Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 105 (Part 2)

Psalm 105, continued

For the Introduction to this Psalm, and its first two strophes (vv. 1-6, 7-11), see Part 1.

Strophe 3: Verses 12-15

Verse 12

“In their being men of (small) number,
just a few, and residing as aliens in her,”

The opening couplet picks up from the final couplet of the second strophe (v. 11), and is grammatically dependent on it. The feminine suffix H-* (“in her”) refers back to the land of Canaan (the noun Jr#a# being feminine). The Israelites—the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—were, at the time of their dwelling in the land of Canaan, few in number. Moreover, they had a semi-nomadic lifestyle, dwelling in the land as ‘resident aliens’, never taking up permanent residence, but moving regularly from region to region (Gen 12:10; 20:1, etc), and being economically dependent, to some degree, upon the established Canaanite city-states. The root rWG (I) is used to express this distinctive socio-cultural situation; both the verb and noun (rG@) are used regularly in the Patrarchic narratives (e.g., Gen 17:8; 23:4; Exod 6:4), and the terminology became part of the Israelite self-identity (Exod 22:20; Deut 10:19, etc).

Verse 13

“in their going about from nation to nation,
from (one) kingdom to (the) people following,”

This couplet continues the thought from verse 12 (cf. Gen 20:1). Referring to these Canaanite territories as “nations” and “kingdoms” reflects the socio-political dynamic of the small territorial kingdoms (city-states) that populated the region. Each city-state, despite their relatively small size, was technically ruled by a “king” (El#m#). The Amarna letters provide written evidence for the many small kingdoms in Canaan during the late bronze age (14th-13th century B.C.). Other surrounding territories were ruled by tribal confederacies and the like, and could be referred to as “peoples”, rather than “kingdoms”.

Verse 14

“He did not allow (any) human to oppress them,
and (even) gave rebuke (to) kings over them:”

Syntactically, this couplet continues the thought of vv. 12-13, and represents the main clause of the sentence. During all the migrations of the ancestral Israelites, YHWH protected the people—such protection being part of His covenant-bond with them, as a demonstration of his loyalty to the binding agreement; cf. the discussion on the second strophe (vv. 7-11) in Part 1.

The verb j^Wn, in the causative Hiphil stem, in this context, is almost impossible to translate. The verb fundamentally means “set down”, often with the connotation of resting (in one place). In the Hiphil stem, it means “make set(tle) down”, or “give rest/repose”, and thus could easily apply to the migrations of the Israelites (as ‘resident aliens’). However, here it applies to YHWH’s action toward the Canaanite, etc,  people (and their kings); the sense is not “make settle down”, but rather, something like “give leave, allow”. It is best understood in the context of YHWH “letting down” His protection over His people; this He did not do—He did not let it down so as to allow the settled peoples in the region to harass or oppress (vb qv^u*) the Israelites.

He even gave rebukes to the leaders (“kings”) when they might have done harm to Israel; the episodes involving the two king Abimelechs (Gen 20:3; 26:11) are foremost in mind; cf. also Gen 12:17.

There is a certain loose parallel between the pairings of kingdom/people (hk*l=m=m^/<u^) in v. 13 and human[s]/kings (<d*a*/<yk!l*m=) here.

Verse 15

“‘You must not touch my anointed (one)s,
and to my spokesmen you must do no evil!'”

This concluding couplet summarizes both the rebuke YHWH gives to the kings of Canaan, etc, and also the protection that He provides to the patriarchs and the ancestors of Israel. He refers to them as His “anointed ones”. This may allude to the tradition of the Israelite people as a “kingdom of priests” (Exod 19:6), combining both offices (viz., king and priest) where a ceremonial anointing (with ritual or religious significance) typically applied.

In the second line, they are called by the noun ayb!n`. Though often rendered flatly as “prophet”, this noun is actually quite difficult to translate, so as to capture its true meaning. There are two possibilities as to the fundamental meaning (and derivation) of aybn: (1) one who speaks, that is, as a “spokesperson” for God; or (2) one who is called, viz., by God. The latter meaning would actually be more fitting to the context of the Patriarchs (Abraham, etc), as people called by God. Principally, however, the reference here is to Gen 20:6-7; in verse 7, Abraham is referred to as a ayb!n`, with the authority to communicate (i.e. speak) with YHWH, to offer prayer on behalf of Abimelech. I have translated <ya!yb!n+ above as “spokespersons”; this ‘prophetic’ role comes more clearly into view in the following strophes, dealing with Joseph and Moses/Aaron.

The verb uu^r*, in the Hiphil (causative) stem, means “cause evil” or “do (something) bad”; however, sometimes the connotation is more concrete, referring to causing (physical) harm or damage.

Strophe 4: Verses 16-22

Verse 16

“But (then) He called a hunger upon the land,
(and) every staff of bread He did break.”

The initial –w conjunction of this couplet begins a new unit, but also provides a contrast to the emphasis on YHWH’s protective care. At first, the hunger (i.e., famine) He calls upon the land would seem to contradict His covenant protection of the Israelite ancestors; however, this danger only establishes an opportunity for God to further work on His people’s behalf.

The expression “staff of bread” is a bit unusual. Dahood (III, p. 56) suggests that the proper meaning here is “stalk of grain”; this is certainly possible. More likely, however, is that the emphasis is on the lack of any available bread that can be eaten—even a thin stick of bread could not be found. The noun hF#m^ (“staff”) can also refer, figuratively, to a means of support. The supply of bread/food, necessary to support the life and health of the people, was “broken” (vb rb*v*). The reference, of course, is to the famine of the Joseph narratives (chaps. 41-42ff). This famine serves to bring the Israelites down into Egypt.

Verse 17

“He (had) sent (ahead) before them a man,
(for) as a slave he had been sold—Yôsep.”

The selling of Joseph into slavery (Gen 37:28, 36; cf. chaps. 39-40) was providential; YHWH used the event to help His people through the famine, and to draw them down into Egypt.

The subject of the couplet is not specified until the final word; it is important that this poetic device (which Dahood, III, pp. 51, 56, called “explicitation”) be preserved in translation.

Verse 18

“They pressed his feet into the fetters,
(and) into (the) iron his neck came,”

Both concretely, and figuratively, this couplet describes Joseph’s enslavement. His feet were “pressed” (or “forced”, vb hn`u*) into fetters (lb#K#, a noun that occurs only here and in Ps 149:8), while his neck similarly went into an iron ring (or shackle, etc). The noun vp#n# is typically translated “soul”, but not infrequently it carries the more concrete meaning “throat”, i.e., “neck”.

