Covenants in the Bible
[Reading time: 12 minutes] The Greek word translated “covenant” in the New Testament also refers to a testament, as the word is translated in older versions. So the Old Testament in the Bible focuses mainly on the covenant God made with Israel, but also includes other covenants, as we’re about to discover in this article. Similarly, the New Testament in the Bible focuses on the new covenant Jesus made with those who follow him, which is the subject of the remaining articles in this series.
In this article, we’ll examine covenants people made with others, covenants God made with people, and even two with nature. By examining these, we’ll discover how powerful covenants are and see the impact they’ve had historically and still have today.
Covenants Between People
People have been making covenants throughout recorded history for three main reasons. Human alliances or treaties are the types of covenants affecting the largest number of people and they fall into two categories: parity and suzerain. Two groups of people – such as members of different clans or nations – might choose to make a covenant for their mutual benefit. This would be a parity covenant because the groups essentially would be equals or peers. Instead, if one group dominated another, possibly by defeating them in battle, they might make a suzerain covenant or treaty in which the superior, dominant group would dictate the terms. Such an arrangement would guarantee protection and other benefits to the weaker party. Our relationship with God is a suzerain covenant because he provides everything we need and we have nothing of value to offer other than our gratitude and loyalty.
Individuals might make a covenant out of devotion to each other, as David and Jonathan did. Another historical reason individuals might make covenant was for business purposes. Today we would consider them business partners.
Let’s examine some biblical examples of covenants between people. The following Old Testament verses use the Hebrew word, berit, translated as a covenant, treaty, compact or agreement. Some Bible versions use “contract,” but covenants and contracts in western cultures are not the same. (see What is a Covenant?)
One of the earliest examples of covenants in the Bible is a treaty between Abraham and Abimelek, king of the land where Abraham settled for a while. Abimelek’s servants seized a well Abraham had dug, so Abraham brought the matter to Abimelek’s attention because water resources were scarce. To avoid an open conflict, the two made a treaty (Gen. 21:27, 32) and swore an oath of kindness to each other (vv. 23-24).
Abraham’s grandson, Jacob worked for Laban 14 years to marry his daughters, then several more years at Laban’s request. However, Laban grew distrustful of him, so Jacob took his family away in secrecy, but Laban caught up with them and confronted him. To settle their dispute and agree that neither would harm the other, they made a covenant (Gen. 31:44-54). In this passage of Scripture, we see several covenant elements: they set up a pillar and heap of stones as evidence and reminders of the agreement, they took an oath, offered a sacrifice and shared a meal.
The legally binding nature of covenants is obvious in Joshua’s covenant with the people of Gibeon. The Gibeonites deceived Joshua and the Israelites by pretending to be representatives of a distant country wanting to make a peace treaty. A few days later, however, the Israelites discovered the alleged representatives of a distant country were Israel’s neighbors. The men of Israel wanted to attack them because of their deception, but Joshua and the leaders had sworn an oath to the Gibeonites and refused to let them attack (Josh. 9:15-19).
After the death of Saul, king of Israel, there was war between the people loyal to King Saul and those loyal to David. After Abner rose to power in Israel, he sent messengers to David offering an agreement (berit) with him (2 Sam. 3:6, 12-13). The two of them met and made a compact (berit) that would allow David to rule over all of Israel (2 Sam. 3:20-21). Later, all the elders of Israel went to David, who made a compact with them and became king over Israel (2 Sam 5:3).
The most thorough description of a covenant between individuals in the Old Testament is about the one between David and Jonathan. Jonathan was King Saul’s son and rightful heir to the throne. Saul originally treated David with honor but became afraid of him and eventually tried to kill him. As Saul became more determined to kill David, Jonathan became “one in spirit with David” and “loved him as himself” (1 Sam. 18:1). The Bible records several of Jonathan’s actions that were common to covenant-making: giving David his robe, tunic, sword, weapon belt and bow (1 Sam. 18:3-4). Jonathan later included all their descendants in the covenant (1 Sam. 20:42). When David learned Saul and Jonathan had died in battle, he responded: “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women”(2 Sam.1:26). In our perverted thinking today, we might think this implies a sexual relationship, but that’s not what David was describing. Instead, this shows the powerful bond these covenant brothers had for each other. Jonathan loved David as himself and David’s statement shows he felt the same way toward Jonathan. This is the strength of a covenant bond. After David became king of Israel, he “spared Mephibosheth son of Jonathan, the son of Saul, because of the oath before the LORD between David and Jonathan” (2 Sam. 21:7). This also was a common element of ancient covenants – making the covenant blessings available to future generations.
