The word "covenant, " infrequently heard in conversation, is quite commonly used in legal, social (marriage), and religious and theological contexts.
The Idea of Covenant. The term "covenant" is of Latin origin (con venire), meaning a coming together. It presupposes two or more parties who come together to make a contract, agreeing on promises, stipulations, privileges, and responsibilities. In religious and theological circles there has not been agreement on precisely what is to be understood by the biblical term. It is used variously in biblical contexts. In political situations, it can be translated treaty; in a social setting, it means a lifelong friendship agreement; or it can refer to a marriage.
The biblical words most often translated "covenant" are berit [tyir.B] in the Old Testament (appearing about 280 times) and diatheke [diaqhvkh] in the New Testament (at least 33 times). The origin of the Old Testament word has been debated; some have said it comes from a custom of eating together ( Gen 26:30 ; 31:54 ); others have emphasized the idea of cutting an animal (an animal was cut in half [ 15:18 ]); still others have seen the ideas of perceiving or determining as root concepts. The preferred meaning of this Old Testament word is bond; a covenant refers to two or more parties bound together. This idea of bond will be explicated more fully.
The New Testament word for covenant has usually been translated as covenant, but testimony and testament have also been used. This Greek word basically means to order or dispose for oneself or another. The though of the inequality of the parties is latent.
The generally accepted idea of binding or establishing a bond between two parties is supported by the use of the term berit [tyir.B]. When Abimelech and Isaac decided to settle their land dispute, they made a binding agreement, league, or covenant to live in peace. An oath confirmed it ( Gen 26:26-31 ). Joshua and the Gibeonites bound themselves, by oath, to live in peace together ( Joshua 9:15 ), although Yahweh commanded that Israel was not to bind themselves to the people living in the land of Canaan ( Deut 7:2 ; Judges 2:2 ). Solomon and Hiram made a binding agreement to live and work in peace together ( 1 Kings 5:12 ). A friendship bond was sealed by oath between David and Jonathan ( 1 Samuel 20:3 1 Samuel 20:16-17 ). Marriage is a bond (covenant) for life.
The covenants referred to above were between two equal parties; this means that the covenant relationship was bilateral. The bond was sealed by both parties vowing, often by oath, that each, having equal privileges and responsibilities, would carry out their assigned roles. Because a covenant confirmed between two human parties was bilateral, some scholars have concluded that the covenant Yahweh established with human beings is also bilateral. This is not the case. God initiated, determined the elements, and confirmed his covenant with humanity. It is unilateral. Persons are recipients, not contributors; they are not expected to offer elements to the bond; they are called to accept it as offered, to keep it as demanded, and to receive the results that God, by oath, assures will not be withheld.
Scholars have learned by studying tablets found by archaeologists that legal treaties between kings (suzerains) and subjects (vassals) existed during the time of the biblical patriarchs, Moses, Joshua, the judges, and the first kings of Israel. These treaties were written on tablets for the purpose of establishing a continuing relationship as determined and authorized by the suzerain. Once written, the covenants were not to be altered or annulled although parts could be explicated or elaborated. Did biblical writers borrow the idea of the covenant and its integral elements from pagan sources when the Old Testament was written elements such as a self-presentation of the suzerain and his activities, including those done on behalf of the vassals, statements of intent, stipulations, and assurances of well-being if obedient and of curses if disobedient? The legal covenants included provisions for continuity, with emphasis on the suzerain's claim to vassals' children, and were confirmed by an oath or a special ratification ceremony, like the cutting in half of an ox or cow or the sharing of a meal as the conclusion of the act of covenanting.
These nonbiblical covenants were intended to serve a number of purposes, two of which are especially important to understand. The suzerain stated that as victor and lord over the vassals he had spared them in battle, delivered them from extenuating circumstances, and placed them in situations of life and well-being. This was an undeserved favor. The suzerain's covenant was also intended to serve an administrative function. It informed the vassals how the king would govern them and what they were to do in obedient response to him. These two purposes, the reminder of deliverance and the information on administration of affairs in daily life, appear in Yahweh God's covenanting with his people but in radically different ways.
Covenants, neither suzerain-vassal nor biblical, were not made (nor did they function) in a vacuum. Covenants presupposed a king, a domain, a way of life, people, and often mediating servants. The covenant was an important administrative means within a kingdom.
Did biblical writers borrow from pagan sources when they wrote about Yahweh God's covenantal activities on behalf of and his relationships with his people? There is no reference of any kind in the Bible that this was done. There are marked similarities between biblical and the nonbiblical covenants. The most satisfactory and acceptable position is that Yahweh God is the source and originator of the entire covenant concept and phenomenon. He included the covenant relationship in his creation activity and handiwork. Covenant is germane to human life; it is God-implanted and -unfolded. Pagan kings gave concrete expression, in their proud and self-sufficient attitudes, to what Yahweh God had implanted and maintained within his created cosmos. This explanation calls for an answer to three important questions. When did Yahweh God first establish his covenant? What was the nature of that initial covenant? According to biblical revelation, did Yahweh God, after the initial one, establish any more covenants?
