Saturday Series: Genesis 15

This week we will be looking at the first of three passages in the Pentateuch which involve the idea of a covenant made between God and his people. This idea is central to the thought (and theology) of the Old Testament, which early Christians inherited; and yet, the concept is altogether foreign to us today. This is an instance where a measure of historical criticism is required in order to understand the Scriptures. It is necessary to be aware of the ancient Near Eastern cultural and religious background of the covenant idea, and the language (and symbolism) used to express it.

To begin with, the Hebrew word usually translated as “covenant” is b§rî¾ (tyr!B=), most likely related to the Akkadian bir£tu/birtu, and the (Semitic) loanword bi-rí-ta in Egyptian. The fundamental meaning is “bond”, specifically in the sense of a “binding agreement”. Its use has been preserved in the record of various formal agreements or treaties, along with the parallel term °âl¹ (Akkadian a°¹lu/a°lu). Such agreements can be made either between equal parties (parity treaties), or between a superior (suzerain) and his loyal associates (vassals); sometimes in the latter case, only one of the parties would be bound by the agreement. A number of suzerain-vassal treaties are known from the ancient Near East; examples of both Assyrian and Hittite treaties, in particular, have come to light which help to elucidate the “covenant” form and language used in the Old Testament. For a good survey of the evidence, see F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard: 1973), pp. 265-73.

Genesis 15

There are two covenant episodes which are central to the Abraham (Abram) narratives in Genesis; the first of these is in chapter 15, which follows directly upon the war and Melchizedek episodes of chapter 14. Both chapters appear to derive from the same cluster of traditions and have many similarities of language. The term b§rî¾ appears in 14:13, where three Amorites (Mamre, Eshkol, Aner), who are allies of Abraham, are referred to as ba±¦lê b§rî¾ (“lords [i.e. men, chieftains] of a [binding] agreement”, i.e. with Abraham). One important consequence of both the war, and the Melchizedek episode, is the faithfulness (to God) shown by Abraham, and, especially, his refusal to receive any material benefit (i.e. spoils, reward) himself from the war (vv. 20b-24). This sets the stage for Abraham’s encounter with God (El-Yahweh) in chapter 15.

The actual encounter with God occurs at the prophetic, visionary level, as is clear from verse 1: “…the word of YHWH came to be unto Abram in a vision”, that is, where one sees and looks with the mind rather than the eyes. The oracle is simple and in three parts, the last of which declares to Abraham, “your payment [´¹k¹r] will increase very (much)”—i.e., in lieu of what he might have gained from the war, Abraham will receive an even greater reward. Verses 2-5 set forth the nature of this reward: that of progeny (children, offspring) which will keep his family line intact for generations to come. The covenant setting of this “reward” is clear from the way it is tied to Abraham’s faithfulness (to God), both the chapter 14 narrative, and also here, as the statement in verse 6 brings out: “And he was firm with [i.e. trusted in] YHWH, and it was counted as faithfulness [ƒ®d¹qâ] for him”. The noun ƒ®d¹qâ (hq*d*x=) is typically translated “righteousness, justice” but it can also signify someone who is victorious (on one’s behalf), trustworthy, faithful, loyal, etc. The covenant-context of the passage suggests a connotation of this sort. In other word, God considers Abraham as a loyal friend.

This relates to the idea of vassalage (and vassal treaties) in the ancient Near East. Loyal supporters (vassals) were bound to a superior (suzerain) by an agreement which was established and ratified through oath and symbolic ritual. Many such agreements involved a grant of land, and that is what occurs here between God and his loyal vassal (Abraham) as well (verse 7). A special ritual act establishes the agreement (vv. 9-21). The details of this episode doubtless seem most strange to readers today; however, they are part of the ritual process associated with treaties in the ancient world. The idiom in verse 18 (and elsewhere in the Old Testament) is “to cut an agreement”, using the verb k¹ra¾ (tr^K*), “cut”. This language is not merely figurative, but concrete. It was common practice for the establishment of a treaty to be accompanied by the ritual cutting up an animal. This is known by way of texts from Mari, Alalakh, and other sites, as well as parallels in Israelite and Old Testament tradition (Judges 19:11ff). The meaning of the ritual cutting is clear enough from Jeremiah 34:17-20 and the Aramaic Sefire treaty; it is a curse formula, meant to symbolize the fate which will befall the one who violates the agreement—i.e., “Just as this {animal} is cut up, thus {so-and-so} will be cut up” if he/they violate the treaty.

