views updated Jun 08 2018


COVENANT . The translation of the Hebrew notion of bʿrît by covenant originates from its Latin rendering as foedus/pactum in Hieronymus's Vulgata. Although there is a controversy about the etymology of bʿrît, the linguistic link with the Accadian birītu(m) (string, tie) seems to be the most acceptable solution. The literary contexts of bʿrît confirm that the rendering in the Vulgata and thus the translation as covenant fits well. It depends on the particular context what is meant by this notion: Either two partners with equal rights mutually bind themselves (1 Kings 5:26; 15:19) or a stronger partner imposes unilateral claims upon a weaker one or the stronger partner voluntarily binds himself without any claims towards someone else (1 Kings 20:34; Hos. 12:2; Ezek. 17:13).

Contract, Treaty and Loyality Oath in the Ancient Near East

The legal order of the Middle East is based on laws of contract. As transfers of ownership (such as the sale of estates) and changes of marital status (marriage, adoption) are laid down in a written contract (Accadian riksātu[m]), mutual obligations are suable at a law court. Furthermore, in late Assyrian contracts breach of contract is identified with oath-breaking, for which divine sanction is effected by means of curse and penalty for the benefit of the temple. Laws of contract are also applied to settle international relations between states with equal rights as well as between a supreme power and vassal states (e.g. Hittite vassal treaties; Korošec). Opposite to private contracts, international contracts are loyalty obligations mutually or unilaterally affirmed upon by an oath. There are two distinctive types of these contracts: first, a western type of Hethite and Syrian contracts (Sfire; Lemaire, 1984) that include a section of blessings in addition to the curse; second, an eastern type of late Assyrian contracts (Parpola and Watanabe, 1988) in which only the curse can be found. This second type is different from late Assyrian loyalty oaths, such as that of King Esarhaddon (Watanabe, 1987). In these oaths, the officials of the Assyrian state and its tributary vassalsamong them the king of Judeaswear unconditional loyalty to the Assyrian king and to the crown prince by the gods.

In the seventh century bce a new and special form of late Assyrian laws of contract emerges for the first time. Now the contracts are not only subject to divine protection, but the deity himself is a party to the contract. In a collection of prophetic oracles spoken on the occasion of Esarhaddon's accession to the throne (Parpola, 1992), the god Ashur enters in a covenant (Accadian, adê) with the king; the other gods of the pantheon join as well. Later, the citizens and vassals of Assyria ought to be reminded of this covenant by the oath ceremony of cultic water drinking. In return for the divine support against enemies the king has to engage in ritual duties.

Contract, Loyalty Oath, and Covenant in the Hebrew Bible

According to the practice in the Ancient Middle East, the Hebrew Bible also mentions contracts of sale (e.g. Jer. 32:1011), rent (e.g. Gen. 29:1520, Exod. 2:9) and marriage (Mal. 2:14, Prov. 2:17). In ancient Palestine the different lifestyles and interests of Nomads, shepherds, farmers, urban people, craftsmen, and Levites coexisted in a cramped space where economical and political relations had to be constituted across family borders (e.g. Gen. 21:2234; 26:2333; 31:4453). Therefore laws of contract were of special significance in ancient Israel surpassing the rules for changes in ownership and marital status. With reference to William Robertson Smith, Max Weber marked the ancient idea of making a covenant between JHWH, the God of Israel, and his people as a starting point of Israelite history of religion; however, this idea was not introduced because of an "elective affinity" (Wahlverwandtschaft) of the federal structure prevalent in prenational Israel as confederacy of oath (Eidgenossenschaft) in the thirteenth through the tenth centuries bce.

Expanding Weber's theory, Martin Noth put forward the statement of an alliance of tribes organized on the model of the ancient Greek amphictyony as Sitz im Leben of the covenant theology. He and George Mendenhall were aiming to corroborate this statement by an analogy between the structure of an early Israelite covenant schedule and Hethite vassal treaties from the second millennium bce. There was much argument against this early dating of the covenant between God and His people at the beginning of Israelite history of religion. On the one hand it is opposed to the covenant silence (Bundesschweigen) of the prophets in the eighth century bce. Thus in Hosea 2:415 and 3:14, where the relationship of the people and Israel towards JHWH is interpreted as a marriage, the covenant theology is merely prepared. On the other hand the covenant theology of the Sinai pericope (Exod. 1924) is known to be a late creation of Israelite literary history. Therefore Lothar Perlitt, who refers to Julius Wellhausen, came to the conclusion that the covenant theology ensued from preexile prophesy, taking its rise in the time of crisis of the late Assyrian Empire, and thus dated in the seventh century bce.

Motifs of the late Assyrian royal ideology were partially accepted, but also partially rejected in Judah. In modern times this processespecially concerning the covenant theologycan be described in a more exact way (Otto) than in the previous centuries. In Judah they adopted the motif of a covenant with a divine partner from Ashur in the seventh century bce in order to legitimate the reign of kings (Ps. 89:45). The authors of preexile Deuteronomy accept the loyalty oath of the Assyrian king in a subversive way by transforming the demand for unconditional loyalty to this king into the demand of the same kind to JHWH (Deut. 13:210; 28:2044). The claim of the state for absolute power was thereby set in bounds and the ground prepared for a reinterpretation of the idea of covenant. As a result, within the Deuteronomistic framework of Deuteronomy the entire people of Israel became a partner of the covenant with JHWH at Horeb, God's mount (Deut. 26:1619), and in the land of Moab (Deut. 29:914).

In the time of exile the covenant with JHWH at Horeb replaced the king. As in Deuteronomy the law is linked to blessing and curse; it is not modeled upon the Assyrian tradition, but rather upon a Hethite type of contract that was transmitted to Israel via Syria. Thus JHWH gets the character of a Grand King and His vassal Israel owes Him loyalty of legal obedience. If the nation, by making the covenant, is to be held liable for the law of Deuteronomy, the authors of the Deuteronomistic Deuteronomy yet are aware of the possibility that the people may fail to keep the law due to disobedience (Deut. 9:910:5).

In the tale of Deuteronomy the authors let the people of Israel enter into the covenant after their failure, so they express their hope that God is willing to adhere to his covenant in spite of the people's failure to obey the lawthat is, JHWH does not revoke His covenant even though Israel failed the law. In this way the Israelites overcome their experience of defeat against the Babylonians and their trauma of exile.

A second version of the origin of Israel

The Priestly Code dating from the time of Exile represents a second major version of the tale of Israel's origin and is the counterpart to the covenant theology in Deuteronomy. It deals with universal history and designs the final goal of creation and the world history of all peoples (Gen. 111). The underlying concept of the Priestly Code is the immanent presence of Israel's God in the tabernacle of the congregation, the establishment of the expiatory cult of offerings at the altar, and, along with the cult, the priest's office ministered by the Aaronites at Mount SinaiGod's mount (Exod. 29:4246). Additionally, the Priestly Code aims to prove that since the Flood, mankind has overcome the former possibility to fail God's law once for all. After the Flood, God imposed the Noachian Laws on mankind, making a covenant with them in which he commits himself to guarantee the preservation of the earth and all humans (Gen. 9:117). Israel and mankind as a whole cannot fail the covenant by which JHWH made Israel stand out from the world of the other peoples.

The Priestly Code does not locate the covenant at Mount Sinai; further, it dates the Code back to the time of the patriarchs; here it is Abraham with whom God makes a covenant (Gen. 17). Thus the covenant is not linked any longer to binding laws, but instead represents a mere act of divine grace. This covenant comprises God's promise of numerous descendants and of the possession of the land of Canaan. Henceforth the nation of Israel is unable to fail the covenant. An individual Israelite may, however, fail if he refuses circumcisionthe token of this covenantand will consequently be excluded from the ethnic community. Scribes of postexilic times combine both programmatic texts, Deuteronomy, and the Priestly Code, thus forming a Hexateuch (Gen. 1Josh. 24); its final goal is the making of a covenant between JHWH and Joshua, who acts on behalf of the people of Israel (Josh. 24:2527).

Referring to Deuteronomy, Joshua delivers a speech of admonition that precedes this covenant and points out the consequences of its breach if the ban on worship of foreign gods is violated. Thus he pursues the course that adds the liability for the law and the possibility of Israel's failure to the covenant theology of the Priestly Code based upon mere grace. Its sequel is realized by the extension of the Sinai pericope (Exod. 19Num. 10) in the final form of the Pentateuch (Gen. 1Deut. 34) that is structured by the sequence of making, breaking, and re-making the covenant (Exod. 1934). God's will to adhere to His covenant with Israel, despite their failure to the law (Exod. 32), remains the main statement in the Pentateuch.

In contradiction to the author-scribes of the Pentateuch, prophetic circles in Jeremiah's tradition regard the Sinai covenant of old as being broken beyond repair. They instead hope for a new covenant between JHWH and His people. In their view it is this new covenant that Israel will finally not be able to break; JHWH will write the law straight into the human heart. Circles in Ezekiel's tradition expect, in a similar way, that JHWH will give Israel a new heartas well as His spiritso that they may comply with the law. The law itself should not be altered.

Covenant in Early Judaism and in the New Testament

The covenant theology has preserved its importance in post-canonical Judaism that picks up the thread of the Pentateuch theology. According to the Book of Sirach, the story of JHWH with Israel consists of a series of eternal covenants reaching from Noah to David (Sir. 4445); the Mosaic Lawin its role as the "Book of the Covenant"is the expression of the preexistent wisdom in this world. In the Book of Jubilees those who keep the covenant made with Abraham and who undergo circumcision will not come to grief (Jub. 15:2528). The feast of Shavuot becomes the date of the covenant at Mount Sinai (Jub. 1:1) and of the covenants made with Noah and Abraham. Moreover, theologians of the Essenes refer to the prophetic expectation of a new covenant that they consider to be realized in their community. This is also the case when membership with the Essene communitythat is, participation in the New Covenantstands for compliance with the written Torah according to Essene exegesis, including the Manual of Discipline (Sektenregel). The new covenant also needs a regular renewal at Shavuot, and on this occasion the members of the Essene community receive the blessing, whereas those who do not participate in the New Covenant are cursed.

In the Septuagintthe Greek translation of the Hebrew Biblethe notion bʿrît is rendered not by synthēkē or spondē (treaty/covenant), but by a term from the law of descent: diathēkē (testament/last will). It says that God's promise is staunch and unchangeable. Yet the Septuagint has overtones of the possibility that during his lifetime the testator can dispose of the estate bequest by will, despite the appointment of the heir. Thus JHWH is depicted as the giving father and Israel as the receiving son without God's sovereignty ever being restricted.

The New Testament continues the linguistic usage of the Septuagint. The saying on the cup (Becherwort) at the last supper (Mark 14:24, Mattt. 26:28) typologically resumes the verses in Exodus 24:8, 1 Corinthians 11:25, Luke 22:20, and Jeremiah 31: 3134. God establishes the eschatological community of the New Covenant (Latin: novum testamentum ) on the basis of Jesus' expiatory death. It is the dedication of the last supper. In Galatians 3:1518 Paul argues with the term diathēkē from the law of descent in order to institute his gospel, which is not tied to the condition of the law. Like a testament, the covenant with Abraham cannot subsequently be altered by the law, which was given later at Mount Sinai. In 2 Corinthians, 3:14, Paul calls the Torah read at the synagogue service "old covenant" and contrasts it with the New Covenant, which is not based on the letter of the law but on God's spirit. In Romans, chapters 911, Paul expresses his hope that Israel will likewise become part of the eschatological New Covenant and that in this way God's covenant with Israel will not be cancelled (Rom. 11:29). The Epistle of the Hebrews sets the obsolete "old covenant" of the Levitical Torah at Mount Sinai (Heb. 8:713; 10:1518), understood as the "first covenant," against the New Covenant and thus continues the tradition of Jeremiah 31:3134. The New Covenant is supposed to be the "better covenant" and the "eternal covenant" that belongs to the divine order of God's roaming people. By Christ's death on the cross this order was established as an antithesis to Exodus 24:8 (Heb. 9:1122), but its final completion has yet to come (Heb. 8:6; 11:112:3).

Covenant in Postbiblical Christianity

In the second century ce the antagonism between the old and the new covenant gains even more severity. In postcanonical texts like the letter of Barnabas (9:15) and in the dialogue of Justin with Tryphon the Jew, the old covenantintended for the Jewswas replaced by the new covenant of the Christian church. Yet in the third century the church had to contend against Gnostic and Marcionitic heresies that, with reference to the Old Testament, considered the Creator in a theologically negative way. The covenants of the Old Testament again gained in importance; they were part of the permanent salvation acts (Heilsökonomie) of God. Ireneus of Lyon substantiated the unity of both Testaments as belonging to the one Christian canon. Only in the combination of both, God's plan of salvation, consisting of the laws from Mount Sinai as well as the redemption through Christ, could be carried out.

Theologians of the Reformation, proceeding from Ireneus's thought, developed a federal covenant theology (Föderaltheologie). Heinrich Bullinger (15041575), a reformer from Zurich, Switzerland, was the first to project a Protestant federal covenant theology. To him the history of salvation from Abraham to Christ represented one single covenant with two aspects: the first concerning law and ritual in the Old Testament, the second concerning a covenant of divine grace in the New Testament.

In the seventeenth century ce the covenant theology of orthodox Calvinism reached its climax in the Netherlands, especially due to Johannes Coccejus (16031669). He developed his dogmatics by going beyond Aristotelian notions, preferring to elaborate a system of the history of salvation according to which, step by step, the covenant of works (foedus operum ) with Adam will be replaced by the covenant of grace (foedus gratiae ). This process is said to prepare mankind for the coming of God's kingdom.

From the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, theologians in different countries were influenced by reformist covenant theology: Thomas Boston (16761732) in Scotland, Charles Hodge (17971878) in America, as well as the Swiss theologians Karl Barth (18861968) and Walther Eichrodt (18901978). Eichrodt was a reformist scholar of Old Testament studies and developed Old Testament theology based on the patterns of covenant terminology.

