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.

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