Book Review: Covenant

Block, Daniel I. Covenant: The Framework of God’s Plan of Redemption. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021. 704 pages. Hardcover. 9780801097881. $54.99.

Introduction

Daniel Block is well-known as being one of the premier evangelical scholars of our day. He is a retired Old Testament (OT) professor of Wheaton College, yet continues his scholarly work. His published research has focused primarily on two OT books, Ezekiel and Deuteronomy, but more recently Block has delved into biblical theology, including an excellent book on worship (For the Glory of God, 2014), and now one on the covenants. Covenant may well be Block’s magnum opus, for here he synthesizes much of his work in the OT and fits it into a pan-biblical theology. Block’s book provides a unique take on the covenants, not quite fitting into any of the historical theological systems (Westminster covenantalism, 1689 Federalism, Dispensationalism, or New Covenant Theology).

Summary

Covenant is a long work with many argumentative nuances. To attempt a summary, I will first explore Block’s method, and then his basic argument regarding the covenants. As to method, Covenant is an exegetical work rather than a systematic/dogmatic one. Though Block provides a bibliography at the end with scholars he has learned from, he rarely quotes anyone in the work itself. Moreover, almost all scholars listed are in the biblical studies department, not systematic theology. All of this is intentional on Block’s part (7), so one must not judge him on what one thinks he should have written. While the method may bring frustration to some, the strength of the work is that Block tries to let each text speak for itself. In particular, he spends most of his time in the OT (what he calls the “First Testament”). He explicitly states his goal “. . . to read the New Testament in light of antecedent texts, rather than the reverse, which often yields forced and unnatural readings of earlier texts” (9). If this is Block’s goal, he succeeds at it in his presentation of the material. He often provides non-traditional interpretations of texts. For example, he denies that the Ten Words (i.e. Commandments) contain natural law and are uniquely relevant for Christians, to be distinguished from the rest of Deuteronomic law (197–198). He also says, “Christians should limit features of First Testament law that are passé especially for gentile Christians to what the New Testament declares to be so (like the food laws and circumcision . . .)” (199). As to the organization of the book, Block does not just focus on the use of the term “covenant,” but explores texts where the concept is present. Nor does he go book-by-book through the entire Bible. Instead, he arranges his studies topically, based on the covenants.

What does Block argue for, then, regarding the covenants? First, he claims that covenants provide the framework for all biblical revelation. He defines a covenant as a formal agreement between two parties establishing the privileges and obligations of the parties (1). When it comes to God’s covenants in the Bible, they are all monergistic (initiated by God) and suzerain-vassal agreements, wherein God is in the position of authority, with the biblical characters not in a position to negotiate (2). Block then argues that all biblical covenants “. . . exhibit signs of both irrevocability and contingency” (3). For example, while the Mosaic covenant lays out curses for disobedience, Block says the implementation of these curses does not terminate the covenant.[1] God’s covenants must be irrevocable because he must always be faithful to his covenant commitments, Block says (4). Finally, Block organizes the historical covenants under the rubrics of “missional/communal” and “administrative” covenants (4). The cosmic and Israelite covenants are missional/communal, focused on the health of the group and God’s mandate for them. Within those covenants are different administrations. The cosmic covenant includes the creation covenant, administered by Adam, and re-iterated later to Noah. The Israelite covenant (later administered by David) contains four stages: beginning with Abraham, developed with Moses at Sinai, renewed on the plains of Moab, and renewed again in the new covenant.

Evaluation

Much can be evaluated regarding Block’s presentation of the covenants. Here, I will focus on how Block presents the relationship between the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and new covenant, and probe his argument from my confessionally Reformed Baptist perspective.[2] Block argues that these three are all stages of the Israelite covenant. At its core, the Israelite covenant represents a triangular relationship between YHWH, Israel, and the land of Canaan (68). Through the Israelite covenant, YHWH would bring his blessings to all the cosmos.

According to Block, stage 1 of the covenant concerns God establishing a relationship with Abraham and his seed, a “covenant of grace” (124). In Genesis 15, YHWH makes an unbreakable covenant (Gen 15:10, 17). The core benefit of this covenant is the land (Gen 15:18–21). Genesis 17 then shows the second phase of YHWH finalizing this same covenant (104). YHWH repeats the promise of Canaan (Gen 17:8), with Block calling it “. . . an essential feature of the covenantal package from the beginning and [which] could not be separated from his personal commitment to being Abraham’s God” (98). Additionally, Block argues that this promise is irrevocable (98). The command to “walk before me and be blameless” (Gen 17:1) means Abraham is officially commissioned as an agent of the divine king and called to be wholly devoted to God (94–95). Thus, blamelessness is not a condition of the covenant, especially since YHWH calls it “my covenant” not “our covenant.” Moreover, God calls it an “eternal covenant” (Gen 17:7–8). Circumcision, then, becomes the identifying sign that one has accepted entrance into the covenant (99). Finally, Block considers Genesis 22 to be a reiteration of the Abrahamic covenant. Of note is Gen 22:16–18, which sounds conditional. Block considers this an aspect of contingency while not negating the ultimate irrevocability of the covenant (112). As he explains it, the health of Abraham’s relationship depends on his obedience, but not the relationship itself (125).

