THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE COVENANT TREATY FORMAT IN THE BIBLICAL COVENANT WITH ISRAEL

The Bible is not an encyclopedia of religious information, it is not a collection of moral parables, nor is it a collection of stories about the distant past. The Bible is a book, or rather "the book", about the irrevocable bond of covenantal love.   The Bible is God's written revelation of Himself and man's relationship to Him through the covenant bond He establishes with those men and women who respond to Him when He calls them into a unique family relationship based upon covenant union. This is the theme of the Bible: God's covenant relationship with His people.

Relationships between people and between nations bound by Covenant

God's relationship with man has always been defined through the sacred bond of the covenant, from the first covenant with Adam and Creation to the New and final Covenant established with the blood Jesus Christ. Throughout salvation history obedience to God's covenants yielded divine blessings, but disobedience resulted in judgment and the imposition of sanctions known as "covenant curses".  Examples of such blessings for obedience and curses or judgments for disobedience are found in the blessings and curses of the covenant with Adam, in which Adam is commanded to "serve" [Hebrew = abad] and to "keep" or "guard" [Hebrew samar; same two verbs found together in Numbers 3:7-8; 8:26; 18:5-6] the Garden of Eden and everything in it but to refrain from eating from the Tree of Knowledge [Genesis 2:15-17].  In addition the blessings of fertility and dominion are given for obedience [Genesis 1:28-30].  However, disobedience to the covenant obligations resulted in the "curse" of the fall of man and the serpent [Genesis 3:14-24], man's loss of grace and his position as God's firstborn son and priest-king of Eden, loss of intimate fellowship with God, and expulsion from the Sanctuary that was Eden.

In the Sinai Covenant and the creation of the nation of Israel, God joined Himself to Israel in a corporate covenant that is expressed as a marriage between Yahweh and His Bride, Israel.  The Law of the 10 Commandments in the Book of Exodus is the wedding band which binds Israel the Bride to Yahweh who is both Bridegroom and King of the new nation which becomes His vassal people.  The regulations Sinai Covenant with the Israel continue to be articulated in the Books of Leviticus [see the blessings and curses in chapter 28], and in the Book of Deuteronomy [see the blessings and curses in chapter 28].  The Book of Leviticus concerns the covenant regulations regarding liturgical worship bound in various sacrifices and obligations, while the Book of Deuteronomy contains the last homilies of Moses the Covenant Mediator as he works to prepare the covenant people to complete their journey without him, it is the last of the Books of Moses.  Please read Leviticus chapter 26 and Deuteronomy Chapter 28:1-69.

In Deuteronomy Moses reestablishes the Sinai Covenant, which elevated Israel to the status of a holy nation set apart from all other nations of the earth.  The Mosaic homilies of Deuteronomy extend the Sinai Covenant to embrace the new generation of Israel who had grown up during the 40 years wandering in the wilderness and who are now about to take possession of the Promised Land.  Only Joshua and Caleb are alive from the pervious generation who had witnessed such incredible miracles in the Exodus experience. In reaffirming the covenant treaty between Yahweh and His people, Moses enumerates the blessings Yahweh promises for obedience to the covenant in Deuteronomy 28. 1-14. However, he also warns the people of the curses that will befall them if they are disobedient to their covenant promises and obligations [28:15 forward].  In the Old Covenant both the blessings and the curses are temporal.  The blessings include health, fertility, good harvest and freedom from oppression while the curses remove the blessing of fertility for sterility, good harvest becomes famine, and freedom dissolves into foreign invasion and oppression.

Please note the curses in Deuteronomy 28:15-69.  These covenant curses became prophecy fulfilled in the first century AD when, as Jesus called down a covenant lawsuit on the Old Covenant people who refused to accept God's plan for the salvation of humanity.  He promised judgment on Jerusalem in Matthew 23:35-36 when He said: and so you will draw down on y ourselves the blood of every upright person that has been shed on earth, from the blood of Abel the holy to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.  In truth I tell you, it will all recoil on this generation.

of Jerusalem in 70AD when these curses were fulfilled. The Jews kept the Passover feast in the Spring of AD70.  The city, which normally had a population of 100,000 now, numbered about 1.5 million people.  The Roman army besieged the city during the height of the feast.  The siege lasted 3 ˝ months during which time famine had increased the suffering of the inhabitants.   Josephus, The Jewish War, Volume I, chapter 3 page 444 ...she slew her son; and then roasted him, and ate the one half of him, and kept the other half by her concealed.  Upon this the seditious came in presently, and smelling the horrid scent of this food, they threatened her, that they would cut her throat immediately if she did not show them what food she had gotten ready.  She replied that she had saved the very fine portion of it for them; and withal uncovered what was left of her son. Hereupon they were seized with a horror and amazement....  The Jewish historian, Josephus, recounts the reaction of the Roman soldiers when they discovered this Jewish woman had murdered and eaten her own child:  ..the Romans, some of whom could not believe it; and others pitied the distress which the Jews were under; but there were many of them who were hereby induced to a more bitter hatred than ordinary against our nation.  The Romans set fire to the Temple and utterly destroyed it and the city of Jerusalem.  Josephus records that over a million people perished.

