What is a covenant?
Israelite theology understands that the nature of our relationship with God is regulated by ‘The Covenant’. But what is a covenant?
A covenant is nothing more complicated than a treaty or pact between two parties. It can be between two equals for mutual benefit or to ensure peace, or between a superior and a subordinate to ensure loyalty. One type of common Middle Eastern treaty / covenant in ancient times was often contracted (or ‘cut’) when a powerful kingdom or empire took over a weaker country. The conqueror would say for example, that in return for your loyalty and annual tribute of gold, animals, grain etc, I will protect you and preserve you. It is this type of covenant – that of a superior to a subordinate – that typifies those that God entered into with the people of Israel.
Another important thing to realise about covenants, is that they cannot be revoked or nullified. Nor can a present covenant replace a former one: “Whatever God declares shall be forever” (Ecc 13:14); “The word of YHVH shall stand firm forever” (Isa 40:18); “And it shall be a law for all time” (Num 19:21); “I will not annul my covenant with them,” (Lev 26:44); “I will not violate my covenant, nor change what I have uttered,” (Ps 89:35). Covenants can be exanded and appended to, but not annulled or changed.
People in ancient times took covenants very, very seriously. They were usually sealed by a binding and irrevocable oath, accompanied by a shared meal, or the sacrifice of an animal and dividing the parts between the two parties concerned. Breaking the terms of a covenant was viewed as a heinous crime. If two equals made a covenant, and one of them broke it, then a feud would result, or the wronged party would sue for the heaviest possible compensation. If a client state broke a covenant with a ruling empire, then that empire would come in and destroy the smaller country, and carry off its citizens as slaves.
With this mindset that ancient people had surrounding covenants, you can understand how seriously God viewed the covenant he made with the people of Israel, and how the Israelites understood that relationship.
‘The Covenant’ is therefore a set of laws, principles and guidelines that govern our relationship with God, as human beings and as Israelites. Within this Covenant are a number of ‘addenda’ – parts of the covenant which update and clarify what has been given previously, but without replacing, nullifying or revoking what was previously given. Although they are often refered to as if they were separate covenants, in practice they are actually additions to the one, single Covenant.
The format of ancient Middle Eastern Covenants
Covenantal agreements or treaties throughout the ancient Middle East took a certain format:
- Preamble – names the author of the treaty
- Prologue – sets out the historical relationship between the two parties
- Stipulations – sets out the mutual responsibilities of the two parties
- Provisionary clause – provides that the document be read by the client state at regular intervals
- Witnesses to the treaty – with pagan religions, this would include the names of various gods
- Blessings – describes the benefits of keeping to the terms of the treaty
- Curses – describes the punishment that will befall the client state if they break the terms of the treaty.
Now, upon reading the typical biblical covenants, the last bit – the curses – sound really nasty. To the modern mind, they are totally unacceptable; we do not need to cower with the threat of a whip hanging over us. However, one has to understand that the world that these covenants were written for was a very different one, with different values and a different view of what was acceptable and not acceptable.
A typical biblical covenant goes something like this:
- Preamble: “I am YHVH your God,
- Prologue: “Who brought you out of the land of Egypt”
- Stipulations: “I will be your God, and you will be my people”
- Provisions: Read these laws each year before an assembly of the people
- Witnesses: And YHVH said these things to Moses before the children of Israel
- Blessings: If you do all these things, I will bless the land, and bring rain in its season
- Curses: If you do not do these things, then I will exact penalties for your wrongdoings
This is in fact bits and pieces from several covenants, but it gives you an idea of the form that a covenant took, so that next time you read the bible, you will be able to recognise a covenant when you see it. You will be able to understand why God speaks in the way God does in the bible.
The seven covenants described in the Bible
Remember how I said that one covenant cannot replace another? Well, the bible describes seven covenants, three made with the whole of humankind, and four with the people of Israel.
At various stages of our growth, first as human beings, and secondly as Israelites, God gave us ‘additions’ the Covenant. Each successive covenant adds to, enhances, extends and expands the ones before, but never replaces the previous ones. God seems to be gradually building up a relationship with us, gradually training us to see things God’s way, and to remember what we were created in heaven to be.
The very first cornerstone of the Covenant, which no subsequent addition can nullify or revoke, is the Universal Covenant (brit `olam – Isa 24:5), which is the covenant of moral conscience instilled within all of us at the creation of our souls in heaven. It enables us to naturally know right from wrong, and gives us the sense of moral outrage when there is injustice or wrongdoing in the world. Because this is the one, foundational part of the Covenant that can never be rescinded, it then means that no subsequent addition to the Covenant should be applied in such a way that is cruel or unjust; therefore, if we begin to apply Torah in such a way that it causes suffering, misery or injustice, then we must be interpreting Torah incorrectly.
Jeremiah’s so-called ‘new covenant’ (Jer 31:31) should be more properly read as ‘renewed Covenant’. It is not a new covenant for Christians that replaces the one with Israel, but rather is expression of how we can return to God at times when Israel has collectively broken the Covenant – of our collective return to God, and of the hope that at such times we will remember what God has written on our hearts. This principle of return and renewal was established on the plains of Moab.
So, as human beings, these are the three parts of the Covenant that are incumbent on the whole of humanity:
1. The Universal Covenant (this gives us our moral conscience, and our innate sense of right and wrong)
2. The Adamic Covenant (this tells us to increase and multiply, gives us green plants as food, and instructs us to look after the earth with wise stewardship)
3. The Covenant with Noah and all life on earth (this further consolidates human custodianship of nature, establishes the principle of a just society having a set of civil laws, gives us animals to eat in addition to the plants, but not to eat meat with blood still in it; and that people who take a life shall be held accountable).
These are the four parts of the Covenant that are incumbent on us as Israelites:
4. The Covenant with Abraham and the Patriarchs (this tells us that we shall worship only Yahveh, and that we shall follow only Yahveh’s principles, values and morals; that we shall be given Canaan as an eternal possession; and that as a sign of that inheritance, we shall circumcise our males at 8 days old).
5. The Covenant with Moses and the people of Israel at Sinai on Mt Horeb (this gives us the codification of God’s law into the written Torah; it instructs us to be a holy nation; to observe the Sabbath; not to make or worship idols; to redeem the firstborn; to observe the three pilgrim festivals; not to use the name of God to swear false oaths; to have reverence for God’s Sanctuary; and gives us the Ten Edicts as the foundation of all our other laws).
6. The covenant on the Plains of Moab with Israel (this gives us the clause of ‘renewing’ the Covenant; it establishes the principle that disobedience to the Covenant does not cancel it, because God will always keep His side of the deal – Yahveh has promised eternal love and faithfulness to Israel, and God will never break what God has promised; the covenant at Moab therefore establishes the principle of repentance for turning to other gods and other ways; it reminds Israel of the blessings of returning to Yahveh and following God’s ways, as well as the penalties and downsides of rejecting Yahveh and God’s ways; it also says that gross breaches of the Covenant will be met with Exile from the Land of Israel, but promises that faithfulness to Yahveh will be rewarded by Israel being honoured among the Nations of the earth, that Israel’s enemies will be defeated, and that the Land itself will prosper and be fertile).
7. The Covenant with David and his descendants (this promises that Israel’s anointed kings will be descendants of David; that if these messiahs are obedient to God, then Israel will prosper, will be safe and secure in the Land, and evil people will not oppress them; but if a messiah is disobedient to Yahveh, and turns to other gods and other ways, then Israel will fail, and fall to her enemies).
Please click on the links to explore each individual covenant – their wording, terms and conditions, benefits and blessings.