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Covenant and the Old Testament: Engaging the realities and messiness of life

6.15. 2016 Written By: Deborah Froese, Mennonite Church Canada

Safwat Marzouk grew up in a village in Upper Egypt where every day he attended the Presbyterian church, Synod of the Nile, with his friends. He grew to love God’s word and pursued theological studies.

But during his later years of study at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, attitudes toward the Old Testament (OT) and Egypt began to bother him.

“The negative portrayal of Egypt and the abuse of the Bible in politics and the marginalization of the OT as a result of its abuse in politics made me think more about our ways of engaging with the OT as Middle Eastern Christians,” he said in an email interview.

Marzouk is sharing his passion for the OT as keynote speaker at Mennonite Church Canada’s Assembly 2016. The Assembly theme, God~Faith-People, is paraphrased from the OT text Jeremiah 31:33: “This is the covenant . . . I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

“The idea of covenant is central in the Old Testament,” Marzouk writes. “God calls God’s people to a covenantal relationship with God, where God is their deliverer and liberator, and the people are called to become covenant partners through their obedience to the instructions or the teachings.”

Now Assistant Professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, Marzouk strives to help students see the transcendence and immensity of God as a friend and as an “other.” He hopes to invite future leaders and the church to wrestle with OT text and its context rather than simply dismissing it or “cherry picking” from it.

“I teach the Old Testament because it creates an essential space for us to engage with the realities and the messiness of life. The Old Testament opens a space for us to think about who we are as a community of faith in relation to other communities of faith who hold these stories as sacred to them; thus I am interested in reading Scriptures with the religious ‘other’ in mind.”

Marzouk points out that in Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Ezekiel 36-37, the people of Israel struggle to make sense of a catastrophic exile that the prophets view as divine judgement. It’s a time of scrutiny and self-criticism. It’s also a time of despair. Yet the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel speak of a transformative covenantal initiative on God’s part. God wants to restore the relationship.

“The covenant is a covenant of grace, even in the Old Testament,” Marzouk says. “The covenant is between God and a community of faith. Thus we need to take seriously how we relate to one another as members of the covenant community.”

Marzouk notes we experience nostalgia towards the Pentecost and long for the vision of Revelation and asks, “What about now?” Why can’t the church here and now draw from the past to learn how to deal with differences in the present? What kind of a community does God of the covenant envision for us now and in the future?

Safwat Marzouk lives in Goshen, Indiana, with his wife Carolyn, their daughter Calista and son Julian, and his in-laws, Eve and Karam. The Marzouks try to visit Safwat’s parents and siblings in Egypt every other year, and spend a lot of time watching and playing soccer.

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