Understanding Covenant, Part I: What is a Covenant?

Let us begin a study of a subject of critical importance in our understanding of the Scriptures. The subject of covenant is often taken for granted or not touched upon directly, yet when we examine the Scriptures from Genesis through Revelation, we can see that God has chosen to express His relations with His creation through the means of covenants. In our study we shall spend time examining the various covenants contained within the pages of Scripture and the various means by which many have been led astray by misunderstanding the nature of covenants within the Bible. Before we can engage in such examinations, however, we must answer the basic question: what is a covenant?

In this investigation let us begin by defining covenant in English:

[noun] 1. A mutual consent or agreement of two or more persons, to do or to forbear some act or thing; a contract; stipulation. A covenant is created by deed in writing, sealed and executed; or it may be implied in the contract.
2. A writing containing the terms of agreement or contract between parties; or the clause of agreement in a deed containing the covenant.
[intrans. verb] To enter into a formal agreement; to stipulate; to bind ones self by contract.
[trans. verb] To grant or promise by covenant, (Webster’s).

We can see, therefore, that in English a covenant refers to an agreement made by two parties.

Now that we have seen what covenant is in English, let us now examine the word in its Biblical context. The Hebrew word that is translated as “covenant” in our Bibles is berit, and it is defined in Brown-Driver-Briggs as the following:

covenant, alliance, pledge
1a) between men
1a1) treaty, alliance, league (man to man)
1a2) constitution, ordinance (monarch to subjects)
1a3) agreement, pledge (man to man)
1a4) alliance (of friendship)
1a5) alliance (of marriage)
1b) between God and man
1b1) alliance (of friendship)
1b2) covenant (divine ordinance with signs or pledges)

Berit can refer to covenants made between man and God, man with man, the marriage relationship, and other forms of alliances. The term is related to the word for cutting, and this concords with the fact that the act of covenant making in Hebrew is the idiomatic katab berit, “cut a covenant.”

Research and archaeology have been able to shed light for us on the nature of covenants in the ancient Near Eastern world, and there is a great number of similarities between covenants we have records of from the Near East and the Biblical covenants, especially in terms of the nature of covenants. We have learned the following from these covenants:

1. Covenants involved two parties and mutual obligations. In the ancient Near East, two parties, often kings with their people or other kings, and each side had various obligations to uphold to make the covenant in force.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

We can (and will) look at the covenants in the Old Testament and have a better insight into the nature of God’s covenant with His people thanks to these discoveries.

It is interesting to see that the Greek language did not have a term that fully expressed the idea of covenant [berit]– the word chosen to translate berit into the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint [LXX], was diatheke, defined by Thayer’s as:

1) 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
2) a compact, a covenant, a testament

As explained in Bauer-Ardnt-Gingrich-Danker (BAGD, 3rd ed., p. 228), 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. BAGD explains the transition:

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 [when translating from Greek to English– ERL]. 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.

One may ask why it is important for us to explain and understand how the LXX converts berit into Greek. As we can see, however, the LXX translators essentially add a new meaning to diatheke which is not present before and exists in the Judeo-Christian religious literary material exclusively. Diatheke, originally only a compact, later a will or testament, now takes on the meaning of “covenant.” In New Testament terms, it is important to remember that diatheke can refer either to a will or a testament or to a covenant. As we will see in our examination of covenant in the New Testament, the Hebrew author does well in explaining how diatheke is both the testament of Christ and the covenant in His blood.

We have now seen what a “covenant” is in the Bible: it refers to an agreement between two parties with obligations for each. The Hebrew word, berit, can refer to a covenant between people or between God and man; when the LXX was being translated, its translators took the Greek word for a will or testament, diatheke, added a new meaning to it, and such is the term for “covenant” and “will/testament” in both the LXX and also the New Testament.

Next we will examine the covenants in the Old Testament and attempt to understand their nature.


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