Understanding Covenant, I: What is a Covenant?

Our God is a consuming fire; He can be dangerous, even among those who would be His people. Throughout the pages of Scripture we learn how God mediated His relationships with people in His creation through covenant agreements. Covenant thus represents a prominent and important theme in the Scriptures. We can better understand many things about God and His relationship with people through understanding covenant. Unfortunately, many have been led astray by their misunderstandings and distortions of the nature of covenants. We do well to explore covenants and what they mean; to do so, we must first understand what covenants are.

According to Webster’s dictionary, “covenant” in English is “a mutual consent or agreement of two or more persons, to do or to forbear some act or thing; a contract; stipulation; a writing containing the terms of agreement or contract between parties; or the clause of agreement in a deed containing the covenant; to enter into a formal agreement; to stipulate; to bind oneself by contract; to grant or promise by covenant. In English, a covenant is an agreement into which two parties enter, and by extension the documentation for that agreement.

In Hebrew “covenant” is berit, and the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon defines it as “covenant, alliance, pledge”. Berit can refer to covenants made between man and God, man with man, the marriage relationship, and other forms of alliances. Berit is related to the word for cutting; this is consistent with the particular Hebrew idiom used to describe the ratification of a covenant, katab berit, “to cut a covenant.”

Through research and archaeology we have been able to learn much regarding the types and nature of covenants prevalent in the ancient Near Eastern world. These covenants manifest a great number of similarities with covenants seen in the Scriptures.

Covenants involved two parties and mutual obligations. In the ancient Near East, two parties, often kings with their people or other kings (including the famous “suzerain-vassal” treaties, with the suzerain as the stronger king, and the vassal as the weaker king), and each side had various obligations to uphold to maintain the covenant.

Covenants are made between superiors and inferiors and between equals. We see that a king will make a covenant with his people or with a king of a lesser city, or pacts of mutual protection with kings of equal standing.

Covenants often involved protection and assistance. The necessity of covenant in the ancient Near East was acute as alliances and treaties are today: for a state to grow and prosper it must have agreements with other states, and for a king to have a profitable rule, a king must have an agreement with his people. As can be imagined, most covenants involved protection/assistance: a king would enter into a covenant with his people to protect them in exchange for their obedience and economic support, and such a king would also enter into a covenant with neighboring peoples to not attack them and to gain military assistance if necessary.

Covenants were dissolved at the will of either party and/or lack of fulfillment of obligation. When and if either side no longer desired to be within that covenant, or if one party in the covenant did not fulfill their obligation (obedience, for example, or withholding military assistance in time of need, or attacking the other party), the covenant was considered dissolved and neither side liable for the terms of the covenant.

Yet this conception of covenant, at least in cultural terms, seems to be a purely ancient Near Eastern phenomenon. The Greek language did not have any word which would communicate the specific force and nature of Hebrew berit. To this end the Greek translators of the Hebrew Bible appropriated the Greek word diatheke to translate berit in the Septuagint (LXX).

Thayer defined diatheke as “a disposition, arrangement, of any sort, which one wishes to be valid, the last disposition which one makes of his earthly possessions after his death, a testament or will; a compact, a covenant, a testament.” The history of diatheke is well explained in Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker’s lexicon: diatheke referred to compacts or contracts, promissory obligations, in the Attic period of Greek (until 332 BCE). In the period between 332 BCE and the LXX translation, diatheke referred exclusively to one’s last will and testament (BDAG, 3rd ed., p. 228). They explain the expansion of the meaning of diatheke as follows:

As a translation of berit in LXX, diatheke retains the component of legal disposition of personal goods while omitting that of the anticipated death of a testator. A Hellenistic reader would experience no confusion, for it was a foregone conclusion that gods were immortal. Hence a diatheke decreed by God cannot require the death of a testator to make it operative. Nevertheless, another essential characteristic of a testament is retained, namely that it is the declaration of one person’s initiative, not the result of an agreement between two parties, like a compact or contract. This is beyond doubt one of the main reasons why the LXX rendered berit by diatheke. In the ‘covenants’ of God, it was God alone who set the conditions; hence, “covenant” can be used to translate diatheke only when this is kept in mind. So diatheke acquires a meaning in LXX which cannot be paralleled with certainty in extra-Biblical sources, namely ‘decree,’ ‘declaration of purpose,’ ‘set of regulations,’ etc. (BDAG, 3rd edition, p. 288).

The translators of the Septuagint, therefore, felt compelled to expand the definition of diatheke in order to accommodate Hebrew berit, and used only within the Judeo-Christian religious literary context. Diatheke, originally only a compact, later a will or testament, would take on the meaning of “covenant.” Therefore, we must not project the Greek conception of diatheke as will or testament onto Hebrew berit and how we understand the nature of covenant in the Old Testament. Likewise, in the New Testament, we must remember that diatheke can refer either to a will or a testament or to a covenant, or, as the Hebrew author does so deftly, commingle the two (cf. Hebrews 9:1-27).

A covenant, therefore, is a mutual agreement between two parties with obligations for each. The Hebrew word berit can refer to a covenant of mutual agreement and obligation between people or between God and man. The Greek word diatheke originally meant a will, testament, or compact, and the translators of the Septuagint expanded its meaning to also describe covenants of mutual agreement. May we prove ever thankful for the opportunity to maintain a covenant relationship with God in Christ, and observe all things we have been commanded to fulfill in Jesus so as to obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry