7. The Literary Shape of the Covenant
As we have seen, there is a succession of covenants in the Bible, each more glorious than the previous, each absorbing and transfiguring the previous, until finally we come to the New Covenant in Jesus Christ. We now want to look at the shape of covenant documents. Generally speaking, the order of presentation in the covenant document is the same as the sequence of events in the covenant’s establishment. The Spirit shapes the history and the Son shapes the Word. God is One, living in the One Covenant, and thus the shape is the same. The shape of the various covenants is always fundamentally the same, because the same God is acting and speaking each time, and the same human consciousness is being addressed.
Because the Sinaitic Covenant is the covenant that is most fully presented in literary form, scholars look at its presentation in Exodus 20-24 and in the book of Deuteronomy to discern the basic covenant shape. After we have been instructed by this part of the Biblical revelation, we can discern the same shape in the other covenants.
This shape, this order of presentation, has been analyzed variously by different scholars. Some have seen three, some four, some five, some six, and some seven aspects of the covenant. We can say that in its fullest manifestations, God’s covenant with man, which we can illustrate from the Sinaitic Covenant, entails the following steps and aspects:
1. Announcement of God’s transcendence; His laying hold on the situation (Ex. 2:24-25; 20:3). Moses is announced as covenant-renewer in Deuteronomy 1:1-4.
2. Declaration of God’s new Name, appropriate for the new covenant being installed (Ex. 3:13-15; 6:2-8; 20:2a). There is no new name in Deuteronomy, because it is a renewal of the Sinaitic Covenant.
3. Statement of how God brought His people from the old covenant and world into the new one (Ex. 20:2b; Dt. 1:6-4:40).
4. Establishment of the new covenant order, especially the governmental hierarchies thereof (Ex. 18:13-27; 24:1; Dt. 1:9-18; 27:1, 9).
5. Appointment of new names for the new finished product (Gen. 1:4-5, 6-8, 9-10; at Sinai, “sons of Israel” is the new name, replacing “Hebrew”).
6. Grant or distribution of an area of dominion to the covenant steward or vassal (Ex. 3:8; 23:20-33; Dt. 1:19-12:31).
7. Stipulations concerning management of this grant (Ex. 20-23; Dt. 5:1-26:19).
8. Statement of the terms by which God will evaluate man’s performance: promised blessings and threatened curses (Ex. 23:25-33; Dt. 27, 28).
9. Placement of witnesses to report to God on man’s behavior (Ex. 23:20-23; Dt. 4:26; 30:19).
10. Arrangements for deposition of the covenant documents (Ex. 40:20; Dt. 31:9-13).
11. Arrangements for succession of covenant vice-regents (Dt. 31:7, 14, 23; Dt. 34).
12. Artistic poems that encapsulate the covenant, and that are to be taught to succeeding generations (Dt. 31:14-33:29).
We could probably come up with other aspects as well, depending on how much detail we wished to go into.
This covenant order can be helpfully and Biblically grouped in more than one way. It is possible and desirable to see the sequence as proceeding from God’s sovereign Control (1-3), to manifestations of God’s sovereign Authority (4-7), and culminating in revelations of God’s sovereign Presence with His people (8-12). This is based on John Frame’s work. It is also possible and desirable to see the sequence as having five aspects:
1. God’s transcendence and mankind’s impotence (1, 2).
2. Transition from old to new order (3-5).
3. Laws (6, 7).
4. Blessings and curses (8, 9).
5. Arrangements for the future (10-12).
Each of these patterns can be found in the Bible. Given the prominence of the number seven, and the seven-fold sabbatical sequences in the Bible, we can look for examples of seven-fold organizations of the covenant. An obvious example is the creation week itself, considered as the establishment of God’s first covenantal order in the world. When we get to Typology we shall explore this covenantal order more fully.
Given the fact that the covenant document is just that, a document, we are on solid ground in supposing that these sequences function as literary structuring devices in certain parts of the Bible, and perhaps also in the Bible as a whole, considered as the covenant document. We are, accordingly, invited to search for such structures.
