Book Review – S Hahn, A Father Who Keeps His Promises: God’s Covenant Love in Scripture

Book Hahn A Father who keeps his promises

  • Link: Amazon
  • Length: 262
  • Difficulty: Easy-Popular
  • Topic: Biblical, Covenant
  • Audience: Mainstream Christians, Not-Yet Christians

Until recently, I’ve never heard a Roman Catholic preach before. Scott Hahn, the author of this book, is quite an (link) engaging speaker. He used to be a Presbyterian minister, now he is Roman Catholic. He has a great love of scripture.

He is known for his doctorate thesis called ‘Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises’. It was recommended to me recently and the theme of covenant interests me so I decided to check it out. Unfortunately the thesis was no longer free and available. So I got this book instead hoping it would cover the main points of his thesis, even if in a watered down – easy reading – popular style.

He explains the purpose of his book and the story of God’s love near the beginning.

“The story of that unfailing love is the story of this book. We’ll examine together what God has done in history to make us his family and to save us from the wretched misery of our own sin and selfishness. Along the way, we’ll discover anew how passionately he seeks us, how firm is his intention to make us whole again and how deserving he is to receive our gratitude, trust and obedience.” (17)

Hahn does all this through the lens of God’s covenant.

“Once you begin looking for what was important to the biblical writers themselves, you’ll find that the concept of covenant is a central thread woven throughout Scripture. The dramas that we’ll examine describe how God the Father, through a series of covenants, has moved from dealing with one couple—Adam and Eve—to the whole world. Each step along the way has moved us further up the pathway to heaven, providing yet one more crucial component in God’s plan to form a family of faith. Viewing the history of salvation through the lens of covenant helps us to see the fatherly wisdom and power of God, and will offer a clearer perspective on the human family.” (23)

This post is one of my book reviews.

Contents – Overview

  • Preface
  • 1. Kinship by Covenant: The Master Plan for God’s Family in Scripture
  • 2. Creation Covenant and Cosmic Temple: God’s Habitat for Humanity
  • 3. Splitting the Adam: From Creation to Desecration
  • 4. Shape Up or Ship Out: A Broken Covenant Renewed With Noah
  • 5. How Do You Spell Belief? The Faith of Father Abraham
  • 6. “The Elder Shall Serve the Younger!” Firstborn Failures and Family Feuds
  • 7. “Let My People Go!” Israel’s Exodus From Egypt
  • 8. Israel’s Calf-Hearted Response: The Mosaic Covenant at Mount Sinai
  • 9. Beloved Backsliders: Israel in the Wilderness
  • 10. “Choose This Day Whom You Will Serve!” From Conquest to Kingdom
  • 11. “Thou Art the Man!” From Kingdom to Exile
  • 12. “It Is Finished!” The Son Fulfills the Father’s Promises
  • 13. Here Comes the Bride: The Son Rises Over the New Jerusalem

Chapter 1 – Kinship by Covenant

The first chapter outlines his basic ideas about covenant and how it works in the narrative of scripture.

Hahn points out the close association of covenant and oath (e.g. Deut  29:11–12): a covenant is typically ratified by an oath, which is both an invocation of the deity for help and a conditional self-curse; the oath is expressed in words (Gen 22:16–18) and/or by a ritual oath-sign such as an animal sacrifice (cf. Gen 15:9–21).

“First, a contract is made with a promise, while a covenant is made by swearing an oath. In a promise, you make a pledge (“I give you my word”). A contract is made binding by your signature, your name. In oath-swearing a promise is transformed by invoking God’s holy name for assistance or blessing (“so help me God”). The oath-swearer places himself under divine judgment and a conditional self-curse (“I’ll be damned”). The oath is thus a much stronger and more sacred form of commitment.” (24)

Also comparing the difference between contracts and covenants, Hahn argues a covenant is a means of establishing (kinship) relationship between two parties.