Covenant in Rabbinic Judaism and in Islam

Rabbinic Judaism interprets the Biblical bʿrît in particular with "law/commandment" in the contents of which the sign of covenantthat is, the circumcisionis meant (compare Gen. 17:10) first of all. In accordance with that meaning the Israelites may be called bʿnê bʿrît (sons of circumcision). Referring to Exodus 34:27, the commitment to the law including oral traditions can be qualified as bʿrît, as well. In the Middle Ages the explicit idea of bʿrît only plays a minor role in Jewish theological thought. In Maimonides (c. 11351204), the covenant describes the union of Moses and the biblical patriarchs with God, a union directed at acquiring cognition, the goal of which is to have the insights transmitted to all women and men.

The biblical covenants are a main subject for apology in order to either reject Christian theory about the replacement of God's old covenant with Israel by Christ's salvation work, or to reject the Islamic claim that the revelation of the Prophet Muhammad exceeds the biblical covenants. Modern Jewish philosophy and theology again attaches more importance to the notion of covenant; it serves as an expression of ethic autonomy based on mutual obligations between God and mankind, or on a dialogic behavior between both of them as explained in Martin Buber (18781965).

According to the Qurʾān (sūrah 7:134135), which adopted the biblical conception of bʿrît, Moses' covenant (Arabic: ʿahd mūsā ) with God enables Moses to intercede with God and to receive the tables of testimony (sūrah 7:144145). Moreover, God made a covenant with the prophets (sūrah 3:81; 33:7), and in particular with the Israelites at Mount Sinai, as he had previously done with Moses. The Israelites, however, broke this covenant (e.g. sūrah 2:6366). After all, God had entered into a covenant with all women and men, calling upon all people to adhere to the revealed laws and to accept the reign of the one God (sūrah 7:171172). Islamic traditional exegesis of these Qurʾanic verses links God's granting humans the ability to speak to the following demand of the covenant on Adamite mankind: They have to accept God as the single One and at the time of resurrection nobody can claim ignorance of the conditions of the covenant in order to exculpate himself.

See Also

Biblical Literature, article on Hebrew Scriptures; God, article on God in Postbiblical Christianity.


Eichrodt, Walther. Theology of the Old Testament (19331939). 2 vols. London, 19611967. Organizes Old Testament thought around the idea of a covenant.

Jobert, Anni. La notion d'Alliance dans le Judaisme aux abords de l'ère chretienne. Paris, 1963. Basic study of early Jewish covenant theology.

Kalluveettil, Paul. Declaration and Covenant: A Comprehensive Review of Covenant Formulae from the Old Testament and the Ancient Near East. Rome, 1982. A form-critical study of language and form of contracts in the ancient Near East and the Bible.

Korošec, Viktor. Hethitische Staatsverträge: Ein Beitrag zu ihrer juristischen Wertung. Leipzig, 1931. Legal interpretation of Hittite international treaties.

Lemaire, André Durand. Les inscriptions araméennes de Sfiré et l'Assyrie de Shamshi-Ilu. Geneva, 1984. Text, translation, and commentary of the Syrian Sfire-treaty.

McCarthy, Dennis. Treaty and Covenant: A Study in Form in the Ancient Oriental Documents and in the Old Testament. 2d ed. Rome, 1978. Reliable interpretation of key-texts of ancient Near East treaties and biblical covenants.

Mendenhall, George. Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East. Pittsburgh, 1955. A pioneer study that initiated much discussion of the relations between the Hittite vassal treaties and the Hebrew Bible.

Noth, Martin. Das System der zwölf Stämme Israels. Stuttgart, Germany, 1930. Important study of the "setting in life" of early Israelite covenant theology.

Otto, Eckart. Das Deuteronomium: Politische Theologie und Rechtsreform in Juda und Assyrien. Berlin, 1999. Study of the reception of neo-Assyrian loyality oaths and covenant motifs in Judah.

Otto, Eckart. Das Deuteronomium im Pentateuch und Hexateuch. Tübingen, Germany, 2000. Study of the postexilic pentateuch and covenant theology.

Parpola, Simon. Assyrian Prophecies. Helsinki, 1997. Transliteration and translation of neo-Assyrian prophecies that include motifs of a covenant between the god Ashur and the Assyrian king.

Parpola, Simon, and Watanabe, Kazuko. Neo-Assyrian Treaties and Loyalty Oaths. Helsinki, 1988. Transliteration and translation of neo-Assyrian treaties and loyality oaths.

Perlitt, Lothar. Bundestheologie im Alten Testament. Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany, 1969. Basic study of the origin of biblical covenant theology.

Robertson Smith, William. Lectures on the Religion of the Semites: The Fundamental Institutions. 2d ed. London, 1894. Study of covenant motifs in early biblical and Arabic thought.

Tucker, Gene M. Contracts in the Old Testament. Ph.D. diss. Yale University, 1963. Study of profane contracts in Israel.

Watanabe, Kazuko. Die adê-Vereidigung anläßlich der Thronfolgeregelung Asarhaddons. Berlin, 1987. Text and translation of Esarhaddon's loyality oath.

Weber, Max. Die Wirtschaftsethik der Weltreligionen: Das antike Judentum (1920). Edited by Eckart Otto. Tübingen, Germany, 2004. Translated by Hans H. Gerth and Don Martindale as Ancient Judaism. Glencoe, Ill., 1952. Study of the economic contexts of biblical covenant theology.

Eckart Otto (2005)


views updated May 23 2018


COVENANT , a general obligation concerning two parties. It was confirmed either by an oath (Gen. 21:22ff.; 26:26ff.; Deut. 29:9ff.; Josh. 9:15–20; ii Kings 11:4; Ezek. 16:8; 17:33ff.), by a solemn meal (Gen. 26:30; 31:54; Ex. 24:11; ii Sam. 2:20), by sacrifices (Ex. 24:4ff.; Ps. 50:5), or by some other dramatic act such as dividing of an animal and the passing of the parties between the portions (Gen. 15:9ff.; Jer. 34:18ff.). The etymology of the Hebrew word berit is uncertain. Most probably it was used in the sense of binding (cf. Akkadian birītu, "fetter"), since the terms for covenant in Akkadian (riksu) and in Hittite (išḫiul) also signify binding. Hebrew has two additional terms for covenant, ʿedut (cf. the parallel terms luḥot ha-ʿedut and luḥot ha-berit) and ʾalah. These also have their counterparts in the cognate languages: ʿdy[ʾ] in old Aramaic (Sefire) and adê in Akkadian on the one hand, and lʾt in Phoenician, māmītu in Akkadian, and lingai in Hittite on the other. ʾAlah and the corresponding terms in Akkadian and Hittite connote an oath which actually underlies the covenantal deed. The terms berit and ʾalah often occur together (Gen. 26:28; Deut. 29:11, 13, 20; Ezek. 16:59; 17:18), rendering the idea of a binding oath, as does the Akkadian hendiadys adê māmīt or adê u māmīte. For concluding a covenant the Bible uses the expression "cut (karat) a covenant." The same idiom is used in Aramaic treaties in connection with ʿdyʾ (cf. gzrʿdyʾ in the Sefire treaties) and in a Phoenician document in connection with lʾt (cf. the incantation from Arslan Tash). It is quite possible that this idiom derives from the ceremony accompanying the covenant, viz., cutting an animal. The expressions hekim (heqim) berit and natan berit should not be considered synonyms of karat berit, used by different sources. The first term means "to fulfill a covenant (already made)"; the second signifies "the voluntary granting of special privileges."

