James Patrick’s Blog

September 1, 2009

Permanence of covenants with Abraham and Moses [I&NC #3]

Filed under: Prophecy — alabastertheology @ 3:38 pm
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God made the covenant promise of land to Abram 606 years before He renewed the covenant with the Israelites through Moses at Mount Sinai (Gen 15:1‑21; Exod 34:27‑28; 40:17).  Fourteen years after the promise of land, He instructed [the renamed] Abraham to circumcise all his physical offspring, because now he would be the father of a multitude of nations, and it was necessary to distinguish between those descended from him physically and those descended from him spiritually (Gen 17:1‑16).

The renewed covenant with the Israelites through Moses [hereafter the ‘Mosaic covenant’] was temporary from its very beginning, and has now been entirely fulfilled and abolished by Jesus as we will see in the next post.  However the covenant with Abraham promising land and a multitude of descendants, which was linked to the ethnic marker of circumcision and later reissued to the descendants of Jacob, has not been revoked in the new covenant.

A.  Circumcision

Circumcision was reaffirmed for the Israelites through Moses, but it had been established by Abraham.  Moses knew that circumcision was an important condition for inheriting the specific promises passed on by Jacob / Israel.  It is the physical sign throughout all generations that a male belongs to the ethnic ‘children of Israel’ and therefore qualifies to share in the promises made to Israel.  Gentiles, however, can now become the ‘children of Abraham’ by faith alone, becoming part of his wider promise of blessing to the nations, without having to become ethnically Jewish through circumcision.  Circumcision was thus not abolished for Jews in the new covenant, but rather declared irrelevant for Gentiles.  Sons of Jewish parents who are not circumcised can still inherit Gentile promises (that is, ‘salvation’), but are not qualified to share in the specific ‘salvation’ promises made to Israel, including the particular land promised to them.  The New Testament does not teach that any part of the Abrahamic covenant has been abolished.

John 7:19-24 – In this fascinating interchange, Jesus is perceptively pointing out that the Mosaic covenant is both inadequate and superseded by the earlier covenant with Abraham.  Moses commanded that one must not work on the Sabbath, which would certainly include cutting (cf. Num 15:32-36), but in order to keep the Abrahamic command to circumcise male children on the eighth day (Gen 17:10-14; Lev 12:3), the Mosaic Law could be broken.  Jesus was therefore claiming similar authority to supersede the Mosaic covenant, but not the Abrahamic covenant.

Galatians 5:2-15; 6:12-16 – In this letter written to Gentile believers (that is very important), Paul is fighting against the teaching of certain Jewish ‘believers’ that “Unless you [Gentiles] are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1, 5).  Paul makes it clear that the real issue was not circumcision, but whether Gentile believers had to observe the Law (5:3, 14; 6:13).  It was Mosaic circumcision not Abrahamic circumcision that was being advocated by Paul’s opponents; for them, conversion to Judaism was complete only when the Gentile ‘God-fearer’ went so far as to become circumcised, thereby becoming Jewish.  At this point the Judaisers could ‘boast’ of having made another convert (6:13; cf. Mat 23:15), and it also enabled them to avoid persecution from fellow Jews who accused them of no longer valuing the Law (6:12; cf. Acts 6:11-14; 13:39-45; 21:20‑21).  To persuade Galatian Gentiles, they even claimed that Paul himself taught circumcision of Gentiles (cf. Acts 16:1‑3; 1 Cor 9:20).  Paul replied by pointing out that in that case the Jews would hardly keep persecuting him (5:11).  He was not against circumcision, because this was still the mark of physical descendants of Abraham, even with the Law of Moses abolished; rather, it was entirely irrelevant for salvation (5:6; 6:15).  Paul therefore spoke a blessing over all true believers, specifically including true Jewish believers – the ‘Israel of God’, unlike his opponents (cf. Rom 11:1-7) – who rightly put higher value on new creation than on (their) circumcision (6:16).  The reason Paul commanded Gentiles not to get circumcised was that their only reason for doing this would be to become Jewish according to the Mosaic Law (5:2-4).  This would indicate that they didn’t actually believe that Christ had taken on Himself the curse of the Law to open up the Abrahamic blessing to all Gentiles as well (3:8-14).  They were therefore enslaving themselves to the Mosaic Law and rejecting the gospel of grace.

