Covenants

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            How does God have relationships with mankind? All relationships are built around individuals who have some sort of an agreement about what that relationship will look like. As we look to our relationship with God, we understand that there is an understanding of what that relationship should look like (a covenant) and that the covenant is made between God and man through representatives (representation) although each individual is responsible to live according to the covenant. From the very beginning, God related to mankind through a covenant relationship.[1] Michael Horton noted that “The church (in both testaments) is the covenant assembly. Even the image of the shepherd and the sheep was already a familiar analogy for the suzerain’s rule over and care for the sheep of his pasture—in other words, the various peoples under his patronage.”[2]

What Is A Biblical Covenant?

Grudem defined covenants in the Bible this way: “A covenant is an unchangeable, divinely imposed legal agreement between God and man that stipulates the conditions of their relationship.”[3] Covenant “is the instrument constituting the rule (or kingdom) of God, and therefore it is a valuable lens through which one can recognize and appreciate the biblical ideal of religious community.[4] An understanding of these agreements between God and man are essential for the an accurate understanding of the God’s work with mankind. The בְּרִית  is “a covenant, so called from the idea of cutting since it was the custom in making solemn covenants to pass between the divided parts of victims.”[5] The concept of “covenant” describes a convention, agreement, compact, etc., and may thus embrace a variety of agreements, from a treaty or league between two nations down to a contract between two persons. The Heb. term is used with the same latitude, though properly bĕrîth is employed only of the more important class of conventions, at the forming of which a religious rite was performed, by which the Deity was involved as a party to the covenant, or as the guardian of it.[6]

This relational aspect is so strong that it has been suggested that the word ְּרִית actually has to do with eating together. “But the idea suggested by Lee (Heb. Lex. h. v.) deserves attention, viz. that בְּרִית is strictly nothing more than an eating together, banquet, from בָּרָה No. 2, since among Orientals, to eat together is almost the same as to make a covenant of friendship. The Hebrews too were accustomed to eat together when entering into a covenant, see Gen. 31:54; and in this way we obtain an explanation of בְּרִית מֶלַח covenant (an eating?) of salt.”

            Covenants between God and man are similar to suzentry treaties in the ancient world in which a conquering king would graciously extend an offer to the conquered people to allow them to live if they agree to live according to the covenant. These covenants through which we have relationships with God are completely at Gods’ discretion. “The covenants were not the product of human wheeling and dealing—they were imposed and enforced by a sovereign God.”[7] We cannot initiate a covenant with God. “Probably for this reason the Greek translators of the Old Testament (known as the Septuagint), and, following them, the New Testament authors, did not use the ordinary Greek word for contracts or agreements in which both parties were equal (συνθήκη), but rather chose a less common word, διαθήκη (G1347) which emphasized that the provisions of the covenant were laid down by one of the parties only.”[8]

The Nature of Covenants

            The major covenants between God and man point to God being with mankind. Grudem noted “the essential element at the heart of all of them is the promise, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer. 31:33; 2 Cor. 6:16; et al.).”[9] This Gospel centeredness is important for our comprehension in the Old Testament as covenants are issued which ultimately point to Christ who would guarantee the final covenant agreement between God and mankind. This gospel centeredness of the covenants allow us to use the covenants between God and man to see the entire narrative of Scripture.

            The ancient Near Eastern context helps the Bible student to understand Biblical covenants. “The large number of international treaties preserved in texts from all over the ANE world is dramatic witness to the importance of covenants in ancient social and political life.”[10]

The Bible and the ancient Near East attest a structure of thought in which a god makes a covenant with a monarch and for a people. The monarch is the god’s son, or at least chosen one, and the people are the god’s people. The covenant includes two major features: the god commands or imparts laws that the monarch must implement for his people, and the god commands wars of conquest that will bring foreign peoples under the god’s dominion.[11]

The Egyptian’s “Pharaohs claimed that the sun god Ra, their father, commanded them to promulgate laws the god had in mind and in general to do what Ra was doing. ing. This meant the rule of ma-at (the just order the gods desire and make possible in the world) over Egypt and ultimately over all lands.”[12] The Sumerians believed “When Ningirsu, girsu, warrior of Enlil, granted the kingship of Lagash to Uru’inimgina, selecting him from among the myriad people, he replaced the customs of former times, carrying out the command that Ningirsu, his master, had given him.”[13] The world of the Bible was very much accustomed to understanding what a covenant was and what it meant to be a part of a covenant agreement