Verse 19

“until (the) time of (the) coming of His word,
(when the) showing by YHWH refined him.”

This couplet, continuing the thought from v. 18, describes (somewhat awkwardly) the time/duration of Joseph’s slavery. It lasted until the “coming” (note the wordplay involving the same verb, aoB in v. 18b) of YHWH’s word. This “word” comes by way of dreams/visions (and their interpretation), and thus it is fair to understand here a bit of conceptual play between the roots rbd and rma. Both roots can denote “speak/say”, but rma can also mean “see” or “show” (cf. Gen 41:39). Here the noun rb*D* (line 1) is parallel with hr*m=a! (line 2). Through this process, Joseph was “refined” (vb [r^x*), metallurgical terminology that can carry the more figurative connotation of being tested (viz., by God) and proven worthy, pure, etc. The general reference is to the events of Gen 39-41.

Verse 20

“He sent a king, who then set him loose,
a ruler of peoples, who opened for him.”

As Dahood and Allen (and other commentators) note, YHWH is best understood as the subject of this couplet, with the king (i.e., Pharaoh) as the object. The prefixed w-conjunctions on the verbs can be rendered as a continuing result— “and then (he)…”; for poetic concision, I have translated this as “who (then)…”. This is a summary reference to the events of Gen 41.

Verse 21

“He set him as lord over his house,
and ruler among all his acquisition(s),”

The king (Pharaoh) is presumably the subject of this couplet, though it is possible to read it with YHWH as the implied (continuing) subject. The elevation of Joseph to the status of ruler (lit. one ruling) is narrated in Gen 41:39-45; the same participle (lv@m)) is used of Pharaoh in v. 20. Joseph is made a second ruler in Egypt, just below Pharaoh himself.

Verse 22

“to bind (together) his princes by his soul,
(that) he might make his elders wise.”

The ruling power/authority of Joseph also has a positive moral impact. His wisdom will have a unifying effect, “binding” together (vb rs^a*) the princes of Egypt “by/in his soul” —that is, in Joseph’s own person, according to his (righteous) inclinations. On the possibility of reading the verb rs^a* here as a form (or by-form) of rs^y` I (“instruct”), see Dahood, III, p. 58, and Allen, p. 52f. The couplet loosely reflects the ruling position and organizing activity of Joseph, fostered by his inspired wisdom and prudence, in Gen 41:37-49.

Strophe 5: Verses 23-28

Verse 23

“And (so) Yisrael came (down to) Egypt,
and Ya‘aqob resided in (the) land of Ham.”

The events surrounding Joseph served the larger purpose of bringing the descendants of Jacob (Israel) down into Egypt (Genesis 42ff). According to the genealogical tradition in Genesis 10 (v. 6), the Egyptians (“Egypt”) were descended from (or otherwise related to) Noah’s son Ham.

On the significance of the verb rWG, see the note on verse 12 above.

Verse 24

“And He made his people fruitful, exceedingly so,
and (so) made them strong(er) than their foes.”

This couplet effectively introduces the Exodus portion of the historical summary; the specific reference is to Exod 1:7ff. YHWH again is the implied subject; through His blessing and covenant protection, the Israelite people became numerous and strong, enough so that Pharaoh and the Egyptian government saw them as a threat (Exod 1:9).

I take “his people” as a reference to the people of Israel; however, it could, of course, also refer to Israel as the people of YHWH (“His people”), cf. verse 25 below.

Verse 25

“He turned over their heart to hate His people,
(and) to deal craftily with His servants.”

In this verse, “his people” certainly refers to Israel as the people of God (“His people”), as the parallel with “His servants” makes clear. The fear of the Egyptians toward the Israelites turns to “hate” and hostility, leading Pharaoh and his advisors to develop crafty plans for dealing with them (Exod 1:10ff).

Verse 26

“He sent (forth) Moshe His servant,
and Aharôn, on whom He had chosen.”

This couplet summarizes, in a general way, Exodus 2-4. The choice of Moses and Aaron, as chosen representatives (or <ya!yb!n+, ‘spokesmen’, cf. on v. 15 above) of God, again reflects YHWH’s care for His people, and His loyalty to the covenant made with their ancestors.

Verse 27

“They set (forth) among them words of His signs,
and (wondrous) portents in (the) land of Ham.”

Moses and Aaron announced to the people what YHWH had previously spoken (and demonstrated) to them; then they proceeded to display the supernatural portents to Pharaoh and the Egyptians. The pairing of the plural nouns totoa (“signs”) and <yt!p=m (“portents”, of a wondrous or miraculous kind) is traditional. The couplet summarizes Exodus 4:29-31 (cf. vv. 1-17), 6:1, and chap. 7ff.

Verse 28

“He sent darkness, and (so) made it dark;
and they did not rebel (against) His word.”

Verse 28, when read in connection with vv. 29-36, is problematic, since it seems to set the plague of darkness (the ninth plague, Exod 10:21-29) ahead of all the others. Unless this is evidence of textual corruption—and the plague strophe (vv. 29-36) will be discussed in Part 3—the reference here needs to be explained in another way. A possible solution lies in reading this couplet as the conclusion of a strophe, which focuses primarily on the role of Moses and Aaron as faithful servants (and spokesmen/prophets) of YHWH. It is Moses and Aaron who, as in v. 27, are the plural subject in the second line (“they did not rebel…”). Their faithfulness is intentionally being contrasted with the rebelliousness of the people during the wilderness period. Moses and Aaron faithfully carried out their mission, presenting the words (and signs) given to them by YHWH.

(For a very different parsing and explanation of the Hebrew of the second line, see Dahood, III, p. 60.)

There could be two possible reasons for the allusion here to the plague of darkness. For one thing, its climactic position (as the penultimate plague) makes the mention of it here fitting for the climax of the strophe, anticipating the full scope of the plague-narration that follows. Secondly, there may be an allusion to the Creation account: as with the light (1:3), so with the darkness—YHWH speaks, and it is so. He “sends” the darkness by way of His word/command. Line 1 thus affirms the sureness and faithfulness of YHWH’s word—indicating and implying, once again, His loyalty to the covenant bond with His people (vv. 8-11). Moses and Aaron, as His servants, have similarly been faithful/loyal in carrying out His word.