B.  Mosaic Covenant

The covenant renewed with the Israelites through Moses, unlike the covenant with Abraham, was a temporary covenant, even from its inception.  The prophets at the time of exile clearly prophesied a ‘new covenant’ that would supersede the ‘old’ broken one, as had Moses himself.

Deuteronomy 29:22–30:10; 31:16-29 – God tells Moses explicitly that in later generations the children of Israel would be so rebellious that his covenant would be broken, and God would bring on them all the curses threatened in it, removing them from the land.  After this, though, He would surely restore the people to the land, and once there would circumcise their heart to love Him heart and soul, “so that you may live” (cf. Leviticus 18:5; Romans 10:4-10).

Isaiah 59:9-21 – In a passage that deliberately interprets the above predictions about exile from Deuteronomy 28–32, Isaiah describes Israel’s inability to keep the law of Moses (cf. Deut 31:27; 32:36), their groping along in the darkness of exile (cf. Deut 28:28-29), God’s promised decision to redeem and atone for His people single-handedly through a ‘redeemer’ (cf. Deut 32:39-43), and a coming covenant of God’s words ‘in your mouth’ (cf. Deut 30:14) and His Spirit upon them (Deut 31:7-8, 14; Num 27:18; 11:28-29).

Jeremiah 31:31-34; 32:36-42 – Jeremiah further explains this ‘covenant’ Isaiah prophesied as a “new covenant”, different from the one made one year after the Exodus from Egypt that had been broken.  This “everlasting” new covenant would involve sin atoned for and God’s law written on the hearts of the people.

Ezekiel 11:17-20; 16:59-63; 36:24-33; 37:21-28 – Ezekiel, writing in exile, picks up Jeremiah’s prophecies and similarly promises a “new spirit” put within the people who have been restored to their land, and a new heart of flesh to keep God’s commands, now that their sin has been cleansed.  This is similarly described as an “everlasting covenant of peace”, not like the one that had been broken, and it is specifically connected with the promised descendant of David who would be their king for ever.

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August 27, 2009

Heirs of Abraham’s promise of land [Israel & New Covenant #2]

Filed under: Prophecy — alabastertheology @ 10:29 pm
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The ‘eternal’ land covenant made with Abraham was reissued to Isaac, to Jacob/Israel, to the patriarchs of the twelve tribes in Egypt, and to their ethnic descendants whom God promises will never be permanently rejected.  The promise of land, therefore, is a cheque made payable specifically to the ethnically Jewish people, whether or not this particular generation is permitted to cash it in.

Genesis 15:6-21 – As a reward for his faith, Abram was promised the land of the Amorites as a permanent possession, confirmed by God through a highly unusual covenant ceremony in which God promised it unilaterally, without any conditional requirements for Abram.  The closest parallel is Jeremiah 34:17-20 where passing between the carcasses is a self-curse if the covenant should be broken.  Effectively God is saying that if the descendants of Abram are denied their promised land, God Himself will be slaughtered to atone for His broken covenant.

Genesis 26:2-5 – When Isaac trusted God and in obedience did not leave the land of promise in a time of famine, God reaffirmed the land covenant of his father with him also.

Genesis 35:9-12 – When God officially changed Jacob’s name to Israel, he reaffirmed with him the covenant promises made to Abraham and Isaac of both descendants and land.

Genesis 50:24-25 – Joseph reminded his brothers that God would surely bring the children of Jacob / Israel up out of Egypt and bring them into the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Deuteronomy 9:4-6 – God explicitly warned Israel not to assume that they deserved His gift of the land of Canaan; He drove out the other nations for their wickedness, and He granted the land to Israel despite their stubborn rebellion, to confirm His promise to the Patriarchs.

