Gordon Wenham



St Paul insisted that ‘a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ’ (Gal. 2:16), that ‘we are not under law but under grace’ (Rom. 6:1 5). These are key phrases in the apostle’s argument against Judaizers who wished to make Gentile converts to Christianity keep the Old Testament law. Paul trenchantly attacks these Judaizers and insists that men are saved only by the grace of God, his unmerited forgiveness in Christ; that as far as earning salvation is concerned, the Old Testament law is an irrelevance. It serves only to show up man’s weakness and sinfulness. In that it can never be fully observed, it is unable to make a man acceptable to God. The gospel on the other hand frees man from the attempt to win God’s favour by keeping the law.

Because Paul was dealing with opponents who held that keeping the law was the path to salvation, it is often assumed that this was the Old Testament teaching. In the Old Testament era, it is said, a man was saved by doing good works, i.e. by obeying the injunction of the law, not through the grace of God. It is the purpose of this chapter to examine this assumption. Was a man saved by the law in Old Testament times or by the grace of God? Where does the law fit into the Old Testament scheme of salvation?

Grace and Covenant in the Old Testament

The first thing to say about the relationship of grace and law in the Old Testament is that this way of phrasing the question is foreign to the Old Testament. Saving history1 in the Old Testament is built on a series of covenants. After the calamitous start to human history in Genesis 1-8 the future security of mankind is sealed in a covenant with Noah (Gen. 9). With the call of Abraham a new phase in human history begins, the history of Israel. This history revolves around three covenants: the Abrahamic, the Sinaitic and the Davidic covenants.2 The content of these covenants is not identical, but they all constitute turning-points in the history of Israel and are keys to the interpretation of that history. The covenant with Abraham with its triple promises of land, offspring and blessing holds together the whole narrative in Genesis.3

Most of the rest of the Pentateuch is taken up with expositions of the Sinai covenant. The book of Joshua shows how national fidelity to the Sinai covenant brought prosperity,4 while Judges shows the reverse. The covenant with David introduces a new factor into the historical situation. The king of Jerusalem enjoys a special relationship with God and therefore has special responsibilities. The remaining historical books and the prophets are devoted to assessing the nation’s and the kings’ performance in the light of their covenant obligations.

Although the Old Testament does not describe them as such, all three covenants are aptly described as acts of divine grace; that is, they are arrangements initiated by God out of his spontaneous mercy, not because of the deserts of those with whom the covenants are made. This is especially clear in the case of the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants. These are essentially promissory covenants, that is, the covenant consists mainly of divine promises: the obligations placed on David and Abraham are mentioned very briefly. For example in Genesis 12:1-3 Abraham is promised that his descendants will form a large nation and that he will enjoy great blessing. The one command, to leave his own country, is really a further promise in disguise, that God will give him a new land to live in. Similarly David was promised an eternal dynasty, that he would always have a son ruling on his throne no matter how he behaved. Iniquity would indeed be punished, but not by the loss of his throne (2 Sa. 7:14f.).

It seems likely that both the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants are modelled on royal grants of land and dynasty. As a reward for faithful service great kings used to present vassals or leading officials with land, or in the case of vassal kings with land and dynasty. Much of the biblical terminology reflects the usage of these royal grants.5 The biblical texts make it abundantly clear, however, that it was divine grace, not human merit, that prompted these covenants and their promises. Nothing is recorded of Abraham’s achievements before his call. Genesis portrays his career as created by the call of God. The narrative in Samuel emphasizes the insignificance of David, before Samuel at God’s bidding anointed him king (1 Sa. 16). David himself confesses that God’s promises to him and his descendants are totally unmerited: ‘Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that thou hast brought me thus far?’ (2Sa. 7:18).

The Sinaitic covenant is not modelled on a royal grant but on a vassal treaty, a legal form in which the vassal’s obligations are much more prominent. But even here the laws are set in a context of a gracious, divine initiative. Obedience to the law is not the source of blessing, but it augments a blessing already given.

Exodus presents the release from Egyptian slavery and the Sinai covenant as God fulfilling his promise to the patriarchs that he would give the land of Canaan to their descendants (Ex. 2:24-3:17). Half-way between Egypt and Canaan the Sinai covenant is concluded. It begins with a reminder of what God has done thus far: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I . . . brought you to myself’ (Ex. 19:4). Israel’s obligations are then alluded to: ‘Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant’. Then finally a promise is added: ‘You shall be my own possession among all peoples’ (Ex. 19: 5).

This last promise closely resembles what God has already done in bringing them to himself (verse 4). Israel thus finds herself in a virtuous circle. Obedience to the law issues in further experience of the initial grace of God, who brought them to himself. It may be diagrammatically represented as follows:

0x01 graphic

It is important to note the sequence — God’s choice (I) precedes man’s obedience (2), but man’s obedience (a) is a prerequisite of knowing the full benefits of election (3).

