The Covenants with Abraham and Israel: One or Two?

mick-haupt-eQ2Z9ay9Wws-unsplash.jpgIn his commentary on Deuteronomy, Daniel Block considers the relationship between God’s covenant with Abraham and his covenant with Israel. Entitled “the covenant with your forefathers” in Deuteronomy 4:31, he asks whether this is a reference to God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (cf. Exod 2:24; 6:4; Lev 26:4)? Or a reference to the covenant God made with Israel at Horeb (Deut 4:13)? Or is it somehow a reference to both?

In eight points, Block shows why it is best to see these two covenants as organically related. Instead of singularly referring to the covenant with Abraham or the covenant at Horeb, he explains that God’s covenant with Israel continues the covenant with Abraham. Adding legislation to the original covenant with Abraham, it extends the promises to Abraham and adds national stipulations for Abraham’s offspring. In this way, Block helps us read Moses on his own terms and to see how the biblical covenants relate to one another. Here’s how Block explains it:

1. The distinction many make between the Abraham a covenant as unconditional and the Israelite covenant as conditional is false. All covenants involve relationships, the health of which depends on the actions of each party vis-a-vis the other. As anticipated in Genesis 17:7, the Israelite covenant ratified at Sinai was the means by which the promise made within the Abrahamic covenant was fulfilled. [The covenant at Sinai also takes a further step towards the covenants with Levi and David, which ultimately terminate in the New Covenant].

2. Although we read of God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob [Exod 2:24; 6:4; Lev 26:42; 2 Kgs 13:23; 1 Chron 16:15–18; Ps 105:8–11], this covenant is never referred to elsewhere as “the covenant of your forefathers.”

3. Leviticus 26:45 explicitly associates the “covenant of the ancestors (berit ri’sōnîm), used here, with those “whom I brought out of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God.”

4. In [Deuteronomy 4] (esp. vv. 9–31), the central issue has been the covenant that Yahweh made with Israel at Horeb and that is embodied in the Decalogue.

5. Moses’ reference to Yahweh’s remembering his covenant with the forefathers deliberately contrasts his fixed memory with the Israelite lapse of memory (cf. v. 23).

6. Since Moses is speaking of the distant future (v. 30) and specifically refers to when “you have had children and grandchildren” (v. 25), “your forefathers” could refer to the exodus generation or even to the present generation.

7. While some cite the absence of an oath at Horeb as evidence for the Abrahamic covenant, we should note first that in the ancient Near East covenants would rarely have been made without an oath. Moreover, later prophetic tradition actually speaks of Yahweh’s commitment on oath to this covenant.” [Ezek 16:8; 20:5]

8. Finally, borrowing heavily from Deuteronomy, Jeremiah explicitly identifies the exodus generation as the forefathers with whom Yahweh made a covenant (34:13).

From these observations, we can see how the covenant with Abraham and his children grew into the covenant with Israel. Or as Block concludes,

In the end, there is no need to choose between the patriarchal covenant and the Israelite covenant. Rather than focusing on the land— as promised to the patriarchs—in verse 31 Moses’ attention is on Yahweh’s relationship with his people: “He will neither fail you nor destroy you” [pers. trans.]. Furthermore, the “return” spoken of in verses 29-31 is not to the land but to Yahweh. The issue in this chapter is much greater than land. Unlike the gods of the nations, who were primarily interested in territory and only secondarily concerned about people, always primary concern lies with his people and his relationship to them (Gen. 17:7). The covenant he remembers is the one made with Abraham, extended to his descendants at Horeb, and about to be confirmed with this generation on the Plains of Moab. (pp. 134–36)

Overall, Block’s commentary is helpful as it reminds us to see how the biblical text explains the development of covenants. But his additional comment about the land is also apposite, for he invites us to see the main point of each biblical covenant is God himself—not the land, not the offspring, not the material blessings of the covenant.

While each covenant promises blessings such as offspring and land, those blessings are only as good as the God who dwells in the land and grants life to future generations. In this way, God is the gift of every covenant, and every covenant is at its core God-centered. For this reason, the storyline of the Bible awaits a covenant that is made between God (the Father) and God (the Son). Until God the Son keeps the new covenant, all the other covenants are preliminary and endangered by sin. The Old Testament compacts with God are true covenants, but as Hebrews says—they are weak and fading away.

Thankfully, God keeps his promise to Abraham (Genesis 15) and even when Abraham’s offspring fail Yahweh’s steadfast love remains (cf. Hosea 11). This divine faithfulness is seen in God’s commitment to bring Israel back from the nations and to add the nations to them in the final covenant God makes with humanity through the death and resurrection of Christ.

Truly, the new covenant is the source of international hope and the one to which all the other covenants in the Bible point. For that reason we must keep looking at how the Bible describes the covenants and how they all lead to Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

One thought on “The Covenants with Abraham and Israel: One or Two?

  1. Pingback: Gathered Worship: Why Your Soul Needs the Body of Christ (Deuteronomy 4:9–31) | Via Emmaus

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