Covenants are established between individuals (Gen. 21:22ff.; 31:44ff.; i Sam. 18:3; 23:18), between states or their representatives (ii Sam. 3:13, 21; i Kings 5:26; 15:19; 20:34), between kings and their subjects (ii Sam. 5:3; ii Kings 11:4, 17), and also between husband and wife (Ezek. 16:8; Mal. 2:14; Prov. 2:17). The term is used figuratively in a covenant between men and animals (Job. 5:23; 40:28; cf. Hos. 2:20) and also a covenant with death (Isa. 28:15, 18). The covenant does not always constitute a mutual agreement; sometimes it represents a relationship in which a more powerful party makes a pact with an inferior one freely and out of good will. In this case the superior party takes the inferior under his protection, on condition that the latter remain loyal to him. The covenant of the Israelites with the *Gibeonites (Josh. 9) and the covenant requested by the people of Jabesh-Gilead (i Sam. 11:1–2) from the king of *Ammon belong to this category. That the covenant of the Israelites with the *Canaanite population was of a similar nature is shown in Deuteronomy 7:1–2: "When the Lord your God brings you to the land… and delivers them [the Canaanites] to you and you defeat them, you must doom them to destruction: do not cut a covenant with them [loʿ tikhrot lahem berit] and do not be gracious to them." J. Begrich (see bibl.) observed that this type of covenant is distinguished by the form "to cut a covenant to somebody," karat berit le –, in contrast with the other type of covenant which is phrased as "to cut a covenant with somebody," karat berit ʿim. Another type of covenant is that established through the mediation of a third party, especially when a covenant with the Deity is involved. Thus Moses (Ex. 24) and Joshua (Josh. 24) mediate the covenant between God and Israel. The priest *Jehoiada fulfills the same function (ii Kings 11:17), when he serves as a mediator in a double covenant: that between God and king plus people on the one hand and between the king and the people on the other (apparently because the king was still a minor). Another example of this kind is mentioned in Hosea 2:20 where God is to establish a covenant between the people and the beasts of the earth, etc.

Sometimes the covenant is accompanied by an external sign or token to remind the parties of their obligations (cf. Gen. 21:30; 31:44–45; 52; Josh. 24:27, etc.). The "sign of the covenant," ʾot berit, is especially characteristic of the Priestly source of the Pentateuch. The *Sabbath, the *rainbow, and *circumcision are the "signs" of the three great covenants established by God at the three critical stages of the history of mankind: the *Creation (Gen. 1:1–2:3; cf. Ex. 31:16–17), the renewal of mankind after the *Flood (Gen. 9:1–17), and the beginning of the Hebrew nation. Circumcision came to be regarded in Jewish tradition as the most distinctive sign of the covenant, and is known as berit milah – "the covenant of circumcision."

The Covenant between God and Israel

The covenant par excellence in the Bible is that between God and Israel. Until recently this has been considered a relatively late idea (cf. J. Wellhausen). But S. Mowinckel (Le Décalogue, 1927), adopting the form-critical approach and Sitz im Leben method of investigation, concluded that it reflected an annual celebration involving a theophany and proclamation of the law. His arguments were based mainly on Psalms 50:5ff. and Psalms 81, where theophany is combined with covenant-making and decalogue formulas (cf. Ps. 50:7, 18–19; 81:10–11). He was followed by A. Alt (see bibl.) who argued that the so-called apodictic law had been recited at the Feast of Tabernacles at the beginning of the year of release (cf. Deut. 31:10–13) and that this periodical convocation was a solemn undertaking by the congregation which is reflected in the Sinai covenant. G. von Rad (see bibl.) inquiring into the significance of the peculiar structure of Deuteronomy – history (ch. 1–11), laws (12:1–26:15), mutual obligations (26:16–19), and blessings and curses (ch. 27–29) – suggested that this structure, and similarly that of the Sinai covenant – history (Ex. 19:4–6), law (20:1–23:19), promises and threats (3:20–23), conclusion of the covenant (24:1–11) – reflects the procedure of a covenant ceremony. This opened with a recital of history, proceeded with the proclamation of the law – accompanied by a sworn obligation – and ended with blessings and curses. Since according to Deuteronomy 27 (cf. Josh. 8:30–35) the blessings and curses had to be recited between Mounts Gerizim and Ebal, von Rad identified Shechem as the scene of the periodic covenant renewal in ancient Israel.

Although no real evidence for a covenant festival has been discovered so far, the observation made by von Rad that the literary structure of Deuteronomy and Exodus 19–24 reflects a covenantal procedure has been confirmed by subsequent investigations. It has become clear that the covenant form, as presented in these texts and especially in Deuteronomy, was in use for centuries in the ancient Near East. G. Mendenhall in 1954 found that the Hittite treaty has a structure identical with that of the biblical covenant. The basic common elements are: titular descriptions; historical introduction, which served as a motivation for the vassal's loyalty; stipulation of the treaty; a list of divine witnesses; blessings and curses; and recital of the treaty and deposit of its tablets. The Sinai covenant described in Exodus 19–24 has indeed a similar structure, although it is not completely identical. Thus, the divine address in chapter 19 opens with a historical introduction stressing the grace of God toward the people and its election (19:4–6), followed by the law (23:20–33), and finally the ratification of the covenant by means of a cultic ceremony and the recital of the covenant document (24:3–8).

Admittedly the analogy is not complete, since what is found in Exodus 19–24 is not a treaty, as in the Hittite documents, but rather a narrative about the conclusion of a covenant. Nevertheless, it is clear that the narrative is organized and arranged in line with the treaty pattern, which emerges in a much clearer fashion in Deuteronomy. This book, which is considered by its author as one organic literary creation (cf. the expression Sefer ha-Torah ha-zeh, "this Book of Teaching") and represents the covenant of the plains of Moab, follows the classical pattern of treaties in the Ancient Near East. Unlike the Sinai covenant in Exodus, which has no list of blessings and curses, Deuteronomy (like the treaties and especially those of the first millennium b.c.e.) has an elaborate series of blessings and curses and likewise provides for witnesses to the covenant, "heaven and earth" (4:26; 30:19), which are missing altogether in the first four books of the Pentateuch. Deuteronomy also makes explicit references to the deposit of the tablets of the covenant and the book of the Law in the divine Ark (10:1–5; 31:25–26). The Ark was considered in ancient Israel as the footstool of the Deity (the cherubim constituting the throne), and it was indeed at the feet of the gods that the treaty documents had to be kept according to Hittite legal tradition. As in the Hittite treaties, Deuteronomy commands the periodical recital of the Law before the public (31:9–13) and prescribes that the treaty be read before the king or by him (17:18–19).