The remainder of the Psalm will be analyzed in Part 3 of this study.

References marked “Dahood, I”, “Dahood, II” and “Dahood, III” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968), and Psalms III: 101-150, vol. 17A (1970).
References marked “Allen” are to Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101-150 (Revised edition), Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 21 (Zondervan: 2002/2014).

February 13: Galatians 4:21-31

Galatians 4:21-31

Galatians 4:21-31 represents the final section of the probatio of the letter (chaps. 3-4), and also the final argument used by Paul in support of his central proposition (expressed in 2:15-21). By these arguments, Paul endeavors to ‘prove’ (thus, probatio) his proposition, regarding the relation of believers in Christ (Jewish and non-Jewish) to the Torah.

I have discussed this section previously, most notably as an article in the series “Paul’s View of the Law”. Here I will be focusing on the particular theme of the sonship of believers, contrasting this sonship with a condition of slavery. This is a theme which runs through chapters 3-4—and, indeed, through the entire letter. Are believers still in bondage to the regulations of the Torah (under the term no/mo$), thus continuing in a kind of slavery? or, as sons, who have now come of age, able to inherit everything that belongs to the Father, are we free of this guiding authority? Paul argues strenuously against the former, while affirming (just as vigorously) the latter. The allegorical illustration he uses in 4:21-31 represents his final argument (of the probatio) toward this goal. He frames the illustration with a pointed rhetorical question for his audience:

“Relate to me, (you) the (one)s wishing to be under the Law, would you not hear the Law?” (v. 21)

This rhetorical device is known as the interrogatio method, by which Paul questions his audience, prompting them and allowing them to bring forth a determination themselves. The question actually serves as a challenge to the Galatians, and cuts right to the heart of Paul’s message in the letter. It also alludes to the seemingly paradoxical character of Paul’s view of the Torah. In support of his argument that believers are no longer bound by the Torah’s authority, he appeals to the Torah’s authority.

There is actually a double-use of no/mo$ here, referring both to the Torah regulations (recorded in the Pentateuch) and, secondly, to the narratives of the Pentateuch. This is significant since Paul’s argument is based upon the interpretation of a specific Scriptural narrative (from the Torah/Pentateuch). The expression “hear the Law” also has a two-fold meaning: (1) to obey the Law, and (2) literally, to hear the words of the Law (i.e. of Scripture). The latter is what Paul means primarily here, but he may also be saying, “if you want to be under the Law, are you willing to obey the Law (i.e. the true Law of Christ)?”

In verses 22-23, Paul summarizes the Scriptural narrative found in Genesis 16:1-6; 21:8-14, citing Gen 16:15; 21:2-3, 9. That Hagar was a slave or “servant-girl” (paidi/skh) is indicated in the narrative (Gen 16:1ff; 21:10ff, also 25:12); the contrast of Sarah as a free woman can be inferred/implied naturally from the context. This establishes the contrast between slavery and freedom—a key theme which Paul introduced (2:4) and developed (3:23-29; 4:1-10) earlier in the letter (cf. the previous notes on 3:26 and 4:4-7). It also sets the stage for the specific emphasis on freedom in Christ to follow in 4:31/5:1ff.

The contrast, expressed through the figures of Hagar/Ishmael and Sarah/Isaac in the narrative, is also expressed grammatically by the me/nde/ (“on the one hand…on the other…”) construction in verse 23 (cf. also vv. 8-9) [Note: some manuscripts (Papyrus46 B f vg) omit me/n]. The contrast/conflict between freedom and slavery is also defined as being between the “promise” (e)paggeli/a) and the “flesh” (sa/rc):

“the (one born) of the servant-girl has come to be (born) according to (the) flesh,
but the (one born) of the free (woman) through (the) e)paggeli/a [i.e. promise]” (v. 23)

The promise is closely connected with the Spirit (Gal 3:14). Meanwhile, the expression “according to (the) flesh” (kata\ sa/rka) is used frequently elsewhere in Paul’s letters (Rom 1:3; 4:1; 8:4-5, 12-13; 9:3, 5; 1 Cor 1:26; 10:18; 2 Cor 1:17; 5:16; 10:2-3; 11:18), and a Spirit-Flesh dualism is an important aspect of Paul’s thought in both Galatians (Gal 3:3; 4:29; 5:16-17; 6:8) and Romans (Rom 8:1-17) [cf. also Phil 3:3].

The two kinds of sons thus symbolize this dualistic orientation of Paul’s theology. The symbolism is based on his interpretation of the Genesis story as an “allegory” (a)llhgori/a), that is, a description of one thing under the image of another. Familiar from Greco-Roman and Hellenistic-Jewish literature and philosophy, it is also similar to the creative midrash interpretive tradition in Judaism; for other examples in Paul’s letters, cf. 1 Cor 10:1-13; 2 Cor 3:7-18. The contrast/conflict between Hagar/Ishmael and Sarah/Isaac in the narrative is coordinated and aligned together (sustoixe/w, v. 25) as follows:

Slave-girl vs. Free (woman) [v. 22b]

Flesh vs. Promise [v. 23]

(Old) Covenant vs. (New) Covenant [v. 24]

Jerusalem (on earth) vs. Jerusalem above [v. 25-26]

Hagar/Ishmael vs. Sarah/Isaac [v. 28-29]

As indicated in verse 24, Paul gives prominence and priority to the idea of two covenants—the Greek word rendered “covenant” (diaqh/kh) is literally something “set through” or “put in order”, often in the legal sense of a will or testament (as in Gal 3:15-17), but here corresponding to the Hebrew tyr!B= (“binding agreement”)—that is, the agreement (covenant) established between God and his people (Israel). The two covenants—old and new—are contrasted syntactically by way of another me\nde/ formulation (see above):

    • me/none (the old) from mount Sinai into/unto slavery [ei)$ doulei/an]… (vv. 24-25)
    • de/(the other), the Jerusalem above, (which) is free [e)leuqe/ra e)stin]… (vv. 26-27)

Paul establishes this line of association first by equating Sinai with the (current) earthly Jerusalem in verse 25; he does this by way of (allegorical) correspondence, even though he recognizes that Mt. Sinai is actually in “Arabia” (presumably the Sinai peninsula). This equation has the following interpretive relationship:

