A Little More on Covenants

The context for this is my post on atonement and some comments and reactions (see the previous post).

Review: Creation/reality is inherently feudal. It is feudal in the sense of what “feudal” meant in the Ancient Near East (ANE). This is the setting God planted and grew in which to reveal Himself and the nature of things. This is not the feudalism of Medieval Europe. There are parallels and overlapping ideas here, but the focus in the West has always been real property, an inherently materialistic approach. People within a Western feudal realm are not people but property. The real issue was the territory a feudal lord controlled. In the ANE, people were the property and treasure as living souls. Real estate was just a matter of what a lord’s household occupied effectively. The ANE feudal lord’s domain was the persons under his authority, regardless where they were.

And for that ANE feudal lord, persons within his household might hold any of three different statuses. First came his family, his kin by blood or by adoption. He also had faithful servants who might be treated as family, but knew their status was more tenuous. There were also slaves, people who were far less useful by reason of being somewhat at enmity with their master. It had nothing to do with personal enmity, but as a matter of how they came into the household. Both slaves and servants could be elevated in status by a show of personal devotion, and servants could be reduced to slaves for violating trust, but it depended on the head of household. By tradition and custom, once someone was announced as adopted and vested as a member of the family, that status could not be reduced (see the Prodigal Son). Once someone crossed the threshold into kinship, everything was changed for them.

Granted, the feudal lord might still have to execute his own family members for going too far, but their kinship remained after death. Their burial would reflect this. You might also see banishment to prevent them enjoying the privileges of kinship, but their status was unchanged. Don’t get hung up in all the historical details; this is a metaphor for how God deals with Creation.

As slaves and servants in God’s realm (all Creation), we are under one or another Law Covenant. It happens that most of humanity is under the Covenant of Noah. However, if you read up on the Covenant of Moses, you can extrapolate from the specifics of Moses to the generalities that constitute Noah. Moses was a specific implementation of Noah, a very clear and precise expression of the same basic truth of how God handled people who had not risen to the level of self-death and faith.

The Covenant of Abraham had a specific purpose in the redemption narrative, but in another sense, it serves as an example of an individual faith covenant. Abraham responded to the individual call of faith and was elevated above the Law Covenant that applied (Noah), up to faith and grace. What he gained was implied by Noah, but was much more, because he was no longer just a servant in God’s household, but was adopted as family. In one sense, it was just a logical extension of Noah, so it remains a matter of Noah in terms of conduct. However, it is not wholly covered by Noah, because it introduces the element of adoption as family and heir. It was much more close and personal. His mistakes still brought discipline, but his inheritance remained intact. Faith goes beyond the provisions of Noah, but includes them.

In like manner, any Israelite under the Covenant of Moses could have risen in devotion to the status of a faith covenant like Abraham’s. Indeed, the way it is expressed in the Bible, anyone who rose to full faith adoption had entered into the Covenant of Abraham, since he was their forefather. The whole family of Israel — the entire nation under the Covenant of Moses — was granted the privilege of adoption if they would take seriously their obligations under Moses. But they were still minors. Don’t try to pin this down legalistically; it is meant to be a fuzzy parable. That’s how God communicates to us fallen humans. The nation of Israel was meant to learn how to walk in the privileges of adoption — a wholesale national adoption — via the provisions of the Pentateuch. If they persisted and became truly devoted, if they could just discover the sheer joy of walking in God’s design, they were treated as fully mature adult members. As long as they fell short of that, they were minor children who lacked a range of access granted to adults.

Law is for children (and servants and slaves). Faith is an adult thing. And it was never DNA, but all about the Covenant.

In Christ, the business of having one human nation within the household of God is gone. There is no longer a nation of God on the earth in that kind of special relationship. The shape of the nation is now rooted in Heaven, not on earth. The pathway to faith no longer leads through the Law Covenant. Rather, faith is granted as a gift. The Holy Spirit is no longer withheld until you reach a certain point of moral maturity; He can come into your soul as soon as you realize it’s possible. You are adopted on an individual basis, not on the basis of your maturity within the applicable Law Covenant. Note here that Noah doesn’t work exactly like Moses; under Moses the whole nation was granted provisional childhood in the family as members of the same covenant. Noah demands you create something of that national identity without all the precise particulars of the ANE context. It no longer has any connection to an officially organized national identity on the earth.

So Noah still works as before, and it can still lead people to faith, but Christ Himself warned us that this was increasingly less likely as history rolls on toward the End of All Things. So the order of events is reversed; you can grab faith and then go back and learn what faith requires of you. You still have to cling to Noah, but now it becomes the frame of reference (and frame of reverence) that gives faith meaning on this earth. Your fleshly existence is still obliged to Noah, but not as servants and slaves; we are children learning to walk as adult heirs of our Father.

Addenda: Based on the reaction offline, I note that his post has become another one of those reference points. It’s fundamental to so much of what we teach about the Bible, and so very different from our Western assumptions, that it becomes seminal for everything else we do.

About Ed Hurst

Disabled Veteran, prophet of God's Laws, Bible History teacher, wannabe writer, volunteer computer technician, cyclist, Social Science researcher
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