Covenant: What is it Anyway?

This is mainly a straight copy-paste of Covenant Renewal: Covenant: What Is It Anyway? by Ray Sutton. But, I will have to comment on an ugly episode at the start of the essay.

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A sixteenth century woodcarving tells the following story.

While strolling one evening, a man met a recently married friend who was scratched and bruised, and he asked him if he had been attacked by cats.

The friend replied that his marks were the result of a brawl with his wife brawl with his wife, who, unlike other women, had “nine lives or natures.’ Urged on, he elaborated.

Returning home from the pub last Monday, he greeted his wife but received not a word in reply; she was like a codfish. So he struck her a good blow, whereupon he encountered a raging bear, pawing at him. So he struck her again and this time he met a hissing goose. Then she was a dog, snarling and barking epithets at him: “Ass, fool, simpleton.” Struck still again, she became a rabbit on the run, bounding about, and cursing him as she ran: “Scoundrel, whoremonger, adulterer, gambler, drunkard.” He ran her down and beat her about the head, now to find himself astraddle a wild, kicking horse. Then she was a cat, pouncing on him in full cry, scratching and clawing him mercilessly. At this point he grabbed a club and beat her incessantly until she became a pig, squealing and bawling. Finally, she crumpled into human form at his feet, threw her arms around him, and begged for mercy.

I’m sure that the husband probably thought, “What kind of critter am I dealing with anyway?” Every time he got a grip on his wife, she became something else. In a lot of ways, this story reminds me of the frustration of trying to define the covenant.

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So, at the start we get a man returning home, and his wife refuses to greet him.

A common domestic incident. Maybe she is being disrespectful. Maybe she is daydreaming, or lost in thought. Perhaps she is working on something else. The reason maybe sadness, or anger, or even tiredness.

Fair enough: ask a few questions, and get to the bottom of it. I wouldn’t recommend just ignoring it: women are people, and the wife you love should not be ignored or treated with indifference.

But that is not what the husband did. Instead of just asking, he hit her hard, and kept on hitting the woman with his fists, then on her head, and finally with a club.

It is said that women are more likely to be killed by their husbands and boyfriends than anyone else. If you factor in Arab and Indian cultures, include fathers, brothers and cousins.

Also: there ain’t much love here. The relationship between this man and wife bears no resemblance between Christ and His Church, the bride Christ died for.

It does bear a passing resemblance to a chained and raped woman in China, though.

A woman does not become the property of a man because he married her: there will come a time when that marriage comes to an end. Before that marriage starts, during that marriage, and after that marriage ends, the woman is made in the image of God as much as the man is; to attack her unjustly is to attack God, to murder her is to murder God.

I fully expect Atheistic societies to not care about this in the slightest. “Power justifies all things,” after all.

I expect much better from Christian societies, though. And disobedient Christian cultures can expect punishment and discipline, both as the logical consequence of their sin, and directly from the iron rod of God Most High.

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I can’t tell you how many times over the last several years I’ve picked up a book thinking, “This one will tell me what a covenant is,” only to discover that the meaning had eluded the author, that is, if he even stopped to define his term. I’ve also found that the studies that do attempt to define have extremely vague explanations.

Like the man with his constantly changing wife, I’ve even picked up many a book that, purported to do one thing, and by the time I had finished I realized that it had done another; it had become a different animal. I’ve ended up saying more times than I care to admit, “What is a covenant anyway?”

Okay, someone might want to say, “You can’t define it; it is like God; you can only describe it” Great, I’ll settle for a description. But where is it? Descriptions are as few and far between as definitions.

So we’re left to treating the covenant like pornography, a kind of “you know it when you see it” understanding. But the problem is that most Christians can’t even do this. They don’t know it because they don’t see it. And they don’t see it because they don’t know it. They are trapped in a ridiculous cycle.

All the while, these good-intentioned Christians continue to propose a disjointed kind of Christianity at a time when more than ever before they need to know what a covenant is and how it works. They are headed into the slaughter of irrelevance with their Scofield Bible notes in hand.

So my primary purpose in this newsletter is to define the covenant. The Book of Deuteronomy is a model, a place where all of its parts can clearly be seen. Deuteronomy is to the covenant what Romans is to systematic theology. But how do we know Deuteronomy is a covenant? Moses says, “He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments [words in the original] (Deut. 4:13). Deuteronomy is the second giving of the Ten Commandments, a “new” covenant so to speak. Moses says of the book as a whole, “Keep the words of this covenant to do them, that you may prosper in all you do’ (Deut. 29:9). Deuteronomy is definitely a covenant document.

