Promises, Promises: The Concept of Covenant and Why We Should Care
A couple recently went into a title company to close escrow on a new house. After they were shown into the small, silent conference room, they waited in nervous anticipation for the escrow officer to appear with their papers. Time seemed to drag on until the escrow officer finally arrived. As the couple stood to greet him, the agent said sternly, We need to talk. It’s come to our attention that on your loan application you either lied or made some huge omissions. You’ve violated your contract with the bank on several counts. The deal is off!”
Anxiety overcame the couple as they sank to their seats, feeling absolutely defeated as their dreams for a new home seemed to fade to black.…
Covenants, contracts, binding agreements. How seriously are they taken? From major airline companies defaulting on their employees’ pension funds to journalists being less than trustworthy in their reporting, we’ve gotten used to people breaking their word. From, “Read my lips, no new taxes” to the escalating divorce rate, it’s no wonder that we’ve come to expect less from each other and ourselves when it comes to covenant-keeping. Cynicism seems inevitable when trust is such a scarce commodity.
And yet our Jewish people are known as “people of the covenant.” For many Jewish people, the idea that God has a covenant with us has been instilled in us since our formative years. Yet, how do we reconcile that fact with our daily life? And further, how are we to respond when some people tell us about a supposed “new covenant” that God has made? Does this mean that God has abandoned his ancient covenant with our people and cannot be trusted?
There are many people, including Jewish people, who deny the existence or relevance of the covenants as described in the Bible. But what if God still has a covenant with us? If he does, can we even trust him to “make good” on his promises?
Exploring the concept of covenant and the history of God’s covenants may have implications for how we live and understand the world, both now and in the future.
What is a covenant?
One of the first covenants God made was with the first Jew, Abraham. Covenants with Moses and David followed. Today, many Jewish people have ignored or given up on the covenant idea altogether, so it might be necessary to ask, what exactly is a covenant?
The Hebrew term for covenant, brit, is of uncertain derivation. It is most likely associated with the Akkadian word biritu, which means “clasp,” or “fetter,” denoting a binding settlement, or pact.
Some scholars see a covenant in terms of obligation imposed by a higher authority upon an inferior party.1 But brit also incorporates reciprocal agreements. Either way, it’s apparent that covenants were taken seriously. These agreements, both ancient and modern, aren’t unique to the Jewish people (see insert). We know from history that covenants have long been fundamental to any working society. And it’s in this context that God begins to make covenants with a particular people.
The Abrahamic Covenant
In Genesis 12, Abraham, the first Jew, enters into a relationship with God that will forever affect the future of the Jewish people. This relationship is commonly called the “Abrahamic covenant.”
1Now the LORD said to Abram,
“Go forth from your country,
And from your relatives
And from your father’s house,
To the land which I will show you;
2And I will make you a great nation,
And I will bless you,
And make your name great;
And so you shall be a blessing;
3And I will bless those who bless you,
And the one who curses you I will curse
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”
4So Abram went forth…thus they came to the land of Canaan…The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your descendants I will give this land.”
It’s interesting that this relationship is not expressed in covenantal terms (at first) but in terms of a promise.5 God promises to increase Abraham, to bless him, and to make him a blessing to all peoples of the earth. Later, the promise is reiterated for countless offspring, and for the land of Canaan as a possession (Genesis 15).
The promise is then sealed in a solemn covenantal ceremony in which the Lord himself—not Abraham—passes through sacrificed animals, binding himself to his promise in an extraordinary act of self-malediction.6 When compared to other ancient Near East covenants, this covenant most closely resembles the unconditional royal grant.7 But while royal grants were issued as a result of loyalty to the person bestowing the grant, God doesn’t choose Abraham based on any exemplary loyalty; Abraham only becomes significant after God chooses him.
In Genesis 17, God confirms his “everlasting” covenant with Abraham. The text says that Abraham is expected to walk before God and “be blameless,” and that he and his descendants must undergo circumcision (17:10) as a sign of this covenant, a token of the promise that YHVH will “be God to you and to your descendants after you” (17:7).8
The rest of the book of Genesis frequently shows God protecting his promises to his people, despite threats from both inside and outside the Israelite camp. This “promise covenant” is further established with Isaac and then with Jacob, before Israel makes the long sojourn into Egypt.
Mosaic, or Sinai Covenant
God never promised the Israelites that their lives would be free from tsuris. Four hundred years later, Israel is enslaved to the Egyptians. But God “remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob” (Exodus 2:24).
After the Exodus from Egypt, God makes a covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai. Through the mediation of Moses, God enters into a fresh covenant relationship with Israel. This covenant does not supercede the Abrahamic covenant; it elaborates upon it.
The Sinai covenant, which is unfolded in Exodus 19-24, emphasizes the responsibilities of the people to “keep” the covenant.9 However, God himself is still the suzerain (see insert).10 In Exodus 20:2 the prologue to the covenant reads, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt…” God reminds the people of all he has done for them and that he is a covenant-keeping God.
The principal stipulations of the covenant are the “ten commandments,” which may be seen to follow as consequences of the prologue. For example, one could read it this way: “[because] I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt…you shall have no other Gods before me.…” The commandments are phrased as future indicative verbs, not imperatives.11 The idea here is that obedience to God should be a natural outworking of gratitude to him for deliverance.
The ratification of the covenant is described in Exodus 24, where all Israel declares, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient” (verse 7). Then Moses sprinkled the blood of sacrificed animals on the people saying, “Behold the blood of the covenant…” (24:8). As before, the ratification of the covenant required sacrifice.
God promises that if Israel can keep his covenant, then they will be his special people (Exodus 19:5-6). Yet even if they should disobey, and receive the full brunt of the curses, God will not break his covenant; over and over in the Torah he always extends to Israel the offer for them to return:
…I will not reject them, nor will I so abhor them as to destroy them, breaking My covenant with them; for I am the LORD their God. But I will remember for them the covenant with their ancestors, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God. I am the LORD. (Leviticus 26:44-45)
God goes so far as to say that he himself will someday circumcise the hearts of the people of Israel and their descendants, that they might love him with all their heart and soul (Deuteronomy 30:4-6).
God’s covenant with Israel is really the expression of his love for a particular people and his desire to receive their love in return.12 He binds himself to the destiny of Israel, even though we as a people continue to disobey him. What other leader would continue to reiterate his promises to people who have displayed such a penchant for breaking their word?
God repeatedly offers grace to his people in the Hebrew Scriptures. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the life of King David. As Abraham was promised a son and countless descendants, so God promises David a dynasty and an heir whom God considers a son, whose throne will be established forever (2 Samuel 7).
Then David commits grievous sins, including adultery and murder. But God does not turn away from him or from his promises to Israel. Even at the collapse of the Davidic dynasty, the prophets still looked forward to a time when God’s promises would be fulfilled, including the arrival of this promised heir of David (Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15; Ezekiel 34:23-24).13
This covenant perpetuates, even fulfills, the promise to Abraham in that, through David’s heir, all peoples of the earth will be blessed. Isaiah declares that this figure will not only restore the tribes of Jacob, but he will be a light to the Gentiles, bringing God’s salvation to the ends of the earth (49:6).
Yet the prophets had their hands full proclaiming this to a nation that once again, turned away from her covenant commitments to God and therefore, suffered the consequences of disobedience.
At the brink of destruction and Babylonian exile, all seems lost for the apostate Israelites. The prophet Jeremiah receives word that there is yet to be a restoration (31:1-30). But how can the nation be renewed in view of their chronic apostasy?14 The answer is provided in Jeremiah 31—God must step in.
The New Covenant
God takes it upon himself to reach out again to his covenant people:
“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…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…for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
In essence then, God still desires to reveal himself by means of torah, but no longer as an externally enforced written law code. Instead, the will of God is to be internalized, placed within the mind and written on the heart (v. 33).
It was not the original covenant (or the “law”) that was deficient, but humanity’s inability and unwillingness to obey it.15 It’s a pattern begun when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. However, God’s faithfulness is bigger than humanity’s unfaithfulness. Whereas the Sinai covenant was continually breached, it will be impossible to breach the new covenant, because the new covenant is entirely dependent on God, not on people.16
What is truly new about the new covenant is the means by which it will be accomplished. God says, “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (v. 34b). When God “remembers,” he does not merely exercise “the power of psychological recall”; he takes action. God “remembered” Noah and caused the waters to abate (Genesis 8:1); God “remembered” Hannah (1 Samuel 1:19), and gave her a son; God “remembered” his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Exodus 2:24), and delivered Israel. In this case, by not remembering, Jeremiah means that sin itself will be a thing of the past, its consequences ultimately nullified.
The Culmination of the Covenants
The new covenant does not do away with the previous covenants. Actually, it’s people’s hearts that have been the objects of God’s affection all along. From the beginning, God’s central goal has been: “I will be your God and you will be my people.”17 God has always sought our obedience, not because we had to, but because we wanted to out of love for him. Consider these phrases from the Tanakh:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:5)
“These words…shall be on your heart” (Deuteronomy 6:6)
“So circumcise your heart…” (Deuteronomy 10:16)
“…love the Lord your God, and always keep…His commandments” (Deuteronomy 11:1)
Such language speaks of an ideal relationship, but one unattainable because no person can keep all of the law all of the time. God knows that we humans are inclined to turn to our own ways. And so he intervenes.
Like the Abrahamic covenant, the new covenant promises are ratified in blood. And once again, it is God who makes the sacrifice. He provides the means by which we can keep this new covenant. How? The answer is provided for us in the New Testament portion of Scripture. As he and his followers were celebrating Passover, remembering what the Lord had done in Egypt, Yeshua (Jesus) claimed to be the mediator of this new covenant:
And when [Jesus] had taken some bread and given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:19-20)
This covenant was ratified in Jesus’ personal sacrifice for the sins of the world and his resurrection from the dead. The punishment for sin is conclusively dealt with. Our responsibility is to accept the terms of this new covenant, to recognize that God is a holy God and that we are unholy. It is our Creator who makes the rules and not ourselves. And when we break those rules, we must approach God the way he has determined.