However, in Genesis 15, while the ancient ritual symbolism is preserved, it is infused with an entirely new meaning. For one thing, it is God (El-Yahweh) who is the sovereign, not an earthly ruler, giving the covenant-form a unique religious aspect. Moreover, there is no emphasis on the oath/curse associated with the symbolism of the cutting up of the animals. Instead, at the heart of the scene in verses 9-21, is a prophetic visitation and divine manifestation (theophany) of God to Abraham. Note the structure:

    • The cutting up of the animals and arrangement of the pieces (vv. 9-11)
    • The “word of YHWH” comes again to Abraham in a vision [at sundown] (vv. 12-16)
    • God manifests himself to Abraham, passing through the pieces [at night] (vv. 17-21)

Interestingly, there may be a subtle allusion to the curse-symbolism (see above) in the content of the prophetic message given to Abraham (vv. 12-16), as it foretells the suffering and exile of Abraham’s descendants.

In the ancient treaty-format, the party (or parties) bound by the agreement would pass between the cut-up pieces of the animal(s). Here it is God himself, through the vision-symbol of smoke and fire (see Exod 19:18; 20:15, etc). This effectively ratifies the agreement, confirming that the one(s) bound by it will fulfill their obligations. In this instance, the obligation involves the granting of land (i.e. the Promised Land) to Abraham and his descendants. God declares what he will do for his loyal friend/vassal Abraham; it is a one-sided agreement, in which superior’s binding obligation is established. What significance does this have for the ritual imagery of the cutting up (into two pieces) of the animals? If God is the one who takes on the covenant-obligation, and the associated ritual symbolism, is it possible to find any special theological significance for this episode?

I would ask that you think on these questions. Study the passage again in detail, making use of whatever tools you have available to examine the actual Hebrew text. Then continue reading through chapters 16 and 17. What similarities and differences do you find in the two covenant episodes in chapters 15 and 17, and how would you explain these?

Next week, we will be looking at Genesis 17 in detail, as well as introducing a third covenant episode (in Exodus 24). I would suggest that these represent three important aspects of the covenant-idea in the Old Testament, each of which exerted a major influence on the development of early Christian thought in the New Testament. It is thus worthwhile to spend the time necessary to study the passages thoroughly. This we have begun today, and will continue it…next Saturday.

May 2: 1 Corinthians 11:10 (continued)

1 Corinthians 11:10 (continued)

As a follow-up to the previous day’s note (on 1 Cor 11:10), I thought it worth exploring a bit further the key expression e)cousi/an e&xein (“to hold authority”). The verb e&xw is often translated “(to) have”, but more properly means “(to) hold“, that is, to hold in one’s possession or control. The noun e)cousi/a (exousía) is derived from the verb e&cesti[n] (éxesti[n])—the preposition e)c (“out of”) + the verb of being ei)mi. It indicates that which is, or comes, from a particular person or source. It generally refers to the ability for a person to do something, often in the specific sense of something which is permitted or allowed. The English word “authority” offers as good a translation as any.

