Ark of the Covenant
After the Fall, God's relationship with people has been expressed, and governed through covenants and laws. Since in the Old Testament the covenant rests on God's promise and lies at the heart of the biblical notion of history (Dyrness, 113), the interplay of covenant and Law play a crucial role within Israelite history, and therefore modern Christianity despite their “antiquated” feel to modern readers. Dyrness quickly dismisses conclusions of the Documentary Hypothesis theory that Covenants were developed later and read back into the final composition of the Law using history to show “It was seen very early that the idea of covenant was an extremely important means of regulating behavior between peoples, especially in the area of international relations” (114).
Biblical covenants are shown to have many parallels with the elements of one common type of Ancient Near East (ANE) covenant, the Suzerainty treaty, which included: a preamble, historical prologue, stipulations, provisions (reminders to everyone), invocation of divine witnesses, and blessings and curses (114). While this method of relationship seems foreign to us, it would have been commonly understood by all peoples in the ANE. Instead of speaking with His people in an incomprehensible way, God “...takes concepts that are current and uses them for his purposes. But the end result is that the idea is greatly expanded” (116). Dyrness points out the major covenant themes in the Old Testament with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and then promised New Covenant. (Dyrness even alludes that God's relationship with Adam and Eve may have elements of a covenant relationship). However, God's covenants with Israel have one major distinction from typical ANE covenants, for “the people are also adopted into a filial relationship with God. He was not only their suzerain; he was their Father.” (119). In regards to whether the biblical covenants are unconditional or conditional, Dyrness advocates for neither, believing each is an oversimplification, (124). Instead, a both/and approach is offered where the two sides of promise and stipulations are said to complement one another as opposed to contradicting. In the end, much of the confusion surrounding the covenants has arisen because each biblical covenant has not been interpreted within the historical context in which it were given. Dyrness then moves on to the Law and its relationship to the covenants, as “...an expression of the covenant and always secondary to it. That is, the law is to express the character of life in the covenant” (129). This understanding prevents the works-based righteousness that easily arises from keeping the Law, as was the case with the Pharisees. Instead, it is stated clearly that “Israel does not keep the law in order to become God's people, but because they already are” (130). Thus, the Law describes what destroys relationship to Yahweh, not what creates it. Complimentary to this unconditional nature of God's covenant relation is the idea that “...the enjoyment of the blessings of the covenant are conditional upon the response of the people” (130). The Law took on a new dimension during the exile when all religious institutions that supported the Law were swept away, creating what is known as “nomism” as all the people's focus now rested on nothing other than the words of the Law (137). This shift is what largely led to legalism because “When the law becomes the means of maintaining the relationship with God, it is easily forgotten that the promise of God is the basis of our hope” (138).
Personal Observations – The Suzerain-Vassal treaty sheds light on the biblical covenants and should be a regular part of Old Testament surveys. Moreover, if Dyrness is right that “the covenant idea is already implicit in the promise made to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3” (116), then the covenant concept of relationships would have originated with God Himself and may provide a better understanding of how Christians ought to relate to Him. Dyrness' explanation of how the law developed as a piecemeal collection of decisions by the judges, borrowings from Canaanite law, and short statements of general instruction that the priest of the sanctuary put together and guarded until Moses shaped them into the Pentateuch (130-131) raises more questions than it answers, especially regarding biblical inerrancy. However, his comparison of Old Testament law to other ANE laws proved very enlightening, since it showed how it hedged against brutality and a class society with one law for slaves and freedmen. Furthermore, that the Law is for the people and always on the side of the people. Thus, in regards to the Law the priests' only function was to help the people understand how to live according to God's law. Very few were Judges of the people. Even later on, the King was under the Law and not a law giver (unlike other ANE cultures, there was no royal law) (135). This knowledge clearly shows how the Law of the Old Testament ties in to the New Testament, for it reveals that “External compulsion would never be enough, nor was this the design of God” (139). Thus, Jesus' teachings on the centrality of the heart, His coming to fulfill the Law (not abolish it), and His summation of the entire Old Testament with two laws “to love God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27) stand in perfect harmony with the plan of God from the beginning.