paul says that the OT commandment (concerning coveting) tells us what sin is, and then goes on to explain how it is sin that no longer reigns in our lives because of the Holy Spirit. It sounds like the Holy Spirit is giving us power to keep the OT commandments, too. Did the apostles really not regard the OT as something to be obeyed, even partially?

Sean Babu said...

Thank you for your great post, Dr. Witherington. This is one issue that seems very clear to me but has constantly been complicated during the history of the church.

NT is not my field, but doesn't Acts make it very clear that the first Gentile believers were not incorporated into the Old Covenant? Paul makes the same clear in many places, as does the writer of Hebrews (8.13). Yet, throughout church history we see repeated efforts to place Christians under (some portion of) the Law of the Old Covenant, and the moment objection to this arises, the name of Marcion is trotted out.

("Inspired" text does not always mean "universally, eternally applicable precept." It has more uses than that.)

Also, from a Wesleyan perspective, how do you feel about the Reformed teaching of keeping the Law, not for salvation, but for sanctification? (I have my own thoughts but would love to hear yours.)

Stan said...

Good stuff. I really enjoyed it. Thanks.

I do have a question:
"Christ's death exhausted God's righteous anger against sin committed under the old covenant, and indeed his general wrath against sin even of non-covenantal peoples."

If God's wrath is exhausted, on what basis does anyone else face further wrath (e.g., Rom. 1:18, etc.)?

Thomas Huskey said...

Youre posts has been a tremendous help on understanding the nature of God's covenants with us. I was wondering if you could explain a little more about the presumptuos or "high-handed sin" clause no longer being in effect in the new covenant(or at least how it has dramatically changed since the blessings and curses are greater now)? I have been studying covenant apostasy alot, and the best I can figure out from Christ's words and the Hebrews warning passages is that the "blasphemy of the H.S." and an unrepentant stand against Christ and his teachings are the only sins where "no more sacrifice remains". Is this the new covenant counterpart to the OT presumptuous sins, or am I missing something?

Thanks for the help,

jsw said...

You mentioned a few times that Jesus did not reaffirm keeping the Sabbath; that it is not a mandate for Christians. Though not mandatory, do you feel it is still a beneficial things for Christians to practice? I know at my University it is something many professors encourage. I would like to hear your opinion on that.

I've learned a lot from this post. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Hi Ben:

I appreciate your blog--I'm new to it. Thanks. Loved your book on Paul too! Question: In light of what you wrote here "...covenants while many were unilateral, were almost always conditional in nature." I've often heard it stated that the Abrahamic Covenant is unconditional. Yet the Bible states: Gen 17:14 NASB "But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant." Faith too is a "condition" (Calvinism aside) What are your thoughts on the conditional nature of the Abrahamic Covt?


Ben Witherington said...

Of course seasons of rest are good for human beings. Indeed we rest every night on a normal basis. This does not mean we need to have a whole day devoted to such a thing.

More important, is the question about God's wrath, and why anyone is punished if Christ's death exhausted it. Here is the interesting point. The wages of sin are death, says the NT. So, for those who reject the solution of God to judgment on sin, they will still go on get the consequences of their actions. It will not be the wrath of God on them in the sense of a punishment for their sins, it will simply be the natural consequences of not accepting the escape clause.

In response to several of these questions I would stress that you need to carefully read through what Hebrews says about the Mosaic Law and covenant. For example, in Heb. 10.1ff we hear that not only did the blood of bulls and goats atone for no sin, ever, the whole OT sascrificial system was only a foreshadowing of the death of Jesus. 10.1 says the Law itself is only a pre-figurement, it is not the reality of what we receive through the new covenant.



Thomas Huskey said...

Do you believe that Hebrews 10:26-30 is possibly the writer's prophesy about AD 70 and the destruction of Jerusalem (which Jesus prophesied about many times)? And that maybe the "wilful sinning" mentioned isn't looking at a bad magazine while "knowing" that it's breaking the 7th commandment, but continuing to rely on the old sacraficial system that's now obsolete knowing that God's wrath is coming for those who forsake Christ and the New Covenant?


Jerry said...

I really appreciated your article at the top of this blog. I learned from it that regarding the sign of the covenant with Abraham, that the language of Gen 17 "cut off" was a warning. That makes perfect sense.
I want to add that I believe it is possible that circumcision (in a positive manner) refers to Christ the "seed" of Gen 22:18 and Gal 3:16. Even though it is not "explained" until Gen 22 (and better explained in Gal 3:16), it includes an element of "looking forward" to Christ. It points to a time in the future in which as God said to Abraham "in your seed (Christ) all the families of the earth will be be blessed). Other signs of God's covenants, like the rainbow, carry a positive forward-looking graceful perspective and I think circumcision may have been a positive look forward as well as negative warning.

Jerry said...

Ben, this may be outside the context of the discussion but I wanted to comment on the covenant sign of circumcision. Like other covenant signs, the sign of circumcision has a graceful aspect, it's a positive sign as well as a warning. A cutting off of flesh at the place where the seed comes from, by faith it looked forward to a day when "through your seed (Christ) all the nations of the earth will be blessed" (Gen 22, Gal 3:16). Thanks for your good words.