Salvation History

Why is our Faith presented as a series of historical narratives in the Bible? That is, why doesn't God reveal truth through a more pedagogic method, like a catechism or a book of theology? The stories of the Bible seem to many readers to be just so many fairy tales or myths.

One possible reply to such questions lies in the difference between God and us. He is eternal and infinite, while we are subject to time and space. Time and space are creations of God (i.e., the space-time continuum is a creature); and God is not subject to His own creation. God lives outside of time and space. Imagine a twelve inch ruler representing the time line: 0 is the beginning of time and 12" is the end. All of history is played out along the edge of the ruler. We live on that ruler's edge, at some point, and we can see only what is immediately behind us and maybe what is immediately in front of us. God, however, is standing away from the ruler, holding it in His metaphorical hand. He can see the entire ruler all at once, all of history at a glance. That is what it means to be eternal. Likewise, seeing all of space everywhere as right here is what it means to be infinite. Time and place have no bearing on God, as they do on us. Therefore, God reveals Himself to us within a framework of time and place - history - to keep this difference ever in our minds. Our religion is nothing more than an explanation of this difference and the means to overcome it in our quest to find union with God.

Chapter One: Adam & Eve

The Bible presents history to us as a covenant between God and us, a covenant which is dynamic and changing over the long course of human history. In fact, one can identify seven stages in this covenant dynamism. At the dawn of time, God created humanity. From the beginning, they were created as a family, a married couple. And God swore a covenant with them which was to extend to their descendants, the entire human race.

26 Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28 And God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." (Gen 1:26-28)

Creation is described as a work of seven days; the covenantal number is embedded into creation itself. The culminating work of creation is swearing the covenant oath with Adam & Eve, using the Hebrew idiom, "image and likeness," and establishing humanity as the children of God, who then gives to them His covenantal world. This is the first covenant of salvation history; it is sworn with a married couple, but is applied to all of humanity, their descendants.

Chapter Two: Noah and his Family

But humanity falls. The covenant is broken by men. Not to worry, though; God swears His covenant again with Noah.

9 "Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth." 12 And God said, "This is the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will look upon it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth." 17 God said to Noah, "This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth." (Gen 9:9-17)

This time, God swears His covenant with Noah and his family - his sons and their wives. It applies to their descendants - effectively all of humanity who came after the Flood, but not all of humanity in history. It did not apply to some of those who came before the Flood. This second covenant in salvation history presents us with two changes: It is sworn with a larger group, a family rather than a couple; yet it is applied to a smaller group - the descendants of Noah rather than the descendants of Adam. This will be the pattern for the future, as we shall see.

Chapter Three: Abraham and his Tribe

Again, humanity falls. So God swears the covenant again with Abraham, a tribal leader.

1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. 2 And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly." 3 Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4 "Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you. 7 And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. (Gen 17:1-7)

The covenant with Abraham is very interesting and I will discuss it more in another post. One point of interest here is that Abram receives a new name: Abraham. This change of name becomes a covenantal feature. Our name represents our family, with whom we are kin. When we enter the covenant with God, we join His family; we take His name. We Christians refer to His name as "the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit," and so we sign ourselves, "In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." In Scripture, a name change represents taking this new family name. And yes, we see this name change in the very familiar covenant of matrimony, where typically the bride takes the husband's family name.

Anyway, the covenant with Abraham is sworn with a tribe, an entity which is larger than a family. But it is applied to the descendants of Abraham, which is a smaller slice of humanity than the descendants of Noah; it is applied to a subset of Noah's fallen descendants. It also comes with a condition:

10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your descendants after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. (Gen 17:10-11)

Strange condition; I will explain more later. Main point for now is that those who fulfill this condition are part of the covenant and those who don't are not. In other words, while the covenant is generally applied to all of Abraham's descendants, it will only authentically apply to those who fulfill this condition. This is the third form of the covenant in salvation history. It is sworn with Abraham and his tribe (larger than a family), but it applied only to the descendants of Abraham, not to the other descendants of Noah.

Chapter Four: Moses and his Nation

Abraham's grandson, Jacob, becomes the nation of Israel, through his twelve sons. Israel was soon enslaved by Egypt. God delivered enslaved Israel by means of Moses. It is not directly evident to modern readers that during their years of enslavement, Israel took up the Egyptian practice of worshipping the pagan gods of Egypt. In fact, this is why God gave Moses a law demanding daily animal sacrifice; the animals to be sacrificed were those deities that Egypt worshipped. Israel needed daily reminders that these "gods" were as nothing compared with Yahweh to whom such gods were mere sacrificial offerings.

