The Bible’s Failed Covenant

In the entire Old Testament, there are no verses more significant than the ones in which Yahweh establishes his covenant with the Jewish people. He pledges to make the Israelites his chosen, to show special favor to them above all other nations and races, and to grant them a peaceful and prosperous home in the promised land. Even today, after several millennia, these passages still play a pivotal role in shaping Jewish identity, consciousness, and culture, as well as exerting a major influence on politics and world affairs.

These verses are also, indisputably, false. The Bible’s covenant was broken. The promise was not kept. The pledge is void.

This isn’t even a close call, scripturally speaking. No subtle exegesis or nuanced interpretation is required to see that it’s true. All that it takes is to read the plain and simple language of the text establishing the covenant, observe that it makes a clear and unmistakable promise, and then look at the world and see for yourself that this promise failed to hold true.

According to Yahweh, the instrument by which he would keep his covenant was the dynasty descended from King David. These kings would rule over the Jewish people, protect them from invaders, and ensure that the law was kept. If the king or the people strayed into sin, God threatened to punish them, but he never threatened to put an end to the kingdom or the monarchy. To the contrary, he explicitly promised that both would be established in perpetuity. Consider this critical verse laying out the terms of the covenant:

“And when thy days be fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers, I will set up thy seed after thee, which shall proceed out of thy bowels, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build an house for my name, and I will stablish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son. If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men: but my mercy shall not depart away from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away before thee. And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever.”

—2 Samuel 7:12-16

This passage is presented as “the word of the Lord” which came to the prophet Nathan and which he was instructed to deliver to King David. Note what it explicitly says: the house, the kingdom and the throne of David “shall be established for ever”. If the king does wrong, God promises to punish him, but he explicitly says he will not take the kingdom away from him, as he did to David’s predecessor Saul. The pledge is unconditional and unambiguous.

So that’s the promise; now look at the world. Were the terms of the covenant kept? The answer, of course, is no. There is no kingdom, no throne, and no Davidic dynasty; the line of descent was broken, the “house of David” no longer exists. The ancient kingdom of the Israelites was conquered and utterly destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE, and it’s never been reestablished. There is a modern state of Israel, it’s true, but that state is a secular democracy, not a divine-right monarchy ruled by a king descended from David. It fails to meet the terms of the covenant. (Many modern-day Orthodox Jews refuse to give their allegiance to Israel for precisely that reason.) According to the Bible, this was God’s single greatest promise to the Jewish people, and it has completely failed.

What really happened, of course, is that no god ever spoke to the Israelites in the first place. Verses like the one quoted above were written not by a deity, but by a human being, some ancient scribe or historian in a fit of nationalistic fervor. Whoever the author was, he was convinced that his kingdom was divinely favored, so much so that he believed God would cause it to endure forever on the Earth.

Of course, this is nothing unique: most ancient empires believed themselves to be the beneficiaries of the gods’ special favor, and without exception, all of those empires were toppled and now exist only in ruins and memory. The only thing that makes this case special is that we still have the written records of one particular people in which they told themselves these patriotic myths.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.noforbiddenquestions.com NFQ

    I had a very interesting conversation with a liberal Protestant friend of mine recently, after I made some crack about how right-wing politicians like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, et al., support Israel because they think its existence is necessary for the apocalypse. My friend was confused, having apparently always understood their actions as a deep respect for “the covenant.” This completely baffled me — “But surely you don’t think the Christian Right thinks all Jews should still be Jews, right? Aren’t they supposed to recognize Jesus as the Messiah and become Christians? Doesn’t the New Testament say that the old covenant was obsolete?” My friend disputed the idea of obsolescence for a while until I was able to look up Hebrews 8 and point to the 13th verse. And then … the conversation changed subject somehow.

    My point is just to say, I am surprised that such an obvious and bizarre contradiction in scripture, the “forever” promise followed by a reneg by this omniscient and inerrant God, is so easily ignored. And that’s when the contradiction is in scripture itself! As you point out, the obviousness that the covenant has not been kept in the real world stands starkly in contradiction to the Tanakh.

  • Boudica

    Christians would tell you that the covenant was fulfilled through Jesus- that he was of the line of David (I know the arguments about that claim) and will reign forever.

  • keddaw

    And others will say that it was the Jews themselves that broke the covenant, not Yahweh.

