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The “Law” was not Law even though it was Commanded
As we move on from Block’s discussion of what he calls “the Cosmic covenant” (i.e. Noahic) the “Adamic covenant” (?), and the “Israelite covenant” (i.e. the Abrahamic and the Mosaic together!) we next encounter the “New Israelite covenant” (275ff.). For reasons I shall attempt to explain this is what most call “the New covenant.”
But before we do that I need to refer the reader to Block’s position on the possibility of obeying the Torah. He rightly says that the word means “instruction” more than “law.” Then he goes on to say on page 264 that,
“YHWH’s expectations, expressed by the laws he prescribed for his people, were both clear (Deut. 29:4, 29…) and attainable (Deut 29:29..30:1-14).” Italics original.
On the next page he avers,
“The ethical and ceremonial performances that YHWH demanded of the Israelites were both reasonable and doable. Not a single command was impossible.” (265)
But notice that Block calls this torah by the name “commands” which “YHWH demanded.” Sounds like law to me! My mind runs to Acts 15 and the Jerusalem conference where certain Pharisees wanted to instruct the Gentiles to keep the law [nomos] of Moses (Acts 15:5). Peter’s response to this was incisive:
Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? (Acts 15:10)
Peter calls the law a yoke which doesn’t sound very promising. And James writes,
For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. – James 2:10 (cf. Gal. 5:3).
So this “doable” torah required absolute and unwavering conformity if it was to work. Block says that “they lacked the will and the motivation to keep the law” (265). But surely that was because they were sinners! I think Block is trying to show that God’s “demands” were reasonable, but the law of the offerings (Lev. 1-7) was there because they were so stringent. Moreover, those offerings did not have the power to clear the conscience (Heb. 9:9). This was not an ideal setup, which is why Paul says that the law was a pedagogue to lead us to Christ (Gal. 3:24), since the law kept us under guard “synkleio” (Gal. 3:23). The metaphor is very apt. Torah living is not “freedom” (Gal. 5:1).
The New Israelite Covenant (i.e. New covenant).
Block’s name for the New covenant is “the New Israelite covenant” (275ff.). I understand that Jeremiah 31 is the only place in the OT where the term is used (276), and that even there the prophet does not call it “the New covenant”; he simply speaks of “a new covenant.” That said, the OT doesn’t call it “the New Israelite covenant” either. But Block’s term does assist him in tying “the New Israelite covenant” to the “Israelite covenant” (AKA the Abrahamic cum Mosaic covenant).
Block’s way of unifying the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Deuteronomic covenants with the “New Israelite covenant” (New covenant) does not persuade me. For one thing, the NT does speak of this covenant as the New covenant (Lk. 22:20; Heb. 12:24 with the definite article).
Before he gets into his exposition of the “New Israelite covenant” the author stops to remind his reader that the “Cosmic” (“Noahic”) covenant and the Abrahamic covenant were characterized as berit olam (everlasting covenant). But he says the same thing about the “Israelite” (Mosaic) covenant too, by referencing Lev. 24:8 and Exod. 31:16-17 (276 cf. 288). But Lev. 24:8 is about the bread offering on the Sabbath and Exod. 31:16-17 is about keeping the Sabbath. Neither reference is about the (Mosaic) covenant itself! As a matter of fact the Bible never calls the Mosaic/Sinaitic covenant “everlasting.” But it is necessary for Block’s view that his “New Israelite covenant” be the fourth part of his one “Israelite covenant.”
He rightly asks concerning Jeremiah 31:31-34, “What is new here?” (283). His answer is that,
“There had always been “new-covenant” Israelites who had the Torah of God in their hearts/minds,” who delighted in covenant relationship with God (Exod. 29:45; Lev. 26:12), who knew God (Exod. 33:13; cf. Judg. 2:10), and who rejoiced in the knowledge of sins forgiven.” (285)
A closer look at these texts reveals that Block is reading more into them than they say. For instance, both Exod. 29:45 and Lev. 26:12 concern God dwelling in the Tabernacle, not in people’s hearts. Exodus 33:13 is Moses’ plea for God’s presence to go with Israel, while Judges 2:10 is a statement about Israelites who “did not know the LORD,” whose opposite is not that some did know Him in the Jeremiah 31 sense. To Block the “New Israelite covenant” was “not like” the Mosaic covenant only in the fact that with this “New” covenant all Israelites would know God. Better therefore to think of it as “a renewed covenant” (286 his italics); the “ultimate realization of the same covenant that God had made long ago with Abraham, established with the exodus generation…at Sinai, and renewed with the conquest generation on the plains of Moab” (Ibid).
I know the author believes this, and argues for it in several places (e.g. 288, 292), but I cannot follow him there. For one thing this would make “the New Israelite covenant” a second renewal covenant after the Deuteronomic covenant in the plains of Moab (which failed). If people had the new birth in the OT and these covenant still failed why what would ensure the success of this one? For another thing, neither the Abrahamic covenant nor any covenant apart from the New covenant is soteriological, whereas the New covenant is (Jer. 31:34; Isa. 49:6; Ezek. 36:26-27). The New covenant is also Christocentric (Isa. 49:8; Matt. 26:28; Heb. 9:15), whereas the Mosaic covenant is not (cf. Jn. 1:17).
I’m afraid I am not buying what Block is selling here, even though I respect him and good material abounds. E.g., he is a consistent supporter of the land being given to Israel, and he warns against spiritualizing (287). But I also have to report that the author considers the “Gog and Magog” chapters (Ezek. 39-39) to be “hypothetical” (296). Let us move on.
The Davidic Covenant
The chapter on the Davidic covenant (300ff.) includes a number of good studies and solid assertions. The coverage is extensive, taking in the Historical and Prophetic books and Psalms. He is clear that the Davidic covenant “is never retracted” in “the prophets, psalmists, and NT writers” (310), although “the benefits could be suspended for a time” (310, 317). In fact, the very existence of the Psalms “testifies to the significance of the Davidic covenant” (367). The importance of Zion is stressed (391). There are good things here.
Sadly though, it’s another mixed bag. The collective understanding of Genesis 3:15 is “preferable” to the singular Messianic view (304); the Book of Ruth was composed long after the fact; probably in the seventh century B.C. (306, 334). Micah 5:2 is best viewed as an ancient decree “calling David to kingship” (334); The covenant with Levi [probably related to Num. 25] is downplayed in Jeremiah 33:18 (349); and in an odd translation Zechariah 12:10 no longer has men looking at “me whom they pierced (daqar).” Block has the poor individual needlessly “stabbed,” thus destroying the Messianic implications (364, despite Rev. 1:7). There is also a curious mention of “David’s Melchizedekian Priesthood” (387).
Finally, Block fails to interact in any way with the crucial Messianic covenantal texts in Isaiah 42:6 and 49:8. I was looking forward to seeing how he tackled these verses and to discover that they went untreated was a big let down.
So ends the “First Testament” part of Covenant. The detail is there, making the book important for anyone wanting to dive into the biblical concept of covenant, but as Spurgeon might have said, there is a good deal of dross mixed with the gold. The overall impression on this reviewer is that this approach to the covenants of God, though a vast improvement over Covenant Theology, still lacks the dynamism that I find in the Hebrew Bible.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.