Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Grace and Faith in the Abrahamic Covenant

This is another short paper that I have prepared for my biblical theology course. I found it profitable to write, so I hope that it may be profitable to others to read.

    Abraham appears in Genesis as the human side of the first full-orbed biblical covenants. God initiates His covenant with Abraham in 12:2-3: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you, I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” This covenant is completely gracious, with God undertaking all of its requirements unconditionally. Abraham is a passive party to it.
The next development of the covenant is in chapter 15. In verse 5, God gives the promise of a generous posterity. In verse, He adds the land promise, expanded in verses 13-15. Abraham’s response appears in verse 6: “and he believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness”. Again, it is striking that the promises of God are unconditional. At no point does He give any requirement to Abraham as the price for the blessings. While Abraham is passive in the covenant, Moses records his reaction of faith. That order is important: faith is the response to the covenant, not its cause.
Another stage is seen in chapter 17. The promise of a posterity is repeated in verses 4-6, and the land promise in verse 8. But we see added elements in verse 2 - holiness- and the extension, not just of posterity, but of spiritual prosperity to that posterity in verse 7. The covenant having already been established, holiness cannot be taken as a causative requirement for the blessings, but rather as the response. So we have the already granted instrument of the covenant, i. e., faith, now with the response, holiness. In addition, the covenant is revealed as a continuing relationship, not just with Abraham personally, but also with his descendants. And in verses 9-14, God also gives a continuing sign of the covenant, circumcision of all its visible male members. In verse 22, we see that the sign was not only for the blood descendants, but for all the members of the household, including those by bond.
    The posterity promise is repeated in 18:10 and 22:17. We also see an interesting element in 17:18-20. God has informed Abraham that the covenant blessings will be through his yet-unborn son by Sarah (v. 16). Abraham reacts, first with disbelief, considering his and Sarah’s advanced ages. Then he asks God to extend His blessings to Ishmael, as well. God responds in the negative, yet also promises material blessings on Ishmael. This again emphasizes the gracious nature of the covenant. Isaac hasn’t even been conceived, yet, but God decrees that he shall be a spiritual member of the covenant. Ishmael has as much claim, as also a son of Abraham, yet is sovereignly excluded. Yet, even for him, there are benefits from the covenant.
The land and posterity promises are renewed to Abraham’s son Isaac in 26:3 and 26:24, and to his grandson Jacob in 28:4 and 28:13. Jacob acknowledges the gracious benefits he has received because of the covenant in 32:9-10. The covenant with Jacob is renewed at Paddan-Aram (35:9-12), both in the posterity and in the land promises. Jacob voices these blessings on Joseph, in 48:15-16. And Joseph refers to the land promise in 50:24. At each of these steps, we see God acting monergistically, promising blessings, with no corresponding requirements from Isaac and Jacob. The covenant is always given as gracious.
In Exodus, Moses portrays the covenant, not as something spoken anew by God, but rather as something to be remembered by the descendants of Abraham. We see this in 2:24, 3:6, 3:15, 4:5, 6:3-4, 6:8, 32:13 (where Moses reminds God!), and 33:1. In 6:3, God adds His covenant Name, Jehovah, instead of God Almighty (Heb., El Shaddai). These references are all couched in the pattern we see in the Prologue of the Ten Commandments(20:2): “I am the Lord [Jehovah] your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” That is, the covenant is given on the basis of the a priori, gracious relationship that God initiated with the line of Abraham. It is never given as a quid pro quo in response to rituals or behaviors of the covenant people. It is sharply dichotomous from the relationships of pagans to their deities.
The Abrahamic covenant is mentioned only once in Leviticus, near the end. In 26:40-41, the people are described as repenting of their iniquities, i. e., their breaking of the laws just given in the rest of the book. In response, verse 42, God promises to remember His covenant. This in no way lessens the graciousness of the covenant. As with the Ten Commandments, God’s actions are predicated on an a priori relationship. The repentance of the people does not create a new relationship. In fact, the verse assumes a failure on the part of the people, and indicates that forgiveness is available, reinforcing the graciousness of the covenant.
In Numbers, we see the land promise recalled in passing in 32:11. Then again in Deuteronomy 1:8, 6:10, 9:5, 9:27-28, 30:20, and 34:4. The posterity promise appears in 29:10-13. The reference in 9:5 particularly stands out because it is bracketed, in verses 4 and 6, with reminders of the graciousness of the covenant: “Do not say in your heart , ‘It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to possess the land…’ Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness…” Joshua, the successor of Moses, also recalls both the posterity and land promises in 24:3-4.
In the historical books, the remembrances of the Abrahamic covenant are more fleeting. There are no references in I and II Samuel. There is one in I Kings 18:36, where it is recalled by Elijah, And by God in II Kings 13:23. David mentions it in I Chronicles 16:16, and again in 29:18. And the land promise is claimed by Jehoshaphat in II Chronicles 20:7. Hezekiah preaches on the covenant in 30:6, as he sought to bring Judah to repentance. The Levites had the same goal after the Exile, in Nehemiah 9:7-8.
