The People of God: Holiness (Part 1)


This is the third set of articles in the series “The People of God”. The first two dealt with the topics of “Israel as God’s People” (Part 1, 2, 3, 4) and “The Covenant” (Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

The primary characteristic of the People of God is holiness. This is especially clear from a number of declarations (by YHWH) presented in the Torah, as in Leviticus 11:44-45:

“For I, YHWH, am your Mighty (One) [<yh!l)a$], and (so) you shall make yourselves holy [vb vd^q*], and (so) you shall be holy [<yv!d)q=]—for I am holy [vodq*]…. For I (am) YHWH, the (One) having brought you up from (the) land of Egypt, (in order) to be for you (your) Mighty (One) [<yh!l)a$], and (so) you shall be holy [<yv!d)q=], for I am holy [vodq*].”

This is summarized in the terser, and more famous, directive in Lev 19:2:

“You shall be holy, for I, YHWH, your Mighty (One), am holy.”

Because the People of God are God’s people, they are to share His fundamental (and central) attribute of holiness. In Lev 11:44-45 above, both the verb vd^q* and the related adjective vodq* are used. Thus, we can see that the root vdq represents the principal word-group in the Hebrew Old Testament (and in ancient Israelite thought) used to express the idea of holiness. It is important to begin our study with an examination of this word-group.

The RooT QDŠ

First, it is interesting to note that the root qdš (vdq), both in ancient Hebrew and the other Semitic languages, is used almost exclusively in a sacred or religious context; there is very little evidence for ordinary ‘secular’ usage. This is problematic for scholars who wish to assign it an original meaning of “cut” or “separate”. While vdq can, at times, carry the specific meaning of “set apart” (i.e., separate), this seems to be secondary, as a result of the more primary meaning “(be) clean, pure”. That which is pure, and which must remain pure, is to be set apart for this purpose. This secondary meaning covers the entire realm of the sacred, both from a religious and ritual standpoint (cf. the three aspects of holiness outlined down below) within society. That is to say, certain places, objects, and people are set apart and treated as holy.

As we see from the declarations in Lev 11:44-45 and 19:2 (above), purity or holiness is a fundamental attribute of God. The people are to be pure and holy because YHWH, their God, is pure and holy. This theological point is expressed throughout the Old Testament Scriptures—see, for example, Exod 15:11; Josh 24:19; 1 Sam 2:2; 6:20; Job 6:10; Psalm 22:3; 60:6; 77:13; 99:3, 5, 9; Prov 9:10; Isa 5:16; 6:3. The substantive adjective “Holy (One)” (vodq*), used as a Divine title, is relatively common, and obviously reflects the fundamental Divine attribute of holiness—cf. Job 6:10; Isa 40:25; 43:15; Ezek 39:7; Hos 11:9, 12; Hab 1:12; 3:3. Particularly important is the use of this title in the expression “Holy (One) of Israel”, which occurs frequently in the book of Isaiah (1:4; 5:19; 10:20; 12:6, et al), and is attested throughout the Scriptures—cf. 2 Kings 19:22; Psalm 71:22; 78:41; 89:18; Jer 50:29; 51:5. Only rarely is the title “holy one” used of lesser heavenly (angelic) beings or a (consecrated) human being (Num 16:7; Psalm 16:10 [in its original context]; 106:16; Dan 4:13, 23; 8:13. There are examples of a cognate divine title (Qudšu) in Canaanite, used to represent a particular female deity (goddess), similarly emphasizing her holiness (cf. Cross, pp. 33-5).

Holiness: The Realm of the Sacred

Obviously, the longer title “Holy (One) of Israel”, noted above, captures the unique relationship between YHWH and Israel—He being their God, and they being His people (i.e. the People of God). The key declarations in the Torah clearly express this. In addition to Leviticus 11:44-45 and 19:2 (cf. above), we may note: Exod 19:5-6; Lev 20:7, 26; Deut 7:6; 14:2, 21; 26:19; 28:9. The Deuteronomic treatment of this theme will be discussed at a later point in this set of articles.

If YHWH, as God, is holy, then everything associated with Him is (and must be) holy as well. His name is holy (Lev 20:3, etc; 1 Chron 16:10; 22:19; 29:16; Psalm 30:4, and with some frequency in the Psalms; Isa 29:23; 57:15; Ezek 20:39; 36:20-23; 39:7, etc; Amos 2:7). The place where He dwells is holy—both in heaven (Deut 26:15, etc), and in his symbolic/ritual dwelling-place on earth among human beings (His people). The idea of the holy mountain of His dwelling rests midway between these two concepts—heavenly and earthly dwellings. The Temple locale, on the hilltop site of Zion, fulfills this sacred mountain typology at the local level (cf. Psalm 2:6; 3:4; 15:1; 24:3; 44:3, etc). The Temple sanctuary, like that of the earlier Tent-shrine (Tabernacle) is called the vd*q=m! (“holy place”), the –m preformative indicating a location or place (Exod 25:8, et al); the noun vd#q) (“holiness”) can also have a similar locative meaning (“holy place”), Exod 26:33ff; 36:1, etc. The innermost shrine of the sanctuary, where the Golden Chest (Ark) that represented the dwelling-place (and throne) of YHWH resided, was called the “holy (place) of the holy (place)s” (<yv!d*Q(h^ vd#q))—an idiomatic syntax that carries a superlative meaning, i.e., “the holiest place” (Exod 26:33-34, etc).

The maintenance of the symbolic/ritual dwelling of YHWH among His people—that is, in the sanctuary (“holy place”) of the Tent-shrine (and later Temple)—required an ‘apparatus of holiness’ to match that of the holy dwelling-place itself. Everything associated with the shrine had to be set apart and consecrated (i.e., made holy). For this reason, the vdq word-group—verb, adjective and noun(s)—occurs scores of times within the Torah regulations, documented in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. Every object and utensil, the altars, the curtains and framework of the building itself—all of it had to be consecrated. Similarly, those who are to serve and work in the shrine—the sacred officials (priests) and related ministers—all had to be consecrated; for the priests, this meant both their person and their garments had to be made holy.

Moreover, it was necessary that this level of holiness be maintained, throughout the operation of the shrine, requiring a related set of purity restrictions and regulations. That which applied to the priests in this regard, however, was simply an extension of the purity regulations that applied to the people as a whole. This principle is expressed at a number of points in the Torah. For example, there is the key declaration in Exodus 19:6, in connection with the establishment of the covenant at Sinai:

“And you shall be for me a kingdom of sacred officials [i.e. priests] and a holy [vodq*] nation”

The entire kingdom and nation is essentially required (by YHWH) to function like priests ministering the “holy things” of God. As we proceed in our study, this requirement of holiness for the People of God will be broken out into three main areas, or aspects:

    • Ritual—the need to maintain ritual purity, particularly in connection with the sacred domain centered around the sanctuary of the Tent-shrine (and Temple). Many of the Torah regulations deal directly with this idea of ritual purity.
    • Ethical—i.e., holiness as expressed in socio-religious terms, through proper conduct and behavior.
    • Spiritual—though specific use of the term “spirit” (j^Wr) is generally lacking in the holiness-references, the basic concept has it parallel in the idea of the heart, i.e., the willingness of the people to fulfill the requirements of the covenant, and the obligations associated with living out their identity as God’s people.

In the next study (Part 2), representative passages, primarily from the Torah/Pentateuch, will be examined in relation to all three of these aspects of holiness outlined above.

References above marked “Cross” are to Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973).


Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 81 (Part 2)

Psalm 81, continued

PART 2: Verses 9-17 [8-16]

Verse 9 [8]

“Listen, my people, and I will testify against you.
O Yisrael, if (only) you would listen to me!”

As in vv. 6c-8 (cf. the previous study), YHWH is the speaker throughout the second half of the Psalm, making these verses function as a prophetic oracle. On the tradition of Asaph and his descendants as prophets, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 50; the prophetic character of a number of the Asaph-Psalms has been noted in prior studies.

Both thematically and poetically, vv. 6c-8 differs significantly from this second oracle. Metrically, the earlier passage consisted of a pair of 3-beat (3+3+3) tricola, while the oracle here follows  the regular 3+3 bicolon format. Beyond this, vv. 6c-8 functioned as summary of the Exodus, in which YHWH gives a brief but dramatic account of His role in the events. It concludes (v. 8b) with a reference to the episode at the “waters of strife/Meribah” (Exod 17:1-7), introducing the theme of the people’s lack of trust and disloyalty/rebellion against YHWH. This same theme continues in the second half oracle.

Indeed, the oracle seems to be indebted to the ‘covenant lawsuit’ format, in which YHWH raises the complaint that His people have violated the binding agreement (covenant). In this line of ancient Near Eastern religious-cultural tradition, the wronged party bringing such a complaint calls on the witnessing deities; however, in the context of Israelite monotheism, where God Himself is a party to the covenant, He instead calls on the forces of nature (“heaven and earth”) as witnesses. The most famous such ‘covenant lawsuit’ passages are the Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32) and the first chapter of Isaiah.

