Despite the punishment meted out against an unfaithful Israel, God will never allow His people to be completely destroyed. In the end, God will remember the covenant struck with Israel’s ancient ancestors (Leviticus 26:45) and, true to His word, He will assure Israel’s continuity.
Who these “ancient ancestors” are is subject to dispute. All commentators agree that the ancients cannot be the patriarchs because the Scriptural verse identifies these ancients as those liberated from Egyptian bondage. Thus RaShI argues that these ancients with whom the covenant was struck were the twelve tribes of Israel. Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra argues that these ancients were those people who stood at Sinai at the time the Torah was given. And Professor Baruch Levine (JPS Torah Commentary, p. 192) maintains that the term refers to those who left Egypt. The differences between these three interpretations are actually marginal. The twelve tribes of Israel were those who made their way to Egypt, were later enslaved and liberated, and whose descendants stood at Sinai contracting the covenant with God.
Yet there is a somewhat different interpretation offered by Rabbi David Kimhi (1160 – 1235) on this verse that appears in his commentary to the Book of Psalms. Psalm 79:8 implores God “not to remember the sins of the ancients.” Kimhi suggests that the “ancients” are not a group of individuals who lived long ago. Rather, it is a grammatical construct used as a synonym for youth, an early period of human emotional and moral development. The psalmist pleads with God not to hold the indiscretions of our early years against us. Applied to the “covenant with the ancients” in Leviticus 26:45, Rabbi David Kimhi would be saying that if refers to the covenant struck with the Jewish people during the early years of peoplehood.
Youth has its advantages. Impetuousness is not one of them. On the other hand, the openness of youth to fresh ideas that are embraced with zeal is to its credit. Along this line the prophet Jeremiah imagines God remembering the loving kindness of Israel’s youth when the people wholeheartedly followed God through the wilderness (Jeremiah 2:2). That kind of trust and faith is characteristic of youth. Too often with age comes cynicism, doubt, and hesitation. Trust and idealism are the hallmarks of the young. These qualities of youth are what God remembers when He saves us from destruction. And it is the qualities of youth that must be reclaimed today.