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Law and Covenant Contrasted

by George Mendenhall, The Tenth Generation, p200. (c. 1959)

[Emphasis and words in square brackets added.]

This author is not an SDA, ancient/ or modern, but he has a good grip on the difference between these two things.

 [The following section is in a footnote on page 200.]


“However, in view of the great confusion in recent literature over law and covenant in biblical thought, it may be worthwhile to summarize the contrast between them, since social force is one of the many criteria that marks that contrast to which all ancient/ societies seem to have been sensitive at least at some time in their history.”



Covenant [Religion]

Law [State]

Purpose: To create new relationships in accordance with stipulations given in advance. (Cf. marriage.) To regulate existing relationships by orderly means.
Sanction: Punishment and reward meted out by powers not under human control, namely, God or the gods: curses and blessings. Punishment defined by and administered by social organs. [Political groups, courts, etc.]
Norms: Undefined except by the fear of God (=conscience) of the actor. Defined by society, and necessarily in formal terms. [Usually written laws.]
Binding: By voluntary act of individual, usually ritual in nature. By enactment [decree] of legitimate social power regardless of individual’s attitude. [You may not agree with the law but you have to keep it.]
Validity: Unlimited, since it is bound to the individual wherever he may be. Territorially bound – no validity beyond the boundary. [Operates only within the country of origin.]
Time reference: Future – it is a solemn promise as to future behavior. [I’ll be good!] Past – it does not operate as a social reality until a violation [crime] has taken place; it has a future orientation only in that it is a prediction of what courts will do in the case of a past violation, and therefore may be a deterrent to proscribed [prohibited] forms of behavior.
Procedure: Recognised in the dynamics of historical process. [Time proves that “way” was OK.] Ritual form prescribed in advance by society. [Set “in concrete” – this do or don’t.]




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