I have come to believe that there are three fundamental covenant structures or sequences in the Bible. The first we can consider is three-fold. We can see this in the order of the sacrifices that are brought before God for ordinary covenant renewal. The sacrifices break down into three groups:
1. The Trespass and Purification (or Sin) Offerings, which bring the worshipper near to God, and which focus on blood.
2. The Ascension (or Burnt) and Tribute (or Grain) Offerings, which bring the worshipper into God’s presence with his gifts, and which focus on flesh and bread.
3. The Peace Offering, which is a fellowship meal with God, and which focuses on the food aspects of the offering.
It is the Spirit who brings us near to God, through the bond of life-blood. It is the Son who ushers us fully into the presence of the Father. It is with the Father that we enjoy full eschatological fellowship. Thus, we can make a rough correlation of these three sacrifices with the sequence of priest, king, and prophet.
This three-fold way of presenting the covenant focuses on persons, seen as the animals that come to God, carrying us with them. We can see this triadic way of presenting the covenant in closest connection with the Father, the fountain of personality.
Second, a five-fold way of presenting the covenant is found very often in the covenant as specifically set down in writing. We shall look at this in detail in this chapter. This way of setting out the covenant describes the five fundamental items of the covenant and how they fit in relationship with each other. Since this is how the covenant is written down, and since it has to do with the structure of the covenant, it is most closely connected with the Son, the Word of God and the fountain of structure in space. The five-fold presentation of the covenant employs what we may call “direct” language, with little imagery and symbolism.
Finally, a seven-fold way of presenting the covenant is found when the covenant is presented as a sequence of actions that make a new world, or is in some way related to the original creation week. Since this is how the covenant is presented in time, it is most closely related to the seven-fold Spirit of God, the mover and shaper of history. The seven-fold presentation of the covenant employs imagery and symbolism — as we shall see, the Tabernacle is described in seven speeches in Exodus 25-31.
To recapitulate: There is a sequence of items that is found in Biblical covenants. The overall shape or sequence is almost always the same. Most often, the covenant is presented in either a three-fold, a five-fold, or a seven-fold shape.
The Five-fold Shape
Given the fact that we have a sequence of at least twelve items to “fit” into five groups, a certain amount of flexibility is called for. Each of the five categories will of necessity have a particular locus of concern, but each will also have “fuzzy edges,” shading into the concerns of the categories on either side. Moreover, each of the five categories will embrace a number of elements, and it will not necessarily be possible to come up with a one-word or short-phrase encapsulation of each category that will do full justice to the zone of concerns in that category. We can, however, come up with a description of the concerns of each category if we look at the first five books of the Bible and at the Ten Word (or Commandments).
Before turning to this, however, I wish to make the point that because God exists in covenant, and because human beings are images of God and also exist in covenant, these “covenant shapes” are part of the deep consciousness of all humanity. It is no surprise, therefore, that many treaties and covenants in the ancient world have this same shape. It is also no surprise that the Church has always recognized this shape, even if not consciously. Thus, if we look back at the five-fold shape, we can see that Christian worship as it has developed, especially in the West, has the same shape:
1. Announcement of God – Call to Worship
2. Transition from old to new – Confession and Absolution
3. Laws – the Word
4. Blessings and curses – the Lord’s Supper
5. Arrangements for the future – Benediction and Dismissal
This shape arises from the heart of the covenant renewal itself. At the Last Supper:
