Friday, June 4, 2010

Covenant - the unifying theme of the Old Testament

The covenant paradigm permeates the pages of the Old Testament, appearing at every stage of the biblical narrative and forming one of its most significant themes (Grant & Wilson, 2005, p. 12). Scripture contains various covenants reflecting common practice in the Ancient Near East[1]. Examples include covenants with self (Job 31:1), between people (1 Samuel 23:18, Proverbs 2:16-17), and between rulers and subjects (2 Samuel 5:3) (Driscoll & Breshears, 2010, p. 176). Of these the most significant is the relationship between the Lord and humanity shaped by multiple covenants (Robertson, 1980, p. 28). In covenant the Lord reveals his character and purpose and covenant love (Hebrew dsx (Hesed)), showing grace and mercy as well as justice and accountability (Hill & Walton, 2000, p. 21). The focus of this paper will be on defining the term ‘covenant,’ and demonstrating its thematic prominence and key theological features by surveying the biblical narrative.

Covenant at its most basic level is a formal agreement between two parties (Driscoll & Breshears, 2010, p. 175). Several definitions have been proposed[2]. However, the key defining elements are that it is a formal binding[3] relationship between parties, with set expectations, formed by ceremony and oath, and is accompanied by a sign[4]. Marriage is an excellent example of covenant – a couple enter into a formal relationship bound by law and Lord through the ceremony, pledge and as a sign the exchange of rings. This metaphor is used in scripture to describe the loving relationship of the Lord and humanity (Hosea 2, Jeremiah 2:1-2, Ezekiel 16, Ephesians 5:25-27, Revelation 21:2, Wright, 2010, p. 9).
The ‘Covenant Formula’ is the repeated refrain ‘I will be your God and you will be my people’ (Exodus 6:6-8, Leviticus 26:12, Jeremiah 7:27, 30:22, Grant & Wilson, 2005, p. 12; Baker, 2005, p. 22; Robertson, 1980, p. 47). It illustrates the Lords intention to unreservedly give himself to his people and in turn the expectation that they will serve Him and only Him (Archer, 1984, p. 277). It demonstrates the unilateral establishment of covenant without bargaining, bartering or negotiation (Robertson, 1980, p. 8), relationship with God on his terms (Driscoll, 2008).
The phrase ‘to make a covenant’ (tyrb (bĕrȋt) trk (karath)) literally reads to ‘to cut a covenant’ (Robertson, 1980, p. 8; Marshall, Millard, Packer, & Wiseman, 1996, p. 234; , 2001-2010). This language reflects the common dramatic ceremony of cutting an animal[5] at the formation of a covenant (Robertson, 1980, p. 9). This process emphasised covenants as a ‘life-and-death bond’ (Driscoll & Breshears, 2010, p. 176; Robertson, 1980, p. 12) as blood is representative of life (Leviticus 17:11). Once formed ‘nothing less than the shedding of blood may relieve the obligations incurred in the event covenantal violation’ (Hebrews 9:22, Robertson, 1980, p. 11).

