Promises today don’t quite hold up as much as they used to 2,000 years ago. Today, we can break promises and make promises we don’t intend to keep. Back in the Old Testament, that wouldn’t fly.
A covenant, the next level type of promise, involved a life-or-death agreement between two parties. If two men wanted to make a covenant, they would slice animals in half and walk between the carcasses (Genesis 15:10). This would signify that if either didn’t hold up their end of the deal that what happened to the animals would happen to them.
And yet, people make them with people throughout the centuries, and even God steps in on the action and makes a covenant between individuals and groups of people.
In this article, we’ll dive into the definition of a covenant and what it entailed to have one in the Old and New Testaments. We’ll lightly touch on some examples of covenants we find throughout Scripture and why this ultimately matters for us.
Bible Definition of Covenant
According to the Smith's Bible Dictionary, the Hebrew translation of covenant, berith, means primarily "a cutting," with reference to the custom of cutting or dividing animals in two and passing between the parts in ratifying a covenant. In the New Testament, the corresponding word is diathece (diatheke), which is frequently translated testament in the Authorized Version. In its biblical meaning two senses of the word are used:
1. Of a covenant between God and man; e.g. God covenanted with Noah, after the flood, that alike judgment should not be repeated. It is not precisely like a covenant between men but was a promise or agreement by God. The principal covenants are the covenant of works --God promising to save and bless men on condition of perfect obedience --and the covenant of grace or God's promise to save men on condition of their believing in Christ and receiving him as their Master and Saviour. The first is called the Old Covenant, from which we name the first part of the bible the Old Testament, the Latin rendering of the word covenant. The second is called the New Covenant, or New Testament.
2. Covenant between man and man, i.e. a solemn compact or agreement, either between tribes or nations or between individuals, (Genesis 31:44) by which each party bound himself to fulfill certain conditions and was assured of receiving certain advantages. In making such a covenant God was solemnly invoked as a witness, (Genesis 31:50) and an oath was sworn. (Genesis 21:31) A sign or witness of the covenant was sometimes framed, such as a gift, (Genesis 21:30) or a pillar or heap of stones erected. (Genesis 31:52)
What Does a Covenant Involve?
As stated in this BibleProject article, because of sin, a rift formed between God and his people. Part of the way he repairs this rift is by selecting a group of people and making a covenant between them. He promises something good, such as plentiful generations or a promise never to Flood the earth again (we’ll discuss this more below).
In exchange, those at the other end of the covenant, God’s people, have some obligations to hold up. Most of the time this means following God and not straying after other idols.
As one can imagine, God’s people don’t always hold up their end of the bargain, and consequences ensue.
Covenants, as mentioned above, involved slicing animals in half and walking between the pieces. Sometimes this involved one half being placed on a cursed mountain and another on a blessed mountain, meaning that if you broke off the covenant, you’d end up cursed.
Traditionally, outside of the Bible, people in the ancient world would make covenants in this way.
Examples of Covenants in Scripture
We run into a number of covenants in the Bible, most between God and a group or individual. Arguably, there are more than what’s listed below, but most scholars agree on these four main covenants throughout Scripture.
First, Noah receives a covenant after God sent a worldwide Flood. In Genesis 9, God makes a promise to all of Creation. He sets a rainbow in the sky and promises never to flood the whole world again. He also gives all of creation into mankind’s hands to subdue.
He also instructs Noah in the same way he had with Adam and Eve, to be fruitful and multiply.
Second, we encounter a covenant between God and a man named Abraham. This does involve slicing animals in half (Genesis 12). And interestingly enough, God puts Abraham under a deep sleep and passes through the pieces by himself.
That means that God takes on the covenant twofold, including the curses involved if he doesn’t uphold his end of the deal. In this covenant, God promises to make Abraham into a great nation (Israel), to give him the Promised Land, and to make Abraham’s name great. God does all of these things.
Third, God makes a covenant between himself and King David. Through David’s line, there would be a king (Jesus) unlike any other to deliver God’s people. As we learn in the 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings, David’s family goes astray, but God fulfills his end of the covenant, and through David’s line comes Jesus.
Finally, we have something known as the New Covenant, “‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.’” (Jeremiah 31:31).
This involves us.
Because humanity had fallen far from the grace of God, and God wanted a renewal of the relationship, we have something known as the New Covenant. Through God’s son and his sacrifice, we have the chance for a redemptive relationship with our Savior.
No wonder we call the New Testament the New Testament. Because it fulfills the New Covenant through Jesus.
Why Do Covenants Matter to Us?
Most obviously, covenants should matter to us because the last one listed involves us. Through Jesus’ sacrifice, we can become God’s people.
But covenants also show God’s true and loyal nature. If he says he will do something, he will not break that promise. Unlike today, promises meant life or death when made back in the Bible.
We can also see God’s faithful fulfillment of the other covenants, even when humans sinned and didn’t hold up their end of the oath. Praise the Lord that we have such a wonderful God who will also fulfill his covenants and promises.
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Hope Bolinger is an acquisitions editor at End Game Press, and the author 21+ books. More than 1400 of her works have been featured in various publications. Check out her books at hopebolinger.com for clean books in most genres, great for adults and kids.
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