In the Psalms, the role of remembrance continues. We see this in 47:9, 105:6, 105:9, and 105:42. Psalm 105 is partly a repeat of the praise in I Chr. 16, so it appears to be a composition of David. It is significant that he uses God’s covenant with Abraham as a reminder of God’s faithfulness, when his own covenant is used similarly by the major prophets.
The Abrahamic covenant appears several times in the second half of the prophecies of Isaiah. God Himself uses that covenant as the basis for restoring the descendants of Jacob in 29:22-24. He does so again in 41:8-10 and 51:1-3. Isaiah claims the covenant in a prayer for his people in 63:15-17. So, the prophet looks less to the land and posterity promises, and more to the grace of the covenant than did the historical writers. God through Jeremiah does the same in Jer. 33: 25-26. However, God reverses that in Ezekiel 33:24: “Son of man, the inhabitants of these waste places keep saying, ‘Abraham was only one man, yet he got possession of the land; but we are many; the land is surely given to us to possess.’” In spite of statements, such as Deut. 9:4-6, emphasizing that God’s grace is not due to worthiness of the people, in Ezekiel’s time the people are claiming the territory as theirs by right! That might explain why we don’t see the Abrahamic covenant again in the prophets, not until the New Testament.
What is funny is that we see the same attitude when the NT writers pick up the Abrahamic theme. In the first occasion, Matthew 3:9-10, John the Baptist is rebuking the Jewish leaders for presuming to covenant blessings as a right. In 8:11-12, Jesus revives the faith aspect, as He informs the Jews that faithful Gentiles will enjoy the Abrahamic blessings.May, the mother of Jesus, restores the gracious element in Luke 1:54-55. And Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, does the same in 1:68-75. Jesus renewed the nongenetic aspect of the covenant (as with Ishmael) in 13:28, and in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (16:19-31). Physical descent does not necessarily bring the spiritual benefits of the covenant! Jesus continues this theme in John 8:33-58. Thus, the Abrahamic covenant appears in the Gospels as a struggle between the perverted version from the Jewish leaders, who expected the covenant blessings of the covenant on the basis of their lineage, a la Ezekiel 33:24, and the correction by Jesus, that the covenant is exclusively gracious, a la Deuteronomy 9:4-6.
In Acts 3:, starting with verse 13, we see Peter claiming that the Abrahamic covenant, on which the Pharisees relied so strongly, actually pointed to Jesus. The Deacon Stephen makes the same point, in part, in his evangelistic sermon of chapter 7, for which he was stoned by that enraged Jews. Paul takes a similar tack in 13:26-33, ending with his assertion, “This He has fulfilled to us, their children, by raising Jesus [from the dead]...” Thus, Luke in Acts uses the Abrahamic theme, not just to deprive the Jewish leaders of their superiority, but to point explicitly to fulfillment in Jesus, preparing for Paul’s identification of Jesus as the prophesied Seed of Abraham.
    Paul puts Abraham prominently in Romans. In chapter 4, he focuses on faith as the response to the covenant. In verse 3, he actually quotes, Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” He thus establishes that his gospel of justification by faith alone is not a novelty, but is actually a revival of the covenant made with Abraham at the beginning of Israelite history. In 9:6-18, he reminds his readers of the posterity promise made to Abraham, carried through Isaac but not Ishmael, and through Jacob but not Esau, to demonstrate that the covenant was gracious, not by works or genetics, as Jesus also did in the gospels. And in chapter 11, he brings up Abraham and Isaac to demonstrate God’s faithfulness to that covenant. Thus, Israel had every reason to hope in the covenant, but not to rely on genetics alone. The covenant is by faith, including the faith of Gentiles, who had no DNA from the line of Abraham, but imitated his faith.
Paul caps his Abrahamic apologetic in Galatians, chapter 3. In verse 6, he quotes Genesis again: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” He then proceeds, in verses 7-13, to explain the dichotomy between justification by faith and justification by works, leading to his chief point, verse 14, that the Abrahamic covenant must bring the believer to Jesus Christ, for He is the seed of Abraham promised way back in Genesis (verses 15-18).
    The writer of Hebrews begins a new discussion of Abraham in 2:16, in which Jesus, Jehovah the Covenant-Maker Incarnate, has come to redeem the offspring of Abraham. He expands on this in 6:13-7:10, in which he lays a foundation on God’s faithfulness to Abraham as the security of the believer. God made promises to Abraham in the covenant, fulfilled them, so the believer can depend on Him to fulfill His redemptive purpose revealed in Jesus Christ. Abraham himself is shown trusting that purpose in 11:18-19, which is also seen in James 2:21-23.
    Across both testaments, we see an emphasis on God’s covenant with Abraham as gracious, based on faith, and derived from an a priori relationship. Yet, we also see the people, in spite of these assertions, turning the covenant into a get-out-of-jail-free card, an automatic guarantee of salvation on the basis of physical descent. The prophets, the Apostle Paul, John the Baptist, and Jesus Himself struggle to break that idolatry. Jesus was crucified, Stephen was stoned, and Paul was martyred for their efforts.

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