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Covenants in the Old Testament

Julian Spriggs M.A.

The Bible is divided into two testaments. The word “testament” comes from the Latin translation of “covenant”.

Hebrew word for covenant

The word in Hebrew used for covenant is berith, which occurs 286 times in the Old Testament. The root of this word is difficult to determine for certain, but the word implies mutual obligation in a treaty, agreement, or promise, always in the context of a relationship. A covenant is a legally binding obligation, and was normally given with an oath, and witnessed by God. It remains legally binding for the period of time specified in the agreement. A covenant can therefore be defined as follows: “A legal framework for expressing, establishing and defining a relationship”.

The law of Moses is embedded within the covenant between God and Israel, and therefore should be seen primarily as a relational bond, rather than as a legal contract. A legal contract is a merely an impersonal business transaction, whereas a covenant is a means by which two people, groups or nations agree to relate to one another on a long-term basis.

Greek word for covenant

The Greek word is diatheke, used 270 times in the Septuagint to translate berith, where it retains the same meaning. “Diatheke” is used over thirty times in the New Testament, with the same meaning as the Hebrew “berith”. In some places in the NT, it has an additional meaning of a “testament” or “will”.

Three types of covenant

In the Old Testament, three different types of covenant are found. The differences between them have profound theological implications.

1. Parity covenant

The parity covenant was made between people of approximately equal status. The covenant was normally entered into willingly by both parties. It would be first proposed by one side, and then accepted by the other, before being sealed by an oath and eating a meal together. The two parties normally refer to each other as “brothers”, showing their equality. A parity covenant is only made between two human beings, never between God and his people.

One of the best examples of a parity covenant was the one made between King Solomon and King Hiram of Tyre (1 Kg 5). Hiram had previously made a friendly relationship with David (2 Sam 5:11), sending messengers, as well as carpenters and masons to build David a house. When Solomon became king, Hiram provided timber and gold to build the temple (1 Kg 5:9,14), and in return Solomon provided Hiram with food annually for his household (5:11). There was peace between them, and they made a treaty (5:12). Later Solomon had to give Hiram twenty cities in Galilee to pay his debts (9:11). However, Hiram was not impressed with them, and in his complaint, addressed Solomon as his brother (9:13), the typical language of a parity covenant.

Another example is the covenant between Abraham and Abimelech (Gen 21:22-34). Abimelech wanted to make an agreement with Abraham to guarantee their safety (v22-23). After a conflict over wells, Abraham gave sheep and oxen to Abimelech as a gift (v27), which sealed a covenant between them, sworn by an oath (v31), and the planting of a tree as a witness (v33). Another covenant was made between Isaac and Abimelech, which was sealed with a feast (Gen 26:26).

The covenant made between Jacob and Laban shows the process of making a covenant in patriarchal times (Gen 32:44-54). The first step is the proposal, when Laban called Jacob to make a covenant (v43-44) to ensure peace between them. Next is the anticipation of the acceptance of the covenant through eating a meal together and setting up a heap of stones as a witness (v45-47). Then the stipulations are given (v48-52), that Jacob is not to ill-treat Laban’s daughters (Leah and Rachel), and not to take any other wives, also they are not to pass the heap of stones to harm the other. The heap of stones marked the boundary between them. Finally the covenant was sealed by offering a sacrifice, swearing an oath before God, and eating a meal together (v53-54). The understanding of the covenant was such that once it was made, each partner knew they were safe, as it set the boundary between them.

Other parity covenants would include the very personal one made between Abraham and his trusted servant (Gen 24). Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac from his own family in Haran. To swear the covenant, he placed his hand under Abraham’s thigh (known as the bodily oath) (v2). Other parity covenants were made between different nations, including trade agreements (1 Kg 20:34).

2. Suzerainty Covenant

In contrast to the parity covenant, which is between two people of roughly equal status, the Suzerainty covenant is between two parties of very unequal status. The Suzerain or king imposes his covenant on a lesser power, making it a one-sided treaty imposed by a superior party on an inferior party. The suzerain normally refers to himself as “lord”, and his vassal as “son”.

The setting is of a king conquering a city then declaring that he is going to make a covenant with them. He might offer that city protection from enemies, food in famine, and resources to help upkeep. In return he demands one tenth of all their income, men to serve in his army and women to work in his courts or join his harem. The city had a choice to either accept the covenant or reject it. They had no power to change it. Acceptance was called obeying the covenant, rejecting it was called transgressing the covenant. There were severe threats of punishment for any transgressions.

