One of the key elements to understanding the Old Testament is to recognize the crucial role of the covenant and of the covenant people in God’s plan. As I worked on a volume designed to help Latter-day Saints understand the major theme of every Old Testament chapter we cover in Gospel Doctrine (The Essential Old Testament Companion), I was struck with how important the covenant was throughout that entire book of scripture.
I had known of its importance and thematic consistency, but it was not until I wrote down the major themes of each chapter that I saw how much it was a part of almost every chapter, and how little allusions to the covenant permeate all of scripture. It was such an overwhelming theme that I made identifying that theme a part of every chapter I covered in my book. Yet, despite its amazing prevalence throughout scripture, many Church members struggle to understand that covenant.
Latter-day Saints often realize the importance of making personal covenants, but have a hard time translating them into the larger covenant with Israel. We also often fail to realize that God has always dealt with his people in covenants. For instance, he made a covenant with Adam (Moses 5:59; 6:51-52). This covenant was continued through the line of the Preachers of Righteousness, such as Enoch, on through Noah. The covenant was renewed with Noah’s sons and continued to be passed down (Genesis 9:8-9). Abraham was aware of this covenant and actively sought out the opportunity to make it (Abraham 1:2-4), presumably receiving the ordinances of the covenant through Melchizedek.
Here we come to a key juncture in the covenant: After Abraham all who entered into the covenant would be either Abraham’s literal seed or adopted into it (Abraham 2:10). Most of this covenant was available to all of Abraham’s seed, but Isaac was the only one that received of the fullness of the covenant.
Of Isaac’s sons, only Jacob received the fullness of the covenant. Here we come to another critical juncture. All of Jacob’s sons partook of the fullness of the covenant. It was universally available to all of his descendants. Since Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, the covenant became associated with him and his children, and thus we refer to it as the covenant with Israel, and Israel’s descendants came to be known as the covenant, or chosen, people.
In our day we sometimes struggle with this idea. Hearing of a covenant that is passed down through genetic descent and associated with being a special and chosen race does not sit well with our egalitarian generation. Yet when we think of it in these terms we are thinking of it incorrectly. This is not an elitist or exclusive covenant or group. In fact, it is the most inclusive group of which I am aware. God and those whom he has chosen to represent him in administering this covenant desperately want everyone to join the group, or make the covenant.
We do everything we can, expending tremendous amounts of time and every conceivable kind of resource to get as many people to be part of this group as we can. And if we can’t get you to join in this life, we are doing everything we can, again expending tremendous amounts of effort and time, to get you to join in the next life. We literally and honestly want everyone to be part of this. We want every single soul to make a covenant and become part of the house of Israel. If that is not inclusive, if that is not the opposite of elitist, I don’t know what is.
The fact of the matter is that God needs someone to do his work here on earth. The people who will do his work are those who will enter into a covenant with him. And those people are the house of Israel, the whole house of inclusive Israel as outlined above. God chose them not because he loved them more, but because they would do his work. When Israel was chosen to inherit the Promised Land it was not because God was playing favorites, but because the Canaanites had rejected God and all his preaching, while Israel had chosen God (1 Nephi 17:33-40).
The Canaanites seem to have gotten to the point where God could make no more progress with them in this sphere of their existence, so he moved them to the next sphere where he would work with them again and hopefully bring more of them back to him. In this way he gave them more chances to come to him and created a place where Israel could continue to try to come to him in circumstances that were more favorable for them.
As we come to understand both how God works with Israel unceasingly and how Israel is a group of people who have been willing to work with God, we start to understand more of how we can apply the scriptures to ourselves. After Genesis 12, all of the scriptures are about the Abrahamic covenant and the people who have made that covenant: namely, Israel. Stated elsewise, with the exception of eleven chapters, really all of the Old Testament, New Testament, Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants, are about Israel.
When we remember that we are a covenant making people, or in other words, we are Israel, then we realize that the scriptures really are about us. This is what Nephi was really talking about when he said that his brothers were of the House of Israel and thus he could liken the scriptures to them (1 Nephi 19:20-24). What he is saying to Laman and Lemuel, but could say to us, is that the scriptures are about Israel-you are Israel, so they are about you. Find yourself in them. See how the prophecies relate to you. See how you are similar to Israel of the past and how God dealt with them in a way he deals with you.