Here, however, YHWH calls on His people (Israel) to hear His complaint. This emphasizes the instructional (didactic) purpose of a poem such as the Song of Moses—that is, the purpose of the complaint is to exhort God’s people to remain faithful and loyal to the covenant, reforming their ways as needed. Past disobedience is noted (along with the punishment that resulted from it), as well as a warning that much the same could happen to the people and nation again if they do not repent; the promise of blessing and protection that stems from loyalty to the covenant is also emphasized, in the lines that close the Psalm (vv. 15-17).

The opening couplet contains a dual call, twice using the verb um^v* (“hear, listen”); in the opening of the Song of Moses (Deut 32) and Isaiah 1, the verb um^v* is paired with /z~a* in the Hiphil (“give [your] ear”). The emphatic nature of the complaint is indicated by the use of the verb dWu. This verb is often translated “(give) witness, testify”, but it properly denotes the act of repeating something, of causing (in the Hiphil stem) an action or words of speech to be repeated. I have rendered it above as “testify” for poetic concision.

Verse 10 [9]

“There shall not be a strange mighty (one) with you,
nor shall you bow down to a mighty (one) foreign (to you).”

In this couplet, YHWH gives the basis for His complaint: His people have violated the covenant by recognizing and worshiping deities other than He. This is the central and foremost prohibition in the Torah (the terms of the covenant), as indicated by its position as first of the “Ten Words” (Exodus 20:3ff par). When judgment comes upon the people during their history, as narrated and referenced in the Old Testament Scriptures, it is usually because of this central violation of the covenant.

The basic Semitic term la@ (°¢l) is used here for deity; I take its fundamental meaning to be “mighty (one)”, and consistently translate it so, though most English versions render it more conventionally as “god”. The regular term for deity in the Hebrew Scriptures is the expanded plural <yh!l)a$ (°§lœhîm, = <yl!a@), which I typically translate as an intensive (or comprehensive) plural, i.e., “Mightiest (One)”. The noun la@ is the more primitive term, and can be applied to YHWH, though usually only in poetry that preserves the older/archaic usage; here la@ is used for a deity other than YHWH. Cf. my earlier articles on the titles °E~l and °E_lœhîm.

The parallel adjectives rz` and rk*n@ are used, being largely synonymous in meaning. The first term is a verbal adjective (participle) of the root rWz (I), similar in meaning (and perhaps related) to rWs, “turn aside”; rWz denotes being a stranger, and rz` as an adjective thus means “(something) strange”. There would seem to be two rkn roots, which may (or may not) be related; rkn I means “know, recognize”, while rkn II seems to denote being hostile or an enemy. If rk*n@ is derived from rkn I, then it perhaps should be understood in a privative sense (i.e., something unknown or unrecognized, and thus foreign), though the sense could also be of something specifically recognized (and designated) as foreign. Clearly, any deity other than YHWH is (and should be) foreign/strange to His people; they should neither acknowledge such a deity, nor give worship (lit. “bow down”) to it.

Verse 11 [10]

“I (am) YHWH your Mighty (One),
the (One) having brought you up from (the) land of Egypt;
(when) you open wide your mouth, even I do fill it.”

This verse is a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon, though the consistency of the meter over the three lines cannot be reproduced in English (where the first line must appear shorter). YHWH is the God (“Mighty [One]”) for Israel—their only God, in contrast to the foreign deities (v. 10) of the surrounding nations. Here the plural <yh!l)a$ is used, in contrast with la@ (cf. above). The Exodus was the theme of the short oracle in vv. 6b-8 (cf. the previous study), and is mentioned here again. It was YHWH who brought about Israel’s departure from Egypt, through His power and strength; the phrase “bringing up from the land of Egypt” also entails the protective guidance by God that supervised their journeys through the Sinai.

The MT points the initial word of the third line as an imperative (bj#r=h^, “open wide…!”); however, the context (YHWH presenting the evidence for His complaint) suggests a description, rather than exhortation, at this point. I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 266) in reading bjrh as an infinitive (byj!r=h^). The reference is thus to YHWH’s regular providential care of His people (esp. during their wilderness journeys): “(in) your opening wide your mouth, I do fill it” —i.e., when you have need, and call out to me, I satisfy it. However, in this image of filling of an appetite, there is also an implicit allusion to the people’s lack of trust and unfaithfulness during their time in the wilderness (as indicated earlier in verse 17).

Verse 12 [11]

“But my people would not listen to my voice;
indeed, Yisrael was not willing to (hear) me!”

The people’s past disloyalty and lack of faith is stated more explicitly here. The use again of the verb um^v*, following the exhortative (dual) use in verse 9 (cf. above), carries the implication that God’s people today should not follow the example of the wilderness generation in their faithlessness and rebellion. The verb hb*a* (I) means “be willing (to do something)”; in English this has to be translated in a modal sense, auxiliary to a primary verb that has to be filled in: i.e., “they were not willing to (hear/obey) me”.

Verse 13 [12]

“So I sent him away in the stubbornness of (his) heart,
(and) they walked (on) by their (own) plans.”

In the MT, there is a shift in person here, from first person singular to third person plural. This is not all that unusual, when the reference is to the people of God (Israel), since a people or nation can be referred to both ways—singular and plural. It is probably the specific mention of Israel in the preceding line (of v. 12) that led to the initial use of the singular here in v. 13a. Most translations will normalize the number (to the plural) throughout the verse, though this is not necessary. On the reading of the <– suffix (at the close of the first line) as a <– enclitic, cf. Dahood, II, p. 266.

Again, the principal point of reference is the generation of the wilderness journeys (following the Exodus). Through their stubborn unwillingness to trust in YHWH, God “sent” them off to travel according to their own purpose and plan. This rejection of His people sets a pattern for times of punishment that would occur throughout the history of Israel/Judah.

Verse 14 [13]

“If only my people would be listening to me,
(that) Yisrael would walk in my ways!”

The focus in vv. 14-17 shifts from the past to the present. Having presented His complaint, describing (in summary fashion) His people’s past disloyalty to the covenant, YHWH now calls on them to learn from this example. The initial particle Wl reflects YHWH’s fervent wish; it can also be used as particle of entreaty, which is appropriate to the exhortational character of the oracle. For poetic concision, I have translated the particle tersely as “if only…!”.

Again the verb um^v* occurs, as in vv. 9 and 12. In verse 9a, the call was for Israel to listen to YHWH’s complaint; here, however, the meaning follows vv. 9b, 12—i.e., of listening in terms of obedience to the covenant (and the Torah). The use of a participle (“hearing, listening”) indicates a regular, characteristic behavior, i.e., a pattern of faithful/loyal obedience. This same emphasis is expressed by the idiom of “walking” in the ways/paths of God; this is traditional religious-ethical language that occurs throughout the Scriptures (and frequently in the Psalms, cf. most recently in Ps 78:10). This faithful walking in obedience to the covenant is in marked contrast to the rebellious past generation that walked according to the purposes of their own stubborn hearts (v. 13).

Verse 15 [14]

“(Then) in (but) a little (while) I would bend down their enemies,
and upon their adversaries I would turn my hand.”

Faithfulness to the covenant means that YHWH will fulfill His covenantal obligation to provide protection and security for His people. Accordingly, when they are in danger from enemies (lit. “[those] being hostile”) and adversaries, then YHWH will fight on His people’s behalf, giving them victory over all their foes.

The initial prepositional expression, fu^m=K!, is difficult to translate in English; it essentially means something like “in a little bit, in short (order)”, indicating that YHWH’s response to any threat against His people would be very quick. The protection provided by YHWH is here expressed by the anthropomorphic image of His hand—as a symbol of power and strength; cf. recently, in Psalm 80:18[17]. The incomparable power of God, fighting on His people’s behalf, will ensure that every enemy will be defeated. By contrast, when Israel is unfaithful, violating the covenant bond, then this protection is removed, and the people will be faced with defeat and destruction.

Verse 16 [15]

“(The one)s hating YHWH shall cringe before Him,
and their time shall (last) into (the) distant (future).”

The enemies of YHWH’s people are also His enemies; when they show hatred (vb. an~c*) to Israel, they are actually hating God Himself. As a result, they will end up cringing in fear and submission before Him. The verb vj^K* is tricky to translate, as it carries a wide range of meaning. The basic meaning seems to be something like “to fail, fall short”, sometimes in the specific negative (and active) sense of “deceive”. It is occasionally used in the distinctive context of subordinates who are compelled to recognize the superiority of another. In several rare instances in the Psalms (18:45[44]; 66:3, and here), the context further suggests an act of fearful/cringing submission.

The second line is a bit ambiguous, simply stating that “their time” will last long into the distant future (<l*oul=). Presumably the reference is to the judgment/punishment of the hostile nations; it may also allude to the idea of a state of perpetual submission and servitude—both to YHWH and to His people.