The Old Testament. The Hebrew word for covenant does not appear in Genesis 1-5. Some scholars say that this is evidence that there was no covenant in humankind's earliest history. Some say that the idea of covenant arose initially in the minds of the Israelites after they had been at Mount Sinai. To account for references to the covenant in the Noahic and patriarchal accounts, scholars have incorrectly said that later editors of Genesis inserted the idea of covenant to give historical evidence and credence to what Israel later believed. Other scholars, who accept Genesis as a record of Yahweh's revelation, also have difficulty accepting that God established his covenant when he created the cosmos mainly because of the lack of direct verbal reference to it.
Biblical testimony points to the fact that God covenanted when he created. Hosea ( 6:7 ) refers to Adam breaking the covenant. Jeremiah spoke of the covenant of the day and the night that no one can alter ( 33:19-20 ); this covenant is understood to have been initiated in creation when God separated light from darkness and gave the sun and moon their appointed place and role ( Genesis 1:3-5 Genesis 1:14 ). When Yahweh God first spoke to Noah, he said he was going to wipe humankind from the face of the earth ( Gen 6:7 ). But he assured Noah he would uphold and cause his covenant to continue. Hence Noah did not have to fear that God's plan for and method of administering his cosmic kingdom would be different after the flood. But why, if God covenanted when he created, is the word "covenant" not in Genesis 1-2? Those who wish to speak of only the covenant of grace, referred to briefly and indirectly in the Noahic account (Gen. 6-9), believe that some of the basic elements of the covenant of grace were enunciated when Yahweh God promised victory through the woman's seed ( Gen 3:14-16 ). When Yahweh God covenanted with David, according to 2 Samuel 7, the term "covenant" does not appear but when David referred to what Yahweh had said and done, he said, "Has he not made with me an everlasting covenant?" ( 2 Sam 23:5 ; cf. Psalm 89:3 ). As the elements included in covenant were present in the account of the covenanting with David ( 2 Sam 7 ), so the elements constituting covenant are recorded in Genesis 1-2.
The basic elements of a covenant are imbedded in the Genesis account. God, in his revelation of creation, presented himself as the Creator. The historical record of what he has done was outlined. He created his image-bearers by means of which he placed and kept man and woman in a close relationship with himself and had them mirror (reflect) and represent him within the created cosmos. Humanity was given stipulations or mandates. As image-bearers they were to maintain an intimate and obedient fellowship with their Creator; the Sabbath was to enhance this. Humanity was to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth; this was to be done by establishing families; a man was to leave his parents and cleave to his wife ( Gen 2:24 ). Becoming one flesh, they would have children. As families increased, community would be formed. This social mandate thus was an integral aspect of covenant. So was the cultural mandate; man and woman were to cultivate (subdue NIV) and rule over the creation. When God saw all that he had done, he confirmed, not by expressing an oath or performing a ratifying ceremony, but by declaring all to be very good ( Gen 1:31 ). This he confirmed by ceasing from creating activity and establishing the seventh day as a day of rest, sanctity, and blessing ( Gen 2:1-3 ).
Yahweh God did more; he spoke of assured blessings. God blessed Adam and Eve; he thus gave them ability and authority to serve as his covenant agents. He provided for their sustenance ( Gen 1:28-30 ). He also spoke of the possibility of disobedience, if they ate of the forbidden tree of knowledge of good and evil ( Gen 2:17 ). The ideas of blessing (life) and curse (death) thus were also included. The forbidding of eating has been referred to as the probationary command but also as the integral aspect of "the covenant of works." An increasing number of biblical students and scholars have come to consider, on the basis of biblical testimony, that it is preferable to speak of the covenant of creation and that what was considered to constitute the "covenant of works" is but an integral part of the covenant of creation.
Yahweh's covenant agents were tempted by Satan. They doubted Yahweh's words; they accepted the lie. They fell. They broke the covenantal relationship between Yahweh and themselves. Creation was affected, for it too suffered the consequences of Adam and Eve's sin. It too began to groan ( Rom 8:22 ). But Yahweh did not break his covenant with creation and his vicegerents. He came to the fallen, shamed, and humiliated image-bearers and set about restoring humanity to fellowship with and service for him. Yahweh, graciously maintaining his mandates, revealed that Adam and Eve could still work under them. Spiritual fellowship was restored by Yahweh's assurance that the woman's seed would be victorious over Satan and his seed. The social mandate was maintained; Adam and Eve as one flesh would have offspring, but pain would be suffered. The cultural mandate was still to be obeyed, but it would cause labor and sweat. All the elements of the creation covenant remained. Then Yahweh added another dimension to this covenantal relationship. He pronounced in germinal form his plan for the full redemption and restoration of his image-bearers and their royal, priestly, and prophetic roles with their attendant privileges and responsibilities. Yahweh revealed how this was to be done by adding to his creation covenant the redemptive and restorative promises and implied stipulations of faith and obedience. He established what has been widely known as the covenant of grace.