Significantly, scholarship of the last few decades has uncovered the similarity between Deuteronomy and other ancient near-eastern covenant treaties, called suzerainty treaties: Hittite (sixteenth-thirteenth centuries B.C.) and Assyrian (eighth-seventh centuries B.C.). Suzerains were ancient kings who imposed their covenant treaties on lesser kings called vassals. The structure of these treaty documents is not identical to Deuteronomy, but close enough to help us better understand its structure. Suzerainty covenants had six parts.

Suzerainty Covenants

  1. The Preamble: Like an introduction, it declared who the suzerain (king) was as well as his great power.
  2. The Historical Prologue: A historical summary of the suzerains’ rule. In short , the one who controls history is lord and demands complete submission.
  3. Stipulations: These were the specific laws of conduct to be observed, the stipulations being the very means of dominion. Also, they distinguished the servants of the suzerain from the other people of the world.
  4. Blessing and Cursing: This section outlined a ceremony were an oath was taken, receiving sanctions in the form of blessings and cursing. The character of this oath was “self-maledictory” because the vassal condemned himself to death if he broke the covenant. In other words, if he was faithful, he was blessed. If unfaithful, he was cursed.
  5. Successional Arrangements: The covenant document also specified successors to the suzerain so that the vassal could pledge his allegiance to them. Another feature is the enlisting of witnesses, often “heaven and earth,” to the sealing of the covenant.
  6. Depository arrangements: The covenant also stated how and where the covenant document would be stored and preserved. In the event there was a breach of covenant, this document could be produced to begin a process of prosecution against the offending vassal, usually called a covenant lawsuit.

The Biblical covenant in Deuteronomy has five parts. It preceded the suzerainty treaties and was not a copy of them. It was the original covenant from which the suzerains copied the Biblical pattern to form geo-political covenants. Deuteronomy, for example, is the restatement and expansion of the Ten Commandments. Not only does Moses say as much (Deut. 413), but the parallel between the five-fold pattern in Deuteronomy and a double five-fold pattern in the Ten Commandments demonstrates the connection, as we shall see in a moment. Nevertheless, studies in suzerain treaties have been helpful in understanding the basic structure of the Biblical covenant. I have used them in this regard, especially the work by Meredith G. Kline. Therefore, let us briefly overview the five points of covenantalism.

The Five Points of Covenantalism

True Transcendence (Deut. 11-5). Kline and others point out that the covenant begins with a “preamble.” But what does the Biblical preamble of Deuteronomy teach? Here we find that God declares His transcendence. True transcendence does not mean God is distant but that He is distinct. This makes the Biblical covenant totally unique from suzerain covenants.

Hierarchy (Deut. 1:8-4:49). The second section of the covenant is called the hierarchy. Suzerain treaty scholars point out that in this section of Deuteronomy, the author develops a brief history of God’s Sovereign relationship to His people around a hierarchy of authority. Significantly, the Biblical covenant begins this section of Deuteronomy with a description of the hierarchical court system in Israel (Deut. 1:8ff.). What is it? What does it mean? Briefly, God established a representative, bottom-up system of government with captains over 50s, 100s, and 1000s. These representatives were to mediate judgment to the nation. And the nation was to mediate judgment to the world.

Ethics (Deut. 5-26). The next section of the covenant is usually the longest. It concerns the principle of law. Stipulations are set out. In Deuteronomy, this segment is a statement and expansion of the Ten Commandments, consisting of 21 chapters (Deut. 5-26). These stipulations are the way God’s people defeat the enemy. By relating to God in terms of ethical obedience, the enemies fall before His children. The primary idea is that God wants His people to see an ethical relationship between cause and effect: be faithful and prosper.

Sanctions (Deut. 27-30). The fourth part of Deuteronomy lists blessings and curses (Deut. 27-28). It calls them sanctions. Just like the suzerain treaty, Kline observes that this is the actual process of ratification. The covenant is received by a “self-maledictory” oath that applies both sanctions. A “self-maledictory” oath literally means “to speak evil unto oneself.” It calls down God’s wrath, if the covenant is broken, and God’s blessing, if the covenant is kept.

Continuity ( Deut. 31-44). Continuity determines the true heirs. It is established by means of a confirmation process. It appears when Moses Lays hands on and commissions Joshua to lead the conquest of the land. The covenant is handed down from generation to generation. But only the one empowered by the Spirit can obey and take dominion. He is the one inherits. The final principle of the covenant tells “who is in the covenant”, or “who has continuity with it,” and what the basis of this continuity will be.