Verse 17 [16]

“But He will let him eat from (the) fat of (the) wheat,
and I will make you full (of) honey from (the) rock.”

Again, we have here, in this closing couplet, a jarring shift in person, both subject and object, more severe than the one noticed in v. 13 (cf. above). Yet, it seems clear that in both lines YHWH is the subject (He/I) and the people Israel is the object (he/you). Translators will doubtless wish to smooth this over, normalizing the person/number; however, such shifts are not all that uncommon in ancient Near Eastern (and Hebrew) poetry, and the MT can be retained. However strange or foreign the person/number shifts may seem, it is part of the richness and diversity of the poetic idiom.

Faithfulness to the covenant not only results in YHWH’s protection (from enemies, etc), it leads to His blessing as well. The land will be blessed, yielding a richness (lit. “fat”, bl#j#) of grain (and all crops). Almost certainly, this is an allusion to the Song of Moses (Deut 32:14), though the language is traditional and doubtless could be found in a wide range of poems. The motif of “honey from the rock” also comes from the Song of Moses (32:13b); it should not be taken it a concrete/literal sense, but simply serves as another colorful figure to express the idea of the richness and fertility of the land, as with the traditional expression of the Promised land as a land “flowing with milk and honey” (Exod 3:8, et al; cf. Deut 31:20 for a reference in the context of the Song of Moses).

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).

February 9: Isaiah 40:1

Isaiah 40:1-8

These notes on Isaiah 40:1-8 are supplemental to the recent article (on Isa 40:3) in the series “The Old Testament and the Gospel Tradition”. Chapters 40-55 of the book of Isaiah are often referred to as “Deutero-Isaiah”, and thought to represent a distinct literary work, separate from chapters 2-39, which was (eventually) included as part of the larger collection. Even traditional-critical commentators, who would emphasize the book’s unity and Isaian origins, recognize that 40:1 marks the beginning of a new division. Most critical scholars feel that, on the whole, the Deutero-Isaian poems were composed in the early-mid 6th century. The reason for this view has to do with the apparent Exilic setting that runs through this material, with the strong themes of restoration and return, focused on Judah and Jerusalem. This repeated message simply makes more sense if the (Babylonian) exile had already occurred.

Isaiah 40:1

“Bring relief, relief (for) my people!—(so) says your Mighty (One)”
<k#yh@ýa$ rm^ay) yM!a^ Wmj&n~ Wmj&n~

The Deutero-Isaian oracles and poems begin with a double imperative of the verb <j^n` (Wmj&n~ Wmj&n~), in the Piel stem, which is rather difficult to translate in English. The root <jn has the fundamental meaning of “breathe deep, sigh”, often connoting a sense of relief; in English idiom, the expression “sigh of relief” would be fitting. In an active, causative sense, as here, the essential meaning would have to be “bring relief”.

YHWH the true God (lit. the “Mightiest [One]” = “Mighty [One]”, Elohim) is the speaker in this verse. He does not address His people (Israel), but others—the ones who are to bring the relief to Israel. It is possible that a heavenly setting is envisioned here, and that God is addressing His heavenly Messengers (Angels), who will then enact His orders on behalf of Israel. On the other hand, the generalized command, with the addressees unspecified, might better be understood as encompassing the entirety of the prophetic message, from its divine/heavenly origin to the proclamation by God’s chosen prophet(s).

Indeed, it is a message that will bring relief—an announcement, as the context of the poem makes clear, that time of Exile for Israel (spec. Judah/Jerusalem) will soon come to an end. Along with this is the effective promise of restoration and a return of the people to their Promised Land (represented primarily by the Judean capital of Jerusalem, v. 2).

The theme of restoration/return, with the specific territorial aspect of an inherited land, relates to the ancient covenant idea—that is, the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and His people Israel. The very identity of Israel as God’s own people (<u^) is rooted in this ancient covenant tradition. The traditional background is reflected in passages throughout the Old Testament; of the many key references, one may note the formulation of the binding principle in Exod 6:7; Lev 26:12; Deut 27:9; 29:12-13; Jer 7:23; 11:4; 13:11; 24:7, etc; Ezek 14:11, etc (cf. Baltzer, p. 49f). The references in Jeremiah and Ezekiel are especially significant in terms of the Exile as punishment for violating the covenant bond, and of the restoration/return as essentially marking the start of a new (or renewed) covenant. With the violation of the covenant, Israel ceased to be God’s people, a point made clear by a number of passages in the Prophets, such as Hos 1:9-2:1, where the symbolic name “Not My People” is introduced by God to indicate to Israel that “you are not my people, and I am not your God”.

This follows the pattern of the famous Golden Calf episode in Exodus 32-34, when the people violated the terms of covenant in the most blatant and egregious way (transgressing the first command, 20:2-4). As a result, the covenant bond was abrogated (symbolized by the breaking of the tablets, 20:19f), and the Israelites ceased to be the people of YHWH. Through Moses’ intervention, this status was restored, but only in a qualified sense, with Moses functioning as the required intermediary between Israel and YHWH. The covenant was thus renewed, at least in a partial sense, and the shadow of Moses’ intercession would continue over the covenant bond for generations to come (cf. Paul’s discussion in 2 Corinthians 3), with the Torah, as the terms of the covenant, conventionally referred to as the “Law of Moses.”

Even more serious, and with devastating consequence, was the repeated violation of the covenant that led to the Exile of Israel and Judah, when, once again, they ceased to be God’s people. However, due to the Lord’s mercy, this breach was not made permanent; with the completion of an allotted time of exile (to be discussed in the next note on verse 2), YHWH announces that once again Israel/Judah are considered to be His people (“my people,” yM!u^). With the restoration/return, a new covenant will be established to this effect (Jer 31:33, etc)—an idea, of course, that would be dramatically (re)interpreted by early Christians, in relation to the person and work of Jesus. This “new covenant” theme is especially prominent in the exilic prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel (note esp. Jer 31:31-34; 32:36-44; Ezek 36:26ff; 37:15-27)—oracles with which the Deutero-Isaian poems have a good deal in common.

The idea of being the people (<u^) of God also implies a measure of kinship (cf. Baltzer, pp. 50-51). It is worth noting that the concept of “redemption”, as expressed especially by the Hebrew root lag, derives from the specific background of delivering/freeing a family member (or relative) from danger or bondage, etc. This takes the imagery a step beyond the Near Eastern covenant-idiom; however, there are many passages in the Old Testament where YHWH is referred to as the “father” of Israel, and the people his children (“sons”)—e.g., Exod 4:22-23; Deut 32:6, 19; Hos 1:10ff; 11:1; Isa 43:6; 64:8; Jer 31:9, etc. The concept of family relations is certainly part of the theme of Israel as the people of God.

References above marked “Baltzer” are to Klaus Baltzer, A Commentary on Isaiah 40-55, transl. by Margaret Kohl, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2001).

December 23: John 1:11-12a

John 1:11

“He came unto (his) own (thing)s,
and his own (people) did not take him along.”

This couplet follows the tricolon of verse 10 (discussed in the previous note). It continues the framework of that triad: “he was in the world…the world did not know him”, but with the concept of the “world” (ko/smo$) now narrowed to the land and people of Israel. Let us consider the parallel:

    • “he was in the world” (v. 10)
      e)n tw=| ko/smw| h@n
    • “he came unto (his) own” (v. 11)
      ei)$ ta\ i&dia h@lqen

The structure of each statement is identical: a locative prepositional phrase followed by the verb. The prepositional expressions are comparable in meaning, and suggest a development, a narrowing of focus: being “in the world” => coming “into his own (place)”. The use of the personal adjective i&dio$, pertaining to self, has a dual meaning in context: (1) it refers to the place of God’s own people (i.e., Israel as the people of God), and (2) it refers to the place of Jesus’ people (i.e., the place where he lived and worked). The plural adjective is neuter (ta\ i&dia), lit. “(his) own (thing)s”; however, as a reference to a person’s belongings, the expression can signify a “household” or “home” —i.e., the place/area where a person lives. This same sort of wording occurs in the famous saying of the boy Jesus in Luke 2:49, referring to “the (thing)s of my Father” (i.e., God’s household, the things belonging to Him).

In the next line, the adjective is repeated, but as a masculine plural, indicating that it refers to “men” (i.e. people)—oi( i&dioi, “(his) own (one)s,” “(his) own (people)”. Again, there is a sense of progression: the Logos come into his own place (homeland), and proceeds to encounter his own people (those who live there). On the motif of the divine Wisdom seeking to find a dwelling place on earth among human beings (and the people Israel), cf. the discussion in the previous note. 1 Enoch 42:2 describes how Wisdom failed to find a suitable dwelling among the people, reflecting the traditional idea of humankind (the majority of the population) rejecting the Wisdom of God. The verb used here in v. 11 is paralamba/nw, “take/receive along(side)”, in the sense of welcoming a traveler or neighbor, involving the traditional custom and ideal of hospitality. In the Gospel context, of course, this has the deeper meaning of accepting Jesus, and trusting in him as the Son of God. The progression in vv. 10-11 is leading toward the specific idea of the Logos coming to be born as a human being (v. 14).

