Understanding God’s Everlasting Covenant
Yahweh’s Everlasting Covenant
Original Objective for Exodus from Egypt
Yahweh’s original plan for His children was that they would remember the covenant He’d previously made with their fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, which included the promise of an inheritance and a conveyance of land (Genesis 15:13-21; 26:2-5; 28:1-4; 28:10-15). He remembered it. “God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Exodus 2:24), and He repeatedly referred to it all through the first section of the Exodus narrative. “And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey; unto the place of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites.” (Exodus 3:8, cf. Genesis 15:18-21).
When Moses hesitated under God’s command to return to Egypt as His spokesman, Yahweh used the divine identifier consisting of the phrase “The Lord God of your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” thus tying His identity to His covenant with the patriarchs. Further, God then instructed Moses on how to approach his people back home in Egypt. He told him to say unto them, “The Lord God of your fathers, of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, appeared unto me, saying I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt. And I have said, I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt unto the land of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, unto a land flowing with milk and honey.” (vss. 16, 17, emphasis supplied). This was a direct reference to the dying words of Joseph that had been handed down generation to generation: “And Joseph said unto his brethren, I die: and God will surely visit you, and bring you out of this land unto the land which He sware to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Genesis 50:24, emphasis supplied).
Why did Yahweh place such strong emphasis on the fact that He was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Because the everlasting covenant was integrally bound to the promise given to these patriarchs. The covenant made with the patriarchs was the same covenant that Yahweh was now attempting to revive with their children. After Pharaoh increased the burden upon the Israelites, Moses complained to God that He had not yet delivered His people as He had promised (Exodus 5:23). Patiently, Yahweh reaffirms His purpose by declaring His name, followed with His intent to renew the covenant made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Eternally bracketed between the beginning and ending declarations that He is Yahweh (there is none like unto Him), He said: “I am the Lord: and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name of God Almighty, but by My name JEHOVAH was I not known to them. And I have also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their pilgrimage, wherein they were strangers. And I have also heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered My covenant. Wherefore say unto the children of Israel, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will rid you out of their bondage, and I will redeem you with a stretched out arm, and with great judgments: and I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God: and ye shall know that I am the Lord your God, which bringeth you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you in unto the land, concerning the which I did swear to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it you for an heritage: I am the Lord.” (Exodus 6:2-8; cf. 3:7-17).
Five times, God emphasizes the fact that He is Yahweh—the eternal, unchanging, dynamic, ever present, absolute Being. He said “I have established My covenant” and “I have remembered My covenant.” Then He explains what the covenant is all about: I will deliver you from your burdens, from your bondage, and I will redeem you. Then I will take you to be My special people and deliver you into the land that I promised to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will be your God forever, and through it all “I will be with you” (Hebrew ‘ehyeh, cf. Exodus 3:12, 14) assuring you of divine protection. In this multifaceted promise are included multiple blessings—intimate knowledge of their Redeemer, the establishment of a community of believers who are His witnesses, and rest from their bondage. In essence, Yahweh is everything that this poor people need, now and forever. What more could they ask for?
Did Yahweh know the people’s needs? “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God looked upon the children of Israel, and God had respect unto them.” (Exodus 2:24, 25). God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—the everlasting covenant. Unlike Biblical references to pagan gods, these verses contain active verbs which reveal a personal God who participates in the lives of His people: God heard, God remembered, God looked, and God knew or had knowledge of their condition and needs (literal meaning of the Hebrew yadà).
As we have previously discussed, this was a lesson the Israelites never learned. Only twice in the entire Exodus narrative do we find any intimation that the Israelites have the competency to appreciate God’s promise to them. When Moses and Aaron have worked their magic tricks before the unbelieving crowds, “the people believed: and when they heard that the Lord had visited the children of Israel, and that He had looked upon their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshipped” (Exodus 4:31, Genesis 50:24). After the miracle of the Red Sea deliverance, the people again “believed the Lord” (14:31). Both of these were superficial conversions as evidenced by the speed with which the people resume their murmuring against their merciful and longsuffering God (5:20, 21; 15:23-26). The first was predicated on their hope of reward. The second was couched in their fear of this awesome God who could turn water into blood, cause masses of frogs, lice, flies and locusts to burst from thin air, conjure disease on beasts and humans, simultaneously rain hail and fire from the sky, take or preserve life at His will, and now He stood water up like a wall of stone, allowing them passage on dry ground. There was no god like this among all the pantheon of Egypt! Oh yes, they knew about God, but had no experience in knowing Him personally. Their lack of knowing reduced their energy to serve Him as their only source of salvation, it quashed their ability to boldly proclaim Him as the Saviour of the world, and kept hidden from them the contentment and rest which comes only through being completely yielded and still in His love.