    • The Sinai covenant (the Law/Torah) leads to slavery [doulei/a] =>
    • Jerusalem is currently serving as a slave [douleu/ei]

The last point could be taken either in a socio-political (i.e. under Roman occupation) or religious-spiritual (bondage under the Law and sin) sense, or both. This contrasts sharply with the traditional Jewish self-understanding of freedom related to the Torah and the covenant with God (see Mishnah Abot 6:2, also e.g. John 8:33), which Paul reverses completely. Here is the associative logic as a whole:

    • The Old Covenant (the Law/Torah) given at Mt. Sinai
      • Sinai = earthly Jerusalem
        • The Jerusalem below | Slavery
        • The Jerusalem above | Freedom
      • Jerusalem (above) = believers in Christ
    • The New Covenant (the Spirit/promise) realized in Christ

This idea of a heavenly Jerusalem came to be well-established in early Christian thought (see Hebrews 12:22; 13:14; Revelation 3:12; 21:2-22:5), and generally builds on the (eschatological) Old Testament and Jewish tradition of a “new Jerusalem”—e.g. Isa 54:10ff; 60-66; Ezek 40-48; Tobit 13:9-18; Jubilees 4:26; 2/4 Esdras 7:26; 10:40ff; 2 Baruch 4:2-7; 32:2-23; 1 Enoch 90:28f; 2 Enoch 55:2. Another familiar, and related, Jewish tradition was Jerusalem/Zion as a mother (v. 26). As such, this image is parallel to that of the Jewish concept of freedom associated with the Law and Covenant; and, again, Paul reverses this traditional association, by way of citing Isaiah 54:1 (LXX), a passage which came to be used in Judaism in the context of the rebuilding of Jerusalem (see the Targum; Pesiqta Rabbati 32:2). The context of Paul’s citation (v. 27) rather suggests a correlative juxtaposition between physical barrenness and spiritual life.

In verses 28-31, Paul applies this interpretation to the identity of believers in Christ. These verses begin and end with statements of Christian identity, related to the parallel concepts of promise and freedom, and emphasizing again the theme of the sonship of believers

V. 28: “But you*, brothers, according to Isaac, are offspring of (the) promise
{* some manuscripts read “we”}

V. 31: “Therefore, brothers, we are not offspring of the (slave)-girl, but of the free (woman)”

Verses 29-30 stand in between, and are descriptive of conflict for believers:

    • V. 29: External—drawing upon Jewish tradition of conflict between Ishmael and Isaac (not indicated specifically in the Scripture narrative itself), see t. Sota 6:6; Genesis Rabbah 53 (34a), etc. This is interpreted by Paul according to two aspects:
      (1) Jewish hostility and persecution toward early Christians, attested to amply by Paul in his letters and in the book of Acts.
      (2) The dualism of kata\ sa/rka (“according to the flesh”) vs. kata\ pneu=ma (“according to the Spirit”). Here the conflict is still external—i.e. the issue being that regarding circumcision and actual observance of the Torah commands; for an internal expression of this dualism in the hearts/minds and lives of believers (before and after conversion), cf. Romans 7-8.
    • V. 30: Internal—quoting Gen 21:10 and applying it primarily in a religious-spiritual sense: believers are the heirs in Christ (Gal 3:29; 4:1, 7; see also Rom 4:13-14; 8:17), and should no longer wish to come under a yoke of slavery. That Paul may here be expressing the rejection of Jews is certainly possible (see 1 Thess 2:14-16; Rom 9-11), but I do not believe that this is his emphasis—it rather relates more properly to his exhortation to the Gentile Galatians that they “cast away” the yoke of bondage (i.e. observance of the Torah) which they are considering placing upon themselves.

The thematic structure of these verses may be outlined as follows:

    • V. 28—Believers are children of the promise
      • V. 29—Conflict for believers: Flesh vs. Spirit
      • V. 30—Action for believers: “Cast out” the son of the slave-girl (i.e. slavery)
    • V. 31—Believers are children of the free woman

Significantly, these verses, which conclude the probatio, also prepare for the ethical instruction that follows in the exhortatio (“exhortation”) section, 5:1-6:10. Indeed, here Paul begins to turn his readers’ attention to the implications and consequences of what it means to be “sons/children of God”.

One primary implication has been the main focus of the letter, up to this point: believers are no longer under the binding authority of the Torah regulations (such as circumcision, the dietary and purity laws, etc), and are not obligated to observe them. This is emphasized by the ‘outer’ verses (vv. 28, 31) of the outline above.

The second implication (cf. the ‘inner’ verses 29-30), which is just as important, comes to be the focus in 5:1-6:10. Now that believers are freed from the Torah regulations, how is our life and behavior to be regulated? This is defined principally by the conflict between flesh and the Spirit. The impulses of the flesh (toward sin) still need to be curbed. However, this is no longer achieved through the external authority of the Torah regulations, but through the internal guidance of the Spirit. Even what remains of the Torah regulations—namely, the command/duty to love one another (5:13-15; 6:2ff)—is interpreted in light of the new reality that believers now live and act according to the Spirit. Paul expounds this quite clearly in 5:13-24, a passage which lies at the very heart of his instruction in 5:1-6:10.

This message may be summarized by the principle that: the sonship of believers is defined by the presence and work of the Spirit. In the next daily note, will begin examining this principle further, as Paul develops and explains it, in Romans.

Spiritualism and the New Testament: Paul: Galatians 4:21-31

The first two Pauline passages discussed in this series were 1 Corinthians 2:10-16 and 2 Corinthians 3 (with a focus on the discourse in vv. 7-18). Because of the importance of the latter passage, and the complexity and diversity of Paul’s thought expressed therein, I have supplemented the study with a set of detailed exegetical notes.

We now turn to Paul’s letter to the Galatians. An important underlying component of Paul’s spiritualism—his view of the Torah and the associated contrast between the old covenant and the new covenant of the Spirit—was already discussed in the previous article (and notes). It is, of course, also the principal subject addressed throughout Galatians. As such, I have discussed it at length in the earlier series “Paul’s View of the Law”, with a set of articles that cover virtually the entire letter.

The central proposition that Paul expounds in Galatians, is that the Torah regulations—the Law of the old covenant—are no longer binding on believers in Christ. He relates this proposition principally to Gentile believers, but the arguments he uses apply just as well (and even better) to Jewish believers. In the main expository section of the letter (chapters 3-4), Paul put forward six main arguments, using a variety of rhetorical methods and techniques to make his point. The last of these arguments (4:21-31) is the one which is most relevant as an expression of Paul’s spiritualism.

