Covenant Making God

Covenant keeping God, there is no one like you.

The above line from Willie and Mike’s song Covenant Keeping God captures a profound revelation of who God is. It is hard to understate how important covenant is. However, he is not just a covenant keeping God, he is a covenant making God. On this the late renowned Hebrew Bible scholar Moshe Weinfeld writes:

1The idea of a covenant between a deity and a people is unknown to us from other religions and cultures. It is not impossible that some of the other ancient peoples also had covenants with their gods. Moab, e.g., is called ”the people of Chemosh” (Nu. 21:29), as Israel is called ”the people of Yahweh” (Jgs. 5:11; etc.), and both may have had identical relationships with their gods. A covenant of the people of Ashur with Ishtar might be implied in an Assyrian text. It seems, however, that the covenantal idea was a special feature of the religion of Israel, the only one to demand exclusive loyalty and to preclude the possibility of dual or multiple loyalties such as were permitted in other religions, where the believer was bound in diverse relationships to many gods.

When it comes to covenant, it is not only faithfulness that is a defining characteristic of God’s identity. He is the only God that enters into covenant relationship with a people. Covenant making and keeping is uniquely characteristic of the God of Israel.

I find it surprising how little known and under emphasised it is that YHWH is uniquely a covenant maker. We take it for granted that there might be certain things unique to a deity because we live in a world where many people think there is only one God. However, we must remember in the world of the Bible the word “god” referred to an entire class of beings which included YHWH. God in the Bible is also portrayed in ancient Near Eastern terms because that was simply how they understood what a god is just like we take for granted our modern conception of deity today. Therefore, it must have been regarded as a radical innovation in religious beliefs for a god to have such a unique identity.

Covenants were very common things in the ancient Near East but the idea of a god entering a covenant with a people was unheard of and surprising, perhaps even counter-intuitive. No other deity was intimately involved in the world in such a specifically personal manner. The Hebrew Bible doesn’t directly say that YHWH is the only covenant deity. However, I do think it implies that unique identity by highlighting how he is the only deity who personally comes to his people to make a covenant with them (Deuteronomy 4:5-20.)

I think there are implications for Christian theology yet to be explored from reflecting on the remarkable innovation in the history of religion of a covenant deity. One implication is on how we think of the incarnation. For example, it was through covenant making that he became uniquely present in the world in a way no other deity was. Covenant making can therefore be regarded as the beginning of his personal presence among a specific people group which ultimately culminated in the incarnation where he became a member of that people group in order to fulfil his covenant promises to them. We need to think more deeply about his personal identity as the covenant God since that is how he reveals himself and relates to us.

 

1Moshe Weinfeld, “betTheological Dictionary of the Old Testament Vol. 2, p. 278, ed. G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, trans. John T. Willis, Eerdmans, 1977.

 

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