As a result, in the three months it took for them to travel to Sinai, they were no closer to developing a true appreciation of God’s character than before Moses returned to call them from their bondage. Repeatedly, they exhibited their unbelief in Yahweh’s power to protect them and provide for their every need. When they heard the words of the Lord directing them to remember (again!) the covenant He had made with their fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, their unbelief led them to make an impetuous promise that they could never hope to keep, thus bringing them into bondage (Exodus 19:8; Galatians 4:24, 25). They thwarted God’s plans to make them a free people in the land of promise; a people who could be a true witness for Him of His power to save to the uttermost. When the children of Israel were standing on the edge of the Promised Land, Moses reminded them that they were only obtaining the promised inheritance because God was faithful to His oath. They had done absolutely nothing to deserve what they were getting. “Not for thy righteousness, or for the uprightness of thine heart, dost thou go to possess their land: but for the wickedness of these nations the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee, and that He may perform the word which the Lord sware unto thy fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Understand therefore, that the Lord thy God giveth thee not this good land to possess it for thy righteousness; for thou art a stiffnecked people.” (Deuteronomy 9:5).
The were never able to experience the true motivation which springs from a true heart appreciation of the unselfish, redemptive love of their God, nor develop an authentic allegiance to Him. The friendship with God that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had experienced, remained elusive. Instead, the children of Israel constantly operated from a sense of contractual obligation, which is legalism and old covenantism. Their unwillingness to yield up their preconceived opinions about His character frustrated God’s original intentions for His people—to renew His everlasting covenant with them, and to make them “a peculiar treasure unto [Him] above all people … to make [them] a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” that would provide a true witness of His character before all the world.
Royal Land Grant Treaty as the Formula for the Everlasting Covenant
Running through all the first section of the Exodus narrative is the constantly repeated subject of land as a part of the covenant promise to Abraham. Paralleling God’s covenant to Abraham, we find ancient Near Eastern covenants conveying land by royal decree to favoured vassals. The suzerain covenant is similar to the land grant in legal linguistic form, however, the royal land grant had some major differences which we will examine in this section of our study.
To a large extent, the focus of the Bible’s message is about land and the right of inheritance to that land. In both the Old and New Testaments, we find a recurring motif of land lost and redeemed; of a people in exile and then returned to their homeland—from Eden lost to Eden restored. “The symbol of land is universalized when Paul speaks of the promise to Abraham and his descendants that they would ‘inherit the world’ (Rom. 4:13). And the pattern of exodus followed by possession of the land is echoed in Christ having ‘delivered us from the dominion of darkness’ and ‘qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light’ (Col. 1:12-13).” This central theme of land is founded in the grant of land bestowed by God in covenant promise to His creatures beginning in Genesis chapter one, restated with an expanded definition to Abraham in Genesis chapters 12 through 17, and then reconfirmed to David in 2 Samuel 7.
Before undertaking an analysis of the royal grant covenant formula, an understanding of “the fundamental concepts and distinctions between contract and real property law will prove helpful. Both contract and property have been foundational virtually to all ordered societies throughout recorded history. While refined over the centuries, the essential rules of both contract and property law have remained for the most part constant. Therefore, even contemporary articulations of these legal themes provide a valid definitional basis for consideration of ancient judicial formulae.”
In his study, “Legal Models for the Old Testament Covenants,” Cordell P. Schulten, using the definition found in the American Law Institute’s “Restatement (Second) of Contracts,” says: “A contract is a promise or a set of promises for the breach of which the law gives a remedy or the performance of which the law in some way recognizes a duty.” Contrary to this is the royal land grant, based on real property law. “While contract is founded upon promise, property law is based upon right, or more accurately, a bundle of rights … The grant of rights in the land derived from the sovereignty of the king. The rights granted included title (i.e. ownership), possession, use and alienation (i.e. the ability of the grantee to transfer his rights to others).”
The extant texts describing land grants have been examined and divided into four main categories describing their purposes:
“In the simple form of royal grant, the king prepares a document which states that he has presented to the recipient a certain amount of property—which normally includes fields, orchards, ‘houses,’ and people—and that he has freed this property and the recipient himself from taxes. The document then closed with injunctions to later rulers, curses, and finally with the date.” Taxes from which the recipient was exempt included taxation of property, taxes paid in kind, taxes on travel and transport, and exemption from compulsory labour and military service. These elements set the pattern for the land grant we will examine that illustrates of the Biblical covenant made with Abraham.