Galatians 4:21-31

The final argument Paul presents is an argument from Scripture, utilizing portions of the Abraham narratives (in Genesis 16 and 21), taking the form of an allegory (a)llhgori/a, v. 24). It is one of the more familiar portions of the letter, but, as with Paul’s other statements regarding the Law in Galatians, the full force and significance of his argument are often ignored or softened by commentators. The section may be outlined thus:

    • V. 21—Opening question (challenge)
    • Vv. 22-23—Summary of the story from Scripture
    • Vv. 24-27—The (allegorical) interpretation: Two Covenants
      —Vv. 24-25: Jerusalem below—the earthly Jerusalem (Sinai)
      —Vv. 26-27: Jerusalem above—the heavenly Jerusalem
    • Vv. 28-31: Believers as children of the promise & freedom—conflict

Verse 21—Paul uses the interrogatio rhetorical method, as he questions his audience, prompting them and allowing them to bring forth a determination themselves. See Gal 3:2ff for a similar use of this technique. The question actually serves as a challenge to the Galatians:

“Relate to me [i.e. tell me], (you) the ones wishing to be under (the) Law [u(po\ no/mon], will you not hear the Law?”

The expression “under the Law” (u(po\ no/mon) has been used repeatedly (Gal 3:23; 4:4-5, also 5:18; Rom 6:14-15; 1 Cor 9:20), along with the parallel expressions “under (the) curse” (3:10), “under sin” (3:22), “under a paidagogos” (3:25, cf. also 4:2), “under the elements [stoicheia] of the world” (4:3). It refers, of course, to Jews (and Jewish Christians) who are (or who feel) obligated to observe the commands and regulations of the Torah; but, as the parallel terms indicate, Paul uses it as a shorthand for the bondage human beings are under prior to faith in Christ. The expression “hear the Law” has a two-fold meaning: (1) to obey the Law, and (2) literally, to hear the words of the Law (i.e. of Scripture). The latter is what Paul means primarily here, but he may also be saying, “if you want to be under the Law, are you willing to obey the Law (i.e. the true Law of Christ)?”

Verses 22-23—In these two verses, Paul summarizes the Scriptural narrative found in Genesis 16:1-6; 21:8-14, citing Gen 16:15; 21:2-3, 9. That Hagar was a slave or “servant-girl” (paidi/skh) is indicated in the narrative (Gen 16:1ff; 21:10ff, also 25:12); the contrast of Sarah as a free woman (e)leuqe/ra) can be inferred/implied naturally from the context. This sets the stage for the theme of freedom (e)leuqeri/a) in Christ to follow in 4:31/5:1ff.

The Hagar/Ishmael vs. Sarah/Isaac contrast is also expressed by the me\nde\ (“on the one hand…on the other…”) construction in verse 23 (cf. also vv. 8-9) [Note: some MSS (Ë46 B f vg) omit me\n]. As we shall see, the juxtaposition of these characters is ultimately meant to show the contrast/conflict between “promise” (e)paggeli/a) and “flesh” (sa/rc); and, of course, the promise is closely connected with the Spirit (Gal 3:14). The expression “according to (the) flesh” (kata\ sa/rka) is used elsewhere in Paul’s letters (Rom 1:3; 4:1; 8:4-5, 12-13; 9:3, 5; 1 Cor 1:26; 10:18; 2 Cor 1:17; 5:16; 10:2-3; 11:18), and a Spirit-Flesh dualism is an important aspect of Paul’s thought in both Galatians (Gal 3:3; 4:29; 5:16-17; 6:8) and Romans (Rom 8:1-17) [cf. also Phil 3:3]. The Spirit-Letter dualism in 2 Corinthians 3 (cf. the previous article) is certainly similar, though not identical.

Verses 24-27—Paul interprets the Genesis story as an “allegory” (a)llhgori/a), that is, a description of one thing under the image of another; the verb a)llhgore/w (in v. 24) in this context means to speak/interpret by way of allegory. Familiar from Greco-Roman and Hellenistic-Jewish literature and philosophy, it is also similar to the creative midrash interpretive tradition in Judaism; for other examples in Paul’s letters, cf. 1 Cor 10:1-13; 2 Cor 3:7-18 (discussed in the previous article and notes). The contrast/conflict between Hagar/Ishmael and Sarah/Isaac in the narrative is coordinated and aligned together (sustoixe/w, v. 25) as follows:

Slave-girl vs. Free (woman) [v. 22b]
Flesh vs. Promise [v. 23]
(Old) Covenant vs. (New) Covenant [v. 24]
Jerusalem (on earth) vs. Jerusalem above [v. 25-26]
Hagar/Ishmael vs. Sarah/Isaac [v. 28-29]

As indicated in verse 24, Paul gives prominence and priority to the idea of two covenants—the Greek word rendered “covenant” (diaqh/kh) is literally something “set through (in order)”, often in the legal sense of a will or testament (as in Gal 3:15-17), but here corresponding to the Hebrew tyr!B= (“agreement”), that is, the agreement (covenant) established between God and his people (Israel). The two covenants—old and new (cf. the recent notes on 2 Cor 3:6 and 14)—are contrasted syntactically by way of another me\nde\ formulation (see above):

    • me\n: one (the old) from mount Sinai into/unto slavery [ei)$ doulei/an]… (vv. 24-25)
    • de\: (the other), the Jerusalem above, (which) is free [e)leuqe/ra e)stin]… (vv. 26-27)

Paul establishes this line of association first by equating Sinai with the (current) earthly Jerusalem in verse 25; he does this by way of (allegorical) correspondence, even though he recognizes that Mt. Sinai is actually in “Arabia” (presumably the Sinai peninsula). This equation has the following interpretive relationship:

    • The Sinai covenant (the Law/Torah) leads to slavery [doulei/a]
    • Jerusalem is currently serving as a slave [douleu/ei]

The last point could be taken either in a socio-political (i.e. under Roman occupation) or religious-spiritual (bondage under the Law and sin) sense, or both. This contrasts sharply with the traditional Jewish self-understanding of freedom related to the Torah and the covenant with God (cf. m. Abot 6:2, also e.g. John 8:33), which Paul reverses completely. Here is the associative logic as a whole:

