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12 Nov, 59 tweets, 8 min read
THREAD: The Covenants of YHWH and Supersessionism

I just started reading the book, “The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion” edited by John Barton, and this paragraph on page 5 arrested my attention:
“The Letter to the Hebrews describes the new covenant in Christ as superseding the old one, so that old is not just a temporal but in a sense an evaluative term: ‘He abolishes the first in order to establish the second’ (Heb 10:9); ‘In speaking of a “new covenant,” he has…
…made the old one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear’ (Heb. 8:13).”
(This is at the beginning of a chapter evaluating the merits of calling the body of scripture from Genesis to Malachi the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament (i.e. the Old Covenant), the First Testament, or simply the Bible.)
It reminded me of how often supersessionism—that the new covenant has replaced the Mosaic covenant and that the Church has replaced the nation of Israel—is taken as the default and unquestioned Christian position, which is not surprising given the history of supersessionism…
…in the Church and the language used by the author of Hebrews referenced above by Barton.
I believe that supersessionism has led to serious theological errors that had tragic, real-world consequences both in the way that Christians understand the character of our God and how we esteem our Jewish neighbours.
But is the error in the doctrine itself, or simply in our application of it? After all, the scriptures are full of “hard teachings” that don’t necessarily soothe our modern sensibilities or align with our imperfect judgements of how a god should rule his creation.
How do we reconcile the words of the book of Hebrews with a God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, or the words of Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount: “I did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it?”(Mat 5:17) If the Law and the Prophets were inherently flawed,…
…why give their words to Israel in the first place?

Obviously, this is a huge topic that deserves detailed and thorough exploration, and many much more qualified than I have tackled this subject, but I wanted to trace one major thread and offer some reflections.
The obvious framework to view the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospels is through the covenants or “testaments.”
Often, we think of the covenants as somewhat self-contained, disconnected events that are either “broken” and therefore not functioning or in effect, or “kept” and therefore in play.
Many interesting works have been written about Ancient Near East treaty customs and the bilateral or unilateral nature of certain genres of treaties, and while valuable to know, I think it perhaps more helpful to view the covenants of YHWH with Israel as major markers in an…
…ongoing story rather than breeched or active contracts.
Starting with Abraham, we see a three-fold promise emerge: a promise of specific land with recognizable boundaries, a promise of many descendants that become many nations, and a promise that through Abraham all nations would be blessed.
(Gen 12:2-3, 7; Gen 15) This covenant was unconditional—in fact, it was cut (the process of formalizing/ratifying the covenant) while Abraham slept, but there is already a slight narrative tension.
God tells Abraham that his children will sojourn in a land not theirs, and be afflicted for four hundred years. This seems to contradict the promise of God: will the sons and daughters of Abraham not dwell in the land designated for them for hundreds of years?
And God had just said he would bless those who bless Abraham and curse those who curse Abraham, and yet the children of Abraham were to be afflicted for centuries? How and when would these covenantal promises be enacted?
The next covenant between God and Israel would be with those self-same afflicted descendants after YHWH brought them out of Egypt with a mighty hand and outstretched arm, just as he said he would.
With his servant Moses, God brought the people to Mount Sinai and cut a second covenant with the offspring of Abraham.
This covenant had a series of commandments (including the Ten Commandments and the greatest commandment) as well as a command to take the promised land by force of arms, though the Israelites were not a mighty or righteous people.
This covenant, these commandments that made up the law of Israel, came with a curse and a blessing. If the law was kept, Israel was able to remain in the land and enjoy the blessings of abundance.
If the law was not kept, Israel could not remain long in the land, but she would be subjected to the curse of exile.

Here the dramatic tension is obvious: God promised Abraham that his descendants would inherit the land forever.
However, these descendants are bound by a second covenant that is a double-edged sword: this holy land will only tolerate an unholy people for so long before they are expelled.
How can the Abrahamic covenant be fulfilled and the blessing of the Mosaic covenant be enjoyed when the people of Israel are also under the curse of the Mosaic covenant, and given to not keeping the law?
To compound the suspense, centuries later, the people are living in the land and have a righteous king, King David. This king is conquering much of the promised land, and the nation is prospering.
Could this man be the one who will bring resolution to the covenants as they stand and interact? YHWH himself confirms that it is not David who will bring about permanent residency in Israel for the people of Israel when he makes a covenant with David.
However, David’s offspring who will establish an everlasting Kingdom and that though this descendant will bear the stripes of the sons of men, the steadfast love of YHWH will never depart from him.
(2 Sam 7:8-16)

