Saturday, May 28, 2011

Understanding the Old and New Covenants in Biblical Covenant Theology

A biblical theology that is truly biblical must necessarily deal with the biblical concept of covenant. This means that a biblical theology that is truly biblical will necessarily be a kind of covenant theology. This is necessarily so because of the way in which God has used covenants to structure his relationship with Israel and indeed all of humanity.

When thinking of covenant theology, a question arises concerning the legitimacy of the system of theology involving the covenant of works and the covenant of grace that is taught in the Westminster Confession. My opinion is that the distinction between a covenant of works in the garden of Eden and a postlapsarian covenant of grace that is taught in the Westminster Confession is helpful provided it is understood and applied in a manner consistent with the biblical description of God’s prelapsarian and postlapsarian dealings with humanity. For example, it is not correct to assume that the human obligation of obedience (i.e., works) in the garden means that there was no such thing as non-redemptive grace in the garden. Furthermore, given that the Old Testament establishes the framework of the covenant theology of the Bible, any covenant theology that is truly biblical must be consistent with the Old Testament teaching on the covenants as revealed in various key texts such as the book of Deuteronomy.

If by a covenant of works we understand that there could be no blessing in the garden of Eden without perfect obedience to the word of God, then the term covenant of works can be a helpful concept. And if by the covenant of grace we understand that blessing in the postlapsarian world is conditional upon a positive but imperfect response to the word of God in the context of atoning grace (what the Westminster Confession calls faith), then this can also be a helpful term.

But there is more to the covenant theology of the Bible than just a distinction between a so-called covenant of works and a covenant of grace. As the advocates of new covenant theology assert, it should be recognized that the primary covenantal distinction in the Bible and in Paul is not the distinction between the so-called covenant of works and the covenant of grace, but the distinction between the old covenant in Moses and the new covenant in Christ. Yet the advocates of new covenant theology are also mistaken when they deny that the old covenant was a covenant of grace.

The old covenant versus new covenant distinction that is present in the Bible is ultimately a distinction between different administrations of God’s singular gracious dealings with his people. The old covenant is a covenant of grace because the offer of the forgiveness of sins in Christ was proleptically communicated to the righteous within Israel through the Mosaic sacrificial system. Because atonement was offered to Israel as part of the Mosaic sacrificial system, the old covenant must be distinguished from the Adamic administration under which there was no system of atonement but only the punishment of death in the case of sin. It is important to recognize, therefore, that the personal covenantal obligation of the people of Israel was not perfect obedience. Although it is true that no one can live in the presence of God without moral perfection, the grace of the old covenant is seen in the fact that this need for moral perfection was not required of the nation or of the individual members of the covenant per se, but graciously provided by God through the sacrificial system, which functioned as a means by which the perfect righteousness of Christ could be imputed proleptically to the old covenant saints.

But even though the old covenant was a covenant of grace, it is important to understand that God laid down a condition for the people of Israel that to benefit from the grace offered as part of the covenant the people were required to exhibit faith on both a national and an individual level, where faith is understood to mean a holistic commitment to the whole word of God as revealed through Moses and the prophets. Furthermore, it is necessary to understand that, because God’s old covenant revelation is characteristically described in the Old Testament as law, the proper holistic response of faith is frequently spoken of in the Old Testament (as it has been in orthodox Judaism throughout the centuries) as doing the law. This means that the old covenant is described in the Bible as being a gracious covenant that requires the works of covenant obedience (i.e., holistic covenant faith) on the part of Israel. In the context of the grace of atonement offered through the Mosaic sacrificial system, these works of covenant obedience consisted of a persevering commitment to the covenant with God and its stipulations. In other words, the old covenant was a conditional covenant of grace. The condition of the Mosaic covenant was faith; but this faith was understood in holistic terms, and primarily expressed using the language of hearing and doing, i.e., covenant obedience.

Despite the fact that the old covenant was a covenant of grace, it is also important to understand that the conditional nature of the old covenant meant that Israel’s lack of commitment to the Mosaic covenant on a national level resulted in the old covenant becoming a covenant of condemnation, with the law of Moses functioning primarily as a “law of sin and death” (Rom 8:2). Even those who had kept faith with God under the old covenant were caught up in the condemnation of the nation as a whole. They were unable to experience eschatological justification and the fullness of covenant blessing because of the covenant rebellion of the majority. In this way, the old covenant ironically but providentially proved to be a replication of the so-called (Adamic) covenant of works, even though it was a covenant of grace. Hence, Paul’s teaching that “the law [of Moses] was added to increase the trespass [of Adam]” (Rom 5:20), and that “by the works of the law all flesh will not be justified” (Rom 3:20). That is to say, because of Israel’s failure as a nation in keeping covenant faith with God (i.e, because of their failure to keep the law of Moses), the old covenant was unable to bring eschatological justification and the fullness of salvation and blessing to humanity.

