Posts Tagged ‘covenant’

DEUTERONOMY 11:18-21, 26-28

18 You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. 19 Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 20 Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, 21 so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.

26 See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: 27 the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today; 28 and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn from the way that I am commanding you today, to follow other gods that you have not known.

In ancient Israel, two traditions ran side by side and had different things to say about the nature of God, our human condition, the meaning of salvation, and the responsibility each of us carries.

One tradition was centered on Mt. Sinai and the other on Mt. Zion; one featured Moses as the ideal while the other venerated David; one represented the relationship between God and humans as a bilateral covenant whereas the other saw it as based on a unilateral and unconditional divine promise; one held special affection for the poor and downtrodden, as the other tended to favor persons of clout and privilege; finally, one was dedicated to the Torah (ethical teachings) and produced the prophets while the other was chiefly concerned with the Temple and its political ties to the Throne, promoting the vocation of priests.

All of the terms in bold text above represent the web of values that makes the Old Testament such a complicated collection of writings. Through the centuries, and in response to major events such as the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to Assyria in 722 BCE and the Babylonian captivity of the southern kingdom of Judah in 586 BCE, these two traditions and their different voices were gradually stitched together in one “grand narrative.” Even so, the stitching seams are rough and still obvious in places, and occasional contradictions can trip up the attentive reader.

Deuteronomy is the principal document of the tradition featuring Mt. Sinai, Moses, the bilateral covenant (more on that in a moment), concern for the oppressed, the Law code of the Ten Commandments, and prophets as agitators of the status quo. The status quo – then and now – refers to a tendency of the political and religious establishment to suck resources away from those who desperately need them, making their situation more desperate still, as insiders enjoy comfort and ease. It often happens as well that an established religion can grow morally complacent and actually work to keep out those who don’t fit in the group.

This so-called Deuteronomic tradition understood God’s protection and provision as conditional upon the people’s faith and obedience to the teachings of Torah. God would do his part, but in return he expected them to keep a sharp ethical edge on their faith. Their diligence in following the way of God as explained in the Law, and teaching their children to do the same, would bring them long life and prosperity. For this reason the agreement is technically a conditional covenant, holding together around the “if/then” clause: If you do this, then I will do that. If you don’t, then the deal is off.

The Old Testament contrast of these two traditions showed up later in Christianity as the tension between “faith alone” and “works righteousness,” belief versus action. Is it enough to have faith, or is salvation dependent on our living out what we believe? If we practice compassion and benevolent outreach, is it still necessary to believe the “right” things?

This voice of the Bible answers: It’s not what’s in your head or even in your heart that ultimately counts; salvation is something you need to work out in daily action. God loves the poor more than he cares for priests and politicians!

ISAIAH 49:8-16a

Thus says the Lord:
In a time of favor I have answered you,
    on a day of salvation I have helped you;
I have kept you and given you
    as a covenant to the people,
to establish the land,
    to apportion the desolate heritages;
saying to the prisoners, “Come out,”
    to those who are in darkness, “Show yourselves.”
They shall feed along the ways,
    on all the bare heights shall be their pasture;
10 they shall not hunger or thirst,
    neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down,
for he who has pity on them will lead them,
    and by springs of water will guide them.
11 And I will turn all my mountains into a road,
    and my highways shall be raised up.
12 Lo, these shall come from far away,
    and lo, these from the north and from the west,
    and these from the land of Syene.

13 Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
    break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted his people,
    and will have compassion on his suffering ones.

14 But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
    my Lord has forgotten me.”
15 Can a woman forget her nursing child,
    or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
    yet I will not forget you.
16 See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;
    your walls are continually before me.

The writer known as Second (Deutero-) Isaiah flourished in ministry during the Babylonian exile (587-538 BCE) and lived among the community of those who had been taken from their homes in Jerusalem. Defeat by the Babylonian army and deportation to a foreign land induced an identity crisis of the first order. When your monotheistic beliefs trace the causality of what befalls you to the will of God, every upset and loss begs the question: Why?

Especially when a respectable reputation and your honest efforts at living right still land you in a dark and painful place, this question of the relation of your suffering to God’s will can cut deep into your faith. There were many contemporaries left behind in Jerusalem (Zion, the mount on which the temple was built had become a synonym for Jerusalem itself) who felt compelled to conclude that God had simply forgotten his covenant with Israel. Divine amnesia was at least more theologically sustainable than the idea that God had deliberately abandoned them.

Away in Babylon, Isaiah was hearing similar cries among the exiles. God had promised a long and prosperous future to his people. What happened? Were they being punished for some unbeknownst sin – perhaps for the sins of their ancestors? This was one answer. But Second Isaiah (along with a fellow exile who adapted the story of Job) insisted on the innocence of his generation, and outright rejected the popular idea that God punishes children for the sins of their parents.

Following an insight that would later have revolutionary implications in the Christian era, Isaiah turned the crisis of exile into redemptive suffering on behalf of the entire nation. His generation, a collective taken as an individual, had served as the ratifying sacrifice of God’s renewed covenant of blessing. Their affliction and loss had opened a new future of hope and salvation for everyone.

EXODUS 17:1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3 But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” 4 So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5 The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.6 I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

One persistent liability of religion is that it fosters in believers an expectation that God will always provide what they need. Indeed, this short tether of self-interest, which keeps “juvenile” forms of theism closely tied to an individual’s concern for security, provisions, good fortune and life everlasting, has prevented theism itself from evolving apace with our spiritual growth as a species over the millenniums.

