Read the following and identify and develop the final conclusion, as well as considering any intermediate conclusions. Then click on the text to see a possible answer. Examine how this differs from your answer and discuss whether these differences are significant.
Whether or not the covenant with Abraham is universal?
It can be argued that the idea of a covenant in Judaism is universal because there are two early versions of a covenant relationship that demonstrate this, namely, those made between God and Adam, and between God and Noah. It is important to note that the Torah recounts two earlier covenants that God had made prior to Abram: one was with Adam, and the other was with Noah, and both had been universal covenants with humankind, rather than just the Jewish people. God made an agreement with Noah that the world would never be destroyed by water again, and the rainbow was a sign of this particular covenant. Although some may suggest that, in both cases, they failed because the people of the world turned from God and sinned, the point is that they demonstrate the opportunity for all to take part. Therefore, it could be suggested that the covenant in its original forms were intended to be universal; in addition, we can argue that these can be seen as the ‘ideal’ for any later models of covenant, even if they were not initially made universally.
Despite this, the covenant with Abraham is unique, as, for the first time, there was to be a covenant with a particular group of people; whilst this can be argued to be a continuation of the covenant theme by some, it can be suggested that the terms of the covenant can be interpreted in such a way, that the covenant with Abraham was not universal, but was created for the nation of Israel alone. The strongest argument in support of this is the ‘sign’ expected of the covenant, that is, circumcision. Although the ritual of circumcision was widely practised at the time, Abraham was given a specific reason for circumcision – it was to be an outward, physical sign in the flesh of the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people. In fact, it was the first commandment specific to the Jews. Indeed, it is still practised by Jews today and such is its importance that not being circumcised would signify, in some forms of Judaism, that the un-circumcised would no longer be considered to be part of the covenant community.
However, the alternative to this, and a sound counter-argument, would be to state that despite the Abrahamic covenant being exclusive to the Jewish tradition, there is a way in which it can be extended to all through conversion. This line of reasoning supports the view that just because it began with Abraham and his descendants, does not mean that it has to remain exclusively so.
Overall, whilst it could be argued that the covenant is universal in its outlook when considering agreements made between Adam and Noah, this is doubtful in light of the covenant between God and Abraham.
However, at a closer look, we can argue that it is not determined simply by this one understanding of a covenant agreement alone, and this is the crucial aspect of the argument. There are other ways of seeing the covenant between God and Abraham; indeed, could we not interpret the reference to Abraham's promise from God to ‘all peoples on earth’, as referring to mankind in general rather than solely to the Jewish community?