But this failure of the old covenant to achieve the fullness of covenant blessing for humanity was part of God’s plan. The so-called pedagogical function of the law is properly to be found in the idea that the failure of Israel under the law of Moses highlights the need for the new covenant in Christ as the solution to the problem of human sin that is described in the Old Testament. There was grace present in the old covenant, but a greater work of God’s grace was necessary for the fullness of salvation to be achieved. This new work of grace through the new covenant in Christ was clearly prophesied in the Old Testament, where it is taught that God would establish a new covenant by sending Christ, his suffering but Spirit-filled Servant, to make atonement for God’s people, and to break the power of sin on the cross, who thereupon would pour out the Holy Spirit to effect the circumcision of the hearts of not only the people of Israel but Gentiles as well, so that many people of many nations might be brought to faith in Christ, and experience the grace of forgiveness from God, so that God’s promise of the blessing of the nations in Abraham might be fulfilled.

Because Old Testament prophecy speaks of the new covenant as effecting the proper response that was required of Israel but lacking under the old covenant, and because the new covenant is portrayed as being the fulfillment of the old covenant, the new covenant in Christ exhibits the same covenant dynamics as the old covenant. Thus, the condition for benefiting from the grace of God offered in Christ likewise is faith, but in the new covenant age this is to be understood as a holistic commitment to the whole new word of God as revealed through Christ and his apostles. This contrasts with the holistic commitment to God’s word in the law of Moses under the old covenant. In the transition from the old covenant to the new, there is, therefore, a change in the mediators and content of covenant law; but this is not to be understood as if Moses and Christ are opposed to each other. Old covenant law commanded that when the Messiah appeared, Israel and the nations must submit to his authority and obey his word (Deut 18:15, 19; Ps 2:10–12). With the coming of the new covenant in Christ, therefore, the old covenant has been superseded. Indeed, the old covenant has now become more comprehensively a covenant of condemnation than what it proved to be for old covenant Israel previously, because maintaining a primary allegiance to Moses even though the Messiah has come is to deny the lordship of Christ and constitutes rebellion against God. Hence, Paul’s teaching that justification is by faith in Christ and no longer by the works of the Mosaic law (Rom 10:5–6).

The new covenant, therefore, like the old covenant, is a conditional covenant of grace; but the new covenant will succeed where the old covenant failed precisely because Christ will work through the power of the Holy Spirit to ensure that the new covenant community (as a whole) will fulfill the covenant condition of holistic faith. Those individuals who exhibit the right response of faith under the new covenant experience the grace of justification in the present, and will (on condition on perseverance in faith) be justified by God on the day of judgment, and thereby qualified to live eternally in God’s holy presence, experiencing the fullness of salvation and covenant blessing forever more.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Tsedeq Righteousness in Ezekiel

In a previous post (see “Tsedeq Righteousness in the Pentateuch”) we observed that the Hebrew noun צדק can denote what is right in a judicial context and also in business dealings. The noun צדק occurs four times in the book of Ezekiel, and it confirms the situation regarding צדק observed in the Pentateuch while adding a new sense to the word that is important in the Prophets and the Writings.

The first instance of צדק in Ezekiel occurs in Ezek 3:20 in the context of Ezekiel’s call to be a watchman over the house of Israel: “When a righteous man turns from his righteousness (מצדקו), and does iniquity, and I set a stumbling block before him, he shall die.” Turning from one’s צדק is linked here with doing עול (iniquity). Furthermore, as a result of such apostasy, “his righteous deeds (צדקתיו) which he has done shall not be remembered.” In this verse, therefore, צדק seems to denote right behavior.

In Ezek 45:10 צדק occurs three times in the one verse. In the context of the eschatological vision of Ezek 40–48 God says: “You shall have just balances, a just ephah, and a just bath.” The content of this verse is very similar to Lev 19:36: “You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin.” The effect of this is to portray the eschatological age as being one characterized by צדק. Weights and measures, and business transactions in general, will (in the age to come) reflect צדק, the quality of that which is right or correct.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Tsedaqah Righteousness in the Former Prophets

The noun צדק does not occur in the Former Prophets, but the related term צדקה occurs twelve times in this section of the Old Testament canon. Previously (see “Tsedaqah Righteousness in Genesis” and “Tsedaqah Righteousness in Deuteronomy”) we have noted that צדקה can be used to denote right behavior (active righteousness), the legal status of being in the right that flows from right behavior (stative righteousness), or the judicial act of establishing what is right (judicial righteousness or justice).

