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Reconciliation in the Covenant

The following is the first part of a paper given by pastor Barry Henning at the 2011 Reconciliation and Justice Conference.  For the entire paper, please click here.

A Preliminary Biblical-Theological Understanding of Reconciliation in the Covenant

Reconciliation in the Old Testament

Are there Covenantal obligations and teachings of the Old Testament that speak directly to

our responsibility to be reconciled?

There are at least two important reasons for asking this question. First, God’s moral

character does not change. If reconciliation is a moral issue, a matter of true righteousness

which calls for a reversing of the division and segregation caused by sin and is truly a part

of the eternal purpose of God, then we would expect to find a call to righteousness in

reconciliation spelled out, even if in seed form only, in the Old Covenant. Second, as with

every other moral issue, the Covenantal obligations laid out in the Old Testament would

prove crucial for understanding the fuller expression of reconciliation required of the

church in the New Testament.


The Call for Reconciliation in the Genesis Account

On the most basic level, Adam’s fall into sin brought a kind of death that is defined by

separation, or for the purpose of emphasis here, segregation (Gen 3). Many theologians

have pointed out the clear implications of death entering the human race through Adam as

man’s separation from God, from each other, from himself and from creation. If God’s

agenda in salvation is the complete reconciliation of all things in Christ (Eph 1:9), it would

seem that must include not only a profound reconciliation to God but also a profound

reconciliation to one another.

While the term “reconciliation” does not exist in the Old Testament, if we look at the biblical

narrative with this theological issue in mind, we will find there is an abundance of evidence of a

clear, moral, Covenantal call to a deep, practical expression of reconciliation. More specifically,

if we read the Scriptures with a view towards Israel’s responsibilities to immigrants, or aliens,

we are going to see the call of God to practice reconciliation is clearly woven throughout the

entire fabric of the history of redemption. Like much of biblical truth and revelation, the call

to reconciliation is in seed form early on in the Genesis narrative, gets expanded upon

throughout the Law, grows into being a part of the great fullness of God’s salvation

promised through the coming Messiah in the Prophets, reaches its climactic

accomplishment in the ministry of Christ, and is then embedded in the DNA of the church

as part of our foundational nature as the people of God. We can begin by stepping back

and examining the Covenantal backdrop of God’s commitment to reconciliation in the

narratives of Adam, Noah and Abraham.

The whole book of Genesis functioned as a Divine history lesson for the Hebrew people, just

as it does for us. God’s revelation in Genesis unfolds his original purposes for all creation and

especially for his crowning achievement: mankind, made in his image. The disastrous sin of

Adam and the near destruction of the world in Noah’s day reveal the glorious story of God’s

astounding love and covenant faithfulness to redeem and save, despite the evil intentions of men.


Genesis 1-11 functions as a preamble to Israel’s specific role as the “least of the nations”

chosen by God, through the promises to Abraham, to bring his salvation to the whole

earth. The reconciliation purposes of God are revealed in this narrative in the most basic

descriptions of God’s overarching plans for mankind, and for Israel as his chosen people

The Unity of Mankind in the Covenant with Adam

Every believer familiar with Scripture would acknowledge the dignity of all human beings as

created in the image of God. Genesis 1-3 emphasizes God as the Sovereign Creator of all things

and especially as the Creator of all peoples through the universal fatherhood of Adam and Eve:

“Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living.” Gen 3:20

The rub, so to speak, comes in the practical implications. Even as late as 1787 in the

Constitution of the United States of America, slaves were assigned a value of three fifths (3/5) of

a person for purposes of representation and taxation. As noted earlier, in that same year, the

African Methodist Episcopal Church started when African members of the white dominated

Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia discovered just how far American Methodists would

go to enforce racial discrimination against African Americans.

By contrast, in this formative Covenant document for the people of God, the Lord was

making a very distinct point in revealing himself as the God of all the nations. For the

Israelites to acknowledge every other ethnic group as equally created by God and endowed

with the very same image of God as themselves, was an idea that stood radically opposite to

the ethnocentric creation myths of the surrounding pagan cultures Israel was called to

bless. As Harvey Conn points out in his lectures on “The Old Testament and the Poor”1 the

false religions and gods of the nations that surrounded Israel were a collection of myths

and distorted stories created by the political/religious leaders of their age to spin their own

explanations of life and, in the end, to justify the existence of the elite, ruling class who

freely oppressed the poor. The cultures of the Ancient Near East, as a general rule, not only

oppressed women, but also used their pagan religious teachings to feed an ethnocentric

ideal that further justified the oppression of people from different ethnic groups.2 The

Babylonian gods were only concerned with Babylon. The Egyptian gods were only

concerned with Egypt, etc. God took time in the Genesis narrative to set Himself apart as

the One, true God who created women with a special status and, gloriously, created all

mankind in His image. This revelation would break the entrenched myths and patterns of

oppression and division that the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had lived under

in Egypt for over 400 years. God was giving his people Israel a global, universal perspective

on the dignity of the nations as well as a clear revelation that he always had an active,

Sovereign hand working for salvation and judgment among all the people of the earth. His

purposes are laden with reconciliation implications that become clear as the Law unfolds.

