God and the Covenant
What does the Bible mean when it talks about the “covenant”? The easiest explanation of this kind of biblical covenant is that it is the legal establishment of a relationship between God and His people. It is God saying, “You are My people, and I am your God.” Beyond this, we can find the use of written covenants among other people in the ancient world, often between leaders and the vassals under them.
These covenants were established because they were beneficial to both parties. The leader would take care of the people, and the people would pay tribute. But with God, the covenant was different. God wasn’t really getting anything out of it, and yet, He promised to be faithful to it, even when people were not. Indeed, the blessings and curses attached to the covenant made it possible for the Israelites to know when bad things started happening, that they had been breaking the covenant.
This week, we will look at the covenant that the Israelites renewed with God in Nehemiah 10 and also discuss some general information about the history and importance of covenant making in the Bible.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, November 23.
Although only the leaders signed the document, the text pointedly notes that all of “the rest the people” entered into “a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God” (Neh. 10:28, 29, NIV). What was so significant about the covenant that they all desired to enter into an agreement with God? In order to answer this question, we have to go back to the very beginning and understand the biblical idea of the covenant.
The covenant was important because it was part of God’s story in dealing with sinful humanity, and it demonstrated God’s yearning for a relationship with people. It also allowed people to demonstrate their desire to be dedicated to God.
The biblical Creation story in Genesis 1 and 2 reveals not only the creation of the first humans but the relationship between them and God, and between each other, as well. However, sin then entered and broke all those relationships. Sin is the antithesis of creation, bringing de-creation (death) instead.
The genealogy of Adam eventually splits, as Cain chooses evil (Gen. 4:8–19) and Seth embraces God (Gen. 5:3–24). Cain’s genealogy culminates in Lamech (Gen. 4:17–19)—the seventh (inclusively) from Adam, who introduced polygamy. Violence and vengeance on Cain’s side stand in juxtaposition to the faithful lineage of Seth. Seth’s genealogy also is enumerated, but the seventh in this line is Enoch, who “walked with God” (Gen. 5:24) and was taken to heaven.
Unfortunately, the world embraced evil more than it did God, and the lineage of the faithful became very small, creating a real possibility of eliminating any family through whom God could fulfill His Word by sending the promised Seed to save humans. At that point, God intervened with the Flood. The Flood, however, was a further de-creation, a reversal and destruction of life, and yet, God destroyed only what humans had already ruined (Gen. 6:11–13).
After the Flood, God began again, now with Noah and the people who came afterward. With them, too, He sought a relationship, and central to that relationship was the idea of covenant. The Bible identifies seven major covenants that God has made with people:
First Covenant—Adam (Genesis 1–3)
Second Covenant—Noah (Genesis 6–9)
Third Covenant—Abraham (Genesis 12:1–3)
Fourth Covenant—Moses and the Israelite nation (known as Sinaitic or Mosaic Covenant; Exodus 19–24)
Fifth Covenant—Phinehas (Num. 25:10–13)
Sixth Covenant—David (2 Sam. 7:5–16)
Seventh Covenant—New Covenant (Jer. 31:31–34)
The Bible incorporates the term “everlasting covenant” 16 times. Out of them, 13 are specifically applied to the covenants with Abraham, Israel at Sinai, and David. Each of the covenants mentioned above, although unique, bore the imprint of “the everlasting covenant.” Just as the everlasting gospel is first announced in Genesis 3:15, but then progressively revealed throughout the Bible, the same applies to the everlasting covenant. Each consecutive covenant serves to expound and deepen our understanding of the everlasting covenant of love, which is revealed most fully in the plan of salvation. The New and Old Covenants, as they are often distinguished, contain the same components.
Bible scholars recognize that there is a typical structure to biblical covenants; this was seen even in covenants made by the ancient Hittites. That is, God communicated to the people in a manner that they, in their culture, could especially understand.
The covenants that were common during the time of ancient Israel had the following parts: preamble (who God is); historical prologue (past relationship defined); stipulations or laws; blessings and curses; witnesses; special provision or sign of the covenant. Thus, it should be no surprise that God used something similar in communicating to His people back then. He used what they were familiar with.
For example, the whole book of Deuteronomy is written in the form of a covenant, because Moses invites God’s people to enter into a new covenant relationship with their God. It expresses the covenant in the following manner: (1) preamble (Deut. 1:1–5); (2) historical prologue (Deut. 1:6–4:43); (3) stipulations or laws (Deut. 4:44–26:19); (4) blessings and curses (Deuteronomy 27–30); (5) witnesses (Deut. 30:19); and finally, (6) special provision (Deut. 31:9–13).