The Old Testament reveals that God considers marriage a covenant. In the Book of Malachi, he explained why he no longer looked favorably on men’s offerings. “It is because the LORD is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant” (Mal. 2:14). Covenants require witnesses to be legal, and God stated he was a legal witness to men’s marriage covenants with their wives. Also, “The man who hates and divorces his wife … does violence to the one he should protect” (Mal. 2:16); protection of one’s covenant partner is an important covenant element. Despite any cultural beliefs to the contrary, marriage is a covenant, not a contract.
God’s Covenants with People
Any covenant God makes with people is a suzerain covenant and he sets the covenant’s terms. People can only accept or reject the covenant in its entirety.
God had a unique relationship with the first humans he created, Adam and Eve; often called the Adamic Covenant. The Book of Genesis uses covenant language and identifies several typical elements of one, but doesn’t call their relationship a covenant; however, the Book of Hosea does (Hos. 6:7). Adam and Eve shared an identity with God, having his image and likeness (Gen. 1:26). He blessed them and gave them authority to rule over the world he created and all its wildlife (vv. 26, 28). He provided for their needs, including all the food they would ever need (v. 29). Some common covenant elements don’t appear in this one, such as defense and exchanging names, because they weren’t relevant. He did include a curse for violating one specific command; they were not to eat the fruit of a certain tree (Gen. 2:17). They violated the covenant by disobeying that command and caused all their descendants (all of humanity) to be born in sin. Despite that tragic ending, this covenant reveals God’s highest purpose for humanity – an intimate, functional relationship. It’s his nature to create, love, nurture, provide for and protect his people; not because of who we are, but because of who he is.
Genesis Chapter Six explains how the human race became so wicked that “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5) and God planned to destroy them. However, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time” (Gen. 6:9). This cannot mean he was without sin, because since the fall of Adam no one has been free from sin except Jesus. Rather, this indicates Noah’s character and behavior were far superior to anyone else’s on earth at the time, and he even conformed to God’s standards. As a result, God made special provision for him and his family. We’re familiar with the story of the flood and the ark, but many of us don’t realize God made a covenant with Noah, often called the Noahic Covenant (Gen. 6:18; 9:8-9). In related passages, we find several covenant elements: a sacrifice (8:20); vows (8:21-22; 9:11, 15); blessings (9:1-2, 7); provision (9:3); visible evidence (9:12-13); even a curse (9:4-6).
The next covenant we see in the Book of Genesis is the one God made with Abram, later known as Abraham. After Abram rescued his nephew Lot, captured at Sodom during a military attack, he refused to accept any of the spoils of war (Gen. 14:22-24). “After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward’” (15:1). The Hebrew word translated “reward” refers to a form of payment such as wages or compensation, in contrast to the spoils of war Abram could have received earlier. While God’s reference to being Abram’s shield and reward were relevant to what had just happened, it may also have been a prelude to the covenant he was about to make with him. Pledges of protection and blessing of wealth are typical covenant elements. God then promised Abram’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky (15:5); another pledge of covenant blessing. Because God created the earth, it belongs to him (Gen. 1:1; Ps. 89:11), so pledging to give Abram a specific part of it (Gen. 15:7) would be a covenant blessing of sharing one’s possessions. God then instructed Abram to sacrifice certain animals, which Abram cut in two and arranged the halves opposite each other (15:9-10), a common practice in ancient covenants. God made a covenant with him that day – often called the Abrahamic Covenant – and defined the boundaries of the land he would give Abram’s descendants (15:18-21), part of which is the current nation of Israel. Years later, the Lord reappeared to Abram (a name possibly meaning “exalted father”) to affirm the covenant and change his name to Abraham (sounds like the Hebrew for “father of a multitude” or “father of many nations”; 17:2-5); changing one’s name is another common covenant practice. This covenant would be an everlasting one for his descendants for generations to come and the land would be theirs as an everlasting possession (17:7-8). Notice the covenant and possession of the land were to be “everlasting,” which has the sense of an unending length of time, not just a long time. Also notice there is no stated requirement for the descendants to remain faithful to the covenant; it’s irrevocable, not dependent on their actions.