When it comes to stage 2, the establishment of the covenant with Israel at Sinai, Block sees the same principles at work. Just as Abraham enters into a relationship by God’s grace, and is called to respond in obedience, so for Israel under the leadership of Moses (129). The Mosaic covenant finds its motive in YHWH’s love, demonstrated in a gracious redemption from Egypt. He calls Israel, in response, to “keep [his] covenant” (Exod 19:5), which Block contends must refer to the Abrahamic (149). The ratification ceremony (Exodus 24) and the placing of the tablets in the ark both demonstrate YHWH’s irrevocable commitment to keep the covenant (161, 166). Block reiterates this understanding in stage 3, which is a renewal of the Mosaic covenant with the next generation. Thus, the torah presented in Deuteronomy is not a burden, in Block’s understanding, but a gracious revelation of God’s will. Block critiques the Lutheran law-gospel distinction, dispensationalism, and New Covenant Theology, which all in practice dispense with OT law for Christians, and notes that theonomy receives “scant attention” these days (184–185). He offers a “sympathetic” look at Israel’s torah (260), considering the law as “attainable” (164), seen in Deut 30:11–14. He writes, “If the Israelites failed in their performance, it was not the fault of the law, either its incomprehensibility or its stringency—YHWH’s revelation is never flawed. Rather, the fault was within them; they lacked the will and the motivation to keep the law” (265). Though he claims this contradicts the Reformed who emphasize the first use of the law (to condemn us of sin) and “give lip service” (264) to the law as guide (third use), the Reformed tradition of Calvin agrees with the inherent goodness of the moral law reflected in the Mosaic torah. Unfortunately, Block never really explains what aspects of the torah are done away with, aside from the clear instructions of Acts 15.

Next, Block presents the new covenant as an extension and restoration of the Israelite covenant. The curses of Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 came about through the Assyrian destruction and Babylonian exile. However, this did not end YHWH’s relationship with Israel. Through the new covenant, “. . . we finally witness the realization of the ancient Israelite covenant’s ideals” (276). According to Block, in Jer 31:31–34, God makes a monergistic covenant with the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel. What, then, is new about this covenant? According to Jer 31:32, the stage 2 covenant was broken by the nation of Israel “as a whole” through disobedience (284). In the new covenant, “all” Israel will be faithful to YHWH in obedience (285). What is new about this covenant is that it will not be broken by the vassals. Block further explicates the ties to the Israelite covenant when discussing Ezekiel’s “covenant of peace.” He states that in Ezekiel 34 the context is clearly national Israel. The physical seed of Abraham is not “replace[d] . . . with some sort of spiritual community. The irrevocability of YHWH’s commitment to Israel is not in question” (292). Block especially points out that Ezekiel links the covenant to the promise of land in Ezek 11:17; 36:28; 37:21–22 (293).

In chapters 14–17 of his book, when Block examines the discussion of the Israelite covenant (Abrahamic, Mosaic, and New) in the New Testament (NT), he presents the same basic points. He gives some attention to important texts like Matthew 5–7, Galatians 3–4, and Hebrews 8–9 but makes them admittedly brief (he notes a “quick look” at Hebrews! [502]), while spending much time on other less ancillary passages. One wishes he had spent more time on these crucial texts. In each discussion he reiterates the righteousness of the law itself and the Israelite nature of the covenants. When he comes to NT texts that critique the law (e.g. Gal 4:21), he claims that these are references to the Oral Torah, Pharisaical abuses of the law, rather than the torah itself (e.g. 436, 466, 473, 489). Block even claims that 2 Corinthians 3 speaks of oral tradition as the “ministry of death” (520), even though in 2 Cor 3:15 Paul speaks of reading Moses, not rabbinic interpretation of Moses.

To probe Block’s argument, I first address the matter as to whether Abraham’s covenant, including the grant of land, was irrevocable. I agree with Block’s presentation of Abraham’s covenant being irrevocable and gracious, but disagree with his treatment of the land promise. On one hand, one can say that YHWH kept his promise by giving them the land of Canaan through Joshua’s conquest. On the other hand, one can say that the land promise is also typological (Hebrews 4; 11:8–10). This is not reading the NT into the OT, however. Just as Abraham’s seed would one day be made up of many nations, so the land belonging to this offspring must have eventually included much more than Canaan (Gen 17:6).[3] Therefore, YHWH fulfilled his promise to Abraham, but the irrevocable land promise need not mean ethnic Israel would eternally dwell in the land of Canaan.

