This is the first half of the introductory chapter of Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored, a forthcoming book published by Reformed Fellowship.
So what is a covenant? Covenant is not a word we use in our everyday lives. If you are an attorney, you may use it occasionally. But outside of certain legal uses, we don’t come across this word very often. It rings with a foreign and archaic tone, as if you are hearing Taming of the Shrew read with a sharp British accent.
Yet in the church, the word covenant is often batted around like a tennis ball between the rackets of love and hate. Some use it in a derogatory manner, others to make themselves seem smarter than they are. Many hear it only to roll their eyes, not quite knowing what it means. Still others put it in every other sentence that escapes from their mouths. Covenant can be one of those words that Christians hear and use, but everyone is afraid to ask the definition. Inevitably, this has led to an under appreciation of the term and, in some cases, misunderstanding and confusion.
Anyone who has read the Bible, however, knows that the word covenant appears frequently on its pages. The book of Genesis is primarily about God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants, which was built on God’s first gospel promise to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:15ff. And the book of Exodus records God’s covenant with the nation Israel. All the way through the Old Testament, in its historical books, psalms, and prophetical books, these two covenants are referred to over and over again. When we come to the New Testament, we are told of Jesus instituting a new covenant, the same covenant of which the prophet Jeremiah foretold (Jer. 31:31–34). Moreover, the apostle Paul discusses in detail the differences between God’s covenant with Abraham and his covenant with the nation Israel (Galatians 3–4), as well as the difference between the latter and the new covenant (2 Corinthians 3). And we haven’t even mentioned the fact that God also made important covenants with Noah and David! It is safe to say, therefore, that covenant is a vital aspect of Scripture. In fact, it is more accurate to state that covenant is the very fabric of Scripture. It is God’s chosen framework for the Bible.
But in order to understand and appreciate what a covenant is in its more technical use in theology, it is helpful to examine it at a more basic level. We may not realize it, but the essential stuff of a covenant is almost an everyday reality for us. So what is a covenant? A covenant is a formal agreement that creates a relationship with legal aspects. By relationship, we do not mean merely those relationships of husband-wife, or government-citizen—though these are included—but also the relationship of giving your word to do something. If you tell your neighbors that you will feed their dogs while they are on vacation, this is a commitment or agreement. You have a relationship with your neighbor just by being her neighbor, but giving your word that you will feed the dogs is a commitment, a covenant of sorts. A covenant can be commitment, promise, or oath. In fact, in the Bible, promise and oath are often used as synonyms for covenant.
So a covenant can be an agreement of just about any sort. Yet it is also legal. Now, a legal relationship does not only apply to the court system. Courts, laws, judges, and police are part of what it means to be legal. Yet legality at a more basic level means there are duties with consequences; punishments or sanctions are involved. These consequences can be more formal, such as getting fined by the law, or they can be less formal, such as discipline by a parent. The consequences of shame, disfavor, or wrath for not keeping one’s promise at times can be more powerful than the punishments of courts.
Too often, we put legality in opposition to intimate relationships. We tend to think there is nothing legal about the parent-child relationship, as if it were only about love and mercy. But this is hardly the case. The love and intimacy of the parent-child relationship does not make it void of legality. In fact, it may increase its legal character. As Hebrews points out, the father who does not discipline his children does not love them (12:7–8). Children by birth are obligated to their parents and vice versa. If children don’t do their chores, there are consequences. If parents don’t care for their kids, there are consequences. True, the vast majority of the consequences are not dealt with in a court of law, but the consequences of anger from a loved one, losing trust, and being denied privileges still sting. In an honor-and-shame society, as was the culture of ancient Israel, to be shamed by a parent could be worse than death. The consequence may be having one’s reputation hurt or getting laughed at, but it is still a consequence, and this gives it a legal character. Thus, there is no tension between the fact that a covenant is a relationship—even one with loving intimacy—and the fact that a covenant is legal and has legal consequences. An ideal example of this is marriage, which the Lord calls a covenant (Mal. 2:14). The intimacy between a man and woman in wedlock is not hindered by the legality of marriage; instead, the legal vows intensify the intimacy.
The basic building blocks of covenant, therefore, are found every time one promises to do something for someone else with the implied positive and negative consequences determined by the cultural and relational context. The promise creates a relationship. It is a commitment with implied sanctions, like in those old western films when the cowboy says, “A man’s word is law around here.” Speaking creates commitments; our words bind us to actions and to other people. Rudimentary morality tells us that our actions should fit our words, for them to be otherwise is shameful and wrong. Our Lord pointed to this in the Sermon on the Mount when he said our yes should be yes and our no, no (Matt. 5:37). We have all experienced the crush of shame when we failed to keep our word, and a friend said, “I can’t believe you broke your promise.”
