When we speak of the Old Testament, the term “testament” is the Latin word for “covenant.” The Christian Bible is divided into two sections: the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. These descriptions and terms are derived from the New Testament (e.g., Heb 8:13).

The Old Testament does not provide us so much with “truths we can trust” as the story that must become our story if we are to escape death and destruction. This story is not an illustration of individual truths — rather, individual truths are a shorthand for the story. Every human has a worldview — a way of looking at the world and operating within it as we make choices every day. Central to every worldview is a story. If our worldview is to be Christian, then we must make sure that the story central to our worldview is as close to the story of Scripture as possible — in fact, it must become our story.


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In a recent English translation of the Bible, the Old Testament constitutes 77 percent of the total text. Clearly, the Old Testament constitutes the bulk of the Christian Bible and establishes this story.

We have already seen that the Bible’s own category used to describe its own plot or structure is the word “covenant.” What is a covenant? It is an agreement defining a permanent relationship between parties.

Six major covenants define and determine not only the plot structure of the Bible as a book, a single literary work, but also identify the key epochs and persons. Most of these are laid out already in Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, and all of them are described by Moses by the end of the Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible.

1. The story begins with a covenant at creation.

First is the covenant at creation or covenant with creation. According to the account in Genesis 1 and 2, humans are the crowning achievement of the creative work of God. In Genesis 1:26 God says, “Let us make humanity in our image, according to our likeness.” Although the terms “image” and “likeness” are synonyms, each word has a slightly different nuance. Though both clearly communicate covenant relationship, the term “likeness” emphasises the relationship of the copy to the original (its use in Genesis 5:3 denotes generation and sonship), whereas the term “image” emphasises the relationship of the copy to others, or how the copy represents the original in relationship to others.

Thus, the act of the creation of humanity as the divine image establishes a covenant relationship that is both vertical in relationship to God and horizontal in relationship to the rest of creation on the earth. While God reigns in heaven, his vice-regent rules for him upon the earth. Word pairs in the Old Testament employed to summarise covenant relationships are hesed/’ĕmet (lovingkindness and truth) and mišpā/dāqâ (justice and righteousness). These are not parity relationships, but entail one greater seeking intimacy, loyalty, love, obedience, and trust from someone weaker. Genesis 2 confirms the exegesis of Genesis 1 by portraying the first man as both king and priest. As humans focus on the priority of worship, they will learn the character and nature of God and go out into the world equipped to properly represent him and his way.

The covenant relationship humanity has with God is quickly violated by disloyalty, unfaithfulness, and disobedience. Humans establish themselves as autonomous beings, determined to decide for themselves what is right and wrong and choose their own path, unaware that ontology always trumps autonomy: To separate from the creator God is death, not life.

From this point on, the culture of human life develops but also deteriorates as it is characterised by corruption, social injustice, and violence. Von Rad, Westermann, and Clines have noted a pattern repeated: (1) sin, (2) divine speech addressing the corruption and social violence, (3) grace and favor unmerited, and (4) judgement. 

2. God restarts with Noah.

God responds by judging the world by means of a flood and making a brand-new start with Noah. Noah belongs to the humanity deserving judgement but is given grace. God establishes his covenant with Noah and the obedience of Noah results in God designating him as righteous.

When God affirms his covenant with Noah in Genesis 9, Noah inherits the Adamic role of king and priest as the first man in a new world. The blessing and commands given to Adam are now given to Noah and his descendants, modified somewhat to fit a fallen world. Although the heart of humans is unchanged by the flood, and God would be just to judge every generation, his commitment to creation and the creation covenant will continue by his unmerited favour. The fact that the human race fails after being given a completely fresh start proves that the problem lies in the heart of humans; we are unable to demonstrate loyalty in the covenant relationship with God. So, a new creation does not resolve the problem of the human heart. The family history of Noah ends with divine judgement upon the Tower of Babel and the nations are lost and scattered throughout the earth.

