Promises, promises. They are easy to make and even easier to break. Often people get themselves into trouble because they make promises they cannot keep. God instituted a form of promise that held a greater sway, and had consequences if they were not kept. These promises were called covenants. They are major events through the Old Testament, have affected cultures into the present, and are important for unlocking some of the Bible’s most interesting passages.
The most prominent ones were between God and man, though people created their own ways of creating and enforcing them. Over time, they became less used between people, though the covenantal acts of marriage and circumcision are still common, even if people do not recognize their significance as easily. Understanding the nature of covenants as a sacred promise between individuals, humanity, and God opens up ways of understanding the Bible, its history, and how people can relate to the Lord.
What Is a Covenant?
Covenants can be loosely compared to promises, but often with more weight behind them. There are consequences for failing to uphold it, and outlined responsibilities between the parties. Covenants are sacred, and often take place between God and mankind, or between individuals in the sight of God. They can resemble a contract in some ways.
The Hebrew word is berith and the Greek one is diatheke. The root word for berith refers to cutting, because of the way covenants were made early in history.
Originally, when covenants were made, they resembled a type of blood pact, requiring sacrifice to be sealed. In some ways, it preceded the sealing of God’s promise to redeem humanity from its sins through the blood of Jesus Christ. The most detailed account of the act of covenant is in Genesis, when God made one with Abram before renaming him Abraham. God promised to give him descendants as numerous as the stars, and land which at that time the Chaldeans inhabited. The Bible records:
“He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.’ And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him … When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram” (Genesis 15:9-12, 17-18).
In this passage, Abram killed the animals, cuts them into pieces, and lays them out. If this covenant was between two, they both would have walked between the pieces, sealing the covenant. Most covenants asked both parties to do something and not to do something. If someone failed, there would have been a price, sometimes death. Crucially, God puts Abraham to sleep, taking on the full responsibility for fulfilling His part of the covenant, without requiring Abraham to uphold his word at the same level. God recognized Abram’s frailty as a human and a sinner, and made Himself wholly responsible.
God would sometimes institute signs to seal a covenant. The most famous example is the rainbow, God’s symbol of His promise never to flood the earth again. In Hebrew culture, circumcision is also an important part of the covenant between the people of Israel and God. It began with Abram, when He was given the name of Abraham, and God promised to make Him a great nation and kings. This promise was made when Abraham was 99. In exchange for this great nation, Abraham and his generation would circumcise every male, “both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money shall be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh and everlasting covenant” (Genesis 17:13). Unlike the previous covenant with Abraham, there was an expectation for people to uphold their part of this arrangement.
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What Are the 7 Covenants in the Bible?
Over the course of history recorded in the Bible, there are several prominent covenants between man and God. Depending on which school of theology consulted, an expert may say there are six or seven. Each covenant defined the relationship between God and man, usually instituted with an individual that had long-lasting implications.
These covenants are:
1. The Edenic Covenant: Found in Genesis 1:28-29, God commanded humanity to be fruitful and multiply, and they would have dominion over the earth.
2. The Noahic Covenant: After the flood, God promised He would never destroy the earth with a flood, and left the rainbow as a sign of that promise as recorded in Genesis 9:11.
3. The Abrahamic Covenant: Instituted between God and Abraham and recorded in Genesis 12-17, it had a long-lasting reach for the latter’s descendent. God promised to make Abraham a great nation, all the land from Egypt to the Euphrates, and that Abraham would become the father of many nations; all his male descendants were to be circumcised to seal this covenant.
4. The Mosaic Covenant: Found in Exodus 19-24, God promised to make Israel a holy nation if they followed the Law, starting with the Ten Commandments and culminating with the Law outlined in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. A sacrifice of the blood of an ox on the altar sealed this covenant.
5. The Priestly Covenant: When looking among the Levites for a High Priest, God ordained and made a covenant with Aaron and his descendants that they would be His priests, able to go before the altar at the appointed times as recorded in Numbers 18.
6. The Davidic Covenant: In 2 Samuel 7, God promised to establish an eternal kingdom from David’s line. Christians believe Jesus fulfills this covenant as a descendant of David who will establish an eternal kingdom.
7. The New Covenant: Christians believe Jesus instituted a new covenant at the Last Supper, as recorded in the Gospels. Jesus told His followers to eat bread symbolizing His flesh and drink from a cup symbolizing his blood which paid the price for the sins of humanity.
Do We Still Make Covenants Today?
Believers today live under the covenant of the New Testament, and Jesus Christ will return to rule from Jerusalem and fulfill the Davidic covenant. People are still fulfilling the Edenic covenant.
Still, it can seem that other than big, abstract ones, there are no covenants today. However, most churches consider marriage a form of covenant. The vows between the couple are made before God, and He holds the two accountable to one another. They agree to do certain things like obey and be faithful, and not to leave one another or commit adultery. When viewing marriage through the lens of a covenant, the importance of being prayerful about who one marries is evident.
Generally, God encourages believers to be people of their word, not requiring oaths and acts to seal a covenant. Instead, Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Mathew 5:34-37). Christians should be known for their honesty, only giving their word when they can keep it.
One of the great comforts for humanity is that no matter how difficult it can be for people to be true to their word, God never breaks His oath. He kept every promise made to Abraham, to Noah, to David, and to the whole world. Jesus now stands as the great High Priest for all those who put their faith in Him, as the ultimate sacrifice whose blood sealed an everlasting covenant. Because of His great love for people and His infinite goodness, people can believe in God’s assurances, and strive to be more like Him, and grow better at keeping their words.
Adkisson, Brent. The Book of Covenants The Story of God’s Relentless Pursuit of Humanity. Bloomington: Westbow Press, 2011.
Covenant Theology Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives. Ed. Waters, Guy P., Reid J. Nicholas, and John R. Muether. Wheaton: Crossway, 2011.
Hillers, Delbert. Covenant The History of a Biblical Idea. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1969.
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Bethany Verrett is a freelance writer and editor. She maintains a faith and lifestyle blog graceandgrowing.com, where she muses about the Lord, life, culture, and ministry.