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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“You will not be able to serve the Lord, for He is a holy God; He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgressions and your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve alien gods, He will turn and deal harshly with you and make an end of you” (Joshua 24:19‑20).

When we turn to the prophets, we note that they frequently depicted God as addressing Israel as if he were the plaintiff in a lawsuit against his people (Isaiah 1:2; Jeremiah 2:4; Micah 6:1). The image of the sovereign and majestic creator of heaven and earth taking upon himself the role of a plaintiff makes sense only if his complaint is that Israel has broken the terms of its sworn pact with God. The prophet served as God’s mouthpiece to remind Israel of the broken covenant and to seek its restoration to wholeness.

It can thus be seen that any attempt to understand the problem of evil within Judaism must start with the absolute and enduring primacy of the covenant in defining the divine‑human relationship. Even the relationship between God and Adam can be seen as a modified covenant in which God as the superior party stipulates both the conditions of his protection and the cost of disobedience (Genesis 2:17). Similarly, God is explicitly depicted as establishing a covenant with Noah and his descendants (Genesis 9:1‑17). These covenants anticipate the covenantal relationship between God and Israel. In the light of that primacy, there can be in normative Judaism only one definition of the evil men do, namely, rebellion against or transgression of God’s covenant.

There is no autonomous realm of the ethical in covenantal religion. All offenses are ultimately made against the Lord of the covenant, as is evident from the biblical account of the covenant at Sinai. The relationships between man and man, such as the honor due to parents and prohibitions against murder, adultery, theft, and false witness, are not portrayed as expressions of an independent ethical or legal realm. Instead, they are depicted as covenantal injunctions, as, indeed, are all of the Torah’s norms. The covenant and it alone legitimates the corpus of behavioral norms in Scripture.

In the light of the definition of human evil in biblical and rabbinic Judaism as breach of the covenant, natural and social misfortunes--such as plague, famine, and war--are, as noted, interpreted as God’s just and appropriate response. The justice of even the worst misfortunes meted out to those who break the covenant follows from the fact that the conditions of the relationship were spelled out explicitly in the original pact. The unremitting ethical rationalism of this system is also manifest in the fact that neither at Sinai nor at Shechem do we find even a hint of a suprahuman power, such as Satan, moving Israel to disobedience. Israel’s disobedience is seen as freely chosen. The volitional element in both compliance and deviation and, hence, the offender’s responsibility for the results of his conduct are stressed in Deuteronomy:

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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.