Deuteronomy 11:21–12:1 – At the beginning and end of this passage God clarified that his promise of land to the Patriarchs and their descendants (Israel) will endure “as long as the heavens remain above the earth”, and “as long as you live on the earth”.  This was despite his warning that if they broke the commandments He was giving them, they themselves would perish quickly from the good land being given them.

Deuteronomy 30:1-5 – The endurance of the promise beyond exile from the land is made explicit here, where God promised that when the people return to their God, He would bring them back to possess the land which their fathers possessed, and multiply them even more than their fathers.

Jeremiah 29:10-14; 30:3 – At the start of the Babylonian exile, Jeremiah wrote to the exiles promising that after seventy years God would fulfil His promise to bring them back to the land from whence they were sent into exile.  30:3 makes it explicit that this promise is the gift of the land to their forefathers.

Jeremiah 31:1-14, 35-40 – After declaring to the distant nations that He would again gather His scattered flock Israel, ransoming them and returning them to their land, God declared that only if the laws of physics are overturned, or the universe is measured, will Israel cease to be a nation before God for all their sin (cf. Jer 33:19-26).

August 11, 2009

Priests in early Israel, and the ‘eternal’ covenant with Phinehas

Filed under: History — alabastertheology @ 3:53 pm
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Numbers 25:1-13 and Psalm 106:28-31 describe a covenant that God made with the high priest’s son Phinehas during the lifetime of Moses.  As God used the word ‘eternal’ or ‘perpetual’ to describe this covenant, people have sometimes taken this as evidence that ‘eternal’ covenants don’t necessarily last ‘for ever’, since the people of Israel no longer have priests ministering before the altar.  They then apply this to other covenants such as the ‘everlasting’ possession of the land of Canaan that was promised to Abraham (Genesis 17:7-8).  In order to understand the significance of this particular covenant, therefore, it is important to first get a general understanding of the development of the priesthood following the Exodus from Egypt, according to the Pentateuch and historical books.

Brief summary of priesthood in Israel

Aaron, brother of Moses, was made high priest over the people of Israel (Exodus 28:1), being from the tribe of Levi through Kohath (Exodus 6:16-27) along with Moses.  The tribe of Levi was set apart as a whole tribe (perhaps because of Exodus 32:25-29) to be without inheritance, representing all the firstborn of Israel (Numbers 8:25-26) as the Lord’s portion (Numbers 18:1-24, esp. 20; Deuteronomy 10:9; 18:2).  They served the congregation in the cities of Israel, and served Aaron and his sons who ministered in the Tabernacle (Numbers 3:5–4:49).  Aaron with his four sons – Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, Ithamar – were chosen to minister in the holy place of the Tabernacle (Exodus 28:1–29:44), set apart even from the rest of the tribe of Levi, as “the highest among his brothers” (Leviticus 21:10).

Early history of priesthood in Israel

When the Israelites first arrived at Mount Sinai after escaping from Egypt, God told Moses to bring up the mountain with him Aaron, his two oldest sons Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel (cf. Numbers 11), along with Moses’ attendant Joshua, for a meal with the Lord (Exodus 24:1-14).  After that, Moses went further up the mountain for his first forty days meeting with God and receiving the Ten Commandments.  In the meantime, the people of Israel then went to Aaron to make for them a god, since Aaron was Moses’ deputy (Exodus 32:1-6).  On his return Moses saw that Aaron had let the people get out of control (32:35), and so he stood at the camp entrance and called to him those on the Lord’s side.  His own tribe of Levites gathered to him and were sent out to execute 3000 of the worst offenders, perhaps resulting in God’s specific choice of that tribe as His possession (32:26-29).  Moses went back up the mountain for another forty days, starting with seeing God’s glory, and being given the second pair of stone tablets (Exodus 34).  On his return, face shining, he instructed the people about constructing the Tabernacle first (40:17-35), and then instructed them about sacrifices (Leviticus 1-7) and about the consecration of Aaron and his sons as priests (Leviticus 8-9; although God had apparently chosen Aaron even before the golden calf incident – Exodus 27:21-28:30 ff.).