John 1:12a

“But, as many (people) as did receive him,
he gave them (the) ability to become (the) offspring of God.”

This couplet builds upon the one prior (v. 11), and probably should be read as a related compound clause in the poetic context:

“He came unto (his) own (thing)s,
and his own (people) did not take him along;
but, as many (people) as did take him (along),
he gave them (the) ability to become (the) offspring of God.”

Clearly, the idea of Israel as the people of God is implicit here, including the specific motif of being “sons [i.e. children] of God”. Of the Old Testament passages referring (or alluding) to Israel as God’s “son”, cf. Exod 4:22-23; Deut 32:6, 19; Hos 1:10 [2:1]; 11:1; Isa 43:6; Jer 31:9. In Wisdom literature, this is given a more pronounced ethical and religious emphasis, referring to the righteous, i.e., those who are wise and embrace the Wisdom of God, as being His true children (cf. Wisd 2:16-18; Sirach 4:10, etc). This provides further confirmation for the influence of Wisdom tradition on the Prologue-hymn, especially the Hellenistic Jewish line of tradition that has blended the personified Wisdom with the Logos-concept from Greek philosophy and theology. Those in Israel who accept the Logos are those very same people who accept the Divine Wisdom. Needless to say, from the early Christian perspective, this also means that they would come to trust in Jesus, accepting his identity as the Son and Word/Wisdom of God. It is likely that the Gospel writer would consider anyone who refused to accept Jesus as having rejected Wisdom, in the true sense, as well.

The verb lamba/nw (“take, receive”) is the same root verb as in the compound paralamba/nw (“take/receive alongside,” v. 11), and has precisely the same meaning in context—i.e., it refers to the people who did take/receive the Logos alongside. The correlative pronoun o%so$ confirms the point made in v. 11, that many people refused/rejected the Logos; however, the promise that follows in v. 12 applies to everyone who did accept him. The basic meaning of the pronoun is “as (many) as”, i.e., “every(one) who…” . And the promise refers to that which is described in the developed Wisdom tradition (cf. above)—viz., that they will be regarded as the children of God.

The specific expression here in the Prologue is “(the) offspring of God” (te/kna qeou=), with the noun te/kna being a plural of the neuter te/knon, which signifies something that is produced or “brought forth” (vb ti/ktw). It is often used specifically for the birth of a child (i.e., “brought forth” from the mother’s womb). Interestingly, the Johannine writings always use te/knon when speaking of believers (as children of God), reserving the noun ui(o/$ (“son”) for the person of Jesus; by comparison, other New Testament writings occasionally refer to believers as “sons [ui(oi/] of God”.

Because of the importance of this concept within the Johannine theology, we shall devote a more detailed discussion for the next daily note (Christmas Eve), where v. 12a will be studied in the context of the expository statement that follows in vv. 12b-13.

The People of God: The Covenant (Part 5)

Exodus 32-34 (continued)

In our discussion in Part 4 of this article, on chapters 32-34 in the book of Exodus, three primary themes, or motifs, were identified in chap. 32:

    • The role of Moses as leader and representative of the people before YHWH
    • The identity of Israel as the people of YHWH, and
    • The violation and invalidation of the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and His people

These same themes are developed in the narrative in chapters 33-34. The historical traditions, however they were incorporated into the original narrative, serve this purpose in the book as it has come down to us. As a result, certain details and peculiarities in the text, which might be analyzed variously from the standpoint of historical and source criticism (see again the discussion in Part 4), finally take on a distinctive narrative (and theological) coloring which must be examined carefully. This exegetical survey is intended to point the way toward such a study.

With the dissolution of the covenant agreement, as narrated in chap. 32, a new situation maintains, which is indicated at the beginning of chap. 33 (verses 1-6). This may be summarized as follows:

    • Israel was God’s people
    • With the invalidation of the covenant, they are no longer treated as His people; indeed, it is God’s intention to establish a new covenant, with Moses (32:10) and his descendants
    • Through Moses’ intercession there is a partial restoration (vv. 11-14)

At the start of chapter 33, Israel is still not regarded as God’s people. Note the language YHWH uses in speaking to Moses in verse 1:

“Go, go up from this (place), you and the people which you brought up from the land of Egypt…”

It is Moses, not YHWH, who “brought up” the people from Egypt. This almost certainly reflects the violation of the covenant, as echoed in the wording of 32:1. In place of Moses, the people seek for a different sort of tangible indication of God’s presence—namely, the Golden calf:

“Stand (up and) make for us God(s) which will go before us; for, see, this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has come to be for him [i.e. what has happened to him]!”

This wording is repeated in the exclamation at the creation of the Golden Calf: “These are your Gods, (O) Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (v. 4). Even so, there has been a partial restoration of the covenant; certainly, YHWH will honor the agreement established with Abraham, regarding the promised Land (33:1-3a, see Gen 15) and the protection which He is obligated to provide for Abraham’s descendants on their journey to the Land. However, He will not travel or reside in the midst of the people (vv. 3b, 5), a detail which would otherwise be fundamental to the identity of Israel as His people (and He as their God). In vivid description, this announcement leads to mourning on the part of the people (vv. 4, 6). It also establishes the setting for verses 12ff, which are preceded by the (historical) tradition included here at vv. 7-11. It is important to examine briefly the way this tradition is utilized within the narrative.

A detail often neglected by commentators is that the Tent described in vv. 7-11 is set up outside the camp. While it is possible that, originally, this was a neutral indication of the tent’s location (note the wording in v. 7), in the context of the narrative, it can only mean that YHWH is forced to meet with Moses away from the people, since he can no longer reside among them due to their violation of the covenant. This serves to deepen Moses’ role as the people’s representative before God. The encounter on Sinai, which took place in the general vicinity of the people at large, now becomes an entirely private event. The same dark cloud, which indicated the presence of YHWH at the top of Mt. Sinai, now descends, in less dramatic form, to appear at the entrance of the Tent, where God would meet/speak with Moses. Even though the people could still see the tent, and the cloud, they were cut off from the event (this is true even of Joshua, though he was within the tent itself, v. 11).

In verses 12-23, following the setting established by the tradition in vv. 7-11, Moses intercedes again for the people (vv. 12-13). YHWH agrees to lead the camp in its travels, which partially mitigates his earlier refusal to dwell among the people. At the same time, the people are brought closer to God from a different direction—through Moses’ request in verse 13 that he more completely reflect the presence of YHWH for the people: “Let me know your way(s) and know You…”. This is expressed again, in even more daring form, in verse 18: “Let me see your weight [db)K*]!” The Hebrew word db)K* (k¹»œd), which I have rendered literally as “weight” (i.e. “worth, value”), is often used in the more abstract, figurative sense of “honor”, especially the honor one ought to show to God. When used of God, the term can also refer to His manifest Presence; it is customarily translated “glory” in most English versions. An example of such a Theophany is the vision accorded Moses and the elders/leaders of Israel in 24:9-11 (“they saw the God of Israel…”, v. 10). As previous discussed, this was related to the initial establishment of the covenant, just as with its re-establishment here. Moses is apparently asking for an even more direct and personal revelation by YHWH. This Presence had otherwise been covered by the dark cloud during Moses’ previous encounters. What is most significant, in context, is that YHWH does not appear to the people this time, but only to Moses—the theophany is given to him alone.

At this point in the narrative, there is also a theological transformation (and deepening) of the ancient Theophany motif (i.e. the storm cloud). YHWH promises to Moses a vision of His Presence which is not direct—i.e., not the face (hn#P* [plur. <yn]P*])—but which reveals it from behind (roja*, that which follows or comes after). This entirely unique mode of revelation is characterized by four components or attributes, which really can be distilled into two aspects of a single dynamic:

    • God speaking/calling to Moses with the Name [YHWH]
    • God revealing “all (his) good(ness) [bof]”
      • Showing (all of his) favor
      • Displaying (all of his) compassion

While this is referred to in terms of a vision, when the moment comes in the narrative it is described in terms of the spoken word. There can be no doubt, however, that the declaration in 34:6-7 is to be understood as the fundamental revelation of YHWH’s presence from within the dark cloud (v. 5). Even more important, from the standpoint of the narrative, is that this theological message is central to the idea of the restoration of the covenant in chapters 34ff. The Presence of God becomes transferred and accessible to the people through the ministry of Moses.

In Exod 34:1-9, there is a new Theophany on Sinai, but with several important differences from the previous encounter. This time Moses is to ascend entirely alone—there should be no one on or near the mountain at all (vv. 1-3). Moreover, special emphasis is given to the new set of stone tablets which were carved out by Moses (vv. 1, 4). In obedience, Moses follows this directive and encounters YHWH (vv. 4-9). The promised revelation, as noted above, is described as a spoken declaration, centered on the utterance of the Divine Name YHWH (hwhy), vv. 6-7. The encounter reaches its climax with Moses’ request that YHWH take the people again as His own. And, indeed, in verses 10-26, God responds by establishing the covenant again with Israel, after which they are once again regarded as His people (compare with v. 10). There are, however, some important points of difference with this second covenant, as expressed through details often overlooked by commentators.

