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Israel and the Covenants

Behold, the days come, saith the LORD,

that I will make a new covenant

with the house of Israel,

and with the house of Judah

(Jeremiah 31:31).

      Jews and Christians have been conflicted about one another for a very long time. After all, we worship the same God, and the Jewish Bible, what we call the Old Testament, forms the largest part of the Christian Bible. One would think having the same God would lead to resolution, but it seems to make things more difficult, not unlike two women claiming the same man as husband.

      A dialogue has been opened in more recent years, and it seems to run deeper between Roman Catholics and Jews, probably because they have a longer history of tension between them. Centuries past, Catholics engaged in outright persecution of the Jews, and they have perhaps had further to come than some.

      Since World War II, a lot of progress has been made in relations between the two religions, progress that could never happen between Judaism and Islam. The emergence of the truth about the Holocaust, and the establishment of the State of Israel, presented the Jews before the Christian world in a light that Christians could no longer ignore. Footnote

      For some time now, Catholic theologians have been rethinking historic positions of the church. As Avery Cardinal Dulles Footnote wrote: “The question of the present status of God's covenant with Israel has been extensively discussed in Jewish-Christian dialogues since the Shoah.” Footnote

      Shoah is the Hebrew word for “catastrophe,” and it denotes the catastrophic destruction of European Jewry during World War II. It seems strange that it took something like the Holocaust to create a turning point in Christian-Jewish dialogue. Historically, the Catholic church has never been as benign toward Jews as it has been since the mid 20th century. I suppose, when one sees the far outcome of antipathy toward a people, it has a way of focusing the mind.

      The Catholics, though, have their historic doctrines to cope with, and these were still to be considered in the Second Vatican Council. The council held with Scripture that “there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). The council could not possibly conclude that there is salvation in any name other than that of Jesus. Cardinal Dulles continues:


In Christ, the incarnate Son of God, revelation reaches its unsurpassable fullness. Everyone is in principle required to believe in Christ as the way, the truth, and the life, and in the Church he has established as an instrument for the salvation of all. Anyone who, being aware of this, refuses to enter the Church or remain in her cannot be saved. On the other hand, persons who “through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God, and moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them” may attain to everlasting salvation in some manner known to God. Footnote

      This is a statement of more than passing interest. Up to a point, it is the fundamental belief of every Christian church. The point where things begin to diverge is the requirement of belief in the church. When Catholics speak of “the Church,” they mean the Catholic church. Only the last sentence of the paragraph keeps the door open for non-Catholics, including Jews.

      I might also quibble with the council’s statement that the church is established by Christ as an instrument for the salvation of all. If, by that, the council means “as an instrument of preaching the Gospel,” then well, but if they mean that the church is somehow a savior, I have a problem. There is only one Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.

      Still, Cardinal Dulles steps up and addresses one of the long-standing issues of the church.


In seeking to spread the faith, Christians should remember that faith is by its very nature a free response to the word of God. Moral or physical coercion must therefore be avoided. While teaching this, the council regretfully admits that at certain times and places the faith has been propagated in ways that were not in accord with—or were even opposed to—the spirit of the gospel.

      This has to be said, especially in aftermath of Islamic terrorism at the beginning of the 21st century. Some Islamists are apt to throw the Crusades in the face of Christians who condemn the practice of conversion by the sword. Cardinal Dulles continues:


. . . as the council’s dogmatic constitution on divine revelation, Dei Verbum, declares, God “entered into a covenant with Abraham (cf. Gen 15:18) and, through Moses, with the people of Israel.” The principal purpose to which the plan of the Old Covenant was directed was to prepare for the coming both of Christ, the universal Redeemer, and of the messianic kingdom.” One and the same God is the inspirer and author of both the Old and the New Testaments. He “wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and that the Old be made manifest by the New.”

      That is well said. Some Christian churches do themselves mortal harm when they decide that they no longer need (or want) the Old Testament. The Catholic church correctly concludes that the Bible is one book, not two, and that there is an overarching unity between the two. But Cardinal Dulles doesn’t shy away from a central issue:


The Second Vatican Council, while providing a solid and traditional framework for discussing Jewish-Christian relations, did not attempt to settle all questions. In particular, it left open the question whether the Old Covenant remains in force today. Are there two covenants, one for Jews and one for Christians? If so, are the two related as phases of a single developing covenant, a single saving plan of God? May Jews who embrace Christianity continue to adhere to Jewish covenantal practices?