Find these things, and the scriptures will speak to you in a different way. Look for little clues in the text that make it clear that God is intentionally fulfilling his covenant with his people.
Let me provide one example of that. Part of the Abrahamic Covenant is that God would be Abraham’s and Israel’s God, and they would be his people. Little variations of this phrase are found throughout the Old Testament. Such as when God speaks of how Israel will finally return to him in the last days, and he says that finally Israel will be his people (Ezekiel 37:27). By employing this line God indicates that everything that was part of the Abrahamic Covenant will be fulfilled. His scriptures are scattered with constant allusions to fulfilling the covenant (see The Essential Old Testament Companion, 459, for one example).
Now that we have discussed both the unending mercy of God (see the first column in this series) and how his workings with Israel are similar to his workings with us, we can also discuss how his combined punishments and mercy work in our lives and can be a role model for us. Let me provide an example.
Even with all we have gone through in our Old Testament discussions, some ask how God’s continual punishments and smitings as witnessed in the Old Testament can both bring us back to him and respect our agency. In other columns I have spoken and will speak of God “forcing” us to learn to rely on him. Of course God can’t force us to rely on him. What he does is put us in a position where we rely on him or suffer bad consequences. It is still our agency whether or not we will rely on him.
Obviously people exercise their agency in both ways. Many never do learn from their punishments and thus never do come to rely on God, which highlights how much we still use our agency. At the same time, a loving parent puts his children in the situation where they are most likely to learn to choose the right thing, to exercise their agency in such a way that they do that which is best for them. God’s purposeful punishments, his “smiting” again and again, is simultaneously justice and mercy. The sins deserve a just punishment. The crafting of the punishment so that it will bring people back to God, where they can learn to choose righteously, is mercy. Neither encroaches in any way upon agency.
To bring this into our lives in a different way, let us compare this to being a mortal parent. Of course we should punish our children, or in other words provide consequences for their incorrect actions that teach them and encourage better behavior and better desires in the future. It is hard for me to imagine a household working in such a way that there are not rules, and that there are not consequences for not keeping those rules. Of course the household runs even better if the correct principles that lie behind those rules are being taught and if the punishments or consequences are tied into those principles and encouraging good behavior.
At the same time we must realize that punishment is not forcing. Agency is still available even when someone is punished. Of course we should punish our children in such a way that the end goal we want for them is encouraged. It is impossible to force that end goal; there is no way we can do it, and there is no way God can do it. It is impossible for any of us to force people to exercise their agency correctly. But we can strongly steer them in the right direction.
Sometimes we struggle because we misunderstand the use of the word “agency.” Agency is not the ability to do anything we want any time we want. If this were so, our inability to fly would be a lack of agency. Agency is the ability to make choices regarding our current circumstances. Jews in a concentration camp did not have the ability to do very many things. But they still had the agency to choose how they would feel about God and others while in that circumstance.
Their freedom was taken away, but not their agency. It is impossible to take that away. A child who has been grounded has not lost his agency. Certain choices and freedoms have been taken away from him, but we all know he still has the ability to choose whether he will be mad about that punishment and act badly as a result, or whether he will let this punishment humble him and help him realize the error of his ways and choose to do better in the future. Freedom to go somewhere may have been lost, but agency is intact.
And so it is with God and all his children throughout all the scriptures. The Old Testament is not unique in this. The Book of Mormon, Church history, and even the larger New Testament story are all the same-there is nothing unique about the Old Testament in this. When God’s children stray, he smites or punishes them in such a way that they are “forced” to think about him. Of course no one is forced, and certainly some people didn’t choose to think about God. But most people in difficult circumstances will. Once they have made the choice to remember God, they then have the choice whether they will humble themselves, repent, and turn to him, or whether they will get angry with God and continue to behave badly. The smiting, destruction, and punishment preserves agency but creates circumstances where principles can be learned that will help agency be exercised more wisely. God did this with Israel as a whole, and he does it with each Israelite (covenant-making) individual.
If we will see ourselves in every story about Israel, if we will see how God deals with Israel as a whole and with Israelite individuals, we will learn more from the scriptures about how God deals with each of us as Israelite individuals. We will also learn more about how to be a loving parent.
We will find more and more answers to the important questions of life. The scriptures are there for you, O member of the House of Israel, and are able to provide more answers than you usually find.