The same is true with the renewal of the covenant made by Joshua. First, a preamble is mentioned in which God presents Himself as “the Lord, the God of Israel” (Josh. 24:2, NIV). Then follows a long historical prologue through which Joshua reminds the people of what God has done for them in the past (Josh. 24:2–13). After this history, the stipulations or laws are enumerated (Josh. 24:14, 15, 23), blessings and curses are mentioned (Josh. 24:19, 20), witnesses identified (Josh. 24:22, 27), and special provision stated (Josh. 24:25, 26). Here, too, the basic form of a covenant was used to communicate with the Israelites and show them, not only God’s leading in their past, but what was required of them to uphold their end of the covenant.
The people pledged the following:
1. No mixed marriages (no marriage to an individual who could lead one into idolatry),
2. True Sabbath observance (no distractions through business transactions),
3. Debt cancelation and sabbatical year observance to care for the poor and give them freedom,
4. Financially supporting the temple, its services, and personnel through bringing the firstfruits, the firstborn, and the tithe, thus ensuring the continuation of true worship.
The first three pledges related to relationships with others (marriage and debt cancellation) and with God (Sabbath), while the last one (Neh. 10:32–39) deals with temple regulations.
The goal of the community was to demonstrate that the people were committed to the covenant, and therefore would implement practical ways of building their relationship with God and others. Even if they didn’t always keep the covenant perfectly, they understood that right habits and practices would influence the future. If the Israelite nation was going to get on the right path, it had to establish practices and habits that would be conducive to where it wanted to be. If the people wanted to have a close walk with God, then making the Sabbath important and taking care of the temple were important steps in that direction. Unfortunately, they didn’t keep their pledges very well, as demonstrated in the last chapters of Nehemiah. Yet, even if everyone didn’t keep them, some or many people did. With God’s help and keeping our focus on Him, we can develop the right habits and stick to the right path.
“Through the right exercise of the will, an entire change may be made in your life. By yielding up your will to Christ, you ally yourself with the power that is above all principalities and powers. You will have strength from above to hold you steadfast, and thus through constant surrender to God you will be enabled to live the new life, even the life of faith.”—Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ, p. 48. What’s holding you back from experiencing what’s written here?
The Israelites pledged to take care of the temple. Even though they were a small group financially oppressed by the kings, they decided they needed to give from the little they had in order for the temple to thrive and not just survive. Therefore, they chose to give a third of a shekel for the temple service every year, instead of just when the census happened, as the law commanded. The nation saw a need to go beyond what was required. Additionally, they allotted the responsibility for burning firewood on the altar to specific families, as they recognized that without organization the practice would wane.
Firstfruits, firstborns, and tithes and offerings were aspects of the temple service that provided for the ministry of the priests and Levites. A tenth of everything was to go to the Levites. Also, firstborns were redeemed by money, adding to the amount the Levites received. However, a tenth of the Levites’ tenth went to the priests.
The temple served as the heartbeat of the Israelite nation. It was so central to their faith that the greatest tragedy occurred when Nebuchadnezzar tore down the temple and carried away the sacred objects.
When the temple was properly managed, it gave the nation a vibrant spiritual life because it pointed the people to the ultimate solution to the sin problem, which was through the death of the Lamb. When Jesus died on the cross, that solution was provided (Rom. 5:5–10). Moreover, through the yearly service of the Day of Atonement, the people learned that ultimately God has a plan to get rid of evil and sin for good. In other words, the temple served as the setting for revealing to the people the entire plan of salvation. The lessons we can gain through looking at the temple services are immense and necessary to give us a bigger picture of God’s character and to illuminate the plan of salvation.
Further Thought: Read Ellen G. White, “Consecration,” pp. 43–48, in Steps to Christ.
“The ministration of the earthly sanctuary consisted of two divisions; the priests ministered daily in the holy place, while once a year the high priest performed a special work of atonement in the most holy, for the cleansing of the sanctuary. Day by day the repentant sinner brought his offering to the door of the tabernacle and, placing his hand upon the victim’s head, confessed his sins, thus in figure transferring them from himself to the innocent sacrifice. The animal was then slain. ‘Without shedding of blood,’ says the apostle, there is no remission of sin. ‘The life of the flesh is in the blood.’ Leviticus 17:11. The broken law of God demanded the life of the transgressor. The blood, representing the forfeited life of the sinner, whose guilt the victim bore, was carried by the priest into the holy place and sprinkled before the veil, behind which was the ark containing the law that the sinner had transgressed. By this ceremony the sin was, through the blood, transferred in figure to the sanctuary. In some cases the blood was not taken into the holy place; but the flesh was then to be eaten by the priest, as Moses directed the sons of Aaron, saying, ‘God hath given it you to bear the iniquity of the congregation.’ Leviticus 10:17. Both ceremonies alike symbolized the transfer of the sin from the penitent to the sanctuary.”—Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 418.