One of the fundamental theological motifs of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Eventually the expressions “old covenant” and “new covenant,” which once referred to two eras (Jer. 31.31–33) or dispensations (2 Cor. 3.4–11), came to designate the two parts of the Christian Bible, the Old Testament (Covenant) and the New.
The Hebrew term for covenant (bĕrît) seems to have the root meaning of “bond, fetter,” indicating a binding relationship; the idea of “binding, putting together” is also suggested in the Greek term synthēkē. Another term used in the New Testament is diathēkē (“will, testament”), pointing more to the obligatory or legal aspect of a covenant. The meaning of covenant, however, is not determined primarily by etymology but by how these and related terms function in various literary contexts. In general, covenant signifies a relationship based on commitment, which includes both promises and obligations, and which has the quality of reliability and durability. The relationship is usually sealed by a rite—for example, an oath, sacred meal, blood sacrifice, invocation of blessings and curses—which makes it binding.
In the Hebrew Bible, various secular covenants are mentioned: covenants between leaders of two peoples (Abraham and Abimelech, Gen. 21.25–32), between two heads of state (Ahab and Ben‐hadad, 1 Kings 20.34), between king and people (David and the elders of Israel, 1 Chron. 11.3), between a revolutionary priest and the army (Jehoiada, 2 Kings 11.4), between a conquering king and a vassal (Nebuchadrezzar and a Judean prince, Ezek. 17.13–19; cf. 1 Sam. 11.1). These treaties or pacts were usually thought to be supervised by the deity. This was the case for instance, in the covenant between Jacob and Laban, which was sealed with a sacred meal and which concluded with a prayer that God would see to it that both sides lived up to the terms of the agreement (Gen. 31.44–54). Likewise the covenant between Jonathan and David, based on the loyalty (ḥesed) of friendship, was “a covenant before Yahweh” (1 Sam. 23.18).
In the ancient world, covenants or treaties often governed the relations between peoples. There were parity treaties between two equal sovereign states, and there were overlord treaties between a powerful monarch and a vassal state. Illustrative of the latter is the suzerainty treaty form of the second and first millennia, which apparently influenced Israel's Mosaic covenant theology found in the book of Deuteronomy. These treaties included such elements as a summary of the benevolent deeds of the overlord, the stipulations binding on the vassal who receives favor and protection, and the sanctions of blessings and curses in case of obedience or disobedience.
Covenant expresses a novel element of the religion of ancient Israel: the people are bound in relationship to the one God, Yahweh, who makes an exclusive (“jealous”) claim upon their loyalty in worship and social life. In a larger sense, the relationship between all creatures and their creator is expressed in the universal covenant with Noah (Gen. 9.1–17), which assures God's faithful pledge to humanity, to nonhuman creatures, and to the earth itself. In the Pentateuch, however, primary emphasis is given to God's covenant with the Israelite people, portrayed in the migration of Abraham and Sarah in response to the divine promise (Gen. 11.31–12.7) and the special relationship between God and their descendants (Gen. 15.1–21; 17.1–22). In the biblical narrative, the covenant with Israel's ancestors is the prelude to the crucial events of the Exodus and the Mosaic covenant at Sinai and is supplemented by the covenant between God and the Davidic monarch, who mediates God's cosmic rule, manifest in the anointed one (the reigning ruler) and in the Temple of Zion (Ps. 78.67–72; 2 Sam. 7).
The covenants between God and the people are all covenants of divine favor or grace (Hebr. ḥesed). They express God's gracious commitment and faithfulness and thus establish a continuing relationship. They differ from one another theologically at the point of whether the accent falls upon God's loyalty, which endows the relationship with constancy and durability, or upon the people's response, which is subject to human weakness and sin. The Abrahamic and Davidic covenants belong to the type of the “everlasting covenant” (bĕrît ʿōlām), for they rest upon divine grace alone and are not conditioned by human behavior. On the other hand, the Mosaic covenant, set forth classically in the book of Deuteronomy, has a strong conditional note, for its endurance depends on the people's obedience to the covenant commandments.
Furthermore, all of God's covenants with Israel include divine promises, as well as human obligations, though they differ as to which is emphasized. The Abrahamic covenant is primarily a promissory covenant. In it God imposes no conditions (circumcision is a sign, not a legal condition of the relationship) but rather gives promises: the land as an everlasting possession, numerous posterity, and a special relationship between God and the descendants of Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 17.7–8). Similarly, the Davidic covenant, perhaps on the analogy of royal grants of the ancient Near East, does not impose legal conditions, but offers a gracious promise of an unbroken succession of kings upon the throne of David (2 Sam. 7). Although unfaithful kings will be chastised if they behave badly in office, God will not abrogate the covenant promises of grace made to David (Ps. 89; see also Kingship and Monarchy). The Mosaic covenant, however, like the suzerainty treaties of the ancient world, is a covenant of obligation, subject to the sanctions of blessings and curses (Deut. 30.15–20). If the people are unfaithful and disobey the covenant stipulations, they will be punished for breaking the covenant. Carried to the extreme, this covenant could even be annulled, so that no longer would Yahweh be their God and no longer would Israel be God's people (Hos. 1.9). The renewal of the covenant, in this view, would be based solely on God's forgiving grace (Exod. 34.6–9; Jer. 31.31–33; Ezek. 16.59–63).
The New Testament draws upon all of these covenant traditions. In some circles, however, there was a strong preference for the promissory covenants associated with Abraham and David (cf. “the covenants of promise,” Eph. 2.12). Paul's interpretation of the new relationship between God and people, shown by the display of God's grace in Jesus Christ, sent him back beyond the Mosaic covenant of obligation to the Abrahamic promissory covenant (Gal. 3.6–18). And the promissory Davidic covenant, found especially in the prophecy of the book of Isaiah, provided a theological context for the announcement that Jesus is the Messiah (Christ), the Son of God.
Bernhard W. Anderson