The strength of the covenant

The beauty of God's contract with humans lies in its inclusive nature, its acceptance of all people.

E. Obucic is affiliated with the national interreligious dialogue in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and works as a real estate portfolio coordinator for Unipromet d.d. Sarajevo.

Ancient covenants formed the basis for contemporary legal contracts that regulate relationships between two or more parties. Covenants in the ancient world were usually closed by an oath and assumed vassal treaties. Both parties participating in a vassal contract were obliged to take an oath and swear in the name of a higher authority, thus making the oath authentic and effective.1

Following the ancestral succession of various covenants similar in form and nature to the vassal treaties mentioned, the Jewish people entered into an identity-forming covenant. At Mount Sinai, Israel made preparations to enter the covenant that would constitute it as a unique nation—a people exclusively dedicated to God.

The generation that left Egypt, stood in close proximity to Mount Sinai and listened to Moses’ reading of the words and laws that he had received from God. It was upon this utterance that the promise given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob continued. As a sign of acceptance of the contractual terms, having heard the prescriptive contents conveyed by Moses, the contract mediator, the people verbally affirmed, “ ‘Everything the LORD has said we will do’ ” (Exod.24:3).2 The people’s verbal acceptance of the contractual terms warranted the covenant (contract) signature preparation: burnt offerings and bulls were sacrificed and the blood was used as the contractual medium. Half of the blood was placed on the altar, and the other half sprinkled on the people. “Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words’ ” (Exod. 24:8).

Blood and words

Two elements that dominated the signed contract immediately draw attention: blood and these words. The blood of the bulls was necessary to express the level of seriousness involved in the contractual relationship. Namely, should the contractual terms fail to be honored, the shedding of the bulls’ blood would set the equivalent penalty for any inconsistent contract signatories. The fact that there was no atoning sacrifice allocated to those who intentionally violated the words of the covenant solidifi ed the penal measures.

These words, or simply words, is a technical phrase that refers back to the Ten Commandments. Translators of the New International Version inserted a footnote to explain that the term words is “a technical term for ‘(covenant) stipulations’ in the ancient Near East (e.g. among the Hittites . . .). The basic code in Israel’s divine law is found in [Exodus 20:]2–17, elsewhere called the ‘Ten Commandments’. . . the Hebrew words for which mean lit. ‘Ten Words.’ ”3

“Those who are not here today”

Since the covenant was initially made with Moses’ generation of Egyptian refugees, God added an extended clause, rendering impossible the potential exclusion of their offspring: “I am making this covenant, with its oath, not only with you who are standing here with us today in the presence of the LORD our God but also with those who are not [yet] here today” (Deut. 29:14, 15).

“Those who are not here today” fall into two groups: the first group included the direct descendents of those Israelites “standing here . . . today.” The second group included non-Israelites, individuals who did not have an ethnic origin in Israel. They were the proselytes, woodcutters, and water drawers: “All of you are standing today in the presence of the LORD your God—your leaders and chief men, your elders and officials, and all the other men of Israel, together with your children and your wives, and the aliens living in your camps who chop your wood and carry your water”4 (Deut. 29:10, 11).

According to the rabbis, these foreigners entered the tribes of Israel either intentionally (i.e., motivated by religious interest) or involuntarily (i.e., sold as slaves). Regardless of their social standing or ethnic origin, however, they, too, were included in the covenant obligation between God and Israel and thus assumed the legal right to participate in the contractual relationship.

These non-Israelites who signed and kept the contract by oath were described with great respect by Israel’s prophets. In the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, they—the eunuchs and foreigners who decided to participate and consistently honor their contractual obligations—were described by God as individuals whose “ ‘burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar’ ” (Isa. 56:7).