The Author of the true covenant, the everlasting covenant, gives us an illustration of the royal land grant covenant in Genesis 1 and 2 (Adamic covenant), Genesis 9 (Noahic covenant), and Genesis 12, 13, 15 and 17 (Abrahamic covenant). With each patriarch, we do not find a totally new or different covenant, but a renewal and restatement of the original covenant—I AM the Lord your God, be fruitful, multiply and bless the earth, filling it with My righteousness. The possession of the land was an inherent aspect of this promise, as was the faithful acceptance of Jehovah as the one true God, the only source for the blessings that were promised to the believer. The endowment of the original property title to Adam was renewed in the Noahic covenant and, with the inclusion of Messianic promises, again to Abraham. Each restatement of the covenant is a reward for loyalty and devotion to God. The recipient responded with submission and devotion to God in appreciation for the gift.
God created the royal land grant; it’s His own “formula” for the everlasting covenant. There exists incredible correlations between what we read in the Bible and what the nations afterward did with this form of covenant, but all nations learned it from God’s example. They mirrored His covenant in the granting of lands to favoured individuals. Land grants have to do with the graciousness and mercy of the sovereign toward his faithful people. The king could grant land because, in ancient times, he owned everything within his earthly realm. Such a granting of land was to be a perpetual arrangement to all the future generations of the individual to whom the land was given. Based on the promise of the king (grantor) to the recipient (grantee), we find that the land grant was focused on the receiver of the promise, not the one who did the promising. Unlike the suzerain contract that was instituted for the protection of the suzerain against the revolt or treachery of his vassals, land grants were “other” centered, not self-centered. “The grant par excellence is an act of royal benevolence arising from the king’s desire to reward his loyal servant. It is no wonder, then, that the gift of the Land to Abraham and the assurance of a dynasty to David were formulated in the style of grants to outstanding servants.”
Hittite and Syro-Palestinian political treaties often included the conveyance of land as tokens of favor from the suzerain to his vassal and the vassal’s descendants. Archeological evidence exists that proves that royal land grants were used extensively beginning in the second millennium B.C. and continuing for nearly a thousand years in the ancient Near East. “Royal land grant treaties or covenants have been found in Hittite, Babylonian and Neo-Assyrian texts and most recently in materials from Ras Shamra. They are particularly known from the Babylonian kudurru or boundary stones, texts which cover a period from B.C. 1450 to B.C. 550, i.e., the whole period of Babylonian history during which Boundary-stones were employed for the protection of private property.” The kudurru stones contained the description of the territory conveyed and were authenticated with the suzerain’s royal seal.
While not as tightly structured as the suzerain covenant formula, the royal land grants did exhibit several unique and identifiable characteristics. Like the suzerain contracts, the grant usually contained a preamble that identified the king giving the land, an historical prologue delineating the reason for the grant, which was followed by the king’s promises to the vassal. Unlike the suzerain contracts, there was no particular order for these elements, and the curses were directed, not toward the vassal, but toward anyone who would violate the privileges granted by the king to the vassal. The king’s seal on the document was verification that he would stand behind his promise to the vassal, protecting his rights to ownership, possession of use, and perpetuity.
The legal element of possession in perpetuity was prominent in the ancient royal grants. “Especially instructive in this case are the formulations of conveyance in perpetuity. So, for example, the formulae: ‘for your descendants forever’ (Gen. 15:15), ‘for your descendants after you throughout your generations’ (Gen. 15:7-8), are identical with the conveyance and donation formulae from Susa, Alalah, Ugarit, and Elephantine.”
Comparing these elements to the Abrahamic covenant we find that Ashurbanipal’s complimentary statements about his faithful servant echo God’s words about Abraham, His own faithful servant. “And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect” (Genesis 17:1). This verse also contains the preamble that identifies the sovereign and gives His title—the Almighty God— Sovereign Lord of the universe.
Land grants included a walking survey during which the kudurru stones were set in place. This correlates to God’s command to Abraham to walk throughout the land, taking possession of it. Instead of erecting kudurru stones, at various places Abraham built altars to his God. “And the Lord said unto Abram, after that Lot was separated from him, Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward: for all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever. And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered” (Genesis 13:14-16). Here God signifies the perpetuity of the covenant including the promise of children as yet unconceived who would inherit it. Abraham’s name would be “great” throughout all the earth (Genesis 12:2). As the royal grant assumed, the grantee would “command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which He hath spoken of him” (Genesis 18:19). Should anyone challenge Abraham’s God-given right to the land, He personally would defend Abraham and his heir’s lawful title to the royal estate (Genesis 12:3).
The gift of this world as an eternal possession to Adam is the first instance of a royal land grant. After the creation of everything in this world, God fashioned mankind saying “let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:26). For the purposes of our study, dominion is the key word in this verse. It means the right to reign or rule over the territory given. The royal land grant included the right of the grantee to free use and control over the domain presented to him. That Adam had this right is established in the fact that God allowed Adam to name all the animals which dwelt in his domain. The “kudurru stones” were laid out in the boundary description in Genesis 2:10-14, with the one restriction, that which was reserved for the King alone, being identified in vv. 16-17. Adam promised nothing to God in return for this gift; all he could do was receive it gladly from the hand of his Creator. In appreciation, Adam faithfully was to serve his Lord and cherish His gift (Genesis 2:15), teaching his children after him to honour the Grantor of the precious gift of life and land.