10 And he said, "Behold, I make a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been wrought in all the earth or in any nation; and all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the LORD; for it is a terrible thing that I will do with you. 11 "Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 12 Take heed to yourself, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither you go, lest it become a snare in the midst of you. 13 You shall tear down their altars, and break their pillars, and cut down their Asherim 14 (for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), 15 lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and when they play the harlot after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and one invites you, you eat of his sacrifice, 16 and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters play the harlot after their gods and make your sons play the harlot after their gods. (Ex 34:10-16)

The condition for this new covenantal form is obedience to the commandments, the Law. This is the elaborate ceremonial law of animal sacrifice, of observances, etc. All of it is designed to keep Israel, now a liberated and free nation, from worshipping pagan gods. This is the fourth form of the covenant; it was sworn with Moses and his nation of Israel (larger than a tribe) and it applied to Israel and their descendants, a subset of Abraham's descendants.

Chapter Five: David and his Kingdom

And Israel fell; they could not stop worshipping those pagan gods. The entire Book of Judges is nothing more than a repetitious series of Israel succumbing to pagan worship, suffering as a result, returning to God who then saves them. Judges also makes clear that Israel had no king; Yahweh was to be their king. Eventually, however, Israel demanded a king, like the other nations had. After a poor start with King Saul, the great David became king. Despite his two terrible sins, David was otherwise a king after God's own heart, because he saw himself as God's servant first, and his kingdom was none other than God's own people, whom he served. In time, David conquered other nations and by the time he settled down in his palace in Jerusalem (one of the Hittite cities he conquered), Israel had become an empire. And it was time for a renewed swearing of the covenant.

8 Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David, 'Thus says the LORD of hosts, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be prince over my people Israel; 9 and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel, and will plant them, that they may dwell in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and violent men shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. 14 I will be his father, and he shall be my son. When he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men; 15 but I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.'" (2 Sam 7:8-16)

The promise of "a great name," and "a house" and the phrase "I will be his father and he shall be my son" are the language of covenants. The house referenced means David's dynasty. Here God is renewing the covenant in terms of David's kingdom, his empire. This is the fifth form of the covenant, sworn with an empire (larger than a nation) and applied to that same empire which, as we shall see, becomes a subset of Israel when the kingdom splits after civil war. The pattern is clear: the covenant is sworn, or offered, to an increasing larger group, yet those who are authentically part of the covenant become an increasingly smaller group.

Of great interest in the Davidic covenant is the promise of a coming king of David's lineage who will establish an everlasting kingdom, who will be a son to God, and who will build a house for God's covenant ("a house for my name"). This prophecy applies immediately to David's son Solomon, who built the Temple in Jerusalem. Yet his kingdom was not everlasting. Christians understand this passage as a prophecy of Jesus, the true Son of God, a descendent of David, who built God's house (the Church), through whom we have the final and everlasting form of the covenant.

Chapter Six: Ezra and his Remnant

As we have learned, the number six symbolizes "not the covenant." It should be no surprise, then, that the sixth covenant in salvation history is almost unnoticeable and is little more than a renewal of preceding forms. In the Book of Ezra, chapter 9, Ezra laments how Israel has failed to fulfill the covenantal prescripts, mainly that of separating themselves from the surrounding nations to avoid the worship of pagan gods.

2 We have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land, but even now there is hope for Israel in spite of this. 3 Therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all these wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law. 4 Arise, for it is your task, and we are with you; be strong and do it. (Ez 10:2-4)

At this renewal, sworn by the remnant of Israel, not by God, a call was sent out to all of Judah to assemble at Jerusalem and participate in this renewal, swearing to separate themselves from the pagans. There is no swearing by God to anyone; He is silent in this sixth covenantal oath. The people of the covenant, the remnant that remained after the Babylonian exile, applied it to themselves, the smallest group of people yet in our review of salvation history.

Chapter Seven: Jesus and His Church

Finally, we have the seventh covenantal form and, as the number implies, the perfect form, the one which cannot be broken, from which the people of the covenant cannot fall. Even if individuals do fall, they can rise up again through God's mercy. It is the fulfillment of all prior forms and is sworn by God with ALL of humanity, but applies only to those who choose to accept its easy conditions. It is sworn by Jesus, of course, and is the only time He uses the word covenant in all of the Gospels.

27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, "Drink of it, all of you; 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Mt 26:27-28)

This is the New Covenant, the heart and soul of Christianity. At last, after centuries of history, it is what all prior covenant forms sought: God Himself.