How Do You Understand the Covenants of the Bible? (Part 3)
Genesis 27 relates the events where Jacob, by deception, and at the urging of his mother, stole the blessings from Esau. While Jacob was afraid of his deception being discovered, he went along with the scheme of his mother.
During this episode, Isaac asks three times who Jacob is because of his uncertainty, but finally blesses him, assuming he is Esau. Genesis 27:27-29 states: “And he came near and kissed him; and he smelled the smell of his clothing, and blessed him and said: ‘Surely the smell of my son is like the smell of a field Which the LORD has blessed. Therefore may God give you Of the dew of heaven, Of the fatness of the earth, And plenty of grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, And nations bow down to you. Be master over your brethren, and let your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, And blessed be those who bless you.’” Notice that Isaac was calling on God to bless Jacob and that he would be a leading nation. This is all a part of the covenants and their blessings passed down through Isaac from Abraham.
After this Esau came in for his blessing, the one he assumed would be his because he was the one Isaac loved and to him would have belonged the birthright as the firstborn, even though he had sold it to Jacob for a stew of lentils (Genesis 25:34; Hebrews 12:16-17). But in Genesis 27:39-40 we read, “Then Isaac his father answered and said to him: ‘Behold, your dwelling shall be of the fatness of the earth, And of the dew of heaven from above. By your sword you shall live, And you shall serve your brother; And it shall come to pass, when you become restless, That you shall break his yoke from off your neck.’”
There are several things to notice about verse 39. First of all, whatever he did receive was not going to be from God, unlike what Jacob received. Also, he would not receive plenty of grain and wine, signifying food and enjoyment. Quite a number of translations state that “of the fatness” should be translated “from the fatness”, i.e. far from the fatness, and indeed the land of Edom was not as fertile as the land of Canaan, not as suitable for growing grain and wine. In fact, the literal translation according to Richard Elliot Friedman’s Commentary on the Torah reads: “And Isaac, his father, answered, and he said to him, ‘Here, away from the fat of the earth will be your home, and from the dew of the skies from above.’” So, in reality, the only good thing about this “blessing” was that the descendants of Esau would break Jacob’s yoke from off their neck after being subservient to him for some time. Verse 40 is explained by the Jewish Soncino commentary in this way: “By your sword you shall live”; that is, by war and campaigns of plunder. The life of marauders dwelling in mountain fastnesses will be his. He will raid his brother’s borders, and cut off the merchants travelling with caravans. This was not a pleasant outlook for Esau. It was more like a curse than a blessing.
When Isaac and Rebekah learned that Esau was about to kill Jacob, they sent him to Jacob’s uncle Laban. Upon his departure, Isaac told Jacob the following, in Genesis 28:3-4, which is quite enlightening: “May God Almighty bless you, And make you fruitful and multiply you, That you may be an assembly of peoples; And give you the blessing of Abraham, To you and your descendants with you, That you may inherit the land In which you are a stranger, Which God gave to Abraham.”
Here Isaac knows it is Jacob he is blessing, so there is no longer any deception about who he is.
Here his blessing includes an assembly of peoples, more than one nation. Even though the term covenant is not used for Jacob until Exodus 2:24, it is inferred because of the blessings and also because the covenants were for Abraham and his descendants. In other words, God’s covenants with Abram or Abraham were also for the benefit of his descendants. But of most significance, the term God Almighty is used for the second time in the Bible. The first time it was used was when God was explaining His covenant with Abraham. As we saw previously, Shaddai (Almighty) includes the meaning of “Dispenser of Benefits,” the One who supplies all the needs of His people. Another thing to note in the blessing is that Isaac passed on the blessing of Abraham, something that was not done in the previous chapter where deception was employed by Jacob. Still, Jacob did not immediately accept the blessings and enter into a covenant relationship with God, as we saw in Part 1 of this series.
In Genesis 31, Jacob with his wives, children and flocks were departing from Laban back to Canaan. Laban accused someone in Jacob’s company of stealing his gods. After the gods were not found, Jacob and Laban made a covenant of peace between them and set up a stone pillar and a heap of rocks as a witness between them as a sign of this covenant, even though it was, in reality, based on a lie, as Jacob’s wife Rachel had in fact stolen her father’s idols.