Legal Foundations for the Land Grant
We need to examine a few legal definitions because they shed light on our topic and supply a valid reference for what we read in the Bible about the royal land grant. We are not defining the Bible by the law dictionary, but rather viewing the law through the lens of the Bible. God is the beginning and end of all things. God is the Sovereign Lord who owns everything and has legal right to convey anything He wishes to His loyal and faithful servants. God possesses full and clear title to the estate He granted to Adam, then to Noah, and then to Abraham and his faithful heirs. And God pledged to compensate His faithful people with something better should they forfeit their rights to the original territory given to them. That civil law has come to embody these elements merely testifies to the universal goodness of God’s promises to His people.
Numerous terms are used in property law and real estate that define the activities of the covenanting parties. A term in some ways synonymous with the land grant is seisin covenant. Seisin covenant is a covenant which states that the grantor has an estate, or the right to convey an estate, of the quality and size that the grantor purports to convey. For the covenant to be valid, the grantor must have both title and possession at the time of the grant. Covenant of seisin usually appears as part of a warranty deed, which states that the grantor does in fact have both the title to and legal possession of an estate or property, and possesses the right to convey that holding to a grantee. Warranty deed includes the covenant by which the grantor in a deed promises to secure to the grantee the estate conveyed in the deed, and pledges to defend the grantee against any unlawful or unreasonable claims of superior title made by a third party, to indemnify the grantee for any loss sustained by the third party claim, and to compensate the grantee with other land if the grantee is evicted by someone having better title to the property. This type of covenant is binding on all the grantor’s heirs.
Under certain circumstances, property bestowed under a royal land grant could be lost or devested—the possession, or right of occupancy to the property could be presumed by a usurper. In such cases, only an abstract right to the property was in effect until such time as it could be redeemed. This situation is termed “mere right.” “A person in this situation may have the true and ultimate property of the lands in himself, but the intervention of certain circumstances, either by his own negligence, the solemn act of his ancestor, or the determination of a court of justice, the presumptive evidence of that right is strongly in favour of his antagonist, who has thereby obtained the absolute right of possession. The heir therefore in this case has only a mere right, and must be strictly held to the proof of it, in order to recover the lands.”
Through the temptation and fall of Adam, control of this world and everything in it has been transferred to Satan, who is now called the “prince of this world” (see John 12:31; and 16:11; Job 1:7; 1 Peter 5:8, etc.). After the fall, Adam and his posterity possessed only a mere right to the inheritance granted to them from the foundation of the world. Satan, through the power of sin and death, assumed dominion over the earth. Satan made boast of his possession and control of this world when he attended the grand council meeting in heaven. When God asked him to declare which territory he was representing, Satan arrogantly said he had placed his foot on every part of the earth; it was his property by right of possession and walking survey (Job 1:7).
Adam lost his inheritance when he sinned and forfeited to Satan his birthright possession of the land. He and his family retained only a mere right of possession in it until such time as it could be redeemed for them by Someone who could provide the positive proof of a clear, unencumbered title. The story of Ruth offers insights into this process both as a legal procedure between humans, and as the pattern for the Gospel’s message about our redemption and repatriation in the kingdom of God. With His blood, Christ paid for our sins, paid the full redemption price, and from Satan bought back this earth, and eventually will restore it to its rightful owner and his family. Christ is the “earnest” or surety of our future possession of the inheritance first given freely to Adam, then promised freely to Abraham. An “earnest“ is a token or a pledge of something that is to come in the future. The restoration of the inheritance could only come through the promised Seed (Genesis 3:15).
In Ephesians 1:3-14 the apostle Paul outlines the precious promises of the everlasting covenant of God. These promises include salvation from sin, righteousness, and an inheritance with Christ, which includes the inheritance of the earth made new. Paul tells us that Christ is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession becomes a reality (verse 14). In Christ, we receive all the promises that are to come to God’s faithful children. In Christ, we have full redemption from sin. In Christ, we become adopted sons and daughters of God. In Christ, we obtain an inheritance. In Christ, we receive all things in heaven and earth. All that was promised to Abraham is ours in Christ. The inheritance belongs to all who are children of God through faith in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26-29). Those who believe in Christ’s glorious deliverance from the curse of the law—which is disobedience —can realize the power and blessings of the world to come. The Gospel of salvation was preached to Abraham. Abraham believed what God said and he received the blessing of righteousness (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6). All who believe are blessed with faithful Abraham and become heirs of the promises made to Abraham (Romans 4:13-16; Galatians 3:6-9). The promise to us is the very same promise made to Abraham—the everlasting covenant.