As it stands, we have three major covenants in play, where the inheritance and rule of the promised land are the main challenges. To Abraham, the land was promised as an eternal possession.
To Moses, the rules for living in the land were established, and the problem of sin and exile inaugurated.
Though the reign of David seemed a welcome respite from the violence of the rule of the judges of Israel, YHWH said that it is not the kingdom that the prophets spoke of, where the people of Israel would lie down in safety, untroubled by violent neighbours, but that the one to…
…establish this everlasting kingdom would come from David’s line. This coming king would apparently rule a people no longer the curse of the law with cycles of exile and expulsion from the land.
But soon after this covenant was made, the kingdom of Israel was split in two, the Davidic dynasty fell, and the Israelites suffered two brutal exiles.
In these circumstances of existential crisis and doubt that the covenants could ever be fulfilled, the prophet Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant: “The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make *a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.*…
…It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD.
“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “*I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.* I will be their God, and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbour, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
This is the genius of YHWH: that when it looks like it is impossible for the Abrahamic covenant and Davidic covenant to be fulfilled, in a dark and hopeless time in Israel’s history, he reveals how he will resolve the covenantal tension, in the form of a new covenant.
This covenant doesn’t abolish or abrogate the covenants before it but allows them to actually be enacted. The Davidic messiah king will cut the new covenant in his own blood, and establish a way for the permanent forgiveness of sins.
Then holy people who enter this covenant with their king will finally be holy, not because there is no law, but because the law is written on their hearts. Now, not only will they be *able* to keep the law, but they will *want* to keep the law.
In keeping the law, they will enjoy the blessings of the law. In enjoying the blessings of the law, they will be established in the land forever, just as YHWH promised Abraham.
When the author of Hebrews quotes the prophet Jeremiah’s description of the new covenant, he then says, “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”
It is simply not the case that the earlier covenants failed, were replaced, or were somehow inadequate and required improvement.
They were puzzle pieces and narrative tension in a much larger story, which, when resolved by the new covenant, will no longer require enforcement of the "curse clause" (it will be a merely theoretical/historical part of the law; i.e. obsolete) for the people of Israel, who…
…with hearts and minds brimming with the law and knowledge of God will dwell righteously and securely in their land and none will make them afraid.

Which brings us back to supersessionism. Jesus says in Matthew 5:17 that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it.
In light of the dramatic way the covenants unfold and how the new covenant makes a way for their full realization, fulfilment seems to be the perfect word.
But too often, supersessionists (who sometimes prefer the more euphemistic term “fulfilment theology") seem to use the word, “fulfilment” interchangeably with the word, “abolished.” But the distinction between the two terms is vital.
How meaningful is the new covenant (which is established with the house of Israel and Judah, by the way, not the Church. But that is a topic for a different time. :) ) if it claims to write the law on people’s hearts, while at the same time abolishing the law?
If the promises made to Abraham that his children would dwell in the land forever were merely metaphorical, what is so terrible about the curse of exile?

Every time I hear the law of God maligned or belittled, I grow sad.
The author of Hebrews could not have known how his words would be misconstrued. How can we be insensible to the great beauty and wonderful things hidden in the law of the Lord?
How can we see it as inapplicable to those grafted into the new covenant when part of the benefits of that same covenant is knowing the law inside out? How do we propose to resolve conflicts among ourselves if we do not understand the law?
Do we not know that we will judge angels? I will be greatly surprised if we will use a different jurisprudence than the one revealed to Moses in our administration of cosmic justice.
When seen as a part of the whole which necessarily includes the covenant with Abraham, David, and the New Covenant, the law shows us the terrible beauty of our God, revealing his lovingkindness and severity.
How powerfully we need the new covenant to escape the curse of the law and to experience its blessings! How covenantally faithful is YHWH to keep his promise to father Abraham, against all odds!
How intensely do we yearn for the return of the son of David, who will rule the nations with equity, and bring about lasting justice and peace! How much better are we able to know him who formed us, when the law is written on our minds!
To close, I will quote these words, composed by King David:
The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is clean,
the rules of the LORD are true,
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
(Psalm 19:7-11)

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More from @devoninMENA

26 May
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A thread on women who crushed the heads of evil men and the great host of women in Psalm 68.

Image: "Virgin Mary consoles Eve" by Sr. Grace Remington OCSO, Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey
For the last few months, I have been studying Psalm 68 on and off. It's a magnificent song of David about the ultimate triumph of God over his enemies.
While powerful enough with a surface-level reading, (🔥Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation, v. 5🔥), the cross-references and allusions to the stories of women in the Bible add considerable depth and color to the Psalm.
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