What is a Covenant?

The word ‘covenant’ gets used frequently in discussion about biblical content and theology. However, the meaning of the word is often assumed rather than discussed.

Many people will offer what they think are synonyms, like ‘promise’, or ‘agreement’. But while a covenant might include such things, they don’t really define what a covenant is.

So what is a covenant?

A covenant is the formal initiation and regulation of a relationship that does not occur naturally. It stipulates who the parties in the relationship are, and what kind of relationship they are entering.

There are some relationships that occur naturally and, as such, don’t need covenants. These are largely biological. For example, the biological parents of a child don’t need a covenant to become the parents of their child. They don’t need to ‘sign on the dotted line’, because their child is by nature theirs and they are by nature the child’s parents. The child’s birth certificate doesn’t create the parent-child relationship. It simply acknowledges the existence of their naturally occurring relationship.

However, when a couple adopts a child that is not genetically their own, they do need to ‘sign on the dotted line’. They must go through a formal process that initiates the relationship, and then recognises it as specifically a parent-child relationship. Once the covenant is made, no one has the right to question the parent-child relationship, because it has been formalised and continues to be regulated, despite the relationship not occurring naturally.

In the Bible, God makes a number of covenants with various people. It’s not enough to say that God makes certain promises or agreements with people, because that doesn’t necessarily define what kind of relationship God initiates and maintains with them.

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That’s also why we must say that there is more than one covenant in the Bible. God does not relate the same way to the various parties with whom he makes covenants. Each covenant creates a different kind of relationship. The covenants certainly relate to each other (excuse the pun!), because God is party to them all. And they also share some common themes and promises. But in each case, God initiates a different kind of relationship and, therefore, he regulates them in different ways that are appropriate to the kind of relationship that the covenant establishes.

That’s why, for example, God doesn’t give the Law to Abraham, but to Moses and the nation of Israel. God makes a covenant with Abraham to be his personal, household deity, with certain associated promises (land, descendants, name, blessing to others). So he relates to Abraham in a very personal way, usually with implications for Abraham’s family and where his household should be. Law would be an inappropriate way for God and Abraham to relate to each other within this covenant. But at Sinai, God creates a covenant with Israel to become the nation’s head of state—their patron deity. Law is an appropriate means of regulating a relationship with an entire nation as a socio-political entity located in a particular territory. And that’s why he gives the Law to Moses.

There is a positive and a negative side to a covenant. The positive side is that it brings two parties together. The negative side is that these two parties may not otherwise naturally have associated with each other. This is why stipulations are brought to bear on the relationship. They keep the relationship going and regulate it, for otherwise there is a danger of the relationship dissolving.

We can see this positive and negative side, for example, with the covenant that God forges with Israel at Sinai. It’s positive in that it reflects God’s gracious and loving initiative towards the Israelite nation. The negative side is that it implies God does not have a natural relationship with them. God has to enter the relationship with Israel to be their head of state in a conscious and deliberate manner. And he regulates it through the Law and the sending of prophets.

In the next instalment, we’ll look at whether there is a covenant at creation and what implications the answer might have.


This is a reproduction of an article I wrote for another blog that is now defunct.

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Thinking better about linguistic dating of Biblical Hebrew

Here’s one for the Hebrews and Shebrews.

51i9zzm-zbl-_sx331_bo1204203200_51ooyvykrsl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Conventional wisdom says that Early Biblical Hebrew (aka Standard Biblical Hebrew or Classical Biblical Hebrew) came first, and then Late Biblical Hebrew. But when you actually analyse the evidence, this view starts to unravel. Ian Young, Robert Rezetko, and Martin Ehrensvärd have argued very convincingly that Early Biblical Hebrew and Late Biblical Hebrew were not linear diachronic developments, but rather contemporaneous styles of Hebrew in antiquity. This means that it’s practically impossible to date a biblical text based solely on linguistic criteria. Their compelling argument can found in their two volume work, Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts, and their more recent Historical Linguistics and Biblical HebrewOnce you “see” their argument, you can’t “unsee” it. They look at the evidence in such a logical way that it makes you wonder why it has taken Hebraists so long to see what is so obvious.