In 2 Sam 8:15 David is described in ideal terms as being a king who “does justice and righteousness for all his people.” The king also functioned as the highest judge in the land, and was required to execute justice by pronouncing legal judgments that accord with God’s standards of what is right. This verse links righteousness (צדקה) very closely with justice (משפט). By coming to correct legal decisions, David did צדקה in the sense that his judicial pronouncements defended and established what was morally and legally correct for those who sought justice from his court.

צדקה also occurs on the lips of Saul’s grandson, Mephibosheth. When David returned to Jerusalem after the rebellion of Absalom had ended, Mephibosheth went to see David, and was questioned by David as to why he had not accompanied him when he had left Jerusalem while fleeing from Absalom. In response, Mephibosheth explained how his servant Ziba had told lies about him to David, but he was prepared for David to deal with his case however David saw fit: “my lord the king is as an angel of God, so do what is good in your eyes. For all my father’s house were nothing but dead men before my lord the king, yet you have set your servant among those who eat at your own table. What right (צדקה) therefore do I have to cry out again to the king?” (2 Sam 19:27–28). Mephibosheth’s צדקה at this point is his right to call for the execution of צדקה for himself personally on the basis that צדקה was lacking in his regard (on account of the injustice of Ziba’s slander). Having received mercy previously from the hands of David, Mephibosheth felt that he was in no position to demand צדקה from David this time around.

צדקה as active righteousness occurs in 1 Kgs 3:6. Here Solomon speaks in prayer to God concerning his father, David, who is described by Solomon as being someone who walked before Yahweh “in truth (אמת) and in righteousness (צדקה) and in the uprightness of heart (ישרת לבב).” An upright heart is a morally good heart; and the heart being the integrating center of the human psyche in biblical anthropology, a right heart naturally results in right behavior. Such צדקה is אמת in the sense of being that which accords with the accepted standard of behavior, i.e., behavior that actualizes what a person has obligated oneself to do. For David, his צדקה was his covenant faithfulness to God. As a member of Israel in covenant with God, David’s walking in righteousness consisted of him living in a manner consistent with the stipulations of the Mosaic covenant.

צדקה also occurs on the lips of the Queen of Sheba. The queen on her visit to Israel acknowledged that “Yahweh … made [Solomon] king in order to do justice and righteousness” (1 Kgs 10:9). The meaning of צדקה in this verse is simlar to 2 Sam 8:15 where משפט and צדקה are paired. One of the key functions of the king in Israel was to establish judicial righteousness in his personal legal decisions and throughout the nation as a whole.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Reconstruction of the Pronunciation of the Divine Name Yahweh

The scholarly consensus is that the divine name יהוה was originally pronounced as Yahweh. But what evidence is there to support the pronunciation of יהוה as Yahweh?

God’s self-indentification in Exod 3:14 as אהיה אשר אהיה strongly suggests that the divine name יהוה is related to the Hebrew verb היה (be), the older form of which had vav (i.e., waw) rather than yod as the second root letter, i.e., הוה. The third person masculine singular form of היה is יִהְיֶה. This suggests that יהוה may originally have had a pointing something like יִהְוֶה, which is a word of two syllables.

Taking יִהְוֶה as the starting point, there is quite a deal of evidence in the Hebrew Bible that the first syllable of יהוה should be similar to יָהּ. Overall there are three broad pieces of evidence for this.

Firstly, יָהּ occurs as the name for God in the Hebrew Bible in poetry, especially in the psalms (see Exod 15:2; 17:16; Isa 12:2; 26:4; 38:11; Ps 68:5, 19; 77:12; 89:9; 94:7, 12; 102:19; 115:18; 118:5, 14, 17–19; 122:4; 130:3; 135:4; 150:6. Hebrew poetry is known to be more conservative in terms of vocabulary, i.e., older lexical items tend to be preserved in poetry compared to prose. It should also be noted that the mappiq (or dot) in the ה indicates that the ה is taken to be a consonant rather than simply as a vowel letter.