Misunderstanding must be avoided. God has established an all-embracing binding relationship (covenant) with his creation, of which humanity is the central establishment of a second covenant within the context and framework of the creation covenant. As Yahweh God continued revealing himself, and how the redemptive/restorative "second covenant" was to be administered, it was always done with the context and framework of the creation covenant. Because the covenant of grace received direct and fuller "divine attention" as Yahweh God revealed his kingdom plan, goal, and certain consummation, many biblical students and scholars have concentrated their attention on it, failing to see, understand, or believe its position and role within the context and framework of the creation covenant that Yahweh certainly maintained and continues to maintain as he carries out and fulfills his plan and goal for his ever enduring kingdom.
Genesis 6-9 presents Noah as a faithful covenant man. In the midst of a very sinful, corrupt society, which God determined to wipe out, Noah lived obediently. Socially, he had one wife and three sons; he was blameless, so that others could not accuse him of wrongdoing. Spiritually he was in constant fellowship with God. He walked with God and was righteous; he lived according to God's will ( 6:9-10 ; 7:1 ). When commanded to build the ark, he proved to be a capable servant in the cultural dimension of life ( 6:14-16 ; 7:5 ). Yahweh assured Noah that his covenant of creation and its correlate, the covenant of gracious redemption and restoration, would be maintained with him and his family ( 6:18 ). After the flood had removed corrupt society and then receded, Noah the covenant man worshiped; he built an altar and sacrificed. Yahweh responded to Noah's worship and determined to continue his relationship with the cosmos (8:20-9:17). Parts of the creation covenant mandates were repeated; some were explicated. In confirming his creation covenant with humanity, God said every living creature was included ( 9:9-10 ); God included the death penalty for murder ( 9:5-6 ), and meat as legitimate food for humanity ( 9:2-3 ). This assurance concerning the continuity of the creation covenant certainly includes the implication that Yahweh would continue his gracious redemptive/restorative covenant. This continuity would be worked out particularly with Shem, blessed by Yahweh to serve as the builder of the tent that even Ham's offspring, Canaan, would enter. Japheth's offspring would benefit from it and enlarge it. Thus, Yahweh God maintained and explicated his covenant with Noah and his offspring.
After Yahweh God had given absolute assurance to Noah and his sons that the creation covenant would continue, there are not many direct references to it again. But its presence and role are constantly and consistently present.
Yahweh, revealing himself as the Sovereign One to Abram, gave him covenantal promises: spiritual well-being, making a great nation of him, making him famous, and using him as a channel of blessing to all peoples. Yahweh added to the assurances of blessings the certainty of the curse on despisers and rejectors of Abram and his sovereign God.
The process of God's covenanting with Abram was unfolded throughout the course of Abram's life. When Abram was afraid after his separation from and rescue of Lot (Gen. 13-14), Yahweh assured Abram of his abiding presence and protection for him (shield) and of the blessed spiritual future Yahweh had for him (great reward, Gen 15:1 ). Abram realized his great future included children; he inquired about this. Yahweh assured him he would have many ( Gen 15:5 ). In this way the continuity of the covenant was assured. An added promise was given: that he would possess the land ( 15:7 ). A covenant ratification ceremony was performed in a vision to Abram in which the blessing of peace for Abram and a curse (punishment) was pronounced on those enslaving covenantal seed ( 15:12-21 ). Genesis 15 includes covenantal elements: (1) Yahweh's sovereign presence; (2) Abram's assured rich future; (3) continuity through much seed; (4) a place to live and serve in the midst of the nations; (5) a curse on opponents of the blessed; and (6) the response of faith and blessing of justification.
The covenanting process continued after Abram sinfully followed Sarai's suggestion to take Hagar the Egyptian maid as a concubine ( Gen 16 ). Yahweh came to Abram and gave further explication of the redemptive/restorative covenant within the context of the creational covenant.
Yahweh presented himself as the invincible, powerful, and exalted God. Yahweh emphasized the stipulations of the covenant: "walk before me" (remain in constant, everyday spiritual fellowship with me); "be blameless" (live uprightly according to my will among your fellowmen). Implied in these stipulations was Yahweh's awareness of Abram's lack of faith and obedience in his sovereign, exalted God and of his sin of adultery with Hagar. Abram had sinned spiritually and socially but Yahweh graciously confirmed his covenant(s) with Abram. The verb used in Hebrew is "give." The continuity of the covenant with Abram was a gift of Yahweh's grace. Abram responded in humility and worship ( 17:3 ). Covenantal elements were then repeated. Abram was promised many offspring; they would form nations and give rise to kings. This emphasized repetition of seed was strongly affirmed by the change of his name to Abraham and the assurance that the covenant with his offspring was for all time. The life-love bond between Yahweh and Abraham and his seed was strongly affirmed by the promise "to be your God and the God of your descendants" ( 17:8 ). Yahweh, by these words, assured Abraham of his abiding presence, his availability, his sure help, and his unfailing love, support, and comfort in all circumstances of life. Abram was also assured that he would possess the land ( 17:7-8 ). To the stipulations to walk and be blameless, Yahweh added the command to circumcise the male offspring who in turn would generate offspring. In the context of assuring Abraham of much seed, Yahweh gave the covenantal sign of circumcision ( 17:11 ), which sons were always to carry and by which he demonstrated that he claimed the seed as people in covenant with him. Circumcision was given such an emphatically important role in Yahweh's covenanting with Abraham and his offspring, that it was referred to as the "covenant of circumcision" ( 17:13 ). This was not a separate covenant, but was such an integral part of the redemptive/restorative covenant that it was referred to as representing the entire covenant (a part representing the whole). Also in the context of Yahweh's claim to Abraham's seed as his, the concept of divine election is included. Abraham pled that his son Ishmael be considered a covenant progenitor, but Yahweh emphatically stated Isaac, to be born of Sarah, was to be that one ( 17:15-21 ).
