punishment

Covenant faithfulness and kindness

“For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that through patience and through comfort of the scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4 – ASV).

I often wonder what Bible critics are reading when I read their conclusions about God, especially in the Old Testament, being a surly, arbitrary brute. I wonder how they miss the connections being made in the Old Covenant and its relationships. Had Israel kept the covenant, they would have found the highest ethical standard of living known in the ancient world, especially when compared with other such “codes.”

For example: Class distinctions were standard in the Hammurabi code in administrating penalties. Whereas the Covenant with Israel set the alien sojourner on equal standing with an Israelite. Class distinctions were not to be taken into consideration (Leviticus 19:15), even kings were not above the law.

In Assyrian law, cutting noses, ears, and chopping off hands was prevalent. Not in the Covenant, where punishment was set with limitations (Deuteronomy 25:3), notice the reason being that the punished was still considered a brother, with a brother’s rights and place in the family.

In Babylon, crimes against property included capital punishment. Not so in Israel.

Everywhere a slave was a thing, property. In Israel, slaves were given protection against abuse (Exodus 21:20, 26–27).

Old Testament ethics demonstrate a higher concern for the individual, because greater value is placed on human life. We see this in the story of David and the showbread (1 Samuel 21). The covenant forbade eating of the showbread, as it was part of the priests’ reparations. Yet a high priest gives the showbread to a famished David and his men and did no wrong.

Meditate on Matthew 12:1-8 where Jesus uses the incident of David and the showbread in his defense of his disciples. As others have pointed out, Jesus doesn’t claim “executive privilege” for either himself, the high priest or David. Instead Jesus points to Hosea 6:6 when he says, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” Jesus holds his critics responsible for making and applying the proper inference.

Not every detail of the Mosaic Law was about moral observance. What moral issue is attached the color blue in the loops of the tabernacle curtains (Exodus 24:4)? The moral issue is not the color, but rather, will man keep covenant faithfulness with God?

The Old Testament has a deep, rich, wonderful word; it has no equivalent word in English – Hesed.

It is translated variously as mercy, lovingkindness, compassion, kindness, loyalty, steadfastness, faithfulness and so forth, but it is grounded in the idea of covenant faithfulness or covenant kindness. In many ways it defines the characteristic of God in the Old Testament in his unshakable covenant love for his people.

Now, this love is based on covenant relationship, not on reciprocation. It’s not doing for you because of what you have done for me. It’s not based on what we do and receive in return.

It’s the kind of thing Jesus has in mind when he says:”… And if ye love them that love you, what thank have ye? for even sinners love those that love them. And if ye do good to them that do good to you, what thank have ye? for even sinners do the same” (Luke 6:31-33).

Covenant faithfulness and kindness is an ethical concept in the Old Testament, and it’s there for our learning. Keeping covenant with man and God colors the perceptions and actions of God’s people.

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Scott Wiley

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