What Is a Covenant? What Does the Bible Say?

Ten commandment stones on Dartmoor National Park
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The Hebrew term for covenant is berit, meaning “to bond or fetter.” It is translated into Greek as syntheke, “binding together” or diatheke, “will, testament.” In the Bible, then, a covenant is a relationship based upon mutual commitments. It typically involves promises, obligations, and rituals. The terms testament and covenant can be used interchangeably, though covenant tends to be used for the relationship between Jews and God.

Covenants in the Bible

The idea of covenant or testament is usually seen as a relation between God and humanity, but in the Bible, there are examples of purely secular covenants: between leaders like Abraham and Abimelech (Gen 21:22-32) or between and king and his people like David and Israel (2 Sam 5:3). Despite their political nature, though, such covenants were always thought of as being overseen by a deity who would enforce its provisions. Blessings accrue to those who are faithful, curses to those who aren’t.

Covenant with Abraham

The Abrahamic covenant of Genesis 15 is one where God promises Abraham land, innumerable descendants, and an ongoing, special relationship between those descendants and God. Nothing is asked for in return — neither Abraham nor his descendants “owe” God anything in exchange for the land or the relationship. Circumcision is expected as a sign of this covenant, but not as a payment.

Mosaic Covenant at Sianai with the Hebrews

Some covenants which God is depicted as having enacted with humans are “everlasting” in the sense that there is no “human side” of the bargain which people must uphold lest the covenant end. The Mosaic covenant with the Hebrews at Sinai, as described in Deuteronomy, is a heavily conditioned one because the continuation of this covenant is dependent on the Hebrews faithfully obeying God and doing their duties. Indeed, all the laws are now divinely ordained, such that violations are now sins.

Covenant with David

The Davidic covenant of 2 Samuel 7 is one where God promises a permanent dynasty of kings on the throne of Israel from David’s lineage. As with the Abrahamic covenant, nothing is asked for in return — unfaithful kings may be punished and criticized, but the Davidic line would not be ended because of this. The Davidic covenant was popular as it promised continuing political stability, secure worship at the Temple, and peaceful life for the people.

Universal Covenant with Noah

One of the covenants described in the Bible between God and humans is the “universal” covenant after the end of the Flood. Noah is the primary witness to it, but the promise not to again destroy life on such a scale is made to all humans and all other life on the planet.

Ten Commandments as Covenant Treaty

It has been suggested by some scholars that the Ten Commandments is best understood by comparing it to some of the treaties written during the same time period. Rather than a list of laws, the commandments are in this view actually an agreement between God and his chosen people, the Hebrews. The relationship between the Jews and God is thus at least as much legal as it is personal.

New Testament (Covenant) of the Christians

There are a variety of examples which the early Christians had to draw from when developing their own covenant beliefs. The dominant conception of covenant tended to rely mostly on the Abrahamic and Davidic models, where humans didn’t have to do anything in order to “deserve” or retain God’s grace. They didn’t have anything to uphold, they just had to accept what God was offering.

Old Testament vs. New Testament

In Christianity, the concept of a testament came to be used to designate the “old” covenant with the Jews (Old Testament) and the “new” covenant with all of humanity through the sacrificial death of Jesus (New Testament). Jews, naturally, object to their scriptures being referred to as the “old” testament because for them, their covenant with God is current and relevant — not a historical relic, as implied by the Christian terminology.

What Is Covenant Theology?

Developed by the Puritans, Covenant Theology is an attempt to reconcile two apparently exclusive doctrines: the doctrine that only the elect can or will be saved and the doctrine that God is perfectly just. After all, if God is just, why doesn’t God allow anyone to be saved and instead only elects a few?

According to the Puritans, God’s “Covenant of Grace” for us means that while we are not able to have faith in God on our own, God can give us the ability - if we make use of that and do have faith, then we will be saved. This is supposed to eliminate the idea of a God who arbitrarily sends some people to heave and some to hell, but it replaces it with an idea of a God who arbitrarily uses divine power to give some people the ability to have faith but not to others. The Puritans also never worked out just how a person was to tell if they were one of the elect or not.

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Cline, Austin. "What Is a Covenant? What Does the Bible Say?" Learn Religions, Aug. 28, 2020, learnreligions.com/what-is-a-covenant-248630. Cline, Austin. (2020, August 28). What Is a Covenant? What Does the Bible Say? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-a-covenant-248630 Cline, Austin. "What Is a Covenant? What Does the Bible Say?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-a-covenant-248630 (accessed March 31, 2023).