A similar virtuous circle is to be found in the material dealing with the erection of the tabernacle. After the experience of God’s presence on Mount Sinai, God offers to dwell among Israel permanently if they build him a suitable shrine. When the tabernacle is completed, God does indeed appear in it (Ex. 24-40). The book of Leviticus points out, however, that the divine presence in Israel is always at risk because of sin. Various regulations about holiness in life and worship are introduced to deal with this problem. They conclude with a series of promises, the last of which is: ‘I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people’ (Lev. 26:12). The word ‘walk’ (hithallek) is not used very often of God, and may be an echo of the Garden of Eden story (Gen. 3:8). Thus, according to Leviticus obedience to the law can bring man back to a near-paradise situation. But once again this is only possible through the prevenient grace of God, who made himself known to Israel in the first place. It should be noted that for Leviticus at least the greatest divine blessings are spiritual; the presence of God is more important even than peace and prosperity.

Deuteronomy is also pervaded by this notion of grace and law. God has already brought the nation into partial possession of the land. Israel is posed to take possession of the rest of their inheritance, but this depends on total obedience to the law and its demands. Only whole-hearted fidelity to God’s directions will ensure them victory over their enemies and peace and prosperity within the land promised to their forefathers.

Within the Sinaitic and Deuteronomic covenants law and grace are not antithetic. Law is the gift of a gracious, saving God. Through keeping the law man can experience more of God’s grace. These concepts have been brought into focus by modern studies of the covenants, especially the comparisons with oriental vassal treaties. To these studies we now turn.

Covenant Terminology

Many investigations have sought to discover the etymology of the Hebrew word for covenant (berît) in the hope that it would shed light on its meaning. But none of the suggested etymologies6 is totally convincing, and since it is clear that the writers of the Old Testament were unaware of its derivation its etymology is therefore quite irrelevant to its meaning.

All important for determining the meaning of berît is actual usage. In a secular context berît is often translated ‘treaty’ (e.g. Gen. 21-27, 32; 26:28; 31:44; I Kgs. 5:12; 20:34; cf. Gen. 14:13, ‘ally’), but when it refers to God’s treaty with Israel it is translated ‘covenant’. It is perhaps a pity that the translation is different in different contexts, because it obscures the parallel between God’s relationship with Israel and the political relationships that existed in ancient empires. Recent studies have shown that the terminology, structure and ideology of the Sinaitic and Deuteronomic covenants have been adapted from that used in drawing up international vassal treaties.7 These treaties shed light on the distinctive features of the biblical covenants and help to explain the order and content of the Old Testament passages dealing with the covenant.8

Secular Vassal Treaties and the Sinai Covenant

In the biblical era various types of treaty were used, but the most common were the so-called vassal or suzerainty treaties. Great empires were held together by force of arms and vassal treaties. The kings of the great empires, e.g. Egypt, the Hittites and Assyria, called themselves ‘great king’ as opposed to lesser kings who ruled a city or two in Canaan (e.g. Jos. 1 2). When the ‘great king’ conquered a minor king, he might allow the latter to continue in control of his kingdom as long as he swore allegiance to the ‘great king’. The oath of allegiance took the form of a vassal treaty, in which the vassal pledged his support of the ‘great king’. Stereo-typed forms and language were used in drafting these treaty documents. It seems to me that the Old Testament uses the analogy of God as ‘great king’ quite deliberately, just as it draws on images from other realms of human activity such as the family. Certainly the idea of the divine suzerain throws into high relief the sovereignty and grace of God in his dealings with Israel. In the Psalms God is frequently spoken of as king, and even as ‘great King’ (Ps. 95:3). In Old Testament contexts many other terms drawn from the treaties make an appearance: they include ‘own possession’, ‘to go after’ other gods (i.e. serve as vassal), ‘to love’, ‘to fear’, ‘to sin’, ‘to hearken to his voice’, ‘to do as he commands’.

Just as the Old Testament is indebted to the treaty tradition for covenant terminology, so it is heavily dependent on this source for the basic structure of the covenant. As a rule Hittite vassal treaties begin with a brief section listing the suzerain’s titles. This is followed by a longish historical section outlining the great king of Hatti’s mercy and kindness towards his vassal. ‘The description always amounts to saying that the vassal concerned is bound to be eternally grateful for all the benefits, honours and favours which he has already received from the great king.’9 In Deuteronomy 1-3 we find a similar section outlining God’s love and care and forbearance towards Israel during the years in the desert. The earlier Sinai covenant similarly opens with a brief statement of God’s saving mercy in the words: ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt’ (Ex. 20:2).

The next main section of the treaty is the stipulations section in which are outlined the duties of the vassal towards his suzerain. Basically he must be faithful to him at all times, support him in battle, bring him tribute, hand over subversive rebels, etc. This section finds parallels in the Old Testament collections of law, especially in Exodus 20:3 - 23:19 and Deuteronomy 4-26.10

Polytheistic Hittites then invited the gods to witness the treaty, before invoking blessings on those who kept the treaty and curses on those who did not. The Old Testament naturally omits the god list, but it retains the blessings and the curses.