            This ancient Near Eastern process will be familiar to students of the Hebrew Bible. Mendenhall and Herion noted the familiar items of bread, wine, and anointing associated with covenants “there are references to such eating and drinking in the Mari documents, interestingly enough, referring specifically to the partaking of bread and (presumably) wine as well as anointing with oil as symbolic acts sealing important legal transactions (ARMT 8:13).”[14] The Old Testament Scriptures record the God of Heaven who chose to speak through a messenger to reveal his law and blessings to his chosen people. The chosen people then affirm their allegiance to the covenant. After the affirmation of allegiance, the people then begin to go forth and conquer in the name of God.

            The covenant relationship is certainly more than just a strict business agreement. There are deep emotional attachments in the covenants. “Besides the cultic aspects of covenant there are important analogies other than the treaty analogy which are used to elucidate the covenant or contractual relationship between Yahweh and his people, the marriage analogy and the father-son analogy.”[15] Hosea and Jeremiah (chapters 31 and 32) describe the Lord’s covenant with Israel as a marriage covenant which Israel has broken. The father-son analogy is seen in God’s own description of Israel in Exodus 4:22 when Moses was instructed to tell Pharaoh that Israel was God’s “firstborn son.” Isaiah 1:2 also records God’s lament over Israel “Sons have I reared and brought up, but they have revolted against Me.” In Jeremiah 3:22 God begged his “faithless sons” to return so that they would be healed.   

            The relational aspect of covenants is highlighted in the covenant meals associated with the covenants. “To the nomad or to the semi-nomad or even to the descendants of nomadic tribes the mention of food immediately suggests a covenant relationship between the partakers.”[16] The covenant meal is a major theme in all the covenant relationships in the Old Testament. “Eating and drinking together has been such a universal expression of social solidarities of various sorts that it is not surprising to find common meals appearing very frequently in connection with the creation of covenants, both in the ANE and in the biblical narratives.”[17]

            It does not appear explicitly in God’s covenant with Adam.[18] Melchizedek prepared a meal for Abraham when they met. Gideon prepared a meal for the angel of the LORD in Judges 6. Elijah ate the food given by God in 1 Kings 19. Exodus 24 records how Moses, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu saw God and ate with him. Prominent meals were present at the opening of the temple in 2 Chronicles 7; the reforms of Josiah in 2 Chronicles 25, and the revival of Israel when the Law was read in Nehemiah 8. McCree described this sacredness of the covenant meal beautifully when he wrote, “Loyalty, forgiveness of an injury done by a guest, care for the loved ones and of those who have eaten a covenant meal,—all these seem to spring from a common root. He that eats with another has G-od present as a third guest and, in a mysterious way, he and that other have actually a part of God within them.”[19]

            Another important facet of the covenants between God and man is that all the covenants are made for a group through a representative. God’s covenant with Adam in the Garden was for Adam and Eve (and perhaps all humanity). God’s covenant with Noah was for him and all his descendants. God’s covenant with Abraham was for all his descendants (i.e. all the faithful per Paul). God’s covenant with David was made to bless all the earth. God’s covenant with Israel (Jer. 31) was for all the peoples of the earth. God’s Christian covenant (the New Testament) is offered to all through the representative of Christ.

            Biblical covenants offer both blessings and curses. The Old Testament, especially in the Wisdom literature, focuses on blessings and curses as the result of choosing between life’s “two ways.” We may go the way of the curse or the way of blessings (Ps. 1). This is presented narratively as Israel is blessed in their obedience and suffer the curses as they are disobedient. This contrast between blessings and curses highlights the need for God’s grace and covenant faithfulness as he covers the transgressions of mankind with his grace through the blood of the sacrifice.  

What Are the Main Biblical Covenants?

Pactum Salutis

            The pactum salutis (covenant of salvation) refers to the covenant agreement made in eternity, not between God and man, but rather between the members of the Trinity. This could be called the “covenant of redemption.” This covenant is different than covenants between God and man because it is made between equals. The submission of the Son and sending of the Spirit is one of mutual agreement rather than yielding to a superior.  