Including the offspring and foreigners highlighted the openness characterized by that contract. The existing universal dimension of the contract reached a particular expansion with the coming of the Messiah. Namely, the coming of Yeshua, the Messiah, signaled further public replication of the already available contract. Corresponding to the formula of the contractual invitation (first the Jews, then the Gentiles), the Messiah strengthened the contract with rabbim (many)—first with the Jewish offspring as expected, transferring it then to the Gentile offspring. Jacques B. Doukhan explains the context: “It is noteworthy that the prophet Daniel does not describe the work of the Messiah as a ’new covenant,’ but rather as a strengthening of the original covenant. The passage uses the word ‘confirm’ (NIV) or ’strengthen’ (higbir from the root gbr denoting strength).”5

The presence of the technical term rabbim is indicative of the availability of the contract. The covenant was not only strengthened with “many” Jews but also equally strengthened with “many” foreign nations.6 For this reason, the full horizon of the contractual strength emerged in the work of the Messiah.

The Passover, the Sabbath, the name

The Messiah strengthened the contract in three ways: He specifically requested the eating of the Passover meal in remembrance of Him; He carved the Sabbath sign into the body of time, making it a permanent signal of His blood sacrifice; and He announced the presence of the name of God in the contractual relationship.

Apart from the roasted lamb, unleavened bread, wine, and bitter herbs, the principal theme of the Passover meal was blood. Placed on the wooden doorframe, this is the blood of the lamb that saved the Israelites from the final plague.

The Messiah provided clarification as to the meaning of the Passover blood represented by wine. Namely, the Messiah equated the wine with His own blood, insisting that the wine represents “ ‘my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many’ ” (rabbim) (Matt. 26:28).

Moreover, the Passover blood of the covenant was poured out to indicate the manner in which God makes people holy. Namely, since the religious life of contractual people was centered on the sacrificial system, the shedding of judgment and Passover blood was a daily requirement that meant the difference between life and death. The mystery underpinning the shedding of the Passover is revealed in the Messiah’s own sacrifice: “Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood” (Heb. 13:12).

The conclusion is unequivocal. Through the Messiah’s Passover blood, the people were made holy—a mystery that cyclically returned every seventh day. Specifically, the activity of making the people holy stood fixed “for all generations” by way of a transhistorical semiotic sign that endures through time. God stated the duration of this sign: “ ‘ “You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the LORD, who makes you holy” ’ ” (Exod. 31:13).

The shedding of the blood comes as a strengthening of the contract that God, by means of Jeremiah, promised to the contractual people. Through the repetition of the personal pronoun I, the Speaker uses the tetragrammaton (YHWH), or His name, to announce the physical connection with His people: “ ‘I will put my law in their minds / and write it on their hearts. / I will be their God, / and they will be my people’ ” (Jer. 31:33). In the contractual context, knowing God’s name meant that God Himself was intimately and physically present in the relationship. The implication is both clear and terrifying: the intimate and physical presence of God among His people was fully realized in the body of Immanuel who exemplified His identity in the following statement: “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58, KJV). The I am identification represents a direct reference to the tetragrammaton, YHWH—the name of God revealed to Moses and the people.

Therefore, the Passover blood, the Shabbat, and the tetragrammaton mediate the eternal permanence of the contractual responsibility between God and His contractual people.

The forming Jewish- Messianic community

The continuity of the contractual relationship represented itself in forming the Jewish community of Jerusalem that accepted Yeshua as the Messiah. Although those Jews who accepted Yeshua as the Messiah continued to pray regularly in the temple and synagogue, conflicts followed. Due to their views, they were not allowed to fully participate in regular synagogue services through prayer leadership and synagogue management; and with time, a stronger division between the two Jewish groups was cemented. This happened because the Jews who upheld Yeshua made bold Messianic claims that inspired constant controversy and occasional rejection. Such friction prompted the group to gather in private houses for prayer, reading, and sharing of the Passover meal in remembrance of their Messiah. In addition, instances of persecution by fellow Jews as well as other nationals to whom they preached the message of Messianic salvation were not rare. Although their complete excommunication occurred in the fourth century,7 the period after the destruction of the second temple witnessed an event that brought about significant changes.