In Genesis 32, after God has told Jacob to return to the land of Canaan, Jacob hears the news that Esau is approaching with four hundred men. Esau, the one who was prophesied to live by the sword and who had sold his birthright to Jacob who then deceived Isaac to obtain his blessing. Naturally, Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed. In Genesis 32:9, he reminds God that He had told him to return home and that He would deal well with him.
That night, before Jacob crossed the ford of the brook Jabbok after his families and livestock had crossed over, he was left alone. Genesis 32:24-29 records the following: “Then Jacob was left alone; and a Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day. Now when He saw that He did not prevail against him, He touched the socket of his hip; and the socket of Jacob’s hip was out of joint as He wrestled with him. And He said, ‘Let Me go, for the day breaks.’ But he said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me!’ So He said to him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Jacob.’ And He said’ Your name shall no longer be called Jacob [that is, trickster or supplanter], but Israel [that is, Prince with God]; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked, saying, ‘Tell me Your name, I pray.’ And He said, ‘Why is it that you ask about My name?’ And He blessed him there.”
So, Jacob did not give up seeking a blessing from God. He certainly needed one with the distress he was in. It will be noticed that the Man wrestling with Jacob said that he had struggled with God and with men. In verse 30, we read that he said that he had “seen God face to face.” Since there is no other mention of Jacob struggling with God, and no one has seen God the Father, then this Man mentioned here had to have been Jesus Christ. This is confirmed in Hosea 12:2-4, where we read that Jacob struggled with God, who is then identified as the “Angel” or the “Messenger” of God the Father (compare Malachi 3:1, referring to Christ as the Messenger [of the Father] and of the [New] Covenant).
After this, Esau arrived with his four hundred men. Genesis 33:8-11 states: “Then Esau said, ‘What do you mean by all this company which I met?’ And he said, ‘These are to find favor in the sight of my Lord.’ But Esau said, ‘I have enough, my brother, keep what you have for yourself.’ And Jacob said, ‘No, please, if I have now found favor in your sight, then receive my present from my hand, inasmuch as I have seen your face as though I had seen the face of God, and you were pleased with me. Please, take my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough.’ So he urged him, and he took it.”
One commentary states, “In the East the acceptance by a superior is proof of friendship and by an enemy is proof of reconciliation. It was on both accounts that Jacob was so anxious that his brother should receive the cattle, and in Esau’s acceptance he had the strongest proofs of a good feeling being established that Eastern notions admit of.” Another commentary says of Jacob, “I have all things, both physical blessings and spiritual ones. God was his covenant God and Father.” When Jacob struggled with God, prevailed and received his new name, he also accepted the covenant with its blessings which God had offered him.
A further commentary states, “Jacob, in saying ‘I have enough’, is stating, ‘I am complete. The covenant God has made with me is all important.’ In the past Jacob had held onto Esau’s heel, he had striven to get what Esau had. Now he had held onto God and was complete with what God provided.” Again, the covenants and their blessings were passed on through the physically weaker Jacob rather than the obviously stronger Esau. God does not need physical strength but for us to hold onto Him.
In Genesis 35:9-12, it is stated again that God changed Jacob’s name to Israel and that the blessings God gave to Abraham and Isaac as a part of the covenants were passed onto Israel. This is also the first time the term “a nation and a company of nations” is used. Genesis 35:11 says: “Also God said to him, ‘I am God Almighty. Be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall proceed from you, and kings shall come from your body.’” This is also the third time the term God Almighty (El Shaddai) has been used, showing that God would be the provider for Israel. God reminds us of this fact in Exodus 6:3: “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name LORD I was not known to them.” As we explain in our Q&A on Exodus 6:3, the correct translation of Exodus 6:3 should be: ““I revealed Myself to the fathers as El Shaddai, and as to My name YHWH, was I not (also) known by that?” We point out that “Genesis 6:3 contains indeed a self-explanatory rhetorical question (‘Did I not make Myself known to them as YHWH?’), which does not need or deserve an answer: God had revealed His name YHWH to the fathers, as well as others, and now He is revealing it again to Moses.”
