Friday, August 27, 2010

The Meaning of God Establishing His Covenant in Genesis 6:18

In Gen 6:18 God says to Noah: “I will establish my covenant with you.” The question under investigation here is the meaning of והקמתי, the Hifil form of קום, that is used in this verse. We need to note in the first instance that והקמתי is a modal perfect or a weqatal form. The flavor of the modal perfect must be determined on the basis of the linguisitic context in which it is found. It is clear in this regard that Gen 6:17 has the immediate future in mind. The participle מביא bringing is used here to indicate what God is going to do in the immediate future. It makes sense, therefore, that the modal perfect והקמתי in 6:18 carries something of a similar flavor. The logic of God’s speech at this point is that after he brings the flood upon the earth, then he will “establish” his covenant with Noah. In other words, the “establishing” looks like it will take place some time in the future after the flood has come.

But what is the meaning of the verb והקמתי in this context? Is it indicating here that God will establish a new covenant with Noah, or simply that God will take a previously established covenant and confirm it with Noah, after the flood has come? Contrary to what some have argued, the fact that God describes this covenant as my covenant is insufficient to resolve the issue. A covenant that is not yet in existence but which God is about to grant to his subjects can be described in such personal terms. For example, the language my covenant appears in Gen 17. In Gen 17:4, God says to Abraham that “[his] covenant” was going to be with Abraham. It is clear from Gen 17:10 that the covenant mentioned by God in Gen 17:4 is the covenant of circumcision that he was about to make with Abraham: “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised” (Gen 17:10). Similarly in Exod 19:5, it appears far-fetched to say that my covenant here is not the covenant that God was proposing to make with Israel at the time, i.e., the Sinaitic covenant, the inauguration of which is recorded in Exod 24. Also, in Num 25:12, the expression my covenant refers to the covenant of an everlasting priesthood given to Phinehas and his seed. This was not a previously existing covenant, but one newly granted. The language of my covenant, which occurs 47 times in the Old Testament, simply serves to highlight God’s ownership of the covenants that he grants to his subjects, whether they be covenants already in existence or still to come into existence in the future.

In the end, how we are to understand the meaning of the expression I will establish my covenant with you in Gen 6:18 is dependent on the context. Given the logic of Gen 6:17–18, what happens after the flood (i.e., the content of Gen 9) will be the key to understanding the meaning of this expression. My next post, God willing, will discuss the idea of “establishing” a covenant that emerges from Gen 9.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Language of Establishing a Covenant in Scripture

I regard William Dumbrell as a great biblical theologian, and I count him as a friend and mentor. I thoroughly recommend his work on the Old Testament and his New Testament commentaries (such as Galatians and Romans) to anybody who is interested in understanding Scripture in the light of the theme of covenant in the Bible. I also find Dumbrell’s work on the use of covenant terminology in the Noah narrative fascinating. Dumbrell notes that the terminology of cutting a covenant [כרת ברית] is absent from the Noah narrative. Instead we have the language of establishing a covenant [הקים ברית]. This occurs in Gen 6:18; 9:9, 11, 17. Dumbrell argues that “perpetuation” rather than “the institution of a covenant” is “more than likely … in contexts where hēqîm berît” is used (William J. Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation: An Old Testament Covenantal Theology, [Exeter: Paternoster, 1984], 26). From this observation, Dumbrell suggests that God’s covenant with Noah was a confirmation of a pre-existing covenant, God’s covenant with creation, rather than being a newly instituted covenant.

In the light of Dumbrell’s thesis, it is interesting to consider how we should understand the meaning of the language of establishing a covenant in the Noah narrative. The verb הקים basically means to cause to stand. In relation to covenants, there are theoretically two possible meanings: to cause a covenant to stand for the first time (i.e., to establish or make a covenant), or to cause a covenant to continue to stand (i.e., to confirm, or to fulfill or carry out a covenant). Dumbrell argues that the biblical evidence consistently favors the second meaning. It is the case, however, that both meanings are attested in the lexicons. BDB, for example, suggests that הקים can mean to establish or make a covenant, as well as to carry out or give effect to a covenant (BDB, 879).