Seeds of Reconciliation in the Covenant with Noah

The emphasis on Israel’s connectedness to the other nations continues in the account of Noah,

who functions as a type of new Adam. In a newly re-birthed world, he is the one physical father

1 Dr. Harvey Conn, The Old Testament and the Poor Lecture 1 Westminster Media

2 ibid


of all the nations. Within the story of the division and dispersing of the nations, there is a pointed

reminder of our basic unity in Noah. Genesis 6-11 reaffirms the universal connection of the

nations through the account of Noah both in his calling to re-establish the original

Covenant with Adam to “be fruitful and multiply and cover the face of the earth” (Gen

1:28, cf. 9:7) and in the listing of the table of nations, “These are the clans of Noah’s sons,

according to their lines of descent, within their nations. From these the nations spread out

over the face of the earth after the flood.” Genesis 10:32

God’s specific, detailed discussion of the table of nations in Genesis 10 is more than

simply background material to the real story- the story of Israel. It is in fact, the main

point for their (and our) story- that these are the nations they are to bless and ultimately

help give spiritual birth to (Gen 12:1-3, Isa 26:17,18). As many others have pointed out, the

story of the tower of Babel is reversed on the day of Pentecost when Jesus Christ, the real

“second Adam” (Romans 5) began a reconciliation process that would extend to all the

nations of the earth.

The Budding of Reconciliation in the Covenant with Abraham

When we turn to the Covenant with Abraham, God’s commitment to reconciliation starts to

rise to more and more prominence. There is a traditional theological approach to Genesis that

wants to emphasize a “narrowing” of God’s focus to the descendants of Abraham, in an

exclusionary way, as the true people of God. This theological mindset can mistakenly feed our

own ethnocentric Christianity even as it fed the pride and ethnocentricity of many Jews. There is

a narrowing of focus in the narrative. But the focus on Abraham is never meant to be an

ethnic exclusion of other nations from Israel’s thinking; instead it is meant to heighten

their understanding of God’s grace that called them into existence as a nation for the

purpose of achieving God’s global salvation.

● The promises to Abraham in Genesis 12 are set in relationship to the table of nations in

Genesis 10 and the division of the nations in Genesis 11. When Abraham is called as the

man through whom the Messiah will come, the promise is stated in reference to all the

descendants of Adam/Noah: “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Gen

12:3. That means the division of the nations as a judgment exercised by God in

Genesis 11 is already on its way to being reversed in Genesis 12 through the blessing

of salvation given to Abraham, who will become the father of many nations and a

blessing to all . The reconciliation of all men and all things through Christ Jesus

(Eph 1:9,10) is already foreshadowed in the Abrahamic Covenant.

In Genesis 17 the inclusive, reconciling nature of God’s salvation among the

nations is emphasized in the sign of the covenant, circumcision, when Abraham is


“No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham for I have made you

the father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and

kings will come from you. ……. For the generations to come every male among you who

is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought

with money from a foreigner- those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your


household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. ……. Any

uncircumcised male…will be cut off from his people.” Genesis 17:12-13

Abraham will be the spiritual father of many nations. The sign of the Covenant is not to be

given on the basis of ethnic heritage in an exclusionary form, but on the basis of covenantal

relationship. Everyone who is in a faith-Covenant relationship with God, even purchased slaves,

are part of the Covenant family and must be given the sign of the Covenant. As the Scriptures

will more fully reveal as the story unfolds, that Covenant sign brought with it the full rights

and obligations of the Covenant family.

God’s Call to Reconciliation Practices Expanded in the Covenant with Moses

When we come to the establishment of Israel as a nation-state who would uniquely

reflect the righteousness of God and be the conduit of his blessing to the nations, the

demand for practicing reconciliation is more pronounced. In particular, the place of the

alien (stranger or foreigner) takes on a prominent position in God’s detailed commands for

his people to practice reconciliation. Nine (9) times in the Exodus to Canaan narrative (Ex-

Deut) God talks about Israel’s personal experience as aliens and the things they suffered, and

uses that as a moral reminder of their need to show compassion and not mistreat, in general, any

alien in their midst ( Ex 23:21, 23:9; Lev 19:34; Deut 10:19). In sixty (60) additional

references in the books of Exodus-Deuteronomy, God addresses the treatment of the alien or

foreigner, who are described as “living among you” or “within your gates” (Ex 20:10; Lev 16:19;

Deut 1:16, 5:14). Just in Deuteronomy, in their final preparation before entering the land of

Canaan, the Lord addresses the people of Israel and their response to the alien/foreigner twentysix

(26) times.

