Equip: The Bible in One Word

If you had to choose one word to summarize the whole Bible and explain it to an eight-
year-old, what word or concept would that be? “God” or “Jesus” do not count because
those are proper names for divine persons, not words or concepts. Would you choose
love, justice, righteousness, holiness, grace, wisdom, truth, redemption, freedom,
gospel, creation, sin, wrath, judgment, life, joy, heaven, hell or eternity? Each one of
those words and much more appears in the Bible. I would choose covenant. I would
choose covenant because this one word frames all those other words and gives them
meaning. Covenant brings together more than one party in a framework with specified
goals and actions. It is a word not often used today, but frequently found in the Bible.
Personal relationships, contracts, friendships, communities or social networks appear
often in sermons or everyday language, but they are not covenants. All those terms
other than covenant presume an independent individual outside of and prior to the
relationship. Any person can enter into a friendship or social network or sign a contract.
However, only natural born or naturalized residents of United States receive the
protections and privileges of citizenship under the Constitution. A covenant is more like
the US Constitution, though the constitution is not a covenant. Covenants can exist
between independent parties under certain conditions like treaties between nations
sharing common political or religious values. To understand the Bible through this one
word, “covenant,” we have to look at this one word in the Bible. The Bible explains the
covenant in such a way that an eight-year- old can understand it.

The place to start with a covenant is the threefold goal of the covenant in Leviticus 26:9-
(and many other places):

"‘I will look on you with favor and make you fruitful and increase your numbers, and I will keep my covenant with you. …. I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians; I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high."

Notice, first, God determines covenant goals. God addresses his people in the first
person singular, not the plural “we.” A covenant discloses God’s will for his people.
Secondly, the formula binds both God and his people to shared obligations. God agrees
to fulfill the obligations of covenant Lord, and the people agree to live under God’s
design for their lives. Thirdly, the goal of the covenant is relational. God’s promise to
walk among his people recalls God’s presence in Eden in the cool of the day (Genesis
3:8). Finally, the reason for initiating the covenant is God’s grace. God identifies himself
with his people in the covenant as the One who liberated them from slavery. Freedom
to participate in the covenant is a gift, not an assumption. In sum, we can conclude that
God initiates a covenant out of his gracious choice to bind himself to his people under
stipulated conditions for the purpose of cultivating a personal relationship with
individuals in a specified community who freely accept the covenant.

So many other big ideas in the Bible make sense within this definition and purpose of
the covenant. For example, Love. Modern translations suffer from the single word for love in the English language. A reader of the English Bible would miss entirely the difference between God’s love and human love in the second commandment (see Exodus 20:6). In that commandment, we
learn God loves (ḥesed) those who love (āhab) him. Both words make perfect sense in
the context of the covenant. Hesed Is God’s loyal love understood as his faithfulness to
the covenant with Israel, while āhab refers to human obedience to covenant stipulations
as shown by the coordinate clause “and keeps my commandments.” The same English
word, but different Hebrew meanings. It might be more properly expressed in English
by the saying “God loves, but He isn’t nice.” The same commandment tells us God
loves also says God is jealous. He jealously guards the covenant relationship with
prohibitions against idolatry, a serious betrayal of covenant love. Idolatry was a capital
offense punishable by death within Israel. Doesn’t sound very nice. God’s love is a
tangible love of individuals within a community based on loyalty and not some insipid
fake version of being nice to one another. Likewise, human love for God entails
voluntary compliance with the stipulations set forth in the covenant. Jesus demands the
same love under the new covenant: “If you love me, keep my commands” (John 14:5).

Fear. The fear of the Lord is trust in his directions for flourishing in life. Fear of God is
both taught behavior and acquired disposition towards God’s rule “so that you may
enjoy long life” (Deuteronomy 6:2). Fear towards God may strike some as the opposite
of love, but the experience of forgiveness produces an overwhelming sense of gratitude
to the point of trembling awe. The psalmist expresses it well: “If you, O Lord, kept a
record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore
you are feared” (Psalms 130:3-4). Fear makes sense in the context of a covenant
relationship. To put God first requires placing self second. That eternal God chooses to
bind himself to mortal flesh highlights the mercy of God and the inadequacy of human
achievements. If the human client did anything to deserve membership in the covenant
community, then God could demand everything.

