The word "covenant, " infrequently heard in conversation, is quite commonly used in legal, social (marriage), and religious and theological contexts.
The Idea of Covenant. The term "covenant" is of Latin origin (con venire), meaning a coming together. It presupposes two or more parties who come together to make a contract, agreeing on promises, stipulations, privileges, and responsibilities. In religious and theological circles there has not been agreement on precisely what is to be understood by the biblical term. It is used variously in biblical contexts. In political situations, it can be translated treaty; in a social setting, it means a lifelong friendship agreement; or it can refer to a marriage.
The biblical words most often translated "covenant" are berit [tyir.B] in the Old Testament (appearing about 280 times) and diatheke [diaqhvkh] in the New Testament (at least 33 times). The origin of the Old Testament word has been debated; some have said it comes from a custom of eating together ( Gen 26:30 ; 31:54 ); others have emphasized the idea of cutting an animal (an animal was cut in half [ 15:18 ]); still others have seen the ideas of perceiving or determining as root concepts. The preferred meaning of this Old Testament word is bond; a covenant refers to two or more parties bound together. This idea of bond will be explicated more fully.
The New Testament word for covenant has usually been translated as covenant, but testimony and testament have also been used. This Greek word basically means to order or dispose for oneself or another. The though of the inequality of the parties is latent.
The generally accepted idea of binding or establishing a bond between two parties is supported by the use of the term berit [tyir.B]. When Abimelech and Isaac decided to settle their land dispute, they made a binding agreement, league, or covenant to live in peace. An oath confirmed it ( Gen 26:26-31 ). Joshua and the Gibeonites bound themselves, by oath, to live in peace together ( Joshua 9:15 ), although Yahweh commanded that Israel was not to bind themselves to the people living in the land of Canaan ( Deut 7:2 ; Judges 2:2 ). Solomon and Hiram made a binding agreement to live and work in peace together ( 1 Kings 5:12 ). A friendship bond was sealed by oath between David and Jonathan ( 1 Samuel 20:31 Samuel 20:16-17 ). Marriage is a bond (covenant) for life.
The covenants referred to above were between two equal parties; this means that the covenant relationship was bilateral. The bond was sealed by both parties vowing, often by oath, that each, having equal privileges and responsibilities, would carry out their assigned roles. Because a covenant confirmed between two human parties was bilateral, some scholars have concluded that the covenant Yahweh established with human beings is also bilateral. This is not the case. God initiated, determined the elements, and confirmed his covenant with humanity. It is unilateral. Persons are recipients, not contributors; they are not expected to offer elements to the bond; they are called to accept it as offered, to keep it as demanded, and to receive the results that God, by oath, assures will not be withheld.
Scholars have learned by studying tablets found by archaeologists that legal treaties between kings (suzerains) and subjects (vassals) existed during the time of the biblical patriarchs, Moses, Joshua, the judges, and the first kings of Israel. These treaties were written on tablets for the purpose of establishing a continuing relationship as determined and authorized by the suzerain. Once written, the covenants were not to be altered or annulled although parts could be explicated or elaborated. Did biblical writers borrow the idea of the covenant and its integral elements from pagan sources when the Old Testament was writtenelements such as a self-presentation of the suzerain and his activities, including those done on behalf of the vassals, statements of intent, stipulations, and assurances of well-being if obedient and of curses if disobedient? The legal covenants included provisions for continuity, with emphasis on the suzerain's claim to vassals' children, and were confirmed by an oath or a special ratification ceremony, like the cutting in half of an ox or cow or the sharing of a meal as the conclusion of the act of covenanting.
These nonbiblical covenants were intended to serve a number of purposes, two of which are especially important to understand. The suzerain stated that as victor and lord over the vassals he had spared them in battle, delivered them from extenuating circumstances, and placed them in situations of life and well-being. This was an undeserved favor. The suzerain's covenant was also intended to serve an administrative function. It informed the vassals how the king would govern them and what they were to do in obedient response to him. These two purposes, the reminder of deliverance and the information on administration of affairs in daily life, appear in Yahweh God's covenanting with his people but in radically different ways.
