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Covenant (in the Old Testament)

See also Covenant

COVENANT (in the OLD TESTAMENT) (בְּרִית, H1382, LXX διαθήκη, G1347, agreement, testament). A legally binding obligation, esp. of God for man’s redemption.



On the other hand, some derive berîṯ from the root baraya as it is used in 1 Samuel 17:8, meaning “to decide” or “allot to” (Gesenius-Buhl, Hebräisches und aramäisches Handwörterbuch über das AT). Others then adduce the parallel to be found in the Hitt. “dynastic suzerainty covenant.” A vassal would enter into an oath of loyalty and trust toward his king and the king’s dynastic successors, out of gratitude for royal favors that already had been received (cf. G. von Rad, OT Theology, I:132). The benefits derived, moreover, gained their legal force with the death of the suzerain. As Meredith Kline has summarized it, “From the viewpoint of the subject people a treaty guaranteeing the suzerain’s dynastic succession is an expression of their covenantal relation to their overlord; but from the viewpoint of the royal son(s) of the suzerain the arrangement is testamentary...it is not in force while the testator lives” (WTJ, 23 [1960], p 13). These derivations point toward the giving of an inheritance and favor the meaning “testament.”

Basically, however, the meaning of the b’rith must be sought not in its etymology or significance as found in the pagan cultures that surrounded Israel. Only in the transformed usage of the term, as it appears in God’s own historical revelation, is its ultimate import disclosed.


Three usages of b’rith appear in the OT.

Parity covenants.

Suzerainty covenants.

Most such divine suzerainty covenants also involve redemptive, promissory elements (see below, C); but there do exist two minor passages and one major situation that are specifically divine disposition-b’riths. For the former, Jeremiah 33:20, 25 refers to God’s covenanted “ordering of day and night”; and Zechariah 11:10 speaks of God’s breaking His b’rith which He “had made with all the people”; the contextually suggested meaning is that, while God used to order world history in favor of Israel (cf. Deut 32:8), now He has freed all peoples from this “covenant” obligation. The latter situation concerns God’s preredemptive arrangement with Adam. Scripture refers to it as a b’rith (Hos 6:7), and it is not inaptly styled the “covenant” of works. For though Eden exhibits no partnership of equals, and no voluntary mutual agreement was reached prior to God’s sovereign disposition, there yet existed a certain balance of obligations and benefits that were equally binding upon the two parties concerned. Never again has history witnessed such a situation, with the exception of the life of the man Christ Jesus, who was the representative last Adam and who fulfilled all righteousness (1 Cor 15:45).

Promissory covenants, or suzerainty testaments.

The legally binding nature of a promise could be enforced by a covenant, e.g., to support a new king (2 Kings 11:4) or to release slaves (Jer 34:8). The recipient of the promise might be God Himself, e.g., Ezra 10:3, to “make a covenant with our God to put away all these [foreign] wives.” This is the case in 2 Kings 23:3a, where Josiah made a covenant to confirm the words of God’s b’rith that were written in the rediscovered Book; cf. 2 Chronicles 29:10, “It is in my heart to make a [not the] covenant with the Lord that his fierce anger may turn away from us.” More frequently, however, it is God who makes this b’rith, and thereby assures men of His promises (cf. Gen 15:18). Kline summarizes it by stating that when men swear to a binding obligation there arises a b’rith of law, but that when God does there arises a b’rith of grace (WTJ, 27).

Specifically, when the parties concerned are God in His grace and man in his sin, on whose behalf God acts, the b’rith becomes God’s self-imposed obligation for the deliverance of sinners, an instrument of inheritance for effectuating God’s elective love (Deut 7:6-8; Ps 89:3, 4). Through it He accomplishes the gracious promise that is found throughout Scripture, “I will be their God; they shall be my people.” John Murray thus defines this third divine b’rith as “a sovereign administration of grace and promise. It is not a ‘compact’ or ‘contract’ or ‘agreement’ that provides the constitutive or governing idea but that of ‘dispensation’ in the sense of disposition” (The Covenant of Grace, p. 31; cf. pp. 10-12, 14-16). The inheritance was not automatic. Though essentially monergistic, effectuated by “one worker” (God, not man and God), the b’rith required that men qualify for it; and, concretely, God’s holiness demanded a removal of sin. This removal, in turn, came about by atonement, the covering of sin’s guilt (q.v.). Atonement, then, demanded blood sacrifice, a substitutionary surrender of life (Lev 17:11). Furthermore, only God or His representative could make such atonement (Exod 15:13; cf. A. B. Davidson, The Theology of the OT, p. 321). As Genesis 15:17, 18 dramatically puts it, God committed Himself to the covenantal threat of self-dismemberment; and thus God saves “because of the blood of my b’rith” (Zech 9:11).

