The word "covenant" never appears in the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36), however. And when Luke uses the term he normally refers to the covenant with Abraham:
- "Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve [or: worship] him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days." (Luke 1:72-75 NRSV)
- "You are the descendants of the prophets and of the covenant that God gave to your ancestors, saying to Abraham, 'And in your descendants all the families of the earth shall be blessed.'" (Acts 3:25 NRSV)
- "Then God gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision." (Acts 7:8)
While the covenants to Abraham and David may be combined, most people seem to assume that Luke would not have had anything positive to say about the Sinai covenant. After all, so the assumption goes, "Luke connects the Sinai Covenant with the law which he rejects as a means of salvation with a vigor...which almost matches that of Paul" (O'Toole 1983). If Luke does refer to the Sinai covenant, then, it must be to demonstrate Jesus' superiority to it.
But Luke does portray the Sinai covenant positively:
- Pious people in Luke 1-2 such as Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, are careful to obey the law.
- If the point of the Abrahamic covenant was to "serve/worship" God (Luke 1:74), Acts 7 explains that the point of the exodus and the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham (7:17) was to "serve/worship" God at Sinai (7:7).
- At the last supper, Jesus identifies the cup with the "new covenant in my blood." The reference to blood echoes the ratification of the Sinai covenant in Exod 24:8.
31 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt-- a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jer 31:31-34 NRSV; Deut 30:1-6; Ezek 11:17-20; 36:24-28)My unexamined assumption about the "new covenant" was that it renders the old obselete. This is certainly the view of the author of Hebrews (8:13), but I am not so sure anymore that Luke or his readers would have automatically read Jeremiah 31 in this way.
- For one thing, as the NET Bible note on Jer 31:33 explains, "The new covenant does not entail a new law; it is the same law that Jeremiah has repeatedly accused them of rejecting or ignoring....What does change is their inner commitment to keep it." (N.B. What is new about the 'new' covenant is debated: Zimmerli does think Jer 31 sets aside the Mosaic covenant; Lundbom in the ABD article on "New Covenant" thinks what is new is forgiveness.)
- For my purposes, what Post-Exilic Torah-observing Jews believed about Jeremiah is more important than what Jeremiah meant. Jubilees, for example, echoes new covenant passages (1:22-24), but insists that the Sinai covenant was really an extension of the covenant with Abraham. There is, for Jubilees, only one real covenant that lasts forever. The Dead Sea Scrolls also combine interest in the "new covenant" with earnest fidelity to the law of Moses. Without looking around too much in the literature, my sense is that this is common.
Luke certainly believed that Moses and the prophets pointed forward to Jesus, and that salvation comes to those who respond to Jesus, but I see no reason why he should avoid using the Sinai covenant as a positive model for Jesus and for the response that is required from his followers. In fact, I think Luke does precisely this at the transfiguration: Jesus does not bring a new law, but as the Son he is the mediator between the Father and humanity. The requirement--"listen!"--is analogous, and the consequences are the same.
Comments are welcome, if you made it this far!