The Covenant: A Relationship with Consequences

At Sinai, the Israelites pledged their allegiance to God and accepted the punishments that would result if they betrayed God.

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The author of this article is one of the most important post-Holocaust theologians. His interpretation of the Holocaust has led him to the conclusion that the God of traditional Judaism is dead. Reprinted with permission of The Gale Group from Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, edited by Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons.

The notion of the punitive, divinely inflicted character of evil is dependent upon the distinctive view of the relationship between God and man that pervades Scripture, according to which the divine‑human relationship and, most especially, the relationship between God and Israel, was defined for all time by a structure known as the brit or covenant.

This institution resembled a treaty form used by the Hittite rulers in the ancient Near East in the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries B.C.E. to define the relationship between a royal suzerain and the vassals who ruled his client states. Both the biblical and the Hittite treaties were asymmetrical, in that the superior partner (the king in Hittite documents and God in Scripture) stipulated the terms of the relationship and spelled out the dire misfortunes entailed in any act of rebellion or disobedience. Typically, in both the biblical and Hittite covenants, the vassal responded by taking a solemn oath, that is, a conditional self‑curse, calling upon his God or gods to visit terrible punishments upon him should he fail to abide by the terms of the covenant.

According to biblical tradition, Israel became a community by virtue of entering into a covenant with God at Sinai. As in the Hittite covenants, the superior party in the Sinai covenant is depicted as recounting his past ben­efits to the inferior party: “I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2). The superior party then prohibits the inferior party from loyalty to any rival power (Exodus 20:3-5) and stipulates both the benefits that will accrue from fidelity to the covenant and the dire penalties that will follow from infidelity (Exodus 3:6). This is followed by the solemn acceptance of the covenant by the inferior party. “All the things that the Lord has commanded we will do” (Exodus 24:3, cf. Exodus 19:8). Of special importance to the covenant relationship is the conviction that God exercises his power in a manner that is both ethical and rational. Put differently, there was thought to be a predictable and dependable relationship between Israel’s conduct and the manner in which God exercised his power over his people.

Scripture recounts that the covenant relationship between God and Israel was reaffirmed at Shechem when, under the leadership of Joshua, “all the tribes of Israel” pledged themselves to abide by the solemn pact (Joshua 24:1‑28). The author of this biblical narrative stressed that the tribes of Israel freely chose to enter into the covenant with full knowledge of the dire consequences of infidelity. Thus, Joshua is depicted as warning the people:

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Richard L. Rubenstein

Richard L. Rubenstein is President Emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Religion at the University of Bridgeport. He is the author of After Auschwitz.