These points are relevant to us today, not just academically interesting, because we’re included among Abraham’s descendants. God “redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:14). Paul the apostle wrote, “the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring – not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all” (Rom. 4:16). That’s because “those who have faith are children of Abraham,” the “man of faith” (Gal. 3:7, 9). The mystery hidden for ages is that through Jesus, non-Jews would be heirs with Israel to share in God’s blessings (Eph. 2:14-19; 3:6). As we’ll discover in our investigations of the new covenant, it will include both Jews and Christians but they’ll receive different blessings and responsibilities.
After Israel entered the Promised Land, the people asked God for a king and he appointed Saul and then David as the king of Israel. Because David was a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22), was known for his integrity (1 Kings 9:4) and kept the Lord’s commands (1 Kings 15:5), God made an extraordinary covenant with him (Ps. 89:3). He’d give him strength and protect him from the wicked and his enemies (Ps. 89:19, 22-23). God promised he’d be the most exalted of all kings on earth (Ps. 89:27) and have a ruling dynasty of descendants (Ps. 89:4, 29; Jer. 33:20-21, 25-26). God would punish those who violated the covenant, but the covenant would be unconditional and everlasting, because he’d never withdraw his mercy (2 Sam. 23:5; Ps 89:28, 30-33, 35-37; Jer. 33:20-21). Due to his personal integrity and the covenant God made with him, David is the standard for godly behavior and leadership.
God’s Covenants with Israel
After the Israelite people had lived in Egypt 430 years and become a nation of slaves, they cried out for God to deliver them. Based on his covenants with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, he responded to their descendants’ groaning (Exod. 2:24-25; 6:5) and selected Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt (3:1-2, 10). On their way to the Promised Land, God led them to the mountain where he’d met with Moses: Horeb, the mountain of God (3:1). There, God made a covenant with them and used Moses as an intermediary; this often is called the Mosaic Covenant. God introduced the covenant and the people took an oath to obey it (19:5-6, 8), then he presented the covenant terms – the ten commandments plus additional laws and instructions (20:1-17; 21:1-23:33). He later confirmed the covenant and the people vowed they would do everything the Lord said (24:3, 7). They created visible evidence of the covenant by setting up 12 stone pillars representing the 12 tribes (24:4), performing fellowship offering sacrifices and sprinkling the blood on the people (24:5-6, 8). The nation’s leaders ate a meal commemorating the covenant (24:11). Chapters 25 through 31 provide more detailed instructions relevant to the covenant. The Book of Leviticus includes more covenant details, including blessings for honoring the terms (Lev. 26:3-13) and a curse for violating them (26:14-39). This is the covenant God made with Israel before they sinned and spent the next 40 years wondering in the wilderness until that generation died. It’s God’s nature to enter covenant relationship with humanity, whom he created in his image and loves. So he honored his word to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob by making covenant with their descendants, even though the people turned away and worshiped pagan gods.
After the first generation of Israelites who left Egypt had died in the wilderness for flagrantly disobeying God, Moses led the younger generation to the border of the land God promised their ancestors. But because Moses misrepresented God to the people, God only allowed him to see the land from a nearby mountain peak (Deut. 3:25-27). At the border, God made covenant with the people and commissioned Joshua, Moses’ assistant, to take Moses’ place of leadership. The covenant included many typical covenant elements: terms and instructions (25 chapters); a pledge of strength and protection (7:1-2); a visible memorial (27:2-3); sacrifice offerings and a covenant meal (27:7); blessings for honoring the terms (28:1-13); curses for violating them (28:15:24); and including their descendants (28:46).
