Covenant (biblical)

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A biblical covenant is a religious covenant that is described in the Bible. All Abrahamic religions consider biblical covenants important. Of the covenants found in the Pentateuch or Torah, the Noahic Covenant is unique in applying to all humanity, while the other covenants are principally agreements made between God and the biblical Israelites.

In the Book of Jeremiah, verses 31:30-33 predict "a new covenant" that God will establish with "the house of Israel". Most Christians believe this New Covenant is the "replacement" or "final fulfilment" of the Old Covenant described in the Old Testament and as applying to the People of God, while a minority believe both covenants are still applicable in a dual covenant theology.

Noahic covenant

Noah's Thanksoffering (c.1803) by Joseph Anton Koch. Noah builds an altar to the Lord after being delivered from the Flood; God sends the rainbow as a sign of his covenant.

The Noahic covenant[Gen 9:8-17] applies to all of humanity and to all other living creatures.[1] In this covenant, God promises never again to destroy all life on Earth by flood[9:11] and creates the rainbow as the sign of this "everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth".[9:12-17]

Abrahamic covenant

The covenant found in Genesis 12-17 is known as the Brit bein HaBetarim, the "Covenant Between the Parts" in Hebrew, and is the basis for brit milah (covenant of circumcision) in Judaism. The covenant was for Abraham and his seed, or offspring,[2] both of natural birth and adoption.[3]

In Genesis chapters 12–17 three covenants can be distinguished based on the differing Jahwist, Elohist and Priestly sources.[4] In Genesis 12 and 15, God grants Abraham land and descendants but does not place any stipulations (unconditional). By contrast, Gen. 17 contains the covenant of circumcision (conditional).

1. To make of Abraham a great nation and bless Abraham and make his name great so that he will be a blessing, to bless those who bless him and curse him who curses him and all peoples on earth would be blessed through Abraham.[Gen 12:1-3]
2. To give Abraham's descendants all the land from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates.[Gen 15:18-21] Later, this land came to be referred to as the Promised Land (see map) or the Land of Israel.
3. To make Abraham the father of many nations and of many descendants and give "the whole land of Canaan" to his descendants.[Gen 17:2-9] Circumcision is to be the permanent sign of this everlasting covenant with Abraham and his male descendants and is known as the brit milah.[Gen 17:9-14]

Covenants in biblical times were often sealed by severing an animal, with the implication that the party who breaks the covenant will suffer a similar fate. In Hebrew, the verb meaning to seal a covenant translates literally as "to cut". It is presumed by Jewish scholars that the removal of the foreskin symbolically represents such a sealing of the covenant.[5]

According to Weinfeld, the Abraham covenant represents a covenant of grant, which binds the suzerain. It is the obligation of the master to his servant and involves gifts given to individuals who were loyal serving their masters. In the covenant with Abraham, Abraham is promised land because he obeyed God and followed his directions. In the covenant with Abraham in Genesis XV, it is God who is the suzerain who commits himself and swears to keep the promise. In the covenant there are procedures of taking the oath, which involve a smoking oven and a blazing torch. There are many similarities between Genesis XV and the Abba-El deed. Genesis XV and similarly in the Abba-El deed it is the superior party who places himself under oath. Also the oaths in both involve a situation where the inferior party is delivering the animals while the superior swears the oath. The Abraham covenant is part of a tradition of covenantal sacrifices, which dates back to the third millennium B.C. The animals that are slaughtered in the covenant in Genesis XV are considered a sacrificial offering. The covenant in Genesis XV preserve the sacrificial element alongside the symbolic act.[6]

Mosaic covenant

The Ten Commandments on a monument on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol

The Mosaic covenant, found in Exodus 19-24 and the book of Deuteronomy, contains the foundations of the written Torah and the Oral Torah. In this covenant, God promises to make the Israelites his treasured possession among all people[Exo 19:5] and "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation"[Exo 19:6], if they follow God's commandments. As part of the terms of this covenant, God gives Moses the Ten Commandments. These will later be elaborated on in the rest of the Torah.

The form of the covenant resembles the suzerainty treaty in the ancient Near East.[7] Like the treaties, the Ten Commandments begins with Yahweh's identification and what he had done for Israel ("who brought you out of the land of Egypt"; Ex 20:2) as well as the stipulations commanding absolute loyalty ("You shall not have other gods apart from me"). Unlike the suzerainty treaty, the Decalogue does not have any witness nor explicit blessings and curses.[8] The fullest account of the Mosaic covenant is given in the book of Deuteronomy.