The Covenant Context of Old Testament Law

The laws of the Sinai and Deuteronomic covenants are to be found in Exodus 20 - Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 4-26, which, following the treaty analogy, may be called the stipulations section. For a proper appreciation of the place of the law in the Old Testament it is essential to bear in mind that nearly all the laws in the Pentateuch appear within a covenant framework. Law is therefore integral to God’s saving plan which is worked out through covenants.

A number of consequences follow from the covenant context of Israelite law:

First, these laws are more than an abstract system of morality. They are the personal demands of the sovereign, personal God on his subject people. This is stressed time and time again in different ways. ‘The Lord came down upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain; and the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up’ (Ex. 19:20). The law was given orally and in writing. Often the very formulation of the laws, as direct speech, emphasizes that it comes from God himself. Commenting on the events at Sinai Deuteronomy 4:32f. says:

‘For ask now of the days that are past, which were before you, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and ask from one end of heaven to the other, whether such a great thing as this has ever happened or was ever heard of. Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live?’

The personal character of the relationship enshrined in the laws is emphasized by its exhortations. Israel must follow justice in her courts, and protect the weak because this is how God acts (Dt. 10:17ff; 14:1; 16:18ff., etc.). Israel is to be holy . . ., for I the Lord am holy’ (Lev. 20:26). Motive clauses like these are scattered throughout the Pentateuch and are a distinctive feature of Old Testament law,11 for they are not found in other ancient Near Eastern laws. They serve to reinforce a point that is often made explicitly in the Old Testament, that the covenant creates a personal relationship between God and Israel.12

This was part of the promise to Abraham: ‘I will establish my covenant . . . ‘to be God to you and to your descendants after you’ (Gen. 17:7). That such a relationship is the goal of the covenant is reiterated before the law-giving at Sinai: ‘Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, . . . you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (Ex. 19:5f.). As priests are set apart from ordinary men for the service of God, so a holy nation is to be set apart from other nations. Elsewhere the Israelites are called ‘sons of God’. Through obedience to the covenant Israel confirms her calling to be God’s chosen people. It is the law which transforms Israel from being simply the descendants of Abraham into a nation (gôy), a society organized for the service of God.13

Secondly, the covenant setting of the law emphasizes that salvation is not based on works. The covenant was made with those who had already been saved from Egypt: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself’ (Ex. 19:4). The Decalogue itself is preceded by a reminder about the exodus: ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage’ (Ex. 20:2). The structure of the covenant form, with the historical prologue preceding the stipulations section, makes it dear that the laws are based on grace. In Deuteronomy the saving acts of God (Dt. 1-3) are related before the stipulations are imposed on Israel (Dt. 4ff.). Israel is expected to obey because God has brought the people out of Egypt and preserved them in the desert. The priority and absoluteness of God’s grace are constantly reiterated: ‘The Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness; for you are a stubborn people. . . . Even at Horeb you provoked the Lord to wrath’ (Dt. 9:6, 8). God’s grace in history is always the primary motive for obedience to the demands of the covenant. Deuteronomy 4-11 is a passionate plea to love God with all the heart, soul and mind. This demand is constantly being reinforced by appeals to the past history of Israel. These chapters freely mix historical reminiscence with exhortation, but even later in the more prosaic chapters 12-26 dealing with specific questions, historical allusions are often introduced in support of particular laws (e.g. Dt. 24:8f.; 25:17-19).

A third feature of the Old Testament collections of law distinguishes them from extrabiblical collections. The latter consist almost entirely of case law. If a man does X, his punishment shall be Y. They deal only with ordinary matters of legal dispute. The Old Testament of course contains many examples of this type of law, but it includes as well straight prohibitions and numerous religious regulations. The covenant basis of law explains why there is such a mixture of subjects dealt with. The primary command of the covenant is to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart’, or to put it negatively to ‘have no other gods before me’. And as in the New Testament, love is not conceived of as mere feeling but as faithfully obeying all that God commanded. ‘You shall therefore love the Lord your God, and keep his charge, his statutes, his ordinances, and his commandments always’ (Dt. 11:1). Among the specific requirements of the Sinai covenant, the Ten Commandments occupy a very special place, summarizing as they do the basic religious and moral principles that must control Israel’s behaviour.14 Other more specific demands of the covenant have close parallels with stipulations in ancient treaties. God as the great sovereign requires his vassal Israel to behave as a good subject ought. Israel must recognize her exclusive allegiance to her only Lord and King. In practice this means that Israel must wage war on God’s behalf against his enemies, destroying heathen idols and their worshippers (Ex. 23:23f.; Dt. 7:1-5).15 It also involves the regular offering of sacrifice and tithes to him in acknowledgment of his sovereignty (Ex. 23:14ff.; Dt. 12:1ff.; 14:22ff.; 16:1ff.), just as earthly vassals had to bring their annual tribute to their suzerain. Vassals were supposed to read their treaty documents regularly, so too Israel is expected to read the law (Dt. 27 and 3 1). Negatively, allegiance to the Lord means the avoidance of anything that has associations with pagan cults (Dt. 12-13).