The pattern of (1) sin, (2) divine speech, (3) grace, and (4) judgement is repeated and the narrative focuses through the family histories of Shem and Terah to Abraham. 

3. In Abraham, God begins restoration.

In Genesis 12 a powerful new word from Yahweh brings forth a new creation from nothing, namely, Abraham and his family as a new Adamic figure who is once again characterised as king and priest. The fivefold blessing of Genesis 12:1–3 will reverse the fivefold curse leading from Adam to Babel. God plans to restore his broken creation through Abraham and his family. The blessing will come first upon Abraham and his seed, and then through his seed to all the nations of the world.

The promises given to Abraham in Genesis 12 are enshrined in a covenant in Genesis 15, and the covenant is reaffirmed after the debacle of Abraham’s attempt to achieve results through his own strategies in Chapter 16. Genesis 17 calls Abraham to adopt the way of Yahweh in the covenant relationship with God. He begins to do this for the first time when he pleads for the rescue of the righteous in Sodom and demonstrates a commitment to social justice. Finally, his faith issues in an obedience that gives ground for fulfilment of the promises, and God also affirms his commitment with a mighty oath in Genesis 22.

4. Israel is God’s son.

When Abraham’s family finally grows to become a nation or people, God arranges a covenant with them during the Exodus at Mount Sinai. Here we see that Israel inherits from Abraham the Adamic role. Yahweh refers to the nation as his son in Exodus 4:22–23. The divine purpose in the covenant established between God and Israel at Sinai is unfolded in Exodus 19:3–6. As a kingdom of priests, they will function to make the ways of God known to the nations and also to bring the nations into a right relationship to God. Israel will display to the rest of the world within its covenant community the kind of relationships – first to God, and then to one another and to the physical world – that God intended originally for all of humanity. 

In fact, through Abraham’s family, God purposes and plans to bring blessing to all the nations of the world. Since Israel is located geographically on the one and only communications link between the great superpowers of the ancient world (Egypt and Mesopotamia), in this position she will show the nations how to have a right relationship to God, how to treat each other in a truly human way, and how to faithfully steward the earth’s resources. This is the meaning of Israel’s sonship.

Deuteronomy, also called the Moab Covenant, is a renewal and expansion of the Sinai Covenant. It is a renewal because the Israel (i.e., the adults) with whom God made the Sinai Covenant all perished in the wilderness. They broke the covenant before Moses could get down from Mount Sinai. Deuteronomy is a covenant made with a new Israel and indeed, with all future generations of Israel. It is an expansion, because unlike the Sinai Covenant, it prepares the people for life in the circumstances they will meet in the land of Canaan under a human king.

5. Israel is too much like Adam (Hos 6:7).

The Torah or “instruction” of Moses, enshrined in the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy, is considered the Old Covenant by the prophets and by the authors of the New Testament. As well as a positive aspect, there is also a negative aspect to the Old Covenant. The books of Joshua through Kings along with the prophets and writings reveal that Israel is not a faithful covenant partner.

In Ezekiel 16, Jerusalem’s sins are so terrible in this R-Rated depiction of her crimes that she completely embarrasses her pagan neighbours, designated as Samaria and Sodom and portrayed as her sisters. Since Ezekiel is writing after 722 BC, when the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell to Assyria and the people of Israel were deported and foreign peoples were imported to live there, the northern neighbors of Jerusalem constitute the mixed race of Samaritans that resulted from these events. The behavior, lifestyle, and rejection of Yahweh’s Torah by the Samaritans is described and deplored in 2 Kings 17:24–41. The people of Sodom are condemned because an abundance of life’s necessities resulted in arrogant independence from God and led to many social injustices. Nonetheless, Jerusalem’s acts of covenant violation were so bad by comparison that her sins actually justified the conduct of her “sisters,” Sodom and Samaria! So, the comparison is not favourable for Jerusalem. The sins of Jerusalem embarrass her pagan neighbors.

Paul explains the situation in Romans 3:19: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God” (NIV).