            In this covenant, the Father agreed to send the Son (Jn. 17:2, 6). The Son would be the representative of humanity (Rom. 5:12-21). Jesus serves in Heaven as the covenant representative and mediator (Heb. 9:24). The Son agreed to this covenant and the incarnation allowed him to undertake the covenant responsibilities on behalf of humanity (Heb. 2:14-18). Jesus fulfilled the covenant perfectly on behalf of humanity (Heb. 10:7-9). The Holy Spirit applies the benefits of the covenant to the members of the covenant (Jn. 14:16-17, 26; Acts 1:8, 2:17-18, 33). Hence, Christians are “sealed with the Spirit.”

Adamic

            The first covenant was God’s covenant with Adam. Some have debated if this truly is a covenant relationship because the word for covenant is not found in that narrative. In Hosea 6:7, we see that the Israel violated the covenant just like Adam did. Romans 5:12-21, a significant passage for understanding covenants, sin, and representation, features Christ and Adam as both being representatives of the covenant. We see that covenant relationship must have existed because Adam and Eve broke the covenant stipulations (Gen. 1:28-30; 2:16-17) and suffered the verdict covenant (Gen. 3:14-24). This covenant is often called the Adamic covenant or the covenant of works since the keeping of the covenant was the way in which life was enjoyed (Rom. 7:10; Lev. 18:5; Gal. 3:12; Rom. 10:5).

Noahic

            The covenant with Noah was initiated by God as well. Genesis 6:5 records how “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”[20] God chose to extend grace toward Noah (Genesis 6:8). God reached down to Noah and began the covenant process. God made provision for Noah to enjoy a place of safety with God (Genesis 6:14) and made the promise of covenant relationship (Genesis 6:18). Noah’s wise agreement to the covenant is displayed in his obedience to God’s command (Genesis 6:22). The stipulations of the covenant are given in Genesis 8:20-9:17.

Abrahamic

            The covenant with Abraham was abruptly initiated by God in Genesis 12:1-3. God commanded Abraham to “Go forth from your country” (Genesis 12:1) and he would be blessed with a great land, a great legacy, great power, and a great heir (Genesis 12:2-3). Abraham yielded to the covenant by obeying the command to go (Genesis 12:4). Without God’s initiation to make the covenant relationship, Abraham would have continued as a son of Terah. But God changed Abraham’s life and all of history by initiating the covenant with his chosen man. This covenant is ultimately fulfilled in Christ and is enjoyed by Christians (Rom. 4; Gal. 3:7-4:7).

Mosaic

            God’s covenant with Moses and the people at Sinai (Exodus 19:24) is also initiated by God. “There is no way to describe adequately the canonical implications of Exodus 19–24. Everyone from Moses (Deut. 5:6-21), to Jeremiah (Jer. 7:1-15), to Jesus (Mt 5–7), to Peter (1 Pet 2:9), and every other Biblical writer who has anything to say about covenant, morality and relationship to God reflects directly or indirectly on this passage.”[21] The children of Israel had been languishing in Egyptian bondage for four centuries. God chose to intervene at his time and through his prepared spokesman. The covenant is extended to the people in Exodus 19:5-6 when God said, “Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” These words contain a clear demonstration of everything involved in Divine-human covenants. The covenant is initiated by God and is presented with both conditions and promises.

Davidic

            The Davidic covenant is recorded in 2 Samuel 7. The covenant promise is initiated by God and extended through the mediation of Nathan the prophet and began with the record of blessings which God had provided for the Israelites (2 Samuel 7:8-9). The covenant included God’s promise to dwell with David’s people in the sacred space of the temple which Solomon would build (2 Samuel 7:10). These actions were all initiated by God and the promises depended upon God. The Davidic covenant included the promise that would be fulfilled only after David’s death (2 Sam. 7:12). This highlights the corporate nature of covenants. Solomon, as he fulfilled the covenant and was part of the covenant’s fulfillment, was the one who enjoyed the covenant blessings promised to David.  This covenant promise also points to Christ who ultimately established the kingdom reign of God, built the house for God’s name, reigns on the throne of his kingdom, and is the Son.

Messianic or New Covenant Promise

            Finally, the covenant to enact a new covenant was also initiated by God. Jeremiah 31 records God’s declaration of joy for hi mourning people. That joy would come because God was going to enact a new covenant with the people which would be different than the previous covenants. Jeremiah 31:31-34 records God’s promise:

Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. ‘But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. ‘They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,’ declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.