Almost immediately after their consecration, however, Nadab and Abihu offered incense in their firepans before the Lord in an inappropriate way, and fire came out from God’s presence to consume them (Leviticus 10:1-3), as would happen later with the Korahites.  Their brothers Eleazar and Ithamar who had also been anointed were not permitted by Moses to outwardly mourn (see 10:4-20; 21:10-12), but Moses understood when they burned the daily sacrifice completely, being unable to eat it as they were meant to.  The laws of atonement for priests and for the community were instituted after Nadab and Abihu’s death (16:1-34).  Nadab and Abihu died without children, so their brothers served with Aaron in their place (Numbers 3:2-4).

The elder of the two remaining sons of Aaron, Eleazar, served as chief of the leaders of Levi as well as chief of the clan of the Kohathites, who were responsible for performing the duties of the sanctuary and looking after its holy contents (3:27-32; 4:16).  After the consecration of the Tabernacle and the priests (Aaron and his sons), the offerings brought to the Tabernacle by the leaders of all the tribes were distributed among the Levitical clans of Gershon and Merari under the oversight of Ithamar, younger brother of Eleazar.  The Kohathites under Eleazar didn’t receive any because of their more holy responsibilities (7:1-9).  This was all within their first year of being in the wilderness, after which they travelled north to spy out Canaan (Numbers 13-14).

The twelve spies returned from the land of Canaan with their report, but the tribes drew back in unbelief and were condemned to wander the wilderness for forty years.  Shortly after this, Korah, who was of the same Kohathite clan within the tribe of Levi as were Aaron and Moses, along with two Reubenites, Dathan and Abiram, rebelled against God’s choice of Aaron and his family as priests.  As a result, God opened up the ground and swallowed them alive.  The 250 Korahites who had brought censers with incense before the presence of the Lord were consumed with fire that came from His presence (Numbers 16).  Eleazar was then instructed to clean up the censers of those who had died in God’s presence (16:36-40).

Eleazar was given increasing responsibility under Aaron, supervising the creation of holy water from the ashes of the red heifer (Numbers 19:1-10).  At the end of the forty years wandering, God told Moses to take Aaron and Eleazar up Mount Hor, and there put the high priestly garments of Aaron onto Eleazar to be high priest after him, before Aaron died there on the mountain top (20:22-29).  Eleazar took his father Aaron’s place as Moses’ deputy and high priest (Deuteronomy 10:6), helping him with a census of Israel in the plains of Moab (Numbers 26), as Aaron had done forty years earlier at Mount Sinai.  Eleazar also assisted Moses in making judgements concerning inheritance (27:1-11; 34:17), consulting the Urim and Thummim for Moses and his successor Joshua (27:15-23), and making distribution decisions concerning the spoils of war from the battle with the Midianites (31:12-54).

Phinehas was a son of Eleazar and his wife, one of the daughters of Putiel (Exodus 6:25; Putiel was probably Ethiopian, as ‘Phinehas’ means ‘black-skinned’).  Phinehas joined with the congregation of Israel when they gathered at the doorway of the Tent of Meeting to weep over the immorality and idolatry of the Israelites with the Moabite and Midianite women (Numbers 25:1-18).  A leader of a clan in the tribe of Simeon, Zimri, brought his Midianite mistress Cozbi, daughter of a Midianite clan leader, into his tent publicly in full view of the congregation weeping before the Tent of Meeting.  Seeing this, Phinehas took a spear and ran it through both of them in their tent, averting God’s wrath.

Because of this action of zeal for the glory of God, atoning for the sons of Israel, God told Moses that Phinehas would have a ‘covenant of peace’, for him and his descendants after him, described as ‘a covenant of perpetual priesthood’ (25:12-13).  This terminology of a ‘perpetual priesthood’ was specifically used at the consecration of Aaron and his sons as high priest(s), as seen in Exodus 29:9, 40:15, Numbers 18:8 and Deuteronomy 18:5.  The significance of God’s pronouncement here was that although Phinehas was not yet succeeding his father in the high priesthood, God was at this time decreeing that the succession of the high priesthood would always come from the line of Phinehas son of Eleazar rather than from the other priestly line of Ithamar.