    • First, it is a covenant with Israel and with Moses (v. 27, Moses’ name is given first). This indicates the enhanced role of Moses in ministering the covenant, and in communicating God’s word and presence to the people.
    • Second, the same basic idea is indicated by the difference in the character of the stone tablets which provide the written basis of the agreement. The first covenant was written on the tablets by the finger of God (31:18; 32:16); by contrast, the second is said specifically to be written by Moses (34:27-28). Some commentators are inclined to gloss over this apparent difference, or to attribute it simply to differences in the underlying traditions. While the latter is certainly possible, in my view it does not change the meaning of the difference in the overall narrative as we have it.

The remainder of chapter 34 further emphasizes, in vivid and dramatic fashion, the mediatorial role of Moses. The Divine Presence is marked and reflected on Moses’ own person (rays of light from his face), visibly and symbolically, as he descends from Mt. Sinai (vv. 29-30). In this glorified condition he communicates God’s instruction (Torah) to the people (vv. 31-33), a process which is repeated at regular points, at least until the Torah is complete and the communal Tent of Meeting (Tabernacle) is built. Indeed, within the narrative structure and setting, this Torah (35:1-3) leads into specific instruction regarding the building of the Tent, through which the people would come to encounter YHWH. This is unquestionably meant as a parallel to the Tent “outside the camp” which only Moses would enter (34:34-35). After the great new Tent is established, God’s Presence fills it (40:34), effectively taking Moses’ place as the one who communicated the Presence to the people (v. 35). Here the Presence of YHWH would reside with Israel through all of the people’s travels (vv. 36-38).

Paul recognizes the significance of Moses’ role as mediator of the Sinai covenant, and how the covenant bond between YHWH and Israel was experienced (by the people) only through the presence of God reflected in the person of Moses. He draws upon this very point in a most powerful way in 2 Corinthians 3, using the ancient tradition to establish a contrast between the Sinai covenant and the new covenant (of the Spirit) for believers in Christ. The contrast was fundamental to the early Christian understanding of the identity of believers as the people of God. Which is not to say that there were not serious disputes regarding the role of the Torah (and the old covenant) in this new religious identity, as Paul’s own letters testify. I have discussed the subject at great length in the series The Law and the New Testament (cf. especially the articles on “Paul’s View of the Law”), and will do so again later on in this current series.

September 15: Deuteronomy 32:10-14


A brief history of Israel is narrated in vv. 10-18, which may be divided into two sections (see the outline in the previous note):

    • His protection and guidance during the Exodus and wilderness travels (vv. 10-14)
    • His people turned away from Him, worshiping foreign gods (vv. 15-18)

Verses 10-14 is itself divided into two portions, 4 bicola each, with a YHWH-theological bicolon (v. 12, compare v. 9) in between. Here is my translation of vv. 10-12:

10He found him in (the) land out back,
and in an empty howling waste(land);
He encircled him, watched him (carefully),
watched over him like the center of His eye.
11Like an eagle stirred (to guard) his nest,
(who) hovers over the young of his (nest),
He spread out his wings and took him (in),
carried him upon the strength of his (wing)s.
12By Himself did YHWH lead him,
and no foreign ‘Mighty One’ was with him!

Thematically we may divide the two portions as follows:

    • Vv. 10-11—The finding/choosing and rescue of Israel [Exodus]
      • Image of eagle swooping down to pick up its young (v. 11)
      • The eagle flying back up to place its young in a high/safe location (v. 13)
    • VV. 13-14—The settlement of Israel in a good/fertile land

This narrative poetry works on a number of levels, as we can see by the inset imagery of the eagle’s protection of its young, with a descent/ascent motif. In addition, there are all sorts of colorful details in vv. 10-18 which could be subject to a rich historical-critical analysis. While this is beyond the scope of this study, it would be worth comparing these lines to the narrative of the Exodus and Settlement in the Pentateuch, as well as other poetic treatments of the same (or similar) historical traditions. Let us briefly examine the language used in verse 10.

In these four lines (a pair of 3+3 bicola), there is expressed the theme of YHWH finding/choosing Israel as his people. It is a poetic description, and not tied to any one historical tradition. The main motif is the desert setting (rB*d=m!, a place “out back” or hinterland, cf. below), an image which would appear repeatedly in Israelite/Jewish thought over the centuries. It is a multi-faceted (and multivalent) image; here I would highlight the following aspects and associations:

    • The idea of a formless wasteland echoes the Ancient Near Eastern cosmology and, specifically, the Creation account preserved in Genesis 1. The same word WhT) (tœhû) occurs in Gen 1:2, describing the condition of the universe (“heaven and earth”) prior to the beginning of Creation proper (i.e. the ordering of the universe, in the context of Genesis 1). In the Ancient Near Eastern cosmology, this primeval condition is typically understood as a dark watery mass (and so also in Gen 1:2); here, however, this tœhû (emphasizing formlessness and chaos/confusion) is applied to the desolation of the desert (as a “wasteland”).
    • The allusion to creation means that, in a real sense, the people of Israel comes into existence (or is ‘born’) in the desert. This can be understood from several perspectives:
      (a) The ‘desert’ setting of Egypt and the Exodus, out of which the people truly came (as in a birth)
      (b) The religious ‘birth’ of Israel in connection with Sinai—introduction of YHWH, the meaning/significance of His name, place of His manifestation, etc (Exod 3; 19ff)
      (c) The period of labor in the wanderings throughout the Sinai desert, during which the people of Israel came to be ‘born’

Each bicolon of verse 10 illustrates a different side of this setting, from the standpoint of Israel’s relationship to YHWH:

    • Bicolon 1 (10a)—the emptiness, danger, etc. of the desert/wasteland
    • Bicolon 2 (10b)—the complete care and protection given by YHWH

It is a stark contrast—i.e. the world with and without God’s presence—and one that is enhanced by the parallelism that is characteristic of ancient Hebrew poetry. This parallelism is built into the 3-beat bicolon meter and structure of the poem, and which is typical of much ancient Semitic/Canaanite poetry. In an earlier study, I demonstrated this meter/structure visually; however, let us consider verse 10 in particular. As indicated above, the verse is made up of a pair of bicola (i.e. four lines), each with three stressed syllables, or beats. There is a definite parallelism in each bicolon, with the second line (colon) parallel to the first. Here is a breakdown of the lines, with the parallelism indicated by indenting the second colon (as is commonly done in translations of poetry); the specific points of parallelism are marked by italics:

    • “He found him in (the) land out back,
      Yimƒ¹°¢¡nû b®°éreƒ mi¼b¹¡r
      • and in an empty howling waste(land);
        û»¾œ¡hû y®l¢¡l y®šimœ¡n
    • He encircled him, watched him (carefully),
      y®sœ»»énhû¡ y®bônn¢¡hû
      • watched over him like the center of His eye.
        yiƒrénhû k®°îšôn ±ênô

The parallelism in vv. 10-12 would be called synonymous—the second line essentially restating the first, but with a greater intensity or pointedness. For example, in the first line of 10a, the common word rB*d=m! (mi¼b¹r) is used; originally indicating something like “remote, far back/away (place)”, it typically refers to the open space of the desert or wilderness. However, in the second line (10b), a more graphic description of this desert region follows, utilizing all three words of the line: (a) WhT) (“formless, cf. above), (b) ll@y+ (“howling”), and (c) /m)yv!y+ (“desolate/waste [land]”). The sequence of words together gives a vivid sense of chaos and danger. Similarly, in 10c, YHWH’s action is straightforward: “He encircled him, he watched him (carefully)”, with two suffixed verb forms, creating a calm, stable rhythm, as though resolving the harshness of 10b. This is followed (in 10d) by a more intimate and personalized description: “he watched over him like the center [/ovya!] of his eye“. In English idiom we might say “like the apple of his eye”; literally it refers to the center, or “pupil” of the eye, as a way of describing the focus of one’s attention and care.

In vv. 13-14, the parallelism shifts to what is commonly referred to as synthetic parallelism—whereby the second line builds on the first, developing the thought in a more complex way. Consider, for example, the first bicolon (two lines) in verse 13:

    • “He made him sit upon the heights of the earth,
      • and he would eat (the) produce of the (fertile) land.”

The waw-conjunction is epexegetical, indicating the purpose or result of YHWH’s action in the first line—i.e. “and then [i.e. so that] he [i.e. Israel] would eat…”. Moreover, Israel’s position in the heights (like an eagle) makes it possible for him to feast on the fruit produced in the fertile open land (yd*v*) down below. This imagery of the richness of the land continues on through the remainder of vv. 13-14, each bicolon developing in a similar fashion, concluding with a single extra line, for effect (v. 14e). The vocabulary of verse 14 is a bit difficult at a couple of points, in what is otherwise a fine, vivid poetic description of the produce (hb*WnT=) of the land (v. 13) which the people are able to enjoy—from both flock and field:

“Curdled (milk) of cattle and (milk)fat of sheep,
(along) with (the) fatted (parts) of lambs,
and strong (ram)s, (the) sons of Bashan,
(along) with (the) fat (kernel)s inside (the) grain
and (the) blood of grape(s) you drink bubbling (red)!”

