Definition of covenant
The closest modern English terms we have to “covenant” would probably be “contract” or “treaty”. It was more personal than those, however, more similar to marriage. We may talk of a marriage “contract”, but woe to the husband or wife who uses that term in the midst of an argument! 😀
A covenant was sometimes between equals, such as a partnership between kings or friendship between two people. Other times, it was more of a king-to-subjects agreement, with the more powerful partner pledging protection and favor if the lesser partner met the agreed-upon conditions. Each time, there is a formal description of the roles for each partner, the benefits of keeping the conditions, and the consequences for breaking them.
There were many covenants mentioned in the Bible, including:
- Abraham and Abimelech in Genesis 21:22-34
- Isaac and Abimelech in Genesis 26:26-31
- Jacob and Laban at Mizpah in Genesis 31:44-55
- God and Phineas in Numbers 25:10-13
- Jonathan and David in 1 Samuel 18:1-4, (acted upon in 1 Samuel 20 and 1 Samuel 23:16-18)
- David and people as king in 2 Samuel 5:1-3 and 1 Chronicles 11:1-3
- Jehoiada and the guards protecting Joash in 2 Kings 11:1-8 and 2 Chronicles 23:1-3
But the covenants between God and man are the ones revered by Christians today. There were several, each extending and focussing the one prior, leading from Adam to Jesus. Together, they are the foundation not only of the Jewish national identity, but also of the entire start-to-finish history of God’s dealing with mankind.
Genesis 1 and 2 don’t use the word “covenant” but they do imply a similar bond between God and Adam. God gave Adam the garden as his home, providing everything Adam and Eve needed; their role was to cultivate the garden and manage the animal life. Their side of the contract had just one restriction, one tree that they were to avoid using for food. They broke that contract. 🙁
Afterward, again without the actual word “covenant”, there is still a binding promise from God to Eve. She would have a descendent who finally put an end to the one who tempted her, although not without being injured himself.
And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.God to the serpent (Satan) in Genesis 3:15
This “Adamic covenant” is the first prediction of the coming One who would make everything right: Jesus.
God’s first covenant with Noah was before the Flood, in Genesis 6:17-19, when He spared Noah and his family. Noah’s part of the bargain was to build the ark. The second was afterward, in Genesis 9:8-17, when He promised to never use that particular punishment again. Notice that this one did not require any reciprocal effort on Noah’s part; God took all of the burden unconditionally.
In Genesis 12:1-3, God promised to make Abraham’s descendants into a great nation, and to bless him. In Genesis 15, Abraham wasn’t so sure about that: It had been a while; he had no children and had named another relative to be his heir; he saw no sign of offspring to inherit the land as God had promised. So God went through the very formal covenant process to emphasize the surety of His promise. The custom was to sacrifice animals, cutting them in half. The two parties would walk between the halves laid out on the ground, symbolizing that they should be sacrificed in the same way if they broke the covenant. In this case, as with Noah and the rainbow, God took all the burden onto Himself. He passed between the halves without requiring Abraham to do so.
God repeated and expanded that covenant in Genesis 17:1-10. This time, there was something for Abraham to do: the circumcision of each of his male descendants, setting them apart as belonging to this covenant family.
A famous story in Genesis 22:1-18 tells of Abraham’s continued faithfulness to God, and in response, another renewal of God’s covenant with Him. Because Abraham trusted God’s promises enough to even be willing to sacrifice Isaac, the son who was to continue his lineage, God spared Isaac and provided an alternate sacrifice. Christians see in this the foreshadowing of Jesus, God’s Son who was not spared, who became the alternate sacrifice for our sake. In verse 16 of that story, God swears by Himself…because there was no higher authority to call as witness! (See Hebrews 6:13-18.)
In Genesis 26:1-6, God repeats His “Abrahamic covenant” with Isaac. In Genesis 28:10-15, He repeats it to Isaac’s son Jacob. (Jacob’s name was later changed to Israel; sound familiar?) Jacob’s son Joseph (of the coat of many colors) moved the family away from Canaan down to Egypt during a time of famine. They stayed there for hundreds of years, as predicted in Genesis 15:13-14, until the time of Moses. Finally, Genesis 49:10 says that Jacob/Israel’s son Judah would be the most lasting branch of the family tree.
These covenant promises with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are the roots of the Jewish people. For the rest of their history, they continue to look back and hold to them, trusting that God will never break His promise.
