Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Concept of the Eternal Covenant in the Old Testament

Following on from my post entitled “The Eternal Nature of the Eternal Covenant in Hebrews”, it should also be noted that the language of an eternal covenant is not just limited to Hebrews. The phrase ברית עולם an everlasting covenant appears a number of times in the Old Testament, and there are other verses where the words ברית and עולם are closely related.

The relevant verses are: Gen 9:16; 17:7, 13, 19; Exod 31:16; Lev 24:8; Num 18:19; 25:13; Jdg 2:1; 2 Sam 23:5; Isa 24:5; 55:3; 59:21; 61:8; Jer 32:40; 50:5; Ezek 16:60; 37:26; Ps 105:10; 1 Chr 16:17.

I will endeavor to investigate these verses over the next few weeks or so.


Jeff Miller said...

It seems to me that I remember the Hebrew word sometimes translated "eternal" actually has a range of meaning that centers on "perennial" or "through generations" and the Hebrew lacks an expression that precisely denotes "eternal" without any other possible denotation. Anyway that is what I think I can help me if you like...and,if I am correct, that fact would allow the Hebrew word, which we translate "eternal" to be applied even to the ongoing, or multi-generational, Mosaic covenant even though it would one day be made obsolete by the New Covenant.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, Jeff.

Yes, what you say about עולם is correct. It basically means a long period of time; but if this long period of time is viewed as continuing on forever, then the translation eternity is appropriate. Basically it is the context that determines how this word should be understood in the Hebrew.

I am not sure though that taking עולם as indicating a long period of time as opposed to eternity is the full solution to the problem that you have pointed out. God’s covenants are generally viewed as applying for as long as the relationship exists. God’s relationship with his people is eternal, so his covenants have an eternal dimension. Yet there has been a change from the old covenant to the new, so we can rightly talk about the obsolescence of the old covenant. Paul does something similar in Rom 10:4 when speaking of Christ as being the end of the law. But at the same time we can (and indeed must) also say that the covenant promises and obligations between God and his people in times gone by are not abandoned along the way.

My understanding is that the Old Testament prophets (viewed as a whole) basically thought of Mosaic torah living on into the new covenant age in the sense that it morphs into Messianic torah as per Moses’ prophecy in Deut 18:15-19. The old covenant is both superseded and subsumed by the new covenant, so there is a sense in which the old covenant continues on in the form of the new covenant. This is part of the argument of John’s Gospel with characters like Nathanael and verses like John 3:19-21; 5:46. Those who truly do their works in God (i.e., those who are faithful to the Mosaic covenant) come to the light of Christ. Believing in Moses in the new covenant age actually means believing in Jesus. Being a faithful keeper of Mosaic torah like Nathanael means that you will say of Jesus, “[he is] the Son of God! [He is] the king of Israel!” and follow him as the consequence.

So even if עולם is taken to mean eternity, I don’t see any great problem. The Sabbath and circumcision still live on in the form of the eternal Sabbath and the circumcision of Christ that we participate in. In other words, the עולם of the old finds its eternal “yes” in Jesus and the new covenant.

Gary said...

Were Hebrew children in the Old Testament required to make a one time "Decision for God" once they reached an Age of Accountability in order to be saved? No. There is no evidence of this requirement in the Bible. They were born into God's covenant, both male and female. Circumcision was the sign of this covenant for boys, but the sign was not what saved them. Faith saved them!

Rejecting the sign of circumcision, either by the parents of a Hebrew child or by an adult, male, Gentile convert, was a sign of a lack of true faith, and therefore the child or convert was "cut off" from God's promises, as clearly stated in Genesis chapter 17:

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, Gary. Yes, I believe that the descendants of those who are formally in covenant with God are also formally in covenant with God. The key to life for such people is the reception of God’s word into their heart. This response of faith is required (and ought) to be exercised whenever God’s word is communicated to each individual. Faith is meant to be a constant positive attitude to God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ.