The Abrahamic Covenant, part 1

Part 2 may be found here.

I’m not quite sure what to think of the Abrahamic covenant. There are clearly different camps in covenant theology that have differing opinions on it’s nature. Are the Davidic and Abrahamic covenants unconditional or conditional? According to what I thought I knew about covenant theology, I believed them to be conditional, just like all other biblical covenants. But not so fast says Meredith Kline and the White Horse Inn.

For those interested in this issue, Richard Pratt’s “God of Covenant” is a delightful treat. Pratt responds to those like Kline who distinguish between different types of ancient near east treaties (ANE). According to Klineans, there is a distinct difference between Suzerain-Vassal treaties and Royal land grants. Suzerain-Vassal treaties are conditional and Royal land grant treaties are unconditional. When looking at the biblical data, it seems that the Mosaic covenant resembles a Suzerain-Vassal treaty (conditional) whereas Abe’s covenant resembles a Royal land grant treaty (unconditional). You can see this distinction when pastors focus on how the Mosaic covenant was focused on law whereas the Abrahamic and new covenants have their orientation in grace.

Pratt wrote ‘God of Covenant’ in response to this movement in covenant theology. First of all, assuming that an ancient near east treaty was unconditional is counter-intuitive. Really? Loyalty was not required to ancient Hittite ¬†kings who granted land to their subjects? Even if an ancient Royal land grant makes no mention of required loyalty to kings, the idea of loyalty was so basic to ancient cultures that to assume it had to be stated in every document is ridiculous. In this case, if there is silence on the issue, it’s not deafening, it’s piddling.

Nevertheless, Pratt cites recent research on ANE covenants and finds that Royal land grants are just as conditional as Suzerain-Vassal treaties. Consider the grant of Assyrian king Ashurbanipal to his servant Baltaya. We read the following instructions:

If any one of [Baltaya's sons] has sinned against the king, his lord, (or) lifted his hand against a god, do not go on the word of a hostile informer, (but) investigate and establish whether the statement is true. Do not act negligently against the seal, but impose punishment upon him in accordance with his guilt.

Now this doesn’t explicitly state that Baltaya is to be punished for disobedience but this hardly proves that the land grant was unconditional. Pratt points out that our temptation as modern readers is to read this threat too individualistically. “Among honorable people in the ancient world, the threat of severe punishment against progeny was no less of a threat against the head of the family.” And if this evidence isn’t convincing enough, other land grants from the ANE explicitly state that the recipients of the land grants owe their benefactors continued loyalty (cf. Ugaritic texts from the second millenium).

In another post I’ll look at the biblical data with regards to whether the Abrahamic covenant is conditional or unconditional.