Why did God make a covenant with Abraham and his family?
Three Good Reasons:
Often the last two are emphasized by people doing bible overviews or speaking in general about the purpose of scripture. We (in CSBS) put a heavy emphasis on the work that God is doing from beginning to end is a work of Redemption.
Some draw up these ideas together or play them off of each other. Some think that Its primarily about one or the two together. However, all three together really have a lot of merit and can help us understand better the use of scripture. Redemption is the work of God throughout scripture from beginning to end. Revelation is the initial means on Gods part in doing that work. By way of Gods revelation people can be restored to Relationship with God and join his redemptive project.
For years I have been taught (correctly I believe) that Genesis is a book of Beginnings, the beginning of the world, humanity, purpose, sin, and the beginning of Gods redemptive plan. God initiates his redemptive plan by revealing himself to Abram, and then by way of a covenant relationship with Abraham and his family his redemptive plan takes another step forward. When we understand this the rest of the OT falls into place, and Christ and the New Testament falls neatly into place as well.
The Covenant itself is captured in the Torah, and then played out in the historical narratives, then reflected upon in the wisdom literature, then the prophets comment on Israel’s history with a Covenant lens. Understanding covenant will help you understand the whole bible.
Covenant functions as Gods revelation of himself, as well as details how relationship with God work, and demands a participation with Gods ongoing redemptive work.
John Walton believes that before God fixed the problem of human sin he set out to fix the problem of falsely constructed deity or The problem of Babel.  This works for continued context of Genesis 11 and then reading Genesis 12 as part of Gods response to Babel. He spreads everyone out giving them different languages and then revealing himself to them specifically like in the case of Abraham. God wants Abram to have a right view of God. Fair enough, I just do not buy into the idea that Covenant is primarily about Revelation. I will conceded that it precedes relationship, and redemption. It was perhaps a large part of his means of building and reconstructing relationship with man.
That said, I believe that Revelation is a key part of what God is doing with the Laws and Narratives of Torah and Covenant. For many Christians there is a sharp dichotomy between Law and Grace. It is a accurate dichotomy for salvation being based on Grace not obedience to Law. But there can be detrimental effects of drawing out the dichotomy to sharply and to often. How did the ancient Israelite’s speak of the Law? They loved it, they desired it, they were grateful for it, and yearned for the Law (via David). It was not a burden to the people of the OT. The pieces fall together when we see Law and its interrelationship with Covenant and revelation. If the Law was part of the Covenant, and the covenant is part of Gods revelation to men then Law is Revelation. If Gods revelation of himself is seen as an essential part of his redemptive work of salvation and Grace then Law can = grace. The point is that basic, Gods Law was his grace to the ancient people. That is the way they saw it. They were extremely grateful for Gods revelation of himself through the Law, and through the entire covenant. To further illustrate this point I want to draw from a creative dialogue from Professor John H. Walton between two ancient Babylonians on pilgrimage the Temple of Shamash in the 2nd Millennium BC.
“Ayyab sees Rab-ilu approaching the crossroads, so he stands to the side and lets others pass while he waits for his friend. Perhaps some conversation will help pass the time. So Ayyab asks Rab-ilu, “Come now, my friend, why so glum? This is feast day, and the great city awaits our arrival. How can one look so sad with the gleam of the temple of Shamash already practically in sight?”
“Perhaps joy comes easily to you, Rab-ilu; your seed coffers are filled and your patch of ground bursting with Shamash’s favor. Your family is well also?”
“Indeed, my downcast friend, the gods do smile on me. Galatu has presented me with another fine son this year, and the others have grown since we last spoke. I do believe my gifts to the gods have been gratefully received.” Rab-ilu’s smile stretched from ear to ear as he reminded himself of the many pleasures of life.
Rab-ilu is startled when Ayyab suddenly exclaims, “The gods! Pah!! I despise them! My gifts to the gods have been no less generous than yours, Rab-ilu! I have been no stranger to the temple. I have poured out my libations daily and offered my prayers. What complaint, then, do the gods have against me that my harvest these past two years together has not equaled even one harvest of the previous years? And my children, Rab-ilu. Why do they take my children from me? What do they want, these gods? What does it take to earn their favor? Surely you must know, Rab-ilu; do not hide it from me.”
Rab-ilu allowed the question to hang dangerously in the air as the two trudged on toward the city, caught up in the milling crowd of festive pilgrims. What did he know? He knew what the priests told him, that the gods demanded care. The people of the city and the surrounding villages had the privilege of providing food and a splendid temple for Shamash. In turn, they expected that his favor would shine on them. But how much was enough? How did the priests know what food the gods enjoyed? How did they know what rituals calmed their hearts? What could anyone do to assure that the gods would not strike them? Yet all knew that there were no guarantees. “Then why do you go to temple today, Ayyab, if the gods have earned only your spite?”