After God had tested Abraham's obedience, by oath ( 22:1-6 ) he repeated and confirmed elements of his covenant ( 22:17-18a ). Of fundamental importance is Yahweh's statement "because you have obeyed me" ( 22:18b ). This stress on obedience is strong evidence that the covenant with Abraham should not be considered basically as a covenant of promise with the response of faith. Important as promise and faith are, they should not be used to minimize the emphasis on stipulations: leave, go, fear not, walk before me, be blameless, circumcise, offer your son. Abraham was never given options that he could choose to accept or reject. As a "vassal" he was given commandments, laws, orders, regulations, requirements, and decrees ( 26:4 ). Yahweh's covenant with Abraham was characterized by promise and law. As these were not to be separated, so faith and obedience were not to be either.
As Yahweh had promised that his redemptive/ restorative covenant in the broader context of the creation covenant was to be continued with Isaac ( 17:19-20 ), and because Abraham had obeyed Yahweh and kept his laws ( z5 1:1 26:5 ), Yahweh did accordingly confirm his covenant with Isaac ( Genesis 26:3-4 Genesis 26:24 ).
The gracious character of Yahweh's covenant with the patriarchs was highlighted in Yahweh's interactions with Jacob, who was chosen in spite of his covetousness ( 25:29-34 ), deception ( 27:19 ), and clever manipulations ( 30:31-43 ). Election to covenantal privileges and responsibilities was not on the basis of merit, but according to Yahweh's sovereign will and mercy ( Rom 9:10-18 ).
Yahweh God confirmed the covenant in all its aspects and ramifications with Jacob. When fleeing from Esau, Jacob was assured of these; the reassurance of Yahweh's presence was captured by the phrases "I am with you"; "I will watch over you"; "I will bring you back to the land"; "I will not leave you"; and "I will accomplish all I promise you." With these assurances Jacob could travel, live, work, and prosper anyplace in Yahweh's cosmic kingdom, for Yahweh had repeated his determination to uphold and carry out his creation covenant and its redemptive/restorative correlate. Jacob, having a home with his Uncle Laban, enjoyed the fulfillment of the covenant mandate to be fruitful and multiply, and the fulfillment of the covenant promise of seed (29:31-30:24). Jacob was blessed with prosperity (a creation covenantal cultural reality 30:25-43 ; 35:23-26 ). When returning to the land of his fathers as Yahweh directed him ( 31:3 ) Jacob was assured of Yahweh's covenantal promise to be with him. When the time came to confront Esau, Jacob depended on Yahweh's covenantal relationship with his forbears and the promises made to them and him ( 32:9-12 ). After Jacob's wrestling with the Lord, he was named "Israel" because he overcame in his struggles ( 32:28 ; 35:10 ) and was blessed ( 32:29 ). Upon his return to Bethel, Yahweh God again confirmed the covenant with him, assuring Jacob he was El Shaddai and commanding him to be fruitful ( 35:11 ), confirming that nations and kings would come from him ( 35:11 ) and that he would receive land for himself and his children ( 35:12 ). When Jacob had been in the land for some time and was advised to go to Egypt, Yahweh assured him that he was not breaking covenant if he did ( 46:3-4 ). Rather, it was Yahweh's plan to fulfill his covenant word to Abraham that Israel was to spend 400 years in a foreign land ( 15:13-14 ) in which a son, Joseph, proved to serve as a type of Christ, the mediator of the covenant, and Judah was prophesied to become the ancestor of David, the covenant servant, and of Christ ( 49:8-12 ).
