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Did God Invent Covenant?

throne sxc hu smallSo you are reading a prophetic vision story in the Bible, perhaps say, 1 Kings 22:19ff, and God appears sitting on a heavenly throne. Have you ever asked yourself the question… “Who invented the throne… God or People?” For that matter, who invented the chair? Did God sit in a chair with his immaterial awesomeness for eternity past, or did people invent chairs only to have God look down and say, “Now, THAT looks comfy… gotta get me one of those.”?

One might ask, does the prophetic vision picture God on his throne because thrones already signify important things to the people living in realms ruled by kings sitting on thrones? Would we rather posit that God invented thrones and that human kings, perhaps privy to thrones and chairs through prophetic visions, copied the Almighty in this regard?

When speaking of chairs and thrones, the question is, perhaps, humorous. I’ve met few who would demand that God invented chairs and that people copied them. Most would recognize the more likely reality, given the somewhat accessible history of chairs, and, more pointedly, the history of thrones, that the use of such contrivances in prophetic visions is more picturesque than actual on the part of either God, who gives the vision, or the prophet, who records it. Do we imagine that God has to redecorate heaven every time a prophet from another realm or time is given a peek inside the royal chambers? Thrones represent authority & power to judge and rule… i.e. sovereignty.

When one raises the issue of covenant, however, I’ve meet few conservatives that are willing to concede that covenant is a human invention. It, too, has a history of development and changing forms that correspond to its use within the text of Scripture and the context of the text of Scripture.  It, too, was “borrowed” by God in his communication with figures like Abraham, Moses, David and many others specifically because it proved a meaningful vehicle for his intentions with humanity.

God made a covenant with Abraham in order to establish his plan through Abraham and chose the specific forms of making that covenant because covenant, and those particular forms of making that covenant, were already powerful symbols in the biblical world that properly represented God’s intentions.

Covenant is a genre (i.e. art form/literature form) that provides a culturally recognizable means of establishing more basic things like promise, loyalty, faithfulness and the like. Covenant is not a synonym for faithfulness or loyalty, it is a vehicle for securing them… a vehicle whose design the people around figures like Abraham and Moses would have recognized and responded to with great enthusiasm and great fear.

Covenant was a culturally shaped way of securing good faith between potential enemies through the threat of divine punishment. In a world where only family could be trusted (most of the time), people appealed to the gods to help them establish bonds of trust that extended beyond family to potential enemies. People would, through ritual acts or ritual pronouncements, call upon their own gods and, at times, the gods of others, to oversee agreements. They would take oaths of promise and invite the gods, who saw most if not all that transpired between men, even in secret, to punish the oath taker if he or she violated the oath’s promises.

They believed that it would happen. If they said, “I swear to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God,” they would shake in their boots at the very thought of lying… because they took that “so help me God” part seriously. They believed that God would get them.

The history of covenant is more complicated than this, but this is its core. Covenant represents the particular ways, the particular structures, that were involved in establishing these kinds of relationships. Faithfulness, loyalty, and trust are what people are seeking, covenant is how the people of the ancient near east secured them.

If we want to understand covenant in the Bible in every place and in every form that it shows up, we must know this from the start and seek to discover the particulars of each instance in its full historical, grammatical and literary context.

God is faithful in his essence; men invented covenant to secure good faith between themselves; God chose to use covenant to express both his faithfulness and his demand for obedience amid people who knew how covenant worked and took its threats seriously.

6 thoughts on “Did God Invent Covenant?

  1. Gary Stevens says:

    The first thing that comes to my mind is,”Can man really invent anything?”. Unless our thoughts conform to the confines of the realm of creation (or we make ourselves out to be god), it is not possible for us to out think our Creator. Surely the throne is a predetermined concept for us to obtain and thus YHWH would use it in due time.

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