Ultimately then the b’rith is, as the NT declares (Heb 9:15-17), a testament: the last will of the dying God, bequeathing an inheritance of righteousness to Israel. The OT, per force, never verbalizes this conclusion, and for two reasons. (a) While the idea of an inheritance was familiar to the OT (Gen 27; Num 36), and while the practice of Hitt. kings, guaranteeing testamentary protection to those vassals who remained faithful to their successors, was evidently familiar to Moses, the concept of a personal will remained relatively foreign to Heb. thought until the days of the Herods (Jos. Antiq., 17. 3.2; War, 2.2.3). (b) The fact that God’s only Son would some day constitute the sufficient sacrificial ransom was not yet clearly revealed. It remained incomprehensible to OT saints that, to satisfy God, God’s Son must die, that men might inherit His divine life, and so be with God. Its knowledge was far too seminal, both of the Trinity and of the incarnation, and of the crucifixion followed by the resurrection (though cf. Isa 53:10, 11). Neither does the OT deny to God’s promissory b’rith the possibility of this testamentary interpretation, and actually all of its essential factors are present. The OT simply assigns to God’s legally binding, monergistic declaration of redemption the title b’rith; and for its subsequent theological explication, through the LXX and the Qumran community, into the Apostolic Church, see Covenant (in the New Testament).

In the light, however, of NT explanations, the testamentary significance of b’rith in the OT comes into clear focus. When referring to God’s promissory instrument for the reconciliation of men with Himself, this becomes apparent both by analogy and by the nature of the b’rith itself. For the former, since Hebrews 9:15 reads, “He is the mediator of a new covenant,” then by analogy v. 18 must read, “Wherefore even the first testament hath not been dedicated without blood” (ASV). The old, that is, must be in the same category as the new. For the latter, Franz Delitzsch has remarked concerning the inherent nature of God’s instrument: “The old covenant was...a testamentary disposition, insofar as God bound Himself by promise to bestow, on Israel continuing faithful, an ‘eternal inheritance.’...Being thus a testament, it is also not without such a death as a testament requires, albeit an inadequate foreshadowing of the death of the true διαθέμενος [testator]” Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, II:109, 110. The OT declares that God saves “because of the blood of the b’rith” (Zech 9:11); and, as Hebrews 9:15 explains, Christ “is the mediator of a new covenant, that a death having taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first covenant” (ASV, cf. John 14:6). Though men’s faith in His death had to be anticipatory and veiled, yet from the first it was known that for the serpent’s head to be crushed the heel of the seed of woman would have to be bruised (Gen 3:15).

Even in the case of most of the OT’s statutory b’riths, or dispositions, of God with men (Part B, above) the designation suzerainty “testament” appears preferable to suzerainty “covenant” (KJV). This follows as a natural development from the concept of b’rith as a redemptive bequest. A last will carries requirements: an heir may break his testamental obligation, but by so doing he forfeits his inheritance; cf. Eichrodt’s stress upon the b’rith as being at once both grace and precept (Theology of the OT, I:37). Though the testament is truly a bestowal, it is, as Delitzsch noted, a bestowal “on Israel continuing faithful.” Here apply such vv. as Leviticus 24:8, where the preparation of the presence-bread, “shewbread,” is styled a perpetual b’rith; for the b’rith was more than a simple statute: the “shewbread” in this case stood as a symbol of God’s graciously redeeming presence; so that to make provision for it was to carry out an ordinance that contributed to man’s participation in divine salvation. Minor as it was, it expressed Israel’s faith in the gracious Testator. “To keep His b’rith” means, therefore, “to satisfy His testament” in its conditions for inheritance. Similar in nature are 2 Kings 11:17, “Jehoiada made [executed] the testament [not a covenant] that they should be the Lord’s people,” and 2 Chronicles 15:12, which speaks of entering into the testament. Indeed, all of God’s sovereignly imposed suzerainty b’riths are “testaments,” requirements for redemption that He graciously reveals to His own, so as to enable their reconciliation to Himself.