Yet many Hebraists still don’t see it. It almost feels like they’re looking at one of those pictures that have a “hidden” 3D shape (a stereogram, like this). They claim to be finding the 3D shape. And if you can’t see it, it’s because you’re not looking at the right way. Try squinting or staring beyond the page. But the irony is that the picture isn’t one of those 3D shapes! It’s just a normal 2D picture. They’ve been looking at it all wrong, and yet the real picture is there staring them in the face.

So the old and disproven paradigm persists. It seems to be dying a slow death, as evidenced by a few recent articles.

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Robert Rezteko

Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd have clarified their position in a paper titled “Do We Really Think That Ancient Hebrew Had No Chronology“.

Robert Rezetko has also put together a few responses to recent studies working with the old paradigm. They are well worth the read:

I hope scholars, especially the younger ones, start just looking plainly at the evidence instead of squinting and forcing a particular paradigm onto it.

Samson and Delilah (the Israelite Woman)

samsonIn the book of Judges, we encounter the mighty Israelite judge, Samson. He is perhaps best known for his herculean strength. Yet, he is also known for his weakness for women—especially Philistine women. His relationship with Delilah, often portrayed as a sneaky seductress, was his undoing. She coaxed him into divulging the secret of his strength: his long braids of hair. Though they were the symbol of his devotion to God, they were also his “Achilles’ heel.”

But was Delilah a Philistine?

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Throughout the ages, she has been portrayed as a Philistine. Indeed, she takes her place alongside the other Philistine women in Samson’s life. His wife (for all of a week) was a Philistine girl from the town of Timnah (Judges 14.1–2). Samson also visited a prostitute in Gaza, which was one of the five towns of the Philistine ‘Pentapolis’ (Judges 16:1). But was Delilah actually a Philistine too?

Let’s look at the evidence.

First, unlike the other two women in Samson’s life, the biblical text never identifies Delilah as a Philistine. All it says is that she was “in the Valley of Sorek” (Judges 16:4). Where was this valley? Was it in Philistine territory? Well, not quite. The Valley of Sorek begins in the highlands, a few miles from Jerusalem. It twists and turns westwards, descending down into the foothills (the “Shephelah”). At this point, the valley formed the border between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. It keeps descending until it eventually hits the Coastal Plain, which is where the Philistines lived. At that point the land flattens out—it is a plain after all. The seasonal stream that runs through the valley continues across the Coastal Plain and eventually hits the Mediterranean. If the biblical text is referring to this seasonal stream, then Delilah could have lived anywhere along its course—from the highlands of Judah to the Mediterranean coast.

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But the biblical text makes a particular statement that means Delilah could not have lived by the Sorek stream on the Coastal Plain. Judges 16:5 tells us that the Philistine leaders “went up” (Heb: ויעלו) to Delilah and paid her to trick Samson into revealing the secret of his strength. That is, they ascended into the hills in order to reach her. This means she was most likely not in Philistine territory. If she was, she was at best on the very edge of it.

Yet, if Delilah was a Philistine, why do the Philistine leaders not simply command her to trick Samson? Why do they each pay her 1100 pieces of silver to do the deed? Since there were five Philistine rulers from the five Philistine centres (Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gaza, Ekron, and Gath), that’s probably 5500 pieces of silver! Would not the threat of death by a direct authority be enough? Why are they so willing to empty their coffers for her, but never once empty their scabbards?

samson-et-dalila-1949-05-gSome modern depictions of Delilah portray her as the opportunist seductress, who uses her wiles and lack of scruples to make a quick buck. Some view her as a prostitute making a bit of extra cash while tricking her trick. Of course the Philistine leaders would pay for her services! Why, perhaps she even once serviced them? But Delilah was not the prostitute whom Samson visited in Gaza along the coast. Delilah didn’t live in Gaza! She lived up in the hills in the Valley of Sorek. And the biblical text never so much as implies that she was a prostitute. It seems that, as with Mary Magdalene, Delilah has been mistakenly thought of as a hustler when she wasn’t!