The fourth aspect of the law highlighted by the covenant form is the section of blessings and curses (e.g. Lev. 26 and Dt. 28). Earlier it was noted that God’s grace in choosing Israel should lead Israel to obey the Lord, and in consequence enjoy a further measure of divine grace. This virtuous circle receives formal expression in the very structure of the covenant documents themselves. They begin with a historical prologue recalling God’s past mercies, their central section consists of stipulations (laws), and they conclude with blessings. To quote Deuteronomy 28:1: ‘And if you obey the voice of the Lord your God . . . the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth.’ But both Leviticus and Deuteronomy are at pains to point out that if Israel disobeys the law, she will quickly find herself in a vicious downward spiral with disaster following disaster: ‘If you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God . . . then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you’ (Dt. 28:15).

Thus opens a horrendous list of curses containing some of the most spine-chilling passages in the whole Old Testament. The promise of continued peace and prosperity if Israel keeps the covenant, and woe and destruction if she does not, is not confined to Deuteronomy 28. Time and time again in the exhortations attached to the law Israel is reminded of the consequences of her action. Her persistent rebelliousness is recalled, and its results: ‘Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness. . . . Even at Horeb you provoked the Lord to wrath, and the Lord was so angry with you that he was ready to destroy you’ (Dt. 9:7f.). On the other hand the promise of blessing is constantly being held out if Israel is faithful: ‘Honour your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you; that your days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with you, in the land which the Lord your God gives you’ (Dt. 5:16). As the new covenant was based on grace, so was the old. We may draw another parallel here. Both in the New Testament and in the Old Testament the promise of reward and the threat of punishment continue to play a role for those under the covenant. Thus I think that it is fair to say that because the law in the Old Testament has its basis in the covenant, it can never be a disinterested ethic. It is not merely the love of God which compels, but also the fear of God.

Finally we must draw attention to another aspect of covenant which has a bearing on the law, namely its irrevocability16 (cf. Rom. 11:29). God cannot break his promises to the patriarchs. ‘It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love upon you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples; but it is because the Lord loves you, and is keeping the oath which he swore to your fathers’ (Dt. 7:7f.). Similarly, Leviticus 26:40ff. and Deuteronomy 30 say that even after the covenant has been broken and Israel has experienced the worst consequences of the covenant curses, there may still be restoration if the people repent. There is therefore an unshakeable hope built into the covenant itself. It means that the history of Israel must always be significant. Nothing happens to her by chance. Even if she rebels, her destiny is always under her sovereign Lord.

The Davidic Covenant

One other Old Testament covenant deserves a mention: the covenant with David. This has little to do with the law, but it does illustrate some of the aspects of covenant we have focused attention on in connection with the Sinaitic and Deuteronomic covenants. It is commonly stated that, originally, the Davidic covenant was unconditional, devoted wholly to promise and without any stipulations or threats attached to it.l7 This is not true, however, of the principal account of the Davidic covenant found in a Samuel 7. The prophet Nathan had rashly assured David that the Lord would like him to build a temple. At night Nathan was told that he was wrong. Instead he had to tell David that God was making an eternal covenant with the house of David, i.e. that the descendants of David would always be kings of Israel. Much the same features which characterize the Mosaic covenant are found in the Davidic covenant too. First, it is a relationship based entirely on divine grace demonstrated in history: ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you’ (2Sa. 7:8f.). Secondly, even more clearly than with the Sinai covenant, the drawing up of a covenant creates a state of grace and blessing: ‘I will be his father, and he shall be my son’ (verse 14). Thirdly, maintenance of this blessing depends on obedience to the divine commands: ‘When he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men’ (verse 14). Here we find implicit what is explicit in Deuteronomy, namely that disobeying the covenant stipulations will bring the curse of economic disaster and military defeat. Fourthly, the covenant is eternal; though disobedience may bring trouble for a time, it will not last: ‘I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul . . . your throne shall be established for ever’ (verses 15f.).

Covenant Ideas Elsewhere in the Old Testament

For the whole of the rest of Old Testament religious history both the Sinaitic and Davidic covenants are of fundamental importance. The Psalms, many of which were sung in the Jerusalem temple, were most influential in moulding popular religious thinking. Some of them speak directly of the great covenants (44, 78, 89, 105, 132, etc.); in many others, covenant ideas are simply presupposed. The books of Kings in recounting the history of the monarchy make the decisive test of a king’s character whether he was faithful to Mosaic law and Davidic practice (e.g. 2Ki. 18:8; 14:3-6; 16:2-4).18 Kings tries to show how the success of a particular king correlates with his adherence or otherwise to the covenant. The blessings and curses built into the covenant are demonstrated working out in history.