Unity and development.

On the basis of Hebrews 9’s applicability to both OT and NT, one may define b’rith as a “legal disposition by which qualified heirs are bequeathed an inheritance through the death of the testator.” Five major aspects to the testamental arrangement appear: the testator, who gives and is styled “the mediator” (Heb 9:15); the heirs, who receive and are also referred to as “the called” (9:15); the method of effectuation, namely, by a gracious bequest that is executed upon the death of the testator (9:16); the conditions, by which the heir qualifies for the gift, for as Hebrews 9:28 KJV puts it, the testament is “to them that look for him” (cf. its being “commanded,” 9:20 RSV); and the inheritance which is given, namely, “eternal inheritance” (9:15, 28).

Objective features.

(3) It is the inheritance aspect of the testament that suggests its third objective feature: the promise that is made, namely, salvation, in terms of reconciliation with God. From the first book of the Bible to the last, moreover, one statement in particular is employed to characterize the reconciled heirs of the b’rith (cf. Gen 17:7; Rev 21:3). As John Murray states, “Its constant refrain is the assurance, ‘I will be your God, and you shall be My people’” (The Covenant of Grace, p. 32); “This is the promise of grace upon which rests the communion of the people of God in all ages” (Christian Baptism, p. 47). Out of zeal to guard against an anthropocentric religion and to safeguard the ultimate sovereignty of God, some evangelicals tend currently to minimize this promissory element. On the one hand, certain covenant theologians have defined b’rith as simply “a sovereign administration of the Kingdom of God...an administration of God’s lordship, consecrating a people to himself under the sanctions of divine law” (M. Kline, “Law Covenant,” WTJ, 27 [1964], 17). While rightly stressing the priority of law and obedience in God’s original covenant of works with Adam (see conclusion of II-B, above), they have neglected the fact that in every subsequent b’rith, it is the redemption by divine grace that becomes central. On the other hand, certain dispensational theologians, while rightly subordinating man’s redemption to God’s final glory, have tended to minimize the pervasiveness of the salvation theme in Scripture (cf. J. Walvoord, BS, 103 [1946], 3) and gone on to assume a replacement of God’s unconditional promise, e.g., to Abraham, by subsequent law, e.g., the Mosaic (cf. D. Pentecost, Things to Come, p. 68). As Eichrodt has well pointed out, “The Hebrew berīt has to cover two lines of thought:...‘legal system’...and ‘decree of salvation’...which can yet only in conjunction render the whole content of that divine activity covered by the term berīt” (Theology of the OT, I:66; cf. Gal 3:17).

(4) Another objective feature, which likewise relates to the aspect of heirship, is the eternity of the inheritance (John 3:16; 10:27-29). Leviticus 2:13 speaks pictorially of “the salt [eternal preservation] of the b’rith of thy God”; 1 Chronicles 16:15 and Psalm 105:8-10 talk directly of the fact that God “is mindful of his covenant forever.” Then the prophecy of Daniel 7 climaxes in the universal and everlasting dominion that is to be received by the saints (vv. 14, 27).

(5) Finally, along with these four, is the always present feature of the confirmatory sign, some visible demonstration of God’s ability to perform what He has promised. The ultimate such sign is Christ’s victory over the grave, which serves as a pledge of His deity (Rom 1:4), of justification (4:25), and of immortality and resurrection (1 Cor 15:20-22). Other signs, however, have been introduced with each historical revelation of the b’rith (see IV chart, below). Certain of these were somewhat modified at Christ’s first coming, but God has never repealed His earlier signs.

Subjective features.