The next covenant is called the “Mosaic” covenant, although it is not really between God and Moses. It is between God and the Hebrew descendants of Abraham whom God had Moses lead out of Egypt. It starts with Exodus 6:1-8, where God introduces Himself to Moses and says that He is acting on the basis of the Abrahamic covenant. Then, Exodus 19:3-6 shows God telling Moses that if the people keep their part of the bargain, they will be established as God’s special holy nation, a “kingdom of priests” representing Him to the rest of the world. The people agreed in Exodus 19:7-8.
Exodus 20-23 gives the list of God’s conditions for the people to obey as their part of the covenant. It starts with the Ten Commandments. Then goes on to:
- How to worship God (and NOT to worship any other gods or idols!)
- How to treat servants and fellow men
- Property rights
- Social responsibilities
- Legal justice
- Sabbath and other worship festivals, and
- Eventual entrance back into the Promised Land of Canaan.
In Exodus 24:3-8, the people agree, and the covenant is formally sealed, using the blood of sacrificial animals. Afterward, Moses went away for over a month, learning from God more details about how the new nation was to worship: the exact design of the tabernacle, with each item laden with symbolism that would be understood later (Exodus 25-31). But…
Moses returned to find that the people had already broken their covenant promises! See Exodus 32-33:6. God was angry, but at Moses’ request He gave the people a second chance, recorded in Exodus 34:8-10. Leviticus 26 outlines the rewards for obedience to the covenant, and the penalties associated with disobedience.
This pattern — of the people’s failure, God’s anger and punishment, followed by God’s forgiveness and yet another chance — continues throughout the rest of the Old Testament. Always, their national welfare revolved around their faithfulness (or lack thereof) to their promise to God, and His constant faithfulness to His promises to them. Some examples are:
- Deuteronomy 29-30 – Moses’ final sermon and summary to the people
- 2 Kings 17:1-23 – The end of the kingdom of Israel (Ten of the original twelve tribes; two had separated to become the kingdom of Judah) due to their continued unfaithfulness.
- Several of Judah’s kings renewed their side of the covenant, asking forgiveness for the nation’s unfaithfulness and bringing them back toward God.
They kept falling back, though, until God finally sent them into exile in Babylon in 2 Chronicles 36:15-20. In faithfulness to His side of the covenant, however, God brought them back 70 years later, as recorded in Ezra 1:1-7. Afterward, Nehemiah 9 tells of the people, yet again, remembering the covenant and renewing their promises.
Other examples of looking back and remembering God’s faithfulness to His promises include Psalm 105. Examples of the people breaking theirs include Jeremiah 11:1-17 and Ezekiel 16. But…Ezekiel 16:59-63 tells of God promising to still remember and uphold His covenant with them.
Partway through the Mosaic-covenant kingdoms discussed above came another expansion, extension, and focussing of God’s promise: His covenant with David as king. So far, we have had the preparation for the Genesis 3:15 Deliverer coming through the Noahic, Abrahamic, and Mosaic covenants — the lineage of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Judah. David, a descendant of that line, is told in 2 Samuel 7:1-17 (repeated in 1 Chronicles 17:1-15) that he would have a descendant forever on the throne.
David’s son Solomon promptly did his best to break that line, but God had promised. So he tore away most of the kingdom (the ten tribes of Israel) from Solomon’s son, but left a portion (the two tribes of Judah) still answering to David’s family (1 Kings 11:11-13).
Psalm 89 describes how the people might have felt during this tumultuous time (nearly 500 years from David til the return from Babylon). Verses 1-37 are full of praise for God’s promise to David; verses 38-51 bemoan how abandoned they feel while being punished. But verse 52 still ends the psalm with praise. God would not stay angry forever. He could be counted on to keep His promise.
Also during the turbulent disobedience/punishment/return cycle, there were promises of a coming new-and-improved covenant that would not depend on the people’s obedience. The promise comes through most clearly in Jeremiah 31, especially in verses 31-34:
Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.Jeremiah 31:31-34
Exactly how this new covenant would come about is described in Jeremiah 33, especially in verses 14-16:
Behold, days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will fulfill the good word which I have spoken concerning the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch of David to spring forth; and He shall execute justice and righteousness on the earth. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will dwell in safety; and this is the name by which she will be called: the LORD is our righteousness.Jeremiah 33:14-16
Jesus proclaimed Himself to be that Righteous Branch at His last meal with His disciples before His crucifixion:
While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.Matthew 26:26-28, see also Mark 14:22-24 and Luke 22:20
From Adam and Noah, through Abraham, Moses and David…God has been making, keeping, and extending His covenant promises first to the Jews, then to all of mankind. Jesus is the final Word, the Messiah, the Seal of the New Covenant. As He kept all the promises leading up to His time on earth, He can be trusted to continue keeping promises until all are fulfilled at the end of history.