The covenant is also basic to the preaching of the prophets,19 though they do not often use the word itself. Superficially they may appear to be straightforward preachers of righteousness fervently denouncing the moral and political ills of their time. But such a judgment misses the way in which the covenant structures the prophets’ message. Appeals to Israel’s history recur frequently, reminding the people that God’s electing grace is not only a cause for thanksgiving but a ground for accountability: ‘Hear this word that the Lord has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family which I brought up out of the land of Egypt: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities”’ (Am. 3:1f.).

According to the prophets the fault of Israel lay in her flouting of the covenant stipulations, thereby making all her outward allegiance in worship an empty show. Israel had broken the solemn treaty with her partner, and therefore God had declared war on his rebellious vassal. There is more than a formal similarity between some of the Old Testament ‘controversies’ (rib, Is. 1) and secular declarations of war.20 Hosea cites the commandments that have been broken: ‘The Lord has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or kindness, and no knowledge of God in the land; there is swearing, lying, killing, stealing, and committing adultery; they break all bounds and murder follows murder. Therefore the land mourns, and all who dwell in it languish’ (Hos. 4:1ff.). As the ‘therefore’ makes plain, the mourning of the land is intrinsically related to the preceding sins (cf. Is. 24:5 f.).21 Every statement of the covenant concludes with a section of blessings and curses. The prophets proclaim that the guilt of Israel is such that the land is already suffering the effects of these curses and worse is to be expected in the near future. To mitigate their suffering Israel must repent forthwith. But the prophets’ words go unheeded and they regretfully announce the imminent loss of the ancient institutions popularly supposed to have been guaranteed by the covenant. National sovereignty, the temple in Jerusalem and the Davidic dynasty will all be forfeit, at least in the immediate future. It was little wonder that the prophets faced such opposition from the ecclesiastical and political establishment; their message could plausibly be construed as an attack on the divine promises themselves.22

There are gleams of light in many prophetic passages, however, which show that they did believe the divine promises were eternal even though generations might pass without enjoying them. They look forward to a new age, when Israel will have received its fill of punishment and be reconstituted a purified people of God. In that day there will be a new Davidic king whose rule will extend over the whole earth (Is. 9 and 11). In this fashion Isaiah, who had earlier told Ahaz that his unbelief meant the end of the Davidic dynasty (Is. 7), yet holds out hope that the covenant with David will be renewed.23 Similarly Jeremiah promises the renewal of the Mosaic covenant:

‘Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more’ (Jer. 31:31-34).

The law written on the heart is for Jeremiah the guarantee that the old external law will be kept. Ezekiel (chapters 34-37) takes up Jeremiah’s idea of a new covenant enshrining the principles of the Mosaic covenant and combines it with the notion of a new Davidic covenant. Through the power of the Spirit of God Israel will be raised to new life and under a Davidic prince they will fulfil the law of God. For Ezekiel at least there is no dichotomy between the new life through the Spirit and adherence to the law. In fact it is only the Spirit that makes adherence possible. ‘A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances’ (Ezk. 36: 26f.).

Written at least 150 years after Ezekiel, the books of Chronicles again emphasize the significance of the Davidic covenant in the history of Israel. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah both include records of solemn covenants. Ezra 10 deals with a pledge to divorce foreign wives. Nehemiah 10 covers a wider range of topics, endorsing various pentateuchal laws. In both cases the legal enactments are clearly set in a covenantal context. The laws themselves are preceded by a long historical prologue recalling the divine mercy and national apostasies which had resulted in their present unhappy plight. Re-endorsement of the covenant promises is put forward as the path to national blessing and prosperity. Thus, though there is no concluding section of blessings and curses in Ezra and Nehemiah, it is evident that basic covenant concepts have undergone little change in the 8oo years from Moses to Ezra.

Throughout the Old Testament, then, law is consistently set in the context of covenant. This means that law both presupposes grace and is a means of grace. Law presupposes grace because law is only revealed to those God has called to himself. Law is a means of grace because through obedience to it the redeemed enter into a closer relationship to their divine king and enjoy more of the blessings inherent within the state of salvation.

Covenant in the New Testament

In view of the importance of the covenant in the Old Testament, it is mentioned remarkably rarely in the teaching of Jesus and Paul. The epistle to the Hebrews is the only book in the New Testament to develop the idea that Christ has inaugurated a new covenant. Does this mean then that most New Testament writers reject the relationship of grace and law enshrined in the Old Testament covenants?