The above-listed eight features (III, B-C) of God’s OT promissory covenant, or testament, stand in marked contrast with those of His suzerainty covenant of works with Adam (see above, II, conclusion of B) which preceded it. Certain of its features appear also in the Adamic covenant: e.g., both arangements reflect the same fundamental situation of divine justice—that man’s chief end is to glorify God (Isa 43:7; Rom 11:36); and that as it was originally in Genesis 2, so at the final judgment, all men will be judged on the basis of works (Gen 3:11; Rev 20:12). Under the promissory testament, however, it is Christ who provides the justifying works, not man himself (Phil 3:9; cf. Isa 45:24, 25).


Even in the first revelation of God’s promissory b’rith (Gen 3:15), the aforementioned testamentary features are truly present, though in rudimentary form. Genesis 3:15 is, in fact, not even called a b’rith; but it is necessarily assumed to be so (cf. L. Alonso-Schökel, Biblica, 43 [1962], 295-315, and M. Kline, WTJ, 27 [1964], 9; contra C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, p. 86), both because of the presence of the eight features and because of the development of all subsequent redemptive b’riths from it. The following tabulation presents both its similarities and its contrasts with the earlier covenant:




In the summer of 1446 b.c., following its miraculous exodus from Egypt, Israel was granted the fourth of God’s testamentary revelations in history; cf. an increasing modern recognition of Mosaic historicity (IDB, I:719). The particularism of the Sinaitic b’rith now embraced their entire nation rather than a mere family (Exod 19:5, 6, vv. that affect all subsequent formulations of the b’rith, J. Muilenburg, VT, 9 [1939], 352). The large group involved, over two million people, thus accounts for the detailed Mosaic legislation that follows: both the moral requirements of the testament (Neh 9:13, 14) and the forms of ceremonial obedience that make up the ritual of the Tabernacle, which became the testamental sanctuary. Deuteronomy 7:7, 8 and 9:4-6 base the b’rith on God’s love, His free grace. This graciousness of the testament was unique to the faith of Israel, preserving humility on the part of the inheritors and checking tendencies toward legalistic distortions or toward any necessary equating of God with the national interests (cf. G. E. Wright, The OT Against Its Environment, ch. 11). Sinai therefore was not essentially a conditional covenant of works (cf. Murray, NBD, p. 266; or, The Covenant of Grace, pp. 20-22), despite the objection of Mendenhall (IDB, I:718), who would view Sinai as opposed to the other b’riths in this regard.


Anticipated in Numbers 18:19, when Aaron and his family were granted certain offerings as “a covenant of salt,” the Levitical testament arose out of the heroic action of Phinehas, grandson of Aaron, against national apostasy and immorality (Num 25:8). The promise of the Levitical b’rith lay specifically in God’s bestowal of the priestly office on this particular group of Levites (v. 13) and in the resultant reconciliation that they experienced with God (cf. Mal 2:6). It possessed also a broader redemptive significance, for it was through the priesthood that God’s wrath was turned away from Israel as a whole (Num 25:11). It was ultimately anticipatory of Christ’s testamental work of divine propitiation (Heb 7:11, 19).


The new B’rith

; and

The B’rith of Peace.

(Source: Theology of the Older Testament, p. 95)


