Covenants With God in the Pentateuch

I. The Pentateuch’s Central Theme

The first five books of the Roman Catholic Canon of Sacred Scripture are collectively called the Pentateuch.

The Pentateuch includes the Old Testament books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The word “Pentateuch” comes from the Greek words pente meaning five and teuchos meaning rolls or scrolls. Jews refer to the five books of the Pentateuch as The Books of Moses, The Law or the Torah (Bergsma, 53). 

“The central theme of the Pentateuch is the covenant between God and his people” (Bergsma, 64).

II. What is a Covenant?

There were three types of covenants in the ancient Near East: 

(1) a grant covenant, which was usually “a reward for notable fidelity,” in which only the superior party swore an oath; 

(2) a vassal covenant, which was usually “imposed by the superior party to control the behavior of the inferior” party, in which only the inferior party swore an oath; and 

(3) a parity or kinship covenant, which “emphasizes mutuality and familial relationship,” in which both parties swore an oath (Bergsma, 142).

Israel’s relationship with God began as an extension of “familial kinship by an oath or as a sacred family bond:” 

(1) a bond because it unites the two parties permanently; 

(2) family because the two parties become kin; 

(3) sacred because the the relationship is “solemnized and enforced by oaths taken in God’s name” (Bergsma, 64).  

However, in the Pentateuch, we see God’s relationship with Israel, which begins as a parity or kinship relationship, deteriorate after God’s people repeatedly rebel against him to the point that their relationship seems more like a vassal relationship than a family relationship.

III. Genesis Covenants

Genesis covers a significant period of time, from the Creation of the world through the settlement of Jacob’s family in the land of Egypt, and includes God’s covenants with Adam, Noah and Abraham. 

A. God’s Covenant with Adam

“God blessed them and God said to them: Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that crawl on the earth” (Bergsma, 142; Gn 1:28).

B. God’s Covenant with Noah

“God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them: Be fertile and multiply and fill the earth” and then God promised to never destroy the earth by flood again (Gn 9:1-17).

C. God’s Covenants with Abraham

The three blessings given to Abraham are transformed into three solemn covenants: 

(1) The Great Nation: the sacrifice of the animals: “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so, he added, will your descendants be”; 

(2) The Great Name: the circumcision of Abraham: “No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I am making you the father of a multitude of nations”; and 

(3) The Universal Blessing: the sacrifice (binding) of Isaac: “I will bless you and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore; your descendants will take possession of the gates of their enemies, and in your descendants all the nations of the earth will find blessing, because you obeyed my command” (Bergsma, 134-135. Gen 15:5, 17:5, 22:17-18).

IV. Mosaic Covenants

A. The Sinaitic Covenant

Exodus tells the story of how God chose Moses to deliver Israel from slavery in Egypt and to lead them to accept a covenant so that he would be their God and they would be his people” (Boadt, 69).

“I am the Lord. I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and will deliver you from their slavery. I will redeem you by my outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God; and you will know that I, the Lord, am your God who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians and I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I will give it to you as your own possession—I, the Lord!” (Ex 6:6-8).

The Ten Commandments are given to Israel, the Levitical priesthood is established after the people worship the Golden Calf, and instructions are provided by God for proper worship and the construction of the Tabernacle (Bergsma, 179-187). 

B. The Levitical Covenant

Leviticus is primarily a book of laws concerning “sacrifices, feasts, priesthood and ritual obligations” concerning cleanliness and holiness (Boadt, 69). “Numbers adds many more laws and regulations about the twelve tribes and their organization as a holy people on the march” (Boadt, 69).

C. The Deuteronomic Covenant

The final book of the Pentateuch is Deuteronomy, which means “second law.” The book is a “reflective speech of Moses that sums up the meaning of the exodus event and the desert journey, and reaffirms the importance of the covenant law” for Israel (Boadt, 71).

The book is a “linchpin” of the Old Testament since it looks back to Israel’s history and also looks forward to Israel’s future (Bergsma, 258). 

Three main points covered by the Deuteronomic covenant are centralization of worship; regulation of the conquest and settlement of the Promised Land; and continuity of leadership and authority following Moses’ death (Bergsma, 265-267).

The Deuteronomic covenant between God and Israel shows how Israel’s relationship with God has deteriorated from that of parity or kinship to more of a vassal relationship following Israel’s repeated rebellions against God (Bergsma, 142). Israel’s filial privileges have been suspended and the people are treated more like servants than sons and daughters. 

V. Conclusion

In the Pentateuch, God’s covenant with Israel went from being simple and easy to understand, to a complex set of rules and regulations which required specially trained ministers, i.e., Levitical priests.

Before the Golden Calf, God’s covenant is directly with the people (the Genesis covenants with Adam, Noah and Abraham) and the firstborn sons of Israel are his priests.

Then came The Ten Commandments (Sinaitic covenant) which is brief and basic and written by God himself.

After the Golden Calf, the firstborn of every household lose their priestly privileges, God’s covenant is triangulated with Moses and with Israel (Levitical covenant), the tribe of Levi takes over priestly duties, and a much larger body of laws is added in Leviticus and Numbers which are written by men and not by God (Bergsma, 186).

Finally, God’s covenant with Israel grows more complex (Deuteronomic covenant) when more regulations are added and the people consider life after Moses in Deuteronomy.

Sources:

Bergsma, John, and Brant Pitre. A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: Volume I, The Old Testament. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2018. 

Boadt, Lawrence. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction. Edited by Richard Clifford and Daniel Harrington. 2nd ed. New York / Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2012.

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