The biblical-narrative demonstrates ‘successive covenants ... [that] span the entirety of the Old Testament period’ (Robertson, 1980, p. 17). God initiates five major covenants in the biblical text. They are with Noah and his family (Genesis 6:18; 9:8-17), Abraham and his descendants (Gen 12:1-3, 17:1-14), Moses and Israelites (Exodus 3:4-10, 19:5-6), David and the kingdom of Israel (2 Samuel 7:8-19), and the new covenant with Jesus and the church (Matthew 16:17-19, Robertson, 1980, p. 27; Driscoll & Breshears, 2010, p. 177) .
The Noahic Covenant (Genesis 8:15-9:17) is the earliest use of the word bĕrȋt and first explicit reference to covenant in the scriptures (Wright, 2005, p. 57). Prototypical elements of this covenant include introduction to characters (Genesis 6:6-8), the Lord’s restraint from total destruction (Genesis 6:13), the Lord’s initiative with saving grace (Genesis 6:14, 8:1), clear instruction and expectation (Genesis 6:14-21), blessing (Genesis 8:21, 9:10-16)) and a sign (Genesis 9:16, Driscoll & Breshears, 2010, p. 178; Birch, Brueggemann, Fretheim, & Petersen, 2005, p. 56).
There is also evidence to suggest that the original creation relationship between God and humanity is implicitly covenantal – the Adamic Covenant (Robertson, 1980, p. 27). The relationship has several covenantal elements – initiated by the Lord, binding in nature (Genesis 2:20) with expectations and consequences (Genesis 2:17). Wilson and Grant (2005, p. 13) argue that this is only a possibility as it lacks a covenant sign, ceremony or formula.
Early covenants seen within the Primeval prologue are unambiguously universal (Wright, 2005, p. 57), covenants intended for all people (Driscoll & Breshears, 2010, p. 183) and ‘every living creature’ (Genesis 9:10). Robertson argues that this is consistent throughout the Old Testament. He quotes Hosea 6:7 (which parallels an Israelite and non-Israelite in their transgression of the covenant), and Jeremiah 31 (alludes to Genesis narrative of creation rather than to establishment of God’s covenant with Noah) (1980, pp. 21,23). Universality is continued in the New Testament, which teaches humanity’s universal rejection of the Lord and need for a saviour (Romans 5:14-21.)
The formation of the Abrahamic Covenant follows many of the elements seen in the earlier Noahic Covenant. The characters are introduced (Genesis 11:29-31). The Lord initiates the plan (Genesis 12:1-3). There are clear instruction and expectations including going to ‘a land I will show you’ (Genesis 12:1), and obligations for God’s people to do ‘righteousness and justice’ (Genesis 18:19.) The covenant sign is male circumcision[6] (Genesis 17:10).
The Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 12:1-3, 15:18, 17:1-10) is the most important and missiologically the most significant Old Testament covenant (Wright, 2005, p. 58; Baker, 2005, p. 25). It affirms the universal plan for humanity but focuses on the vehicle for that plan, a particular people group – Abraham and his descendents (Mathew 1:1, 3:9). (Driscoll & Breshears, 2010, p. 186; Wright, 2005, p. 60). Following the emphasis of humanity’s sinful rebellion in Genesis 3-11, the Abrahamic covenant reveals the Lord’s plan to establish a people in a land, and how from that people an everlasting covenant will bless ‘all the families of the earth’ (Genesis 12:3).
The ensuing story reveals a key feature of covenant with the Lord – his commitment to it. Abraham places the covenant at risk by failing to trust God’s plans for Sarah by twice giving away his wife (Genesis 12:15, 20:11) and by having a child with his maidservant Hagar (Genesis 16:4). The Lord fulfils his promises not because of his people, but in spite of his people (Judges 2:1, Psalm 105:8).
This faithfulness allows the Lord’s people to become a nation (Driscoll & Breshears, 2010, p. 195). Over 400 years later, Abraham’s descendents are in Egypt ‘fruitful and increased greatly’ (Exodus 1:7). Despite numerical growth they are not in the land promised and the wrath of Pharaoh puts fulfilment of the Abrahamic Covenant in doubt. ‘God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob’ (Exodus 2:24 cf: Exodus 6:5) (Baker, 2005, p. 28). Through ten plaques and parted seas God dramatically acts to return Abraham’s descendents on a path of fulfilling the covenant proving an iconic symbol of God’s faithfulness to His people.
At Mount Sinai, the Lord initiates the next phase of his relationship the Mosaic Covenant, the first national covenant (Exodus 19:5-6). After reminding the people of his faithfulness and saving grace [7](Exodus 19:4) the Lord asks for a faithful response with the giving of the Law. This Law, recorded on ‘tablets...of the covenant, the Ten Commandments’ (Exodus 34:28) are the conditions for living in the covenant (Leviticus 26:15). The Law emphasises the unique relationship between God and his people. It warns them not to violate the covenant by forming covenants with other gods (Exodus 23:32) or constructing idols (Deuteronomy 4:23). Neither are they to form covenants with inhabitants of the land (Exodus 34:12) but rather to ‘devote them to complete destruction’ (Deuteronomy 7:2). The sign of the covenant will be Passover (Exodus 12:27). God’s faithfulness to this covenant allows God’s people to settle in the Promised Land (Driscoll & Breshears, 2010, p. 195).