Secondly the name יָהּ is preserved in the set phrase haleluyah (Ps 104:35; 105:45; 106:1, 48; 111:1; 112:1; 113:1; 115:17–18; 116:19; 117:2; 135:1, 3, 21; 146:1, 10; 147:1, 20; 148:1, 14; 149:1, 9; 150:1, 6). Appropriately the final word in the Psalter is הַלְלוּ–יָהּ. This set phrase is simply a masculine plural Piel imperative form of the verb הלל which takes the poetic name of God יָהּ as a direct object.

Thirdly, the name יָהּ is preserved in the names of individuals such as Elijah (אֵלִיָּ֫הוּ), Uzziah (עֻזִיָּה), Josiah (יֹאשִׁיָּ֫הוּ), Jeremiah (יִרְמְיָ֫הוּ), Zechariah (זְכַרְיָה), etc.

Thus, there is strong evidence that the first syllable of the divine name יהוה should sound like יָהּ. Modifying our starting point with this information gives the form יַהְוֶה, i.e., Yahweh. The qámets of יָהּ has reduced to pátakh in יַהְוֶה because the first syallable is closed and unstressed.

The main linguistic argument against the reconstruction יַהְוֶה is is that the instances of יָהּ cited above all occur either as an independent syllable or as a final syllable, and not as a first syllable. The only attested form of יָהּ that occurs as a prefix form is actually יְהוֹ, which has been preserved in names such as Joshua (יְהוֹשֻׁעַ), Jehoshaphat (יְהוֹשָׁפָט) and Jehoiakim (יְהוֹיָקִים). But standing against this is the transliteration of יהוה into Greek by Epiphanius (c. 315–403) and Theodoret (c. 393–c. 457) as ’Ιαβέ. If this transliteration is accurate, then Yahweh stands as being the most probable original pronunciation of the word יהוה.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Mispronunciation of Yahweh as Jehovah

The claim was made in a previous post (see “The Meaning of the Name Yahweh or Jehovah”) that Jehovah is the incorrect pronunciation of the Hebrew word יהוה, which the scholarly consensus reckons should be pronounced as Yahweh (see “The Reconstruction of the Pronunciation of the Divine Name Yahweh”).

The word Jehovah, despite its presence traditionally in many English translations of the Bible, is actually a nonsense word from the perspective of the Hebrew language. There is no such word as Jehovah in Hebrew. Jehovah is in reality a nonsense word because it is made up of the consonants of one word and the vowels of another.

The confusion stems from the Jewish tradition of qere and ketiv. The Aramaic word ketiv (written as כְּתִיב in Aramaic) denotes the uncorrected consonants of a problematic word that appears in the Masoretic text. כְּתִיב means it is written. The Aramiac word qere (written as קְרֵי in Aramaic) denotes the correct reading according to Masoretic manuscript tradition. קְרֵי means to be read. The qere is indicated in later Hebrew manuscripts and Hebrew Bibles by the sign ק in the margin. The consonants of the qere are written above the ק. They are to be viewed from the Masoretic perspective as constituting the consonants of the correct reading. The vowels of the qere are not written in the margin; but importantly are written in the body of the text together with the ketiv.

A good example of the way in which the qere and ketiv works is Lev 9:22. This verse has the form יָדַו in the body of the verse, and the qere form ידיו in the margin. The ketiv Thus, the qere is signaling that a yod has dropped out of the text during transmission. The qere together with the vowels written in the text gives the more regular form יָדַיו.

However, not all of the qere are written in the margin of the text. A large number of the more frequent instances of qere are treated as assumed knowledge. These qere are called perpetual qere.

And this brings us back to the divine name יהוה and the word Jehovah, because the most famous example of a perpetual qere is the divine name יהוה. As all Jews familiar with the Hebrew Bible know, the perpetual qere of יהוה is the word אֲדֹנָי (pronounced adonai), which means Lord or Master. The Masoretes, following Jewish practice, considered the divine name יהוה too sacred to pronounce safely, so they substituted אֲדֹנָי for יהוה when reading this word in the Scriptures.

Unaware of the existence of qere and ketiv in the Masoretic tradition, early translators of the Hebrew Bible read the ketiv of יהוה and the vowels of its qere as going together to form one word. When the consonants of יהוה (y + h + w + h) are combined with the vowels of אֲדֹנָי (shewa + khólem + qámets, which sounds like: e + o + a) , the word יְ | הֹ | וָה (yehowah) is the result. The name Jehovah, therefore, is simply the transliteration into Latin of the word that results from the confusion of the ketiv with the vowels of the qere of the divine name יהוה. The name Jehovah is not a real Hebrew word, and Jehovah is not an accurate pronunciation of the divine name יהוה.