The Book of Exodus commences with covenantal statements. Patriarchal progeny increased as it was promised it would ( 1:2-5 ). The Israelites were obedient to the command to be fruitful, multiply, and become numerous ( 1:7 ). But the Israelites were under severe strain, because of oppressive slavery, to obey the cultural and spiritual mandates. The reality was that the Israelites as a whole seemed oblivious to the covenantal responses of faith and obedience demanded of them. In their misery, they groaned and cried out, and Yahweh heard them ( 2:23-24a ). It is stated categorically that Yahweh God remembered his covenant with the patriarchs ( 2:24b ). That he did is demonstrated by his call of Moses to be the covenant mediator who was to serve in the Israelites' deliverance and gaining of freedom. Yahweh identified himself as the covenant Lord of the patriarchs ( 3:6 ), as the ever faithful One ( 3:14 ) who would be with Moses ( 3:12a ) as he served in the fulfillment of Yahweh's promise to Abraham to bring his descendants from a strange land ( 3:8 ). Moses was commanded to perform wonders before the doubting Israelites so that they would believe that their covenantal Lord had called Moses to be the "Old Testament redeemer" ( 4:1-7 ).
After Yahweh had humbled and broken powerful Egypt, he instituted a second covenantal sacrament, the Passover, a feast to commemorate Israel's deliverance and at which fathers were to instruct their children about Yahweh's faithful words and deeds ( 12:24-28 ).
The actual process of confirming the covenant with Israel took place at Mount Sinai. The first stage of the process included the following. First, Yahweh presented himself as the covenant-keeping, delivering, guiding, and protecting God of Israel who brought Israel to himself. He confirmed the life-love bond ( 19:3-4 ).
Second, he made an all-inclusive stipulation: obey my covenant. The stipulation was explicated later. This stipulation was not presented as a condition that Israel could choose to obey or reject. Rather, Yahweh revealed in what manner a rich, full-orbed, covenantal relationship would function. Israel, responding obediently to Yahweh's covenant demands, would realize the promises.
Third, the promises were in the form of four assurances that included responsibilities. (1) Israel would realize the life, love, and blessedness of being Yahweh's precious possession, chosen from all the nations. (2) Israel was to be a kingdom, a royal people, children in the family of the sovereign Lord of the cosmic kingdom. Implied was that all kingdom privileges, blessings, and responsibilities were to be theirs. (3) Israel was, as a kingdom, to be priestly in character and service. They were to see themselves as standing and serving in the presence of Yahweh as they ministered to and on behalf of the nations of the world. Thus the covenantal task of being a channel of blessing would be realized. (4) Israel was to be a sanctified, dedicated, and consecrated nation. As an organized people ruled by Yahweh, they were to avoid and fight against sin and corruption and reflect the purity, majesty, and grandeur of their holy Lord among the nations ( 19:5-6 ).
Fourth, Israel responded covenantally: "We will do everything Yahweh has said." They did not say, "We choose to" (they were not given an option) or "We will try"; they made a full commitment.
Fifth, Moses was reconfirmed as the mediator between Yahweh and the people. He was to be spokesman for Yahweh to the people and on behalf of the people to Yahweh. He was the representative of Yahweh whom the people were to trust; their trust would be motivated by their hearing of Yahweh promulgating his will ( 19:9 ).
Sixth, the Israelites had to consecrate themselves to Yahweh while keeping a distance from Mount Sinai ( 19:10-15 ).
The second stage in the process of covenant renewal and confirmation was the speaking by Yahweh, and hearing by the people, of the law. First the ten commandments were spoken; these were inclusive principles governing all aspects of kingdom living. The first four concerned the character of King Yahweh, how and when he was to be honored and worshiped. These explicated how life and worship would meet requirements of the creational covenant's spiritual mandate. The next three elaborated on fulfilling the social mandate and the last three on the cultural mandate. The interrelatedness of the commandments demonstrated how integrated faithful, obedient, covenant people would find kingdom life to be. For example, to steal would hurt a neighbor (social) while acting disobediently against Yahweh (spiritually) in the cultural area.
The speaking of the ten commandments was followed by explication and application. Instruction was given on how to worship ( 20:22-26 ), keep Sabbath laws, and when, and why, and how to celebrate the three major feasts ( 23:10-19 ). Concern for working people, slaves, and injured and violated individuals was explained ( 21:1-36 ; 22:16-23:9). Instruction concerning ownership of property, rights involved, punishment, and ways of making restitution was added.
After the laws were promulgated, the people were given assurances of Yahweh's guidance, protection, and bringing them into the promised land, where they were to remain covenantally faithful to Yahweh and not make a covenant with the people living in the land or with their gods ( 23:20-33 ). This was a strong reminder to trust Yahweh, believe in him, and love only him.
Moses told the people all that Yahweh had given as instructions and laws for them. The people made a second solemn response, saying they would do all that Yahweh had said. This response of trust and obedience came spontaneously ( 24:3 ).
Moses then wrote all the explications, applications, assurances, and responses ( 24:4 ). This writing of a covenant gave it permanence and authority. Once written, it was not to be altered; it would be explicated and more fully applied.