Once one grasps that the principal elements of covenant permeate our everyday existence, it becomes much easier to understand the biblical covenants, for a covenant in its fuller sense is merely a formalization of these everyday commitments. If a husband tells his wife he will pick up the dry cleaning on his way home from work, he has given his word to her. If he forgets, the consequence is that his wife will be upset. Yet if it is of the utmost importance that he doesn’t forget the dry cleaning, the wife will stop her forgetful man and make him promise not to forget. She may even add explicit and more serious consequences: he will have to go back and get it, or no golfing on the weekend. The commitment to get the dry cleaning gets formalized with more explicit promises and consequences.
An amusing example of this is found in Disney’s original Robin Hood cartoon, when the little boy has to recover his arrow after shooting it over the wall into Prince John’s castle. He and his friends are afraid the turtle Toby will tattle on them, so they make him take an oath, saying, “Put your hand on your heart and cross your eyes and say: ‘Spiders, snakes, and a lizard’s head; if I tattletale, I’ll die till I’m dead.’” The oath or covenant makes more serious that Toby has to keep his word not to tell; the oath formalizes the agreement. As kids, we may remember taking a similar oath with our friends: “Cross your heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.” The exaggerated consequence of dying fits a child’s clear-cut view of life.
These promissory commitments, then, go through greater formalization and standardization in all parts of society. Virtually every contract is a covenant, from mortgages to car loans to peace treaties. They are formalized commitments or agreements between parties that state duties and consequences down to the finest detail made applicable for all people. Different names are given to such contracts according to the specific occasion or use, but, at the core, they are covenants.
Covenants in the Ancient World
The use of covenants in the ancient world was essentially the same. They were commitments that created a relationship with sanctions. Of course, Israel belonged to an ancient and foreign culture, and so the form and function of their covenants varied from ours. In an honor-and-shame society, and one where family was a key part of the legal structure, a person’s word carried considerable weight. Moreover, the ancient Near East was not a modern or scientific society. Their rules for evidence differed from those in our culture. Our society is somewhat less dependent on a person’s word. We are able to test a person’s word with evidence: recordings, fingerprints, and DNA tests. Not so in the ancient world. Without witnesses, there was no sure way to test one’s word externally. Also, deism and atheism did not exist in the ancient world. The Israelites and all their neighbors believed that their respective deities were actively involved in human life and history. The gods directed the events of life and one’s well-being. And the gods would adjudicate wrongs committed.
Hence, covenants involved oaths whereby one swore by a god to do something or to tell the truth, and if not, then the god would judge the person. If a person swore that he was telling the truth, and the next day a lion ate him, an ancient would assume he had lied, and the god had judged him. The belief that the gods would punish them made them take care with their oaths. Since oaths in ancient society were commonly understood and usually expected to appear in a particular form, the Bible often abbreviates the oaths it describes. The short form of an oath is, “As the Lord lives, I will . . .” One swore by something greater than oneself, something more certain and firm, and nothing is greater than the life of the Lord. The full form, which is often dropped, includes the sanction, ‘Let me be cursed,’ typically by death. The full form includes a cursing of oneself, not that different from Toby’s oath in Robin Hood. This self-curse is called self-maledictory. The person taking the oath is asking God to curse him if he breaks his oath.
Since taking an oath was such a solemn act, it was often accompanied by rites or ceremonies, typically in a temple or in the presence of a god. These ceremonies acted out in symbolic fashion the nature of the relationship and the consequences of breaking one’s commitment. In a similar fashion, today’s marriage ceremonies act out the character of the relationship being made. The vows are promises with implied sanctions if broken. The rings are signs of the relationship and express the couple’s love for one another. In fact, if you have ever purchased a house, then you know the signing of escrow papers is almost a ceremony; the piles of paper, the hundreds of signatures and large figures are quite effective to impress on you that this is a serious commitment and contract.