Hans Küng explains, “The definitive break was brought about after the destruction of the second temple by the Romans in A.D. 70, by a Jewish council in Jamnia (near Jaffa), which was composed of Pharisees: this was the formal excommunication of the Christians, a curse on heretics which was to be repeated at the beginning of every synagogue service.”8

Küng’s statement exemplifies the sentiment expressed towards the Jews who accepted Yeshua’s Messianic commission. Namely, the curse reflected the existing attitude towards Yeshua’s followers, thus stimulating the beginning of a serious process of separation between the two collectives that had no realistic, long-term prospect for integrated coexistence.

The covenant, not the Messiah

Yeshua’s Messianic identity, although contentious, was not the primary cause for the separation; rather, it was the controversy over contractual obligations placed on the Gentiles that accounted for the separation. In particular, it was the issue of Gentiles’ religious integration in the Jewish community that caused aggressive divisions within the community itself. The divisive milestone occurred when Peter, in a confronting vision, received instruction to visit the Roman officer’s household (Acts 10:9–20). While there, Peter preached, Gentiles listened and accepted Yeshua, and unexpectedly received the Holy Spirit. This chain of events prompted Peter to conclude that the sealing presence of the Holy Spirit authorizes the Gentiles to participate in the contractual relationship.9

Subsequently, this realization raised a question pertinent to the Gentiles’ contractual obligations. Namely, Do Gentiles need to observe circumcision and all precepts? Some Judeans in Antioch were clear—unless the Gentiles get circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, they could not be saved (Acts 15:1).10 Others disagreed. Sharp differences in opinion prompted the community to send Saul (Paul) of Tarsus, Barnabas, and other local community members to Jerusalem to discuss the matter with the leaders of the community.

Having carefully listened to Saul’s and Barnabas’s reports detailing God’s manifestation among the Gentiles, the leaders in Jerusalem were impressed yet divided. Both views for and against were represented. The Pharisees and the Law mediated by Moses demanded circumcision while others held more flexible views.11

After much discussion, the dispute was solved and the following compromise reached: the Gentiles shouldn’t be burdened with the full requirements. Four commandments would suffice—abstinence from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality (Acts 15:29). Although James and the apostles were opposed to the full requirements dictated by the decrees and laws that regulated life in the Promised Land, they certainly implied that the Gentile offspring should sign the contract based on the “words”—the Ten Commandments—as the basis for the contract very familiar to the Gentiles in the preaching of Moses in the synagogues every Shabbat. Stating that the four mentioned commandments were the only commandments prescribed to the Gentiles would entail contractual irregularities and relationship absurdities. This line of reasoning would connote a reductio ad absurdum, untenable consequence since the converted Gentiles were certainly obliged to worship the God of Israel as opposed to engaging in the polytheistic practice of worshiping foreign gods, to consequently eliminate graven images, to avoid the misuse of the name of God, to observe the Sabbath, to respect one’s parents, to stop killing, committing adultery, stealing, lying, coveting, etc.

By making the aforementioned decision pertaining to the Gentiles, the apostles and elders thus effectively regulated the Gentiles’ concessional proselytic status within Judaism of the time.

Conclusion

Although we were not present at the time of the signing of the contract, we—the Gentile and the Jewish offspring— enjoy the same entitlement in assessing, with a sense of maturity, its terms and conditions. Should the terms and conditions be accepted, we ourselves will enter “into the covenant of God your Lord, and [accepting] the dread oath that He is making with you today.”12 The “dread oath” alone indicates the seriousness of the contractual acceptance. Since the covenant is strengthened with the Messiah who shed His holy blood for many, the blood could mean either death or life for us depending on how seriously we approach our contractual commitments. The newly signed covenant will become effective only when contractual commitments have been honored—commitments we vowed to honor when we expressed our faith, were immersed in the water, and received the Holy Spirit. In this manner, the covenant between God, the Israelites, and the Gentiles will reach its full expressive form. The full number of the Gentiles will come in so “all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:26).