“Another major difference between contracts and covenants may be discovered in their very distinctive forms of exchange. A contract is the exchange of property in the form of goods and services (“That is mine and this is yours”); whereas a covenant calls for the exchange of persons (“I am yours and you are mine”), creating a shared bond of interpersonal communion.
For ancient Israelites, a covenant differed from a contract about as much as marriage differed from prostitution. When a man and woman marry, they declare before God their undying love to one another until death, but a prostitute sells her body to the highest bidder and then moves on to the next customer. So contracts make people customers, employees, clients; whereas covenants turn them into spouses, parents, children, siblings. In short, covenants are made to forge bonds of sacred kinship.” (26)

Lastly and a little strangely, Hahn says “‘covenant’ is what God does because ‘covenant’ is who God is’.

“The Trinity is the eternal source and perfect standard of the covenant; when God makes and keeps covenants with his people, he’s just being true to himself. In short, “covenant” is what God does because “covenant” is who God is. From a sinful, shameful couple cast out of paradise, to God’s glorious, redeemed worldwide family of saints at home forever in heaven—that miraculous transformation is the covenant story of the Scripture.” (36)

I find this a little strange because saying ‘God is covenant’ is the same as saying ‘God is a relationship between two parties’. I feel Hahn needed to explain himself a little better here.

Chapters 2-11 – Old Testament

In the majority of the book Hahn walks his readers through the Old Testament. Most of chapters 2 to 12 spend a lot of time in the Torah.  I’ll quote what I found quite interesting in these chapters.

Genesis 11

English readers like myself will not know the Hebrew word for name is ‘shem’. Shem you might know is also Adam and Eve’s third son. The son who’s line will include Abraham, Judah, David and Jesus. Hahn makes a big deal of this in Genesis 11.

Meanwhile, the Hamite king, Nimrod, had settled in the land of Shinar, along with his offspring. They apparently wanted to outdo the architectural feats of the Canaanites: “Come,” they said, “let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name (Hebrew, shem) for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth” (Gn 11:4).

God quickly intervened and put a stop to this ill-conceived project by confusing their speech. He thus scattered the peoples by making it impossible for them to communicate with each other. Why was God so opposed to this tower-building project? The key is to see the subtle way in which the narrative presents their sin.

Apparently, it wasn’t just a neutral architectural enterprise. By announcing their intention “to make a shem for ourselves,” these builders were implementing Nimrod’s plan to build a counter-kingdom to the godly line of Shem. It was starting to sound like a repeat performance of the preflood situation. Once again, the ungodly were rejecting the covenant authority structure within the Father’s family; only this time Shem was the target, as the firstborn son that Noah had blessed. Presumably, Noah had been grooming Shem to assume leadership as a new father figure after his death. (91)

Genesis 17

Hahn at times is quite humourous. When describing the covenant of circumcision he says.

Abraham had work to do. Can you picture this revered tribal chieftain coming into the tents of his own domestic servants? “Gentlemen, I’ve got some good news and some bad news, again. First, the good news: God has renewed his promise with me today, swearing to make us not just a nation but a kingdom.”

Imagine the happy but hesitant response of his servants. “That’s just great, master. But what about the bad news? And why do you have that flint knife in your hand?”

Abraham had to explain that the sign of this new covenant was circumcision. And that it wasn’t just for him but for all of the males in his household. This unexpected turn of events undoubtedly provided a supreme test of loyalty for Abraham’s servants. It’s one thing to be circumcised as a baby, and an altogether different proposition to be circumcised as an adult. (105)

Exodus 4

He brings to light some details that one would normally be unaware of when reading through the text. When Moses was returning to Egypt the LORD ‘tried’ to kill him for not circumcising his son.

Why hadn’t Moses kept the covenant? The Midianites did practice circumcision, but like the Ishmaelites, they followed the custom that many Arabs practice down to the present time. Arabs perform circumcision around the age of thirteen (as with Ishmael), as a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood. On the other hand, the Israelites were to follow God’s command given to Abraham concerning Isaac, by circumcising their male infants on the eighth day, a statement of acceptance by God into the family covenant that did not depend upon their future “manliness.”

