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How Do You Understand the Covenants of the Bible? (Part 5)

God does not forget His covenant with the children of Israel, but in order to receive the blessings of the covenant, the people had to return to the LORD. God gives a strong warning to those who break the laws and the covenant in Deuteronomy 17:2-5: “If there is found among you, within any of your gates which the LORD your God gives you, a man or a woman who has been wicked in the sight of the LORD your God, in transgressing His covenant, who has gone and served other gods and worshipped them, either the sun or moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded, and it is told you, and you hear of it, then you shall inquire diligently. And if it is indeed true and certain that such an abomination has been committed in Israel, then you shall bring out to your gates that man or woman who has committed that wicked thing, and shall stone to death that man or woman with stones.”

Near the end of the book of Deuteronomy, just before the death of Moses and the children of Israel entering the Promised Land, God had Moses address all the people. We read in Deuteronomy 29:10-15. “All of you stand today before the LORD your God: your leaders and your tribes and your elders and your officers, all the men of Israel, your little ones and your wives—also the stranger who is in your camp, from the one who cuts your wood to the one who draws your water—that you may enter into covenant with the LORD your God, and into His oath, which the LORD your God makes with you today, that He may establish you today as a people for Himself, and that He may be God to you, just as He has spoken to you, and just as He has sworn to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I make this covenant and this oath, not with you alone, but with him who stands here with us today before the LORD our God, as well as with him who is not here with us today.”

This is very comprehensive, as it included all the children of Israel as well as others who were not of the children of Israel but were present. The expression “as well as with him who is not here with us today,” could include those who may have been sick or indisposed for some other reason at that time. However, the Jewish Soncino commentary suggests it means the posterity of those standing there. This is confirmed in Scriptures like Deuteronomy 5:10 where God shows “…mercy to thousands (of generations), to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” In other words, those who live by the laws on which the covenant was based.

To show God’s consistency, the statement concerning the stranger or foreigner is also mentioned in Isaiah 56:6-7: “Also the sons of the foreigner Who join themselves to the LORD, to serve Him, And to love the name of the LORD, to be His servants—Everyone who keeps from defiling the Sabbath, And holds fast My covenant—Even them I will bring to My holy mountain, And make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices Will be accepted on My altar; For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.” An interesting point about this passage in Isaiah is that here, the Sabbath and the covenant are treated as separate items. We noted previously that the Sabbath was a stand-alone covenant as well as being a part of the Ten Commandments.

A further point of interest in Deuteronomy 29:11 is the term “the stranger who is in your camp, from the one who cuts your wood to the one who draws your water.” A similar term is only used again concerning the Gibeonites in Joshua 9:27; so again, did the elders of that time remember what God had promised in Deuteronomy 29 as stated previously, or was it that the one who cuts your wood and the one who draws you water were the lower class of citizens?

In Deuteronomy 5:2-3, Moses states that God made a covenant with them at Horeb, even though most of them standing there were not even born at the time. Only a handful of those over twenty years old at the time God made the covenant with the children of Israel had not died in the wilderness. We read Deuteronomy 5:2-3: “The LORD our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. The LORD did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, those who are here today, all of us who are alive.” The literal translation of Deuteronomy 5:3 by Richard Elliot Friedman is enlightening: “YHWH did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us! We! These! Here! Today! All of us! Living!”

His comment on this passage is both interesting and informative: “…Moses mixes past, present, and future. He speaks to the people in front of him as if they had all been at Sinai forty years earlier. Now he says it explicitly, powerfully, unmistakably, with seven different words: Each generation must see themselves as personally standing at Sinai, not just as inheriting their parents’ covenant, but as making the covenant themselves. It is a present, living commitment” (Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah (p. 2579). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.)

So even when God made the covenant with the children of Israel in the land of Moab, just before they entered the land of Canaan (compare Deuteronomy 29:1, 12), they could consider that they, in effect, partook of the original covenant at Sinai.

The final chapters of the book of Deuteronomy contain many warnings of what would happen if they broke their covenant with God. In fact, God warned Moses that they would break the covenant and follow after other gods and God would punish them as He had promised. In one place, Deuteronomy 5:29, God lamented that the people did not have a heart to obey the commandments: “Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!” Two translations, the Douay-Rheims and the Richard Elliot Friedman translations, render the passage as a question, as follows: “Who would make it so, that they would have such a heart (or, “Who shall give them to have such a mind”, Douay-Rheims) to fear Me and observe all My commandments every day, so it would be good for them and for their children forever?”(Friedman). The implication is that only God could make it so but He needs to give the people a new heart and a new mind, so that they are going to obey Him voluntarily.