The covenant model is complete. Now we know what a covenant is. It has five basic parts. These are the five basic principles of the biblical reality transcendence, hierarchy, ethics and parentheses law in parentheses, sanctions, continuity. At a later date I will be developing these in greater detail, as I do in my book, That You May Prosper (Tyler, Texas: institutes for Christian economics, 1987). But let’s try to check my proposal if. If I’m correct in my fivefold grid the obvious place to cross check is in the 10 Commandments (Exod. 20). Let’s see if the model fits without any sleight of hand or mirrors

First Five Commandments

The church has always wrestled with the structure of the 10 Commandments, or 10 Words in the original Hebrew (Exod. 4:13). Some see a 3-7 breakdown. Others have proposed a 4-6 division. Still others have considered even different structuring. But let’s consider the obvious of 5-5 division, by using our covenant model as a guide.

1. First Commandment: Transcendence (Exod. 20:1-3)

The first commandment begins with exodus. It is an explicit reference to God’s true transcendence. God said that the purpose of Exodus was so that the Egyptians would know that he is Lord (Exod. 14; 18) He essentially told him that his purpose was to demonstrate his transcendence and immanence: that He was distinct from all other gods the one and only God and that He was present with his people in a way that he was not present with anyone else. He had made a special display of his transcendence and eminence in other words, and thus, Israel was a special responsible to depend on him alone for their salvation.

2. Second Commandment: Hierarchy (Exod. 20: 4-6)

The second commandment moves to the next principle of the covenant, a hierarchy of obedience (“worship and serve”). In the Deuteronomic covenant, the hierarchical section closest by association rebellion to the sim of idolatry. Moses says,” So watch yourself carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the mists of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make a graven image” (Deut. Four: 15-16). Thus, with the second commandment follows the same pattern connecting worship and submission, “service” (Exod. 20:5).

The history of Israel redemption is also the backdrop. God for forbids worship of any idol. This specific outline is “from heaven above the earth to anything under the sea or the earth.” It is possible that the commitment is written this way to counter a “hierarchy” among Egyptian false gods. They worshiped life above, below, and especially the Nile itself. Birds and animals are the Nile were worships because it was believed that the “Great River” was a serpent providing life to the world above, below, and all around. Clearly this refers to the imaginary of the serpent in the garden, a Pagan hierarchy. Even the way God condemns idolatry develops a certain “false” hierarchy. God’s hierarchy places all authority in Him. Anyone else who only has delegated responsibility. Transcendence is not shifted from God to man, or creation for that matter. Egyptian religion had a hierarchy of authority that placed the pharaoh in the center of the world. He was half god and half man, a perfect “false” incarnation. He meditated life to the world. The animals were simply “emanations” from him possessing a little “less” deity.

This created a pyramidal hierarchy with man at the top of the pyramid. This pyramid structure is not inherently bad, since it is the ‘mountain model’ found throughout the Bible. The pyramid was simply a cheap (or shall I say, rather expensive) copy of God’s mountain dwelling. But God’s mountain pyramid always has God on top of the mountain. His hierarchy begins with God, not man. To worship “created” thing is to place creation at the top of the mountain. The result: tyranny like that of Egypt.

3. Third Commandment: Ethics (Exod. 20:7)

The third section of the Deuteronomic covenant stipulates what is involved in obeying God. The Pagan system, growing out of a “chain of being quote approach”, is inherently manipulative. This commandment has to do with not manipulating “name of God“. When would the name of God be taken in vain? In false oath taking period to quote swear quote in the Bible is to take an oath. Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for swearing by all sorts of things and taking so many false oaths (Matt. 5:33-37). They tried to manipulate God’s name.

What is a name? A name in the Bible represents the person. The power to the name is the power to control. God named Adam. Adam named the animals and Eve. This made man God’s vice Regent in dominion. But the power to name is the power to have authority over the thing that is named. Therefore, anytime the name of God was tampered with, it indicated an attempt tempt to manipulate him. Actually, to worship a false god renames and reconstitutes the true God. God does not want to be renamed, and he certainly cannot be manipulated.

The pharaoh renamed Joseph (Gen. 41:45). Nebuchadnezzar’s official over the eunuchs renamed Daniel and the three Hebrew youths (Dan. 1:7). When a man came under a Pagan king’s authority in the estimate, at least to serve in a position of leadership under him, he was renamed by that king. God renamed Abram to Abraham and Jacob to Israel, a sign of his authority over them.