Leaving aside temporarily the references in Gen 6, 9, it is interesting to consider how the expression הקים ברית is used in the rest of the Old Testament. The expression in Gen 17:7 occurs in the context of God’s promise of future blessing, so should be understood in terms of God fulfilling or carrying out his covenant promises. In Gen 17:19, 21, God promises that he would perpetuate or renew the Abrahamic covenant with Isaac in the future. The usage of the expression in Exod 6:4 is a little ambiguous. It could either be saying that God established a covenant with the patriarchs to give them the land of Canaan, or that God confirmed this covenant and the promise of land by giving the patriarchs possession of the land in the sense that they were able to sojourn there. But can their sojourning in the land be considered as being a fulfillment of the promise to give them the land? To some extent, yes; but obviously not fully. This, along with the way in which God goes on to talk about how he would remember his covenant by redeeming the people from Egypt and taking them to the promised land (see Exod 6:6-8), suggests that the use of the expression in Exod 6:4 more likely indicates the intial establishment of the covenant with Abraham and the subsequent ratifications of the covenant with Isaac and Jacob individually. The expression in Lev 26:9 occurs in the context of future blessing, so it should also be understood in terms of God fulfilling or carrying out his covenant promises. The expression in Deut 8:18 also occurs in a future context, and should likewise be taken as indicating God’s fulfillment of the covenant promises. The usage of the expression in Ezek 16:60, 62 is somewhat ambiguous. God promises in Ezek 16:60 that he would remember his covenant (namely, the Sinaitic covenant; see Ezek 16:8) by establishing an eternal covenant with Judah. Is this talking about the institution of a new covenant, or the reaffirmation of the Sinaitic covenant? The answer to this is probably found in Ezek 16:61. Connected with the “establishment” of this eternal covenant is Judah’s penitent shame and her reception of Israel and the people of the region of Sodom as her daughters, “but not on the basis of your covenant.” This suggests that the “eternal covenant” in Ezek 16:60 is a new covenant, because it can incorporate non-Israelites, and because it is distinguished from “your covenant” (i.e., the Sinaitic covenant); but at the same time this new covenant constitutes God’s remembering, i.e., his fulfillment, of the Sinaitic covenant. It is not as if God would abandon or forget the Sinaitic covenant, but that the Sinaitic covenant finds its eternal fulfillment in the new covenant. If this is the correct understanding, then the covenant that is “established” in Ezek 16:62 is probably the new covenant, and this seems to be confirmed by the way in which the establishment of this covenant is linked in with the penitent shame of Judah and comprehensive forgiveness in Ezek 16:63.

The expression to establish the words of a covenant should also be noted. In this regard, 2 Kgs 23:3 is very interesting. Here Josiah cuts a covenant with Yahweh, and promises to obey Yahweh’s laws “with all his heart and all his soul, in order to establish the words of this covenant that were written in [the] book” of the law that was found in the temple. In other words, Josiah makes a covenant with God with a view to keeping the obligations of the Mosaic covenant. Josiah’s “new” covenant expressed his commitment to keeping the “old” Mosaic covenant. But to establish the words of a covenant clearly means here to fulfill one covenantal obligations. In a similar way, not establishing the words of a covenant is paralleled with the transgression of a covenant in Jer 34:18.

Overall, therefore, the expression הקים ברית usually indicates the confirmation or fulfillment of a covenant; but there are also places where it seems to be used of the initial establishment of a covenant. How then should we understand the use of the expression הקים ברית in Gen 6:18; 9:9, 11, 17? Please tune in next time for the answer to this question.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Everlasting Covenant with Noah in Genesis Chapter 9

The first reference to ברית עולם or everlasting covenant in the Bible occurs in Gen 9:16. God says to Noah: “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant [ברית עולם] between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”

The question is: what does the phrase eternal covenant refer to here? The answer is found in the immediately preceding context, but in investigating this context it is helpful to consider the parties to the covenant as well as the content of the covenant.