1. Vassal treaties demonstrate that a “vassal was bound by an
oath in the names of several gods to keep the stipulations of
the treaty. If the treaty should be broken, the incorporated
curses would take effect.” This relationship “can be seen
in the Hittite vassal treaties, the Assyrian vassal treaties in
Esarhaddon, and the Aramaic vassal treaty of Sfire.” Geoffrey
W. Bromiley, ed., The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia,
vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), s.v. “oath.”

2. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations in this article are
from the New International Version (NIV).

3. Kenneth L. Barker, ed., The New International Version Study Bible
(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 171n20:1. The following
instances exemplify the occurrence of the term in The Living Torah
(New York: Moznaim Pub., 1981), by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan: (a) Exod.
20:1, “God spoke all these words [The Ten Commandments]” (all
emphasis added); (b) Exod. 34:28, “[Moses] remained there with
God [on the mountain] for 40 days and 40 nights without eating
bread nor drinking water. [God] wrote the words of the covenant,
consisting of the Ten Commandments, on the Tablets” (brackets
in original); (c) Deut. 4:13, “He announced to you His covenant,
instructing you to keep the Ten Commandments, and He wrote
them on two stone tablets”; and (d) Deut. 10:4,“[God] wrote on
the tablets the original script of the Ten Commandments which
He declared to you from the mountain out of the fire on the Day of
Assembly” (brackets in original).

4. Rabbinical comments elaborate on this detail: “Some say that
these were Canaanites who came to embrace Judaism, just as
in the time of Joshua (Tanchuma 2; Rashi); cf. Joshua 9:21-27.
Others say that they were the mixed multitude (Exodus 12:38;
Ramban), or the Israelites’ slaves (Baaley Tosafoth; Chizzkuni).”
Navigating the Bible II, “Deuteronomy 29,” World ORT, http://
bible.ort.org/books/pentd2.asp?ACTION=displaypage&BOOK=
5&CHAPTER=29
.

5. Jacques B. Doukhan, Secrets of Daniel: Wisdom and Dreams of
a Jewish Prince in Exile (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald
Pub. Assn., 2000), 150, 151.

6. Ibid.

7. Interview, “Mordechai Arad,” Shabbat Shalom 51, no. 2
(2004): 7. Arad explains that coexistence ceased to be feasible
in the fourth century A.D. due to the accumulated layers of
cultural, political, and theological differences.

8. Hans Küng, The Catholic Church: A Short History, trans. John
Bowden (New York: Modern Library, 2003), 14. What Küng refers
to is the birkat haminim (the curse against the heretics) in the
Amidah (an essential prayer of Judaism). A second-century text,
Tosefta Shabbat 13:5, confi rms an existing animosity between the
two groups. “Mordechai Arad,” Shabbat Shalom, 7.

9. Hence Peter’s affi rming statement concerning the Gentiles
in Acts 15:8, 9: “ ‘God, who knows the heart, showed that he
accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did
to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he
purified their hearts by faith.’ ”

10. Rabbinical commentary explains the background: “From here
our Sages learned that our ancestors entered the covenant
with circumcision, immersion (in a mikvah), and the sprinkling
of the blood of the sacrifice on the altar, for there is a law that
one may not sprinkle blood unless immersion has preceded it.”
Chaim Miller, Chumash: The Book of Exodus, Gutnick ed. (New
York: Kol Menachem, 2005), 174.

11. James, for example, wanted to avoid burdening these
individuals with hundreds of commandments in conjunction
with extratextual rabbinical precepts, advocated four simple
commandments: “ ‘It is my judgment, therefore, that we
should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to
God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain
from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the
meat of strangled animals and from blood. For Moses has
been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read
in the synagogues on every Sabbath’ ” (Acts 15:19–21).

12. Jconnect Seattle, “Deuteronomy 29:9-20, ‘Nitzavim,’ ”
Hillel UW, www.jconnectseattle.org/Documents/
Deuteronomy_29_9-20.pdf (brackets in original).

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E. Obucic is affiliated with the national interreligious dialogue in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and works as a real estate portfolio coordinator for Unipromet d.d. Sarajevo.

September 2009

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