Covenant (biblical)

Covenant (biblical)

Covenant, meaning a solemn contract, oath, or bond, is the customary word used to translate the Hebrew word berith (ברית, Tiberian Hebrew bərîṯ, Standard Hebrew bərit) as it is used in the Hebrew Bible, thus it is important to all Abrahamic religions. The equivalent word in the Septuagint and the New Testament is diatheke, see also Strong's G1242

In theology and Biblical studies, the word "covenant" principally refers to any of a number of solemn agreements made between God and the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible, as well as to the New Covenant, which Christians consider to be the final fulfillment of these. Christians typically use the term "Old Covenant" to collectively refer to the covenants described in the Old Testament.

God's covenants with the Israelites are foundational to the Torah, as well as to the Tanakh in general, and form the grounds for the claim that the Israelites are God's "chosen people." According to the terms of these covenants, the Israelites were told that they must worship God and obey His Commandments in order to receive spiritual and temporal blessing and avoid exposure to the effects of the curse. When the word "covenant" is used in this sense, the agreement is essentially unilateral, since while the covenant's outworkings are dependent upon human response, its terms are dictated by God. By contrast, at many points in the Hebrew Scripture, human covenants are made - in such covenants, the terms are agreed upon mutually.

Biblical covenants

Noahic Covenant

The Noahic Covenant, found in Genesis , applies to the whole of humankind. In this covenant, God:

  1. blesses Noah and his sons, i.e. all modern humankind ()
  2. places all plants and animals under human command ()
  3. forbids eating meat with the blood still in it ()
  4. forbids murder ()
  5. commands humankind to practice capital punishment for murderers ()
  6. promises that He will never again destroy all life on earth by flood ()
  7. creates the rainbow as the sign of this covenant for all ages to come ()

On this topic, Jubilees chapter 7, verses 20-28 (part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Bible but generally considered to be 2nd century BC Jewish apocrypha) states:

And in the twenty-eighth jubilee [1324-1372 A.M.] Noah began to enjoin upon his sons' sons the ordinances and commandments, and all the judgments that he knew, and he exhorted his sons to observe righteousness, and to cover the shame of their flesh, and to bless their Creator, and honour father and mother, and love their neighbour, and guard their souls from fornication and uncleanness and all iniquity. For owing to these three things came the flood upon the earth ... For whoso sheddeth man's blood, and whoso eateth the blood of any flesh, shall all be destroyed from the earth.

Abrahamic Covenant

The Abrahamic covenant is found in . In this covenant, God promises:

  • To make of Abraham a great nation and to bless those who bless him and curse those who curse him and all peoples on earth would be blessed through Abraham ()
  • To give Abraham's descendants all the land from the river (or wadi) of Egypt to the Euphrates (). Later, this land, the Promised Land, or parts thereof, was named the Land of Israel.
  • To make Abraham a father of a great many nations ()
  • To give Abraham and his male descendants circumcision as the permanent sign of this everlasting covenant ()

Traditional Jewish interpretation, and that of most Christian commentators, define Abraham's descendants only as Abraham's seed through his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob. Johann Friedrich Karl Keil is less clear, as he states that the covenant is through Isaac, but notes that Ishmael's descendants have held much of that land through time.

Paul of Tarsus believed that the promise was further defined, for example writing in : "Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as of many, but as of one, “And to your Seed,” who is Christ."

Covenant with Lot

The covenant with Lot is a covenant independent of the Abrahamic Covenant. God promises the land of the Moabites (Ar) and the land of the Ammonites to the descendants of Lot as a possession (). David and Solomon were only allowed to rule over these lands as third and fourth generation descendants of Ruth, a Moabite.

Covenant with Jacob

God specifies a continuation of the Abrahamic covenant with Jacob in a dream, and promises:

  • To give him and his descendants the land on which he is lying.
  • That his descendants will be like the dust of the earth.
  • That all peoples on earth will be blessed through him and his offspring.
  • To watch over him wherever he goes.

Mosaic Covenant

The Mosaic Covenant, beginning in Exodus , contains the foundations of the Torah. In this covenant, God promises:

  • To make the Children of Israel His special possession among all people if they obey God and keep His covenant ()
  • To make the Children of Israel a kingdom of priests and a holy nation ()
  • To give the Children of Israel the Sabbath as the permanent sign of this covenant ()

As part of the terms of this covenant, God gives Moses the Ten Commandments. These will later be elaborated in the rest of the Pentateuch. The fullest account of the Mosaic Covenant is given in the book of Deuteronomy, the form of which resembles an Ancient Near Eastern suzerainty treaty . Many Christians believe that the Sermon on the Mount is a form of commentary on the Ten Commandments. See also Biblical law in Christianity.