    • The Old Covenant (the Law/Torah) given at Mt. Sinai
      • Sinai = earthly Jerusalem
        • The Jerusalem below | Slavery
        • The Jerusalem above | Freedom
      • Jerusalem (above) = believers in Christ
    • The New Covenant (the Spirit/promise) realized in Christ

Verses 26-27 describe the “Jerusalem above” (h( a&nw  )Ierousalh\m), which is clearly to be understood in a spiritual sense; for similar examples of Jewish identity being appropriated/fulfilled by believers at the spiritual level, cf. Rom 2:28-29, and previously in Gal 3:7-9, 14, etc. This idea of a heavenly Jerusalem came to be well-established in early Christian thought (cf. Hebrews 12:22; 13:14; Revelation 3:12; 21:2-22:5), and generally builds on the (eschatological) Old Testament and Jewish tradition of a “new Jerusalem”—e.g. Isa 54:10ff; 60-66; Ezek 40-48; Tobit 13:9-18; Jubilees 4:26; 2/4 Esdras 7:26; 10:40ff; 2 Baruch 4:2-7; 32:2-23; 1 Enoch 90:28f; 2 Enoch 55:2; for an interesting ‘Gnostic’ interpretation, along the same lines as Paul in Galatians, see in Hippolytus, Refutation of Heresies 5.7.39, 8.37. Cf. Betz, Galatians, pp. 246-7.

Another familiar, and related, Jewish tradition was Jerusalem/Zion as a mother (v. 26). As such, this image is parallel to that of the Jewish concept of freedom associated with the Law and Covenant; and, again, Paul reverses this traditional association, by way of citing Isaiah 54:1 (LXX), a passage which came to be used in Judaism in the context of the rebuilding of Jerusalem (cf. the Targum; Pesiqta Rabbati 32:2). The context of Paul’s citation (v. 27) rather suggests a correlative juxtaposition between physical barrenness and spiritual life.

Verses 28-31—These verses begin and end with statements of Christian identity, related to the parallel concepts of promise and freedom:

V. 28: “But you {some MSS read “we”}, brothers, according to Isaac, are offspring of (the) promise
V. 31: “Therefore, brothers, we are not offspring of the (slave)-girl, but of the free (woman)”

Verses 29-30 stand in between, and are descriptive of conflict for believers:

V. 29: External—drawing upon Jewish tradition of conflict between Ishmael and Isaac (not indicated specifically in the Scripture narrative itself), cf. t. Sota 6:6; Genesis Rabbah 53 (34a), etc. This is interpreted by Paul according to two aspects:

    1. Jewish hostility and persecution toward early Christians, attested to amply by Paul in his letters and in the book of Acts.
    2. The dualism of kata\ sa/rka (“according to the flesh”) vs. kata\ pneu=ma (“according to the Spirit”).

Here the conflict is still external—i.e. the issue being that regarding circumcision and actual observance of the Torah commands; for an internal expression of this dualism in the hearts/minds and lives of believers (before and after conversion), cf. Romans 7-8.

V. 30: Internal—quoting Gen 21:10 and applying it primarily in a religious-spiritual sense: believers are the heirs in Christ (Gal 3:29; 4:1, 7; cf. also Rom 4:13-14; 8:17), and should no longer wish to come under a yoke of slavery. That Paul may here be expressing the rejection of Jews is certainly possible (cf. 1 Thess 2:14-16; Rom 9-11), but I do not believe that this is his emphasis—it rather relates more properly to his exhortation to the Gentile Galatians that they “cast away” the yoke of bondage (i.e. observance of the Torah) which they are considering placing upon themselves.

In summary, I would illustrate the thematic structure of these verses as follows:

    • V. 28—Believers are children of the promise
      • V. 29—Conflict for believers: Flesh vs. Spirit
      • V. 30—Action for believers: “Cast out” the son of the slave-girl (i.e. slavery)
    • V. 31—Believers are children of the free woman

While Paul’s emphasis is clearly on the contrast between the old and new covenants, this cannot be separated from the Flesh-Spirit dualism that he employs to express it. As in 2 Corinthians 3 (Letter-Spirit), this dualistic mode of expression is an important aspect of Paul’s spiritualism. The new covenant for believers in Christ is realized spiritually, and is not bound by any physical or external factors.

The implications of this way of thinking were radical for early Christians. To emphasize freedom in the Spirit, against the slavery of being bound by the Torah regulations (and other external religious elements), represented a sea-change of thought for early believers. It is not surprising that Paul’s view of the Law (and his spiritualism) were quite controversial—and remain so even today. The implications of it will be examined in the next article, as we turn to Galatians 5, with specific attention being paid to the discourse in verses 16-25.

References marked “Betz, Galatians” are to: Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians, in the Hermeneia series (Fortress Press [1979]).

The People of God: The Covenant (Part 1)

The Covenant

The next set of articles in this series on “The People of God” deals with the important idea of a covenant made between God and his people. It has been discussed previously in the articles on “Israel as God’s People”, in which we explored the early background and traditions related to the religious identity of Israel as the people of God. However, in order to gain a proper understanding of the significance of the covenant-concept in this context, we must devote a more detailed study to the subject. The covenant idea is central to the thought (and theology) of the Old Testament, which early Christians inherited; and yet, the concept is almost completely 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 tyr!B= (b§rî¾), 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.

In fact, there were all sorts of binding agreements and treaties in the ancient Near East, even as there are contracts and agreements in Western society today. They applied to all areas of society and daily life, though we are perhaps best informed of those in the political and diplomatic sphere, being more often preserved as they are in inscriptions and written texts. It is worth distinguishing between two basic categories of agreements noted above: (a) those where the parties are of equal standing, and (b) those between a superior and a subordinate. In the political realm, the latter is often referred to a “suzerainty treaty” or “suzerain-vassal treaty”. 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.

