The biblical covenants: Backbone of the story of redemptionWritten by Subby Szterszky
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It’s impossible to read very far in the Bible without running across the subject of covenants. The word appears nearly 300 times in the Old Testament and over 30 times in the New. Even the title “testament” is derived via Latin from the Greek diatheke, most naturally translated as “covenant.”
And yet to modern ears, covenant can sound like one of those archaic religious terms that everybody knows but few understand. Even theologians disagree as to how many there are and how they relate to one another. As often as not, they press these covenants into debates about politics, world events, the nature of the church and the end times.
This is not what the major biblical covenants are for, however. Together, they form the backbone of the redemptive story that unfolds throughout Scripture. They’re a series of discrete yet organically linked events that build upon each other, through which God commits himself to redeem his people and his creation, culminating in the New Covenant of his Son, Jesus Christ.
In short, to better appreciate the covenants is to better appreciate the mission of Jesus.
What is a covenant?
It may be good to start with what a covenant isn’t. It’s not a uniquely religious arrangement found only in the Scriptures. Nor is it merely a contract, which is far too impersonal and colourless to serve as an adequate analogy.
According to biblical scholar Thomas Schreiner, “a covenant is a chosen relationship in which two parties make binding promises to each other.” Covenants were a common feature of private and public life in the Ancient Near East (ANE). They could be between individuals, as in the case of marriage or land transactions, or between countries for taxation or military defence. The parties would bind themselves to their commitments and call curses upon themselves if they should break those commitments. The covenant might be ratified with oaths, signs, ceremonies or a blood sacrifice, although none of these elements was essential in every case.
The terms of a covenant might be conditional, unconditional, or a combination of both. They could be agreed upon mutually by parties on equal footing, or else imposed by a suzerain over a vassal, or by a monarch over his people.
There was no cookie-cutter model of covenants in the ANE, and this is true of the ones found in the Bible. We see covenants of friendship (David and Jonathan), international trade and mutual support (King Solomon and King Hiram of Tyre) and civic law (the freeing of slaves), to name a few. The major covenants through which God ratifies his redemptive purposes are just as diverse, although connected.
Scholars disagree about whether there was a covenant at creation. However, the account in the first three chapters of Genesis is covenantal in all but name. After God had created men and women in his image, he commissioned them to multiply and have dominion over his world as his representatives. This is often called the creation or cultural mandate. There were promises of blessing for obedience and cursing for disobedience, the latter of which occurred after Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate of the forbidden fruit.
Yet even in the midst of the curses for violating the conditions of the mandate, there was a new element of unconditional grace. God promised the woman that one of her descendants would crush the head of the serpent. Through this descendant, God would undo the effects of the curse and redeem his fallen creation.
The first time the word covenant (Hebrew berith) appears in Scripture is in connection with Noah. After the flood, God promised that he would never again destroy the earth with water. He made this covenant not only with Noah, but with all of humanity as well as the entire animal kingdom, in effect with all of his creation.
There were no conditions attached, nothing that either humans or animals could do to nullify the covenant. God knew that humanity was still sinful and broken. But he also remained faithful to his promise that redemption would come through the seed of the woman. He reiterated the cultural mandate to Noah and his family, to multiply and spread over the earth as his representatives.
While the covenant is not directly redemptive, it preserved the created order so that God’s plans to redeem it could continue. It was ratified with the universal sign of the rainbow, symbolizing that God had withdrawn his weapons of war and would only take up his bow again at the final judgment.
Genesis 12, 15, 17
God next entered into a multifaceted covenant with Abraham that unfolds in stages across Genesis 12, 15 and 17. In this covenant, God promised Abraham three things: numerous offspring, land, and that he would be the source of blessing to all nations via one of his descendants. In turn, he called Abraham to leave his home and follow where God led, walking blamelessly and teaching his family to do the same.
This covenant has both conditional and unconditional elements. Abraham must obey, but he’ll never do so perfectly, and God himself would ensure the covenant stipulations are met through the far-off descendant who will bring universal blessing. For his part, Abraham simply believed God, and his faith was counted to him as righteousness.
Covenants in the ANE between sovereign powers and lesser states were at times ratified via a ceremony in which animals were cut up and the pieces arranged on the ground. The two parties would then walk between the pieces, implying that a similar fate should befall them if they broke the agreement. In fact, the Hebrew expression for sealing a covenant is literally to cut the covenant. The formulaic curse, “Let this be done to me and more also if I should break this covenant,” appears in various iterations throughout the Old Testament.
But in his covenant with Abraham, it was only God who walked between the animal pieces, in the figure of a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch. In so doing, he took on himself the sole responsibility for keeping the covenant as well as the curse for breaking it, a curse which was borne by his Son on behalf of all his people at the Cross. The ongoing sign of the covenant was circumcision, showing that Abraham and his descendants had a special role in God’s redemptive purposes.
