Divine Covenants and Treaties

How are divine covenants similar to ancient Near Eastern treaties?

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I think because of the importance of covenant in the Old Testament, and particularly the use of covenant to define the relationship between God and human beings, we could easily make draw the mistaken inference that the notion of covenant is a particularly theological concept, or it comes out of kind of a religious dictionary or encyclopedia. But in fact, it comes out of the context of international diplomacy, international law in the ancient Near East. The treaty, which is the same thing as a covenant essentially, was the prime instrument for interrelationships, international relationships, within the ancient Near East. I would define "covenant" as a "stipulated commitment under divine sanctions." It's a simple definition: "stipulated commitment under divine sanctions," and I think the power of that definition is that it applies to covenants, whether God is a party or humans are just parties with one another. Even in the Bible there are many covenants in which Abraham enters into a covenant with some of the surrounding peoples, or Isaac, or Jacob. Jacob and Laban had a mutual aggression pact that they called a covenant at the end of Genesis chapter 31. Those weren't covenants in the sense of having God as one of the parties. In fact, the idea that God is a party of a covenant is almost unheard of in the ancient Near East. In this definition — that a covenant is a "stipulated commitment under divine sanctions" — it's important that the commitment is stipulated, in the sense that it's fully spelled out, and usually implies that it must be put down in writing. The fact that it's under divine sanctions means that it has divine witnesses and that it's the god or gods who executes the sanctions of the covenant, particularly the curses and the blessings of the covenant. We have such a list of curses and blessings in Leviticus chapter 26 and Deuteronomy chapter 28. What's unique about biblical covenants, and particularly the covenants of which God is a party, is that God is a party of those covenants. But the nature of those covenants, and we think of the covenant that God makes with humanity in with Noah at the on the occasion of the Flood; the covenant that he makes with Abraham in Genesis 15; the covenant that he makes with Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai in Exodus chapters 19 to 24; a covenant that he makes with David and the house of David in chapter 7 of 2 Samuel. What gives each covenant its character is the question, "Who makes the commitment?" — whether it's God who makes the commitment by swearing an oath to the humans, or whether it's the humans who make the commitment, as in the case of the covenant at Mount Sinai. And in each of those, the different kinds of... who makes the commitment makes the difference as to the nature of how that covenant will play out within redemptive history. But both kinds of covenants, and all those covenants that I've just named operate together and cooperate together to in God's unfolding plan of redemption throughout the Old Testament and ultimately fulfilled in Christ in the new covenant.

Answer by Dr. Douglas Gropp

Dr. Douglas Gropp was formerly Professor of Old Testament and Associate Academic Dean at Redeemer Seminary