The Backbone of the Bible

9781433541919 This post is adapted from God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants: A Concise Biblical Theology by Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum.

A Summary of the Bible’s Story

What, we may well ask, in literary terms, is the plot structure of the Old Testament or even of the entire Bible as a single text? We would advocate that the covenants constitute the framework of the larger story. They are the backbone of the biblical narrative. The biblical story begins with the fact that there is only one God. He has created everything and especially has made humankind to rule under him. In this context, God is the center of the universe and we humans find our purpose in having a right relationship to God and to one another. The first man and woman, however, rejected this way. Now, what happens when God is no longer the center of our universe? Who steps in to take his place? Why, we do. I want to be at the center of the universe. Will this work? No, because you want to be there too. So chaos and evil have reigned since the rebellion of Adam and Eve, because we no longer had a right relationship with God and did not treat each other as genuinely human. God judged the entire human race and made a new start with Noah. This too ended up in chaos and evil, as is clear from the story of the Tower of Babel. Finally he made a fresh start with Abraham. He would restore a creation and humanity ruined by pride and rebellion by using Abraham and his family as a pilot project. The people of Israel would be an example, a light to the world of what it meant to be properly related to God and to treat each other properly according to the dignity of our humanity. They would be blessed for obedience, cursed for disobedience. We may call this the Mosaic covenant, set forth in Exodus and restated in Deuteronomy. But the people of Israel did not keep the Mosaic covenant. That is why the biblical story begins talking about a new covenant. This time it would be possible to keep this covenant.

This summary of the biblical story illustrates that in less than three hundred words—the amount of space normally permitted for a PhD dissertation abstract—the covenants adequately account for the literary or plot structure of the Bible as a text. The claim here is that the covenants are the key to the larger story of Scripture, the biblical metanarrative. While this claim is based on the idea that Scripture is a single book or text and not just an anthology of texts, it is not the same as discovering a plan in the arrangement of the books (although that is in part related). Rather, it is a question of the literary plot structure of the metanarrative as a whole. Even genres that are not narrative have at their base a larger story that provides the framework for understanding them. Thus even the non-narrative genres are based on the larger story. Nor is this claim the same as the goal pursued by the biblical theology movement of the twentieth century, where the aim was to find a “center” for, e.g., the Old Testament. The claim here is not that “covenant” is the center of a biblical theology of the Old Testament, but rather that the covenants (plural) are at the heart of the metanarrative plot structure.

Major Covenants in the Bible

While there are a great number and variety of covenants or treaties described in the Old Testament, certain covenants between God and other parties—be they groups or individuals—stand out in the plot structure of the narrative as determined by the canon of the Old Testament.

  1. The Covenant with Creation (Genesis 1-3)
  2. The Covenant with Noah (Genesis 6-9)
  3. The Covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12/15/17/22)
  4. The Covenant at Sinai (Exodus 19-24)
  5. The Covenant with David (2 Samuel 7/Psalm 89)
  6. The New Covenant (Jeremiah 31-34/Isaiah 54/Ezekiel 33-39)

Some debate exists as to what should or should not be included in a list such as this. Not all are persuaded that the features portrayed in Genesis 1–2 can be labeled a covenant. Some would add to this list covenants such as the covenant with Levi (Numbers 25:6–13; cf. Malachi 2:1–9).

Peter J. Gentry (PhD, University of Toronto) is professor of Old Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and director of the Hexapla Institute. Stephen J. Wellum (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is professor of Christian theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and editor of the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology. He is also the coauthor (with Peter Gentry) of Kingdom through Covenant.

Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.

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