Many suzerainty covenants have been found from the second millennium B.C. made by the Hittites. These normally have the same six basic elements. They begin with a preamble or title which identified the suzerain. The second element is a historical prologue giving the history of the relationship between the two powers, making the vassal obligated to the suzerain. The third and main part contains the stipulations, commanding loyalty to the suzerain and other vassals, and forbidding any other alliances, and requiring tribute to be paid to the suzerain. It can often be divided into two sections, with first general, then detailed stipulations. Fourth is a document clause instructing that the treaty be kept in the vassal’s sanctuary, and be read publicly at regular intervals. The fifth section is a list of witnesses, the gods of both the suzerain and the vassal are called upon to witness and enforce the treaty. The sixth contains blessings and cursings - blessings for obedience, and cursings for disobedience. Later Assyrian treaties from the first millennium BC were much harsher, only including curses without any blessings.

Nowhere in scripture does God make a parity covenant with anyone, but he did make a suzerainty covenant with his people (Ex 19:3ff, Deut 7:6). The whole book of Deuteronomy has the structure of a near-eastern suzerainty covenant of the Hittite nations. It begins with the preamble (1:1-5), followed by the historical prologue (1:6 - 4:43), then the general (4:44 - 11:32) and detailed (12:1 - 26:19) stipulations. The final sections are in a different order from other treaties: the blessings and cursings (ch 27-28), witnesses (ch 30-32), and the document clause (ch 31). God always referred to the covenant as “my covenant”, and never “our covenant”. The covenant and the book of the covenant are used as witnesses against the people (Deut 31:24-27).

The book of Deuteronomy is very important because it is the heart of God’s covenant with his people and the rest of the O.T. is built on it. The history books (Joshua to Kings) give the outworking of the blessings and cursings in history, depending on the level of obedience to the covenant and faithfulness to God. The prophets record the words of God through his prophets calling them to repent and come back to the covenant, and to be faithful to God, warning of judgement for continued disobedience, and blessing for obedience. The wisdom books, such as Proverbs, essentially show that it is the wise thing to do to be faithful to God’s covenant, and to live in the fear of the Lord.

The process of making a covenant can be seen in the covenant made between God and his people on Mt. Sinai (Ex 19 - 24). This process is similar to that followed by Jacob and Laban described above. The first step is the proposal of the covenant, when God called to Moses from the mountain, to tell the Israelites that he had brought them out of Egypt into his presence, and was now calling them to obey his voice and keep his covenant (Ex 19:3-6). The second step is the anticipation of acceptance of the covenant, when Moses summoned the elders and the people agreed to obey the Lord (Ex 19:7-8). Then the stipulations of the covenant are given, first summarised in the Ten Commandments (Ex 20), followed by more detailed stipulations in the Book of the Law (Ex 21 - 23). The covenant was finally sealed by an oath and a meal together (Ex 24:1-12), when the people swore an oath to obey the Lord. Sacrifices was offered, Moses gave a reading of the law, blood was sprinkled on the altar and on the people, and the people ate and drank.

The renewal of the covenant led by Joshua after the entry into the Promised Land can also be seen as following the same pattern as a Hittite suzerainty treaty (Josh 24). First is the preamble (24:2a), then the historical prologue (24:2b-13), then the general (24:14-15) and detailed (24:16-25) stipulations, then the document clause (24:26a), followed by the witnesses (26b-27). The blessings and curses are implied in (24:27). Scholars have also noted a partial parallel between Ex 20 and a Hittite suzerainty treaty.

3. Promisory Covenant (The Covenant of Grace)

This is a legally binding covenant that is given from one side only. The promises are made legally binding, whatever the recipient of the covenant does. One example of a promisory covenant was the covenant to release their Hebrew slaves (Jer 34:8ff), when they then broke.

The wonderful thing for us is that God also makes this type of covenant. God in his grace has made a covenant with man in his sin. This covenant becomes God’s self-imposed obligation for the deliverance of sinners. It is through this that the gracious promise is fulfilled, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people”. It has been defined as a “sovereign administration of grace and promise”. There is no contract or agreement, but only a dispensation of grace. Normally a response of faith and commitment is required.

