A covenant is a legal and/or religiously binding agreement between two or more parties based on a promise (or promises) made. Biblical covenants underpin the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and are significant in the self-consciousness of these religions. These scriptural covenants imply God's concern for humanity and are often tied to the ideas of faith, obedience and a chosen people or elected group.
The term “covenant” is used in the Bible more than three hundred times and is found in both the Old and New Testaments. The Hebrew term for covenant is berith (ברית,), which means “agreement” and “arrangement,” although its etymological origins are closely associated with the partaking of a meal as well as with the concept of “cutting,” as in to “cut” a covenant. The Latin translation of this term, “testament,” led to the term "New Testament" for the books of the "new covenant."
Covenants have legal contractual conditions: there may be property rights or access; a time limit (a perpetual covenant for instance); a curse or penalty for breaking the covenant; a responsibility or duty imposed; renewal options; intermarriage requirements; or any other conditions suitable to the covenanting parties. Covenants were often concluded in the presence of witnesses, and symbols were usually created to mark a covenant and to commemorate it at later dates. Quite often a ritual meal was required to seal the covenant, involving the use of salt or blood. Sometimes sacrificial animals were cut into halves and the participants stood between them while they ratified their agreement.
According to Biblical tradition, there have been several covenants throughout history, although the precise number is disputed. Each one marked a new departure in God's relationship with his chosen people. Christian theologians are in disagreement over whether the newer covenants renew and transform the earlier divine covenants or that the earlier covenants are still active.
Views of Covenant in Antiquity
In the ancient world, there were many forms of covenants or legal agreements. The nations surrounding the Hebrews routinely entered into suzerainty treaties between rulers and their subjects. Typically, this type of covenant involved an asymmetrical relationship between ruler and subject whereby one party dictated the covenant while the other party obeyed its conditions. In other instances, ‘parity covenants’ between nations or tribes were either negotiated or offered.
The Biblical covenant tradition resembles this ancient legal concept, but it takes on an explicitly greater significance since one of the covenanting parties is deemed to be God. When God is the partner or signatory, the conditions and terms of the covenant take on a grander scale, often including all of humanity in their scope.
Number of Biblical Covenants
Scholars disagree as to the exact number of Biblical covenants, and the list varies from five to eight or more. It is said that some covenants have been renewed for various reasons. The Biblical covenants deemed to be of greatest significance are described below in order of their alleged invocation:
The Edenic Covenant (Genesis 1:26-30)
According to the Book of Genesis, God's first covenant with humanity is found at the end of the creation account in the Garden of Eden. Humans are explicitly given dominion over creation and are held responsible for its well-being because “God looked at everything he had made, and had found it very good” (Gen. 1:31). Humankind is special for it was created “in his image” and God bears responsibility for what he has created. To insure the ability of humans to undertake and accomplish such a responsibility, God then instituted the seventh day as a day of rest and regeneration. This covenant is a clear indication of the concern God has for what he creates.
While this covenant seems to lack parity between the parties, God’s desire to create and commune with his creatures softens the ruler/subject distinction found in the earlier non-Biblical covenants. God is generous and powerful and can sustain those he has appointed to have dominion over the lesser objects of his creation.
The Noahide Covenant (Genesis 9:8-17)
The story of Noah's ark and the flood (deluge) are significant for the Biblical understanding of Covenant. Once again, this covenant is found in the Book of Genesis. Noah, and his family, have maintained obedience to God by following his commandment to build an ark, and gather animals as instructed. Due to their obedience, Noah and his family's offspring survived the flood; those who mocked Noah were barred from the covenant and perished.
In this story we see the covenant paradigm in action: blood was invoked in the covenant from the slaying of humankind due to human disobedience. Once the blood sacrifice was provided, God entered into a perpetual covenant with Noah and those who followed him. God promised “that never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed by the waters of a flood; there shall not be another flood to devastate the earth” (Gen. 9:11). As a covenantal symbol, God “set [a rain]bow in the clouds to serve as a sign of the covenant between [him] and the earth” (Gen. 9:14) The covenant is not only perpetual, but it extends to all of creation- God, creation, and humanity. The symbol of the rainbow joins God and humans in a reminder of the price for disobedience but reminds us that faith ensures forgiveness. (For Christians, the ark, as the first savior of all of humankind, is also a foreshadowing of the coming of Jesus Christ as their savior.)