The Israel Covenant

The Israel Covenant (Deuteronomy 29:1-29 and Deuteronomy 30:1-10), also called the Palestinian covenant , is a conditional covenant between God and the Children of Israel. After warning that Israel will be dispersed among the nations, and conditional to Israel's repentance, return to God, and obedience to the Mosaic law, God promises:

  1. To regather Israel from its dispersion.
  2. To bring the Israelites to the land which their fathers possessed (here named Land of Canaan).
  3. To prosper the Israelites above their fathers.
  4. To restore the Israelites spiritually so that Israel will love the Lord with all their heart and soul.
  5. To put all the curses of Israel upon Israel's enemies.

Davidic Covenant

The Davidic covenant, found in , establishes David and his descendants as the rightful kings of Judah. In Christian theology, the Davidic covenant is an important element of Jesus's claim to be the Messiah, see also Nativity of Jesus. According to Christian theology,there are ten features of the Davidic Covenant, all of which prefigure the coming of the Christ, or Messiah.

National Covenants

National covenants by the nations of Israel and Judah can be found in texts such as ; ; (Josiah), , ; ; ; . National covenants were often associated with times of spiritual renewal or revival.

In later history, texts such as these have been used to justify political alliances such as that between the Scottishl Covenanters and the English Parliamentarians, memorialized in the Solemn League and Covenant.

Personal Covenants

Personal covenants or commitments abound in the Scriptures and are prominent in the Psalms. They may be prefaced with expressions such as "I will". One example is: "I will praise thee, O LORD, with my whole heart; I will shew forth all thy marvellous works" (). Another is: "I will extol thee, my God, O king; and I will bless thy name for ever and ever. Every day will I bless thee; and I will praise thy name for ever and ever" ().

New Covenant

The New Covenant has never been a significant feature of Jewish eschatology, other than the belief that eventually all Jews will know and follow the Torah without the need to study (). For example, the article Jewish Encyclopedia: New Testament states: "The idea of the new covenant is based chiefly upon Jer. xxxi. 31-34 (comp. x. 16). That the prophet's words do not imply an abrogation of the Law is evidenced by his emphatic declaration of the immutability of the covenant with Israel (comp. ); he obviously looked for a renewal of the Law through a regeneration of the hearts of the people."

Christians claim that they are God's New Covenant people, on the basis of prophecies such as Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Isaiah 49:8 At the Last Supper, Jesus alludes to these prophecies, saying that the cup of the Passover meal is "the cup of the New Covenant in [his] blood" This is an eschatological claim, since he is implicitly asserting that the Old Testament rituals of atonement are fulfilled in him .

The Epistle to the Hebrews, of the books of the New Testament, is the most explicit about how the Death and Resurrection of Jesus inaugurates the New Covenant. Throughout the book, the covenants prior to Christ's coming, and their associated rituals and sacrifices, are contrasted with the state of affairs promised in passages such as Jer. 31:31-34 . Christ's death and resurrection is portrayed as a priestly work which puts an end to sacrifice , thus bringing permanent peace whereas previous covenants could not eliminate bloodguilt . Most Christians believe the era of permanent peace (see also Messianic Age) will be initiated with Jesus' Second Coming.

The Apostle Paul, in his letters, also considers Christ's death to mark the beginning of a new covenant era. In this era, he claims, the traditional barriers between Jew and Gentile are broken down. Both are approved by God on the basis of faith . However, he also warns Gentile believers in Jesus (whom he views as the Jewish Messiah) not to boast in their newfound acceptance by God, for they have been "grafted in" to the covenantal tree whose root is in the promises to national Israel .

Sometimes the New Covenant is referred to as the New Testament, on the basis of passages such as Heb. 9:16, in its traditional translation. This usage reflects the Vulgate, in which the word "covenant" was translated testamentum. Biblical scholars, such as O. Palmer Robertson, have argued against this translation, however, since the word testamentum, in Latin, expresses the concept of a "last will," not an agreement between two parties sealed with a self-maledictory oath See also Jewish Encyclopedia: Covenant: The Old and the New Covenant


Further reading

  • Truman G. Madsen and Seth Ward Covenant and Chosenness in Judaism and Mormonism. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. ISBN 0838639275.

See also

External links

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