The shift from “he” to “you” makes this final line more dramatic and jarring, as also the slightly ominous allusion (“blood…red”) to the judgment theme that follows in vv. 15ff.

In the middle of the four tropes of vv. 10-14, dividing the two sections precisely, is a middle trope (v. 12), a single bicolon, that is decidedly theological, and perfectly placed at the center of the poetic narrative. It is especially important, in that it looks back upon the opening portions of the poem, and ahead to the key (dualistic) themes that dominate the remainder. It is worth examining v. 12 briefly:

    • By Himself did YHWH lead him,
      YHWH b¹¼¹¼ yanµenû
      • and no foreign ‘Mighty One’ was with him!
        w®°ên ±immô °¢l n¢k¹r

This parallelism could be called both synonymous and antithetic—the second line essentially restates the first, but also makes the opposite point, i.e. it was YHWH and not any other foreign ‘God’. Conceptually, this can be illustrated by way of chiasm:

    • YHWH (the true Mighty One)
      • by Himself, separate [dd*B*]
        • He led/guided (Israel)
      • there was no (other) [/ya@] with Him [oMu!]
    • a foreign ‘Mighty One’ [la@]

This contrast between YHWH and the other ‘deities’ of the surrounding nations, already emphasized in vv. 8-9 (see above), will take on even greater prominence in the remainder of the poem. This will be discussed in more detail in the next daily note (on vv. 15-18).

The People of God: The Covenant (Part 3)

Exodus 24:1-11

In Parts 1 and 2 of this article, we examined the covenant-scenes in Genesis 15 and 17, which are foundational for an understanding of the concept of covenant (literally, binding agreement) in the Old Testament. To this we add a third key passage, the covenant episode at mount Sinai in Exodus 24. Actually, this covenant theme covers the entire second half of the book, beginning with chapter 19 and God’s manifestation (theophany) at Sinai. God appears to the people, just as he did to Abraham in Gen 15 and 17. The principal narrative in chapter 20 can be divided into two parts:

    • God speaks to the people, i.e. to the leaders (vv. 1-14), and then
    • God speaks to Moses as their representative (vv. 15-18ff)

This sets forth the agreement between God and the people Israel (Abraham’s descendants). The “ten words” (20:1-14) and the laws/regulations in 20:19-23:33 represent the terms of the covenant—that is, the binding obligation which the people are to fulfill. This material is called the “account of the agreement” (tyr!b=h^ rp#s@ s¢pher hab®rî¾, 24:7, i.e. “book of the covenant”). The legal basis of this agreement requires that it be established in writing. The agreement itself is finalized (ratified) by the ritual ceremony in chapter 24.

Here, in Exodus 24:1-11, the people promise to fulfill their part of the agreement; indeed, the binding obligation in this instance is only on one party—stated in 19:8 and repeated in 24:3 (and again in v. 7):

    • “All (the words) which YHWH has (said by) word/mouth (to us) we will do!”

In the latter instance, the people are represented by their leaders—seventy elders, along with Moses, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu. The unity of the people (as a common party) is emphasized in both declarations:

    • “And all the people answered in its unity [i.e. in unison, united] and said…” (19:8)
    • “And all the people answered (with) one voice and said…” (24:3)

This vow covers the first portion of the episode, which may be outlined as follows:

    • Verses 1-4a: The elders, representing the people, affirm their part of the agreement, which Moses puts in writing.
    • Verses 4b-8: This affirmation is ratified by sacrificial offering and ritual.
    • Verses 9-11: The elders ascend (partway up the mountain) and encounter God (theophany), and the covenant ritual is finalized.

There is obvious symbolism and significance to the seventy elders (see also Num 11:16, 24-25; Ezek 8:11) who represent the people. Most likely it draws upon the idea of completeness connoted by the numbers seven and ten (i.e. 7 x 10). The seventy elders truly represent the entire people of God. The action of the elders bowing low (reflexive stem of the verb hj*v*) reminds us again of the ancient Near Eastern background of the covenant (tyr!B=) idea. It is the act of a loyal and obedient subordinate, or vassal, paying homage to a superior authority, and indicating submission. This is in accordance with the suzerain-vassal treaty form of agreement, with Yahweh, as the one Creator God, representing the ultimate sovereign.

In each of the covenant episodes we have been studying, the agreement is accompanied by ritual involving cutting. In Genesis 15, animals were cut up into pieces, and God (symbolically, in a vision) passed between the pieces, indicating the binding obligation on him to fulfill the agreement. In the Genesis 17 episode, the ritual cutting is of a different sort (circumcision), and reflects the binding obligation on the other party (Abraham and his descendants). Now, in Exodus 24, the cutting is expressed through: (a) sacrificial offerings, and (b) the use of blood. More important, the ritual symbolism involves both parties—God and the people Israel. This dual-aspect is sometimes overlooked by commentators, but it is clear enough in the account of verses 4b-8.

First, we should note that there are three elements to the ritual scene:

    • The mountain location—symbolically a meeting-point between heaven (God) and earth (humankind)
    • The altar—representing the presence of God, and
    • The twelve pillars—representing the people (i.e., the twelve Tribes of Israel)

Mount Sinai is thus a (sacred) location where both parties can meet to establish the agreement. The use of pillars (or stones) to represent the parties of an agreement is attested elsewhere in the Pentateuch (Gen 31:45-54); see also Josh 24:27, where a stone serves as a witness to the agreement.

With regard to the sacrificial offerings themselves, they are of two kinds:

    • Offerings which are entirely burnt by fire on the altar (i.e. “burnt offerings”, Leviticus 1ff)—these are consumed (“eaten”) entirely by God, through the burning; the very Hebrew word for this offering (hl*u), ±ôlâ) indicates the symbolism of the savory smoke ascending (“going up”) to God in heaven.
    • Offerings which signify the wish to establish (or restore/maintain) good will and peace between parties—i.e. between God and the people. It sometimes called a “peace offering”, based on the customary translation of the Hebrew <l#v# (šelem, “peace”). Both parties “eat” of these offerings—a portion is burnt by fire (i.e. eaten by God), the remainder is consumed by the human participants in a meal.

Only in the case of the “peace offering”, consumed by both God and the people, is the term jbz (noun jb^z#, verb jb^z`), “[ritual] slaughter”, used; this is the offering which involves cutting. Interestingly, while the cutting in the previous covenant scenes (Genesis 15, 17) would have resulted in blood (see Exod 4:25-26, etc), only here, in this episode, does blood play a part in the ritual. It is applied to both parties in the agreement:

    • For God, symbolically, through the blood thrown against the altar (v. 6), and
    • For the people, the blood thrown (or sprinkled) on them (v. 8)

We must consider the different possible aspects of this symbolism. First, note the declaration accompanying the use of blood:

“See—the blood of the (binding) agreement which YHWH has cut with you upon [i.e. regarding] all these words!” (v. 8b)

In the case of the cutting up on the animals in Genesis 15, as we discussed, the background of the symbolism involved the punishment which would befall someone who violated the agreement (i.e., he/they would be “cut up” just as the animals were). In a similar manner, in Genesis 17, the person(s) who violate the agreement, which was marked by the cutting off of the male foreskin, would themselves be “cut off”. The symbolic use of blood here may also reflect the idea that death would be the result of violating the agreement.

At the same time, blood could symbolize the life-essence of a person (Gen 9:4-6), and thus possess a sacred, life-giving (and life-preserving) quality. In the underlying symbolism of the Passover ritual, the blood from the sacrifice specifically protects the person(s) from death (Exod 12:13, 22-23).

A third aspect—perhaps the one most relevant to the covenant scene in Exodus 24—is the use of blood to consecrate persons and objects within a religious setting (Exod 29:12ff; Lev 4:5-7ff; 8:15-24; 9:9ff, etc). The consecration of priests, those responsible for managing the ceremonial/sacrificial elements of the covenant, is accompanied by a ritual use of blood which is very close to that of Exod 24:6-8. In a sense, the consecrated priests are representatives of the entire people (like the elders in Exod 24), who are called to be a holy nation (Exod 19:6). In this respect, the “blood of the agreement” marks the sacred and holy character of the agreement between the people and God. Symbolizing both aspects of life and death, blood serves to finalize the binding agreement—the very bond—between the two parties.