According to Talmudic sources, this covenant’s extension to all peoples includes seven conditions variously considered laws or commandments. Jews believe all non-Jews must live according to them to be among the righteous. Some nations have implicitly inculcated them in their own national psyche and even in their law codes. These Noahide Laws compose various orders of the following list: first, prohibitions against: 1) murder, 2) theft, 3) false gods, 4) sexual immorality, 5) eating of the flesh of an animal when such flesh has been deliberately torn from the animal, 6) blasphemy against God, and 7) the requirement to establish systems of justice and courts to administer them. Various subsets of laws have been developed that expand this list, much like the expansion of the original Ten Commandments into numerous laws and regulations.
The Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 12:2-3, 15, 17:1-14, 22:15-18)
God's covenants with Abraham are also very significant in the development of the Abrahamic religions, of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Abraham was a prosperous herdsman who despaired of having offspring because of his and his wife’s great age. However, according to Biblical tradition, God had plans to use Abraham as a means of populating the earth with whom he would continue the God-human relationship. However, the plan hinged on the acceptance of Abraham to leave his familiar territory and strike out into the unknown at the request of God. In return, the faith shown by Abraham would be rewarded with three great blessings: Abraham will be made into a great nation, his very name will be great and a blessing, and this blessing will extend to all the communities of the earth.
This Abrahamic Covenant is recorded in Genesis 15, which reaffirms God's promise of progeny. Sacrificial animals are cut into two parts and God’s presence passes between them in the form of “a smoking brazier and a flaming torch” (Gen. 15:17). However, the completion of this covenant is almost thwarted by the presence of birds of prey (representing evil) that swoop down on the carcasses, although Abraham drove them away. This covenant confirms the numerous descendants promised earlier, but, as foreshadowed by the birds, it also forewarns the Egyptian captivity and eventual release described in the Book of Exodus. The future territories to be awarded to God’s chosen people, Abraham’s descendants, are detailed in this covenant. This theme will surface in later covenants.
The third Abrahamic Covenant, also known as “The Covenant of Circumcision,” is detailed in chapter 17 and takes place when Abraham is 99 years old. God asks Abraham to “walk in my presence and be blameless” (Gen. 17: 1). Once again, the theme of relation and righteousness before God becomes a covenantal component. God has observed Abraham’s faith and right conduct and builds upon his earlier promises of progeny by extending the promise to include “a host of nations” (Gen. 17: 5) that will issue from Abraham. This covenant is also associated with land and a symbol. The land is the entire land of Canaan and the symbol is the act of circumcision. Here we see that conditions are being imposed by God on the party and future parties of the covenant. They must have no other gods in their lives, and male descendants must show they have only one God by being circumcised. Any potential heathen marriages will be stymied by this sign in the flesh of the Israelites for all generations. This covenant that remains consistent with the properties found in earlier covenants in so far as ritual blood and cutting are involved. Abraham is immediately obedient and ratifies the covenant by circumcising his whole male household.
The fourth Abrahamic Covenant is found in chapter 22 and once again involves faith and obedience. Prior to this covenant, Abraham had a son, Isaac, from his wife, Sarah, and the earlier covenantal promises seem to be on the way to fulfillment. However, as a test of his faith, Abraham is commanded to sacrifice his son. Not only is this disheartening from the paternal point of view, but it severely strains his faith in the promise of progeny that will become as numerous as the stars in the heavens. But Abraham is obedient and makes the arrangements, traveling to a place suitable for the sacrifice and preparing his son for the ritual. As he is about to complete the act, however, his hand is stayed by a voice from the Lord’s messenger. (It is said that God supplied Abraham with a ram to sacrifice instead.) This covenant also demonstrates faith and obedience, for which Abraham is blessed by God.
The Mosaic (Sinaitic) Covenant (Exodus 19:5-6)
Perhaps the most famous covenant in the Hebrew Bible is the story of God's covenant with Moses, who delivered to the Hebrews out of bondage from the land of Egypt. God tells Moses to inform the people “if you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people, though all the earth is mine. You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5-6). At verse eight is given the response of the people, “Everything the Lord has said, we will do.” Thus there is an understanding here of a special covenantal relationship between the Israelites and God.
The core of this covenant are the conditions found in the Ten Commandments (see Ex. 20:1-17). God, as supreme authority in the lives of the Israelites, sets out a code of conduct and right attitudes that will guide the relations of these people within the community and with God. In traditional Judaism, the Sinaitic covenant includes 613 commandments, most notably the injunctions to keep the Sabbath, perform the daily prayers and observe the dietary rules of kashrut.