F. Korosec, Hethitische Staatsvertrage (1931); J. Behm and G. Quell, διατίθημι, ειαθήκη, TWNT (1935), II:105-137; G. Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (1948); J. Murray, The Covenant of Grace (1954); G. E. Mendenhall, Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East (1955); J. A. Fitsmyer, “The Aramaic Suzerainty Treaty from Sefire in the Museum of Beirut,” CBQ, 20 (1958), 111-176; D. J. Wiseman, “The Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon,” Iraq, 20 (1958), 1-100; E. J. Young, The Study of OT Theology Today (1958); J. Muilenberg, “The Form and Structure of the Covenantal Formulations,” VT, 9 (1959), 347-365; J. A. Thompson, “Covenant Patterns in the Ancient Near East and their Significance for Biblical Studies,” The Reformed Theological Review, 18 (1959), 65-75; K. Baltzer, Das Bundesformular (1960); M. G. Kline, “The Two Tables of the Covenant,” “Dynastic Covenant,” and “Law Covenant,” WTJ, 22 (1960), 123-146, 23 (1960), 1-15, 27 (1964), 1-20; J. A. Fitsmyer, “The Aramaic Inscriptions of Sefire I and Sefire II,” JAOS, 81 (1961), 178-222; J. B. Payne, Theology of the Older Testament (1962); F. C. Fensham, “Malediction and Benediction in Ancient Near Eastern Vassal-Treaties and the OT,” ZAW, 74 (1962), 1-9, and “Clauses of Protection in Hittite Vassal Treaties and the OT,” VT 13 (1963), 133-143; D. J. McCarthy, Treaty and Covenant (1963); J. A. Thompson, “The Significance of the Ancient Near Eastern Treaty Pattern,” The Tyndale House Bulletin, 13 (1963), 1-6, and The Ancient Near Eastern Treaties and the OT (1964); W. Brueggemann, “Amos IV, 4-13 and Israel’s Covenant Worship,” VT, 15 (1965), 1-15; R. E. Clemens, Prophecy and Covenant (1965); E. Gerstenberger, “Covenant and Commandment,” JBL, 84 (1965), 38-51; D. J. McCarthy, “Covenant in the OT: the Present State of Inquiry,” CBQ, 27 (1965), 217-240; C. C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (1965); G. M. Tucker, “Covenant Forms and Contract Forms,” VT, 15 (1965), 487-503; P. B. Harner, “Exodus, Sinai, and Hittite Prologues,” JBL, 85 (1966), 233-236; K. A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and OT (1967), 90-102.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)




1. Early Idea

2. Principal Elements

3. Different Varieties

4. Phraseology Used


1. Essential Idea

2. Covenants Recorded in the Old Testament

3. Phraseology Used

4. History of Covenant Idea


I. General Meaning.

The etymological force of the Hebrew berith is not entirely certain. It is probable that the word is the same as the Assyrian biritu, which has the common meaning "fetter," but also means "covenant." The significance of the root from which this Assyrian word is derived is uncertain. It is probable that it is "to bind," but that is not definitely established. The meaning of biritu as covenant seems to come directly from the root, rather than as a derived meaning from fetter. If this root idea is to bind, the covenant is that which binds together the parties. This, at any rate, is in harmony with the general meaning of the word.

In the Old Testament the word has an ordinary use, when both parties are men, and a distinctly religious use, between God and men. There can be no doubt that the religious use has come from the ordinary, in harmony with the general custom in such cases, and not the reverse. There are also two shades of meaning, somewhat distinct, of the Hebrew word: one in which it is properly a covenant, i.e. a solemn mutual agreement, the other in which it is more a command, i.e. instead of an obligation voluntarily assumed, it is an obligation imposed by a superior upon an inferior. This latter meaning, however, has clearly been derived from the other. It is easy to see that an agreement, including as the contracting parties those of unequal position, might readily include those agreements which tended to partake of the nature of a command; but the process could not readily be reversed.

II. Among Men.

1. Early Idea:

We consider first a covenant in which both contracting parties are men. In essence a covenant is an agreement, but an agreement of a solemn and binding force. The early Semitic idea of a covenant was doubtless that which prevailed among the Arabs (see especially W. Robertson Smith, Religion of the Semites, 2nd edition, passim). This was primarily blood-brotherhood, in which two men became brothers by drinking each other’s blood. Ordinarily this meant that one was adopted into the clan of the other. Hence, this act involved the clan of one of the contracting parties, and also brought the other party into relation with the god of this clan, by bringing him into the community life of the clan, which included its god. In this early idea, then, "primarily the covenant is not a special engagement to this or that particular effect, but bond of troth and life- fellowship to all the effects for which kinsmen are permanently bound together" (W. Robertson Smith, op. cit., 315 f). In this early ceremonial the religious idea was necessarily present, because the god was kindred to the clan; and the god had a special interest in the covenant because he especially protects the kindred blood, of which the stranger thus becomes a part. This religious side always persisted, although the original idea was much modified. In later usage there were various substitutes for the drinking of each other’s blood, namely, drinking together the sacrificial blood, sprinkling it upon the parties, eating together the sacrificial meal, etc.; but the same idea found expression in all, the community of life resulting from the covenant.

