Covenant faithfulness describes God’s history and relationship with humans. Covenant unfaithfulness describe Israel’s history and relationship with God. The Israelites disobeyed God regularly and were often caught up in idol worship (sin). God showed great patience, mercy and faithfulness by sending prophets to the Israelites in order to call them to repentance. However, the people of Israel rejected and ignored the prophets while refusing to repent. God continued his attempts to get their attention by exposing them to his judgement (exile). God’s discipline was focused on bringing the people back into a proper relationship with himself. He wanted to restore and bless them, but they needed to fulfill their part of the covenant by obeying God’s law. At times, Israel did repent and live according to the covenant which resulted in experiencing God’s rest and blessings (restoration), but over and over again the pattern of disobedience and idolatry would continue. All the while, God continued to be faithful to his covenant showing great love, commitment and concern for his people (Pate et al. 18-22).
Sin-Exile-Restoration in the Lives of Abraham and Jacob
God made a covenant with Abram where his promised him a son as an heir that would lead to many offspring. God said to Abram, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:2-3 NIV). Abram believed God and expectantly awaited a son through his wife Sarai.
However, Genesis 16 described a situation where Abram and Sarai’s faith began to weaken. While attempting to become pregnant, Sarai remained barren and was aging. She began to doubt that she would have children, and so she presented an idea to Abram that involved him sleeping with her servant Hagar. This was common in the ancient near east where a wife could give her servant to her husband as a concubine or as a wife in order to produce offspring. Thus, Abram agrees and takes Hagar as a wife rather than a concubine, which may have been an attempt by Abram to legitimize the situation. Nevertheless, Abram slept with Hagar and she became pregnant. This doubting of God to provide a son through Sarai and their self-sufficiency and problem-solving actions apart from God led to family dysfunction and confusion (sin). They were unsure if this new child birthed by Hagar fulfilled God’s promise, and so they were questioning God’s covenant promises and floundering in their relationship with him (exile).
God visits and confronts Abram in his confusion and family dysfunction and restores him into a proper covenantal perspective. God restores by renaming Abram (אַבְרָם) to Abraham (אַבְרָהָם) and Sarai (שָׂרַי) to Sarah (שָׂרָה), and he further restores by reiterating his promise regarding a son who would come from Sarah (Gen 17). After meeting with Abraham, God fulfilled his promise within the year by giving Abraham and Sarah a son named Isaac (Gen 21), thus restoring his covenantal relationship with Abraham (restoration).
Another way in which the theme of sin-exile-restoration appears in the patriarchal narratives is during the life of Jacob. The beginning of his story is defined by deception and stealing (sin), where he manipulates situations in order to take from his brother Esau (Gen 25; Gen 27). Jacob’s selfish and deceptive behavior eventually causes him to run (exile) from his brother Esau who wants to kill him, and while on the run, he gets tangled up with a man named Laben who swindles him out of 14 years of his life (Gen 29). Then, he is forced to run from Laben who also threatens his life (Gen 31). Nevertheless, through this time God begins to restore Jacob by providing him wives, offspring and material possessions. He leads Jacob to restore his relationship with his brother Esau and eventually restores Jacob’s stability in the land while reiterating his covenant promises (restoration).
Sin-Exile-Restoration During the Wilderness Period
The Israelites were led by God through Moses and Aaron into the wilderness on their way to the promised land. As they approached the promise land, they sent spies to observe the land and the people living there. Upon returning from their spy operation, the majority of the spies gave a negative and fatalistic report about their chances of surviving within the land. The Israelites heard this and began to oppose and rebel against Moses and Aaron. Ultimately, they were opposing, rebelling and sinning against God (sin). This was a regular occurrence throughout their travels in the wilderness, and so God allowed them to wander in the wilderness for 40 years (exile). Many of the Israelites died in the wilderness, but God restores Israel by leading the next generation of Israelites to the outskirts of the promised land and then restores by reiterating his covenantal demands through a second giving of his law (Deuteronomy) (restoration).
Pate, C. Marvin, et al. The Story of Israel: A Biblical Theology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004.