      This is a major point of discussion, particularly among Roman Catholic theologians. Cardinal Dulles thought that a place to start was with the term “Old Covenant.” As he notes, the term is solidly in place, but I don’t think it is well understood. How can a term be so commonly and solidly in use when it is found only once in the Bible. Footnote

      Mind you, a word search of the entire Bible for “Old Covenant” yields only one reference, which seems odd. That said, when you speak of “New Covenant,” you imply the old, and that usage started with the Prophet Jeremiah. “The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31 NIV).

      By speaking of a New Covenant, the Lord implies that the first covenant had become old. Thus, the term “Old Covenant” is meaningful. But an important item for understanding this broad subject lies here. The New Covenant spoken of in this place is not made with all people. It is made with the House of Israel and the House of Judah. This is where it is helpful to know the story told in the Books of Samuel and Kings.

      When Israel ended their 40 years of wandering in the desert with the conquest of Canaan, for many years they lived in a true theocracy. God, it seems, governed with a very light hand in those years, and the government was decentralized. But the people had their ups and downs. They were told to drive out the previous inhabitants of the land because they could not be assimilated. They were also told what would ensue if they didn’t. Any people they allowed to stay would become “pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell (Numbers 33:55).

      This came to pass in spades. It was not unlike the situation that Israel faces today with the Palestinians. The years of the judges were years of wars and insurgencies. When they remembered God and carried on their lives in accord with the covenant, they prospered. When they forgot God, which they did regularly, they had war.

      At long last they came to Samuel, perhaps the greatest of all the judges, and demanded that he give them a king like all the nations around them. It was a turning point in history. What God told Samuel at that moment bears heavily on the rest of their history. “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you” God said, “for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them” (1 Samuel 8:6-7).

      Israel would no longer be a theocracy. Now the people moved into monarchy with all the negatives that went with it—taxes, a military draft, forfeiture of land, and a host of familiar ills that go with heavily centralized government. The monarchy continued through three kings, Saul, David, and Solomon.

      Solomon, wise man that he was, had a weakness when it came to women. With 700 concubines and 300 wives, he couldn’t see clearly what was happening to him. Some of the wives were thoroughgoing pagans, and he yielded to the point of building temples to their gods and allowed the resultant corruption.

      Because of this, God allowed the kingdom to be divided into two houses, the House of Israel under Jeroboam, with its capital ultimately in Samaria, and the House of Judah, under Rehoboam, Solomon’s son ruling from Jerusalem. Footnote

      The two kingdoms existed alongside one another, sometimes cooperating, sometimes at war, for some 250 years. Then Israel was carried captive into Assyria, and Judah continued alone until Nebuchadnezzar carried them away to Babylon.

      With this in mind, we can return to Jeremiah’s prophecy:


“The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them” declares the LORD (Jeremiah 31:31-32 NIV).

      Thus is identified what is meant by “the Old Covenant.” What we call the Old Covenant was itself new at one time. It was a covenant made with the forefathers of Israel at the time of the Exodus. It might have been clearer had we identified it as the Covenant of Sinai. To be accurate, it is not the Mosaic covenant, because it was made with God, not Moses.


“This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more (vv. 33-34).

      Obviously, Jeremiah was looking far into the future, to a time when the whole earth is full of the knowledge of the Lord. Footnote Moreover, the Houses of Israel and Judah were never reunited at any time in history. That will only be possible at some future time. Thus Jeremiah’s prophecy is looking at the last days of man.

      Also note that the law was not to be discarded. It was now to be written, not in tables of stone, but in the hearts and minds of the people—it would be internalized. Moreover, God had most assuredly not walked away from Israel permanently:


This is what the LORD says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar-- the LORD Almighty is his name: “Only if these decrees vanish from my sight," declares the LORD, “will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me.” This is what the LORD says: “Only if the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth below be searched out will I reject all the descendants of Israel because of all they have done,” declares the LORD (Jeremiah 31:35-37 NIV).