Successive covenants are not a wiping of the slate but are harmonious, building on the existing relationship and continuing the basic emphasis (Robertson, 1980, pp. 28-29). The Mosaic Covenant does not annul or cancel the earlier Abrahamic Covenant but confirms and elaborates the obligations within the covenant (McGowen, 2005, p. 189; Baker, 2005, p. 25; Goldsworthy, 2000, p. 53). Nor does it change their status as the Lord’s people, but clearer defines their purpose (Exodus 19:5-6) (Birch, Brueggemann, Fretheim, & Petersen, 2005, pp. 129, 147).
This principle of successive covenants is seen throughout Old Testament scripture. Exodus 33:1 records the Lord instructing Moses to take the land promised Abraham (Marshall, Millard, Packer, & Wiseman, 1996, pp. 235-236). The Pentateuch re-enforces the covenant in the positive (Deuteronomy 7:12) and the negative (Leviticus 26:14-15). Joshua speaks of punishment for covenant infidelity (Joshua 23:16), the removal of blessing and the removal of the Lord’s presence (Joshua 7:10-13). 1 Kings 13:23 reports the Lord is gracious at present because of His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Additionally, the New Testament states that ‘the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God’ (Galatians 3:17).
In the Promised Land, they ask the Lord for a King to rule over them (1 Samuel 8:5). This request is first answered in the jealous King Saul and then in King David, ‘a man after God’s own heart’ (Acts 13:22). The Lord establishes the Davidic Covenant through the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 7:8-16, Psalms 89:3-4). Like previous covenants, it begins with selection by grace (2 Samuel 7:8-9a cf. Exodus 19:4), a promise of blessing (2 Samuel 7:9b-11) and a blessing of ‘a kingdom forever’ (2 Samuel 7:12-18 cf: Luke 3:31). The Davidic covenant is a further extension of the Sinai covenant (Marshall, Millard, Packer, & Wiseman, 1996, p. 236) and establishes God’s people as a strong empire (Driscoll & Breshears, 2010, p. 200). This period of united monarchy is Israel’s ‘Golden Age’ (Goldsworthy, 2000, p. 54)
David’s son Solomon is attributed as the wisest of all kings and his reign is the most prosperous in Israel’s history. Despite his wisdom, Solomon fails to keep God’s covenant by going after other gods. This failure leads to the end of the Golden Age and the division of the kingdom. 1 Kings 11:9-14 records ‘I will tear the kingdom from you’, leaving just one tribe, and the Lord raised Hadad the Edomite against him.
The destruction of the Northern Kingdom and exile to Assyria (721-722 BC), through the eyes of Hosea and the Deuteronomistic Historian, was a result of religious impropriety and violation of the Covenant (Birch, Brueggemann, Fretheim, & Petersen, 2005, p. 292). This event is described in 2 Kings 17:7-18 using the covenant framework – characters introduced (2 Kings 17:7), selection by grace (2 Kings 17:7), violation of the expectations (2 Kings 17:9,15) and judgement (2 Kings 17:18.)
The Southern Kingdom suffers a similar fate for its unfaithfulness (586 BC). 2 Kings 21:1-14 attributes the southern exile to Babylon to the reign of King Manasseh who violated the covenant and ‘did what was evil in the sight of the Lord’ (Birch, Brueggemann, Fretheim, & Petersen, 2005, p. 293). He had violated the conditions of the covenant by building alters within the temple, and seeking fortune tellers and necromancers.
The exile of both the Northern and Southern Kingdom was not invoked by a single technical offense. Rather it occured after severe rejection of the Lord’s commands (including the burning of their own children and the establishment of altars within the temple) and the rejection of multiple prophets sent to reform. Nor does it mean an end to the covenant with the Lord. He pursues them with prophets, demonstrates continued concern, and plans for their restoration (Isaiah 40:1-11: 41:8-10, Jeremiah 29:10-14, Baker, 2005, p. 34).  
Finally, the Lord through the prophets points forward to a New Covenant which will be inaugurated by Jesus (Luke 22:20, 1 Corinthians 11:25, Robertson, 1980, p. 43; Baker, 2005, pp. 34, 42). This New Covenant will be different in scope (Deuteronomy 23:1-3, Isaiah 19:18-25, 42:6, 49:6, 55:3-5, 56:3-8, Jeremiah 12:14-17), spiritual in nature (Ezekiel 11:19-20, 36:26-27, 37:12-14, Jeremiah 31:31-33), explicitly personal (Jeremiah 31:34) and eternal (Isaiah 54, Baker, 2005, pp. 43, 48).