2. Principal Elements:

The covenant in the Old Testament shows considerable modification from the early idea. Yet it will doubtless help in understanding the Old Testament covenant to keep in mind the early idea and form. Combining statements made in different accounts, the following seem to be the principal elements in a covenant between men. Some of the details, it is to be noted, are not explicitly stated in reference to these covenants, but may be inferred from those between God and men.

(1) A statement of the terms agreed upon (Ge 26:29; 31:50,52). This was a modification of the earlier idea, which has been noted, in which a covenant was all-inclusive.

(2) An oath by each party to observe the terms, God being witness of the oath (Ge 26:31; 31:48-53). The oath was such a characteristic feature that sometimes the term "oath" is used as the equivalent of covenant (see Eze 17:13).

(3) A curse invoked by each one upon himself in case disregard of the agreement. In a sense this may be considered a part of the oath, adding emphasis to it. This curse is not explicitly stated in the case of human covenants, but may be inferred from the covenant with God (De 27:15-26).

(4) The formal ratification of the covenant by some solemn external act.

The different ceremonies for this purpose, such as have already been mentioned, are to be regarded as the later equivalents of the early act of drinking each other’s blood. In the Old Testament accounts it is not certain that such formal act is expressly mentioned in relation to covenants between men. It seems probable, however, that the sacrificial meal of Ge 31:54 included Laban, in which case it was a covenant sacrifice. In any case, both sacrificial meal and sprinkling of blood upon the two parties, the altar representing Yahweh, are mentioned in Ex 24:4-8, with allusions elsewhere, in ratification of the covenant at Sinai between Yahweh and Israel. In the covenant of God with Abraham is another ceremony, quite certainly with the same purpose. This is a peculiar observance, namely, the cutting of animals into two parts and passing between the severed portions (Ge 15:9-18), a custom also referred to in Jer 34:18. Here it is to be noted that it is a smoking furnace and a flaming torch, representing God, not Abraham, which passed between the pieces. Such an act, it would seem, should be shared by both parties, but in this case it is doubtless to be explained by the fact that the covenant is principally a promise by Yahweh. He is the one who binds Himself. Concerning the significance of this act there is difference of opinion. A common view is that it is in effect a formal expression of the curse, imprecating upon oneself the same, i.e. cutting in pieces, if one breaks the terms of the covenant. But, as W. R. Smith has pointed out (op. cit., 481), this does not explain the passing between the pieces, which is the characteristic feature of the ceremony. It seems rather to be a symbol that the two parties "were taken within the mystical life of the victim." (Compare the interpretation of Heb 9:15-17 in COVENANT, IN THE NEW TESTAMENT.) It would then be an inheritance from the early times, in which the victim was regarded as kindred with the tribe, and hence, also an equivalent of the drinking of each other’s blood.

The immutability of a covenant is everywhere assumed, at least theoretically.

Other features beyond those mentioned cannot be considered as fundamental. This is the case with the setting up of a stone, or raising a heap of stones (Ge 31:45,46). This is doubtless simply an ancient custom, which has no direct connection with the covenant, but comes from the ancient Semitic idea of the sacredness of single stones or heaps of stones. Striking hands is a general expression of an agreement made (Ezr 10:19; Eze 17:18, etc.).

3. Different Varieties:

4. Phraseology Used:

In all cases of covenants between men, except Jer 34:10 and Da 9:27, the technical phrase for making a covenant is karath berith, in which karath meant originally "to cut." Everything indicates that this verb is used with reference to the formal ceremony of ratification above mentioned, of cutting animals in pieces.

III. Between God and Men.

1. Essential Idea: As already noted, the idea of covenants between God and men doubtless arose from the idea of covenants between men. Hence, the general thought is similar. It cannot in this case, however, be an agreement between contracting parties who stand on an equality, but God, the superior, always takes the initiative. To some extent, however, varying in different cases, is regarded as a mutual agreement; God with His commands makes certain promises, and men agree to keep the commands, or, at any rate, the promises are conditioned on human obedience. In general, the covenant of God with men is a Divine ordinance, with signs and pledges on God’s part, and with promises for human obedience and penalties for disobedience, which ordinance is accepted by men. In one passage (Ps 25:14), it is used in a more general way of an alliance of friendship between God and man.

