Covenant or Law

Take this book of the law, and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against thee.

Deuteronomy 31:26 (KJV)

Book of the law – There’s considerable study in comparative analysis with the relationship of the Israelites to their surrounding cultures.* One interesting conclusion is that deity and kings never legislated actual law. This is difficult to comprehend and I may not do it justice here, but suffice it to say, covenant is different than law and it behooves us to understand how.

One near eastern, cultural example is found in the ‘Code’ of Hammurabi.

In the eyes of its author the “Code” was not at all intended to exercise by itself a univocal normative value in the legislative order. (Bottéro, The ‘Code’ of Hammurabi, p161-163)

Rather than creating these laws like a legislator, Hammurabi was an executor who sustained them and made them effective. (D. Launderville, Piety and Politics, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003, p281)

Rather than establishing laws, the eastern cultures administered justice by offering model decisions that were considered just. Today we think of justice as that which conforms to the law. For them justice was that which conformed to traditions reflected in the paradigms.

This brings weight to the Hebrew word, Torah, which is better translated as “instructions” than “law.” It was not legislative law that YHVH gave to Moses, but instructions that modeled good decisions.

In Israel the sections of the Pentateuch that have in the past been considered laws could now be considered as not carrying the obligatory force of legislation. They nevertheless do carry obligatory force for Israel as stipulations of the covenant. Let’s take a look at how G. Mendenhall breaks this down in his “Conflict” on page 174-176.

Attribute Covenant Law
Purpose Creates a community where none existed before, by establishing a common relationship to a common lord. Presupposes a social order in which it serves as an instrument for maintaining an orderly freedom and security.
Basis Gratitude: response to benefits already received = grace. Social fear: attempts to protect society from disruption and attack by threat of force.
Enactment By voluntary act in which each individual willingly accepts the obligations presented. By competent social authority. It is binding upon each individual by virtue of his status as a member of the social organization, usually by birth.
Validity Binding upon each person without regard to social context. It is as universal as God himself and is, therefore, the real basis for the concept of the “omnipresence of God.” Entirely dependent upon social boundary lines. Completely irrelevant to one who has crossed the boundary of the social order.
Sanctions Not under control of social organizations, unpredictable in specific cases, but connected with cause-and-effect concepts in human history. Both positive and negative sanctions included. Enforced by social organization through its chosen authorities. Sanctions are largely negative, though nonpolitical organizations use economic and prestige motivations to obtain conformity.
Norms Typically presented as verbal abstractions, the definition of which is an obligation of persons in concrete circumstances and the “fear of God” = conscience. Defined by social authority in advance, usually with specific sanctions defined for specific violations. Arbitrary and formal in nature, since only forms of action can be witnessed to in a court of law.
Orientation Toward the future: makes individual behavior reliable and therefore a basis for both private and public security. Prediction of consequences extends to four generations in case of violation. Toward the past: attempts to punish violations of the public order in order to make that public order more secure. It is oriented toward the future only in the sense that it gives warning in advance of the penalties that the society has power to impose upon the violator. Very short attention span (statute of limitations).
Social Aspect Obligations individual, but consequences (blessings and curses) are of necessity social, since they are “acts of God” – drought, epidemic, defeat in war, etc. Powerfully reinforces individual responsibility to society, and social responsibility to refrain from protection of the guilty. Obligations defined by society are binding upon all members, but sanctions are imposed only upon guilty individuals, in adversary procedure and rite. Is a form of warfare pitting society against the guilty person.
Evolution Forms basis for social custom especially in early stages. As social control take over, may degenerate into mere ritual reinforcement of a social solidarity. Presupposes a customary morality that it attempts to protect, but cannot create. Tends to become increasingly rigid in formal definition, and increasingly devoid of real ethical content.
Continuity Since it is not produced by society, it cannot be guaranteed by society. Essentially private, individual, independent of roles. Prophets, the Christ, apostles. Destruction of a particular social control system, therefore, does not mean the end of the value system. Cannot exist apart from social institution – king, priest, political officers, legislative, executive, judicial. Ceases to exist when political structure falls.


Wherefore it shall come to pass, if ye hearken to these judgments, and keep, and do them, that the Lord thy God shall keep unto thee the covenant and the mercy which he sware unto thy fathers: (Deuteronomy 7:12)

For those who question the continuity of the “law” into the New Testament, new possibilities open up when you think of the “law” in terms of covenant stipulations and of principles for holiness.


* This study is derived from John H. Walton's book, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament.

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