    Many Christians in Europe explain away the Old Testament by saying it isn’t real, but the New Testament is the part you’re supposed to take seriously. Then you point out Revelation…

  • L.Long

    It points out once again how they all ignore the parts they don’t like(understand) and preach the parts the do like (mostly the bigotry)
    Many sundays I will stop surfing the channels at some silly televangelist and listen for a few minutes (all I can take) and almost always they are spouting self hate, sin, punishment, don’t do this or that.
    You never hear them talk about basic contradictions and try to explain them.
    They all stay away from the hard parts.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers

    Incest, right there in the Bible!

  • Valhar2000

    They all stay away from the hard parts.

    A Youtuber called Brett Keane used to make recordings of himself calling pastors and asking them questions about the Bible, apparently posing as “a believer with doubts”. He frequently commented on the calls after playing them, saying that many of these pastors were themselves unused to dealing with the hard parts, as you call them, and thus not prepared to field his calls.

  • Polly

    sigh, I know exactly how my mother would answer this:

    JESUS is a descendant of David, and true heir to the thone. HIS reign will last forever. The current democracy is just a placeholder until the Kingdom is reestablished at Jesus’s second coming – which is any day now.

  • http://www.daughtersofnarcissisticmothers.com Danu

    Talk about a bait-and-switch. The Jews understood it to be a literal kingdom lasting forever – and understandably so, as any reading of the text would give that understanding. If Yahweh meant all along that it involved Jesus, then he really cheated the Jews – let them understand the wrong thing entirely. Very unfair.

  • http://inthenuts.blogspot.com King Aardvark

    Re: Jesus as descendant of David, rules Kingdom, etc.

    What about the ~600 years between the Kingdom’s destruction by the Babylonians and Jesus showing up?

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Is this not 2 Sam 7:12-16?

  • L.Long

    If Jepus is as his followers claim…that is a virgin birth of g0d…then it is IMPOSSIBLE to be descended from David’s line….And to answer the obvious reply…Mary don’t count as she is female. And the other guy don’t count either!

  • Polly

    What about the ~600 years between the Kingdom’s destruction by the Babylonians and Jesus showing up?

    Heck, what about the 2,000 year interlude after Jesus makes his debut? Timelines mean precisely nothing to a true believer because god is “beyond time.”

  • jim coufal

    I suggest that Israel is better described, all rationalizations aside, as a theocracy rather than as a democracy.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    This reminds me of something that David Plotz wrote in Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible, in the section discussing chapter 1 of Deuteronomy, concerning another related broken promise.

    I’m most struck by one of Moses’s asides. While describing how he chose tribal chief, he mentions the Lord’s promise (originally in Genesis, but repeated several times) to make the Israelites as “numerous as the stars of the sky. May the Lord, the God of your fathers, increase your number a thousandfold.”

    Mission not accomplished. Today the worldwide Jewish population stands at about 13 million. According to the census in Numbers, there were approximately 600,000 adult male Israelites, so the total Israelite population would have been about 2 million. In other words, Jewish population has multiplied only sevenfold — not a thousandfold — in the last 3,500 years. Total global population, by contrast, has increased 150-fold during the same time. Even assuming that the Torah exaggerates the number of Israelites by a factor of ten, the Jewish population has still increasd only seventyfold — less than half as much as the world’d population.

    By some measures, of course, the Israelites have been a smashing success: how many worshippers of Baael remain today, or Amorites or Hittites or Cannaanites? The Israelites survived, and that’s more than their enemies did. It’s also true that, if we measure by power, accomplishments, and wealth, Jews are phenomenally successful. Their global influence has certainly grown a thousand fold. But that’s not what what Torah was counting. By the biblical standards, we’re failing. Jews are a demographic down arrow, an ever smaller part of the global community. (Current Jewish population growth is close to zero.) Have we failed God, or has He failed us? Or, to ask the question differently: given that it began before Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism (and at the same time as Hinduism), why is Judaism such a tiny stream?

    When I mention this demograhic failure to some Christians, they insist that they should be included in the count of the Israelites, since they consider themselves heirs to God’s covenant. If they are, the goal of increasing a thousandfold has been achieved.

    -David Plotz, Good Book, p 86-7 (paperback) ISBN: 978-0-06-137425-8

    (A different version of this can be found online at http://www.slate.com/id/2148437/entry/2148438/ from the original Blogging the Bible series, from before he wrote the wrote the actual book.)