We should be wary of too hastily assuming a continuity between Old and New Testament teaching on this point, since five centuries separate the covenants of Ezra and Nehemiah from the writing of the New Testament. As Christians we feel bound to assert that Christ fulfils the Old Testament law, but that must not be allowed to obscure the fact that at certain points he surpasses the teaching of the Old Testament.24 On this particular issue, the relationship of law and grace, I believe the New Testament is in essential agreement with the Old. The nature of the saving event has changed, but the response expected of the believer to the call of God has not. Under the old covenant Israel was saved in the exodus from Egypt. She was expected to respond by accepting the kingship of Yahweh and obeying his covenant law. Under the new covenant the new Israelis saved by the coming of Christ. She is expected to respond by acknowledging that Christ is Lord and following his teaching.

To demonstrate this thesis is very much more complicated, and I can only indicate the lines along which the detailed argument might proceed. The first step is to examine the beliefs of Judaism at the turn of the era. Did they still accept the covenant basis of law, which permeates the Old Testament? The second stage is to examine the teaching of the New Testament itself. Did Jesus, Paul and the other writers see the relationship of grace and law in covenant terms?

It has often been asserted that the covenantal basis of law expressed so clearly in the Old Testament was lost in later Judaism, that in inter-testamental times a new understanding of the place of law in the scheme of salvation came to be generally accepted, namely that obeying the law earned a man salvation. A works-legalism tended to replace the view that salvation was through God’s gracious covenant with Israel. This view is a total distortion of the true picture. In fact the Old Testament view of the relationship of grace and law was retained in inter-testamental and early rabbinic Judaism.25 Most of the apocryphal and pseudepigraphical works of immediately pre-Christian times, the Essene writings from Qumran, and the tannaitic literature of the first centuries AD, agree on the basic essentials of the way of salvation, which Sanders terms ‘covenantal nomism’.

‘The “pattern” or “structure” of covenantal nomism is this: (1) God has chosen Israel and (2) given the law. The law implies both (3) God’s promise to maintain the election and (4) the requirement to obey. (5) God rewards obedience and punishes transgression. (6) The law provides for means of atonement, and atonement results in (7) maintenance or re-establishment of the covenantal relationship. (8) All those who are maintained in the covenant by obedience, atonement and God’s mercy belong to the group which will be saved. An important interpretation of the first and last points is that election and ultimately salvation are considered to be by God’s mercy rather than human achievement.’26

It should also be noted that just as in the prophets, the term ‘covenant’ appears relatively rarely in the rabbinic literature. Sanders argues, convincingly in my opinion, that the reason for the scarcity of discussion of the word is that it was so fundamental to their thought. ‘The covenant was presupposed, and the rabbinic discussions were largely directed toward the question of bow to fulfil the covenantal obligations.’27 In the Dead Sea Scrolls on the other hand, covenant is mentioned quite frequently, probably because the Essenes regarded themselves as members of the new covenant foretold by Jeremiah and were anxious to assert their identity over against mainline Judaism. But the Essenes shared the same general view of the relationship of covenant and law that characterized the rest of Judaism in the New Testament era, that salvation was through God’s election of Israel and that keeping the law kept one within God’s mercy but did not secure that grace. They held that the rest of Jewry was lax in its adherence to the law and therefore in grave danger of forfeiting the salvation that was all Israel’s inheritance. But the same pattern of covenantal nomism is present in their works as well as in rabbinic literature.

An understanding of first-century Jewish thinking about the covenant and the law puts the teaching of Jesus and Paul in a dearer perspective. That they rarely mention the covenant does not prove they regarded it as unimportant. It could be that just like the rabbis they assumed it was fundamental, and therefore required no discussion. This latter possibility is confirmed, I believe, by an examination of the teaching of Jesus and Paul.

Jesus’ only reference to the covenant occurs in the solemn context of the last supper. On that occasion Jesus said, ‘This is my blood of the covenant’ (Mk. 14:24). For our present purpose it is unnecessary to establish exactly what Jesus meant when he said this; what is significant is that he assumed that his disciples would understand and also that the evangelists supposed their readers would understand the remark without further explanation. They simply anticipate familiarity with the notion of covenant.

More important still, many aspects of Jesus’ teaching28 directly recall various details of Old Testament covenant thinking. First and foremost his parables are about the kingdom (kingship might be a more appropriate translation) of God. It will be recalled that all the Old Testament covenants presuppose that God is the king of Israel. Within the parables and his other sayings Jesus sets out a view of the relationship of God and man that finds many parallels in the Old Testament covenant. He declares that the kingdom of God has drawn near (Mk. 1:15; cf. Ex. 19:9). His parables and his treatment of publicans and sinners declare that men are forgiven through the unmerited grace of God (e.,g. Lk. 14-18). He presents his teaching as a new law which at once fulfils and surpasses the law of Moses (Mt. 5). Those who obey his teaching and follow his example will be called blessed on the day of judgment; those who do not will be called accursed (Mt. 7:21ff.; 25:31f.). It is therefore quite appropriate to describe the message of Jesus so far as the relationship of grace and law is concerned as a type of covenantal nomism rooted in the Old Testament.