The third stage in the process of Yahweh's renewing and confirming of the covenant he had made previously with Adam, Noah, and the patriarchs was the actual ratification ceremony ( 24:4b-18 ). The ceremony consisted of the building of an altar to serve as the actual intimate meeting place of Yahweh and the people. Sacrifices were then offered. Blood had been collected and half of it was sprinkled on the altar. Then Moses read all of the covenant material he had written, to which Israel made a third spontaneous response, saying "We will do, we will obey." The climactic point of the ceremony followed; the people were sprinkled by the blood of the covenant. Thus, by the blood, in which is life, but which also speaks of the death of what is sacrificed, the people as a whole were signified and sealed as Yahweh God's precious possession. The holy marriage had taken place. Yahweh, the Husband, had taken the patriarch's progeny as his bride. The ratification of the covenant was finalized by Yahweh writing the ten commandments on tablets of stone and giving them to Moses. The whole ceremony ended with Yahweh displaying himself in his majesty, splendor, grandeur, and awesomeness as a consuming fire ( 24:17 ).
The Israelites did not remain faithful to their covenantal vow for long. While Moses was receiving instructions concerning worship (building of the tabernacle, its furnishings, ordaining Aaron and sons as priests) the Israelites made an idol and worshiped it ( 32:1-6 ). This breaking of the covenant aroused Yahweh's anger; he spoke of carrying out the curse of the covenant on them ( 32:9-10 ). Moses, however, served as a covenant mediator; the people were largely spared ( Exodus 32:28 Exodus 32:35 ).
The covenant was reconfirmed when Moses interceded further for the people and Yahweh declared that he was truly Yahweh, compassionate, gracious, patient, full of love, faithful, forgiving, righteous, and just ( 34:6-7 ). Promises of what he would do were repeated and stipulations, relevant to the immediate circumstances just experienced, were added. The call was repeated to worship only Yahweh, who as a jealous God would tolerate no rivals ( 34:14 ). Yahweh again enjoined the people to remember to celebrate the prescribed festivals ( 34:18-26 ). A forgiven people, with whom Yahweh reconfirmed his life-love bond with all its implications and ramifications for all aspects of life, were to be a joyous, feasting people.
In the context of Yahweh confirming his covenant with Israel, two other covenants are referred to. In Leviticus 2:13 the command was given not to leave "the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings." Then later the phrase "covenant of salt" is used when Yahweh assures the priests and Levites that their offspring would always be supplied with sustenance from offerings ( Num 18:19 ). The institution and purpose of this covenant of salt are not recorded. From the context it can be understood that when covenantally prescribed offerings were made, they had to be seasoned and given a means of preservation so that what was offered could be kept in good condition until eaten by the families of priests and Levites. In this way, one provision in covenantal life, work, and worship, namely, food for those not given a large portion of Canaan, was used to refer to the entire covenant. The permanency of the covenant was expressed by salt; for this reason the covenant with David was also referred to as a covenant of salt ( 2 Chron 13:5 ).
Likewise, to not honor and keep the Sabbath was to break the entire covenant ( Exodus 31:13 Exodus 31:16 ; see also Neh 9:14 ; Nehemiah 10:31 Nehemiah 10:33 ; 13:15-22 ; Isa 56:2-6 ; Jer 17:19-29 ). Keeping the Sabbath was a definite requirement for faithful covenantal life and worship.
Within the scope of Yahweh's covenant with Israel as a nation, a "subcovenant" was made with the priesthood. This covenant is referred to as an everlasting covenant. Because one of Aaron's sons demonstrated great zeal for Yahweh's covenantal demand for holy living, assurance was given that the office of priest would remain with Aaron's progeny ( Nu 25:10-13 ).
When the Israelites were prepared to enter the land promised to their patriarchal ancestors, Moses, Yahweh God's mediator for Israel, gave extended addresses that constitute the content of the Book of Deuteronomy.
The Hebrew term for covenant appears twenty-seven times. Once it should be translated "league" ( 7:2 ); it appears a number of times in the phrase "ark of the covenant." In some contexts the law is referred to as the covenant ( 4:13 ; Deuteronomy 19:9 Deuteronomy 19:11 Deuteronomy 19:15 ; 29:1 ).
In his addresses, Moses reviewed a number of important events experienced during their desert travels (chaps. 1-3) in which the people's behavior was not commendable but Yahweh had remained faithful: He "blessed you He has watched over your journey" ( 2:7 ). Moses urged the people to remain faithful to Yahweh God's covenant ( 4:13 ) and to remember Yahweh as a jealous God demanding absolute loyalty ( 4:24 ). Moses stressed that Yahweh was merciful; he would not forget the covenant made with the forefathers that he had confirmed by an oath. Yahweh had covenanted with them because he loved them and chose their descendants (the people whom Moses was addressing) ( 4:37 ). Reminding the Israelites of the character and deeds of Yahweh (two essential aspects of Yahweh's covenant), Moses urged the people to follow Yahweh's commands ( 4:1 ) not add to but to keep them ( 4:2 ), to hold fast ( 4:4 ), to observe them faithfully ( 4:6 ), and to show their wisdom and understanding by so doing ( 4:6 ). They were to seek Yahweh their God with all their heart and soul ( 4:29 ). This call to loving obedience was followed by a repetition of the ten commandments (chap. 5) and the command to love Yahweh, to have his will in their hearts, and to teach their children ( 5:4-9 ).