      Fascinating. What he was saying here is that as long as the sun, moon, and stars continue, he will not be finished with the descendants of Israel, as a people. Thus, the House of Israel, alongside the House of Judah, will be a recipient of a New Covenant. Ezekiel also looks forward to a time when the House of Israel and the House of Judah will be one again. Footnote Statements like these lead some to believe that the lost ten tribes of the House of Israel still exist somewhere. The British Israel movement attempts to explain far too much, but we ought to keep an open mind to the existence of an Israel that is not Judah.

      The Book of Hebrews reached back to this prophecy and offered a new interpretation of it. The first point to be made was that this was no longer a matter of Moses and Aaron. We have a new Moses, a new leader, and a new High Priest—Jesus Christ. Footnote If Jesus were on earth, the author noted, he would not be a priest, seeing that there were priests at that time carrying on the service in the Temple. Footnote That said, something new had happened.


But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second. (Hebrews 8:6-7).

       Moses was a mediator of the first covenant. If that covenant could have stood up over time, there would have been no need for a second covenant. But it was broken.


For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: And they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more (vv. 8-12).

      It is important to remember that what we call the Old Covenant is a national covenant, a covenant with a people, not a person. That is a very big difference. What Christians tend to mean when they speak of the New Covenant is the personal covenant each of us has with Christ, symbolized by the bread and wine of the Last Supper. What may be surprising to many is that the New Covenant spoken of by Jeremiah and cited in Hebrews is, like the Sinai Covenant, also national, as opposed to personal.


By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear (Hebrews 8:13 NIV).

      The structure of this passage leads me to think that he is not saying that the Old Covenant has passed away, but that it is ready to pass away. But this was written late in the first century. If it had been nailed to the cross, as some think, I would have expected the author of Hebrews to say so right there. Instead, he says the first covenant is growing old, becoming geriatric (Greek, gerasko). Cardinal Dulles recognizes the same thing:


The term “covenant” is the usual translation of the Hebrew brith and the Greek diatheke. Scholars commonly distinguish between two types of covenant, the covenant grant and the covenant treaty. The covenant grant, modeled on the free royal decree, is an unconditional divine gift and is usually understood to be irrevocable. Footnote

      As an example, consider the covenant with Noah after the flood. However, Dulles thinks the Sinai Covenant is an example of a conditional covenant. I can see why he said that, but the passage just read from Jeremiah would not seem to agree. It is conditional and bilateral in some aspects, and Israel certainly broke covenant, but prophet after prophet had God feeling sorry for Israel in the latter days and visiting them again.

      The very making of a New Covenant is suggestive that the Old Covenant actually passes when the New Covenant is made, and not before. All this is necessary in discussing the relationship between the Jews and Christians. Dulles continues:


In Second Corinthians Paul refers to the “old covenant” as the “dispensation of death,” which has “faded away.” In Romans he speaks of Christ as “the end of the Law,” apparently meaning its termination, its goal, or both. The Mosaic Law ceases to bind once its objective has been attained. Footnote

      Before we jump to any conclusions about what the Cardinal was saying here, we should bear in mind that he was presenting a discussion of what is on the one hand as opposed to the other.


All these texts, which the Church accepts as teachings of canonical scripture, have to be reconciled with others, which seem to point in a different direction. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, teaches that he has come, not to abolish the Law and the prophets but to fulfill them, even though he is here embarking on a series of antitheses, in which he both supplements and corrects certain provisions in the law of Moses. Footnote

      I have to comment that this is only true if as part of “the law of Moses,” Cardinal Dulles includes the Oral Law. This is the Jewish view, but most Christians have not seen it that way. They take “the Law of Moses” and “the Torah” to be limited to the written law. Jesus himself made that distinction when he said that not one stroke of the pen would pass from the law. Not a few biblical interpreters have stumbled over this.