The commandment hear forbids a manipulative approach to God. does not forbid oathtaking per se (i.e. in the courtroom). It condemns swearing to “emptiness” or “vanity”. When someone makes a false oath, he is attempting to manipulate God’s name for his own end. Even though man tries he cannot control God. It is the other way around. Nevertheless, false oath taking is ultimately a reflection on Him, making Him seem to be empty. How? When someone who is actually lying says,” May God strike me dead if I’m telling a lie,” and, if he does not fall down dead, but is later found out to be a liar, God does not seem to have stood behind his name. If man obeys God stipulations, however, he will not need to try to manipulate God name. Blessing and whatever man needs will come to a proper ethical relationship to Him.

4. Fourth Commandment: Sanctions (Exod. 20:8-11)

The Fourth Commandment regulates the Sabbath. What was the Sabbath? Originally, it was the day when God “blessed” the world in a special way (Gen. 2:1ff.). The word “blessing” ties the day to one of the two judicial sanctions of the covenant (Deuteronomy 28). This makes the original Sabbath a day when man was to receive God’s benediction. Instead, men disobeyed and the Sabbath Day became a day of judgment. The curses of Genesis three were issued. So, throughout history the Lord’s Day (Sabbath Day) is a time of special judgment. It is like the final day, “the Day of the Lord.”

This commandment has to do with honoring a time of special judgment. One day in seven should be devoted to it. Double sacrifices were offered because Israel made special reflection on her sins. The comments about working on the other days orient even man’s work toward a time of judgment. Indeed, this is the direction of history.

5. Fifth Commandment: Continuity (Exod. 20:12)

We see that that the fifth commandment is positive. The emphasis is on tangible continuity, inheritance, since “to live long on the earth” was the legacy given to Israel. Why longevity? The curse of death broke down generational continuity, requiring that covenantal faithfulness be sustained over many generations.

Historical extension of the faith was broken down. Think how easy it would be to sustain a system of belief if the founders lived for 500 years. This would be like still having Martin Luther alive. All those years that liberal German, Lutheran theologians were corrupting orthodoxy, Luther could and would have confronted and probably turned them over his knee. (They would have needed a lot more than that.) But the point is that longevity was critical to sustaining the family inheritance. Because death entered the world, a system was needed to transfer the inheritance. It is in the transferal that the many problems of inheritance can be seen.

Although, it seems that death is also pro-covenantal. After the flood, lifespans shortened. The common grace to pagans lasts the or four generations, then they fall or revolt. The blessings to the faithful go on for a thousand generations. Thus, covenant keeping compounds far longer than covenant-breaking. If the evil ones lived five hundred years per generation, their hand would be strengthened: two thousand years of compounding. So this commandment has to do with inheritance, an issue legitimacy. Obedient sons and daughters receive the inheritance, the blessing of the previous commandment.

The first series of commandments follows the structure of the covenant. Without having to force the commandments, I believe the reader can easily see how God ordered them around the five parts of the covenant. The second half of the commandments does the same.

The Second Five Commandments

6. The Sixth Commandment: True Transcendence (20:13)

God returns to the transcendence theme. How? Unlawful killing of another human being was expressly forbidden because “whoever sheds man’s blood by, man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God he made man” (Gen.9:6). In fact, the “ethical” section of the Noahic covenant is summarized under this one commandment, summing up all of God’s demands.

The key in the word image. Man is in the image of God. Unique to God’s creation and unlike any other aspect of His handiwork, man is a picture of God. Man shows God’s transcendence in immanence. To kill man is analogous to killing God. All rebellion is an attempt to kill God. Satan tempted man to become like “God.” Between the lines of Satan’s offer was the idea that the true God would be displaced (Gen. 3:1ff.). So the Second table begins with a commandment against eradicating God’s transcendent/immanent representation in man.

7. Seventh Commandment: Hierarchy (20:14)

The Deuteronomic covenant made a specific connection between idolatry and adultery. The end of the second section calls attention to the second commandment, reminding Israel of the prohibition against “idolatry” (Deut. 4:15-19). Moses gives as a reason, “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God” (Deut. 4:24). “Jealousy” is a response to any kind of marital unfaithfulness. Indeed, there was a special “ordeal of jealousy” (Num. 5). Since the people of God are His “bride,” worshipping other gods would be analogous to sexual unfaithfulness in marriage. God’s proper response would be “jealousy.”

The ideas of worship and marriage are expressed in the old Anglican form of the marriage ceremony where the bride pledges, “I worship thee with my body.” Sexual faithfulness is a form of service, like the faithfulness of service in worship.

Adultery is a violation of God’s hierarchy. Marital faithfulness is a mutual submission (familial hierarchy) to one another. Paul says,

But because of immoralities adultery], let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. . . . The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does (I Cor. 7:2-4).

Adultery is due to rebellion against the authoritative hierarchy within marriage. A man and woman are to submit their bodies to one another, the best defense against adultery and “immoralities.” To “cutoff” one’s spouse is nothing more than an attempt to be autonomous.

