Ancient Near East

Why Covenant: Some new thoughts on the purpose and reason for the Covenant

Why did God make a covenant with Abraham and his family?

Three Good Reasons:torah1

  1. Revelation
  2. Relationship/Partnership
  3. Redemption

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. [1] 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”.

Summary Statements:
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.

ταῦτα ἀνακρίνω

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

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Categories: Ancient Near East, Bible, Context, CSBS, Culture, Egyptian Mythology, Faith, Genesis, History, Modern, Old Testament, School of Biblical Studies, Theology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38

tamarIs also the story about family dynamics and a prerequisite story for understanding the specific Laws of Moses about family life. The story should also include three other key figures. The sons of Judah and Tamar’s rightful husbands; Er the firstborn, Onan the second, and Shelah the third.

The problem begins when the first born dies and leaves Tamar without a husband. The duty of the second son was then to go and provided offspring for Tamar and for the dead brother and the children of Tamar would inherit their rightful portion or blessings of the firstborn son. This displeased Onan and he refused to have proper sexual intercourse with Tamar thus; “emptying his semen on the ground” (v9).

So then comes the death of Onan as it says ‘because of his wickedness’. Judah then sends Tamar back to live with her father until Shelah is of age, he was afraid of Shelah dying and leaving himself without an heir. Next we see that Judah’s wife dies and he wants to go hang out with his good friend. Tamar hears of this, and also hears of Shelah being old enough but not given in marriage. Judah is in a predicament because his wife is now gone, and only has one son left.

Tamar then takes matters into her own hands as she probably does not want to be a widow the rest of her life. She changes from a widows garments to some prostitute garb and goes to hang out somewhere she will be seen by lonely Judah. (For ancient wifeless men a prostitute would be a potential option for producing a son, not just a opportunity for pleasure. However, he was under the impression probably based on where she was hanging out that she was a cult prostitute and not just a women looking for a man.) Anyway, she and Judah do the deed and she convinces him to leave with her some collateral until other means of payment can be made.

Later Judah learns of Tamar’s pregnancy and assumes that she has been immoral and has rebelled against her rightful household and played the whore. Once she proves that it was with Judah himself that she conceived a child he realized that it was actually himself that was immoral and wrong for not given his rightful son to. In Judah’s mind and everyone else she had not acted immoral or whorish but that she actually did what was right. Its just that she had to do it in a sneaky way. In the end because she was cleaver, she pulled it off and revealed that she had done what was within her right. To bear a child within her rightful place in Judah’s family.

The original question on the passage had to do with the “wasting of semen”. Onan in particular acted wickedly because he refused to acknowledge the right of Tamar and his dead older brothers heritage to go on and claim their inheritance. The story acts as a reminder to the later people of God that the family of God is a special thing. That each member has a special part to play in the story of Gods people. That they are to work as a family honoring the place of women within the family dynamic as well as the common tradition of honoring the first born.
The story is a reminder for Israel that women and not only men have the responsibility to be the people of God and take pride in their place in the family of God, not despising it or despising the place of others within it.
The passage therefore is not originally intended to be about ‘birth control’ as we may read it in our 21st century way of thinking. However, birth control is a 21st century social issue. Perhaps the passage in a timeless way reminds us at least that we are not to have selfish motives when it comes to child bearing. We do it out of a recognition that it is Gods divine plan for us to bear and raise children for Gods glory, to occupy his creation, and accomplish his goals. We should do it willingly, and remember that relationships are not about what we can get out of it but about what we can give and what we are passing on. Onan was selfish and wanted blessing for himself. Judah was lonely and may have simply wanted pleasure and company. Tamar wanted a place in the family of God, and to be faithful to her commitment, and to pass on to the next generation another child of God to accomplish his will on the earth. That is why she is the real hero here. Lets follow her example in our own relationships and future families. Lets adopt her selfless attitude and create and nurture life that brings glory to God.

This timeless principle is all throughout the book of Genesis. We are reminded that God created man and women in order to continue to create new life in order to occupy his world and accomplish his goals on the earth. Onan’s is unwilling to do this because he will not get the goods he wants and they will pass to his children receiving the blessing of Er the oldest brother. Onan takes control of new life and wastes it, for that God takes his life. Seems harsh but the lesson is clear. That said, I don’t think it is best to use this as a passage directly dealing with the debate on birth control today but it should at least inform our sense of why we do it and why we don’t. What are our motives? Are we willing to play a part in Gods original design for co-creation?

Categories: Ancient Near East, Bible, Context, CSBS, Culture, Genesis, History, Old Testament, Society/Culture, Theology, Women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Genesis Book Overview

So for the Teaching School (Tutus Project) I am doing a decided to do some Book Overview’s. Starting with Genesis I will be working with some friends producing 20-30 minute book overviews for each book of the bible.

Categories: Ancient Near East, Bible, Context, Doctrine, Egyptian Mythology, Genesis, Old Testament | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Difficult Passages: Women & Slavery, Freedom & Family

I have begun the launching of our Chronological SBS International collaboration youtube channel. 

