The MOST Theological Collection: Our Father's Plan: God's Arrangements and Our Response

"Chapter 5: Covenant of Sinai"


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"What has he planned? What is in my father's heart? What is in Enlil's holy mind? What has he planned against me in his holy mind? A net he spread: that is the net of an enemy."1 These words are part of a Mesopotamian hymn to Enlil, one of the most powerful gods of that land. It makes clear that that ancient people not only feared their gods, but actually mistrusted them: the gods might set a net or a snare for them.

The ancient Hebrews never expressed such a mistrust of God. But God did say through Isaiah the prophet (55:9): "As far as the skies are high above the earth, so are my ways high above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts." In context, God was encouraging His people to believe in His mercy. Yet in a broader view, they knew it was true that He was so far above them that they could not fully comprehend His ways. And the type of thought found in the Mesopotamian hymn has not been rare among men: Who can know the ways of God? Who can be sure of how He will act? True, the Hebrews did compare God to a Father (Is 63:16), "You are our Father. [Even if] Abraham would not know us, and Israel not acknowledge us: you, O God, are our Father; our redeemer is your name from everlasting."2

Still, God had not yet taken on a human heart, as He did in the incarnation, so that men would see fully-what was eternally true-that He understood and loved them. But if their Father would as it were spell it out for them, if He would say, in effect: "If you do this, I will do that"-then they could be confident, could know how He would act.

This is precisely what His Holiness/Love did in making the Old Covenant; He provided a remedy for their tendency to mistrust.

After Moses had led the Hebrews through the Red Sea with mighty signs, and brought them to the foot of Mt. Sinai, with its thunder, lightning, and trumpet blasts, he heard God speak through the thick cloud (Ex 19:5): "If you really obey my voice, and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, more so than all people." In other words, He told them clearly in His covenant law what they must do: if they would do it, they would receive His special favor, as His specially dear people.

Some interpreters 3 have tried to see in these words just an imposition of commands by the Almighty on His slaves, who would have no claim to anything even if they carried out His will. But that is not the way God spoke: He really did say, in effect: "If you do this, I will do that; if you keep my law, you will be specially favored." These interpreters forgot that if God once gives His word, He owes it to Himself-even if not, technically, to His creatures-to do what He has pledged. So God did take upon Himself an obligation.

The inspired writers of the Old Testament clearly understood this situation. The prophets often compared God's relation to His people to that in marriage, in which both parties take on obligations, and receive claims. Speaking precisely of the covenant, God told His people through Hosea (2:18-25): "And it shall come to pass on that day, says the Lord, you shall call me 'my husband' and never more 'my Baal'. . . . I will betroth you to me forever." Similarly through Jeremiah (2:2): "Go and cry in the ears of Jerusalem: I remember the covenant-devotedness of your youth, the love of your espousal."4 The language of Deuteronomy 26:17-18 is so bold that many modern versions do not dare to render it literally. But in the Hebrew it says: "You have caused the Lord today to say He will be a God to you . . . and the Lord has caused you today to say you will be to Him a people, a special possession . . . and to keep all His commandments." God seems really to have put Himself-we hesitate to say it clearly-on the same plane as His people as to the covenant, for the identical expressions are used of both sides. Obviously, He had bound Himself in the covenant.

St. Paul saw this fact clearly. In Galatians 3:16-18 he sees a difficult problem:

. . . the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say "and to your offsprings," referring to many, but referring to one, "And to your offspring" which is Christ. This is what I mean: the law which came four hundred and thirty years afterward does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance is by law, it is no longer by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.

To follow this difficult thought, we need to notice that Paul thinks he sees a conflict between two things: (1) God made a promise to Abraham, with no conditions involved. But then (2) 430 years later, God made a covenant, which Paul calls the law, and in it the same thing was held out which God had previously promised without any condition. So Paul asks: Did God go back on His promise in now asking for a condition, keeping the law? The answer need not detain us.5 What we want to note is that Paul sees Sinai as a binding arrangement in which God's people must fulfill a condition, and then will get something. But, God had bound Himself to Abraham, without condition. Obviously, God still bound Himself 430 years later. If He had not, the two events would not seem parallel, and St. Paul would have seen no problem.6

At this point it is very helpful to delve more deeply into the reasons why God made a covenant-and afterwards to ask, secondly, the reasons why He gives favors under the covenant once it is made.

Why then did He make a covenant in the first place? The only answer is His own generous goodness, looking out for the welfare of humans, along with, as usual, His love of what right order calls for.

Once the covenant is made, we ask: Why does He gives His favors under it? Here we notice that there are two levels-a basic or fundamental level, a secondary, not basic level.