Genesis 48:15 describes the event where Israel blessed Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh: “And he blessed Joseph and said: ‘God, before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, The God who has fed me all my life long to this day…’”According to Richard Elliot Friedman’s Commentary on the Torah, the expression “before whom my fathers walked”, this is technical covenant terminology known from ancient Near Eastern documents to mean loyalty to one’s partner in a covenant.
When the descendants of Israel were in Egyptian slavery, they prayed to God for delivery. We read in Exodus 2:24-25: “So God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God looked upon the children of Israel, and God acknowledged them.”
There are two things to consider about this passage. Firstly, in Genesis 15:13-14, we read, “Then He said unto Abram: ‘Know certainly that thy descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them and they will afflict them four hundred years. And also the nation whom they serve I will judge; afterward they shall come out with great possessions.’” So, it was prophesied that they would go into slavery for many years. Secondly, the expression “God remembered His covenant” in English implies that for a time God had forgotten it. But in reality, He had seen their suffering and knew it was now time to fulfill His promise to Abram regarding His covenant. The Hebrew word for remember can mean “be mindful of”, “bring to remembrance”, and “think on”. So, God now thought on and knew it was time to end the suffering of His people. Where we read in cases like Jeremiah 31:34, “For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more,” Barnes’ Notes on the Bible informs us that God will not bring past sins up against us, when we have repented of them and obtained forgiveness. God can even choose to forget those sins completely. When He has forgiven us, He will, in His love, make no mention of, or will not bring to mind our past sins. Because of that, it can be said that God forgets our sins. This is even though some sins are recorded in the Bible for many of the ancients, so from that point of view, they are not forgotten, but God will not act upon them. For a further explanation, please note our Q&A, “What Will We Remember as God Beings?”
When God was about to pour out His plagues on Egypt, we read in Exodus 6:2-7. “And God spoke to Moses and said to him: ‘I am the LORD. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name יהוה (LORD, JHWH) I was not known to them [Note the correct translations above]. I have also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their pilgrimage, in which they were strangers. And I have also heard the groaning of the children of Israel whom the Egyptians keep in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. [God has brought it to mind or thought on it]. Therefore say to the children of Israel: I am the LORD; I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, I will rescue you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgements. I will take you as My people, and I will be your God. Then you shall know that I am the LORD your God who brings you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.’”
So now, God is going to bring the children of Israel out from bondage to inherit the land of Canaan. This is to fulfill His covenant promises that He made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Now after the ten plagues God brought upon Egypt and their travels through the Red Sea and arriving at Mount Sinai, God is preparing to make a covenant with the whole house of Israel.
Exodus 19:3-6 states: “And Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.’” God is now setting out the conditions of this covenant and what Israel should do and what God will do.
The next four chapters in Exodus are describing many laws and statutes and judgements that were stated and read to the people of Israel.
Exodus 24:3 states: “So Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the judgements. And all the people answered with one voice and said, ‘All the words which the LORD has said we will do.’” So, they have now agreed to accept and abide by the covenant between them and God. Exodus 24:7-8 says: “Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read in the hearing of the people. And they said, ‘All that the LORD has said we will do, and be obedient.’ And Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you according to all these words.’”
The covenant between God and the children of Israel has now been finalized and symbolized with the blood of a sacrificed animal as a token of the agreement between God and the people. After they all agreed to obey the conditions of the covenant, Moses went up to the mountain to receive the instructions for constructing the tabernacle and furnishing it(,) and making clothes for Aaron and his sons. While he was there for forty days and forty nights, the people assumed he would not return and pressured Aaron to make them idols that they could see and worship. So, in less than forty days, the people had broken the first and second laws that were a part of the covenant or on which the covenant was based, as the Ten Commandments existed long before this covenant was made: “You shall have no other gods before Me”, and “You shall not make for yourself a carved image…to bow down to them or serve them”. When God saw this, He was about to consume them for the breaking of their part of the covenant. Upon Moses pleading with God, He relented from the harm which He had intended to do to the Israelites. This is described in Exodus 32:10-14.
(To Be Continued)
Lead Writer: Paul Niehoff (Australia)