8. Eighth Commandment: Ethics (20:15)

The third section of the Deuteronomic covenant “stipulated” how to be consecrated through “ethics.” In other words, God’s boundaries are ethical, separating the clean from the unclean. As long as God’s people lived by these ethical boundary-lines, they would be victorious.

Ethics is contrary to a “manipulative” world-and-life view. In the third commandment we saw that man is forbidden to “manipulate” the Name of God. The eighth commandment, which parallels both the third section of the covenant and the third commandment, speaks to another form of “boundary violation! Stealing is manipulative. Taking something that is not yours is a failure to relate to people on ethical terms, and honor the propriety of others.

Paul says, “Let him who steals steal no longer; but rather let him labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with him who has need” (Eph. 5:28). There are two problems with a thief. He will not work and will not give. Both require ethical dealings with people. To work means one submits himself to the laws of work: perseverance, showing up on time, willingness to learn, diligence, etc. To give means taking what has been earned and helping someone in need. A thief, on the other hand, takes a manipulative approach. Instead of working, he seeks to manipulate through conning, deception, and various other forms of theft. He certainly doesn’t give to others, and if he happens to, he does so to further his need, not the other person’s. Ultimately, a thief believes money is magical: not the means to an end, but the end in itself. This is why all tyrannies are based on theft. The “Robin Hood” approach is a form of manipulating what belongs to one group to re-distribute it to another.

9. Ninth Commandment: Sanctions (20:16)

The Deuteronomic covenant is ratified by sanctions in the fourth section, to be received in an “official” context, probably at worship. Furthermore, this judgment was received at a Sabbath time, Pentecost. Thus, in this commandment, “bearing false witness” also conjures up the picture of an official scene, a courtroom. Where would one be likely to bear false witness? It would probably be brought in the same legal environment of passing judgment, a formal trial or hearing. This could also be done informally, telling lies about someone in the congregation or who lives down the street. But even this setting is judicial because a judgment is passed. “Bearing false witness interferes with and perverts judgment. How? False witness causes blessings to fall on those who deserve a curse, and vice versa.

10. Tenth Commandment: Continuity (20:17)

Notice all the items that are forbidden to covet. They all have to do with a man’s inheritance. In Old Testament times, the wife was made an heir of the covenant through an adoption procedure. She actually became the “sister” of her husband. Abraham was not lying to Pharaoh after all (Gen. 20:2) when he called Sarah his “sister.” This practice was done to assure the woman’s receiving part of the inheritance, contrary to the pagan practices of considering a woman’s value as being less than a man’s. So, when an Old Testament man coveted the wife of another, he was cutting into his neighbor’s inheritance. In Israel, this disrupted everything because each family received a particular piece of land and inheritance when Canaan was conquered under Joshua. To covet one’s covenant brother’s family and possessions was to rob the inheritance granted by the Covenant itself. Here the last commandment ends on a note of finality.

The second five commandments follow, without much explanation, the basic pattern of the covenant, completing a perfect double witness. They also confirm our basic five-fold definition. Now, when someone asks, “Covenant: What is it anyway?”, you’ll have an answer, an answer that is so handy you can count it on your five fingers. Who knows, maybe this is why God gave man two hands with five fingers on each one!

**Footnotes for this essay can be found in the original PDF, linked below.

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Covenant Renewal, Vol. 1, No. 2 (February 1987)

For a PDF of the original publication, click here:https://www.garynorth.com/CovenantRenewalVol1No2.pdf

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A nice follow-up/summary is found in the article Inherit the Earth: The Biblical Blueprint for Economics. Quoted below:

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The covenants of God all have a five-point structure:

1. Transcendence/Immanence (sovereignty)
2. Hierarchy/Command (representation)
3. Ethics/Law (dominion)
4. Oath/Sanctions (judgment)
5. Succession/Inheritance (perseverance)

The acronym is THEOS.

If you want proof of this statement, read Ray Sutton’s book, That You May Prosper. You can download a free copy here:

That You May Prosper

In economics, this covenant structure is as follows:

1. Ownership
2. Stewardship
3. Law
4. Profit and Loss
5. Economic Growth or Contraction

Applying these five principles, we get this:

1. God Owns the World
2. Man is a Steward
3. Theft Is Immoral
4. Edenic Scarcity Has Been Cursed
5. Covenant-Keepers Inherit in History

This book was published in 1987. It was published as part of the ten-volume Biblical Blueprint Series. The first four volumes were published by Thomas Nelson Sons. The entire series was published Dominion Press, 1986-1987. Download this volume here:

Inherit the Earth

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