Covenants, neither suzerain-vassal nor biblical, were not made (nor did they function) in a vacuum. Covenants presupposed a king, a domain, a way of life, people, and often mediating servants. The covenant was an important administrative means within a kingdom.
Did biblical writers borrow from pagan sources when they wrote about Yahweh God's covenantal activities on behalf of and his relationships with his people? There is no reference of any kind in the Bible that this was done. There are marked similarities between biblical and the nonbiblical covenants. The most satisfactory and acceptable position is that Yahweh God is the source and originator of the entire covenant concept and phenomenon. He included the covenant relationship in his creation activity and handiwork. Covenant is germane to human life; it is God-implanted and -unfolded. Pagan kings gave concrete expression, in their proud and self-sufficient attitudes, to what Yahweh God had implanted and maintained within his created cosmos. This explanation calls for an answer to three important questions. When did Yahweh God first establish his covenant? What was the nature of that initial covenant? According to biblical revelation, did Yahweh God, after the initial one, establish any more covenants?
The Old Testament. The Hebrew word for covenant does not appear in Genesis 1-5. Some scholars say that this is evidence that there was no covenant in humankind's earliest history. Some say that the idea of covenant arose initially in the minds of the Israelites after they had been at Mount Sinai. To account for references to the covenant in the Noahic and patriarchal accounts, scholars have incorrectly said that later editors of Genesis inserted the idea of covenant to give historical evidence and credence to what Israel later believed. Other scholars, who accept Genesis as a record of Yahweh's revelation, also have difficulty accepting that God established his covenant when he created the cosmos mainly because of the lack of direct verbal reference to it.
Biblical testimony points to the fact that God covenanted when he created. Hosea ( 6:7 ) refers to Adam breaking the covenant. Jeremiah spoke of the covenant of the day and the night that no one can alter ( 33:19-20 ); this covenant is understood to have been initiated in creation when God separated light from darkness and gave the sun and moon their appointed place and role ( Genesis 1:3-5Genesis 1:14 ). When Yahweh God first spoke to Noah, he said he was going to wipe humankind from the face of the earth ( Gen 6:7 ). But he assured Noah he would uphold and cause his covenant to continue. Hence Noah did not have to fear that God's plan for and method of administering his cosmic kingdom would be different after the flood. But why, if God covenanted when he created, is the word "covenant" not in Genesis 1-2? Those who wish to speak of only the covenant of grace, referred to briefly and indirectly in the Noahic account (Gen. 6-9), believe that some of the basic elements of the covenant of grace were enunciated when Yahweh God promised victory through the woman's seed ( Gen 3:14-16 ). When Yahweh God covenanted with David, according to 2 Samuel 7, the term "covenant" does not appear but when David referred to what Yahweh had said and done, he said, "Has he not made with me an everlasting covenant?" ( 2 Sam 23:5 ; cf. Psalm 89:3 ). As the elements included in covenant were present in the account of the covenanting with David ( 2 Sam 7 ), so the elements constituting covenant are recorded in Genesis 1-2.
The basic elements of a covenant are imbedded in the Genesis account. God, in his revelation of creation, presented himself as the Creator. The historical record of what he has done was outlined. He created his image-bearers by means of which he placed and kept man and woman in a close relationship with himself and had them mirror (reflect) and represent him within the created cosmos. Humanity was given stipulations or mandates. As image-bearers they were to maintain an intimate and obedient fellowship with their Creator; the Sabbath was to enhance this. Humanity was to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth; this was to be done by establishing families; a man was to leave his parents and cleave to his wife ( Gen 2:24 ). Becoming one flesh, they would have children. As families increased, community would be formed. This social mandate thus was an integral aspect of covenant. So was the cultural mandate; man and woman were to cultivate (subdue NIV) and rule over the creation. When God saw all that he had done, he confirmed, not by expressing an oath or performing a ratifying ceremony, but by declaring all to be very good ( Gen 1:31 ). This he confirmed by ceasing from creating activity and establishing the seventh day as a day of rest, sanctity, and blessing ( Gen 2:1-3 ).