So if Delilah wasn’t a wily seductress or an opportunist prostitute, how did she come to have a dalliance with Samson? The biblical text simply states that she was a woman in the Valley of Sorek with whom Samson fell in love (Judges 16:4). This was Samson’s own home territory. He grew up in Zorah, Eshtaol, and Mahaneh Dan (Judges 13:2, 25)—all sites on the northern side of the Valley of Sorek. Samson simply fell for a local girl. Perhaps she was a Danite woman, since this territory was associated with Dan for a time. Or perhaps she was an Ephraimite woman, since the area was also associated with Ephraim.

Moreover, Delilah didn’t hatch the scheme to trap Samson. She did not approach the Philistine leaders, like Judas did with the Jewish leaders when he agreed to betray Jesus. She was not agreeing to trap the nemesis of her own people. Rather, the Philistine leaders “went up” to her and enticed her with a princely sum—1100 pieces of silver from each of them—to put their nemesis in chains. The exorbitant amount they paid her makes sense if they were asking her to betray one of her own—a leader of her own people, no less!

Samson unwittingly foiled the whole scheme to capture him three times. Rather than being tricked, he himself tricked Delilah (and the Philistines sponsoring her). On each occasion, the Philistines waited to pounce on him. And just when Delilah thought that Samson’s strength had left him, she called out, “The Philistines are upon you, Samson!” (Judges 16:9, 12, 14). This doesn’t sound like the cry of a Philistine woman in Philistine territory referring to her own countrymen. Perhaps if she referred to “guards” or “soldiers” or even “men,” we might suspect that Delilah was herself a Philistine. But to Delilah, the would-be captors of Samson were “Philistines”. They were other—people to be referred to by their ethnicity as different to “us.”

Evidently Samson didn’t make the connection between leading Delilah on and the sudden appearance of pouncing Philistines. So on the fourth occasion, Samson finally revealed the secret of his strength to Delilah. We’re told that it was because she harangued him constantly until he told her (Judges 16:16–17). If Delilah was a Philistine, perhaps Samson would have seen through the whole situation. Telling her the truth of his strength would have seriously endangered him. But he seems to trust her, albeit after considerable nagging, probably figuring that there can be no harm in revealing the secret to a fellow Israelite. Once he does, though, Delilah the Israelite betrays him. She summons the leaders of the Philistines to “come up” once more into the hills (Judges 16:18). They capture him and then “bring him down” to Gaza.

There is one further tantalising possibility that may suggest Delilah was an Israelite. We meet Delilah in Judges 16 when the Philistine rulers each agree to pay her 1100 pieces of silver for Samson. After Samson’s death, in the very next chapter, we are introduced to an Ephraimite (and therefore Israelite) man named Micah who steals 1100 pieces of silver from his unnamed mother (Judges 17:1–2). The correspondence with the sum paid to Delilah is uncanny. And coming immediately after the Samson and Delilah narrative, we are led to wonder whether this unnamed woman is, in fact, Delilah. The unnamed woman’s husband is never mentioned. Is it because he is dead? Is it because the woman was never married and had a son out of wedlock? Is Micah the son of Samson born to Delilah the Ephraimite after Samson’s death? Interestingly, this Micah narrative dovetails with the story of the migration of the Danite tribe (to which Samson belonged) from its land around the Valley of Sorek to land in the far north near Laish/Dan. It is, therefore, a fitting epilogue to the narrative of Samson the Danite. The fact that the woman with 1100 pieces of silver is not named means we cannot be sure that this is Delilah. Perhaps the 1100 pieces of silver are simply a thematic association that helps explain the placement of the two chapters (16 and 17) within the book of Judges. But the placement and narrative contexts are very suggestive.

mhicid5aktakjow6j_jivtaIn any case, it seems we have been treating Delilah as a Philistine, when she is actually an Israelite. She is not a conniving professional seductress, but a local girl who betrays a leader (albeit a very flawed one) of her own people. She was more traitor than temptress. In that way, she is perhaps the antithesis of Jael, wife of Heber, who causes the downfall of Sisera in Judges 4. This would be in keeping with the upending of Israel’s fortunes throughout the book of Judges and the portrayal of Israel’s descent into chaos. Delilah is still a sinister figure, but for perhaps slightly different reasons to what we previously thought.