History, as recorded in the Old Testament scriptures, is not scientific world history, but rather it is history of the Lord’s relationship with humanity (Goldsworthy, 2000, p. 41). This relationship is described, articulated and formalised through successive covenants. The narrative opens with the Lord’s universal covenant with creation (the Adamic and Noahic Covenants), then focuses on His relationship with a family (the Abrahamic Covenant), who become a nation with instructions of life and worship (the Mosiac Covenant), and then a kingdom (the Davidic Covenant.) Humanity’s inherent inability to remain faithful to these covenant for more than a few decades, (seen most vividly in the juxtaposition of the reforming king Hezekiah and his son Manasseh), requires a new solution, the prophesied New Covenant. The bulk of biblical writings are concentrated around periods of covenantal initiation, restoration, and fulfilment with relative silence on events apart from the Lord’s people but important to world history and periods of covenantal stability. Covenant is clearly one of the Old Testament’s pervasive and unifying themes.


Archer, J. G. (1984). Covenant. In W. A. Elwell (Ed.), Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (pp. 276-278). Michigan: Baker Book House.
Baker, D. L. (2005). Covenant: an Old Testament Study. In J. A. Grant, & A. I. Wilson, The God of the Covenant (pp. 21-53). Leicester: Apollos (IVP).
Bautch, R. J. (n.d). An Apprasial of Abraham's Role in Postexcilic Covenants. Catholic Biblical Quarterly , pp. 42-65.
Birch, B. C., Brueggemann, W., Fretheim, T. E., & Petersen, D. L. (2005). A Theological Introduction To the Old Testament (2nd Edition ed.). Nashville: Abingdon Press.
Driscoll, M. (2008). Doctrine: Covenant: God Pursues. Seatle: Mars Hill.
Driscoll, M., & Breshears, G. (2010). Covenant: God Pursues. In Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe (pp. 175-207). Wheaton: Crossway.
Goldsworthy, G. (2000). The Goldsworthy Trilogy. Waynesboro: Paternoster Press.
Grant, J. A., & Wilson, A. I. (2005). Introduction. In J. A. Grant, & A. I. Wilson, The God of the Covenant (pp. 12-20). Leicester: Apollos (IVP).
Hill, A. E., & Walton, J. H. (2000). A survey of the Old Testament (Second Edition ed.). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Marshall, I. H., Millard, A. R., Packer, J. I., & Wiseman, D. J. (Eds.). (1996). The New Bible Dictionary (3rd Edition ed.). Leicester: IVP.
McGowen, A. T. (2005). Covenant: God's mission through God's people. In J. A. Grant, & A. I. Wilson, The God of the Covenant (pp. 178-199). Leicester: Apollos (IVP).
Robertson, O. P. (1980). The Christ of the Covenants. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co. . (2001-2010). Retrieved March 2010, from :
Wright, C. J. (2005). Covenant: God's mission through God's people. In J. A. Grant, & A. I. Wilson, The God of the Covenant (pp. 54-78). Leicester: Apollos (IVP).
Wright, C. J. (2010). The Whole Church - A Brief Biblical Survey. Evangelical Review of Theology , pp. 14-28.

[1] Examples of Ancient Near Eastern covenants include Mari and Amarna tablets records of covenant between nations (Marshall, Millard, Packer, & Wiseman, 1996, pp. 234-235).
[2] Covenant Definitions - a mutually binding agreement to do undertakings on each other’s part (Archer, 1984, p. 276), ‘a bond in blood sovereignly administered’ (Robertson, 1980, p. 4), ‘a solemn commitment, guaranteeing promise or obligations undertaken by one or both parties, sealed with an oath’ (Williamson quoted in Driscoll & Breshears, 2010, p. 176), Covenant is a metaphor... covenant is much too personally and relationonally construed for a treaty or agreement language to do it justice.’ (Birch, Brueggemann, Fretheim, & Petersen, 2005, p. 153)  The word most often translated as ‘covenant’ is the Hebrew tyrb (bĕrȋt) which implies ‘obligation’ and ‘binding’. (Baker, 2005, p. 22; Archer, 1984, p. 276)
[3] Covenant is a binding relationship. It is not to be entered into in a casual or informal manner as it is inviolable (Robertson, 1980, p. 4), unalterable and permanent (Archer, 1984, p. 277). ‘No one annuls [a covenant] or adds to it once it has been ratified’ (Galatians 3:15).  Parties are obligated to carry out their respective commitments under the penalty of divine retribution (Archer, 1984, p. 277) or the shedding of their blood (Robertson, 1980, p. 11).
[4] Covenant Signs include: a rainbow (Genesis 9:13), circumcision (Genesis 17:10), a gift (Genesis 21:28-32), the eating of a meal (Genesis. 26:28-30, 31:54; Exodus 24:11), the setting up of a memorial (Genesis. 31:44f.; John. 24:27), sprinkling of blood (Exodus 24:8), the Sabbath (Leviticus 31:16), the passing under the rod (Ezekiel 20:37) or reflected in construction (II Kings 11:4). 
[5] Genesis 15:9-17. He said to him, "Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon." And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. Then the LORD said to Abram, "Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete." When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.
[6] The reason the Lord chose this is not stated, but may be related to childbearing and the hereditary nature of covenant and sexual sin which plagues humanity (Driscoll & Breshears, 2010, p. 186).

[7] Christopher Wright expresses this principle well: 'The priority of grace is a fundamental theological premise in approaching Old Testament law and ethics. Obedience to the law was base on, and was a response to, God's salvation. Exodus has eighteen chapters of redemption before a single chapter of law' (Wright, 2005, p. 64).