Thursday, December 12, 2013
Exchanging robes, weapons and names
SO WHAT was the picture in the minds of the people gathered to hear Ezra the priest read the Law which set out a number of covenants, and the Levites lead in a prayer which invoked the covenant relationship?
There are seven main Bible covenants – let’s leave aside for now the New Covenant, in Jesus, and we are left with covenants of Eden and with Adam, with Noah, and with David.
However, the two that would come to mind first for any Jew would be God’s covenant with Moses in the Giving of the Law (Exodus 20 and 40) and – the foundational one for the nation – the encounters with Abram (Genesis 15 and 22) which included an exchange of name from Abram to Abraham – the exchange being that the ‘ah’ is incorporating part of God’s name Yahweh into his original name.
Nehemiah’s people would have heard quite early on is Ezra’s reading the account of Abram’s “Look up at the heavens and count the stars” encounter with God (Genesis 15:5-21). This is where he literally ‘cut covenant’ with God, halving a sacrificed heifer, a ram and a goat and arranging the pieces with a pathway between them. Walking between them in a ‘walk of death’, in the ancient world, shared footprints in blood, was the established starting point of making a solemn agreement. What seems a complicated process to us would have been instinctive and straightforward to Abram.
The process also had a number of other rituals: exchanging belts, which symbolised strength; weapons, which symbolised exchanging enemies; exchanging or combining names; and exchanging robes, which was a ‘marriage’ of identity. Pronouncing blessings for keeping the covenant and curses for non-compliance was also part of the ritual – this is what Deuteronomy 28 is all about – as was a covenant meal.
This Genesis 15 passage, which should be taken together with Genesis 22 and the willingness to ‘exchange’ Abram’s only son, Isaac, is the only passage that details covenant ritual, although there are other allusions to it. Why is it not spelt out or taught?
The answer is that covenant was very familiar to everyone in the ancient world. God was using a means of establishing a firm agreement with Him that was already familiar between people and people groups. The same applies to tithing – everyone did it and Jesus and the early church absolutely assumed this practice, not seeing any need to explain it. We come to both of these practices with a different, more logical and cause-and-effect mindset. For the Jews and the mainly Jewish early church, these were part of their culture, just familiar practice, like us driving on the left-hand side and sticking to speed limits.
Tomorrow we’ll look at how covenant living permeated the practice of the early church, and how it empowers us today.