Eleazar remained as high priest throughout the rulership of Joshua (Joshua 17:4; 19:51; 21:1; 24:33), while Phinehas was the one who went off to war against the Midianites with the 12,000 soldiers and with the holy vessels and trumpets (Numbers 31:6; see also Numbers 10:9 and Joshua 22:13, 30-32).  He continued this role in warfare even after he succeeded his father in the high priesthood, presumably ministering at Shiloh (Judges 21:19) even though his family inheritance was apparently at Gibeah in Ephraim (Joshua 24:33).  [This was a different Gibeah from the Benjamite city of Judges 20:14, which was not among the Aaronic Levitical cities allotted in Benjamin (Joshua 21:13-19), although Gibeah in Ephraim is not listed elsewhere among the Levitical cities of Ephraim.]  Phinehas as high priest apparently accompanied the ark of the covenant from Shiloh to Bethel when the armies of the tribes of Israel gathered at Mizpah against the immoral tribe of Benjamin (Judges 19-21), inquiring of God for the people and offering sacrifices.

More than 250 years later, by the time Eli became judge over all Israel at Shiloh, the high priesthood had apparently passed to his father (1 Samuel 2:28, 30) and thence to Eli.  Eli as high priest also judged Israel for forty years, under the domination of the Philistines.  However Eli was of the line of Ithamar rather than Eleazar, as we see from King David’s later distinction between the two Aaronic clans for the sake of temple worship: the line of Ithamar was represented by Ahimelech son of Abiathar son of Ahimelech son of Ahitub son of Phinehas son of Eli (see 1 Samuel 14:3; 22:20; 1 Chronicles 24:6), and the line of Eleazar was represented by Ahimaaz son of Zadok son of (a different) Ahitub son of Amariah (1 Chronicles 6:4-8, 52-53; 24:3).  Although Abiathar initially succeeded his father as high priest for David with the ephod during his wanderings before he was king (1 Samuel 23:6-12), by the time King David brought the ark into Jerusalem he was served by both Zadok and Abiathar representing both clans of Aaron (1 Chronicles 15:11-15).  They both served in an official capacity as David’s priests, heads of the two clans (1 Chronicles 18:16; 2 Samuel 8:17), and remained so under Solomon also (1 Kings 4:4).

However when the ark was brought into Jerusalem, David left Zadok rather than Abiathar in charge of the Tabernacle that was still in Gibeon (1 Chronicles 16:39-40).  About thirty years later Abiathar supported Adonijah when he had himself proclaimed king in place of his father David (1 Kings 1:7), whereas Zadok submitted himself to David and therefore supported David’s chosen heir Solomon (1 Kings 1:8, 38-39).  Abiathar was therefore dismissed from priestly service by Solomon and returned to his family inheritance at Anathoth (1 Kings 2:26-27), which is said to have fulfilled the prophecy against Eli’s descendants (1 Samuel 2:27-36).  For this reason, by the end of Solomon’s reign, Azariah son of Ahimaaz son of Zadok ministered as the sole high priest (1 Kings 4:2), as did his heirs even until the exile to Babylon (1 Chronicles 6:4-15), fulfilling God’s promise of a perpetual priesthood for Phinehas son of Eleazar.

Thus we see that the ‘eternal’ covenant with Phinehas was specifically related to the inheritance of the high priestly position, using the same technical vocabulary as in other passages about the high priesthood.  This covenant is therefore self-evidently dependent on the larger decree of God for the priesthood in Israel to belong to the tribe of Levi, a decree that has been superseded by the greater decree given to Jesus within the order of Melchizedek, according to Hebrews 7:11-28.  It is even arguable that the Levitical priesthood was only ever a ‘permission’ of God for the Israelites because of their hardness of heart, as suggested by the change from Exodus 19:5-6, because of the people’s reaction in 20:18-21, to the establishment of Moses and his family and tribe in the priesthood in 28:1.  But further explanation of that idea must be left to another post.

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