Moses ratified this covenant in blood:
Then having sent certain young men of the Israelites to sacrifice young bulls as peace offerings to the Lord, Moses took half the blood and put it in large bowls; the other half he splashed on the altar. Taking the book of the covenant he read it aloud to the people, who answered, “All that the Lord has said, we will heed and do.” Then he took the blood and sprinkled it on the people [blood brothers], saying, “This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all the words of his.” (Ex. 24: 5-8)
The Davidic Covenant (2 Samuel 7:9-16)
According to Biblical tradition, God also made a covenant with King David, the second king of the Israelites, and its promises are extended to David’s subjects. This covenant arises from David’s appreciation of God’s beneficence toward him. He notes the Ark of the Covenant has only a tent while he is enthroned in palatial splendor. God begins this covenant by reminding David that God has been with him and he promises to make David’s name great. The covenant is then extended to the Israelites with a promise that they will dwell in their new lands without interference from their neighbors. David will no longer have to defend the people from attacks. The covenant then establishes the perpetual throne and lineage of David’s kingdom through his heirs. This covenant had great implications for the various prophecies that point to Jesus as the future messiah. God also foretells the greatness of Solomon who will build the temple and perpetuate David’s name. The relationship between this family and God is established and will endure even through their future failings with God’s laws. Thus, the Kingdom of David will endure forever. This covenant reinforces the idea that covenants are not simply legal contracts—they are a state of being between the people and God.
The Covenant of the Repentant (Deuteronomy 30: 1-10) and The New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
These two covenants have some similarity in that they reaffirm the possession of the promised land by the Israelites. The first is instituted after the giving of the final words of Moses to the people he led out of captivity. Their story is repeated and their legal obligations, along with penalties for violation, are enumerated by Moses. They have received the Law, but they will not always keep it, even though they are about to take possession of their promised land. Moses is prophesying their future periods of disobedience and their dispersals from the land that these will entail. They will be conquered and taken captive again for their occasions of disobedience. But there is an underlying theme of God’s forgiveness and desire to restore the God-human relationship with them. God’s pity will be activated when, in their hearts, they remember what was said and repent, relying once again on God’s guidance in their lives. No matter how far they are scattered they will return to possess this land once again.
Continuing the theme of blood and ‘cut,’ in convenantal terminology, “The Lord your God, will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, that you may love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and all your soul, and so may live” (v. 6). These words are reminiscent of the giving of the Ten Commandments of the previous covenant and they point to the establishment of an unending kingdom that is enumerated in the Davidic Covenant. Following this promise is the promise of bounty to be given from the fruits of their labors and the promise of offspring of the people and their animals as well as abundant crops. The land and the people will bear fruit as a sign of God’s pleasure when they are obedient.
The New Covenant described by Jeremiah, follows a period of dispersal when the people are returning once again to occupy the land of their inheritance. It again refers to the imagery of the heart. However, this New Covenant unites both the houses of Judah and Israel under a new formula. The former covenant was one of the Law. The Law could not always be fulfilled and required a penalty that was mediated through the priesthood. This new covenant’s laws will be interior; there will be a conversion of attitude that results in loving the Lord instead of fearing him. They will want to follow his guidelines out of recognition for his generosity and concern and not in fear of his retribution for failure. In fact, their transgression of the Law will no longer even be remembered. Additionally, knowledge of God will be extended to all nations.
The Covenant of Christ or The New Covenant (2 Corinthians 3:7-18, Galatians 4:24-31, Hebrews 9, Matthew 26:27-28)
According to Christianity, the covenants of the Hebrew Bible point to Jesus and are fulfilled in Him. Interestingly, all the elements found in previous covenants are also present in the life of Jesus.
Before his crucifixion (a blood sacrifice), Jesus instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist where he proclaimed the completion of his earthly mission. Holding a cup of wine, he told his disciples, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.” Christians believe that this will be the final blood that will be necessary to be spilled to establish and maintain the God-human relationship. There will no longer be any need for a Levitical priesthood to intercede in the sacrificial atonement for sin. This is the establishment of a final covenant not based on law, but on forgiveness and remission of sin.