Exodus 19-24; Deuteronomy
By the time of Moses, Abraham’s family had grown into the populous nation of Israel and become enslaved in Egypt. After God rescued them from slavery, he brought them to the foot of Mount Sinai and made a covenant with them there, promising to take them as his treasured possession and dwell among them as their God, if they would obey him. He gave Israel a law code, summarized in the Ten Commandments, and the Sabbath as a covenant sign to show they were set apart to bless the nations, as God had promised Abraham.
This is the most conditional of all the major covenants, with extensive promises of blessing for obedience and curses for disobedience, including ultimate exile from the land. Indeed, the rest of Old Testament history is mostly a record of Israel’s failure to keep this covenant, resulting in the promised exile.
However, the covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai was never designed to last forever. It gave the nation a set of moral requirements, but not the power to obey them. It could not change anyone’s heart. Its purpose was to show the people their sin and drive them to trust in God for forgiveness and grace. In fact, Scripture refers to it as the old covenant, to be replaced by a new and everlasting one.
2 Samuel 7; 1 Chronicles 17
Nearly five centuries after Sinai, God had established David as king of Israel. He gave David success in all his ventures, subduing his enemies before him and helping him secure a stable and peaceful rule. Out of gratitude, David wanted to build God a suitable house of worship. But God then turned this wish on its head and promised instead to build David a house. He would make David’s name great and preserve his royal line until a final descendant would come and establish his kingdom forever.
There are both conditional and unconditional aspects to this covenant. The Davidic kings were to rule according to Israel’s covenantal laws, exercising righteousness and justice and leading their people to do the same. If they were faithful, there would be blessings, but if not, then curses and exile would follow.
But even though most of these monarchs failed in their duties, and exile did indeed come, God stayed true to his promise to keep a descendant of David on the throne. More than that, he guaranteed that a faithful, obedient Davidic king would eventually arise to rule an everlasting kingdom.
Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:22-32; Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:19-22; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; Galatians 3:15-29; Hebrews 7-9
On the very brink of exile and disaster, when the people of Israel had sunk to their lowest, God promised a New Covenant through his prophets. Throughout their history, the people as well as their leaders had failed at every point to keep the old Mosaic covenant. It could hardly be otherwise. That covenant had no power to transform them, either individually or as a nation. It was never intended for that purpose.
But now, God promised that he would give them a new heart, forgive all their sins, and pour his Spirit into them so that they would love and obey him. They would be his people and he would be their God, in a redeemed creation where sin and its curse would no longer intrude.
This New Covenant was realized at the coming of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. In fact, Jesus fulfilled the promises and stipulations from all of God’s covenants. He’s the second Adam, the ideal sinless human, Abraham’s perfect offspring, the one true obedient Israelite, and David’s ultimate royal heir. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus defeated sin and death, gave his people direct access into God’s presence, and inaugurated a new kingdom that will culminate in the New Heavens and New Earth. In the meantime, he has instituted communion as a sign of the new and everlasting covenant, the cup representing his blood shed for the forgiveness of sin and the ransom of his people.
There are no conditions to this covenant of grace. God is the one who has made all the promises and also fulfilled them through his Son. The only requirement is to receive the covenantal blessings by faith. Those who do so become part of the New Covenant community, made up of women and men from every nation, Jew and gentile alike, who possess the same faith as Abraham, and are thereby heirs of God according to his promise.
Bible teacher Whitney Woollard offers this neat summary of the covenantal thread that runs through the Scriptures:
“Do you see now how the covenants progressively build upon one another forming a backbone of sorts to the redemptive storyline? God preserved the world through Noah, initiated redemption through Abraham, formed a special people through Israel, promised a shepherd-king through David, and then fulfilled all of his covenantal promises through Jesus. With each covenant, God’s promises and plans to save the world through the seed of the woman become clearer and clearer until we finally see that redemption can only come through King Jesus.”
Sources and further reading
D.A. Carson, “A little introduction to covenants,” Desiring God, November 4, 2016.
Justin Dillehay, “Good answers to hard questions about the Bible’s covenants,” The Gospel Coalition, July 21, 2017.
Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants: A Concise Biblical Theology, Crossway, 2015.
Thomas R. Schreiner, “10 things you should know about the biblical covenants,” Crossway, July 17, 2017.
Thomas R. Schreiner, Covenant and God’s Purpose for the World, (Short Studies in Biblical Theology), Crossway, 2017.
Whitney Woollard, “Covenants: The backbone of the Bible,” The Bible Project, April 4, 2018.
© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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