How many other ethnic groups actually lived with the people of Israel? No one knows for

sure. There is a hint of the diversity in the Exodus narrative when we are told, “many other

people (Hebrew: “a mixture of peoples” Greek LXX: “a swarm of foreigners”) went up

with them” (Ex 12:38).3 What is clear is that their relationship with other ethnic groups

was a vital part of their life as the people of God. As we will see, every single historic event

in the history of Israel includes direct commands and instructions on how they were to

treat non-ethnic Jews.

As we look at these passages of Scripture dealing with the place of foreigners in the life of

Israel, we need to address an important distinction. Some of the passages in Exodus-

Deuteronomy address the responsibility of Israel, in general, to the resident alien. God

called his people to practice a kind of compassion and justice for the foreigner among them

that was unlike the normally oppressive practices of other Near Eastern Cultures towards

different ethnic groups. Even household slaves were to be given a Sabbath day of rest (Ex

20:8-11). General laws of justice were to be equally applied to all (Deut 1:16,17). Israel

was to keep in mind their own experience as aliens in Egypt as a practical reminder of what

injustice felt like (Ex 23:9), and they were also called to image the moral nature of God,

who “loves the alien” (Deut 10:19). The Law called the people of Israel to practice a type of

kindness and compassion for the foreigner, the stranger and the slave that had nothing to

3 Keil-Delitzsch “Commentary on the Old Testament” Vol. 1, pp. 29,30 Eerdmans 1978


do with their covenantal status. The call to compassion for foreigners is an expression of

the nature of God, who shows kindness to all without prejudice (Mt 5:43ff) being reflected

in his people. This type of command is found in Leviticus 19:33, 34

“‘When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living

with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you

were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”

But there is another set of commands that have a more specific focus concerning Israel’s

response to aliens and strangers who have freely entered into covenant relationship with

God. In these texts, we see more clearly foreshadowed an explicit call for what the New

Testament narrative refers to as reconciliation – the full, equal inclusion and just treatment

of non-Hebrews who had attached themselves to the Covenant. These commands throughout

Exodus – Deuteronomy are more than a reminder to be good neighbors to the immigrants and

aliens who happened to make Canaan their temporary home and, in addition, to care for those

foreigners who were servants and slaves. This is an Old Testament call for his people to practice

genuine and full reconciliation with the immigrants who became members of the Covenant


The evidence for this practical expression of reconciliation is found in the very events in

which Israel was founded as a nation and would mark her history forever: the Exodus and the


“The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “These are the regulations for the Passover:

“No foreigner is to eat of it. Any slave you have bought may eat of it after you have

circumcised him, but a temporary resident and a hired worker may not eat of it. It

must be eaten inside one house; take none of the meat outside the house. Do not

break any of the bones. The whole community of Israel must celebrate it. An alien

living among you who wants to celebrate the LORD’s Passover must have all the

males in his household circumcised; then he may take part like one born in the land.

No uncircumcised male may eat of it. The same law applies to the native-born and to

the alien living among you.” Exodus 12:43-49

As noted, when Israel left Egypt “many other people (Hebrew: “a mixture of peoples” LXX:

“a swarm of foreigners”) went up with them” (Ex 12:38). Apparently other oppressed nations

saw the deliverance of God on behalf of the Israelites and decided to cast their lot with the

Hebrews. The Israelites needed instruction on how to treat non-Hebrews. The significance of

issuing this command on the very day of the Exodus can hardly be overstated. The difference

between the status of the foreigner in the community of God’s people and the practice of

the other Ancient Near Eastern cultures provided a stark contrast. The Hebrews had seen

the ills of ethnic superiority demonstrated in the Egyptian culture, not just against

themselves, but against all non-Egyptians. That superiority / exclusion was clearly

expressed in the refusal to fellowship at the meal table. Genesis 43:32, “…Egyptians could

not eat with Hebrews, for that is detestable to Egyptians.” This is the corollary issue Paul

addresses in Galatians 2 when Peter refused to eat with the Gentiles. He was acting like a

“pagan”, not in line with the Gospel. The practical exclusion of other ethnic groups from


intimate “meal” fellowship with us is a denial of God’s equal acceptance of all of us as members

of his family through adoption.