“Alas, Rab-ilu, as cruel as the gods have been, it would be folly to ignore them. Better to set fire to my own fields and murder my children in their sleep. The gods would do that and more. No, I come with a gift to ask an oracle of the priests. Perhaps they can instruct me concerning some little detail that I have missed. I want to please the gods; I must find a way to please the gods. We will starve next winter if the late harvest does not improve.”
As they pass through the gateway and on into the temple complex, Ayyab and Rab-ilu stand gazing at the gold-gilded temple reflecting the splendor of the sun god, Shamash. They both think of how little they knew of the gods despite the high price they pay to them. Then they each go their separate ways: Rab-ilu to offer his sacrifice of thanks for the gracious blessing of the gods, and Ayyab to join the long line of petitioners seeking anything that might offer them hope. “Till next year, Rab-ilu.”
Hope is a commodity in short supply in a world without revelation. In the ancient world there were few atheists. Their primitive understanding of the natural world allowed no option such as naturalism to fill the gaps left if deity were eliminated from the picture. Everything was attributed to the favor or anger of the gods. With no revelation, however, there was no way to know what pleased and what angered them.
In a well-known Assyrian prayer entitled “A Prayer to Every God,” the worshiper seeks to appease a deity from his anger over an offense that the worshiper has committed. There are only two problems: He doesn’t know which god is angry, and he doesn’t know of anything he has done wrong. He therefore addresses each confession he makes to “the god I know or do not know, the goddess I know or do not know.” He is ready to confess ignorantly eating forbidden food or invading sacred space—anything to appease. His frustration overwhelms us with sympathy as he expresses his hopelessness:
Although I am constantly looking for help, no one takes me by the hand;
When I weep, they do not come to my side.
I utter laments, but no one hears me;
I am troubled; I am overwhelmed; I cannot see.…
Man is dumb; he knows nothing;
Mankind, everyone that exists—what does he know?
Whether he is committing sin or doing good, he does not even know.14
This is the plight of those who live in a world without revelation. That is why the covenant is so important to us and why the law was such a treasure to Israel. God had spoken. In grace, he condescended to communicate concerning what pleases him and what angers him. We don’t have to guess. He has opened to us his character, his attributes, his heart. How sad it is that the reality of revelation has become so commonplace to us. What a tragedy that we take it for granted. Though we have every reason to revel in the thrill of our eternal destiny, we would be terribly remiss if we failed to realize that greater than the privilege of living forever is that of knowing God because, in the end, our faith is about God, not about us.
We need be wary, however, for in today’s world there are many who seek to neutralize the revelation that we take for granted. From critical scholars who consider the Bible no different from any other ancient literature to the pluralistic demagogues who tell us that one religious book is as good as another, many discount the Bible’s status as God’s revelation. We cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that without the Bible, we would know nothing about God.15 It is only through his Word that we learn the extent and nuances of his holiness, his sovereignty, his justice, his faithfulness, his grace, and his love.” 2
I love this little story. Creatively it captures the need the ancient people had for the revelation of the gods. Most sacred ancient literature does not even claim to be a revelation from God. Sacred texts are written by priests who were skilled enough to crack open the realm of the gods to determine some kind of meaning or purpose or message for their lives.
Christians in our modern age are typically not known for being people of Grace. Though one of the most well known and embraced doctrines of Christian Faith is “Salvation by Grace”. These passages about the covenant point to part of the problem even in our 21st Century world. While Christians believe themselves to be the recipients of grace they do not always see themselves as dispensers of Grace. And sadly the world does not see Christians as this either. The typical view of Christians is actually the opposite of people who extend grace to others.
The contemporary significance of the passages comes alive quite well when we consider the original meaning of the covenant. God set out to reveal himself clearly to those ancient people. We wanted them to rediscover relationship with the “All Mighty” God. We also wanted them to be a partner with him in his work. That work post Eden, is about redemption of all families, and all of creation. If we want to be like God we need to go beyond people who are ‘saved by Grace’ to being a people who are ‘characterized by grace”.
Overall this has been a paper on Covenant as Gods self Revelation. Although I personally believe in looking at the law as being specifically about both the man-God relationship and partnership for the redemptive project of God. I want to continue exploring how to tack on this key emphasis as well, having to do with Revelation. So much of the content of the Covenant is about Revelation or self disclosure of God. Or I will also tell people that once you get into the details or when you say how God articulates how the covenant works then you begin to understand that its about Relationship and Redemption. But this is actually something God reveals, discloses, articulates in the details of the Covenant. So really all three of these “R’s” are helpful for understanding the covenant, its purpose and characteristics. The more that I clarify this the more I feel this has been there all along in the CSBS’s I have been a part of. It is one of the reason students feel a strong confidence in the use of the Law beyond a purely soteriological reading of Paul and the Torah. There are reasons beyond how to and how not to be saved. Law and Torah has to do with being a dispenser of Gods grace via revelation within the covenant details.
1. The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis by John H. Walton – Page 400-402
2. The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis by John H. Walton – Page 406-408