It hardly needs to be pointed out that the use of blood in Exod 24:6-8 is drawn upon by Jesus in the Gospel tradition of the Last Supper. This is found in the institution of the “Lord’s Supper” in the Synoptic Gospels (also echoed by Paul in 1 Cor 11:25):

“This is my blood of the covenant [diaqh/kh] th(at is) being poured out over many” (Mark 14:24 par)

Similar language is used in the Gospel of John (6:51, 53ff) and elsewhere in the New Testament (Rom 3:25; 1 Cor 10:16; Col 1:20; Heb 9:14ff; 10:29; 13:20; 1 Pet 1:2, 19; 1 John 1:7; 5:6, 8). In these passages, the “blood of the (new) covenant” clearly refers to Jesus’ death, as a sacrifice—an offering slaughtered (cut up), and its blood poured out (onto the altar, etc), just as Jesus’ body is ‘broken’ and his blood ‘poured out’ in his death (see John 19:34).

Finally, we must note the climax of the Exodus 24 covenant episode: the manifestation of God (YHWH) to the leaders of the people (the seventy elders, etc) in verses 9-11. As in the vision of Genesis 15:17f, here God appears—the presence of both parties being required to ratify the agreement. To be sure, God was present, symbolically, by the altar, but now he becomes visible to the people (as he did in the initial Sinai theophany of chapter 19). We may outline this section as follows:

    • Ascent of the elders (v. 9)
      —Appearance of YHWH (v. 10)
      —They behold Him and live (v. 11a)
    • They eat and drink (conclusion of the ritual, v. 11b)

The use of the verb hz`j* in verse 10 indicates that the manifestation of YHWH was, at least in part, a visionary experience (see Ezek 1, etc). The parallel with the Genesis 15 episode would seem to confirm this aspect. The precise nature of the “eating and drinking” mentioned in verse 11b is uncertain, but it would seem to reflect the conclusion of the meal related to the sacrificial offerings in vv. 6ff. The people’s participation in this meal serves to finalize the agreement (specifically, their part in it). It is noteworthy that the establishment of the “new covenant”, marked by Jesus’ blood, is also part of a ritual meal (Mark 14:12-26 par).

As significant as the Exodus 24 covenant episode is, it should be pointed out, again, that chapters 19-24 represent only the beginning of a larger covenant-narrative complex which continues on to the end of the book (and, one might say, into the book of Leviticus). By proceeding with a study of the remainder of the book of Exodus, one can see how chapter 24 fits into the structure of the book—both the legal material in chapters 25-31, 34ff and the important narrative scenes in chapters 32-33. The covenant agreement between God and Israel cannot be separated from the Instruction, or Torah—the regulations and instructions given by God to his people. These regulations function as the terms of the covenant. While this applied initially to the “ten words” (Decalogue) and the “book of the covenant” in 20:19-23:33, it came to encompass a much larger body of instruction and tradition. The importance of these associations—the leadership of the people (Moses/Elders), the covenant ritual, and the Torah—must be realized and studied closely, as they relate precisely to the language and symbolism used by early Christians in the New Testament. We continue to use this language, to some extent, even today, though its fundamental meaning is largely lost in the modern age. It is possible for us to regain and restore its meaning through a critical study of Old Testament passages such as these in the books of Exodus and Genesis.

The People of God: The Covenant (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this article, we looked at the episode in Genesis 15—the binding agreement, or “covenant”, God made with Abraham (Abram). Here we will examine another, closely related, passage which records key historical traditions regarding the “covenant” God established with his people. As I discussed previously, the Hebrew word tyr!B= (b§rî¾) 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 in Part 1), 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 <yh!ýa$ (°§lœhîm, “Mighty Ones”, as an intensive, “Mightiest [One]”), usually translated blandly in English as “God”. 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) yD^v^ (Šadday). 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 la@ (°E~l), 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 <l*ou tyr!B=, 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” (lWm) the foreskin of the male genitalia. Primarily, the ritual is meant to be a sign (toa) 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

In Part 3, we will turn the third key covenant episode in the Pentateuch, the establishment of the covenant at Sinai recorded in Exodus 24 (part of a wider covenant narrative in chaps. 19-24ff). In terms of the tradition, and how it is dealt with in the book of Exodus, the Sinai covenant is not seen as a new agreement, but is understood fundamentally as a reaffirmation of the original agreement between YHWH and the ancestors of Israel, such as recorded in the narratives of Genesis 15 and 17.

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.

The People of God: Israel as God’s People (Part 4)

This article on Israel as the People of God concludes with a study on the theme as it is expressed in the book of Deuteronomy. The focus in this four-part article has been on the early background of the concept, of the historical traditions as preserved in the writings of the Pentateuch. Later development of the “people of God” theme—such as in the Prophets, Psalms, and Wisdom literature—will be dealt with at subsequent points in this series.

The book of Deuteronomy is of special importance for the purposes of our study, for several reasons: (1) it represents a separate line of early tradition, (2) the entire narrative is rooted in the person of Moses (on the importance of this in the tradition, cf. the discussion in Part 3), and (3) it is related to the wider Prophetic (Deuteronomic) history as expressed in the books of Judges, Samuel, and (most importantly) the books of Kings. The latter point, unfortunately, is wrapped up in complex critical questions regarding the origins and composition of Deuteronomy. For more on this, see the discussion at the conclusion of this article below. From a narrative (and literary) standpoint, the entire book of Deuteronomy is framed as a great speech delivered by Moses to the people at the end of his life—and, correspondingly, at the end of the people’s forty years of ‘wandering’ in the deserts of Sinai. The opening verses establish this quite clearly; cf. in verse 3:

“And it came to be, in (the) fortieth year, in (the) eleventh new (moon), on (the) first day of (the) new (moon), Moshe spoke to (the) sons of Yisrael, according to all (the things) which YHWH charged him (to give) to them…”

The first section of the book (1:6-4:40) is presented as a speech in which Moses summarizes the history of Israel, from the Exodus to the present moment; as such, it corresponds to what is narrated in the books of Exodus and Numbers, but with certain points of difference (a critical discussion of which is beyond the scope of this article). The whole purpose of the historical summary is to set the context for the admonition that the people must remain faithful to the covenant with YHWH. This faithfulness is defined primarily, if not exclusively, in terms of the worship of YHWH alone. According to the first command of the “Ten Words” (Exod 20:2-3; par Deut 5:6-7), which functions as the heart of the Instruction (Torah) given by God to Israel, the people are to acknowledge (and worship) no other deity but YHWH. Transgression of this command (along with the prohibition against making images), was at the root of the Golden Calf episode, which (according to the narrative in the book of Exodus) resulted in the termination of the first covenant and a change in Israel’s identity as God’s people (cf. the discussion in Part 3).

The same theme—warning against worship/veneration of other deities, and of related improper religious practices—is found repeatedly throughout the book of Deuteronomy. It is no coincidence that the main division of the book (chapters 5-28) begins at the point of the first covenant at Sinai/Horeb, and with the “Ten Words” (5:6-18). All the subsequent laws and regulations presented in Deuteronomy—like those in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers—are essentially founded upon the “Ten Words”. And, much as in the so-called “Holiness Code” (Leviticus 17-26, see esp. chapters 19-22), all the regulations are likewise woven around core declarations regarding Israel’s status as a people “set apart” as holy to God (cf. the previous notes on Lev 19:2, et al).

The Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9ff)

The key declaration in this regard in Deuteronomy is the Shema (Deut 6:4-5ff), which follows the introductory exhortation in vv. 1-3. It reads as follows:

“You must hear (this), Yisrael: YHWH (is) your Mighty (One), YHWH (the only) One! And you shall love YHWH your Mighty (One) with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all (the force of) your very (being).” (vv. 4-5)

The initial declaration of v. 4 is somewhat problematic in terms of rendering its syntax. Particularly difficult is determining the force of the numeric term dj*a# (“one”). It has typically been understood in the sense of a theological statement—a monotheistic confession of the nature of YHWH; in this case, the phrase dj*a# hwhy would mean something like “YHWH (is) one (God)”. However, based on the overall context of the book of Deuteronomy, as well as other evidence from early Israelite tradition, it seems more likely that the point of emphasis is on YHWH as the only deity Israel is to recognize (and worship). The numeral dj*a# occasionally is used in this way, in the sense of “only, alone” —e.g., 1 Chron 29:1; Josh 22:20, and a few comparable examples of °µd in Ugaritic could be cited as well (cf. Tigay, p. 358). In view of this, the proper rendering of the declaration would seem to be: “YHWH (is) your Mighty (One), YHWH alone”; or, perhaps, the latter phrase translated as “…YHWH (the only) One”, which I adopt above. Much the same thought is expressed in Zech 14:9. On <yh!ýa$ as “Mighty (One)” (literally “Mightiest [One]”), typically translated “God”, cf. the article on the divine name “Elohim”.

