Covenant and Mission: The Covenants of the Torah and the People of God
Israel continues to exist as God’s people only as a result of God’s gracious saving actions in the deliverance from Egypt. The story of God’s people is rooted in grace. Israel’s life before God is one of response to grace. This is the heart of covenant. God reaches out and offers Israel a special relationship. The Creator God who delivered Israel from Egypt now invites God’s people to discover the purpose of their deliverance. Israel’s response to God’s grace may be summarized by the phrase faithful obedience. Through faithful obedience, God’s people begin to embody an ethos that reflects God’s character before the watching world. The call of God on his redeemed people is a call to holiness, but it is a holiness in the service of mission. The Sinai Covenant serves as a testament to God’s people of the centrality of mission, holiness, and community. The Sinai Covenant instructs and shapes God’s people into a missional community that reflects God’s character to/for/in the world.
The Sinai is the third explicit covenant in the Pentateuch. Several scholars, Frank Moore Cross and his student S. Dean McBride, Jr., have observed that five explicit covenants (Noah, Abraham, Sinai, Phinehus, and Moab) are embedded within the Pentateuch, which give these books an even greater interconnectedness. These five covenants form a chiastic structure with the Sinai covenant at the center:
A Noahic Covenant (Gen 9:9-17)
B Covenant Grant to Abraham (Gen 17:1-14, cf. Gen 15:1-21)
C Sinai Covenant (Exod 19:1-Num 10:10, esp. Exod 19:1-34:28)
B’ Covenant Grant to Phinehas (Num 25:11-13) – Ps 106:30-31
A’ Covenant in Moab (Deuteronomy, esp. 29:1-32:47)
The outer bracket (A and A’) focuses on the issue of stability. The Noahic covenant is with all living things and guarantees the stability of the heavens and earth. The covenant in Moab is made between God and Israel and serves to sustain Israel’s life in the land without Moses through the presence of God in the Torah. The inner bracket (B and B’) focuses on issues of land and priesthood. God’s land grant to Abraham guarantees Israel land whereas God’s grant to Phinehas (the savior of Israel at Baal-Peor) provides for a perpetual priesthood for Israel’s life in the land. The Pentateuch then centers on the Sinai pericope which focuses on Covenant and the institution of the proper worship of God.
Covenant is the rubric used by God to communicate his vision for God’s people’s life and work in the world. The idea of covenant is not unique to Israel. It is drawn from the wider Near Eastern culture of the day. The use of covenant is another example of the way that God incarnates himself into the culture as a means of communicating to humanity and redeeming discrete human cultures. God borrows an element common to a culture and uses it as a platform for communicating the divine will for humanity. Covenant teaches God’s people the true nature of reality—in particular the transcendence of God and the high value and worth of all human beings including women and other persons whom cultures tend to marginalize. At the center of the covenant’s portrait of God stands God’s holiness. The covenants also reveal God’s desire for men and women to live in an exclusive relationship with God rooted in trust and faithful obedience. God is holy and desires his people to likewise reflect his character in their corporate life together and in their engagement with the nations.
In particular the Sinai covenant and its recapitulation on the Plains of Moab in Deuteronomy offer God’s people a polity for shaping life according to God’s will. In Genesis 12:3, God called Abram to lead a family that existed as agents of blessing for the nations. The Torah as a whole details what this looks life. It is crucial to read the various laws, lore, and instructions for worship within the missiological framework provided in Genesis. The goal of the Sinai Covenant is not obedience, but the creation of a missional community that would reflect God’s character in the world, to the world, and for the world.
© 2011 Brian D. Russell