Maybe Moses excused himself by saying, When in Midian, do as the Midianites do. After all, I don’t want to offend Jethro, my father-in-law, who also happens to be a priest of Midian.

Evidently, Moses had offended his Father, so seriously that God tried to kill him. (135)

Exodus 5-12

Hahn gives a very interesting account of why Israel practiced animal sacrifices in the first place.

Why did God require Israel to come out of Egypt to worship and sacrifice at Mount Horeb? The Father wanted his people to sacrifice cattle, goats and rams.

Sounds harmless enough. We tend to view these bloody offerings as legalistic rituals, as if God were appeased simply by the smell of burnt flesh. Yet the Egyptians worshiped these types of animals as divinities. To sacrifice just one of them in the midst of Egypt would have been like killing a sacred cow in India. Such acts could seriously endanger a person’s life. …

God wanted the Israelites to come out of Egypt and sacrifice these false idols as an act of worship. Then they could return to Egypt and resume their work as slaves. Given a cooperative Pharaoh, God’s objective was more spiritual than political: to liberate his people from bondage to false idols and addictions to earthly goods. Then they would be free regardless of their earthly circumstances. After all, as it turned out, the Israelites weren’t headed for any picnic in the Promised Land. (139)

However I think it may have had a bit to do with the religious practices of ANE cultures around them as well. At God’s command, Israel tended to adapt existing practices to their own religious ends.

Exodus 24,32

Hahn is good to point out the significance of eating together and table fellowship. This works for good and bad in Israel’s history.

At the Father’s invitation, Moses then accompanied Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and the seventy elders up the mountain. Despite the sin of the people, Scripture says that the Lord didn’t raise his hand against these leaders as they saw God and ate and drank before him (see Ex 24:10).

From the ancient Hebrew perspective, covenant meals like this conveyed a twofold symbolic meaning: of the intimate family ties between covenant parties, and the awesome responsibilities that both parties assumed. The meal was a sign of the covenant blessing of communion, while the sacrificial victims signified the covenant curse that would befall Israel if they went back on their sworn oath. (150) …

The next day Israel rose early to sacrifice burnt offerings and present peace offerings to their idol. Then they sat down to eat and drink and “rose up to play.” The last phrase is a Hebrew euphemism for the impure behavior associated with ancient fertility cults, namely a sexual orgy such as the Egyptians had while worshiping their bull idol, Apis. (152)

I’m glad another has noted the language the LORD employs after the golden calf incident. Yes God’s people need to be forgiven, but then again not all Israel is Israel (cf. Rom 9.6).

But we can’t excuse Israel for turning to idols, for God had clearly revealed himself to Israel—again and again. Unfortunately, Israel evidently figured “while the cat’s away, the mice will play.” And Moses was way out of earshot. But God was not. He said to Moses, “Go down; for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves” (Ex 32:7).

Do these words strike you as language somewhat out of character for God? It sounds more like one parent pointing an accusing finger at the other about a disobedient child: “your daughter” or “your son.” God was not dodging blame, however. Rather, he was actually threatening to disown his people. (153)

Deuteronomy

Hahn gives a nice little summary of Deuteronomy and its similarities to Suzerain treaties. I’ve written about this before in another series.

Deuteronomy is to the five books of Moses what John is to the four Gospels: the last, yet deepest. All we can give here is a brief summary of its multifaceted character: as testament, treaty, constitution, probation, prescription and prophecy.

Deuteronomy reads like the final legacy of Moses, his last will and testament, but with an interesting twist. The overall structure of Deuteronomy reflects the ancient literary form of the treaty-covenants commonly used by the Hittites (and others) in the second millennium b.c. Besides the similar literary form, there are other curious parallels. For one thing, these ancient treaty-covenants were imposed by kings (or suzerains) upon their potentially rebellious colonies (or vassals), usually by placing the inferior party under sworn oath-curses, as God had Moses do with Israel (see Dt 27–28). Another parallel is that suzerains and vassals always addressed each other as father and son (e.g., “I am your servant and son,” “I am your king and father”), as God does with Israel in Deuteronomy (see Dt 8:5; 14:1; 32:5–6, 19–20).