He made a covenant of promise first to Noah (Gen 6:18), which continued the covenant originally made with Adam, then renewed it with Noah’s descendants after the flood (Gen 9:9). This covenant was based on the creation of mankind in God’s image, as ruler of creation (Gen 1:26-28). It also involved the establishment of the Sabbath rest (Gen 2:2-3), and a restriction placed on Adam not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17), which Adam disobeyed (Gen 3:6). In the covenant with Noah, God promised never to send another world-wide flood, and confirmed this with the sign of the rainbow (Gen 9:11-17). Some stipulations were altered to take account of the fall, including the eating of meat (9:3).

God made a covenant of grace with Abraham, promising him land, many descendants and being a blessing to the nations (Gen 12:1-3). The only thing Abraham had to do was to leave his home and travel to the place God promised to give him. Abraham fulfilled his side of this covenant when he believed God’s promise, “Abraham believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). Circumcision was later given as the sign of this covenant (Gen 17). This covenant was renewed with Isaac (Gen 26:3-5) and with Jacob (Gen 28:13-15).

The covenant with David was also a covenant of grace, when God promised that there will always be a son of David ruling in Jerusalem (2 Sam 7, Ps 89:3-4). After David expressed a desire to build a temple for God, Nathan the prophet brought the word from God that instead of David building God a house, God will build David a house (7:16). Instead of David it will be his son Solomon who will build a house for the Lord (2 Chr 22:10). This promise led to increasing focus on the city of David (Zion), and on the hope of an ideal king like David, the Messiah.

Two covenants

Through all of the Old Testament, we can see a tension between the covenants made with Abraham and David, and the covenant made through Moses. The promises made to Abraham and to David were guaranteed, but seemed to come under threat because of the nation’s disobedience and unfaithfulness. After the death of Solomon, the prophet Ahijah predicted that ten of the twelve tribes will be given to Jeroboam because of the unfaithfulness of Solomon (1 Kg 11:31), but one tribe will remain for the sake of David and for the sake of Jerusalem (11:32). Because of God’s promise to David (2 Sam 7), not all the nation will come under judgement for Solomon’s sin. The final exile in Babylon happened because of the persistent idolatry, fulfilling the curses of Deuteronomy, but there was still hope for the nation, because of the promise made to Abraham. The nation of Israel continually thought that God’s presence with them was guaranteed, but frequently ignored the conditions expressed in the law of Moses. Jeremiah addressed this complacency in his Temple Sermon, predicting that the temple will be destroyed because of their disobedience to the covenant (Jer 7).

Promise of the New Covenant

The new covenant is also a promissory covenant (Jer 31:31). The first covenant was continually broken through the people’s disobedience. Moses graphically demonstrated this when he broke the two tablets after the making of the golden calf (Ex 32:19). Jeremiah predicted the coming of a new covenant, which will be different (Jer 31:31-34). Instead of having conditions like a suzerainty covenant, it will be a covenant of promise, a covenant that God will make with his people. The new covenant will have three important differences: Firstly, it will be inward, when God will put his law on people’s hearts (v33), not on tablets of stone. Secondly, it will be universal, when all will know God from the least to the greatest (v34), and thirdly, it will include the forgiveness of sin (v34). God has committed himself to bring salvation to man. The only response required is faith and obedience, as in the original promise to Abraham. The great contrast between the old and new covenants is given in the Book of Hebrews (ch 8-9), where the passage in Jeremiah is quoted in full.

“Cutting a covenant”

The most common way of making a treaty involved the sacrifice and cutting up of an animal, implying that if one side broke the covenant, then the other party is given permission to do that to the offending party. There was an idiom in Hebrew “karat berit”, meaning “to cut a covenant”, which was probably derived from this custom of making covenants. To the people who broke their covenant by taking back their freed slaves, God said, “And those who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make like the calf when they cut it in two and passed between its parts” (Jer 34:18). This show the custom of making the covenant, as well as the penalty for breaking it.

God first made the covenant with Abraham in Gen 12:1-3, promising him land, many descendants and being a blessing to the nation. Later he renewed his promise and confirmed it with an oath (Gen 15). After telling Abraham to kill the animals and lay them out (v7-11), God put Abraham to sleep (v12), then the Lord renewed the promise (v13-16). While Abraham was still sleeping, a smoking fire pot and flaming torch passed between the pieces of animals (v17), and God made the covenant with Abraham (v18). As the one making the promise, God himself passed between the pieces of animals, guaranteeing the promise, and effectively saying to Abraham, “If I break this covenant, may this be done to me”, giving a graphic illustration of one-sided nature of the promisory covenant.