But, next, what about the Mosaic covenant? While national Israel is descended from Abraham, and thus the faithful within them inherit Abraham’s promises, YHWH’s covenant with Israel at Sinai is different from that with Abraham. Block’s emphasis on the gracious aspects of the covenant are helpful, for Christians should see the law as having other uses besides condemnation. The Mosaic covenant, however, is still a conditional covenant at its foundation. While YHWH keeps his promise to Abraham and does not destroy all of Israel, Israel’s residence in the land depended on obedience (Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28). Thus, YHWH eventually put his covenant curses into effect and banished Israel into exile. The blessings could theoretically have been achieved (Deut 30:11–14), but were in practice never possible due to the uncircumcised hearts of the people (Deut 10:16). Block helpfully highlights YHWH’s promise to restore even after the exile, however. YHWH promises to circumcise the heart of the people (Deut 30:6), so that they will confess their sin and be restored into covenant relationship (Lev 26:40).[4] However, this is not a promise of the Mosaic covenant but a prophecy of what will happen in the future. These promises of YHWH point to the need for the new covenant.

What is new about the new covenant, then, is the promise to circumcise the hearts of all who are within it (Jer 31:32–34). The Mosaic covenant is not inherently bad—it could have been kept by all if their hearts had all been circumcised. This was simply not how God decided to administer it, though. The Mosaic covenant was not irrevocable, so YHWH kept his word by sending the covenant curses. This explains why the Mosaic covenant is abolished with the coming of the new covenant (Eph 2:15; Heb 8:7–8, 13), including its ceremonial and civil legislation (Mark 7:10; Heb 9:10, 15–20; 10:1). Contra Block, the new covenant is not an extension of the Mosaic. Instead, it is a replacement. This is so because of YHWH’s administration. He decided to send the David Messiah to fulfill the covenant of Moses and to make it obsolete. What about the torah, then? Does the new covenant make us antinomians, as Block would claim? No, in this sense the Messiah does not abolish the Law (Matt 5:17), for Jesus speaks of the moral law, the principles of ethics and worship written on all hearts (Rom 2:15). As to the irrevocable Abrahamic covenant, however, YHWH keeps this promise in the new covenant through Abraham’s offspring, Jesus of Nazareth (Gal 3:16). He is the embodiment of ethnic Israel and all the promises of God are “yes” in him (2 Cor 1:20). By faith in Christ and heart circumcision, even Gentiles can now be incorporated into this new covenant (Gal 3:9). The Abrahamic covenant is fulfilled through the new covenant in Jesus of Nazareth, the Davidic Messiah.

Conclusion

Block’s work here is full of rich insight and many good exegetical points. He offers a unique perspective by focusing on exegeting individual texts. Reading this work will raise many questions for the thoughtful reader as to how all these covenants work together. There are some tangential aspects and some areas where Block could have condensed his material, but overall the book is worth a slow, careful read. I recommend this book for the thoughtful church member interested in the subject of the covenants (Block states he wrote the work for the church and not primarily the academy [xiv]). Whatever theological camp the reader is in, he or she will be challenged in thinking. The work is also substantial enough to be stimulating to the scholarly guild. Pastors would be well-served to consider the contents as they seek to put the covenants together and preach the whole counsel of God responsibly.


Editors Note: The London Lyceum publishes a range of original pieces and book reviews from various faith traditions and viewpoints. It is not the mission of the London Lyceum to always publish work that agrees with our confession of faith. Therefore, the thoughts within the articles and reviews may or may not reflect our confessional commitments and are the opinions of the author alone. Rather, we seek to generate thinking and foster an intellectual culture of charity, curiosity, critical thinking, and cheerful confessionalism.


[1] For ease of reference, I will use the term “Mosaic covenant” here, referring to the covenant made at Sinai (Exodus 19–24). The covenant was not made with Moses but with the nation of Israel, having Moses as its mediator. Block calls this “Stage 2” of the Israelite covenant with the re-dedication in Moab as “Stage 3” of the same covenant, but I will use the more common terminology of “Mosaic covenant” to refer to stages 2 and 3.

[2] NB: I subscribe to the Second London Baptist Confession but do not identify as a “1689 Federalist.”

[3] Note also how Moses describes certain land boundaries in Num 34:1–15, but then Ezekiel expands them in the boundaries listed in Ezek 47:13–48:29 regarding a future land.

[4] Most English translations render Lev 26:40 as “But if,” a mistranslation of the waw conjunction that has caused much misinterpretation. Block translates the phrase correctly (277).

Author

  • Drew N. Grumbles

    Drew N. Grumbles received his Ph.D. in Old Testament from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of YHWH Is There, a study of Ezekiel 40–48 using typology. He has served as a long-time pastor and is a contributor to the Spanish Daily Dose of Hebrew (Dosis Diaria de Hebreo). He currently lives in upstate New York with his wife and three children, serving at Albany Baptist Church.

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