On the basic level, it is still out of sheer goodness on God's part that He gives His favors; no creature by his own power could possibly generate a claim on God.

But on the secondary level we find Him working out His usual two basic goals. By putting in a condition there can be titles for giving and receiving. His love of good order likes this fact. But, simultaneously, the condition, the law, also serves for the advantage of men, for the covenant law spells out what is needed to make us open, capable of receiving what our Father so generously wants to give. For His laws, as we saw earlier, are not for His benefit, but for ours.7

Ancient Hittite vassal treaties-on which some think the language of the covenant of Sinai was patterned8-did a surprising thing: they commanded love by the vassal. We ask: How can anyone command love? Yet Jesus does the same. When a doctor of the law from the Pharisees came to try to trap Jesus and asked Him (Mt 22:37-40): "Teacher, which command is greatest in the law?" Jesus replied in the words of the great Shema (Deut 6:5): "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." And, after adding the second commandment, love of neighbor, He went on to say : "On these two commandments depend the whole law [covenant law] and the prophets." So again, love is commanded. But again we ask: How is it possible to command love?

The root of the problem is the fact that so many people think love is a feeling. Some even equate "making love" with sex. But love had better be something more durable, more stable than a mere feeling. For love needs to be the basis of a lifelong commitment in marriage; but feelings are not dependable enough for that. Further, Christ commands us to love our neighbor-and then makes everyone our neighbor. Obviously I cannot at all moments have a warm feeling towards all men. Further, love of enemies would be impossible if love were a feeling.9

What love really is can be gathered from the words of John 3:16 "God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish, but may have everlasting life." Now, if God's love led Him to go so far as to send His Son to a horrible death to bring us eternal happiness, then we must ask: What is that love in itself, so that its effect was to go so far for our happiness? Obviously, He must want, or desire, or will our eternal happiness. So it is clear: love is a desire, a will for the happiness and well-being of another, for the other's sake. (If I were to will good to another for my sake, not for his, then I would be using him, not loving him).

But a further problem arises. There is no difficulty in saying that love, when directed to any creature, is what we have said, willing good to the other for the other's sake. But can we really turn to God and as it were say: I hope you are happy, hope you are well off, that you get what you need? Of course not. He needs nothing, gains nothing from our "service."

So we must adjust our meaning somewhat when we apply the same word, love, to both God and to humans.10 As we know, Scripture pictures God as pleased when we obey, displeased when we do not. As we have said several times, He cannot gain anything from our obedience, yet He wants it, just as a good father wants his children to obey because holiness and good order require that, and also because He wants to lavish his favors on the children: but if they are bad, he should punish, not reward.

So, since He is Generosity itself, it gives Him pleasure when we obey because then He can give to us effectively, when we are open to receive. Hence Jesus told His Apostles at the Last Supper (Jn 14:15-21): "If you love me, you will keep my commandments. . . . He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me." Even more explicitly, St. John in his brief second Epistle tells us, in verse 6: "This is love [namely] that we walk according to His commands."

We can see now how wonderfully right is the saying of St. Irenaeus which we read in chapter 1: "God formed Adam, not because He stood in need of man, but that He might have someone to receive His benefits."

Interestingly, the Hittite vassal treaties we mentioned above, in commanding love were really commanding obedience. D. J. McCarthy, in an article in Catholic Biblical Quarterly, explained: "There is no question [in the treaties] of a tender, feeling love. It is simply a matter of reverence, loyalty, obedience, things subject to command and commanded. It is the same attitude which Deuteronomy [6: 5]"-with its great commandment of love-"demands on the basis of the covenant relationship."11 We mentioned briefly above that God wants us to obey so He can give favors, and so we can avoid the penalties built into the nature of things for sin. St. Augustine expressed this well in his Confessions, "You have ordered it, Lord, and it is true: every disordered soul is its own penalty."12 The great Roman historian, Tacitus, in his Annals quotes from a letter sent by Emperor Tiberius to the Senate near the end of his life. Tiberius had holed up in the island of Capri, and was indulging himself in many horrid orgies of sex. But Tiberius wrote thus to the Roman senate: "May the gods cause me to perish, senators, even worse than I feel myself perishing now, if I know what to write to you or how to write it." Tacitus comments:

His crimes and wickedness had turned into punishment for him. Rightly did the wisest of men say that if the souls of tyrants could be laid bare, one could see wounds and mutilations-swellings left on the spirit like lash marks on a body, by cruelty, lust, and ill-will. Neither the autocracy of Tiberius nor his isolation could save him from admitting the inner torments that were his retribution.13