In Israel’s day, however, these ceremonies tended to be far more vivid and gruesome, at least by our standards. Because the sanction for not keeping one’s covenant oath was the curse of death, the people making a covenant would kill animals as a symbol of their death. This even comes across in the Hebrew idiom for making a covenant, which is literally “to cut a covenant.” The cutting referred to the ceremony of killing and cutting animals in half. As one scholar states in reference to this cutting, “This gesture seems to have become so widespread and common that it may have turned into a kind of prevalent supplement to a covenant ceremony.”1
There is more to the covenant ceremonies than just the cutting of animals. Clearly, the verbal oath-taking of the parties was the central part. Witnesses, either personal or inanimate, often had a part. Also, one or both parties might make various gestures. These gestures could be directed at each other or to the god(s). Such gestures, like the giving of the ring in a marriage ceremony, dramatized the love, loyalty, and commitment of the relationship. A common gesture was a shared meal between the parties who made the covenant. Often, they ate the animals cut in the covenant ceremony. Such a meal was reflective of their committed relationship. It is necessary to remember that, even though these covenant ceremonies had numerous common elements, they were still flexible. Parts could be added, subtracted, or fashioned to fit the specific relationship and occasion. We should not impute a false rigidity to the ceremonies, for the form and ceremony of the covenant matched the relationship.
So, ancient covenants were formal relationships or agreements bound with oaths. In the sphere of family, marriage and adoption were considered covenants. In the public sphere, covenants included treaties between nations (Joshua and the Gibeonites in Joshua 9; Israel with Assyria in Hosea 12:1), laws and agreements between kings and their people (King Zedekiah in Jer. 34:8–18), contracts in business (Abraham and Abimelech in Gen. 21:22–30), commitments between friends (Jonathan and David in 1 Sam. 20:16), and agreements between masters and servants (Abner with David in 2 Sam. 3:12; Laban and Jacob in Gen. 31:44). We could give more examples, but this gives a good spectrum, illustrating how a covenant must be flexible for the relationship. Both marriage and international treaties are covenants; however, the forms of these covenants differ. Likewise in the Bible, it is imperative to pay attention to the form of a particular covenant to grasp its nature.
The familial and secular use of covenants in the ancient Near East provides the necessary background for us to understand the religious covenants of the Bible. For as God makes covenants with his people, he does so in ways they understand. God accommodated to what was normal for Abraham, Moses, and the Israelites. If God made a covenant with us today, he would use the common legal and personal agreements that our society uses. This does not mean that the spiritual covenants are exhausted in their secular counterparts, but it does mean that our understanding of the biblical covenants begins with an understanding of the common ancient covenants. This is how it was for the Hebrews, and so it is for us. As we shall see, the biblical covenants far surpass any common covenant of human society. In fact, God’s covenants pull together aspects from marriage, adoption, treaties, friendship, kingdom, and lord/servant.
Furthermore, the Lord’s accommodation to use ancient covenants does not mean these are the original pattern. Reformed theologians have rightly confessed that the original pattern for God’s covenant with his people is the perfect communion found in the Trinity. The Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof (1873–1957) said it well:
Covenants among men had been made long before God established His covenant with Noah and with Abraham, and this prepared men to understand the significance of a covenant in a world divided by sin, and helped them to understand the divine revelation, when it presented man’s relation to God as a covenant relation. This does not mean, however, that the covenant idea originated with man and was then borrowed by God as an appropriate form for the description of the mutual relationship between Himself and man. Quite the opposite is true; the archetype of all covenant life is found in the Trinitarian being of God, and what is seen among men is but a faint copy of this.2
Covenant life is reflected in human society because it flows from God’s Trinitarian existence. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit live in unceasing devotion and commitment to each other. As Michael Horton writes, God reached “outward beyond the Godhead to create a community of creatures, serving as a giant analogy of the Godhead’s relationship.”3 As creatures made in the image of God, we should be eager to grasp the significance of the ancient covenants in order to appreciate and understand more fully our relationship with our God and Savior. We study the ancient parallels, not as an end in and of themselves, but as the necessary avenue to know and love our Lord with greater fervor. God in his sovereign wisdom appointed such covenants as a means to show his love to us. We should gratefully use them as background to God’s Word.
1. Menahem Haran, “The Berit ‘Covenant’: Its Nature and Ceremonial Background,” in Tehillah le-Moshe: Biblical and Judaic Studies in Honor of Moshe Greenberg (ed. Mordecai Cogan, Barry L. Eichler and Jeffrey H. Tigay; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1997), 203–219.
2. Systematic Theology, 263.
3. Michael Horton, God of Promise (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 10.
Rev. Michael G. Brown is pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, CA. He is the editor and contributing author of Called to Serve: Essays for Elders and Deacons.
Rev. Zachary R. Keele is pastor of Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Escondido, CA, and lecturer in Greek, Hebrew, and English Bible Survey at Westminster Seminary California.