1. Jesus took hold of bread.
2. He made it new by calling it a new name.
3. He gave the command to eat it.
4. The disciples ate it, receiving the blessing.
5. After doing the same with cup, they sang a hymn and went out.
Similarly, the Reformed churches have organized the doctrine of God’s sovereign rule in five points, the so-called “Five Points of Calvinism”:
1. Need for God to act – Total Depravity
2. The Father (primarily) chooses whom to save – Unconditional Election
3. The Son (primarily) fulfills the Law – Specific Redemption
4. The Spirit (primarily) applies salvation – Irresistible Grace
5. The future is guaranteed – Preservation of the Elect
Let us now look at the five-fold shape in a bit more detail. When a new covenant is made, God comes to initiate it. Sometimes He gives us a new name for Himself: Elohim at creation, Yahweh at Sinai, Adonai for the Kingdom, Yahweh of Armies for the Restoration, and Jesus for the New Covenant. Renewals of a given covenant are initiated by human leaders, like Moses (Deuteronomy) and Joshua (Joshua 24). In worship, it is because God has called us that we come to Him.
Then, second, God describes how He has brought us from an old world to a new, and sets up a new order or hierarchy for the new form of His kingdom. There is an exodus from the old fallen order into a new order. The new hierarchy is a blessing because it replaces our enthrallment to Satan. In worship this is our confession of sin, our renouncing the old world, and our receiving forgiveness and entrance into the kingdom again.
Third, God presents His covenant Word, which is always first and foremost promise, and then command based on promise. This third aspect has to do with God’s grant of the Kingdom, His gift and promise, and then our duties. God’s Word is always both promise and command, and promise comes first. In worship, this is the hearing of the Word and sermon.
Fourth, God promises blessings, but also threatens curses. The blessing is already given, while the curses will come if we disobey. God also sets up witnesses to report to Him on our behavior. In worship, this is the sacrament of the Supper, which is essentially a blessing, but can also be a curse (1 Corinthians 11:29-31).
Finally, God makes arrangements for the future. These include the persons who will be in charge of renewing the covenant, such as the Shemites after the Flood, the Hebrews in the Patriarchal era, the Levitical priests after Sinai, the kings during the kingdom, the prophets later on, and now pastors. Other future arrangements include songs to be sung generation after generation, and predictions of the future. In worship, this is the benediction and our dismissal into the world to carry forth God’s kingdom.
Let us now look at the first five books of the Bible, where we shall see these five themes set out in a large way.
Genesis is the book of beginnings. In it, we see God take hold of His world and announce His intentions. The intentions announced to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob do not come to pass in Genesis, however. The names of God revealed in the Noahic and Abrahamic covenants stress His transcendent sovereignty. Noahic: “God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth.” Abrahamic: “God Almighty.”
Exodus is the book of transitions. In it, we see God break down His people, move them out of an old cosmos and into a new, appoint new names for them, reveal a new name for Himself, and give them a new social order. God’s new name is Yahweh, which is explained in Exodus 6 as meaning “the God who keeps promises made to the fathers.” The new social order entails two hierarchies, those of church (priests and Levites) and state (elders and supreme judge). Also, in Exodus God builds Himself a house, symbolizing the new social order and hierarchy.
Leviticus is the book of law. In it, we see God lay out the essential terms of the grant He is giving His people. They are restored to a new garden of Eden, and thus much of the book concerns animal laws: sacrifices and uncleanness. The distribution of this covenant grant, this environment, brings with it rules that the stewards are to use in governing it. Thus, almost the entire book is legislation, both sacramental and social. It is important to note that the focus of the laws in Leviticus is not simply obedience to God, but rather the maintenance of the grant. The sacrifices, laws of cleansing, sabbath observances, and payments of vows are all designed to prevent God from taking offense and leaving. Thus these “ceremonies” reveal the truth about the “moral” laws found in Exodus and Deuteronomy: The Kingdom is distributed to us as a gift, but if we are to maintain the grant, we must be faithful. Leviticus focusses attention on the maintenance of the Kingdom by confession and cleansing, by continually renewing our appreciation of God’s gift.