This covenant promised to bring about those blessings which had been forfeited by the people’s sinfulness. “The human race is divided no longer between Jew and Gentile, but between those who are “in Adam” (under the covenant of law) and those who are “in Christ” (in the covenant of grace).[22]

Relationship of the Divine Covenants

The covenants in the Hebrew Bible do not replace one another in the Old Testament. Obviously, since Christ has come, all men are liable to the new covenant which Christ mediates (Heb. 8:13). Rather, they complement one another and progressively point to the Messianic age which would be governed by the New Covenant promised in Jeremiah 31. Carrick rightly stated that “No covenant superseded or nullified any previous covenant (cf. Gal 3:17-19). Each covenant advanced the previous without abrogating it. This is part and parcel of the process of progressive revelation.”[23] The consequences of the covenant which God made with Adam continue even today (Genesis 3:15-19). The covenant with Noah still stands. God’s promise to never again destroy the earth by flood remains (Genesis 9:11). The bow of God continues to be a reminder of the everlasting covenant God made with Noah (Genesis 9:16). All nations are forever under the blessing of God’s covenant promise to Abraham and David.

Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament covenantal trajectory. God promised there would be a covenant which was different from the Old Testament covenants to supersede the Old Testament covenants by fulfilling them (Jer. 31). “Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises” (Heb. 8:6). The Old Testament covenants are now obsolete. The New Covenant (New Testament) of Christ is now in effect (Heb. 8:13).

 The covenants were breached by mankind, but God remained faithful and upheld the covenant promises mercifully. This long-suffering led to the promise of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-37. The Messiah was to be the basis of God’s New Covenant promise (Isaiah 42:5-9). God said, “I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isaiah 42:6-7 ESV).

The future blessing of God through the Messiah is evident in God’s promises to Abraham and David. God made the covenant with Abraham with a view to the future day in which “all the families of the earth will be blessed” through Abraham’s descendant (Genesis 12:3). “There it is a unilateral relationship grounded in God’s self-imposed obligation. God takes the gracious initiative in reaching out to the first patriarch and lavishing on him promises of a great future, not for Abraham himself, but for his future family.”[24]

God’s covenant with David included the promise that God would “raise up your descendant after you, who will come forth from you, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Samuel 7:12-13). That promise ultimately applied to the Messiah. That throne would “endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16). The one who would sit upon the throne of David became an important theme. The covenantal relationship shared between the Davidic king and God is prominent in the Psalms (Psalm 2; 20;101). These Psalms present the Messiah, the Son of David, as being enthroned as King.

The main covenants of the Hebrew Bible work together to point to the future promise of life which God would grant to his people in the Messianic Kingdom. Jeremiah 31 looks beyond the covenantal system which Israel had enjoyed. “The Mosaic covenant will not be sufficiently flexible for the new age of divine grace, and so will be replaced.”[25] God would initiate a new covenant which would be mediated and enforced by the Messianic King. Jonathan Edwards noted that this new covenant would be based on a greater redemption and a greater redeemer. “I say, it is natural to suppose that this new covenant would not be a covenant founded on that redemption, but on some other, and far better, and more glorious redemption.”[26]

THE COVENANT OF CHRIST

God has given the world the new covenant through Christ so that the redeemed might have a relationship with him through that covenant. The failure of mankind in the Garden and the repeated failure of mankind to keep the covenants throughout Old Testament history demonstrates the need for a new covenant that relies upon God rather than mankind. There are many similarities between the New Covenant and the former covenants. There are also some differences. The parties to this covenant of grace are God and the people whom he will redeem. But in this case Christ fulfills a special role as “mediator” (Heb. 8:6; 9:15; 12:24) in which he fulfills the conditions of the covenant for us and thereby reconciles us to God. (There was no mediator between God and man in the covenant of works.)”[27]

Humans receive the covenant through faith.[28] This faith is active (Js. 2:24). To separate faith from faithfulness is a devastating error. The New Covenant of Christ rests on Christ’s perfect work but requires a faithful response by those who would be covenant members. Grudem noted: “But while the condition of beginning the covenant of grace is always faith in Christ’s work alone, the condition of continuing in that covenant is said to be obedience to God’s commands.”[29] This does not lead us to the extreme position of sinning that grace may abound (Rom. 6:1) or the other extreme of constant fear from the slightest imperfection (1 Jn. 1:7; Rom. 5:1). Though this obedience did not in the Old Testament and does not in the New Testament earn us any merit with God, nonetheless, if our faith in Christ is genuine, it will produce obedience (see James 2:17), and obedience to Christ is in the New Testament seen as necessary evidence that we are truly believers and members of the new covenant (see 1 John 2:4–6).[30]