In a passage of great importance, Paul asserts in Romans that the Jews have only stumbled. They are branches broken off from the good olive tree, but are capable of being grafted on again, since they are still beloved by God for the sake of their forefathers, whose gifts and call are irrevocable. This seems to imply that the Jewish people, notwithstanding their failure as a group to accept Christ as the Messiah, still remain in some sort of covenant relationship with God. Footnote

      I think this is true. Their very survival would seem to suggest that. Against all odds, and against great opposition, the nation of Israel was established in the land after World War II. It seems the most unlikely of events given the opposition of the entire Arab world, along with the indifference of nearly everyone else. Footnote Continuing to examine Cardinal Dulles’ article:


Such is the Church’s respect for Holy Scripture that Catholic interpreters are not free to reject any of these New Testament passages as if one contradicted another. Systematic theology has to seek a way of reconciling and synthesizing them. The task, I believe, is feasible if we make certain necessary distinctions. Thomas Aquinas, gathering up a host of patristic and medieval authorities, distinguished the moral, ceremonial, and judicial precepts of the Old Law. Inspired in part by his reflections, I find it useful to distinguish three aspects of the Old Covenant: as law, as promise, and as interpersonal relation with God. The law, in turn, may be subdivided into the moral and the ceremonial.

      Any subdivision of the law into compartments is subjective and may be misleading. The law is too often subdivided for the purpose of disposing of one part or another. Jesus, however, does set forward a distinction between written law and oral tradition.

      There is a distinction between the basic law (often called the moral law) as applied to the individual on the one hand, and the administrative law applied to the community on the other. Moses’ administration was still in effect when Jesus came on the scene.

      If you are a Christian, and a thoughtful person, somewhere along the way, you have probably wondered about the relationship of the Jewish people to God. You know that there is no salvation in any other name than Jesus, and yet you also know that God made a covenant with Israel, and that he is not through with them yet. At least Paul certainly thought he was not. It seems the Catholic church sees it the same way.

      Jesus acknowledged that Moses’ administration was still in effect at the time he spoke:


Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. “Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’ But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. {10} Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ” (Matthew 23:1-10 NIV) .

      This is a challenging passage. Hardly anyone objects to a Christian calling his dad his Father. Nor do we mind very much referring to our seventh grade Algebra teacher as a teacher. And this leaves me wondering what Christ was talking about here. If we take it in the culture of the time, the Sages, the Scribes, the Rabbis and the Masters, had taken on themselves the mantle of Moses, the lawgiver. Their decisions, in their view, were on a par with the written law, with Moses himself. Consequently, these titles, Rabbi, Teacher, and Father, implied far more authority than God had ever given to man. It was only in that sense that Jesus was forbidding the use of the terms. Cardinal Dulles continued to make his case:


The moral law of the Old Testament is in its essentials permanent. The Decalogue, given on Sinai, is at its core a republication of the law of nature, written on all human hearts even prior to any positive divine legislation. The commandments reflecting the natural law, reaffirmed in the New Testament, are binding on Christians. But, as St. Thomas explains in the Summa (I-II.98.5), the Mosaic Law contains additions in view of the special vocation and situation of the Jewish people. The Decalogue itself, as given in Exodus and Deuteronomy, contains some ceremonial prescriptions together with the moral.

      It has been said that the devil is in the details and that is certainly true of this statement: “The commandments reflecting the natural law, reaffirmed in the New Testament, are binding on Christians.” We are left to ponder what constitutes natural law, and which commandments contain some ceremonial prescriptions. First, it is clear that something cannot be deemed abolished merely because it is ceremonial. The Christian Passover, also called Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper by some churches, is totally ceremonial. The Cardinal explains:


Injunctions that were over and above the natural law could be modified. The Church, adapting the law to a new stage in salvation history, was able to transfer the Sabbath observance from the last day of the week to the first and to cancel the Mosaic prohibition against images. The New Law, in its moral prescriptions, is much more than a republication of the Old. The law is broadened insofar as it is extended to all peoples and all ages, inviting them to enter into a covenant relationship with God. It is deepened insofar as Christ interiorizes and radicalizes it, enjoining attitudes and intentions that were not previously matters of legislation.

      On this point, the Cardinal and I disagree. Why is it necessary for the New Testament to reaffirm the commandments? Even a cursory reading of the New Testament should make it clear that it is built on and assumes the authority of the Old Testament. It takes the written law of the Old Testament as its own statement of law. That said, there are two ways of reaffirming something. One is by stating the reaffirmation. The other is by living it.