God gave the children of Israel the Shabbat as the permanent sign of this covenant.[Exo 31:12-17]

Priestly covenant

The priestly covenant[9] (Hebrew: ברית הכהונהbrith ha-kehuna) is the covenant that God made with Aaron and his descendants, the Aaronic priesthood, as found in the Hebrew Bible and Oral Torah. The Hebrew Bible also mentions another perpetual priestly promise with Phinehas and his descendants.[10][11]

Davidic covenant

The Davidic covenant[2Sam 7] establishes David and his descendants as the kings of the united monarchy of Israel[Jer 33:17-21] (which included Judah). The Davidic covenant is an important element in Jewish messianism and Christian theology. In Jewish eschatology, the messiah is believed to be a future Jewish king from the Davidic line, who will be anointed with holy anointing oil, gather the Jews back into the Land of Israel, usher in an era of peace, build the Third Temple, have a male heir, re-institute the Sanhedrin and rule the Jewish people during the Messianic Age.

The unconditional gift

In the book of Psalms in the Bible, there are many passages of God referring to David as his son. There is a formulaic expression of adoption in the scriptures of God drawing in those that are saved as his sons and daughters. Scripture says "I will be his father and he shall be my son," (2 Samuel 7:14, 1 Chronicles 17:13) which directly correlates to a judicial gifting of eternal life and dwelling with the God most High. So the very understanding of sonship in the scriptures is the very basis for evidence of why kings like David, received this unconditional gift of eternal life. There is a grace that will be bestowed upon his children even in the midst of their sins.

Christian view

Christian theologian John F. Walvoord maintains that the Davidic covenant deserves an important place in determining the purposes of God and that its exegesis confirms the doctrine of a future reign of Christ on earth.[12] While Jewish theologians have always held that Jesus did not fulfill the expectations of a Jewish messiah, the position of conservative Christian theologians is almost unanimous that Jesus fulfills the Davidic covenant, the provisions of which Walvoord lists as:

  1. David is to have a child, yet to be born, who shall succeed him and establish his kingdom.
  2. A son (Solomon) shall build the temple instead of David.
  3. The throne of his kingdom shall be established forever.
  4. The throne will not be taken away from him (Solomon) even though his sins justify chastisement.
  5. David’s house, throne, and kingdom shall be established forever (2 Samuel 7:16).[12]

Connecting biblical covenants to Ancient Near Eastern treaties

There are two major types of covenants in the Hebrew Bible, including the obligatory type and the promissory type. The obligatory covenant is more common with the Hittite peoples, and deals with the relationship between two parties of equal standing. In contrast, the promissory type of covenant is seen in the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants. Promissory covenants focus on the relationship between the suzerain and the vassal and are similar to the "royal grant" type of legal document, which include historical introduction, border delineations, stipulations, witnesses, blessings, and curses. In royal grants, the master could reward a servant for being loyal. God rewarded Abraham, Noah, and David in his covenants with them.[13] As part of his covenant with Abraham, God has the obligation to keep Abraham's descendants as God's chosen people and be their God. When taking this oath we see that God is accompanied by a smoking oven and a torch. These were objects used in the procedure of taking an oath much like oaths that involved sacrificing animals while taking the oath. God acts as the suzerain power and is the party of the covenant accompanied by the required action that comes with the oath whether it be fire or animals in the sacrificial oaths. In doing this, God is the party taking upon the curse if he does not uphold his obligation. Through history there were also many instances where the vassal was the one who performed the different acts and took the curse upon them.[6]

Terminology of covenants

Weinfeld believes that similar terminology and wording can connect the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants with ancient Near Eastern grants, as opposed to being largely similar to the Mosaic covenant, which, according to Weinfeld, is an example of a suzerainty treaty. He goes on to argue that phrases about having a "whole heart" or having "walked after me [God] with all his heart" strongly parallels with Neo-Assyrian grant language, such as "walked with royalty." He further argues that in Jeremiah, God uses prophetic metaphor to say that David will be adopted as a son. Expressing legal and political relationships through familial phraseology was common among Near Eastern cultures. Babylonian contracts often expressed fathership and sonship in their grants to actually mean a king to vassal relationship.[14]

Further underlying the idea that these covenants were grant-like in nature is the similar language used in both. In the grant of Ashurbanipal, an Assyrian, to his servant Bulta, he describes Bulta's loyalty with the phrase "kept the charge of my kinship." Abraham similarly kept God's charge in Genesis 26: 4-5: "I will give to your descendants all these lands...inasmuch as Abraham obeyed me and kept my charge, my commandments, my rules and my teachings."[15]

Furthermore, in Jeremiah, God says, through prophetic metaphor, that David will be adopted as a son. Expressing legal and political relationships through familial phraseology was common among Near Eastern cultures. Babylonian contracts often expressed fathership and sonship, in their grants to actually mean a king to vassal relationship.[16]