The promise of life which Adam bartered for sin has been restored by Christ who redeemed his people through his life and the sacrifice of himself. Through the New Testament God can once again be in increasing fellowship with his people.[31]


[1] Hosea wrote,”וְהֵ֕מָּה כְּאָדָ֖ם עָבְר֣וּ בְרִ֑ית שָׁ֖ם בָּ֥גְדוּ בִֽי׃.” Beside the Scriptural designation of covenant for the original relationship, we see other fundamental aspects of the relationship point to it being a covenant relationship. Those covenant aspects are: initiation by God; provision by God for man; expectation of man by God; and the pronouncement of blessings or discipline.

              [2] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 715.

              [3] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004), 515.

            [4] George E. Mendenhall and Gary A. Herion, “Covenant,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1179.

[5] Wilhelm Gesenius and Samuel Prideaux Tregelles, Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2003), 141.

[6] Andrew Bruce Davidson, “Covenant,” ed. James Hastings et al., A Dictionary of the Bible: Dealing with Its Language, Literature, and Contents Including the Biblical Theology (New York; Edinburgh: Charles Scribner’s Sons; T. & T. Clark, 1911–1912), 509.

[7] William D. Barrick. “The Mosaic Covenant” The Masters Seminary Journal (10/2 Fall 1999):215.

              [8] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 515.

              [9] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 515.

[10] George E. Mendenhall and Gary A. Herion, “Covenant,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1180.

[11] Jeffrey J. Niehaus. Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology (Kindle Locations 482-485). Kindle Edition.

[12] Ibid., Kindle Locations 491-492.

[13] Cooper, Sumerian and Akkadian Royal Inscriptions, 71 (La 9.1.viiff). Cf. earlier, Thureau-Dangin, Die Sumerischen and Akkadischen Konigsinschriften, 52ff.

[14] George E. Mendenhall and Gary A. Herion, “Covenant,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1194.

[15] “Covenant in the Old Testament: The Present State of Inquiry” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly (July 1, 1965):18.

[16] Walter T. McCree “The Covenant Meal in the Old Testament.” Journal of Biblical Literautre (January 1, 1926): 120.

[17] George E. Mendenhall and Gary A. Herion, “Covenant,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1194.

[18] One may argue that God’s provision of food for Adam and Eve could be a covenant meal.

[19] Walter McCree:128.

[20] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Ge 6:5.

[21] Paul R. House, Old Testament Theology (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1998) 117.

              [22] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, 716.

[23] William D. Barrick. “The Mosaic Covenant” The Masters Seminary Journal (10/2 Fall 1999): 217.

[24] L. C. Allen, A Theological Approach to the Old Testament : Major Themes and New Testament Connections (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2104). Chapter 4 Electronic Edition.

[25] R. K. Harrison, Jeremiah and Lamentations: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 21, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 139.

[26] Jonathan Edwards, The “Blank Bible”: Part 1 & Part 2, ed. Stephen J. Stein and Harry S. Stout, vol. 24, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2006), 720.

              [27] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 519.

              [28] This does not mean belief by itself. Rather, Biblical faith that saves is never alone. When one believes, that person will immediately seek repentance, baptism, and faithfulness.          

              [29] Ibid., 519.

              [30] Ibid., 519.

[31]           [31] Grudem summarized this restoration of relationship: “God promised that he would be their God and that they would be his people. “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you” (Gen. 17:7). “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer. 31:33). “And they shall be my people, and I will be their God … I will make with them an everlasting covenant” (Jer. 32:38–40; cf. Ezek. 34:30–31; 36:28; 37:26–27). That theme is picked up in the New Testament as well: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (2 Cor. 6:16; cf. a similar theme in vv. 17–18; also 1 Peter 2:9–10). In speaking of the new covenant, the author of Hebrews quotes Jeremiah 31: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Heb. 8:10).” Grudem Systematic Theology, 520.  

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