Moses explicated and expanded on how the covenant of love Yahweh had made with the patriarchs ( 7:12 ) was to be known, obeyed, and followed in all of life. Reminders of Yahweh's love and his election of them and his calling them to be holy were repeated (see esp. chaps. 7-11). The place and manner of covenant worship and feasting were outlined again (chaps. 12-13, 16, 26). Instructions on social and legal matters as required by Yahweh's covenant were repeated (chaps. 14-15, 17, 19-24). Assurances that Yahweh would provide covenant leaders/mediatorskings, priests, and prophets were explicated (17:14-18:22). Following this expansion on the law, with repeated references to the blessings that followed obedience (see esp. chap. 8), Moses reiterated the call to Yahweh's people to be holy, to obey and walk with Yahweh, and to be set in praise, fame, and high honor above all people ( 26:16-19 ).
Integral to a covenant, in addition to the Lord's self-presentation, review of deeds, stipulations and call to obedience, and assurance/promises were the blessings and curses. Moses emphatically presented these; first he stressed the curses ( 27:14-26 ), which were to be repeated by the Levites and to which the people were to respond with "Amen" (so it shall be). Moses summarized the blessings ( 28:1-14 ; 30:1-20 ) he had referred to before. In graphic detail he related what curses to expect if the people were disobedient ( 28:15-68 ).
Before Moses concluded his "covenant-reminding addresses, " he ordained Joshua as his successor ( 31:1-8 ), wrote what he had preached and had it placed in the ark ( 31:9-29 ), wrote a song in which Yahweh's character and deeds were extolled and Israel's failures and the tragic consequences of these ( 32:1-43 ), and pronounced a blessing on the Israelites (chap. 33). He then told the Israelites that as they were standing before Yahweh, they were in covenant with Yahweh because Yahweh confirmed his covenant made first with the patriarchs.
Joshua reconfirmed this same covenant with Israel after they had taken possession of Canaan. He reviewed Yahweh God's work on their behalf ( Joshua 24:1-13 ). He called on them to fear and serve Yahweh with all faithfulness ( 24:14-23 ). The people responded, "We will serve and obey" ( 24:24 ). Joshua wrote the decrees and laws, undoubtedly as these applied to the circumstances of settled life in "The Book of the Law of God." Joshua did not alter what Moses had written; he repeated, expanded, and made relevant to the new situation what Yahweh had given through Moses.
In the times of the Judges, Yahweh assured Israel that he would never break his covenant made with the forefathers ( Judges 2:1 ). Israel repeatedly broke the covenant, yet Yahweh remained faithful. He provided deliverance when the people repented and called on him. There are no biblical references to ceremonies of covenant renewal, although some scholars consider Samuel to have led in a covenant renewal at Gilgal. This was when Saul was confirmed king and Samuel made his farewell address ( 1 Sam 11:14-12:25 ). This renewal marked a definite progress in Yahweh God's revelation. As with each covenant-expanding, -renewing, and -confirming ceremony, additional revelation had been given by Yahweh, so significant added revelation was given in the time of Samuel and David. It pertained particularly to the role of a royal covenant mediator in the person of a king as promised through Moses. Samuel initiated the process of covenant expansion and renewal by the covenant renewal at Gilgal and the anointing of David as Yahweh's chosen king ( 1 Sam 16:1-13 ).
The climax of added revelation and expansion of God's covenant came when Yahweh addressed David through Nathan the prophet ( 1 Sam 7:1-17 ). The revelation to David commenced with a reference to how Yahweh had dwelt with his people since Mosaic times. Here there is a direct tie-in with the patriarchal covenant that was expanded and ratified at Sinai ( 7:5-8 ).
Essential features in the expansion of the covenant with David are as follows. David the shepherd was chosen to be king ( 7:8 ; cf. Psalm 78:70-72 ). The covenant formula "I have been with you" was repeated. Yahweh gave him victory. David's name was to be great. A place was to be given, and victory, rest, and peace were assured. Seed would continue after him. Sons would be kings. The throne of the kingdom of the son was to be established forever. Yahweh would be His father; he, David his son. Wickedness would be punished (curse of covenant). Yahweh's love would never leave (bond of love is assured). This covenant made with David was an initial fulfillment of Jacob's prophecy concerning Judah ( Gen 49:8-12 ) that a ruler would come forth from him. The fuller and complete fulfillment of Jacob's prophecy and Nathan's to David was realized in Jesus Christ, the mediator of the new covenant.
David's son Solomon expressed his awareness and loyalty to Yahweh and the covenant with the Davidic dynasty in the first years of his reign. He did this particularly when he dedicated the temple; the temple gave permanent expression to the covenant promise, "I am your God; I will be with you." Most of the kings succeeding Solomon, with exceptions such as Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, and Josiah, were covenant breakers. They were not to be considered excusable or ignorant because the psalms, many written in the period of the kingdom, called attention to the covenant (at least 20 times). Even more so, the prophets called on the kings and the people to remember the one, all-embracing creation and redemptive/ restorative covenant, with all its wonderful elements and serious warnings.