Yet here, in the most precious, the most holy meal for the people of God, the meal celebrating

redemption, the alien who was circumcised was invited to enjoy the feast as a full participating

member of the community. In fact the admonition is startling: “he may take part like one born in

the land.”

This explanation for the requirement of circumcision in order to eat the Passover meal was

not a one-time point of administrative clarification for a one time, historic and special event. If it

were, it would be hard to argue that God was making a moral demand for reconciliation. Instead,

what we find throughout the Law and the Prophets is an often-repeated demand from God that

clearly and forcefully called upon the Hebrews to recognize and grant full rights, full privileges,

and full inclusion in the Covenant community to the alien or foreigner who attached themselves

to God through circumcision. Their struggle with tendencies of racism and exclusion were

evident early in their national history. Moses had married a North African, Cushite wife, which

became the basis for racial prejudice and questioning his position of leadership (Numbers

12:1ff). As we will see later, Israel’s failure to practice reconciliation was listed among the

fundamental reasons for the exile and one of the first issues addressed when they returned from


The place of the circumcised, covenantally-bound alien in the community life of Israel,

both in terms of privileges and responsibilities, is spelled out at several crucial points in the

Covenant documents. After providing instructions regarding the various types of sacrifices

and the work of the priests on behalf of the people, God gives regulations for the climactic

offering on the annual Day of Atonement. This is a sacrifice for the “whole community of

Israel” (Lev 16:17); for “the Israelites” (16:19); for “the people” (16:24), for “all the people

of the community” (16:33). And who is included in this description?

“This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month

you must deny yourselves and not do any work– whether native-born or an alien

living among you– because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse

you. Then, before the LORD, you will be clean from all your sins.” Lev 16:29,30

The implication that the atonement was made for the alien (those who had entered into a

covenant relationship with God) as well as the native-born Israelite becomes more clear in

Leviticus 17 when all the restrictions and obligations are equally applied to both groups:

“Say to them: ‘Any Israelite or any alien living among them who offers a burnt

offering or sacrifice and does not bring it to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting to

sacrifice it to the LORD– that man must be cut off from his people.’” Lev 17:8,9

These are not simply foreigners who are temporary residents, but non-Hebrews who

have entered a covenantal relationship with God. They are making sacrifices to God that is

“a pleasing aroma to the Lord” (Num 15:14-16). The status of acceptance and inclusion

accorded these aliens who were members of the Covenant community should have been

obvious to the people of God. But the obvious eluded Israel, just like it eludes us. So the

Law, as part of its needed function in their lives (and ours), gives explicit instructions on


how to treat them. The substance of those instructions reveal that God required his people to

treat these believing foreigners as equals, with the same status and privilege as the natural born

descendants of Abraham.

An example of this equality in the community is found in the story of Ruth, the

Moabitess, who announces to her mother-in-law Naomi, “your people will be my people,

and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). Ruth is not only received as a member of the

community, all the rights of the kinsman-redeemer are applied to her through Boaz. God’s

ultimate evidence of her status in the community is the privilege she is given of being

David’s great grandmother and part of the ancestral line of Jesus (Ruth 4:13ff, Mt 1:5). As

an added twist of God’s clear commitment to reconciliation in the Old Testament

narrative, Boaz, the husband of Ruth, was also the son of Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute

who helped Joshua and the Israelite army overthrow Jericho (Mt 1:5). This kind of

“community embracing” of someone from a different, and even despised ethnic group is a

practical demonstration of reconciliation that goes beyond what most contemporary

churches practice. We need to remember that these Old Testament laws and historical

examples were only a shadow of the full light of God’s glory that is meant to shine through the


The point of Ruth’s story is that it was not just some of the Laws in Israel which applied

to the alien who had become part of the covenant community, it was that all the laws

applied; including the laws for the use of tithes (Deut 14), the laws of loaning money

without interest (Deut 15 ), the laws of protection of property (Lev 25) and the laws of

“joyful celebration” at the annual feasts (Deut 16). To live in Israel and be in covenant

with God meant to be in community and covenant with his people for both the blessings

and the curses, the obligations and the promises of the Covenant.

“For the generations to come, whenever an alien or anyone else living among you

presents an offering made by fire as an aroma pleasing to the LORD, he must do exactly

as you do. The community is to have the same rules for you and for the alien living

among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the alien

shall be the same before the LORD: The same laws and regulations will apply both to

you and to the alien living among you.'” Numbers 15:14-16

“And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you but to fear the LORD

your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your

heart and with all your soul…. Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiffnecked

any longer. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great

God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends

the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and

clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in

Egypt.” Deut 10:16-19

The not-so-obvious question for church leaders in both denominational structures, as well as

local congregations is simply this: do we treat people from other ethnic and socio-economic

groups as complete equals?