Paul is saying that the “law” — that is, the Covenant at Sinai and Covenant at Moab — was a covenant made, not with all the nations of the world, but only with Israel. And yet God holds the entire world responsible for the failure of Israel as covenant-keepers. How can this be just? Well, one of the purposes of the Old Covenant is to show that even when human beings are given every possible blessing in body, in mind, in spirit — whether in the material world or in the spiritual world — they will not be faithful covenant keepers. So, the entire world is being judged by the example of Israel. It is like playing a game of golf: No matter what handicap you allow the other person, they are never going to win. Israel’s failure is, in fact, the failure of all humans: We are lousy at being faithful in a relationship.

6. The king is God’s son.

Last before the New Covenant is the Davidic Covenant, where God makes a covenant with David and his family line. Exegesis of 2 Samuel 7 demonstrates that the king of Israel was to be the administrator of the Israelite covenant. By depending on Yahweh for military victories, the king would point the people to the kingship of Yahweh. In his rule of the people, the king would represent God’s social justice and would also embody the obedience of the people. Thus, kingship in Israel was to be a means of accomplishing Exodus 19:3b–6: The king would be a devoted servant and son of God and would also function as a priest, instructing the nations in the righteousness of God and inviting them to come under the rule of Yahweh.

We see the priestly role of David in that he wears an ephod. The description of David in 2 Samuel 6:14 is identical in the Hebrew text to that of Samuel in 1 Samuel 2:18. We further see the priestly role of the Davidic king in Psalm 110:4. All of this indicates that the king will accomplish in his person the purpose that God had for the nation of Israel as a whole, to be a kingdom of priests. The king will embody the nation in himself.

The relationship between the Davidic Covenant and the Abrahamic Covenant is described by various texts in two ways. 

First, God will use David to bring rest to his people and give them a place. The borders of the land as envisioned in Genesis 15:18–21 are defined in Deuteronomy 11:24 as Israel’s “place.” 1 Kings 4:20–21 indicates that this geographical “place” belonged to Israel during the time of Solomon, David’s son. So, the covenant with David was a means to fulfill the promises in the Abrahamic covenant.

Second, God will use David to bring blessing to the nations as promised in the covenant with Abraham. The covenant with David is the charter or instruction for mankind (2 Sam 7:19). Psalm 72:17, 132:10, and Isaiah 55:3–4 show how the future king will, by his acts of lovingkindness, be a witness to the covenant and a commander and leader of the peoples as he brings the divine instruction or Torah to all the nations. In fact, he will give his life for the life of his people.

7. God promises a new covenant.

Finally, in light of the failure of Israel to be a faithful partner in the Old Covenant, the prophets announce a new covenant — beginning with Moses in Deuteronomy 29 and 30. Each prophet needs to be considered in the context of his ministry and, especially, within the flow and literary structure of his work. There is also, however, chronological development as Jeremiah meditates upon the prophecy of Isaiah and then Ezekiel reflects upon the work of Jeremiah. When the contribution of each prophet has been heard separately as well as chronologically, then the multifaceted presentation can be put together into a whole. In addition to passages that treat the topic of the new covenant, it is important to analyse places where a prophet deals with the relationships of the new covenant to any of the previous major covenants. In this way, the assembling of the biblical teaching on the covenants from the fundamental passages is put together into a superstructure that is derived from Scripture and not from our own imagination or human philosophy.

Theologians have tended to make the Bible more complicated than it is. The Old Testament begins with one creator God who made our world and everything in it. This God is in covenant relationship with us although we have turned out to be bad at keeping faith in the relationship. So, this leads to eschatology — when our world turns to death and disaster, God himself must step in by virtue of his commitment to the covenant and deliver, rescue, and save. Ultimately, the entire Old Testament is focused on the coming of a future king who will be the obedient son and servant king and restore a world broken by a broken relationship with the creator God.

The entire Old Testament is anticipating a perfect obedient son and servant king who will faithfully do for Israel what the Davidic kings failed to do and bring the ultimate blessing to all the nations.