What does the expression “Covenant” tell us about the writing activities of the first stories in the Bible?
In his Letter to the Romans, Paul makes a serious remark about his co-nationals and their religion.
“They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; 5 to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ. God who is over all, be blessed forever. Amen.” (Romans 9:4-5 RSV)
B’rith and Diathèkè
We read here about the spiritual richness of the people of God, an accumulation of privileges. And in between there is one little word, which is the pivoting point “the covenants”. This word is of extreme importance of our subject: the history of Hebrew writing. The Greek word for covenant is diathèkè, and it is the translation of the Hebrew word b’rith, ordinance, covenant (in the Septuagint, ca. 200 BC). Diathèkè also has this meaning: testament, last will.
The sonship means that the people of Israel are sons and daughters of Abraham.
The glory is certainly the glory of God. There was a lacking of God’s glory, when the Israelites tried to reach glory by manpower alone.
The covenants with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exod 2:24, 6:3, 8. Lev 26:42). These are the appointments and promises God made with them, while sacrifices were given, and writings had been made. Compare the blog “What do we learn from Abraham about the Hebrew Bible?”
The Ten Commandments also represented a covenant between the people of Israel and God (Exod 24:8), followed by the delivering of the Torah (Law) at the end of the journey through the desert.
The point of our subject is that a covenant, like a testament, is not without a written document. Always, a document is a part of it.
A New Covenant Announced
In the later history of Israel, prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezechiel announced a new covenant. This would be the fulfilling of the covenant with David, as God would give him an eternal house: “And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established forever,” (2 Sam 6:16) and “Yes, does not my house stand so with God? For he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure,” (2 Sam 23:5).
Fulfilment of the New Covenant
The new covenant, promised by the prophets, was fulfilled with Jesus, the Son of David. The Letter of the Hebrews says:
“15 Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant [diathèkè], so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred which redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant [diathèkè]. 16 For where a will [diathèkè] is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. 17 For a will [diathèkè] takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive.” (Hebrews 9:15-17)
Verse 15. A death has occurred. Instead of an animal sacrifice, for forgiveness a human has given himself as on offering to confirm the new covenant.
Verse 16, 17. Where a testament is, there must be a testator to bring the testament into effect. The death of Jesus brings forth the fruits of God’s grace for all who believe. That is the rich inheritance of this new covenant, for the people of Israel who believe, and also for the non-Jewish people who believe.
Fruits of the Covenant
1. The verses from Hebrews make clear that the testament of Jesus was written, before he died. All materials for the Gospels were ready to be published by the first apostolic church in Jerusalem. And the apostles did so, to make known the rich inheritance for all who believed. After Pentecost, they presented the four Gospels as soon as possible.
2. Moreover. Could Moses allow himself to write the Torah, the book of God’s revelation to Israel, with preceding stories of non-Jews (Gen 1-11) of less quality? No, he could not! And so the great stories of Adam and Eve in creation, of Noah, and of the tower of Babel are all of the same high quality, revelations written by angels and eyewitnesses (Acts 7:53, Gal 3:19). Even the word b’rith is used in the story of Noah (Gen 6:18, 9:9 etc.).
3. Actually, the content of the covenant with Noah is also to be found in the appointments God gave to Adam and Eve to inherit the earth and to reign over everything. So the creation stories also contain a covenant with Adam and Eve (including their transgression and the death of Abel). A sacrifice was not necessary then in their pure state in the Garden of Eden, but this covenant also could not without a document, written by angels and received by man (Gen 1-3, 4:1-16). This was then only possible as written in clay (clay tablets).