2. Covenants Recorded in the Old Testament:

3. Phraseology Used:

Various phrases are used of the making of a covenant between God and men. The verb ordinarily used of making covenants between men, karath, is often used here as well. The following verbs are also used: heqim, "to establish" or "confirm"; nathan, "to give"; sim, "to place"; tsiwwah, "to command"; `abhar, "to pass over," followed by be, "into"; bo, "to enter," followed by be; and the phrase nasa’ berith `al pi, "to take up a covenant upon the mouth of someone."

4. History of Covenant Idea:

The history of the covenant idea in Israel, as between God and man, is not altogether easy to trace. This applies especially to the great covenants between God and Israel, namely, the one with Abraham, and the one made at Sinai. The earliest references to this relation of Israel to Yahweh under the term "covenant" are in Ho 6:7; 8:1. The interpretation of the former passage is doubtful in details, but the reference to such a covenant seems clear. The latter is considered by many a later addition, but largely because of this mention of the covenant. No other references to such a covenant are made in the prophets before Jeremiah. Jeremiah and Ezekiel speak of it, and it is implied in Second-Isaiah. It is a curious fact, however, that most of the later prophets do not use the term, which suggests that the omission in the earlier prophets is not very significant concerning a knowledge of the idea in early times.

In this connection it should be noted that there is some variation among the Hexateuchal codes in their treatment of the covenants. Only one point, however, needs special mention. The Priestly Code (P) gives no explicit account of the covenant at Sinai, and puts large emphasis upon the covenant with Abraham. There are, however, apparent allusions to the Sinaitic covenant (Le 2:13; 24:8; 26:9,15,25,44,45). The facts indicate, therefore, principally a difference of emphasis.

In the light partly of the facts already noted, however, it is held by many that the covenant idea between God and man is comparatively late. This view is that there were no covenants with Abraham and at Sinai, but that in Israel’s early conceptions of the relation to Yahweh He was their tribal God, bound by natural ties, not ethical as the covenant implies. This is a larger question than at first appears. Really the whole problem of the relation of Israel to Yahweh throughout Old Testament history is involved, in particular the question at what time a comprehensive conception of the ethical character of God was developed. The subject will therefore naturally receive a fuller treatment in other articles. It is perhaps sufficient here to express the conviction that there was a very considerable conception of the ethical character of Yahweh in the early history of Israel, and that consequently there is no sufficient reason for doubting the fact of the covenants with Abraham and at Sinai. The statement of W. Robertson Smith expresses the essence of the matter (op. cit., 319): "That Yahweh’s relation is not natural but ethical is the doctrine of the prophets, and is emphasized, in dependence on their teaching, in the Book of Deuteronomy. But the passages cited show that the idea had its foundation in pre prophetic times; and indeed the prophets, though they give it fresh and powerful application, plainly do not regard the conception as an innovation."

A little further consideration should be given to the new covenant of the prophets. The general teaching is that the covenant was broken by the sins of the people which led to the exile. Hence, during the exile the people had been cast off, the covenant was no longer in force. This is stated, using other terminology, in Ho 3:3 f; 1:9; 2:2. The prophets speak, however, in anticipation, of the making of a covenant again after the return from the exile. For the most part, in the passages already cited, this covenant is spoken of as if it were the old one renewed. Special emphasis is put, however, upon its being an everlasting covenant, as the old one did not prove to be, implying that it will not be broken as was that one. Jeremiah’s teaching, however, has a little different emphasis. He speaks of the old covenant as passed away (31:32). Accordingly he speaks of a new covenant (31:31,33). This new covenant in its provisions, however, is much like the old. But there is a new emphasis upon individuality in approach to God. In the old covenant, as already noted, it was the nation as a whole that entered into the relation; here it is the individual, and the law is to be written upon the individual heart.

In the later usage the specific covenant idea is sometimes less prominent, so that the term is used practically of the religion as a whole; see Isa 56:4; Ps 103:18.


Valeton, ZATW, XII, XIII (1892-93); Candlish, The Expositor Times, 1892, Oct., Nov.; Kraetzschmar, Die Bundesvorstellung im Altes Testament, Marburg, 1896; articles "Covenant" in Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible (five volumes) and Encyclopedia Biblica.