The noun e)cousi/a occurs fairly frequently (just over 100 times) in the New Testament, including 27 times in the Pauline letters. When we consider the used of the word in 1 Cor 11:10, it is stated that the woman ought to hold the e)cousi/a upon her head, through (or because of) the order of creation as now realized in Christ (“in the Lord”, v. 11). But just what is this e)cousi/a (“ability, authority, power” etc)? The best guide to meaning, in addition to the immediate context, is the use of e)cousi/a elsewhere in the (undisputed) letters of Paul. Of the 27 instances of the word in the Pauline writings, 12 occur in 1 and 2 Corinthians, including several instances with the same verb e&xw (“hold, have”):

    • 1 Cor 7:37—to a man having/holding his will or (sexual) desire under his (own) control
    • 1 Cor 9:4-6—to the apostles having/holding the right to be given food and drink (i.e. not to have to earn a living through other labor), to have a wife, etc; cf. also vv. 12, 18, and 2 Thess 3:9.
    • Cf. Rom 9:21—illustration of the potter (God) having/holding the right (and power) to shape the clay as he wishes

These other instances of e)cousi/a with e&xw in 1 Corinthians (and 2 Thess 3:9) relate generally to the idea of having the (personal) right or ability to do something, but that one’s own will or desire is subordinated to the good of the Community (as also in 1 Cor 8:9). The other instances of e)cousi/a are:

If we turn to the rest of the New Testament writings, e)cousi/a with the verb e&xw (i.e. “hold authority”) is found in several other places:

    • Mark 1:22 par, where it is said by those observing Jesus that he taught “as (one) holding authority”, in contrast to the other Jewish teachers of the Law.
    • Mark 2:10 par—Jesus declares that “the Son of Man holds (the) authority to release [i.e. forgive] sins”. Here too there is a contrast (conflict) with the Jewish teachers and leaders (vv. 7ff). According to Matt 9:8, it is God who gives/grants this authority.
    • Mk 3:15—Jesus grants to his disciples, i.e. allows them, “to hold (the) authority” to cast out daimons (evil spirits causing disease, madness, etc); it is the same kind of authority/ability which Jesus had exhibited in his miracles.
    • Matt 8:9—here it is used by the centurion who requests Jesus to heal his servant; he states, “I am a man under authority, holding (authority over the) soldiers under me”. Cp. Acts 9:14.
    • John 10:18—in a foreshadowing of his upcoming death (and resurrection), Jesus declares that “no ones takes it [i.e. my soul/life] (away) from me, but I set it (down) from myself; I hold authority to set it (down), and I hold authority to take it (up) again—this is the charge (placed) on (me) I received (from) alongside my Father”. Cf. the same idea expressed in 19:10-11 (addressed to Pilate).
    • Heb 13:10—drawing upon the Old Testament sacrificial and ritual imagery, the author states that believers have (lit. hold) an altar from which “the ones performing service in the Tent [i.e. Tabernacle/Temple] do not hold (the) authority to eat”. In other words, believers are allowed to partake (spiritually) in the holiest things of God through the person and work of Christ.
    • Rev 9:3, etc—the idiom occurs frequently in the book of Revelation, indicating how the Angels (and other messengers of God) were given authority to perform certain miraculous actions at the end-time. In Rev 20:6 a different idea is expressed—that the “second death” (that is, death/punishment following the Last Judgment) “holds no authority” over believers.

Two basic observations may be gleaned from all these passages: (1) the idiom refers to ability/authority a person has in his/her own personal control, and (2) that it has been given/granted by someone higher. The chain of authority is clear and simple: God —> Christ —> the believer. Upon returning to 1 Cor 11:10, we can see how this applies. First, the woman holds the authority herself; it is not held by another (the man), but genuinely by her. There is no sense that this ministering authority is given to her by the man; however, it does reflect the chain of authority expressed in 1 Cor 11:3. This is the second key point, and is why, for Paul, the use of the head covering is so important (however obscure it may seem to us today)—it allows the woman to exercise her authority within the context of the established order of creation. Even though the church embodies the new creation in Christ, it still reflects the original created order, fundamental aspects of which ought to be maintained. And yet, the use of the verb e&xw in v. 10 strongly indicates that the emphasis is truly on something that the woman holds (a right, power, ability, etc) in her own person. In my view, the emphasis is not on the authority of the man/husband over the woman. Her gifting to speak comes from the Spirit, but it must be exercised within the order established by God.