 

 

Philistine Cemetery Found at Ashkelon

Excavators at the site of ancient Ashkelon have uncovered an ancient Philistine cemetery. The burials go back as far as the 11th century BC, and their style all but confirms that the Philistines originated in region of the Aegean.

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PHOTOGRAPH BY TSAFRIR ABAYOV FOR THE LEON LEVY EXPEDITION TO ASHKELON

There are few good articles about the discovery:

And here’s a short (3:21) video clip (HT: Joseph Lauer):

Aristotle’s Tomb Found

We may have just identified the ruins of the tomb that once held the ashes of the Greek philosopher, Aristotle.

aristotelAristotle was one of the most brilliant thinkers of the ancient world. He was a student of Plato (who had been a student of Socrates), and had been the tutor of Alexander the Great. He died at Chalkis in northern Greece in 322 BC, but his ashes were returned to his hometown of Stagira, where a stately building was erected to house them.

Greek archaeologist Kostas Sismanidis claims the ruins he has found have not definitely been proved to be the tomb of Aristotle. However, he claims it is the most likely identification, especially in light of the evidence of ancient sources.

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Reconstruction of the Tomb of Aristotle

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The present days ruins of the horseshoe shaped tomb.

Read more HERE and HERE.

There is also a short clip below (but please disregard the overstatement that Aristotle was the founder of Western Civilisation—there were obviously a few other Greeks to thank for that, too 😉).

Akhenaten’s Capital Recreated in HD

akhenatonIn the 14th century BC, Pharaoh Amenhotep IV initiated a religious revolution in Egypt. He introduced worship of the sun disk Aten to eclipse the worship of all the other gods of Egypt. He changed his own name to Akhenaten, and he built a new capital city, Akhetaten, in which the pure worship of Aten could take place. The temples were roofless—open to the rays of the sun disk.

When Akhenaten died, his revolution died with him. His successor, Tutankhamun (yes, that pharoah!) oversaw the reversion back to Egypt’s traditional religion. The capital city, Akhetaten was abandoned to the sands of time. Its ruins are now part of the site known as Tell el-Amarna.

Some fantastic imaging by Archéovision has recreated some of Akhenaten’s old capital city in digital form. If you can, watch the clip below in fullscreen mode and in full HD (click on the HD symbol and choose the resolution). It’s a brief but impressive recreation.

You can read a little more about this HERE.

No, those ancient Hebrew ‘sticky notes’ do not necessarily prove the Bible was written early

Christianity Today has published an article that comments on a recent study by the Epigraphic Hebrew Project examining the handwriting on some ancient Hebrew documents through digital technology. The headline reads:

Ancient Sticky Notes Shift Secular Scholars Closer to Evangelicals on Bible’s Age.

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The study itself demonstrates that the cache of sixteen documents from the remote desert outpost of Arad on the edge of the Kingdom of Judah in c. 600 BC had six distinct authors. The claim of the Christianity Today article is that this seemingly high rate of literacy in Judah’s monarchic period is forcing secular scholars to acknowledge that the biblical documents were probably written early (that is, before the exilic era). This is certainly the direction in which Walter Kaiser Jr., who is cited in the article, takes the evidence.

Unfortunately, the study that this article is commenting on doesn’t actually shift secular scholars closer to Evangelicals on the Bible’s Age. Indeed, some of the other scholars mentioned in the article (Alan Millard and Christopher Rollston) advise serious caution. There is a plethora of problems with the headline of the Christianity Today article.