The historical prologue in Deuteronomy (1–11) recalls to a great extent the historical prologue in Hittite state treaties. In this section the Hittite suzerain recounts the development of the relationship between him and the vassal, specifying, for example, the commitments and the promises of the overlord to the vassal's ancestors. This theme is echoed in Deuteronomy's recurring references to the promise made to the Patriarchs (4:37–38; 7:8; 9:5). The prologue also dwells on the insubordination of the vassal's ancestors and its consequences, a feature expressed in the historical introduction of Deuteronomy which deals fully with the rebelliousness of the generation of the desert. The Hittite historical prologue frequently refers to the land given to the vassal by the suzerain and its boundaries, a theme fully elaborated in Deuteronomy (3:8ff.). In a fashion similar to the Hittite sovereign, who urges the vassal to take possession of the given land, "See I gave you the Zippašla mountain land, occupy it" (Madduwataš, in: Mitteilungen der vorderasiatisch-aegyptischen Gesellschaft (= mvag), 32 (1927), 17, 19, 46), God says in Deuteronomy: "I have placed the land at your disposal, go take possession of it" (1:8, 21). In this context the Hittite king warns the vassal not to trespass beyond the set boundaries. Thus for example, Muršiliš ii says to Manapa-Dattaš: "Behold I have given you the Seḫa-river-land… but unto Mašhuiluwaš i have given the land Mira… whereas unto Targašnalliš i have given the land Ḫapalla" (mvag, 30 (1926), no. 3:3; mvag, 34 (1930), no. 4:10–11). The historical prologue similarly states: "See, I place the land at your disposal" (1:21), "I have given the hill country of Seir as a possession to Esau" (2:5), "I have given Ar as a possession to the descendants of Lot" (2:9), "I have given [the land of the Ammonites] as a possession to the descendants of Lot" (2:19). The purpose of these reminders is to justify the command forbidding the trespass of the fixed borders of these nations.

Analogies have been drawn mostly from Hittite treaties as these have been preserved in fairly large numbers and in relatively good condition. However, the few treaties known from the first millennium b.c.e., i.e., the Aramaic treaty from Sefire, the treaty of Ashur-Nirâri v with Matiʾel of Bīt-Agushi, and the treaty of Esarhaddon with his eastern vassals, do not differ in principle from those of the Hittites, and it seems in fact that there was a continuity in the treaty pattern for approximately 800 years. This might explain the fact that in a late book, according to the documentary hypothesis, like Deuteronomic elements are preserved which also occur in the Hittite treaties from the 14th–13th centuries b.c.e. In spite of this continuity, careful analysis reveals certain significant differences between the treaties of the second millennium and those of the first. This applies to the political treaties in the ancient Near East as well as to the theological covenants in Israel. While the Hittite treaties and similarly the Sinai covenant have a very short list of curses, those of the first millennium and the covenant in Deuteronomy have long lists. Furthermore, Deuteronomy has preserved in chapter 28 a series of curses which has an exact parallel in the Neo-Assyrian treaty Esarhaddon made with his eastern vassals regarding the coronation of his son Ashurbanipal (concluded in 672 b.c.e.). An investigation of these curses has shown that their origin is to be sought in Assyria, since their order can be explained by the hierarchy of the Assyrian pantheon while the order in Deuteronomy has no satisfactory explanation (see M. Weinfeld, Biblica, see bibl.). It has been supposed that a series of Assyrian treaty curses was incorporated into the section of curses in Deuteronomy, thereby making it clear that the pledge of loyalty to the Assyrian emperor had been henceforward replaced by the pledge to yhwh, a transfer which is to be understood against the background of *Josiah's liberation from Assyrian dominion. The shift of fealty, as it were, from one suzerain to another may also explain the striking similarity between the laws of sedition in Deuteronomy 13 and the warnings against sedition in the treaties of the first millennium b.c.e. and particularly in those of Esarhaddon with his vassals; compare also the Aramaic treaty of Sefire. Like the vassal treaties of Esarhaddon, Deuteronomy 13 warns against a prophet inciting rebellion and against any member of the family conspiring to break faith with the overlord. In the Aramaic treaty from Sefire there is a clause concerning a rebellious city which, like Deuteronomy 13, commands its destruction by the sword. In both sources the wording is almost identical: והן קריה הא נכה תכוה בחרב, "and if it is a city, you must strike it with a sword" in the Sefire treaty, and הכה תכה את ישבי העיר ההיא לפי חרב, "you must strike the inhabitants of this city with the sword" in Deuteronomy 13:16. Furthermore, the exhortations to keep faith with God in Deuteronomy are very close in form and style to the exhortations in the political treaties. As has been shown by W.L. Moran, the concept of "love of God" in Deuteronomy actually expresses loyalty, and it is in this sense that "love" occurs in the political documents of the Ancient Near East. The Book of Deuteronomy abounds in terms originating in the diplomatic vocabulary of the ancient Near East. Such expressions as: "to follow with the whole heart and with the whole soul," "to hearken to the voice of," "to be perfect with," "to go after," "to serve," "to fear (to revere)," "to put the words in one's heart," "not to turn right or left," etc. are found in diplomatic letters and state treaties of the second and first millennia b.c.e. and are especially prominent in the vassal treaties of Esarhaddon, which are contemporaneous with Deuteronomy. The scene of the concluding of the Josian covenant in ii Kings 23:1–3 and the scene of the concluding of the covenant in Deuteronomy 29:9–14 are presented in a manner which is very close to the descriptions of the treaty ceremonies in Neo-Assyrian documents. The section stipulating the perpetual validity of the covenant occurs twice, both in the Esarhaddon treaty and in the Deuteronomy covenant, before the conditions and after them. The end of chapter 29 in Deuteronomy reads: "And the generations to come… and the foreigners… will ask 'Why did the Lord do thus to this land?…' and they will be told: 'Because they forsook the covenant of the Lord'" (21–24). The theme of self-condemnation (Deut. 29:21–24) is also encountered in the Neo-Assyrian texts in connection with a breach of a treaty. Thus the annals of Ashurbanipal state: "The people of Arabia asked one another saying: 'Why is it that such evil has befallen Arabia?' and they answered: 'Because we did not observe the valid covenant sworn to the god of Ashur'" (Rassam Cylinder, 9:68–72).

The difference between the Deuteronomy covenant, which reflects the treaty pattern of the first millennium b.c.e., and the earlier covenants reflecting the pattern of the second millennium will be appreciated if the covenant ceremonies in Genesis and Exodus are compared with that of Deuteronomy. The patriarchal covenants, secular and religious alike (Gen. 15:9ff.; 21:22ff.; 26:26ff.; 31:44ff.), and the Sinai covenant (Ex. 24:1–11) are validated by sacrifices and holy meals, similar to the covenants of the third and second millennia b.c.e. In the Deuteronomy covenant, on the other hand, as in the contemporary Assyrian and Aramaic treaty documents, it is the oath which validates the covenant and no mention is made of a sacrifice or meal (cf. especially Deut. 29:9ff.).

