VI. The Influence of Culture in the Shape of Biblical Theology
The purpose of Biblical theology is to communicate the message of the Bible on its own terms and categories. To do good biblical theology, it is imperative that one understands the influence of culture in how a particular theology was formed. One must examine the historical contexts that give shape to the Bible and the many ways culture shaped and influenced the Biblical writers. When considering the Bible’s theological and historical continuity, one can see how God worked in and through the culture as a means to make himself known. It is fundamental in understanding biblical history, theology, and how the two relate. One means God has done this is through the concept of covenant. Covenant is a theme that ties the Bible together, both historically and theologically. Covenant signified a sacred Kingship or kinship bond between people and was ratified by swearing an oath. Covenants were for establishing and maintaining relationships in biblical times.
Through the means of covenant, God has established and maintained a relationship with humanity. Covenants were binding agreements between two or more people that formalize a relationship that already exists. In modern times, one might think of it like a treaty. Covenant is rooted in the concept of cutting (e.g., kārat bĕrît) which was often part of the ceremony involving animal sacrifice. It was common in the surrounding culture to make animal sacrifices when making a covenant. For example, in the covenant God made with Abraham (c.f., Gen 15), a heifer, a goat, and a ram were literally cut in half and set up opposite of each other. The parties would then pass through the cut pieces as a symbolic way of ratifying the covenant and committing to the relationship. In the case of Abraham, God had caused him to fall asleep and then had the smoking firepot pass through the pieces (Gen 15:11). This put the burden of fulfilling the covenant solely on God making it an everlasting covenant (Gen 17:7). God has made covenants with humanity as well. His covenant with Noah in Genesis 9 was with all of creation as an everlasting covenant (v.16).
Archaeological study has revealed several forms of treaties from the Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) world. Some of these treaties show relationships between nations such as with Egypt and other nations or between people considered equals, and some that were between a King and his vassals. Evidence has shown further the covenants found in the Old Testament followed closely these various treaties in form and sequence. One followed closely, in particular, is the suzerain-vassal treaty. This treaty usually took place between a superior with a subordinate to establish a treaty based relationship. The “formula” and the stipulations of the treaty were emulated in the divine covenants of the Old Testament. They had a preamble, a historical prologue, various stipulations, blessings and curses. Often the formulas were expressed in portions and spread out in Scripture.
In Genesis 15:7, YHWH says, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.” Later, Genesis 17:1 follows it up with “I am God Almighty, walk before me and be blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.” The rest of the chapter goes on to list more stipulations with blessings and aspects of the covenant. This pattern is repeated in each incident when God renews the covenant ultimately leading into the New Testament when Jesus Christ, through the cross and resurrection, even Pentecost, establishes the New Covenant. Although much was new, there was nothing expressly “new” about the New Covenant. It simply reaffirmed the original covenant. The newness of the New Covenant lies in its scope. Again, whereas the “Old” Covenant was for the people of Israel, the New Covenant was now for all who were excluded in the Old; it will be spiritual in nature, and will allow for individualized personal knowledge of God for any and all who have a relationship with him.
It is significant that God used the suzerain-vassal treaty to establish his covenant relationship with Israel. Most commonly the suzerain-vassal treaty was used to establish a Kingship over a people. It took place to establish a relationship and a kingdom; for a King to have a people, and the people a King. This covenant came with “a strong sense of promise, obligation, and reciprocal responsibility.” Jeremiah 31:33 “I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Within redemptive history, the purpose of utilizing covenant was for YHWH to be set up as King. YHWH sought a people. He found them in the nation of Israel. His calling of Abraham was the beginning of the process. He told Abraham that he would be a father of many nations (Gen 17:4). Out of this came the nation of Israel, a people chosen by God to be his people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. God’s saving purpose through the means of covenant was not simply that people would be saved, but that they would be saved to be a people. To be a community of the King. To be his treasured possession who would see his salvation to the ends of the earth! (Ex 19:6: Isa 49:6). There were multiple covenants renewals culminating in the New Covenant that set up Jesus as King over all the earth with the church as the new people of God filled with the Holy Spirit to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. This is our covenant God!
-Tiberius Rata, “Covenant.” In Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets. IVP Bible Dictionary Series, Boda, Mark J, and J. G McConville., eds (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012).
-Hahn, S., “Covenant” in J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
Elmer Martens, God’s Design: A Focus on Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981).
Scott J. Hafemann and Paul R. House, Central Themes in Biblical Theology: Mapping Unity in Diversity, (Baker Academic, 2007).
Daniel I. Block, Covenant: The Framework of God’s Plan of Redemption (Baker Academic, 2021).