Numbers is the book of implementation. In it, we see God apply the sanctions of blessing and curse laid out at the end of Leviticus. God’s people are organized as His army to execute judgment on the Canaanites. When they refuse to do so, God executes judgment on them. After forty years, Israel is once again called to execute judgment, and this time she does so. Judgment entails witness-bearing, and we find both true and false witness in Numbers — the incident of the staffs in chapter 17 is an example, as is the peculiarly extended treatment of Balaam and his witness.
Deuteronomy is the book of succession. Having built His house, God turns it over to stewards. Thus, in Deuteronomy it is not God who speaks, but Moses. Moses reiterates the law, but with changes appropriate to future conditions in the land. He creates a song and a poem for future generations to memorize, to remind them of the covenant. He passes his mantle to Joshua.
This overview gives us a feel for the content of the covenant when organized in a five-fold sequence. Let us now look at the ten commandments — more accurately, the Ten Words — considered as two groups of five, the first five having to do with loving God, and the second with loving one’s neighbor.
The first Word says that God and God alone is to be worshipped. God, the Lord, is alone to be affirmed as transcendent. This affirms the integrity of God, His holiness. Men are to be holy as God is holy. This means that we are to have integrity in ourselves, and respect the integrity of other human beings. Thus we are forbidden to commit murder in the sixth Word, which correlates with the first.
The second Word says that worship may only be conducted in God’s way. In context, this refers to the house God constructed in Exodus for this purpose. No other location or environment would be permitted. The particular thing forbidden was bowing one’s body toward any object made by human hands, and by extension any created thing. Thus, while we find men bowing to other men in the Bible, there is never any ritual of bowing during worship. By refusing to bow, we affirm that God is seated in heaven, while we are physically on the earth. We are present with God in the Spirit, and thus we bow spiritually; that is, we offer the sacrifice of our lips, and it is not wrong to make appropriate bodily motions during prayer. Silent bowing before an object, however, is prohibited. We are Spiritually but not locally present with God in this life.
Thus the second Word requires a liturgical affirmation of God’s transcendence. Liturgy has to do with transition from the old world to the new. It also has to do with our relationship with God. The first Word requires us to affirm God’s transcendence in all of life, and prohibits covenantal idolatry. The second Word requires us to affirm our hierarchical relationship with God, and prohibits liturgical idolatry. Just as the second Word focuses on the God-man relationship, so the seventh Word, prohibiting adultery, focuses on the most important of all human relationships, the first human covenantal relationship established in the Bible (Gen. 2:18-24).
The third Word says that God’s name is to be lifted up in worship and in life with power, not in vanity. Ultimately, the kingdom God had granted to Israel was not the land of Canaan, but incorporation into His body, the church: into His name. They were clothed in His name, and thus were to obey His laws. Not wearing God’s name in vanity is equivalent to not trying to maintain the grant of the Kingdom in a state of sin. God will not hold a man guiltless who wears His name emptily. In other words, the sacrifices that remove guilt, and that thereby sustain the Kingdom, will prove ineffective for those who do not keep the moral law. They will not sustain their judicially guiltless position before God. Thus, obedience in the full sense (i.e., trust-full, faith-full) is necessary to maintain the grant of the Kingdom. The third Word prohibits practical idolatry. Accordingly, the third Word is most relevant to the theme of Leviticus.
The fourth Word enjoins sabbath keeping. The sabbath as the day of the Lord is a time of the implementation of sanctions. It is a day of judgment. Man ceases labor in order to bring his works and his person to God for evaluation. More than this, the sabbath means moving into God’s new kingdom. To refuse to do this, to cling to the past, is what we can call sabbatical idolatry. When the people rejected the promised land, God brought them under sabbath judgments in Numbers.
The fifth Word says that God has turned His kingdom over to subordinate stewards, and that they are to be respected. We have seen that this is highlighted in Deuteronomy. Seeking the kingdom in any way other than through God’s arrangements is a kind of future idolatry.
Thus, the first five Words generally follow the concerns of the covenant in sequence. The same is true of the last five Words.
The first five Words generally follow the concerns of the covenant in sequence. The same is true of the last five Words.
