Covenant & Hope Excerpt

The People Israel, Christianity and the Covenantal Responsibility to History

By Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn

To be a member of God’s covenant with the Jewish people—to be a ben berit—is to live in the unfolding of sacred history. The drama began at twilight of the sixth day, when God created Adam with a unique holiness, inscribing him with Tzelem Elohim (Imago Dei). It progressed through Noah, Abraham and revelation at Sinai. It continues through today, and will end in the messianic era, when all persons recognize the reality of God and His[1] moral authority. And as the prophets Isaiah, Micah, and Zachariah taught, only when all the world lives in blessing and tranquility will the Jewish people fulfill the sacred covenant that God made with Abraham and his descendants. The call of the covenant is to be a partner with the Divine in completing creation and an essential actor in the story of humanity.

God’s covenant with the Jewish people at Sinai would be meaningless without this historical mandate.  A divine covenant with individuals whose purpose is personal redemption is possible without a historical dimension, but the God of history’s covenant with an eternal people assumes purpose only if the covenantal people has an enduring mission over the sweep of time.

The Covenant with Israel

Jewish covenantal theology has its roots in the Bible’s account of the founding of the Jewish people and its spiritual destiny. Genesis (12:1-3) relates that God created a unique personal relationship with Abraham, calling upon him to break with his father’s home, culture and gods in pagan Mesopotamia and travel to Canaan. It is there that Abraham is to become “the father of a great nation,” whose destiny is blessing. Upon arrival, Abraham and his descendants receive eternal title to the land of Canaan and Abraham immediately builds an altar “to call out the name of the Lord” (12:7-9). These events are only the beginning of the intimate covenant between God and Abraham that is formalized soon thereafter in chapter 15. Like all contracts, each covenantal partner acquires benefits and assumes responsibilities: Abraham receives blessing, fame and land. In return, Jewish tradition understood that Abraham assumed the responsibility to function as the witness to God’s presence in heaven and on earth.[1]A bit later, Abraham’s responsibilities


[1] The early rabbinic interpretation (Midrash, Sifre, Ha’azinu 313) states that “before Abraham, God was called ‘God of the heavens’; after Abraham, people called Him ‘God of the heavens and the earth.”’ That is, Abraham taught people that God was present in human affairs. The rabbis derived the midrash from the text of Gen. 24:2-3, in which Abraham requires that his gentile servant, Eliezer, swear “by the Lord, the God of heaven and earth.”  Since Christianity adopted this idea of religious purpose and popularized the term “witness,” Jews have shied away from using it. However, neither God nor Isaiah hesitated to do so in reference to the Jewish people and its mission.  Through Isaiah, God calls Israel “My witnesses” (Isa. 43:11-12).

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expand to “teaching the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice (tsedakah u-mishpat).” (Gen. 18:19) This covenant is passed down to Isaac and Jacob through the generations as told in Genesis, and the family covenant blossoms into a national covenant between God and the entire Jewish people with revelation at Sinai, where Jewish tradition has taught that God gave the Jewish people the whole of the written Torah and its 613 commandments.[1]  Rabbinic tradition understands the Sinai covenant to be an extension of Abraham’s covenant in Genesis, i.e. they are theologically and spiritually identical though varying in detail.[2]  The revelation of the Torah at Sinai to Abraham’s descendants was but a fuller expression of the original covenant with Abraham in Canaan.[3] In other words, in the rabbinic mind Abraham is Israel and Israel is Abraham.

Jews understand themselves theologically as a covenantal people. It is the Sinai covenant that provides the content, meaning and commitment to the Jewish people’s faith in God. The commandments are the covenantal terms that shape Jewish spiritual life. They are, in the language of Jewish liturgy, “our lives and the length of our days.” And it is the experience of revelation Sinai together with the definition and application of the Sinaitic commandments (Jewish Law or “halakhah”) that form the foundation for daily Jewish religious intellectual endeavor and Judaism’s religious worldview.

The covenant also establishes an intimate personal relationship between God and His people. Like all forms of intimacy the covenantal relationship is particularistic and forms an exclusivist


[1] Shlomo Riskin has creatively suggested that God established a third covenant with Israel, other than the “covenant of nationality” with Abraham and the ‘covenant of religion” at Sinai: The “covenant of the stones” described in Deut. 27-28 established immediately before Moses’ death and the entry of the Israelites into the Land of Canaan. This may be thought of as a formalization of the mission of Abraham that will be explicated later.

[2] The verses Exodus describing Jewish slavery in Egypt and Moses’ deliverance of the Jewish people emphasize this continuity. “God remembered his covenant with Abraham” (2:24) and God is identified to the Jewish slaves as the God of Abraham…….. (3:15). The exodus is but a fulfillment of the promise to Abraham (6:3-8). Thus the religious dramas of Abraham and the theological events of the exodus and at Sinai are portrayed as being of one continuous cloth.

[3] Though historically and textually difficult on a literal level, some Talmudic and medieval rabbinic opinions tried to emphasize this point by claiming that Abraham kept all of Mosaic (and even later rabbinic) commandments. This is the opinion of mishnaic sage, R. Nahorei, expressed in the last mishnah in tractate  Kiddushin and the late second century-early third century talmudic sage, Rav, in Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 28b. (The same talmudic texts records an equally authoritative disagreeing opinion.) Rav derives this conclusion from his exegesis of Gen. 26:5. It is also articulated by the popular medieval biblical commentator Shlomo ben Yitshak (Rashi) in his commentary on that verse. As we shall see, this is a minority view, and one, I am convinced, that is made for pedagogical purposes only. 