    I find it interesing that, in the face of so many broken promises, people continue to believe. At the very least, even if it doesn’t make one an atheist, it should still cause some doubt about the truth of a particular religion.

    Also, I think Thumpalumpacus is correct. 1 Kings 7:12-16 is about the Temple and some guy named Hirame from Tyre who built it.

    Thanks for writing! I always enjoy reading your insights into various Bible verses. As I’ve been reading the so-called Good Book, your blog posts about it both here and at EbonMusings have been great to read.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    People will always find reasons to believe, Sharmin.

    In a similar post I did on this topic, I found a few additional examples of prophecies that failed to come true:

    http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com/2007/08/chosen-people-of-supreme-being-test.html

    For example:

    The prophet Isaiah, who is supposed to have lived in the early 8th century in Judah around the time that Israel succumbed to Assyria, boasted in Isaiah 49:23 that “Kings will be your foster fathers, and their queens will be your nursing mothers. They will bow down before you with their faces to the ground; they will lick the dust at your feet.”

    That never ended up happening. Instead, the kingdom of Judah succumbed to the Babylonians.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    sigh, I know exactly how my mother would answer this:

    JESUS is a descendant of David, and true heir to the thone. HIS reign will last forever.

    That’s a fair point, Polly; doubtless that would be the Christian apologetic. (Note that this explanation doesn’t work for observant Jews, however – I genuinely do wonder how they would answer this.)

    My response would be the same as King Aardvark’s: The Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Second Temple in 587 BCE, deposed the king and carried the people away into slavery. Even under the most Christian-friendly interpretation of this passage, that’s a period of nearly six hundred years in which there was no king, no kingdom, and no throne. And of course, Jesus has noticeably failed to exercise any kingly authority over the land of Israel for the past two thousand years. Even if you believe he’s coming back Real Soon Now, that’s a pretty big gap in his service record.

    Besides, even if the Christians believe that Jesus was the subject of this verse, there’s this bit which must be awkward for them:

    “If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men: but my mercy shall not depart away from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away before thee.”

    If you believe that Jesus is the king referred to in this passage, then it appears you also have to accept the notion that Jesus is capable of sin. Why else would God lay out his plans for how to punish him in that eventuality?

    If Yahweh meant all along that it involved Jesus, then he really cheated the Jews – let them understand the wrong thing entirely. Very unfair.

    Well said, Danu. In fact, under the standard Christian assumptions, the whole Old Testament was an elaborate exercise in misdirection: God never told the Israelites that he was triune, never told them that he planned to incarnate himself as human (the very idea is still considered serious blasphemy by observant Jews), never told them that he planned to establish a new covenant, never told them that he planned to end the monarchy and the sacrificial system, never even told them about the existence of Heaven and Hell! You’d think that, if this was his plan all along, he could have been a lot clearer.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com/ D

    And others will say that it was the Jews themselves that broke the covenant, not Yahweh.
    – keddaw, #3

    Le sigh. Yeah, blame the homo sapiens for divine failure. That, like, works an’ stuff. I mean, psychologically, it does. That’s the sad part, I guess.

    @ Ebon: The librarian in me says that you could make a series out of this. I mean, biblical authors talked a lot of shit. Documenting exactly how short they come up could be productive business.

  • Jen

    “Of course, this is nothing unique: most ancient empires believed themselves to be the beneficiaries of the gods’ special favor”

    Many theists of today would say the same about America, I bet.

  • Polly

    If you believe that Jesus is the king referred to in this passage, then it appears you also have to accept the notion that Jesus is capable of sin.

    Ah, but, that only refers to the human kings that preceded Jesus: David, Solomon, and their descendents. All the good stuff, though, is about JC.

    And, some passages have dual meaning and can refer to contemporaneous events and allude to the future. But, only Christians know how to apply those rules, and they’re subject to change.

  • Jeff

    And others will say that it was the Jews themselves that broke the covenant, not Yahweh.

    They’ll also point out the passages that appear to indicate a future restoration, along with the various rabbinic pronouncements of the past two millennia.

    I’m actually more troubled by NFQ’s liberal Protestant friend who was blissfully unaware of the fundies’ motives. If they weren’t so damn oblivious and were willing to confront their coreligionists publicly, we might not have quite as many problems as we do now.