The sixth Word forbids manslaughter. The taking of human life is a prerogative reserved to God and His appointed servant-authorities alone. For man to murder is to seize at God’s transcendence and to abuse the integrity of other men. It is perhaps significant that the prohibition of murder is the only one of the ten Words expressly found in Genesis, as part of the Noahic covenant (Gen. 9:5-6).
The seventh Word forbids adultery. This is because marital order and relationship is the fundamental form of order in the Bible. The order in the Garden was for the husband to teach, feed, and guard his wife. This order was reversed in sin, but is restored as Christ teaches, feeds, and protects His bride. Thus, the overall concept in prohibiting adultery has to do with respect for God and care for the poor. God’s deliverance of His bride from Egyptian “rape” is the theme of Exodus. (Compare the previous exoduses of Abraham from Egypt and Philistia, and of Isaac from Philistia: In each case, the bride was under attack; Gen. 12, 20, 26.) Notice also that it is in Exodus 33 that God tells us that He is jealous when his bride commits adultery.
The relationship between the seventh and second Words is significant and interesting. The Bible very often states that the relationship between God and His people is one of marriage, but this is never ritualized in any kind of sexual fashion. All the pagan religions had ritual sex to show that they were married to their gods. These religions also bowed down to idols, showing that their gods were within their reach. The second Word requires us to affirm the absolute physical transcendence of God and that our relation with Him is wholly in the Spirit and covenantal. The same thing is affirmed in the absence of sex from Biblical liturgy. The requirement of physical monogamy in the seventh Word correlates to the requirement of Spiritual fidelity in the second.
The eighth Word forbids theft. Respect for the property of others clearly connects largely with the third zone of the five-fold covenant structure, because the third area is that of the distributed grant. We have to respect what God has granted to others. Also, disobedience to any part of God’s law is regarded as a trespass or more literally a “debt,” as we see in the Lord’s Prayer. Thus, any lawbreaking is a form of theft, creating indebtedness, which must be covered by a Trespass Offering. Theft has to do with boundaries, which is why it is equivalent to trespass. Leviticus is the book of boundaries, of who is allowed to go where, and of how to become cleansed once you have trespassed.
The ninth Word forbids false witness bearing. As we mentioned above, witness bearing has to do with the application of sanctions, and thus is associated with the fourth zone of the covenant. The fourth Word, concerning the sabbath and thus worship, concerns bearing true witness about God. This is highlighted in Numbers. Ten of the spies brought back false witness of the land. Balaam was commissioned by Balak to curse Israel with false witness. The people repeatedly bore false witness about God, and were judged for it.
The tenth Word forbids coveting. The man who is covetous will tend to act to disinherit his neighbor, and prevent his succession from continuance. In a wide sense, this is a major theme of Deuteronomy. Moses stresses over and over that God had given Israel a good land, plenty good enough for all of them. They would be the envy of other nations. They were not to covet other nations, but be content with what God had given them. At the national level, covetousness leads to war, and Deuteronomy greatly restricts war. (Judges 18 records an instance of this, when the Danites rejected what God had given them, coveted another land, and conquered it.) Moses stresses that if they come to covet the things that the gods of the other nations have given their people, they will forsake the Lord and worship those gods, hoping to get the same “blessings.” If they do this, the Lord will cast them out of the land. Thus, covetousness is strongly associated with the idea of succession and inheritance, and with the concerns of Deuteronomy.
We can pull together what our study has provided and summarize the five-fold shape of the covenant as follows:
1. Initiation, announcement, transcendence, life and death, covenantal idolatry.
2. Restructuring, order, hierarchy, protection of the bride, liturgical idolatry.
3. Distribution of a grant, incorporation, property, law in general as maintenance of the grant, practical idolatry.
4. Implementation, blessings and curses, witnesses, worship time, sabbath judgments, sabbatical idolatry.
5. Succession, artistic enhancements, respect for stewards, covetousness, future idolatry.