I will be doing this with good friends and co-workers in the bible school. Looking forward to all of the fun we will have and all of the good content we can create and bless others with.

The goal is to use youtube as a platform for biblical teaching, worldview, history, that is contextual and helps people learn. Really excited about it. Check out the first videos I have thrown together. More on the way soon.

 

Categories: Ancient Near East, Authority, Bible, Context, CSBS, Culture, Old Testament, Society/Culture, Theology, Women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ancient Mythology as Valid as Modern Science

Ridiculous title huh? Maybe not. This post is for people who are seeking to study the scripture with a per-cursor of historical background. I’ve recently read an amazing couple of books and listened to a few of the online lectures done by Professor John H. Walton. He is currently professor of Old Testament at Wheaten College in Chicago.

I have taught the book of Genesis 3 times for our Chronological Bible School in YWAM Mexico. I have taught on Genesis numerous times in churches, small groups, and our Discipleship Training School in YWAM as well. But until this past September I had made a crucial mistake. As I always attempt to relay a good understanding of “Background” Ive often failed to communicate just how the entire Ancient Near Eastern World “Thinks”. You can get caught up in religious practices, politics, geography but nearly miss this important step. And that is to take the risk of grasping how the ancient people thought about life around them.

One major error has been to outright dismiss the ancient Egyptian mythology. That its utterly nonsense to think of the sky as a god, the earth as a god, and so on. Geb,_Nut,_ShuYou have strange pictures taken from archaeology that depict the Egyptians cosmology (Their understanding of everything around them). I typically would mock a few aspects of it and then going on to discribe the biblical narratives of Genesis 1-2 as so far advanced truth about the world we live in. Though I still believe it to be truth I dont have the same sharp contrast in my mind from Egyptian cosmology to the Israelite cosmology we have in scripture. Instead what exists is a wonderful comparison from which contrast can be drawn out. But it first begins with similarities. On the surface you will see far more similarities then differences.

That is not something to be afraid of. Similarities from Ancient Mythology and scripture does not need to dampen our inspirational view of scripture. It may illuminate it and help us understand better how God communicates to man.

The primary similarity that has effected my thinking is in that area of how the ancients view ‘existence’. For something to exist it needed to have a function. For something to have a function their must be a power behind it causing it always to function in the way that it functions. For the ancients there was no natural cause, no natural world, and everything was infused with deity. That’s what made it all work. Just as today it has become more common to say, “there is no God, no supernatural, no miraculous, because we understand the world around us in terms of natural cause everything happens naturally, or anonymously of a higher power or powers. But for the ancients this was not so, everything worked the way it did because their was something, someone, some powers behind it all. Their myths were not nonsense just to be dismissed but a valid way of thinking about the world they lived in.

God validated this way of thinking by communicating not in terms of the natural world but in the terms they were familiar with -terms of function. Genesis 1 then is not just a story of how the natural world came into being. This is how we modern readers interpret as we read. But how did the ancients read Genesis 1?

Ancient readers were able to see simply that not only did God create the physical world but the physical world truly has a specific order given to all things. Only in the Hebrew story there is not a dysfunctional family of gods behind all elements of the universe but One God. Genesis one does not merely capture the creation but that God was planning, structuring, and developing a function for each and all things to exist and have meaning. The Ancient audience would be thrilled to hear that purpose is clearly laid out for all creatures.

And that brings us to a sharp contrast that can be drawn. The ancient audience gets drawn in because Genesis one communicates perfectly to ancient minds and the climax of chapter one is this. That of all things created and given a purpose, the greatest purpose and responsibility is laid upon mankind. This is radically different from their view as former slaves to Egypt, and slaves to the Egyptian worldview. Humanity has been given a job to care for and have dominion over all creation. Man is to steward all God made. Previously man was trapped by his surroundings, a slave to his circumstances. Circumstances that have been brought on by the gods, they are in control and nothing escapes their control not even mans choice. Man is clearly given a choice by God in Genesis one. So man has a choice not controlled by God, and man has purpose given by God. Man can reject Gods purposes and this begins the downward fall into meaningless existence. The ancient Egyptians are on track to find meaning behind everything, they are seeking meaning for their own existence. This is good. This is why God wants to communicate to the ancient audience that what man is missing, a true existence. One that holds meaning, purpose, responsibility, and brings order to the world around them. A world that has fallen into chaos.

Modern Scientist have come back to belief in ultimate chaos. Unlike the ancients there understanding of chaos lead them to seek order. Modern despair leads to scientists who no longer seek order but observe chaos. There is no fight to find an order for human purpose and existence. They seek to better observe the human experience as chaotic and without meaning. Both since the fall have always been a reality for the human situation. But science is not the only approach to finding meaning for our lives. Science on its own is anonymous of God, which makes it anonymous of meaning. To seek what power is behind the natural world may not be scientific but it is still a valid way of understanding the world we live in.

Scripture is the wonderful avenue through which man is privileged to engage with the power behind everything.

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Categories: Ancient Near East, Bible, Church, Context, Cosmology, Egyptian Mythology, Genesis, History, Origins, Philosophy, Science, Society/Culture, Worldview | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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