An early example in the Old Testament of an agreement between more or less equal parties, is found in Genesis 31:44-55, which records the tradition of an agreement between Jacob and Laban. The wording used in verse 44 is “let us cut a binding (agreement), I and you [i.e. between you and me]”, using the common word tyr!B= (cf. above). However, the tradition also preserves an older Semitic term du, pointed in v. 44 by the Masoretes as du@ (±¢¼), but which perhaps should be vocalized as du* (±¹¼), similar to Akkadian ¹d¥/¹d¢ and the cognate word ±ahd in Arabic. The basic denotation of this root is “agreement”, and is thus comparable in meaning with tyr!B=. The word du@ (as pointed in the MT) would more properly refer to a record, or witness, of the agreement, indicated by the stone pillar and heap of stones set up by both parties (vv. 45ff) to mark the covenant bond between them (entailing mutual protection, etc). The term for the heap of stones is called dulg, pointed as du@l=G~ (“heap of [the] witness”), but which scholars such as Albright and Cross (p. 269) would read as du*l=G] (“heap of [the] agreement“).

What is especially unique in ancient Israelite tradition is how the cultural conventions of the Near Eastern “binding agreement” were applied in a special religious (and theological) context—of an agreement made between the people and God. While deities are regularly called upon as witnesses to an agreement (and to punish violators), extra-biblical examples of a binding agreement between human beings and a deity are quite rare. There is, for example, a Phoenician text from Arlsan Tash which includes the statement “The Ancient [±lm = Heb <lu] One has cut a binding (agreement) with us” (cf. Cross, pp. 266-7); but other instances are hard to find. However, the idea is prominent in early Israelite tradition, associated quite strongly with Abraham and the ancestors of Israel (see below).

Some Old Testament scholars refer to this line of tradition as a special “god of the father” agreement; that is to say, a relationship is established between a particular deity and a family, clan, or tribe (headed by a patriarch). The deity actually functions as the head and protector of the clan/tribe, like a “Great Patriarch”; as such, the deity is a fellow kinsman, and can be called variously “father”, “brother”, etc. A good example of this sort of tradition in Genesis is the account in 28:10-22, involving the vision-experience of Jacob at Beth-El (“house of [the] Mighty [One]”); cf. the discussion in Cross, p. 270. The main “covenant” traditions in the book of Genesis, however, and the ones most relevant to the idea of Israel as the people of God, are the Abraham narratives in chapters 15 and 17. It is worth examining each of these in some detail.

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 tyr!B= (b§rî¾) appears in 14:13, where three Amorites (Mamre, Eshkol, Aner), who are allies of Abraham, are referred to as tyr!B= yl@u&B^ 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 [rk*c*] 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 in 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 [hq*d*x=] for him”. The noun hq*d*x= (ƒ®d¹qâ) 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 tr^K* (k¹ra¾), “cut” (cf. on Gen 31:44 above). 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 (cf. above). 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) who does so. 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?

In Part 2, 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, where the religious identity (of Israel) as the “people of God” was given an entirely new meaning.

Saturday Series: Genesis 17

Last week, we looked at the episode in Genesis 15—the binding agreement, or “covenant”, God made with Abraham (Abram). Our study illustrated the importance of historical criticism in analyzing passages such as many in the Pentateuch which record, or refer to, historical traditions coming from an ancient religious/cultural background that is quite foreign to most of us today. This is one aspect of what we call the grammatical-historical method. The fundamental principle involved is that, in studying a passage of Scripture, one must first (and primarily) examine how it would have been understood by the author(s) and original audience of the work. As far as we are able today, at this distance removed, to determine the meaning of the words and phrases in the language of the time, and to reconstruct the historical background of the passage—this is the foundation upon which reliable interpretation must begin. If we fail to consider the original context properly, it is likely that our interpretation will misguided or seriously flawed in important ways.

Today, I wish to examine another, closely related, passage which records key historical traditions regarding the “covenant” God established with his people. As I discussed last week, the Hebrew word b§rî¾ (tyr!B=) refers to a binding agreement, usually between two parties. They may be parity agreements (i.e. between equal parties), or agreements (treaties, etc) made with a superior; there are many examples of the latter in the surviving ancient Near Eastern texts and inscriptions from the 2nd-1st millennium, usually referred to as suzerainty treaties—that is, between a suzerain (state or ruler) and his vassal(s). Rather unique in this regard is the way that this standard agreement-type was adapted in the ancient Israelite context, to establish the relationship between God (El-Yahweh) and the people of Israel. Such an agreement, by its very nature, follows the suzerainty-treaty pattern—of a superior ruler (God) and his faithful/loyal vassals.

Genesis 17

In many ways, the covenant episode in chapter 17 parallels that in chap. 15 (discussed last week), to the point that many critical scholars view them as variant (traditional) versions of the same essential historical episode, emphasizing different aspects. According to the standard “Documentary Hypothesis” analysis, accepted by many commentators, Genesis 15 is part of the “J” (J/Yahwist) source, using the divine name YHWH (Yawheh) throughout. By contrast, chapter 17 is usually attributed to the so-called “Priestly” (“P”) strand, viewed both as a distinct source, as well as an editorial layer which incorporated earlier traditional material (from “J”, etc). The divine ‘name’ used in chap. 17 (except for the initial references in verse 1), is the plural °§lœhîm (“Mighty Ones”, i.e. “Mightiest”[?]), usually translated blandly in English as “God”. In this regard, historical criticism often blends into source criticism, which is an especially difficult (and often highly speculative) area of Biblical Criticism. Traditional-conservative commentators (along with a few critical scholars) are less willing to accept the “Documentary Hypothesis” source analysis, at least not without serious qualification. Indeed, if we read the texts here at face value, it would seem that chapters 15 and 17 occur at very different points in Abraham’s life. In Gen 17:1, it is stated that Abraham was 99 years old, whereas in Gen 15, presumably, he would have been somewhat closer to the 75 years indicated in 12:4. And, if we accept the essential historicity of the narratives, and the traditions recorded therein, then we would have to posit two distinct historical episodes.

Along these lines, it is important to realize that the nature of the agreement (or covenant) recorded in chapter 17 differs in several important ways from that in chap. 15.