The Covenant with Abraham and David

Aside from the covenant between God and Israel described in Exodus and Deuteronomy, two covenants of a different type are found in the Bible. These are the covenant with *Abraham (Gen. 15, 17) and the covenant with *David (ii Sam. 7; cf. Ps. 89), which are concerned respectively with the gift of the land and the gift of kingship and dynasty. In contradistinction to the Mosaic covenants, which are of an obligatory type, the Abrahamic-Davidic covenants belong to the promissory type. God swears to Abraham to give the land to his descendants and similarly promises to David to establish his dynasty without imposing any obligations on them. Although their loyalty to God is presupposed, it is not made a condition for God's keeping His promise. On the contrary, the Davidic promise as formulated in the vision of Nathan (ii Sam. 7) contains a clause in which the unconditional nature of the gift is explicitly stated (ii Sam. 7:13–15). By the same token, the covenant with the Patriarchs is considered as valid forever (ʿad ʿolam). Even when Israel sins and is to be severely punished, God intervenes to help because He "will not break his covenant" (Lev. 26:43).

In the same way as the obligatory covenant in Israel is modeled on the suzerain-vassal type of treaty so the promissory covenant is modeled on the royal grant. The royal grants in the Ancient Near East as well as the covenants with Abraham and David are gifts bestowed upon individuals who distinguished themselves in loyal service to their masters. Abraham is promised the land because he obeyed God and followed His mandate (Gen. 26:5; cf. 22:16–18), and similarly David is rewarded with dynastic posterity because he served God with truth, righteousness, and loyalty (i Kings 3:6; 9:4; 11:4, 6; 14:8; 15:3). The terminology employed in this context is very close to that used in the Assyrian grants. Thus the grant of Ashurbanipal to his servant reads: "Balta… whose heart is whole to his master, stood before me with truthfulness, walked in perfection in my palace…. and kept the charge of my kingship… I considered his good relations with me and established [therefore] his gi[f]t." Identical formulations are to be found in connection with the promises to Abraham and David. With regard to Abraham it is said that "he kept my charge" (Gen. 26:5), "walked before God" (24:40; 48:15), and is expected "to be perfect" (17:1). David's loyalty to God is couched in phrases which are even closer to the Assyrian grant terminology: "he walked before the Lord in truth, loyalty, and uprightness of heart" (i Kings 3:6), "followed the Lord with all his heart" (i Kings 14:8), etc. Land and "house" (i.e., dynasty), the subjects of the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants, are the most prominent gifts of the suzerain in the Hittite and Syro-Palestine examples; like the Hittite grants, the grant of land to Abraham and "house" to David are unconditional. Thus, the Hittite king says to his vassal: "After you, your son and grandson will possess it, nobody will take it away from them; if one of your descendants sins, the king will prosecute him… but nobody will take away either his house or his land in order to give it to a descendant of somebody else." The promises to Abraham and David, which were originally unconditional, were understood as conditional only at a later stage of Israelite history. The exile of northern Israel appeared to refute the claim to eternity of the Abrahamic covenant, and therefore it was stressed that the covenant is eternal only if the donee keeps faith with the donor. A similar interpretation is given to the Davidic covenant in the Books of Kings (i Kings 2:4; 8:25; 9:4–5).

Covenant Theology

Long before the parallel between the Israelite covenant and the Ancient Near Eastern treaty had been brought to light, W. Eichrodt recognized the importance of the covenant idea in the religion of Israel, seeing in the Sinai covenant a point of departure for understanding Israel's religion. Eichrodt explains that basic phenomena like the kingship of God, revelation, the liberation from myth, the personal attitude to God, etc. are to be explained against the background of the covenant. The discovery of the treaty pattern in the Ancient Near East strengthened this hypothesis, new developments in covenant research throwing light on the idea of the kingship of God. It now becomes clear that God as King of Israel is not an idea born during the period of the monarchy, as scholars used to think, but, on the contrary, is one of the most genuine and most ancient doctrines of Israel. In the period of the judges the tribes resisted kingship because of the prevailing belief that God was the real King of Israel and that the proclamation of an earthly king would constitute a betrayal. This is clearly expressed in Gideon's reply to the people's offer of kingship (Judg. 8:22–23), but is even more salient in Samuel's denunciation of the request for a king (i Sam. 8:6–7; 10:18ff.; 12:17). Earthly kingship in Israel was finally accepted, but this was the outcome of a compromise: David's kingship was conceived as granted to him by the Great Suzerain (ii Sam. 7, see above). The king and the people alike were thus considered as vassals of God, the real Overlord (i Sam. 12:14, 24–25; ii Kings 11:17).

It seems that this suzerain-vassal outlook has its roots in the political actuality of the period of the judges. As is well known, Syria-Palestine of the second half of the second millennium b.c.e. was dominated by two great political powers, the Egyptian and the Hittite empires, in turn. Either the king of Egypt or the king of the Hittites was overlord of the petty kingdoms in the area. The lands and the kingdoms of the latter were conceived as feudal grants bestowed on them by the great suzerain, in exchange for the obligation of loyalty to the master. Israel's concept of its relationship with God had a similar basis. The Israelites believed that they owed their land and royal dynasty to their suzerain, God. Furthermore, as the relationship between the suzerain and the vassal has to be based on a written document, i.e., a treaty, so the relationship between God and Israel had to be expressed in written form. It is not surprising, therefore, that the tablets of the covenant played so important a role in the religion of Israel. As already noted, the tablets had to be deposited in the sanctuary at the feet of the deity, a procedure known from the Hittite treaties. Moreover, it appears that, as in the judicial sphere, the written document expresses the validity of the given relationship. When the covenant is no longer in force the document must be destroyed. Thus the worship of the golden calf, which signifies the breaking of the covenant, is followed by the breaking of the tablets by Moses, the mediator of the covenant (Ex. 32). Indeed, the term for canceling a contract in Babylonian legal literature is "to break the tablet" (tuppam hepū). Following the judicial pattern, the renewal of the relationship must be effected by writing new tablets, which explains why new ones had to be written after the sin of the golden calf, and why the ritual decalogue was repeated in Exodus 34:17–26 (cf. Ex. 23:10–19). Renewal of a covenant with a vassal – after a break in the relationship — by means of writing new tablets is an attested fact in Hittite political life.