First of all, there is no real agreement on the age of the ‘The Bible’ amongst anyone, be they ‘Evangelical’ or so-called ‘secular’ scholars (honestly, the division implied by that terminology is just grating!). After all, we’re talking about a stack of different documents that developed over centuries, with very few overt statements about authorship and time of writing. ‘The Bible’ wasn’t written in one go. It eventually coalesced into the collection we know today as ‘The Bible’, but exactly when the documents began their life is almost impossible to pin down.

Second, the study this article is commenting on simply shows that elite professionals in the monarchic era could write—exactly the kinds of people whom we would expect to be able to write. It doesn’t show that literacy was widespread. On the contrary, one of the documents in this collection includes a man protesting that he could read something for himself, which implies that literacy wasn’t widespread. So six individuals wrote sixteen documents! This does not mean that suddenly most people in ancient Judah could write two or three biblical books! Finding some buttons does not necessarily mean you’ve found an entire tailored suit.

But thirdly, even if literacy in the monarchic era was very widespread, this tells us nothing about when the various biblical documents were written. All it tells us is that people could write. And that’s a very different thing to knowing when these specific biblical documents were written. You see, you only need one person who knows the alphabet, owns some ink and parchment, and has some imagination, and you have yourself a document. This could be at just about any time. Why, it could be early, or it could even be late.

The study itself states that the kind of literacy levels that the Arad documents demonstrate only occurs again in c. 200 BC. The implication seems to be that it’s unlikely the biblical documents were written in the intervening period (600–200 BC) when literacy levels were lower. But there are so many problems with this inference. First, the claim relates only to the region of Judah. It says nothing about literacy levels outside of Judah. Second, the claim uses blank evidence (little apparent writing in 600–200 BC) as a warrant for reaching a positive inference (it’s unlikely the biblical documents could have been written in this period). But logically this is unwarranted. To state it another way, a lack of evidence is not necessarily evidence of lack. It could be that we just haven’t found all the other document caches like the one from Arad that date to this period. We just don’t know! Third, you don’t need most of the elite, let alone most of the population, to be reading and writing to create conditions conducive to the writing of texts like the ones in the Bible. You just need one competent literate person who can ‘put pen to paper’. And that person could write for themselves, or even for a whole group of people. One person can pen the imagination of hundreds! And fourth, since there evidently were biblical texts that were written in Judah between 600 and 200 BC (e.g. Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Ezra, Nehemiah), the very low literacy levels actually count for nothing.

So, just because a few army officials in Judah could read and write in 600 BC does not mean biblical authors wrote all the biblical documents very early on. At best, it helps establish a terminus a quo for mundane Hebrew writing in the region of Judah (which in this case is only c. 600 BC), but not an actual date for writing biblical texts. Using the same logic employed in the article’s headline, we could just as easily say that Evangelicals must shift closer to secular scholars who argue for late dates (c. 200 BC), because the evidence this study is based on is about mundane literacy at the very end of the monarchic era, and surely fine literature takes longer to develop than mundane ‘sticky notes’.

In actual fact, the literacy levels do not contribute all that much to the discussion about the dating of biblical text. That depends on numerous complex criteria. Literacy is important—you need it in order to have documents! But there are so many other criteria to consider, such as references to historical persons and events, form and genre, theological development, purpose, possible influences and their direction, redaction, transmission, preservation, manuscripts, etc. The list goes on!

Unfortunately, headlines like this one given by Christianity Today are misleading. They promote a sense of tribalism as well as wishful thinking amongst Christians, which in turn leaves Christians grasping at air but thinking they’ve grabbed something solid. It’s just not constructive. And even the headline is at odds with the comments of the two main experts cited in the article.

Surely we can serve the Christian public better than this!

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Remains of the ancient fortified outpost of Arad, Judah, where the cache of documents was found.

 

 


My good friend and colleague, Prof. Ian Young (University of Sydney), has also written a brief response to the study on the Arad documents for the Huffington Post. It’s well worth reading and can be found HERE.

Christopher Rollston’s blog article on the study can be read HERE.