Some scholars suggest this covenant was a review of the one made 40 years earlier, because of what Moses said. “The LORD our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. It was not with our ancestors that the LORD made this covenant, but with us, with all of us who are alive here today” (Deut. 5:2-3), referring to the younger generation. However, after detailing terms to that generation, Deuteronomy indicates this was a different covenant. “These are the terms of the covenant the LORD commanded Moses to make with the Israelites in Moab” – that is, those about to enter the Promised Land – “in addition to the covenant he had made with them at Horeb” – that is, everyone who left Egypt, including those who died in the wilderness (29:1). Maybe Moses’ statement was based on his mistaken perspective, but it seems likely these were separate covenants presented to different generations. It’s significant that the second covenant refers to the “land” of the new nation nearly 200 times in the Book of Deuteronomy, calling it a blessing and giving instructions for its care and usage. Descriptions of the first covenant provide about half as many references to the land, all of which are general. So there are important differences between the two.
Some religious leaders believe Israel’s rejection of Jesus as Messiah and their insistence on his crucifixion violated their covenant, so it’s no longer in effect. These leaders suggest the church has replaced Israel forever in God’s plan. However, Scripture is clear that “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:25-26). More than that, “God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable” (v. 29). We Christians often apply that last verse to ourselves, which is appropriate, but the context clearly shows it applies specifically to the Jews. Despite their failures and rejections of their covenants with God, he has not written them off. Quite the opposite!
God has taken an oath to make a new covenant with Israel (Jer. 31:31; Eze. 36:36). Instead of putting the covenant terms in writing, he’ll put them in people’s minds and hearts, so they’ll be motivated to keep his laws, the covenant terms (Jer. 31:33; Eze. 36:27; 37:24). He’ll share an identity with them; he’ll be their God and they’ll be his people (Jer. 31:33; 32:38; Eze. 36:28; 37:27). He’ll bless them by forgiving their wickedness, cleansing them from all their impurities, and not keeping a record of their sins (Jer. 31:34; Eze. 36:25; 37:23). He’ll bless them with prosperity (Eze. 36:29-30, 34-35), and by doing only good for them (Jer. 32:40-41). He’ll include their descendants (Jer. 31:36; 32:39; 37:25). These are typical covenant elements. The future, new covenant with Israel will be earth-based as were their original covenants. God’s commitment to Israel hasn’t changed throughout history.
If this new covenant with Israel is the same as the new covenant Jesus initiates in the New Testament, then the covenant’s terms are different for Jews and non-Jews. Israel will continue to have an earth-based existence. The church will be kings and priests, ruling with Jesus over both the physical and spiritual realms (1 Cor. 6:2-3; 2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 5:10). Two different groups covered by different covenant terms, sharing the glory of an everlasting covenant relationship with God.
God’s Covenants with Nature
Early in human history, wickedness had become so severe on earth that God caused a flood to wipe mankind from the face of the earth (Gen. 6:5-7). But Noah was a righteous man (v. 9) and God protected him, his family and animals from the destructive flood with an ark. After the flood waters receded, God made a covenant with Noah, his family and the animals with them on the ark, assuring them he would never again destroy the earth with a flood (9:8-11). The visible evidence of that covenant is the rainbow (vv. 12-13, 17).
It’s interesting that God also will include nature in his future covenant with Israel. “In that day I will make a covenant for [Israel] with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the creatures that move along the ground. Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land, so that all may lie down in safety” (Hos. 2:18).
Yes, humanity is God’s most prized creation and he honors us by bringing us into the highest, most powerful relationship possible for us to have with him. He also values the physical creation he produced for humanity and will bless it and all its living creatures with a covenant when he reigns on earth. Not just for its own sake, but as a blessed, everlasting environment for all of humanity and an appropriate physical domain for the King of kings and Lord of lords.