The Covenant in Prophecy

This new examination of the covenant elucidates basic phenomena in Israel's prophetic literature. The admonitory speeches of the prophets are often formulated in the style of a lawsuit (Isa. 1:2ff.; Jer. 2:4ff; Hos. 4:1ff.; Micah 6:1ff.). God sues the people of Israel in the presence of witnesses such as heaven and earth, and mountains (Isa. 1:2; Micah 6:1–2), witnesses which also appear in the Ancient Near Eastern treaties and in the Deuteronomy covenant. International strife in the Ancient Near East provides parallels to prophetic denunciations; for example, before going out to battle with the Babylonian king Kaštiliaš, the Assyrian king accuses the latter of betrayal and violation of the treaty between them, and as proof he reads the treaty in a loud voice before the god Šamaš. In a similar way the prophetic lawsuit represents God's accusation of Israel before He proceeds to destroy the people for violating the covenant. This is clearly expressed in Amos 4:6–11, where a series of punishments, similar to those enumerated in Leviticus 26, is proclaimed, in the nature of a warning, before the final judgment or encounter (cf. Amos 4:12: "Be ready to meet your God, O Israel"). The warnings in Israelite prophecy are reminiscent of the curses in the Ancient Near Eastern treaties. Thus the calamities predicted in the prose sermons of Jeremiah are paralleled in contemporary treaty literature. The most prominent curses are (1) corpses devoured by the birds of heaven and the beasts of the earth; (2) cessation of joyful sounds; (3) exile; (4) desolation of the land and its becoming a habitation for animals; (5) dishonoring of the dead; (6) children being eaten by their parents; (7) the drinking of poisonous water and the eating of wormwood; and (8) cessation of the sound of the millstones and the light of the oven (or the candle). The treaty curses aim to portray the calamities that will befall the vassal as a consequence of his violation of the treaty. This is usually expressed through literary similes and also by a dramatic enactment of the punishment which will be visited on the transgressor. Both devices were in fact employed by the prophets. In the prophetic literature also the similes are drawn from various spheres of life, as for example Amos 2:3; 3:12; 5:19; 9:9. The dramatization of the punishment is also very close in form and content to the dramatic enactment in the treaties; compare, for example, the Sefire treaty, "As this calf is cleft so may Matiʾel and his nobles be cleft," which is reminiscent of Jeremiah 20:2–4; 34:18 – "I will make the men who have transgressed my covenant… [like] the calf which they cut in two and passed between its parts."

The Origin of the Covenant

The idea of a covenant between a deity and a people is unknown from other religions and cultures. It seems that the covenantal idea was a special feature of the religion of Israel, the only one to demand exclusive loyalty and preclude the possibility of dual or multiple loyalties; so the stipulation in political treaties demanding exclusive fealty to one king corresponds strikingly with the religious belief in one single, exclusive deity.

The prophets, especially *Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, expressed this idea of exclusive loyalty by speaking of the relationship between God and Israel as one of husband and wife, which in itself is also considered covenantal (cf. above and especially Ezek. 16:8). Although the idea of marital love between God and Israel is not mentioned explicitly in the Pentateuch, it seems to be present in a latent form. Following other gods is threatened by the statement: "For I the Lord your God am a jealous God" (Ex. 20:5; Deut. 5:9; cf. Ex. 34:14; Josh. 24:19). The root (קנא, qnʾ, "jealous") is in fact used in Numbers 5:14 in the technical sense of a husband who is jealous of his wife. Similarly the verb used in the Pentateuch for disloyalty is zanah ʾaharei, "to whore after." Furthermore, the formula expressing the covenantal relationship between God and Israel, "you will be my people and I will be your God" (Lev. 26:12; Deut. 29:12, etc.), is a legal formula taken from the sphere of marriage, as attested in various legal documents from the Ancient Near East (cf. Hos. 2:4). The relationship of the vassal to his suzerain or of the wife to her husband leaves no place for double loyalty, and they are therefore perfect metaphors for loyalty in a monotheistic religion.

The concept of the kingship of God in Israel also seems to have contributed to the conception of Israel as the vassal of God. It is true that the idea of the kingship of God was prevalent throughout the Ancient Near East; nevertheless, there is an important difference between the Israelite notion of divine kingship and the corresponding belief of other nations. Israel adopted the idea long before establishing the human institution of kingship. Consequently, for hundreds of years the only kingship recognized and institutionalized in Israel was the kingship of God. During the period of the judges yhwh was actually the King of Israel (cf. Judg. 8:23; i Sam. 8:7; 10:19) and was not, as in other religions of the Ancient Near East, the image of the earthly king.


treaty texts: J.A. Fitzmeyer, The Aramaic Inscription of Sefîre (1967); E. Cavaignac, in: Revue hittite et asiatique, 10 (1933), 65ff.; J. Friedrich; in: Mitteilungen der vorderasiatisch-aegyptischen Gesellschaft, 31 pt. 1 (1926); 34 pt. 1 (1930); A. Goetze, ibid., 32 pt. 1 (1927); E. Ebeling, in: Mitteilungen der altorientalischen Gesellschaft, 12 pt. 2 (1938); C.F. Jean, in: Archives Royales de Mari, 2 (1950), no. 37; L.W. King, Babylonian Boundary Stones and Memorial Tablets inthe British Museum (1912); J. Koehler and A. Ungnad, Assyrische Rechtsurkunden… (1913); M. Streck, Assurbanipal und die letzten as syrischen Koenige bis zum Untergange Ninevehs, 2 (1916); F. Thureau-Dangin, Die sumerischen und akkadischen Koenigsinschriften (1907); E.F. Weidner, Politische Dokumente aus Kleinasien, die Staatsvertraege in akkadischer Sprache aus dem Archiv von Boghazköi (1923); D.J. Wiseman, The Vassal-Treaties of Esarhaddon (1958 = Iraq, 20, pt. 1); idem, The Alalakh Tablets (1953); idem, in: Journal of Cuneiform Studies, 12 (1958), 124ff. studies: Alt, Kl Schr, 1 (1953), 278ff.; K. Baltzer, Das Bundesformular (1960); J. Begrich, in: zaw, 60 (1944), 1–11; E. Bickerman, in: Archives d'histoire du droit oriental, 5 (1950), 133ff.; W. Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, 1 (1964); F.C. Fensham, in: zaw, 74 (1962), 1–9; R. Frankena, in: ots, 14 (1965), 122–54; I.J. Gelb, in: bor, 19 (1962), 159–62; J. Harvey, in: Biblica, 43 (1962), 172ff. (Fr.); D.R. Hillers, Treaty-Curses and the Old Testament Prophets (1964); H.B. Huffmon, in: jbl, 78 (1959), 285ff.; V. Korošec, Hethitische Staats vertraege… (1931); D.J. McCarthy, Treaty and Covenant (1963); G. Mendenhall, in: ba, 17 (1954), 50ff.; W.L. Moran, in: cbq, 25 (1963), 77–87; S. Mowinckel, Le Décalogue (1927); J.M. Munn-Rankin, in: Iraq, 18 (1956), 68ff. (Eng.); G. von Rad, The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays (1966); M. Weinfeld, in: Biblica, 46 (1965), 417–27 (Eng.); idem, in: jaos, 89 (1969).

[Moshe Weinfeld]


views updated May 17 2018


An agreement, contract, or written promise between two individuals that frequently constitutes a pledge to do or refrain from doing something.

The individual making the promise or agreement is known as the covenantor, and the individual to whom such promise is made is called the covenantee.

Covenants are really a type of contractual arrangement that, if validly reached, is enforceable by a court. They can be phrased so as to prohibit certain actions and in such cases are sometimes called negative covenants.

There are two major categories of covenants in the law governing real property transactions: covenants running with the land and covenants for title.