According to Gen 9:16, the parties of this particular covenant are God and all living creatures. But Gen 9:15 shows that the expression every living creature of all flesh in v. 16 includes Noah and his offspring—the word you in the expression between me and you in v. 15 is a plural pronoun. Genesis 9:13 speaks of the covenant as being made between God and the earth, but what is in view is particularly the living creatures who dwell on the earth. This is very clear in the wording of Gen 9:10-11 when God says to Noah: “Behold, I am establishing my covenant with you and your seed after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark, for every animal of the earth.” That Noah’s seed is included in the covenant suggests that this is a covenant that involves more parties than simply the human beings and animals alive at the time. Indeed, in Gen 9:12 it is spelled out that this covenant is being made for eternal [עולם] generations. In other words, this covenant was made with Noah, the land animals, and the winged creatures alive at the time together with their seed from that point in time ad infinitum. The parties of this covenant, therefore, are God as the first party and every living creature descended from Noah and the animals which had been housed in his ark as the second party.

Turning to consider the content of this covenant, it is helpful to note that the rainbow is the sign of this covenant (Gen 9:12, 16). The sign of the covenant encapsulates the core content of the covenant, which is in particular the promise not to destroy all flesh: “I will establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen 9:11); “the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh” (Gen 9:15).

Given the identification of the parties of this covenant as being Noah and his seed, as well as the animals and their subsequent generations in perpetuity, and given that the content of the covenant centers on the idea that there will not be another deluge akin to the flood of Noah, then it seems that the Noahic covenant is a ברית עולם due to the fact that the promise at the core of this covenant is eternal (i.e., from that point in time ever onwards) in its scope.

But what about William Dumbrell’s idea that the covenant ceremony in Gen 9 was confirming a covenant that had been made previously between God and creation? Is the Noahic covenant a ברית עולם in the sense that it continues on forever from the time of Noah, or rather because it is simply a confirmation of God’s eternal covenant with creation? I will endeavor to answer this question in my next post.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Perfecting of Jesus as High Priest upon the Cross

An investigation of how the LXX deals with the Hebrew concept of filling the hand has interesting implications for the concept of the perfection of Jesus in the letter to the Hebrews. Now perhaps you are wondering: what has the Hebrew idiom of filling the hand (see “Fill the Hand: A Hebrew Idiom of Ordination and Consecration”) got to do with Jesus’ perfection? Let me explain, and then you can let me know what you think.


The LXX translates the Hebrew idiom מלא יד in four ways. Firstly it can be translated using the expression ἐμπίπλημι τὰς χεῖρας to fill the hands. This occurs in Exod 28:41; Judg 17:5, 12 [Alexandrinus]. The second option simply uses πίπλημι rather than ἐμπίπλημι. This occurs in 2 Kgs 9:24; Ezek 43:26. The third option is for the Hebrew idiom to be translated using the expression πληρόω τὰς χεῖρας to fill the hands. This occurs in Exod 32:29; Jdg 17:5, 12 [Vaticanus]; 1 Kgs 13:33; 1 Chr 29:5; 2 Chr 13:9; 29:31. The fourth and final option is to translate this Hebrew idiom using the expression τελειόω τὰς χεῖρας to complete/consecrate the hands. This is the situation in Exod 29:9, 33, 35; Lev 8:33; 16:32; Num 3:3. Leviticus 21:10 also belongs in this category. It uses the perfect passive participle of τελειόω, but without the phrase τὰς χεῖρας.