In any case, there can be no doubt of the fundamental point that YHWH is Israel’s God, and He alone is to be worshiped. The point is so important, so vital to the religious identity of Israel, that the people are commanded to keep the Instruction close to them at all times, teaching and reciting it to the children, inscribing it on the doorposts of one’s house, and so forth (vv. 6-9). All of the regulations and requirements of the Instruction (Torah) are built upon the “Ten Words”, the foremost of which is the declaration that YHWH alone is to be recognized (and worshiped) as God. This is especially important for the people of Israel as they settle among the other Canaanite peoples, each of whom have their own established religious practices, worshiping deities other than YHWH. The warning against syncretism—of adopting foreign religious practices and beliefs, including the worship of other deities alongside of YHWH—is driven home repeatedly in the book of Deuteronomy (cf. below), and is the focus of the Instruction that follows immediately in vv. 10-15ff.

The Instruction (Torah) represents the terms of the covenant between YHWH and Israel, as I have noted previously, and violation of the terms meaning violating (and invalidating) the covenant itself. According to the tradition(s) as recorded in Exodus 32-34 (cf. the discussion in Part 3), this occurred with the episode of the Golden Calf; only through the intercession of Moses, was a new covenant put in place, though with certain changes that qualified Israel’s identity as God’s people. In Deuteronomy, the focus is not on the past, but on the future—that is to say, on how the people of Israel will conduct themselves once they have settled in the land of Canaan. The principle of the people’s holiness (vd#q)), that they have been “set apart” as a people belonging to God, and holy to Him, informs nearly every aspect of the Instruction. This is stated explicitly in Deut 7:6, echoing other passages in the Pentateuch (such as Leviticus 19:2, discussed in prior notes):

“For you are a people (set apart as) holy to YHWH your Mighty (One). In you YHWH your Mighty (One) made a selection, for (you) to be a people prized to Him, from (out of) all (the) peoples that (are) upon (the) face of the ground [i.e. the earth]” (7:6, cp. 14:2)

The point is further made that Israel was chosen by God, not because of their own characteristics or merit as a people, but through a special favor shown to them. This favor extends back to the covenant made with Abraham and the ancestors of Israel; in freeing the people from bondage in Egypt, and guiding them to the promised land, YHWH was fulfilling His obligation in that earlier agreement (vv. 7-8). YHWH’s current covenant with the people (mediated through Moses) is an extension of the former agreement, which God, for His part, faithfully observes. The question is whether the people will fulfill their obligation and faithfully observe the terms of the agreement—namely, the regulations and requirements as given to them in the Instruction (Torah), vv. 9-11.

The Covenant Preserved through Ritual (Deut 21:8-9, etc)

The ceremonial or ritual side of the Instruction was absolutely fundamental to preserving the covenant, and, with it, Israel’s identity as the people of God. It is hard for Christians to appreciate the importance of this ritual aspect, especially since nearly all of it was abandoned by (most) believers at a very early period, and, with each passing generation, people today are increasingly further removed from the ancient religious mindset which formed the basis of the various rituals in the Torah. However, much of the corpus of regulations in the Torah is related to maintaining the purity of the sanctuary—as the sacred space where people encounter God—and, with it, the apparatus of the sacrificial ritual.

The other side of this emphasis on purity has to do with the idea of Israel as a holy people, set apart as sacred to God (cf. above). If the sanctuary space and apparatus must be kept pure (being consecrated as it is to God), then so also must the people themselves be made (i.e. kept) holy and pure. Certain of the rituals and sacrificial offerings were formulated especially for this purpose; chief among these was the “Day of Atonement” ritual, presented in detail in Leviticus 16.

The Instruction in Deuteronomy 21:1-9 lays out regulations to deal with the situation when a dead body (of a person who has been slain) is found in the open, and the person guilty of the murder/manslaughter is unknown. This particular situation involves two aspects of communal holiness and purity: (1) the ritual cleansing required due to the presence of a dead body, and (2) the social/moral guilt from the crime itself. The ritual outlined in vv. 2-8 deals with both aspects; the wording in verse 8 is significant as it relates to the idea of Israel as God’s holy people:

“‘(May) you wipe away (the stain) for your people Yisrael, whom you ransomed, YHWH, and may you not give (this) blood of a clean [i.e. innocent] (one) (to remain) in (the) midst of your people Yisrael’. And (so) the blood shall be wiped away for them.”

Many other regulations have the same thought in mind, even if the specific language regarding Israel as God’s people is not used.

Blessings and Curses of the Covenant (Deut 26:16-28:68)

Within the literary framework of the book of Deuteronomy, as Moses’ speech (and the accompanying Instruction) comes to a close, and Israel is about to enter into the promised land, instruction is given for a reaffirmation of the covenant. This begins in 26:16-19, following the climactic word of prayer (by Moses) in v. 15:

“(May) you look out from (the) covered (dwelling) of your holiness, from the heavens, and (may) you bless your people Yisrael, and the soil that you have given to us, according to that which you (swore) sevenfold to our fathers, a land flowing (with) milk and honey.”

The point in vv. 16-19 is that, if the people faithfully observe the terms of the covenant (the Torah), then they will confirm that they truly are God’s people, a people set apart as holy and belonging to Him. As a result, they will continue to receive God’s protection and blessing, which includes the fruitfulness of the land promised to them. Instructions are given for a solemn ceremony, to be performed (it would seem) on the slopes between mount Ebal and Gerizim (near Shechem), in which the covenant is ratified and affirmed by the people.

Unlike the ceremony ratifying the initial Sinai covenant (Exod 24:1-11), YHWH is not a direct participant; instead, it is the people who are to affirm the covenant from their side, accepting the terms of the covenant as laid out by YHWH. According to the conventions of the ancient Near Eastern covenant format, blessings and curses—tied to the fulfillment and violation, respectively, of the terms of the agreement—are formally recited. A set of curses is given in 27:14-26, followed by a corresponding set of blessings in 28:1-14, and still further curses (in graphic detail) variously throughout 28:15-68. On the relation of these latter curses to the wider Deuteronomic history, cf. the note below.

The “Song of Moses” (Deuteronomy 32)

The book of Deuteronomy reaches its climax with the great “Song of Moses” in chapter 32. By all accounts, this is an ancient poem, to be dated (on objective grounds) to at least the 10th or 11th century B.C. Most critical commentators would maintain that the poem was composed, and originally circulated separately, prior to being included as part of the book of Deuteronomy. However that may be, in the book as we have it, the poem is clearly integrated with the narrative in chapter 31, as well as the following narration in 32:44ff. I have discussed the poem at considerable length in prior studies, and will be presenting a series of daily notes on it here as well. The theme of Israel as God’s people occurs at various points in the Song, even as the poem draws upon the early traditions regarding the covenant-bond between YHWH and Israel. The Song itself is not so pointed as the narrative in chap. 31, but it does still contain a strong exhortation for the people to remain faithful to the covenant.

Note on the Deuteronomic History

The so-called “Deuteronomic History” is a scholarly construct that refers to a certain unifying set of themes and points of emphasis that occur throughout the historical books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. These thematic and stylistic points seem to reflect much of the thought expressed in the book of Deuteronomy, though the precise relationship between Deuteronomy and the wider History remains much debated by commentators. One view of the theory posits that an older version (or core) of Deuteronomy served as the inspiration for the History, often believed to date from the time of Josiah (see above), and updated to cover the period ending in the Exile of Judah. This critical theory was effectively introduced and popularized in the mid-20th century by German scholar Martin Noth, whose work is best accessed (in English) as The Deuteronomistic History, JSOT Supplement (Sheffield Academic Press: 1981 [subsequent editions 1991, 2002]). F. M. Cross has a valuable summary, along with his own modification of the theory, in the now-classic Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History and Religion of Israel (Harvard: 1973), pp. 274-89. For a good moderate critical treatment of the book of Deuteronomy, and the Song of Moses in particular, see Jeffrey H. Tigay, JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy (Jewish Publication Society: 1996), pp. xix-xxviii, 508-18.

It is in the books of Kings that we find perhaps the strongest Deuteronomic influence, which would not be at all surprising if the reforms of Josiah essentially serve as the background of both works. In particular, the reigns of the various kings are evaluated almost exclusively in terms of the extent to which they avoided (and eliminated) foreign and aberrant religious practices, serving as an example for the people to do the same. The polemic against Canaanite (syncretistic) religious influence, along with the emphasis on preserving a single central sanctuary for worship (in Jerusalem), so important to the message of the books of Kings, is very much found in the book of Deuteronomy as well.

The failure of the Israelite/Judean rulers to remain faithful to the covenant leads directly to the suffering and misfortune of the people. In this regard, the covenant curses in Deuteronomy 27-28 (especially those in 28:15-68) very accurately summarize what would occur in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah—with terrible punishments culminating in conquest, destruction, and exile. In the mid-6th century B.C., in the Exilic period, the theme of Israel as the people of God would be resurrected and given a new meaning and significance; however, in the Prophetic writings and history up to that point, it is the Deuteronomic framework of covenant faithfulness—with its associated blessings and curses—which dominates the tradition.

The next articles in this series will deal with the concept of the covenant, in the Old Testament and Israelite tradition. As we have seen, the idea of a binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and Israel was central to the idea of Israel as God’s people.