First, there is different language used. Of course, this could be due to a difference in the source of the tradition itself. One need not accept the “Documentary Hypothesis” entirely in order to realize that the consistent use of “Yawheh” vs. “Elohim” suggests a different source for the tradition. This would seem to be confirmed by the use of the divine name (or epithet) Šadday (yD^v^). This is an ancient title, the meaning of which may well have been lost for later Hebrew-speakers, much as it is still uncertain for scholars today. The name occurs in the Old Testament independently (preserved in poetry, Gen 49:25; Psalm 68:14; 91:1; 30 times in the book of Job, etc), and also attached to the divine name °E~l (la@), as here (and 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; Exod 6:3). The original meaning may have been something like “the mountainous One”, “the One of the Mountain”, etc. Deities in the ancient world were often associated, in various ways, with mountains, symbol of the numinous and as a meeting point between heaven and earth. Even before the revelation at Sinai, the Creator God El-Yahweh would have been connected with important mountains and high places. The mountain is also symbolic of height, greatness, exaltedness, etc., and this connotation was likely understood in the name. For Abraham, and the earliest Israelites, the one true God would have been called °E~l (“[the] Mighty [One]”; see my earlier discussion on this name). According to Exod 6:3, when El-Yahweh appeared to the Patriarchs, it was not by the name YHWH, but as El-Shaddai.

If we were to posit a tentative source-reconstruction of chapter 17, it might be as follows:

    • An ancient tradition, passed down from the time of the Patriarchs, which speaks of God (El [Shaddai]) appearing to Abraham and establishing an agreement with him
    • An editing layer (Mosaic/or post-Mosaic) which identifies the God of the Patriarchs as Yahweh (verse 1).
    • A layer of traditional editing, including normalized translation, etc, which uses the common name/title for God (Elohim) throughout, when El (not Yahweh) was used in the original tradition.

Apart from the use of divine name(s), there are other differences in language and terminology between chapters 15 and 17. For example, instead of the idiom “cut an agreement” (15:18), we have “give [i.e. make] an agreement” (17:2). There is also the repeated expression, b§rî¾ ±ôl¹m, “agreement of [i.e. lasting into] (the) distant (future)”, i.e. “eternal/everlasting agreement” (verses 7, 13, 19). The terminology describing the inheritance of the Promised Land, etc, is also distinct, compared with chapter 15.

Second, the character of the covenant agreement is not the same. While the principal themes are comparable (the promise of descendants for Abraham, the land they will inherit, etc), the form of the agreement itself differs. In Genesis 15, the agreement takes the form specifically of a grant of land to Abraham (and his descendants) as a reward for his faithful service. The binding obligation is entirely upon the superior party (God), and it is He who, symbolically, passes between the pieces, indicating that he his bound to fulfill the agreement. By contrast, in chapter 17, the agreement is binding on both parties—God and Abraham—and it is also a conditional agreement. This is summarized and stated simply in vv. 1b-2:

“Walk before me and be complete, and I will give [i.e. make] my binding-agreement between me and you…”

God’s part of the agreement, his obligation, is described in verses 4-8, entailing (1) giving descendants (a vast number) to Abraham, and (2) assigning the land which they will possess. The fundamental religious nature of this agreement is capped by the closing words, “and I will be God [Elohim] for them”.

Abraham’s part of the agreement, which is to continue on with his descendants, is narrated in vv. 9-14. It fundamentally consists of a promise to maintain the agreement, marked by the rite of circumcision.

Third, there is no sacrificial ritual associated with the covenant agreement in chapter 17. As I noted above, instead of the expression “cut an agreement” (indicating the cutting up of an animal), we have here “give/make and agreement”. However, there is still cutting involved, but of an entirely different sort. It is the rite of circumcision—to “cut off” (mûl) the foreskin of the male genitalia. Primarily, the ritual is meant to be a sign (°ô¾) of the agreement, marked in the person’s flesh. However, the act of cutting does, in fact, still carry a connotation similar to the cutting up of an animal in the covenant ceremony. Recall that the underlying idea of the cutting symbolized the fate of the person who violated the agreement—i.e., “just as this animal is cut up, thus it will be for {so-and-so} if he/they were to break this agreement”. In this instance, Abraham and his descendants are to “cut off” the male foreskin, signifying their loyalty to the covenant; if they violate the covenant, they likewise will be “cut off” (verse 14).

An important observation to make here, as with many points in Old Testament tradition, is that both the covenant agreement forms, and the rite of circumcision itself, are not unique to Israel, nor were they invented and introduced in the time of Abraham. On the contrary, they follow customs and practices already established and widespread in the ancient Near East. Indeed, various forms of male circumcision are known from ancient and traditional cultures worldwide. This establishes the important principle that God, in the Scriptures, deals with his people in terms that they will understand, accommodating many of the ideas and practices established in the culture at large. In so doing, however, the traditional forms are given a new meaning and significance; and this is certainly the case with the rite of circumcision. At two key points, the Israelite ritual of circumcision may be said to be unique:

    • It is to be performed on the eighth day after birth. This differs from many traditional practices, where circumcision is related to puberty and/or pre-nuptial rites. The Israelite is marked as belonging to God, obliged to follow the covenant agreement he established, from the very time of birth. The eighth day may be connected with the traditional seven-day creation period, or, more generally, with the symbolic idea of seven as indicating completeness. Similarly, according to Exod 22:29, a first-born animal is dedicated on the eighth day after birth. This is likely tied to ancient concepts surrounding purity and sacrificial ritual (see Lev 22:27).
    • As a mark of God’s covenant with Abraham (and his descendants), circumcision fundamentally has a religious, rather than cultural, significance. Whereas in many cultures it marks rites of passage, i.e. into adulthood and one’s place within society, for Israelites, circumcision signifies their identity as a people belonging to God, i.e. God’s own people.

Thus we find two distinct covenant-models in Genesis 15 and 17, each with specific characteristics, as recorded in Scripture:

    1. The first is characterized by:
      (a) The superior party has the sole binding obligation
      (b) This takes the form of a land grant to his faithful ‘vassal’ (Abraham and his descendants)
      (c) It is accompanied by the ceremonial ritual involving the cutting-up of an animal (and passing between the pieces)
    2. The second is characterized by:
      (a) Both parties have binding obligations
      (b) It takes the form of a promise (of descendants for Abraham), and that the superior party (God) will continue to show favor, upon the condition that the vassal-party (Abraham and his descendants) fulfills its promise to uphold the covenant agreement
      (c) It is not accompanied by any ritual slaughter of animals, but involves the cutting of (human) flesh in the rite of circumcision

As you consider these different points of emphasis, turn to Exodus 24 and read the third key covenant episode recorded there. What are your thoughts regarding these distinctive covenant forms—how they are used by God, and how they are presented in the Scripture narrative? What does each episode tell you about the ancient covenant concept, and how such traditions developed within the unique matrix of Israelite religion? Think about these questions, read and study each passage (again) carefully…and I will see you next Saturday.

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.