In Matthew 24:1-2, Jesus left the Temple, and as He was going away His disciples came up to draw His attention to the Temple buildings.  He said to them in reply, 'You see all these? In truth I tell you, not a single stone here will be left on another; everything will be pulled down.'   The 9th of Av (Ab) 70AD the fire that engulfed the Temple melted the gold which covered the roof and wall ornamentation on the Temple.  The gold melted and ran down between the cracks of the stones.  After the battle the Roman soldiers poured cold water on the hot stones to break them apart in order to secure the gold that had melted into the cracks of the stones.  Today no trace of the beautiful Temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem survives for just as Jesus prophesized in Matthew 24:1-2.  The Roman soldiers in their quest for gold and vengeance so devastated the Temple that not one stone was left standing upon another.

In the Old Testament God's relationship with Israel was always defined in terms of the covenantal bond and imaged as a marriage bond by which Yahweh united Israel to Himself as His Bride joined to her Bridegroom by the bond of Law instituted in love, the love of Yahweh for His Bride and His Bride's love returned through faithful obedience to the Law of the Sinai Covenant.  But this relationship is also a union formalized in a covenant treaty with elements similar to covenant treaties formalized between a great King and a vassal people.  The formal covenant treaty articles of the Sinai Biblical covenant bears a striking resemblance to the structure of peace treaties of the city-states and Empires of the Ancient Near East (see Meredith G. Kline, Treaty of the Great King: The Covenant Structure of Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1963).

In the formation of a covenant both the dominant King and his vassal swear an oath in Treaty form, thereby creating a covenant binding the 2 parties.  The standard covenant had 5 parts (Kline)

1. Preamble:

Identifying the Lordship of the Great King, stressing his greatness, dominance, and immanence

2. Historical Prologue:

Recounting the Great King's previous relationship to his vassal (with special emphasis on the benefits or blessing of that relationship).

3. Ethical Stipulations:

Enumerating the vassal's obligations to the Great King (his guide to maintaining the relationship)

4. Sanctions:

A list of the blessings for obedience and the curses that will fall on the vassal if he breaks the covenant.

5. Succession Arrangements:

Arrangements and provisions for the continuity of the covenant relationship over future generations.

A marriage Covenant followed a similar format with covenant duties and obligations.   Covenants form marriages from which come families. A covenant with an equal creates "brothers". Covenants with non-equals, like a great king and his vassal, create a father/ son relationship.  The vassal owes the king the loyalty and obedience a son owes a father.  Yahweh expresses his covenant with Israel as both a great king to a vassal but more meaningfully as a husband to his wife.  When Israel strays from Yahweh to embrace other gods she is an unfaithful wife, a harlot breaking the marriage covenant.

Covenant Treaties of Old Testament:

One of the best examples of a Covenant Treaty in the Old Testament is the covenant renewal treaty found in the Book of Deuteronomy written by Moses just before the new generation of the Sinai Covenant took possession of the Promised Land (the original Exodus generation had died during the 40 years between the giving of the Law at Sinai and arriving at the plains of Moab and the entrance into the Promised Land). The book naturally divides into 5 sections that correspond to the 5 parts of ancient covenant structure. (Kline: Treaty of the Great King; also Sutton That you may Prosper: Dominion by Covenant: Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1987).

1. Preamble:

Deuteronomy 1:1-5

2. Historical Prologue:

Deuteronomy 1:6-4:43

3. Ethical Stipulations:

Deuteronomy 4:44-26:19

4. Sanctions:

Deuteronomy 27:1-28:68

5. Succession Arrangements:

Deuteronomy 29:1-34:12

In the ancient Near East when a vassal kingdom violated the terms of the covenant agreement, the Great Lord would send emissaries to warn the offenders of the coming judgment and enforcement of the curse sanctions.  If the covenant relationship could not be reestablished and the violations continued the great king's emissaries would call a "covenant lawsuit" against the offending vassal. In the Bible it was the mission of God's holy Prophets (who acted as God's emissaries) to bring a restoration of covenant obligations or, when failing in restoration to act as Yahweh's prosecuting attorneys and to bring the message of the covenant Lawsuit against the offending nation.  In Hebrew a covenant lawsuit is called a 'rib' or riv.  For example: Isaiah and Hosea brought a Covenant Lawsuit against Israel in the 8th century BC.  The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel brought a Covenant Lawsuit against Judea in the 6th century BC.  In every case the holy prophet acting as Yahweh's emissary addressed the generation on which the Covenant curses would fall. Some examples in Scripture are found in:

  1. Deuteronomy 4:26; 30:19; 32:1
  2. Psalms 50:4-7
  3. the Book of Isaiah 1:2 &21
  4. the Book of Hosea  4:1: Israelites, hear what Yahweh says, for Yahweh indicts (literally brings a 'riv', covenant lawsuit to) the citizens of the country:  there is no loyalty, no faithful love, no knowledge of God in the country..."