Covenants Running with the Land

A covenant is said to run with the land in the event that the covenant is annexed to the estate and cannot be separated from the land or the land transferred without it. Such a covenant exists if the original owner as well as each successive owner of the property is either subject to its burden or entitled to its benefit. A covenant running with the land is said to touch and concern the property. For example, an individual might own property subject to the restriction that it is only to be used for church purposes. When selling the land, the person can only do so upon an agreement by the buyer that he or she, too, will only use the land for church purposes. The land is thereby burdened or encumbered by a restrictive covenant, since the covenant specifically limits the use to which the land can be put. In addition, the covenant runs with the land because it remains attached to it despite subsequent changes in its ownership. This type of covenant is also called a covenant appurtenant.

Certain easements also run with the land. An easement, for example, that permits one landowner to walk across a particular portion of the property of an adjoining landowner in order to gain access to the street would run with the land. Subsequent owners of both plots would take the land subject to such easement.

A covenant in gross is unlike a covenant running with the land in that it is personal, binding only the particular owner and not the land itself. A subsequent owner is not required to keep the promise as one would with a covenant appurtenant.

Covenants for Title

When an individual obtains title to, or possession and ownership of, real property, six covenants are ordinarily afforded to him or her. They are (1) covenant for seisin; (2) covenant of the right to convey; (3) covenant against encumbrances; (4) covenant for quiet enjoyment; (5) covenant of general warranty; and (6) covenant for further assurances.

A deed to real property that provides for usual covenants generally includes the first five of these covenants. When a deed provides for full covenants, it is regarded as giving such protection as is extended pursuant to all six covenants.

Covenants for seisin and of the right to convey are ordinarily regarded as being the same thing. Essentially, they make a guarantee to the grantee that the grantor is actually the owner of the estate that he or she is transferring.

The covenant against encumbrances promises to the grantee that the property being conveyed is not subject to any outstanding rights or interests by other parties, such as mortgages, liens, easements, profits, or restrictions on its

use that would diminish its value. The existence of zoning restrictions do not constitute breach of this covenant; however, the existence of a violation of some type of zoning or building restriction might be regarded as a breach thereof.

The covenants of quiet enjoyment and general warranty both have the legal effect of protecting the grantee against all unlawful claims of others, including the grantor and third parties, who might attempt to effect an actual or constructive eviction of the grantee.

The sixth covenant, which is the covenant for further assurances, is not widely used in the United States. It is an agreement by the grantor to perform any further necessary acts within his or her ability to perfect the grantee's title.

The first three covenants of title ordinarily do not run with the land, since they become personal choses in action—rights to initiate a lawsuit—if breached upon delivery of the deed. The others are covenants appurtenant or run with the land and are enforceable by all grantees of the land.

In order to recover on the basis of a breach of a covenant of title, financial loss must actually be sustained by the covenantee, since such covenants are contracts of indemnity. In most jurisdictions, the maximum amount of damages recoverable for such a breach is the purchase price of the land plus interest.


Land use planning is often effected through the use of covenants. Covenants facilitate the creation of particular types of neighborhoods as part of a neighborhood plan. A housing developer might, for example, buy up vacant land to divide into building lots. A low price is paid for the undeveloped land, which the developer subsequently sells burdened with a number of restrictive covenants. The developer might stipulate in the contract of sale that the owner must retain the original size of a lot. Developers can also make owners agree that houses to be constructed upon the lots must be larger than a certain size and include other specifications to ensure that such property will more than likely sell for premium prices because of the desirability of the neighborhood. Courts enforce such covenants provided they benefit and burden all the property owners in a neighborhood equally.

Covenants will not, however, be enforced if they are intended to accomplish an illegal purpose. The Supreme Court ruled in Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1, 68 S. Ct. 836, 92 L. Ed. 1161 (1948), that no court or state officials have the power under law to take any action toward the enforcement of a racial covenant. In this case, a group of neighbors were bringing suit to prohibit a property owner from selling his home to blacks, based on the argument that the owner had purchased the home subject to the restrictive covenant not to sell to blacks. The covenant was found to be unenforceable based on equal housing laws. To enforce it would constitute a civil rights violation.

further readings

Bell, Cedric D. 2000. The Law of Real Property. London: Old Bailey.

Brinig, Margaret F., and Steven Nock. 1999. "Covenant and Contract." Regent University Law Review 12 (spring): 9–26.

Kraut, Jayson, et al. 1983. American Jurisprudence. Rochester, N.Y.: Lawyers Cooperative.


Chose in Action; Easement; Encumbrance; Estate.


views updated May 18 2018



In the Bible, covenants were established between individuals, between marriage partners and between God and Israel. Circumcision itself is frequently known as berit (covenant).


The term ‘New Testament’ (Lat., testamentum = ‘covenant’) underlines how early Christians saw themselves in a new covenant.

‘Covenant theology’, or ‘federal theology’ (Lat. foedus, ‘covenant’), was a particular development of the New Testament doctrine in Calvinism in the 16th–17th cents.


The Qurʾān speaks of a covenant made in pre-existence with all of humanity, (7. 171) with Adam (20. 115), with the prophets (3. 81), with the Children of Israel (5. 13, 2. 83, 3. 187), and with the Christians (5. 15). The actual terms of the covenants are not specified in detail, but imply the belief in, and worship and service of, the One God.


views updated May 23 2018

cov·e·nant / ˈkəvənənt/ • n. an agreement. ∎  Law a contract drawn up by deed. ∎  Law a clause in a contract. ∎  Theol. an agreement that brings about a relationship of commitment between God and his people. • v. [intr.] agree, esp. by lease, deed, or other legal contract: the landlord covenants to repair the property.DERIVATIVES: cov·e·nan·tal / ˌkəvəˈnantl/ adj.cov·e·nant·er (also chiefly Law cov·e·nan·tor) n.


views updated May 21 2018


Principal foundation of Judaism, based on three principles: a direct relation with God; revelation; and the royalty of God. According to Biblical tradition, the first true covenant was concluded between God and Abraham, based on the divine promise that the latter's people, "elect of God," would soon dwell in a "Promised Land." This first covenant (b'ritt, in Hebrew), sealed by the circumcision (practiced also by the Egyptians) of Abraham, was renewed by Abraham' descendants, Isaac and Jacob. The second covenant is that of Sinai, between God and Moses, with the transmission of the Ten Commandments (asseret ha-dibrot, in Hebrew), and the renewed assurance of a "Promised Land." According to the sacred texts, this covenant is temporary, for it prepares the way for the "New Covenant," which would be materialized with the coming of the Messiah.

SEE ALSO Abraham;Isaac; Jacob (Biblical);Messiah;Moses.


views updated Jun 27 2018

covenant in theology, an agreement which brings about a relationship of commitment between God and his people. The Jewish faith is based on the biblical covenants made with Abraham, Moses, and David. In Christian theology, the New Covenant is the covenant between God and the followers of Christ, and the Old Covenant is the covenant between God and Israel in the Old Testament.


views updated May 14 2018

covenant mutual agreement; divine contract with mankind XIII; legal agreement or contract XIV. — OF. covenant (later and mod. convenant), sb. use of prp. of co(n)venir agree (see CONVENE).
Hence as vb. XIV.