Why is this so important? Because it shows how Deuteronomy served as the covenant rule for regulating God’s rebellious son, Israel, and its national constitution (“the book of the Torah”), which is how it functioned for centuries, until Jesus’ coming. (178)

Samuel

At times Hahn exposes his pastoral heart.

The Father had accomplished these glorious deeds because David thought of himself as nothing but a servant. If you feel like small stuff, a nobody, take heart: That qualifies you to play a role in God’s plan. God has always been and still is looking for people who see themselves as lowly, who are humble before the Lord and who fear the Creator more than their fellow creatures. Such are the ones the Father will use to strengthen his human family and thus build the kingdom of heaven for his own name’s sake. (213)

Chapter 12 – New Testament

Hahn has not been distracted by the narrative as to forget the covenant. When he starts writing about the New Testament he reminds as again of the nature of covenants in scripture.

At the time, I had been studying the biblical idea of covenant for many years. So I was familiar with the work of scholars like D.J. McCarthy, S.J., who demonstrates how ancient covenants formed bonds of sacred kinship, in this case, between Yahweh and Israel, making them one family. These covenant bonds are described in familial terms: father and son (see Ex 4:22; Dt 1:31; 8:5; 14:1) as well as husband and wife (see Jer 31:32; Ez 16:8; Hos 2:18–20). Likewise, liturgical feasts and rituals renewed—and reinforced—the family bonds of covenant communion between Yahweh and Israel. (227)

‘It is finished’

Hahn also discusses what he believes Jesus was referring to when he lamented drinking from the cup the LORD was giving him at Gethsemane and what he meant by saying ‘it is finished’ on the cross. Basically the Passover involved a ritual with four cups.

The structure of the seder meal, also known as the Passover Haggadah, appears to have been formalized before the first century. The Gospel accounts seem to assume its structure in narrating the various details of the Last Supper. In particular, the Passover meal was divided into four parts, which correspond to the four different cups that were served:

First, the preliminary course consisted of a solemn blessing (kiddush) pronounced over the first cup of wine, which was followed by a dish of bitter herbs. (This was meant to remind the Jews of the bitterness of Egyptian bondage.)

Second, the Passover narrative (see Ex 12) was recited, after which the “Little Hallel” (Ps 113) was sung. This was immediately followed by the drinking of the second cup of wine.

Third, the main meal was then served, consisting of lamb and unleavened bread, which preceded the drinking of the third cup of wine, known as the “cup of blessing.”

Finally, the climax of the Passover came with the singing of the “Great Hallel” (Ps 114–18) and the drinking of the fourth cup of wine, the “cup of consummation.” (228)

Chapter 13 – Here Comes the Bride

In the last chapter Hahn will discuss a large number of topical issues. These include worship, the coming kingdom, signs of the new covenant, time and eternity, saints as living sacraments and the needs for saints today.

Recommendation

Hahn’s book is very readable. What he writes about covenants is interesting. But I wouldn’t say read the book because of what he says about covenant. The majority of the book is devoted to working through the Pentateuchal narrative. From the quotes above you can see there is a fair amount of interesting interpretations.

The book is congenial to Catholic interests, yes it mentions Mary and transfiguration. But the book is not an apology for Catholicism. Hahn’s emphasis on the continuity between the testaments and the importance of the covenant should appeal to Calvinist Christians in particular.

I’d recommend the book to people wanting to get a good overview of the Pentateuch (first five books of the bible) with special reference to the theme of covenant.


Copyright © Joshua Washington and thescripturesays, 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Save

Save

  • joseph

    Thanks for this. If you were in Tasmania I’d lend you my copy of his bigger book. It ties together a number of covenant themes nicely.

    Cheers,

    Joseph

    • Thanks Joe. God bless.