When a vassal state breaks the sworn covenant treaty arrangements with the great King the result is a formal covenant lawsuit which will enact the sanctions articulated in the treaty.  Whenever God calls out a Covenant Lawsuit announced through His holy prophets, the formal covenant lawsuit takes on the same format as the covenant treaty. The covenant lawsuit in the book of Hosea is laid out in the classic Covenant Treaty format:

1. Preamble:

Hosea chapter 1

2. Historical Prologue:

Hosea chapters 2-3

3. Ethical Stipulations:

Hosea chapters 2-7

4. Sanctions:

Hosea chapters 8-9

5. Succession Arrangements:

Hosea chapters 10-14

The book of the prophet Ezekiel is especially noteworthy as a Covenant Lawsuit since it parallels the visions of John in Revelation (please see the list of visions in Ezekiel/ John).  It is very important to note that each of the Old Testament Covenant Lawsuits is addressed to the current generation in the context of the Covenant relationship.  When the covenantal context of prophecy is ignored, the message the prophet was told to communicate is either lost or distorted.  The point is, if John's prophetic vision is the calling down of a Covenant Lawsuit (it follows the classic format) then John is addressing the current generation who rejected the Messiah. But he is also addressing the New Covenant Church symbolized in the letters to the seven Churches.  Each of those letters is also formatted as a Covenant Treaty.  In other words, the Old Covenant Church faces judgment for rejecting the Messiah while the New Covenant Church becomes the successor, the New Israel.  I think this is a key to unraveling the interpretation of the book of Revelation.  John's revelation is a prophecy with a specific covenantal orientation and reference.  (Note: A covenant lawsuit is not a divorce in the "marriage covenant" between God and Israel as some Protestant scholars have suggested; it is a judgment).

Also see Isaiah 8:14, Daniel 2:34-44, and Luke 2:34.  The entire book of Revelation is organized in the recognizable Covenant Lawsuit pattern. 

COVENANT TREATY FORMAT

REVELATION'S DIVISIONS
(In the Covenant Lawsuit)

PREAMBLE:

Identifies the lordship of the Great King stressing his greatness, power & his nearness and presence

VISION OF THE SON OF MAN

Chapter 1: history of the Covenant:  Christ the King instructs His prophet John

 

Four sets of 7 judgments

HISTORICAL PROLOGUE:

Surveying the king's previous relationship of the vassal, especially emphasizing the blessings bestowed

THE SEVEN LETTERS

Chapters 2-3: Specific stipulations dealing with false prophets, persecution, lawlessness, love grown cold, duty of perseverance

ETHICAL STIPULATIONS:

Expounding the vassal's obligations, his "guide to citizenship" in the covenant

THE SEVEN SEALS

Chapters 4-7: Concerned with wars, famine and earthquakes

SANCTIONS:

Outlining the blessings for obedience & Curses for disobedience

THE SEVEN TRUMPETS

Chapters 8-14: tells of the Church's witness to the world, her flight into the wilderness, the great Tribulation & The False Prophet

SUCCESSION ARRANGEMENTS:

Dealing with the continuity of the covenant relationship over future generations

THE SEVEN CHALICES

Chapters 15-22: describes the darkening of the Beast's kingdom, the destruction of the Harlot, gathering of eagles over Jerusalem's corpse. Chapters 19-21: The gathering of the Church into the kingdom:  the wedding Feast of the Lamb and the Bride. The creation of the  new Jerusalem

[See the study on the Book of Revelation in the Bible Study section].

Jesus the Messiah came fulfilling the prophecies of the Prophets of Yahweh.  He came as prophet, priest, and king to form the New Covenant promised in Jeremiah 13:13-14 but He also came as Yahweh's prosecuting attorney against an apostate Old Covenant people.  See Matthew 21:43-46 for Jesus' covenant lawsuit announcement against the Old Covenant people: Jesus speaking in the role of God's holy Prophet to the Priests, scribes, and Jews at the Temple: I tell you, then, that the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.... the chief priests and the scribes realized he was speaking about them...

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2001, revised 2010 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.