What are covenants?
What is the definition of a covenant?
In the Old Testament, the word translated "covenant" comes from the Hebrew word berith which means "a bond or treaty that joins two parties." Making a covenant comes from a Hebrew idiom that literally means "cutting a covenant." It is a reference to the sacrificial offerings made while a covenant is sealed. Two parallel rows of sacrifices were made and those entering into the covenant would walk between the offerings.
"And I will give the men who have transgressed My covenant, who have not performed the words of the covenant which they made before Me, when they cut the calf in two and passed between the parts of it - the princes of Judah, the princes of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, the priests, and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf - I will give them into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their life. Their dead bodies shall be for meat for the birds of the heaven and the beasts of the earth" (Jeremiah 34:18-20).
"So He said to him, "Bring Me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon." Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, down the middle, and placed each piece opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when the vultures came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, horror and great darkness fell upon him. Then He said to Abram: "Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years. And also the nation whom they serve I will judge; afterward they shall come out with great possessions. Now as for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age. But in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete." And it came to pass, when the sun went down and it was dark, that behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a burning torch that passed between those pieces. On the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying: "To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates- the Kenites, the Kenezzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites" (Genesis 15:9-21).
While the details of what constitutes a covenant are not spelled out for us in the Scriptures, we do have details about the covenants of other countries, such as the Hittites. In comparing the terms of covenants found in other countries, we have learned that the covenants within the Bible share numerous similarities. In general, covenants contain the following parts:
- A definition of the parties involved and their status.
- A history of the parties' relationship.
- The obligations expected of the weaker party to the stronger party. Often the stipulations involved promises of loyalty to the stronger party.
- An agreement where a written copy of the agreement would be retained and the provisions for periodic reminders of the covenant.
- Who or what would be able to confirm that the covenant was made.
- Curses and Blessings:
- The consequences of breaking or keeping the covenant.
- The sealing of the covenant. Usually, it was done with a blood sacrifice.
Once a covenant was established, a covenant meal was offered to demonstrate the fellowship between the two parties. This is illustrated in the covenant made between Jacob and Laban. "Then Jacob offered a sacrifice on the mountain, and called his brethren to eat bread. And they ate bread and stayed all night on the mountain" (Genesis 31:54). It is also seen in the covenant God made with Israel.
"Then Moses went up, also Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and they saw the God of Israel. And there was under His feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone, and it was like the very heavens in its clarity. But on the nobles of the children of Israel He did not lay His hand. So they saw God, and they ate and drank" (Exodus 24:9-11).
Covenants were not lightly considered; they bound a person, often for a lifetime. The Hebrew word hesed refers to the keeping of a covenant. The word contains the ideas of love, loyalty, and aid. In our Bibles, it is translated as "mercy, grace, loving-kindness, steadfast love, faithfulness, and loyal love." The equivalent Greek word is eleos, which is usually translated as "mercy."
Covenants are meant to be advantageous to all parties involved. Hence, when one party fails to keep their part of the covenant, the wronged party is expected to be longsuffering; going so far as to help the failing party find ways to meet his obligation. This is what is meant by hesed. "Therefore know that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments" (Deuteronomy 7:9). God states that He keeps His covenants and He aids those who have difficulty keeping their part of the covenant. In fact, God states that He will uphold His part regardless of man's faithfulness.
"My mercy I will keep for him forever, and My covenant shall stand firm with him. His seed also I will make to endure forever, and his throne as the days of heaven. If his sons forsake My law and do not walk in My judgments, if they break My statutes and do not keep My commandments, then I will punish their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes. Nevertheless My lovingkindness I will not utterly take from him, nor allow My faithfulness to fail. My covenant I will not break, nor alter the word that has gone out of My lips" (Psalms 89:28-34).
If one party continues to fail to meet their obligations to the covenant, despite the best effort of the other party to maintain the covenant, the covenant can be ended. This is seen with the Israelites.
"Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah - not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD" (Jeremiah 31:31-32).
As this verse indicates, a broken covenant can be replaced or superseded by a new covenant, as was done by God when He replaced the Old Testament (another word for covenant) with the New Testament.
"But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. Because finding fault with them, He says: "Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah -- not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the LORD. ... In that He says, "A new covenant," He has made the first obsolete" (Hebrews 8:6-9, 13).