It is this final option with the verb τελειόω that is quite fascinating. It is to be noted that τελειόω τὰς χεῖρας is what is found in Leviticus, and particularly in Lev 8, the chapter that deals with the ordination of Aaron as the high priest. The מלא root actually occurs seven times in Lev 8. In Lev 8:22, 29 mention is made of the ram of ordination אֵיל הַמִּלֻּאִים, which is translated in the LXX as κριὸς τελείωσις. In Lev 8:28 the baked wave offering is described as a consecration מִלֻּאִים to God. In Lev 8:31 mention is made of a basket of consecration סַל הַמִּלֻּאִים. Then in Lev 8:33, we have three instances of the מלא root occuring in close proximity: Moses is to command Aaron and his sons not to leave the tent of meeting for seven days, literally, until the day of the filling מְלֹאת of the days of your filling/consecration מִלֻּאֵיכֶם, because for seven days he will fill יְמִלֵּא your hand יֶדְכֶם.”

The LXX translates the first four instances of the מלא root in Lev 8 using the noun τελείωσις. In Lev 8:33, it translates מְלֹאת using the verb πληρόω, but it uses τελείωσις for מִלֻּאִים, and the verb τελειόω for יְמִלֵּא. We have to say, therefore, that the τελειόω family of words is very prominent in the narrative of the ordination of Aaron as high priest in the LXX.

My suggestion is that this use of the τελειόω group of words in Lev 8 is relevant for understanding the concept of the τελείωσις of Jesus in the letter to the Hebrews. This is because Lev 8 juxtaposes the concepts of consecration/perfection and priesthood, and Hebrews does likewise in relation to the perfection and priesthood of Jesus.

The τελειόω group of words is used in Hebrews in a number of places; but, limiting our investigation to instances where Jesus is explicitly the agent or patient of the action denoted by τελειόω, the τελειόω group of words occurs five times.
    ● The verb τελειόω is used in Heb 2:10 where it is said that God made Jesus perfect through sufferings.
    ● In Heb 5:9 τελειόω is again used to speak of how Jesus was made perfect, which follows on from the idea in v. 8 of Jesus learning obedience through suffering. Once again, the idea seems to be that Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross brought him to perfection in the sense that he completed what was necessary for him to be fully qualified to live in the presence of God and to function as a high priest for God’s people.
    ● The verb τελειόω is also used in Heb 7:28. Here Jesus is spoken of as being appointed as God’s Son (who has a priestly function), having been perfected eternally. The perfection in view here is presumably connected with his offering up of himself as a sacrifice, which is mentioned in Heb 7:27.
    ● The verb τελειόω is also used of Jesus’ eternal perfecting of believers through his offering up of himself: “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb 10:14). If Jesus brought believers to perfection through his sacrificial death on the cross—note also the use of τελειόω in Heb 9:9 where it is implied that Jesus’ sacrifice is the only kind of sacrifice that can perfect those who worship God—then it makes sense to say that Jesus’ own perfection was achieved in a similar way, i.e., his death on the cross was the climax of the process of his perfecting, the process of the learning of obedience through suffering so as to qualify him to live in the presence of God and to function as a high priest.
    ● Finally, in Heb 12:2 the noun τελειωτής perfecter is applied to Jesus: he is “the author and perfecter of faith.” This presumably means that Jesus is the one who begins and completes faith in the sense that he is the one who has gone beforehand on the journey of faith, as well as being the one who has completed the journey of faith, enduring the cross, despising the shame (Heb 12:3). His perfection of faith makes our journey of faith possible, and gives it an assured destination.
All in all, the juxtaposition of the concepts of perfection and priesthood in Lev 8 and in Hebrews suggests that, in the mind of the author of Hebrews, Jesus’ ordination as a high priest after the order of Melchizedek formally took place at the cross. The cross was where the process of Jesus’ ordination as our great high priest was completed. The cross was where Jesus was filled with high priestly power and authority. He offered up his life as the אֵיל הַמִּלֻּאִים, the ram of ordination. In this way, by the singular offering of himself, he not only perfected himself for the office of high priest, but “has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”