      There is this simple incontrovertible fact: Throughout the entire period when the New Testament was being written, from the mid 50s A. D. to, say, the late 70s, the entire Christian church, worldwide, in every nation and every place, continued to observe the Sabbath on the last day of the week, not the first. And they all continued in the observance of the Passover, the Days of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, The Feast of Tabernacles, and even the Day of Atonement. All this is easily demonstrated if one just remembers when reading the New Testament, you are reading someone else’s mail. Footnote That said, the Cardinal’s article is about the Covenant God made with Israel:


The Pontifical Biblical Commission draws the correct conclusion: “The early Christians were conscious of being in profound continuity with the covenant plan manifested and realized by the God of Israel in the Old Testament. Israel continues to be in a covenant relationship with God, because the covenant-promise is definitive and cannot be abolished. But the early Christians were also conscious of living in a new phase of that plan, announced by the prophets and inaugurated by the blood of Jesus, ‘blood of the covenant,’ because it was shed out of love.”

      Cardinal Dulles is working his way around to the conclusion that the Jews are still in a covenant relationship with God. And, I think the author of Hebrews would agree.


For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: And they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more. In that he says, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away (Hebrews 8:10-13).

      There is rather a large gap between vanishing, and being ready to vanish, but there is something more that is commonly overlooked. This covenant is not the same as the one Jesus made with his disciples at the Last Supper. We now find ourselves with two “New Covenants” on the table. Jesus said frankly at the Last Supper, “For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28). This covenant is personal, as Jesus’ blood was shed for each of us. But the covenant cited above is different. It was a national covenant, made with a people, not merely a person. An Israelite, cut off from the community, was cut off from the covenant as well. Abraham’s covenant was personal and had to do with his descendants. The Israelite Covenant, called here the Old Covenant, was made with and for a people living in the land of Israel and conducting their affairs as a community.

      The Apostle Paul wrestled with this question in his letter to the Romans. Footnote Cardinal Dulles writes of this:


Without any pretense of giving a final solution I shall try to indicate some elements of a tenable Catholic position. Paul in this passage clearly teaches that God has not rejected His People, for His gifts and call are irrevocable. As regards election, they are unceasingly beloved for the sake of their forefathers. “If they do not persist in their unbelief,” he says, the children of Israel “will be grafted in” to the olive tree from which they have been cut off. He predicts that in the end “all Israel will be saved” and that their reconciliation and full inclusion will mean life from the dead. God’s continuing love and fidelity to his promises indicate that the Old Covenant is still in force in one of its most important aspects—God’s gracious predilection for His Chosen People.

      He notes, as I have, that the persistence of the Jews as a people in spite of all attempts to destroy them, stands as a witness that God has not finally washed his hands of them. The incredible hatred of the Jews by forces of evil in the world is also a witness. Finally, from Cardinal Dulles:


The last word should perhaps be left to Pope Benedict XVI. In a set of interviews from the late 1990s, published under the title God and the World, he recognizes that there is “an enormous variety of theories” about the extent to which Judaism remains a valid way of life since the coming of Christ. As Christians, he says, we are convinced that the Old Testament is directed toward Christ, and that Christianity, instead of being a new religion, is simply the Old Testament read anew in Christ. We can be certain that Israel has a special place in God’s plans and a special mission to accomplish today. The Jews “still stand within the faithful covenant of God,” and, we believe, “they will in the end be together with us in Christ. We are waiting for the moment when Israel, too, will say Yes to Christ,” but until that moment comes all of us, Jews and Christians, “stand within the patience of God,” of whose faithfulness we can rest assured.

      I am not a Catholic, but I find what the Pope says on this topic quite reasonable and even reassuring. And the statement that Christianity, instead of being a new religion, is “simply the Old Testament read anew in Christ,” is profound, for that is precisely what Christ was doing in the Sermon on the Mount. What he did on that occasion was a typical rabbinic interpretation of the law with one major exception. The scribes would have quoted other scribes. Jesus said, “But I say unto you.” He was not abolishing the law. He was reinterpreting the law upon his own authority.

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