A sacred and solemn act

Making a covenant was a sacred and very solemn act, made before God, who took covenants extremely seriously. People were expected to keep the covenant at whatever cost to themselves, and it remained binding on subsequent generations.

Marriage is also a very personal form of a parity covenant, and taken very seriously. Malachi spoke against those who were divorcing their wives, described as “the wife of your youth”, and “your wife by covenant” (Mal 2:14). In the law of Moses, there was a much more severe penalty for adultery than for fornication because it broke the covenant of marriage. For fornication, the penalty was to pay money to the woman’s father, and to marry her (Ex 22:16-17, Deut 22:28), but for adultery the penalty was death (Deut 22:23ff).

David made a covenant of friendship with Jonathan (1 Sam 18:3). Jonathan was the rightful heir to the throne, therefore David was in danger as he was becoming popular (v7). Jonathan made a covenant relinquishing his claim to the throne. He gave some gifts (v4), a robe, armour, sword, bow and girdle. This was a sign of his commitment to David, not only would he not harm him, but he would serve him and come under his authority. With such a commitment, the relationship could continue without any suspicion on David’s part that the legal heir to the throne would remove his strongest contender. There was a further development of this covenant (1 Sam 20:21ff), when Jonathan makes David swear that he would not destroy Jonathan’s descendants as would normally happen when there was a change of reigning dynasty. When David came to make expiation for the death of the Gibeonites, Mephibosheth was protected because he was the son of Jonathan (2 Sam 21:7)

During the conquest of the Promised Land, Joshua unwisely made a covenant with the Gibeonites and their descendants, after they deceived him into believing that they lived far away (Josh 9:15). This was probably a suzerainty covenant, as the Gibeonites declared “we are your servants” (Josh 10:6). In the covenant, Joshua promised that the Gibeonites will not be destroyed like Jericho and Ai. The Gibeonites in turn agreed to become slaves of Israel (9:27). Gibeon became a high place where the tent of God was places (2 Chr 1:3), and the Gibeonites were included in the people of God, and able to build the wall with Nehemiah (Neh 3:7). Much later in history, Israel was suffering a famine (2 Sam 21). When David enquired of the Lord, he found out that Saul had killed some Gibeonites. The result was judgement on Israel for breaking the covenant made with them many years before, and as a penalty, Saul’s descendants were put to death (v8).

In the O.T. a covenant was held in very high regard, taken very seriously and was not to be broken. In the Psalms, David praised those, “who stand by their oath even to their hurt”, as those who may abide in the tent of the Lord (Ps 15:4).

Covenant lawsuit (rib)

Under a suzerainty treaty, if the vassal king had offended his suzerain through some act of rebellion, the suzerain sent a written legal document called a "rib" (pronounced “reev”), carried by a messenger. In this, the suzerain laid a legal charge against his vassal who had rebelled against a suzerainty treaty. This would warn of coming judgement through the enforcement of the curses in the original treaty. Several of these documents have been discovered by archaeologists in the Ancient Near East, showing that these lawsuits were used in the secular world.

The prophets portrayed Yahweh is the divine Suzerain summoning his vassal Israel to court to hear his verdict for breaking the covenant. Yahweh sent his prophet as his public prosecutor, declaring the case for the prosecution against Israel. The clearest example is found in Micah chapter six, and there partly obscured example in Jeremiah chapter two. Hoses declares that God is bringing an indictment (rib), “Hear the word of the LORD, O people of Israel; for the LORD has an indictment (brings a rib) against the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or loyalty and no knowledge of God in the land.” (Hos 4:1)

A covenant lawsuit normally had the following structure, containing five major sections, which can be seen in Micah chapter six: The first is an appeal to the vassal to listen, and a summons to the earth and sky to act as witnesses (6:1-2). This is followed by a series of questions implying an accusation of rebellion (v3), then a recitation of past benefits bestowed on vassal by the suzerain, and a statement of offenses by which the vassal has broken the treaty (v4-5). The suzerain then shows the futility of seeking help through other things, whether religious rituals, foreign gods, or other nations (v6-7). The lawsuit ends with a declaration of guilt and a threat of judgement.

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