The kings of Judah, like Ahaz, ignored, disbelieved, and rejected the prophetic warnings, but Yahweh through his covenantal spokesman, the prophets, continued to hold his promises concerning his covenant and the promised mediator of the covenant before the people.
The prophets had repeatedly warned that Yahweh would uphold his covenant with persistent covenant breakers and despisers by executing the curse of the covenant on them. Jeremiah eloquently warned of impending doom by destruction and dispersion.
The New Covenant. Jeremiah, prophesying that the curse of the covenant would surely be executed by means of the exile, also prophesied concerning the sure continuity of the covenant (30:1-33:26). He gave absolute assurance that Israel and Judah would be brought back from captivity ( 30:3 ); Yahweh would restore blessings ( 30:18 ; fortunes NIV). He would love them with an everlasting love and continue to be Father to them ( 31:3-9 ). Yahweh would give cause for tears to dry and hope for the future ( 31:15-17 ) because Israel would be replanted ( 31:27-30 ). A renewed covenant would be confirmed ( 31:31-34 ). This covenant would be as sure and inviolable as Yahweh's covenant with David, the Levites ( 33:15-18 ), and creation ( 33:19-26 ). As he spoke of the renewed covenant he did so in the context of Yahweh's covenant with creation, the patriarchs ( 33:21 ), Israel at Sinai and in the desert (Levites taken as a part of the whole), and David ( Jeremiah 33:15 Jeremiah 33:26 ). Jeremiah does not speak of a discontinuity of past covenants. He makes it clear that Yahweh's covenant made, expanded, and administered in various situations, is one continuing covenant. A time is coming when the covenant would be renewed, expanded, and applied in a radically new way. Hence he spoke of what is translated as the "new covenant" with Israel and Judah ( 31:31 ) that would not be like the covenant made at Sinai ( 31:32 ). Some important points must be stressed: (1) The Hebrew term translated "new" basically refers to what was there before but appears in another (new, renewed) form like the moon, appearing as full, changes in appearance and is spoken of as the new moon. (2) A main aspect of the covenant with the patriarchs, Israel, and David will characterize the future covenant. "I will be their God, and they will be my people" ( 31:33b ). (3) The law will continue to be an integral aspect ( 31:33a ) but it will be internalized in the minds and hearts of the covenant people. (4) Yahweh remains the same; he is a forgiving and forgetting God ( 33:34 ).
The renewed covenant for the future will uphold the promises made throughout the Old Testament period. The greatest change will be in regard to the administrator of the covenant. No longer will this one be a Moses, a David, a high priest, or a great prophet like Isaiah. Jesus Christ, who had been typified by these Old Testament mediators, will be the Mediator of the covenant. He will inaugurate, fulfill, and permanently establish the renewed covenant. He did this by becoming the High Priest who offered himself as the Passover Lamb. He capsulized all this by his "I am" statements ( John 4:26 ; 6:35 ; 8:12 ; 9:5 ; John 10:7 John 10:9 John 10:11 John 10:14 ; 11:25 ; 14:6 ; John 15:1 John 15:6 ) by which he identified himself with Yahweh, who, when he called Moses to be the mediator in the Old Testament era said, "I am who I am" ( Exod 3:14 ) and "this is my blood of the covenant" ( Matt 20:28 ). The Book of Hebrews expands on how Jesus and his blood are essential elements of the new covenant (9:11-10:18).
The renewed covenant Jeremiah prophesied was ushered in by Jesus Christ. It inaugurated the entire New Testament era, covers it entirely, and reaches into the eternal reign of Christ and the Father. The latter part of that renewed covenant that reaches into the future, the eternal state when heaven and a renewed earth are joined into regained and consummated Eden. This is inferred to be Ezekiel as the covenant of peace (34:25). This covenant is to be a complete consummation of the creation covenant. Fields will not longer have wild beasts; forests will be places of security; showers of blessing will fructify the orchards and fields ( Isa 11:6-9 ). This covenant of peace will be initiated, fulfilled, and consummated by the promised descendant of Judah referred to by Isaiah as the shoot and branch of David ( 11:1 ), and as the divinely provided One shepherd, David, Yahweh's servant's Son ( Eze 34:24 ). The life-love bond established by God when he created the cosmos and placed Adam and Eve as his mediators in Eden, attacked by Satan and broken by humanity, ever maintained by Yahweh, will be fully restored, enriched in every respect, and fully realized under the mediatorial service of Yahweh's Son, Jesus Christ.
Gerard Van Groningen
Bibliography. H. Buis, The Encyclopedia of Christianity, 4:219-29; W. J. Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation; W. Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, vol. 1; M. J. Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority; idem, The Treaty of a Great King; D. J. McCarthy, Old Testament Covenant; T. E. McComiskey, The Covenants of Promise; J. Murray, The Covenant of Grace; O. P. Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants; G. Van Groningen, MessianicRevelation in the Old Testament; G. Vos, Biblical Theology; J. Zinkand, Covenants: God's Claims.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Covenant'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".