Covenant in Genesis

About: this paper was delivered to Dr. Glenn Schaefer at Simpson University during my senior year for a class on Genesis.

P. R. Williamson wrote a very informative article for the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, 2003; pp. 139-155) entitled, “Covenant.” In this article Williamson attempts to show how the major theological motif of covenant exists in the Pentateuch as a whole, particularly with attention to the divine-human covenant between God and man. Williamson defines covenant as “a solemn commitment guaranteeing promises or obligations undertaken by one or both covenanting parties” (139). He does very well in showing the development of covenant in the Pentateuch by looking through the universal, ancestral, and national covenants, but at times he fails to keep his readers’ attention by getting lost in the details.

Covenant from a universal aspect is first seen in Genesis 6:18. Here we find the text anticipating a solemn oath that God made to Noah, the representative of all creation, in the aftereffects of the flood (139). Williamson points out that “God’s initial speech to Noah (Gen 6:13-21) lacks even the most basic covenantal element,” meaning a promissory oath (139), for at this point it merely anticipates a coming covenant, which is found in Genesis 9. Here God makes a divine oath and sets up a rainbow to remind himself of his covenant to the entire world (141). Therefore, the first covenant is universal because it extends a promise or obligation to all the people and living creatures of the world for all ages to come. Furthermore, Williamson addresses the question if there was a universal covenant in creation, but he rebuts such arguments stating that the corroborative support for such a claim is tenuous (141), they are hypothetical, and they are unconvincing (142). From here Williamson swaps lenses from universal to ancestral.

As part of focusing on the ancestral covenant aspect in the Pentateuch, Williamson highlights what he labels the “Programmatic Agenda.” The Programmatic Agenda reveals the relationships between God and Abraham, and Abraham and others (145). The first covenant Williamson addresses (Genesis 15) is unilateral and there is no sign of the covenant; it is described in similarity with a royal grant because there are no human obligations to fulfill, for the covenant completely rests in God’s hands (146). This covenant affects Abraham’s posterity and territory (147). The second covenant Williamson treats (Genesis 17) is both Abraham and God’s responsibility where circumcision functions as the sign of the covenant (147). This covenant has international significance (147). In dealing with the idea of ancestry, Williamson highlights that the promise of Abraham’s seed was foundational to the covenant “given that without descendants there would be no one to inherit the land, nor would there be anyone through whom blessing could be mediated to other people(s)” (148). Thus concludes Williamson’s treatment of ancestral covenants. Williamson switches lenses for a last time to look through a narrower lens: national covenants.

Williamson reviews the covenant God makes with the nation of Abraham, the Israelites, in light of the programmatic agenda mentioned in the ancestral covenants. He looks at several covenants between God and various roles of Israel (the people, the Levitical priesthood, the Tabernacle, etc.). Williamson argues that these covenants serve to facilitate the maintenance between God and Abraham’s descendants (152). Yet, a covenant was anticipated that would guarantee that a divine-human relationship between God and Abraham’s descendents, his “seed,” would be maintained forever by facilitating the necessary ethical obligations (153). And while looking into Deuteronomy, the second giving of the law, Williamson notes “Israel’s special status as the people of God is not an end in itself but rather a means to an end, namely, the fulfillment of God’s universal purpose” (154). That purpose is for all the families of the world to be blessed through Abraham’s “seed,” which is fulfilled in Christ Jesus (155).

Williamson did well in breaking down the covenant motif in the Pentateuch into three different parts going from broad (universal, the whole world) to very narrow (national, a specific people). This break down shows the development of covenant in the Pentateuch, which is absolutely essential in understanding its concept. It is important to know how covenants worked and how they were introduced into the Pentateuch in order to fully understand their purpose in the text, and that is what Williamson has accomplished. However, Williamson did go over the top at times, particularly in his treatment of Hebrew verbs in his section on ancestral covenants. This information proved distracting and seemed to divert the readers’ interest away from the article. Although he did get caught up in some technicalities of the Hebrew language, he did in fact present a good article covering the topic of covenant, thus giving valuable information for studying the text herein.