Actually, the question is answered which we will learn, when we read about the New Covenant.

In Old Testament times, however, very few were able and willing to obey God. Moses told the people again in Deuteronomy 29:4: “Yet the LORD has not given you a heart to perceive and eyes to see and ears to hear, to this very day… “

Also, Joshua tells the people in Joshua 24:19: “…You cannot serve the LORD, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God. He will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins.”

At the end of the book of Joshua, just before he died, he warned the people again not to serve foreign gods. Joshua 24:20 states: “If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then He will turn and do you harm and consume you, after He has done you good.” Then the people answered in Joshua 24:24-27: “And the people said to Joshua, ‘The LORD our God we will serve, and His voice we will obey!’ So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made for them a statute and an ordinance in Shechem. Then Joshua wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God. And he took a large stone, and set it up there under the oak that was by the sanctuary of the LORD. And Joshua said to all the people, ‘Behold, this stone shall be a witness to us, for it has heard all the words of the LORD which He spoke to us. It shall therefore be a witness to you, lest you deny your God.’”

As mentioned previously, the covenants often had a sign, or witness, for them to be remembered by. In this case, the stone that was set up under the oak tree was to be a witness.

When we come to the book of Judges, there is a continual description of the people breaking the covenants that God had made with their ancestors and, by extension, with them. The result was, of course, that God allowed them to be conquered, but when they cried out to God, He would send them judges to release them from this captivity. Judges 2:1-3 describes this: “Then the Angel of the LORD came up from Gilgal to Bochim, and said: ‘I led you up from Egypt and brought you to the land of which I swore to your fathers; and I said “I will never break My covenant with you. And you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall tear down their altars.” But you have not obeyed My voice. Why have you done this? Therefore I also said, “I will not drive them out before you; but they shall be thorns in your side, and their gods shall be a snare to you.”’”

This is either an angel speaking God’s words or, more probably, Jesus Christ Himself—the Angel or Messenger of God the Father—as it was He who led the children of Israel to the land of Canaan.

In fact, in the book of Judges, the term “The people did evil in the sight of the LORD” occurs at least eight times. Actually, when we examine the history of the nation of Israel after the split with the nation of Judah, there were no good kings in the House of Israel who observed their covenant with God, and because of that, God sent them into captivity in Assyria.

Considering the nation of Judah, there were many kings who ignored their covenant with God, but there were some who observed it. The last of these was Josiah. 2 Chronicles 34:29-33 describes his actions and his humility when he heard the words of the law: “Then the king sent and gathered all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. The king went up to the house of the LORD, with all the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem—the priests and the Levites, and all the people, great and small. And he read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant which had been found in the house of the LORD. And the king stood in his place and made a covenant before the LORD, to follow the LORD, and to keep His commandments and His testimonies and His statutes with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of the covenant that were written in this book. And he made all who were present in Jerusalem and Benjamin take a stand. So the inhabitants of Jerusalem did according to the covenant of God, the God of their fathers. Thus Josiah removed all the abominations from all the country that belonged to the children of Israel, and made all who were present in Israel diligently serve the LORD their God. All his days they did not depart from following the LORD God of their fathers.” So, while Josiah made a covenant before the LORD, it was to observe the covenant that God had made before with the “fathers.”

Unfortunately, after Josiah was killed at a young age in battle, the following kings and the people following them did evil in the sight of the LORD (compare Jehoiakim in 2 Chronicles 36:5; Jehoiachin in 2 Chronicles 36:9; and Zedekiah in 2 Chronicles 36:12). Therefore, God also sent the nation of Judah into captivity in Babylon.

And yet, even when a small number returned from Babylonian captivity after seventy years, some of the priests and Levites and others had taken pagan wives from the people of the land. So in Ezra 10:3, we read, “Now therefore, let us make a covenant with our God to put away all these wives and those who have been born to them, according to the advice of my master and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law.”

So many men had taken pagan wives that it took two months to examine each individual case and to determine the correct judgement.

(To Be Continued)

Lead Writer: Paul Niehoff (Australia)