Dissolving covenant form

According to Mendhenhall, pressures from outside invaders led the loosely bound Israelite tribes to converge into monarchical unity for stability and solidarity. He also argues that during this consolidation, the new state also had to unify the religious traditions that belonged to the different groups to prevent dissent from those who might believe that the formation of a state would replace direct governance from God. Therefore, Mendenhall continues, these loosely bound tribes merged under the Mosaic covenant to legitimize their unity. They believed that to obey the law was to obey God. They also believed that the king was put into power as a result of God's benefaction, and that this accession was the fulfillment of God's promise of dynasty to David. Mendenhall also notes that a conflict arose between those who believed in the Davidic covenant, and those who believed that God would not support all actions of the state. As a result, both sides became relatively aloof, and the Davidic covenant and the Mosaic covenant were almost entirely forgotten.[17]

New Covenant

The New Covenant is a biblical interpretation originally derived from a phrase in the Book of Jeremiah, in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is often thought of as an eschatological Messianic Age or world to come and is related to the biblical concept of the Kingdom of God.

Generally, Christians believe that the New Covenant was instituted at the Last Supper as part of the Eucharist, which in the Gospel of John includes the New Commandment. A connection between the Blood of Christ and the New Covenant is seen in most modern English translations of the New Testament[18] with the saying: "this cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood".[19]

Christians see Jesus as the mediator of this New Covenant, and that his blood, shed at his crucifixion is the required blood of the covenant: as with all covenants between God and man described in the Bible, the New Covenant is considered "a bond in blood sovereignly administered by God."[20] It has been theorized that the New Covenant is the Law of Christ as spoken during his Sermon on the Mount.[21]

See also


  1. Jenkins, Everett (2003). The creation: secular, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim perspectives analyzed. Jefferson, NC: McFarland. p. 283. ISBN 0-7864-1042-6.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "Blue Letter Bible: Dictionary and Word Search for zera` (Strong's 2233)". 2011. Retrieved 2011-11-21.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Genesis 17:11-13 And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed. He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.
  4. Michael D. Coogan, A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 62–68
  5. "Circumcision." Mark Popovsky. Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion. Ed. David A. Leeming, Kathryn Madden and Stanton Marlan. New York: Springer, 2010. pp.153-154.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Weinfeld, M. (1970). "The Covenant of Grant in the Old Testament and in the Ancient near East". Journal of the American Oriental Society. 90 (2): 196–199.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Kline, Meredith. "Deuteronomy". The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary
  8. Michael D. Coogan, "A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament" page 103, Oxford University Press, 2009
  9. Qumran and Jerusalem: studies in the Dead Sea scrolls p248 Lawrence H. Schiffman - 2010 This priestly covenant is also echoed in the poem in 1QM 17:2-3 that re- fers to the eternal priestly covenant. ... Num 18:19).57 That the priestly “covenant of salt,” a biblical expression denoting a permanent covenant,58 is to be ...
  10. Jewish Encyclopedia: Phinehas: "...for this act he was approved by God and was rewarded with the divine promise that the priesthood should remain in his family forever (Num. xxv. 7-15)."
  11. Jewish Encyclopedia: Covenant: "The term "berit" ... refers chiefly to God's covenant made with Israel, and with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Phineas, and David (Derek Ereẓ Zuṭa, i., end)."
  12. 12.0 12.1 Walvoord, John F. "Eschatological Problems VII: The Fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant." Web: 19 Mar 2010. Eschatological Problems VII: The Fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant
  13. Weinfeld, M. (no date) Normative and Sectarian Judaism in the Second Temple Period. United States: T & T Clark International.
  14. Weinfeld, M. (n.d.). "The Covenant Grant in the Old Testament and Ancient Near East". American Oriental Society.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Weinfeld, M. (April–June 1970). "The Covenant of Grant in the Old Testament and in the Ancient near East". American Oriental Society. 90 (2): 186–188.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Weinfield, M. (April–June 1970). The Covenant of Grant in the Old Testament and in the Ancient near East (PDF) (Vol 90 ed.). Jerusalem: American Oriental Society. pp. 184–203. Retrieved 5 March 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Mendenhall, George E. (September 1954). "Covenant Forms in Israelite Tradition". The Biblical Archaeologist. New Haven, Conn.: The American Schools of Oriental Research. 17 (3): 70–73. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. but not in the KJV for example
  19. Luke 22:20
  20. This definition of covenant is from O. Palmer Robertson's book The Christ of the Covenants. It has become an accepted definition among modern scholars. See this critical review of his book by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon.
  21. George R. Law, “The Form of the New Covenant in Matthew,” American Theological Inquiry 5:2 (2012).

Further reading

  • Paul Fiddes (1985). 'Covenant - Old and New', in P. Fiddes, R. Hayden, R. Kidd, K. Clements, and B. Haymes, Bound to love: the covenant basis of Baptist life and mission, pp. 9-23. London: Baptist Union.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Truman G. Madsen and Seth Ward (2001). Covenant and Chosenness in Judaism and Mormonism. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. ISBN 0-8386-3927-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links