In certain very important respects, however, Jesus’ teaching gives a radical, fresh interpretation to the covenantal nomism common both to the Old Testament and to first-century Judaism. The central difference concerns his person and role. The kingdom of God comes not on another Sinai but with him. He is the king of Israel. His teaching, not Moses’, is the final authority for men. His death, not that of the lambs prescribed in Leviticus, is the ransom for the sins of mankind. He is the judge who will pronounce the blessing and the curse on the last day. Another point of difference between his teaching and that of the Old Testament concerns the scope of election. Many of his remarks challenge the usual equation of Israel with those who are being saved. On the one hand he warns many of those who regard themselves as righteous that God does not and will not accept them. On the other, penitent sinners are repeatedly assured of God’s mercy, and there are several hints that this mercy extends to those outside of Israel. Implicit in our Lord’s teaching is a universalizing of the Old Testament view, opening up the covenant to all who acknowledge the kingship of Christ.

Similarly in Paul the basic covenantal scheme is clearly present.29 Indeed his formulation of the relationship of law and grace was the starting-point of our essay. But like his fellow rabbis Paul was no antinomian. Unlike them, however, he was under the law of Christ; that is, he was guided by Christ’s precept and example. He warns the Corinthians that they can expect God’s judgment, as ancient Israel did, if they persist in immorality. He looks forward to receiving a reward for faithful service, just as Israel knew blessing when they were loyal to the Lord.

When Paul’s writings are compared with the Gospels the centrality of Jesus in the new covenant is more evident. In the Gospels the kingdom of God is presented somewhat mysteriously in parables; Paul categorically affirms that Jesus is Lord. In the Gospels Jesus occasionally welcomes non-Jews as his followers. Paul declares, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek . . . you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal. 3:28). The universalization of the old covenant is complete; the kingdom of heaven is open to all believers.

In stressing the essential continuity of the Old and New Testaments as regards the relationship of law and grace, it is easy to give the impression that the Gospels and Paul are little more than a revamping of the old covenant in a universalistic and Christocentric framework. There is very much more to the ethical teaching of Jesus and Paul than this and it is the purpose of some of the later essays30 to expound these aspects in greater detail. The purpose of the next essay is to lay the groundwork for the discussion of a particular problem that arises out of Jesus’ affirmation that his teaching, not the Old Testament law, is the final authority. He also emphatically affirms, however, that the law was God-given, that his teaching does not contradict it but fulfils it, and indeed Jesus claims that his teaching sometimes recovers the true intention of the law which his contemporaries had forgotten. Jesus’ attitude to the law is thus highly paradoxical: on the one hand he and his teaching replace it, on the other he is witnessed to by the law and he agrees with the law and its divine authority. To help resolve this paradox, the next essay examines the content of the Old Testament law in its original setting. This aims to make clear the essential continuity of old and new covenant ethics, without obscuring the occasional points of real difference between them.