The wisest of men to which Tacitus referred was Socrates, who in Plato's Theatetus said, "They [evil doers] do not know the penalty of wrong doing . . . it is not stripes and death . . . evil-doers often escape these, but a penalty that cannot be escaped . . . that they lead a life like the pattern into which they are growing."14 To take a few more common examples: if a person becomes very drunk some night, the next day he will pay with a hangover. And if people indulge in premarital sex, they will seem to themselves to have love-chemistry makes a fine counterfeit-but not really have it. Later they will wake up and find themselves locked into a loveless marriage. So St. Paul was quite right, when he told the Corinthians-who had quoted his words about freedom from the law so as to permit licentiousness-(1 Cor 6:12): " 'All things are permitted to me'-but not all things are beneficial."

In passing, we can note the inescapable relation of the second commandment, love of neighbor, to love of God. If we really desire to please God, in loving Him, we will want not only to make ourselves open to His favors, so He may have the pleasure of giving to us-we will want also to have everyone be open to Him, so He may have the pleasure of giving to them too. So we need not be concerned about finding a starter, as it were, for love of neighbor, trying to find good in him. It is enough to desire him to be good so God may have the pleasure of giving. And when we do see good in another, then of course, we have another motive, namely, wanting so good a person to be well off by being open to God's benefits. Further, in desiring the good of neighbor, for God's sake, and for neighbor's sake, we please God still more, and thereby become even more open to His benefits, which fact gives Him still more pleasure-and so on, in a spiral expansion.

Finally, when someone makes a vow with the right understanding of such an act, he as it were says to himself: "I want to embark on a path of pleasing God. But I know my instability, and I fear I may pull back after a while. So I will bind myself by vow, to try to prevent my failing God." In other words, intensity of love, of desire to please God, leads humans to bind themselves. Of course, God could not fear for His own perseverance in doing good, but yet, the very intensity of His love for us led Him to bind Himself by covenant, much as we bind ourselves by vows.

Thus does the covenant, in spite of its seemingly legal form, turn out to be a most wonderful invention of love.


1 Quoted from T. Jacobsen, op. cit., p. 144.
2 The Hebrew for redeemer is goel, which stands for the next of kin who, in time of need, has both the right and the duty to rescue his family members who are in difficulty-so God by the covenant becomes as it were a member of the family. Cf. Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel, tr. J. McHugh, McGraw-Hill, NY. 1961, pp. 21. 22.
3 Cf. W. Most, "A Biblical Theology of Redemption in a Covenant Framework," in CBQ 29 (1967) pp. 1-19.
4 Cf. also Jer. 3:1; Ez 16:8; Is 50:1; 54:5; 62:5.
5 St. Paul says that since the Law could not give life, but the promise to Abraham (standing for salvation by faith) could do so-therefore, no conflict. This is a rabbinic type of solution. Really, both the promise and the law originally referred to temporal favors, which were extended at Sinai. Later as centuries went by there was a tendency to reinterpret in spiritual terms.
6 Really, in Rom 2:6 St. Paul, speaking in a covenant framework, says that God "will repay each man according to his works." With the distinctions given in the following paragraphs above, this does not clash with Paul's theme of justification/salvation by faith.
7 Cf. 1 Cor 6:12: " 'All things are permitted'-but not all things are beneficial." Here Paul is quoting his own enemies who quote Paul's saying "You are free from the law" against Paul, to mean they are free to sin. Paul replies that sin brings harm even in this life. Cf. also St. Augustine, Confessions 1:12 PL 32. 670: "You have ordered it Lord, and it is true: every disordered soul is its own punishment."
8 Cf. Dennis J. McCarthy, Treaty and Covenant, Rome, Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1963, and W. G. Most, Covenant and Redemption, St. Paul Publications, Althone, Ireland, 1975, especially chapter 3.
9 Since love consists in willing or wishing good to another for the other's sake, we can wish the good of salvation, and even some goods in this life even to enemies, without much difficulty. Further, we must distinguish feelings of aversion from real enmity. More on these feelings in chapter 15.
10 We are using the word love in an analogous sense, i.e., in a sense that is partly the same, partly different, when applied to two different objects. In speaking of both divine and human things we constantly need to use analogous senses.
11 Dennis J. McCarthy, "Notes on the Love of God in Deuteronomy and the Father-Son Relationship between Yahweh and Israel" in CBQ 27 (1965) p. 146.
12 St. Augustine, Confessions 1:12. PL 32. 670.
13 Tacitus, Annals 6. 6.
14 Plato, Theatetus 176-77.