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 relationship between the partners. This is why the biblical prophets repeatedly use the metaphor of marriage to describe the covenant between God and the Jewish people. The sanctity of marriage lies precisely in the fact that husband and wife are devoted exclusively to each other. Because it is an exclusive relationship, the covenant’s benefits accrue only to the Jewish people and the responsibilities of the covenantal commandments do not apply to the rest of humanity in the eyes of normative rabbinic thinkers. Jewish theology was true to the biblical narrative and, unlike Christianity, did not try to universalize God’s covenant with Israel. Quite the contrary, for the Talmud and Jewish law (halakhah) were suspicious of gentiles who studied Torah and followed the Sinai commandments, viewing them metaphorically as third parties adulterously intruding on the intimate betrothal between God and Israel.[1]

This understanding of Israel’s covenant exposes a literary problem in the biblical story and it can easily lead to a deeper theological problem. As do all identity-forming relationships, the covenant erects boundaries, and thereby it creates an insider/outsider dichotomy. Jews are in the covenant under God’s parental care; all else are “Other.”  If so, what are we to make of God’s relationship with those outside my parochial covenant? The Bible seems to reinforce this challenge since once Abraham appears in the biblical narrative Hebrew Scriptures become almost an exclusive Jewish story. From Genesis 12 through Chronicles, the Bible is a history of the successes, failures and journeys of the people of Israel. If gentiles appear at all, they are in the background. With the arrival of Abraham, then, the original grand cosmic drama of creation piercing the farthest corners of heaven and earth shifts with shocking discontinuity to a local family narrative.

On the theological level, God’s singular concern with his covenantal people severely narrows divine involvement with his cosmic creation. Throughout the Bible, both covenantal partners are so lovesick with each other that they appear to leave the universe behind; those outside the covenant merit neither prolonged divine nor Jewish concern.  Abraham’s travel from Haran to Canaan transformed not only Abraham, but also his divine partner. Sometime during Abraham’s journey to Canaan, the majestic all-caring Creator of humanity voluntarily diminished Himself and became a demanding and protecting Father of the nation alone. Where is the Author of creation, the God of resplendent holiness, whose glory fills the entire universe and whose concern extends to all His children? God, it seems, has “gone ethnic.”

Living the covenant faithfully requires intense focus on performing the mitsvot,the behavioral commandments that connect the Jewish people to their God and individual Jews to their kin. As a result, Jews can easily interpret the covenant as demanding that they be a people “who dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations” (Num. 23:9) in splendid isolation from the rest of the


[1] Babylonian Talmud (henceforth B.T.), Sanhedrin 59a, Maimonides, Mishneh Torah (henceforth MT), Laws of Kings 8:10 and 10:9-10. Although Maimonides says in 10:10 that gentiles may perform commandments for their utilitarian value, he states in 10:9 that they should not do so qua commandment, i.e. as a covenantal obligation, without conversion to Judaism and thus joining the Jewish people. 

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world.[1] And certainly the Jewish historical experience in exile amongst the nations conduces toward this withdrawal theology. Today Jews are a traumatized people. The deep wounds inflicted by the harsh historical oppressions of Rome, the Church, the Tsars, the Nazis, the Communists and the current widespread Muslim hostility to Israel easily lead some religious and nationalist Jewish thinkers to idealize isolation from world affairs. It seems that whenever Jews engaged with the world, Jewish blood ran in the streets. Thus it is quite natural for the Jewish people to turn inward and to elevate survival to its primary religious value.

This inward gaze is expressed poignantly by a central part of the daily Jewish liturgy:

My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from deceitful speech. To those who curse me, let my soul be silent; may my soul be to all like the dust.  Open my heart to Your Torah and let my soul pursue Your commandments. As for all who plan evil against me, swiftly thwart their counsel and frustrate their plans. Act for the sake of Your name; act for the sake of Your right hand; act for the sake of Your Torah. That Your beloved ones may be delivered, save with Your right hand and answer me. May the worlds of my mouth and the meditation of my heart find favor before You, Lord, my Rock and Redeemer. May He who makes peace in His high places, make peace for us and all Israel –and say: “Amen.”[2]

This is the final paragraph of the eighteen blessings-prayers that religious Jews recite three times daily as they formally stand before God. As such, it represents the culmination of a Jew’s personal petition to God. Note its major aspirations:

  1. personal piety
  2. individual and national deliverance from hostile enemies
  3. personal observance of the divine commandments (Torah)
  4. peace for all Israel

The prayer’s spiritual vision is cautious and restricted. The penitent sees the outside world not as a blessed manifestation of God’s creation, but as wholly Other: an existential threat to him and the Jewish people (“Your beloved”). The fervent plea is for God to act as the deliverer of the Jewish people and carrier of peace to Israel, not the Father of all humanity. The religious dream is personal piety unconnected to its impact on the world. Indeed, God’s infinite creation as the arena of religious wonder and covenantal challenge has been left behind.


[1] Naftali Rothenberg offers a well articulated illustration of this understanding of the covenant. He assumes ab initio that Torah and the Jewish covenant necessarily create an obstacle for Jewish relations with all others.

[2] The Koren Siddur, American Edition, (Koren Publishers, Jerusalem 2009) p. 134.

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