I could go on with the meanings of freedom, peace, righteousness, or creation within the
covenant framework, but there is just one catch. God’s covenant with Israel failed. The
last sentence in the previous paragraph hints at the reason for failure. The covenant
implemented by Moses had the appearance of demanding human cooperation for
membership in the covenant community, and that was its fatal flaw. Though human
beings broke the covenant, God did not fail. At the end of Deuteronomy is a list of
Curses for covenant violation (chapter 29) and Blessings for adherence (chapter 30),
with an exhortation to choose Blessings and not Curses (Deuteronomy 30:19). A quick
reading of the text suggests Curses or Blessings are justified if the client community
chooses life over death, adherence over the betrayal of the covenant. However, a
closer look at those chapters indicates that Curses and Blessings are not a matter of if
but when. Chapter 29 describes the Curses as if they had already occurred and
concludes with the cryptic saying, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the
things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the
words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29). The next chapter begins, “When all these
blessings and curses I have set before you come on you…” Of course, compliance with
covenant stipulations is not relaxed even when Curses turn to Blessings, but something
new is concealed in the Blessings. "The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and
the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live” (Deuteronomy 30:6). Covenant Blessings will ultimately come down
to God keeping the covenant.

The Blessing hidden beneath the Curses within the old Covenant clarifies a charming
re-framing of the Covenant in the New Testament after Jesus’ death. The new word for
covenant is diathēkē, which means “will” or “testament.” Mounce explains it as follows:

The writer to the Hebrews plays with the fact that diathēkē can mean Last Will and testament (Heb. 9:15-23; cf. also Gal. 3:15-18). Just as no Last Will ever goes into effect until the one who wrote it dies, so the old covenant required a sacrificial death of an animal to put its terms into effect. But while in OT times sacrificial blood had to be shed every year; Jesus’ death as the mediator of the new covenant, by contrast, is once for all, and so his covenant is an “eternal covenant” (Heb. 13:20).

Once executed after the testator’s death, a will cannot be changed. This new
understanding of Covenant explained by Jesus at the Last Supper does not remove but
deepens the concepts foreshadowed in the old covenant. Love and fear are still
conditions of membership in the covenant community, but now love and fear are
reformulated by Jesus Christ. “A new commandment I give you,” says Jesus, “Love one
another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). Fear of God
is evident when Jesus appeared to the disciples after the resurrection. John 20:19-23
recounts Jesus’ appearance before the disciples in the Upper Room where they were
hiding to escape detection from Jewish officials. His first words were, “Peace be with
you,” and then he breathed on them the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins. His
appearance replaced servile fear of men with overwhelming awe of God. Jesus lived
fully within the covenant relationship established by God to mark out the way God has
fulfilled the goals of the covenant to be our God and walk among us when we
acknowledge a covenant relationship to God through Jesus.

That last statement raises interesting theological questions about God as eternal
covenant partner, but the idea of a covenant should be clear enough that even an eight-
year-old can understand it. The rites of baptism and the Lord’s supper are visible
expressions of the new covenant any child can understand. Analogies are also useful.
Children are born or adopted into families. Family relationships are like covenants in
that parents do not simply abandon children when they disobey. Parents may change
churches, jobs or partners, but they usually retain custody of children. From parents,
children learn to love, to fear, or to practice justice and injustice by experience and by
instruction. A re-discovery of the biblical covenants is necessary for today. Biblical
covenants give a new framework for human relationships in the family, the church, and
even the state. The Pilgrims before landing on Cape Cod signed the Mayflower
Compact modeled on the covenants Congregationalists used to form new churches.
Pastor Samuel Langdon, New Hampshire’s representative to the Constitutional
Convention which would ultimately cast the ninth deciding vote to ratify the US
Constitution, preached a sermon on Deuteronomy 4 to his congregation on July, 1788,
in which he extolled the virtue of Deuteronomy as the model for a law-based society
which curbs the corruptive power of the state. He concluded, ““If I am not mistaken,
instead of the twelve tribes of Israel we may substitute the thirteen States of the
American union.” 1 We need to recover the sense of a covenant with God to renew our human communities, our marriages, our families and our churches.