  1. By this I mean the theological interpretation of Israel’s history presented in the canonical books of the Old Testament as opposed to a modern critical understanding of that history. See G. von Rad, Old Testament Theology, I (Oliver and Boyd, 2962), pp. 105ff. Furthermore, our present concern is the theology of the books in their final form rather than that of the underlying sources. For a justification of this approach see H. J. Kraus, Die biblische Theologie: ibre Geschichte und Problematik (Neukirchen, 1970), pp. 367ff.; B. S. Childs, ‘The Sensus Literalis of Scripture’, in H. Donner (ed.), Beiträge zur alttestamentlichen Theologie: FS für W. Zimmerli (Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, Gottingen, 1977), pp. 80-93.
  2. D. R. Hillers, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea (Johns Hopkins, Baltimore, 1969); J. Bright, Covenant and Promise (SCM Press, 1977).
  3. On the Abrahamic covenant see R. E. Clements, Abraham and David (SCM Press, 1967) and N. Lohfink, Die Landverbeissung als Eid (Katholisches Bibelwerk, Stuttgart, 1967).
  4. See G. J. Wenham, ‘The Deuteronomic Theology of the Book of Joshua’, Journal of Biblical Literature 90, 1971, pp. 140-148.
  5. See M. Weinfeld, ‘The Covenant of Grant in the Old Testament and in the Ancient Near East’, Journal of the American Oriental Society 90, 1970, pp. 184-203; idem, ‘Covenant, Davidic’, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume, (Abingdon, New York, 1977), pp. 188-192.
  6. There are four main possibilities: berît could come from (1) brh ‘to eat’ (2) brh ‘to see’ (3) birit ‘between’ (4) biritu ‘fetter, band’. For further discussions see E. Kutsch, Verheissung und Gesetz (de Gruyter, Berlin, 1973), pp. 28ff.; J. Barr, ‘Some Semantic Notes on the Covenant’, Beiträge zur alitestamentlichen Theologie (Vandenhoeck, Gottingen, 1977), pp. 23-38; M. Weinfeld, ‘Bent’, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, II (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1977), pp. 253-278.
  7. Of the many modern discussions D. J. McCarthy, Treaty and Covenant (Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome, 1963) and Old Testament Covenant: A Survey of Current Opinions (Blackwell, 1972) and M. Weinfeld, Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School (Clarendon Press, 1972) are among the most useful.
  8. Some studies suggest that the arrangement of Near Eastern collections of law may also have influenced Old Testament covenant texts, and that the Old Testament covenant form could be described as a cross between the treaty and ‘law-code’ form. See my article in The Churchman 84, 1970, p. 219; S. M. Paul, Studies in the Book of the Covenant in the Light of Cuneiform and Biblical Law (Brill, Leiden, 1970), pp. 27ff.; M. Weinfeld, Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School, pp. 146ff.
  9. V. Korosec, Hethitische Staatesverlädge (Weicher, Leipzig, 1931), p. 23.
  10. M. Weinfeld, Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School, pp. 59ff.
  11. B. Gemser, ‘The Importance of the Motive Clause in Old Testament Law’, Supplement to Vetus Testamentum 1, 1953, pp. 50-66.
  12. Ex. 4:22; Dt. 1:31; 14:1; cf. 32:6. Secular treaties were also thought to create a family relationship. The vassals are called ‘Sons’ of the suzerain, and ‘brothers’ of each other (cf. Am. 1:9) and address the suzerain as ‘father’ (McCarthy, Old Testament Covenant, p. 66).
  13. S. M. Paul, op. cit., pp. 30ff.
  14. For further discussion see next chapter.
  15. The command to exterminate the Canaanites (e.g. Dt. 7:1ff.) raises acute problems. It is often seen as the expression of bellicose nationalism dressed up as a divine command. In context the ban on the Canaanites appears in a different light. It is because the Canaanites serve other gods and will deflect Israel from total loyalty to the Lord that Israel must eliminate them. Deuteronomy chapter 13 is equally severe on Israelite towns, families or individuals who forsake the Lord. They must be ruthlessly sought out and executed. Similarly Deuteronomy 28:15-68 warns that wholesale ruin will face Israel if they are not careful to do all the words of this law. Judgment on sin is just as much part of the fabric of New Testament theology as it is in the Old Testament. For a fuller discussion of the ethical issues see J. W. Wenham, The Goodness of God (Inter-Varsity Press, 1974), pp. 119ff.
  16. Here I part company with the usual view (cf. J. Bright, Covenant and Promise, pp. 26ff.) that the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants were basically eternal and unconditional, whereas the Sinaitic/Deuteronomic covenant was conditional and not necessarily eternal. Rather, as J. Barr (Beiträge zur alttestamentlichen Theologie, p. 33) points out, all biblical covenants are eternal. It is also clear that all the covenants had conditions attached to them, at least in the texts as we now have them.
  17. Cf. M. Weinfeld, ‘Covenant, Davidic’, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume, pp. 188-192.
  18. G. von Rad, Old Testament Theology, I, pp. 334ff.
  19. J. Bright, Covenant and Promise; R. E. Clements, Prophecy and Covenant (SCM Press, 1965), pp. 18ff.; W. Zimmerli, The Law and the Prophets (Harper and Row, New York, 1967).
  20. J. Harvey, Biblica 43, 1962, pp. 172ff.
  21. D. R. Hillers, Treaty Curses and the Old Testament Prophets (Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome, 1964).
  22. See J. Bright, Covenant and Promise, pp. 140ff.
  23. So R. Kilian, Die Verheissung Immanuels (Katholisches Bibelwerk, Stuttgart, 1968) and J. A. Motyer, ‘Context and Content in the Interpretation of Isaiah 7:14’, Tyndale Bulletin 21, 1970, pp. 118ff.
  24. See next essay for some examples in the realm of food laws and sexual ethics.
  25. E. P. Sanders, Paid and Palestinian Judaism (SCM Press, 2977) discusses the issues with great thoroughness.
  26. Ibid., p. 422.
  27. Ibid., p. 421.
  28. Among the vast literature on this subject the following are especially useful. R. J. Banks, Jesus and the Law in the Synoptic Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 1975); W. D. Davies, The Sermon on the Mount (Cambridge University Press, 1966); J. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus2 (SCM Press, 1963); J. Jeremias, New Testament Theology, I: The Proclamation of Jesus (SCM Press, and J. W. Wenham, Christ and the Bible (Inter-Varsity Press, 1972).
  29. See E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, pp. 431ff.
  30. By R. E. Nixon and B. N. Kaye.


Gordon Wenham served as Lecturer in Semitic Studies at The Queen's University, Belfast. This article can be found in Law, Morality and the Bible, edited by Bruce Kaye and Gordon Wenham with a preface by J.I. Packer (InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, Ill., 1978.

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