Many of the books of the New Testament elucidate the Christian view of a new covenant of Christ. For example, 2 Corinthians 3:7-18 contrasts the Old and New Covenants by saying that the veiled face of Moses was a passing condition that was taken away by Christ. A veil remains over the hearts of those who hear the Book of Moses but it is removed when they turn toward the person of Jesus. In Jesus there is the (Holy) Spirit and this is a Spirit of freedom which transforms the faithful into the “same image [of Christ] from glory to glory” (v. 18). Here is the view that the Old Covenants have passed away in their importance and, more important, in their approach to God. The Old Covenants, it is said, were legalistic and underpinned by adherence to the Law, but the New Covenant is a covenant of faith based on love as espoused by Jesus Christ and fulfills the earlier “New Covenant” written in Jeremiah 31:31.
This theme of greater freedom under the New Covenant is brought out in Galatians 4:24-31. This is a comparison between those under the law, represented by Ishmael the son of the slave Hagar, and Abraham’s son Isaac, born of Sarah who was a free woman. This allegory ends at verse 31, which says, “Therefore, brothers, we are children not of the slave woman but of the freeborn woman,” thus maintaining the Old Covenants were restricting while the New Covenant is freeing.
Finally, the entire Book of Hebrews is filled with explanations of the priesthood of Jesus. It also contains covenantal references that bear on the question of the fulfillment of the covenants. Chapter 9 notes the layout of the tabernacle, which the Mosaic Covenant required for the atonement of violations of the Law. The priests were regularly required to enter it to perform the requisite sacrifices. But the high priest had to go inside the inner tabernacle annually to atone for his own sins and those of the people. In other words the priests needed to be reconciled with God in order to perform their duties. However, Christ, as the ultimate high priest, has performed for all time the redemption for sin through the shedding of his own blood. His blood has done more than the blood of all the sacrifices prior to his coming. “But now once for all he has appeared at the end of the ages to take away sin by his sacrifice” (v. 26). These, and other scriptural references, according to many Christians, point to Jesus Christ as the final covenant of the God-human relationship.
The Idea of Covenant in Islam
Abraham is the common forefather of the Muslims as well as Jews and Christians. As offspring of Abraham, Muslims are therefore entitled to covenantal privleges. Abraham’s son Ishmael (born of Hagar the Egyptian) is the source from which many of the Arab groups claim their descent (cf. Gen. 16:10-16), and the covenantal lineage can be traced back through Ishmael to Abraham (Qur’an 2:83).
However, Islam claims to have received another revelation from God, newer than Judaism and Christianity, which is presented in the Holy Qur'an. According to Islam, the revelations of the Holy Qur'an are considered to be the fulfillment of all previous revelation and covenants. Indeed, Muhammad is called the "seal" of the prophets designating his esteemed and final position in the lineage of the Abrahamic prophets. As we have seen, it was customary in antiquity to distinguish a covenant by the presence of a seal or sign, and it is significant therefore that Muhammad is called the "seal" of the prophets. Furthermore, Abraham's covenant with God was also represented by the sign of circumcision, which, likewise, is practiced by Muslim males as a sign of their relationship to God.
The idea of covenant raises theological questions about the nature of God's supposed relationship with creation and with humankind. If God enters into a special covenantal relationship with particular chosen people, as Biblical tradition states, then does this suggest that God has favorites? Does the idea of "covenant" imply that God is biased towards certain groups, or does God favor all of humanity equally? This first question is usually met satisfactorily by noting that "chosenness" implies no privilege, but rather merely a designated obligation or responsibility. Benefits and rewards from the realization of covenanental goals or aims always devolve to all humankind.
Other lesser questions persist among those who subscribe to Covenantal Theology including frequent disagreement over how many covenants have existed, their scope, and whether a covenant can be broken or revoked by one (or both) parties, especially if either reneges on its obligations. Finally, there are questions about whether there will be future fulfillment of any covenants deemed unfulfilled. Most important to recall however, despite the appeal of debates and speculation is the core beauty and purpose of covenants that reveal a willingness on the part of both God and His faithful to labor for the welfare of all human beings.
- Cairns, A. Dictionary of Theological Terms. Ambassador Emerald International. Belfast, Northern Ireland. Expanded Edition, 2002.
- Hastings, J., ed. Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible. Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. U.S.A., 2005.
- Kittel G., ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Printing Company, 1964.
- Myers, A. C., ed. The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987.
- New American Bible. St. Joseph Edition. New York, NY: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1991.
- 'The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 1975.
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