  • http://generalnotions.talkislam.info Ergo Ratio

    Confirmed. “JESUS is a descendant of David” is the apologetic I received upon challenging some Christian friends of mine.

  • Paul

    Confirmed. “JESUS is a descendant of David” is the apologetic I received upon challenging some Christian friends of mine.

    And you were too polite to point out that Joseph was a descendant of David, and not Jesus’ father?

    In fact, under the standard Christian assumptions, the whole Old Testament was an elaborate exercise in misdirection: God never told the Israelites that he was triune

    Reminds me of a recent conversation on Ed Brayton’s blog I had with a Calvinist who argued that Abraham worshiped the Christian god (and also, somehow God the father is different from the God of the Jews, and Jews in the OT days worshiped the right god whereas current Jews do not). It made my head hurt. Especially puzzling since the argument went

    1) We believe Abraham is saved.
    2) The only way to be saved is through Jesus, as part of the triune Christian God
    3) Therefore, Abraham believed in the triune Christian God.

    And this is ignoring that Calvinists believe that faith is something you are given, not something you earn or believe. You know, “God will have mercy on whom God will have mercy”. So even under that system, if you presume someone is saved, it doesn’t tell you anything at all about their religious beliefs — only that God chose to have mercy on them. I guess in the end there’s no limit to the rationalizations people will participate in to justify their religious beliefs, even if they are tangential to the core of the religion.

  • http://generalnotions.talkislam.info Ergo Ratio

    Yes Paul, I did point that out. I got some babble about “it may or may not be relevant” and some links to other apologetics I was not interested in reading.

  • Scotlyn

    Jim Coufal @ #13

    I suggest that Israel is better described, all rationalizations aside, as a theocracy rather than as a democracy.

    I agree “democracy” is not a useful word to describe Israeli politics/power structures, but “theocracy” isn’t quite right either. There appears to be a fair amount of secular space within the carefully circumscribed Israeli “tribal” sphere in which a “democracy” could be said to operate, but only for the select, recognised co-tribe-members. How about “tribocracy”? or “anti-xenocracy?”

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Confirmed. “JESUS is a descendant of David” is the apologetic I received upon challenging some Christian friends of mine.

    Hah, actual field research – nice work, Ergo Ratio!

    I’ve always wondered what Christians think about Jesus’ genetics. Did he have only half the normal chromosomes, so that the miracle is that he developed from an embryo and became a functioning human being despite missing so much genetic material? Did he have a set of human chromosomes and a set of divine chromosomes? Or did God supernaturally teleport some of Joseph’s sperm into Mary’s uterus, so Joseph is his father, just without the icky sex?

  • MS Quixote

    I’ve always wondered what Christians think about Jesus’ genetics.

    There are some in the dispie crowd that imagine Christ with half the chromosomes, or some such. Some even tell a story of the Israelis finding the ark of the covenant while tunneling beneath Jerusalem and testing a blood spot on it in which it was determined to be missing chromosomes.

    Then there are the rest of us us that have no real idea, but suspect that since he was fully human he would have fully human DNA.

    And this is ignoring that Calvinists believe that faith is something you are given, not something you earn or believe.

    Well, not exactly, Paul, but I’ll give you this: yours is a more generous expression of the system than we get from many of our Arminian brethren :)

    Ah…thanks for the edit tool, Ebon…

  • Jeff

    Reminds me of a recent conversation on Ed Brayton’s blog I had with a Calvinist who argued that Abraham worshiped the Christian god

    Paul – that would be David Heddle, a physics professor (tragically) at Christopher Newport University. Yes, he’s a contentious piece of work. I can’t understand why Ed didn’t ban him a long time ago, or why he hangs around Ed’s blog in the first place. No one there can stand him.

    There’s a very liberal Christian former military chaplain by the name of Capt. Norm Holcomb who shows up at Ed’s every once in a while. A very nice guy, sane and sensible, who has a doctorate (iirc) in theology from Duke. He got into it a bit once with Heddle and handed him his hat, showed him he didn’t know what the f*ck he was talking about. Naturally, Heddle was too damn arrogant to concede, either then or later.

    He’s a condescending tool. I wouldn’t bother with him. You’ll get nowhere.

  • http://generalnotions.talkislam.info Ergo Ratio

    I’ve always wondered what Christians think about Jesus’ genetics.

    Perhaps the miracle is that parthenogenesis always creates females in XY species.


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