Conclusion: What does God want from us?
Think back to the couple at the title company. They’ve been dishonest. They’ve violated their contract. What if instead of showing them the door, the escrow officer said, “Look, you know what? You messed up, but the bank has thought it over and has decided to hold up its end of the bargain. So go ahead, let’s sign the papers, and you can have the house.” Can you imagine the couple’s gratitude? Chances are, they’d be willing to do whatever they could to satisfy the bank.
God chose the Jewish people for himself and sustained us throughout the millennia. “The great civilizations throughout history—the Greeks, Persians, Babylonians and Romans—all exist today as only an archaeological relic. Yet the Jewish people—even in the face of incredible persecution, and exile to the four corners of the world—thrive and flourish to this day.”18 Tolstoy wrote, “The Jew is the emblem of eternity.” When King Louis XIV asked the philosopher Pascal for proof of a supernatural force in the world, Pascal answered, “Why, the Jews, Your Majesty.”
What if God, our creator and sustainer, has determined that the way to him is through Yeshua (Jesus)? What if the covenants in Scripture point to a carpenter?
Under the new covenant a right relationship with God can be a living reality, not through following a list of rules, but through having a right heart. And we know we can trust God for this right heart, because he’s kept his word up to this day. His promises should fill us with hope, even in an age of skepticism.
We live in a world that is largely dependent on agreements, pacts and treaties to keep some semblance of order. Some of these agreements last longer than others. Eventually the terms are compromised in some way. Yet, each of us has the opportunity to take part in a pact with our Creator that will last forever and live with the assurance of promises that will never be broken.
The vast number of Hittite and Assyrian treaties and law codes that date from the first and second millennium attests to the fact that covenants were important in the Ancient Near East.2
As an example, the Hittite suzerainty, or vassal-treaty, was typically made between a suzerain (superior) and a vassal (party that is subservient to the suzerain). The typical structure of this type of agreement included a preamble that identified the parties involved, a prologue that recounted the past, stipulations that the vassal was to obey, and “blessings and curses” that described the detailed consequences of obedience and disobedience. The treaty was deposited in the temple of a local deity and was understood as having been witnessed by that deity.
Two further elements include “the ratification ceremony,” where an animal sacrifice signifies the fate of the disobedient subject (enacting a formal oath); and “the imposition of the curses” in the event of a transgression.3
Among the other extant Ancient Near East covenant forms was the “Fealty Oath,” which stressed the curses imposed on the disobedient. It was characterized by dialogue form. Then there was the “Royal Grant,” in which gifts are bestowed unconditionally upon individuals for distinguished loyalty to their masters.4
- Weinfeld 1977:255
- McConville 1997:747
- Mendenhall & Herion 1992:1180-1182. The last two elements are not found in the LB Age treaties, but are implied by parallels from other cultures of the ancient world.
- Ibid., 270
- McComiskey 1985:59
- Ibid., 61
- Weinfeld 1977:270
- McComiskey 1985:145
- McConville 1997:749
- Weinfeld 1977:278
- Ibid., 1184
- McConville 1997:751-752
- Weinfeld 1976:191-192
- McConville 1997:752
- Dumbrell 2002:145
- Beckwith 1986:93, referring to Exodus 6:7; Leviticus 26:12; Jeremiah 31:33, etc.
- Quoted in “Eternal Nation” available at www.aish.com
Works consulted for this article
Beckwith, R. T. “The Unity and Diversity of God’s Covenants,” Tyndale Bulletin 38, 1987, pp. 93-118.
Brueggemann, W. Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes (Louisville; London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002).
Dumbrell, W. The Faith of Israel: A Theological Survey of the Old Testament, 2d ed. (Leicester: Apollos, 2002).
Eichrodt, W. Theology of the Old Testament, 2 vols. (London: SCM Press, 1961-1967).
Goldingay, J. Old Testament Theology, Vol. I: Israel’s Gospel (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2003).
McComiskey, T. E. The Covenants of Promise: A Theology of the Old Testament Covenants (Nottingham: IVP, 1985).
Kline, M. G. By Oath Consigned (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1968)
McConville, G. “(ber?t)” in W. A. VanGemeren (ed.) New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, vol. 1 (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1997), pp. 747-755.
Mendenhall, G. E. & Herion, G. A. “Covenant,” in D. N. Freedman (ed.), Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 1 (New York: Doubleday, 1992), pp. 1179-1202.
Weinfeld, M. “(ber?t)” in G. J. Botterweck and H. Ringgren (eds.) Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1977), pp. 253-279.
________. “Covenant, Davidic” in E. S. Bucke, (ed.), The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume (Nashville: Abingdon, 1976), pp. 188-192.
Missionary, NYC Leadership Team
Amer Olson is a senior missionary at the New York branch of Jews for Jesus. In addition to studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Amer received his theological training at All Nations Christian College. Amer’s wife, Paige, is also an artist. They have five children: Josiah, Abigail, Zechariah, Samantha and Benjamin.