On understanding the compassionate heart of God through the covenants.
When one reads the Pentateuch, an obvious pattern to its narratives eventually comes to the fore. Despite the sprawling stories and centuries of history which it covers, the Pentateuch is rather elementary in its themes of institution, rebellion, and restoration — and by “elementary” it is not meant to infer a derogation. Rather, it is meant to recognize the profundity that exists in the Pentateuch’s simplicity. Nearly every episode peppered throughout Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy articulates the relational terms and blessings with which God and his chosen people are covenanted and how swiftly those same covenantees determine to devise their own methods of securing the promised blessings. These manmade determinations only serve to frustrate God intentions to bless his people and the institutions in which those blessings were to be received and enjoyed.
Thus, as man frames his own method of acquiring (or existing in) divine blessing, he rebels against that which God covenanted to do — which, without examining the Pentateuchal pattern would leave one incredibly perplexed and downtrodden. Yet, as is revealed throughout the Pentateuch, despite humanity’s rebellion, God is bent on restoration. Even when the explicit covenantal arrangements are thwarted, he proceeds to reinstitute what he formerly inaugurated. Perhaps the best example of this is the scene of the Sinaitic covenant. (Ex 32—34)
And it is in that way, then, that the Pentateuch functions as, perhaps, the best pre-Messianic revelation of the heart of the Godhead. That is to say, while the exploits of the patriarchs corroborate the prevailing notion that the heart of man is “desperately, unknowably wicked” (Jer 17:9), God’s insistence on covenanting with humanity despite knowing their résumé of failed fulfillments of their ends of the agreements demonstrates the divine predisposition towards redemption. (Ps 111:9; Is 44:22) One is able to best ascertain this redemptive inclination by noticing the prevalence of Old Testament theophanies.
In his article “Theophany” in the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, M. F. Rooker poses the definition of this term as “a visible manifestation of God, a self-disclosure of the deity.”1 A theophany, then, is any occasion in which God appears either visually or physically within the bounds of his creation. Rooker identifies five primary ways in which this occurs: via direct message (Ex 19:9–25); via a message delivered in a dream (Gn 20:3–7; 28:12–17); via a message delivered by a vision (Gn 15:1–21; Is 6:1–13; Eze 1—3; 8:1–4); via a message delivered by an angel (Gn 16:7–13; 18:1–33; 22:11–18; 32:24–30; Ex 3:2—4:17; Josh 5:13–15; Jgs 2:1–5; 6:11–24; 13:2–25); or via a message transmitted by an angel in a dream. (Gn 31:11–13)2
The sum and substance of these remarkable manifestations of God’s glorious self is the disclosure of his compassionate interest in his creation generally and his covenantees specifically. “Theophanies forcibly impressed on God’s people,” Rooker continues, “the sovereignty of God, and assured them of his presence and concern for them.”3 Indeed, God is so concerned with redemption that he inserts himself into the story of creation in order to bring about his desired ends.
Which is suggestive of something Dane Ortlund wrote in his newest release, Gentle and Lowly: “Our redemption is not a matter of a gracious Son trying to calm down an uncontrollably angry Father. The Father himself ordains our deliverance. He takes the loving initiative.”4 The prevailing idea that the gentle, peaceable Son sacrificed himself in order to palliate the righteous fury of the Father falls by the wayside as one reads Scripture, particularly the covenants as exhibited throughout the Old Testament. It is not only the heart of Christ to redeem but the heart of the Godhead. “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will,” Jesus affirms, “but the will of him who sent me.” (Jn 6:38) Notwithstanding the hubristic stubbornness which humanity demonstrates generation after generation in turning to his own way (Is 53:6), God’s declaration remains ever the same: “See, I myself will search for my flock and look for them.” (Eze 34:11)
M. F. Rooker, “Theophany,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, edited by T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 859.
Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 60.