When children don’t get what they want, they will typically fuss and complain. And if the world fails to deliver on their demand, they will pout and mope about, making life difficult for everyone else. If parents aren’t consistent in reshaping this behavior – or try too hard to keep these protesters satisfied – children can grow up with a sense of entitlement, thinking that the world owes them what they crave.

But because the world simply cannot deliver on their every demand, many youngsters grow up with deep discontent and an insatiable appetite for more, fueled by an insecurity that drives them to get as much as they can for as little effort as possible. In short, they grow up to become consummate consumers, with just the right mix of low self-awareness, impossible expectations, and a blatant disregard for how their behavior negatively impacts the larger community of life.

In the biblical myth-cycle, the Eviction from Eden and the Exodus from Egypt are really two angles on the same event, looked at from different elevations along the spiraling course of human development. The surplus provision and instant gratification of Eden in early childhood soon become conditions of captivity for the human spirit in its late adolescence, which must grow up, move on, and start taking responsibility in life.

Adolescents typically want freedom without responsibility, however, and the old securities of Egypt often tempt us to forsake maturity and fulfillment for what we think we really need and deserve.

At yet another turn of the spiral, Exile from Jerusalem, these complaints in the desert wilderness will eventually resolve into a grieving loss, a deeper self-understanding, and a search for God in the midst of suffering.


How does quarreling with Moses and complaining about not having water to drink amount to “testing the Lord”? When their need for water in the desert wasn’t instantly gratified, the Israelites began to question whether or not God was really with them.

The patron deities of theism emerged as the hidden agencies behind the forces that support and stress human existence. A storm god was regarded as behind the storm that devastated a village, which didn’t fix the damage, certainly, but did provide an explanation for the disaster. That is to say, it was made meaningful.

If the explanation is that god is angry and punishing the village for its sin, then at least it has meaning – and the mind needs meaning like the body needs water and food and air to breathe.

If you believe in a god whose “job” is to provide for you, protect you from harm, or love you unconditionally, then every time there isn’t bread on the table when you want it, rescue from danger when you need it, or the warm feeling of being the apple of your god’s eye, you might well begin to doubt and lose faith.

God had called Abram out of his homeland, liberated the Hebrews out of bondage, and renewed a covenant with Moses – all of it working out a promise to bring the people into a greater destiny, which included their responsibility as “a light to the nations.”  God didn’t say, “I’ll take care of you and give you everything you want,” but rather, “You will be a vehicle of my blessing to all people.”

With the promise still unfulfilled – because they were still only on the way – the people lost focus and started fixating on their immediate needs. In effect, they cried out: Forget the future and your  so-called purpose for us! We’re thirsty NOW and you don’t care!

In doubting God’s covenant commitment and larger intention, they were thereby “testing the Lord.” Because God wasn’t present to them according to their demands, they accused him of being absent.

MATTHEW 2:13-23

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

Already in the opening chapters of Matthew’s story we become aware of the guiding archetype (creative image) in his portrait of Jesus. His story is intentionally shaped according to the narrative figure of Moses.

The narrow escape in infancy from the murderous plans of an imperial ruler, a visionary experience in the wilderness where his mission is tested and confirmed, a miraculous victory over the sea, the revelation of a new ethic (commandments/beatitudes) from a mountaintop, his message of God’s kingdom, his provision in ratifying a covenant between God and the community, and his central role as liberator – such are merely the broad strokes of comparison between the Moses of old and the New Moses in Jesus.

Some of us begin to get nervous when we learn that there is no historical record whatsoever of Herod the Great’s pogrom against male infants in or around Bethlehem. And when we are made aware of the significant discrepancies between the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke, we might begin to question the truth and reliability of their conflicting “reports.”

In Luke, for instance, Jesus is born in a Bethlehem manger behind an inn with no vacancy, while Matthew tells us that Joseph and Mary had a house address in Bethlehem. Luke has to get the unborn Jesus from Nazareth to Bethlehem, simply because Bethlehem was in the prophecy of the messiah, and Nazareth – well, he was called Jesus of Nazareth after all. Who’s right? The non-logical answer is that they both are, depending on the story you’re in.


The reader may believe that all this comparing and contrasting of the Nativity stories in Matthew and Luke only raises the possibility for confusion and a crisis of faith. Why push us to an edge where we must make a choice between one or the other, or even discard them both as ungrounded fictions?

We should note, however, that this was never the claim. The point is that we don’t have to choose one or the other, and furthermore, that they are not ungrounded fictions at all. They are indeed grounded fictions, and the ground in this case is not historical fact but spiritual truth.

Underneath the dramatic action of Matthew’s story is his personal conviction that Jesus is the New Moses. And just as Moses was the heroic liberator of God’s people from their bondage in Egypt, so is Jesus the one who sets people free from their spiritual captivity to guilt, fear, and futility.

Moreover, as Moses revealed the covenantal principles of the Law, so also did Jesus reveal the principles of a New Covenant – this time not based on the logic of retribution (“and eye for an eye” or “you get what you deserve”) but of forgiveness (“Your sins are forgiven!”). It is as if Jesus is recapitulating the life of Moses, but at a spiral turn higher up, so that salvation history is seen as shifting to a new level of fulfillment.

As long as our critical relationship to these stories is held to the task of determining (or denying) their factual reliability we will be prevented from stepping through the narrow gate of a deeper understanding.