What is the Old Covenant?
In today’s society, the word “old” can often imply something out of date or no longer valid. We (Americans especially) tend to want to discard things that are old in favor of the newest and shiniest things. To answer the question about the Old Covenant, we first need to do some word study, starting with the word covenant. The Hebrew word for covenant is berit (בְּרִית), and it describes a “contract or agreement between two parties” (Easton’s Bible Dictionary). When there is a contract or agreement between two parties, the implication is that each party contributes something to the agreement. For our purposes, the covenant referred to as the Old Covenant is an agreement between God and Israel. This covenant started as a promise from God to God’s chosen people. The people were to follow God and keep God’s law, and God promised to be with them, identifying them as God’s chosen people.
There are several instances of covenants in the Hebrew Bible. It starts with Noah after the story of the flood in Genesis 7-9. This was a promise to never destroy the earth again. But this is just the beginning, and a foretaste of God’s covenant with Israel. Abraham is the next partner with God in covenantal relationship, with God promising Abraham many ancestors and protected land. For his end of the agreement, Abraham promised the obey God’s laws. God specifically refers to this covenant when dealing with the Egyptian enslavement of God’s people before leading them to freedom. It was during this time that the Law of the Covenant was established with God and through Moses in Exodus. In this text, and then again in Deuteronomy, the laws or commandments are stated, and following these commandments was to be the sign of being marked as God’s people. This is most often what is considered as the Old Covenant.
Without giving too much away, there can’t really be anything called an Old Covenant unless there is also a now a New Covenant, a topic to be discussed in a later post (spoiler alert: Jesus!!!). We can think about these covenants as a series of ways that God has entered into perfect relationship with followers, only to have the followers falter in upholding our end of the agreement. You can think back to the story of Noah and the flood, one of the most famous stories from the Hebrew Bible. We often focus on the cartoonish two-by-two animal parade loading onto the ark, rather than focusing on God who seemingly wipes out all of humanity in response to our generations of sins and failures. The iconic symbol of the rainbow is a promise that God would not ever do that again, with God arguably holding up his end of the bargain. Meanwhile, there can be a pretty compelling case made that humanity has continued to find other idols to worship besides God, separating ourselves from God in a multitude of ways. Along comes the Old Covenant. The Ten Commandments were given to God’s people through Moses, detailing what following God should and should NOT look like. Ten rules about living in community with God and one another were provided, given to a people after they have been rescued from a life of slavery and persecution. This is followed by God giving these chosen people their own land. And everyone lives happily ever after, right? Well, not exactly….
Let’s be clear about one thing – God holds up God’s part of each covenant. Any failure is directly attributable to our own desires. It is fairly safe to say that in any contractual agreement between two people, one person who continually fails to uphold their end of the bargain effectively negates the contract entirely. The non-offending party doesn’t continue providing the services or promises from the agreement. That just wouldn’t make much sense from our human perspective. And that is what sets God and the covenants made between God and God’s people apart. God never leaves. God never gives up. God continues to pour out grace and mercy where absolutely none is deserved. God continues to try to reach us, making more and more promises and giving us new revelations of who God is. In fact, God even comes to live among us, driving home the ultimate commitment that God is willing to make. Each covenant builds on the one before, further revealing God’s unending love for us.
The Old Covenant was a revelation of God for the people of God when they needed it the most. It is our heritage within the great cloud of witnesses, our inheritance as Christians. And God never fails to love and be with us. Understanding this is critical to our transformation as Christians who work to continually love and follow God. It’s when we lose sight of God’s commitment to us through our own distractions that we falter and stray from our baptismal covenant to “promise and obey” God.