Covenant (in the Bible)
COVENANT (IN THE BIBLE)
The biblical concept of b erît (covenant) is so vast that this article can give only a brief survey. After a preliminary discussion of the meaning of the Hebrew term and the treaty form in the ancient Near East, details of the OT and NT covenant concept will be given.
Meaning of the Hebrew Term. Scholars are not agreed on the etymology of the Hebrew word b erît. Various opinions derive the etymon from the Hebrew, or the Arabic, or the Akkadian (see G. da Fonseca, Biblica 8:31–50). But the Akkadian root brt (to bind) seems to be the most probable. Hence, the Hebrew word would reflect the idea of a binding tie (see D. J. McCarthy, Treaty and Covenant 54; hereafter cited as TC ).
The term b erît signifies primarily a contract agreement. This includes political alliances. But in the OT its use is mainly theological, to express the alliance between God and His people in the course of salvation history. Other variants of less consequence would be judicial decisions (Sir 38.33), contracts by oath (Hos 10.4; Is 33.8), marriage (Prv 2.17; Jer 31.32; Ez 16.8; Mal 2.14), and friendship (1 Sm 18.3; Ps 54.21). Metaphorically, b erît could be an agreement made with eyes (Jb 31.1), animals (Hos 2.20), stones (Jb 5.23), death (Is 28.15), and day and night (Jer 33.20).
In a secondary sense, but not always sharply distinct from the former, b erît signifies ordinance or law. Thus the Mosaic Law became the covenant (e.g., 1 Kgs 8.21; Jer 11.1), so much so that "to transgress the covenant" was to transgress the Law (Dt 4.13, 23; Jgs 2.20). In the last centuries before Christ, the Mosaic covenant was the cult of the true God, the true religion (Jdt 9.13; 1 Mc 1.15; 2 Mc 7.36).
Constitutive elements of ber et are: (1) parties to the agreement, either two peoples or individuals of equal or unequal status, sometimes with a third party as proxy of yahweh (e.g., Jos 24.25); (2) stipulations; (3) oaths and imprecations; and (4) ritual enactment, at times in conjunction with sacrifice (Ex 24.5) and blood (Ex 24.8; Zec9.11).
Primitive ritual form seems to have been the imbibing of blood, which gave way to such substitutes as a common meal (Gn 26.30), exchange of garments or weapons (1 Sm 18.3), or a simple handshake (Ez 17.18). The practice of literally "cutting a covenant" (the Hebrew expression for making a covenant) is exemplified in Gn 15.8–11, 17 and Jer 34.18. The phrase "covenant of salt" (Lv 2.13), associated with a common meal and theologically with Sinaitic covenant, expresses the durable trait of the pact. In some cases a covenantal stele (Heb. maṣ ṣēbâ ) is associated with a pact (Gn 31.45, 51–52), but not as an object of worship (Lv 26.1). Not all of the above elements, however, are consistently verified in each and every covenantal situation. There are many published and unpublished analogies from the ancient and the modern Near East for the meaning and form of Biblical b erît. Because of space limitation, treatment will be limited here to the covenant as an ancient form of treaty.
Covenant Treaty in the Ancient Near East. Since 1931 much evidence has accumulated to show that the covenant treaty was a widespread institution (see TC 13–106). The earliest texts, from the 3d millennium b.c., are in Sumerian and Akkadian. From the 2d millennium, however, the archives of Hattusa have provided more than 20 Hittite treaty texts (c. 17th–14th centuries b.c.).
These treaties are of two kinds: the parity treaty entered into by equals and involving perfect reciprocity, and the more common vassal treaty imposed by the more powerful Hittite king on an inferior in which the obligations were one-sided. A classic example of parity treaty is the one between Hattusili III and Ramses II. The vassal treaty was essentially a technique for imperial administration.
Formally, these treaties have constant elements (titulature, stipulations as case or apodictic law, oaths with divine witnesses, and curse and blessing formulas), and variables (historical prologues, document clauses, etc.). Because it is a literary form, chancellors could arrange the essential elements as circumstances warranted. Hence, there was "variety within a general uniformity" (TC 47, 50).
Treaties from Syria belong basically to the mainstream of treaty tradition, but depart principally from Hittite
tradition by using a new element, the Drohritus or curse rite, found also in West-Semitic covenant making and much developed in Assyrian texts of the 9th–8th centuries (see TC ch. 5–6). Herein lies a clue to the principal ideological difference between the two peoples. By the use of a historical prologue, the Hittite treaty appealed to historical experience as a basis for a plan of action. It did not deny that every event was the result of some god's will, but at the same time it remained at the level of the concept "what is, is right." The Syrian-Assyrian treaties, on the other hand, with their curse rites, appealed to a divinely willed order of events. Characteristic of these treaties is a gradual evolution toward a technical legal terminology, which is more probably of Babylonian rather than of Syrian-Assyrian origin.
Covenant in the Old Testament
The term b erît occurs often in the OT and can be conveniently treated as the designation of an economic-political alliance and of a theological alliance.
Economic-Political Alliance. For the most part, the economic-political alliances mentioned in the OT are purely secular and profane in character. Nevertheless, by the fact that they were concluded by the leaders elect, they have a part to play in the gradual unfolding of salvation history. In some cases to separate the sacred from the profane does violence to the narrative, since both are usually intricately entwined.
In Patriarchal Times. abraham made an alliance with Canaanite chiefs that was instrumental in the rescue of Lot (Gn 14.13–16). He concluded a covenant with Abimelech (Gn 21.22–33), which Isaac renewed (Gn 26.26–31). In both instances, the contracting parties agreed on perpetual mutual loyalty. Jacob made an alliance only with Laban (Gn 31.43–55; see D. J. McCarthy, "Three Covenants in Genesis," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 26  179–189).
From the Exodus to Saul. moses' marriage (a form of covenant) with Zipporah undoubtedly facilitated passage through Midianite territory; moreover, Jethro, Zipporah's father, offered sacrifice to God and counseled Moses on organized judicial affairs (Ex 2.21–22;18.1–27). Joshua was fraudulently drawn into the Gibeonite covenant, which he nevertheless respected (Jos9.3–27). In later times, Saul's descendants were punished for breaking this covenant (2 Sm 21.1–10). In the period of the Judges, the absence of central power and unity among the tribes prohibited the concluding of alliances with neighboring peoples. jephthah tried it with the Ammonites but without success (Jgs 11.12–28). Allusions in Jgs 1.16; 4.11, 17–22; 5.24; 1 Sm 15.6; 33.29 seem to indicate some alliance between the Israelites and the Kenites.
Period of the Kings. Once the kingdom was established, alliances proved to be advantageous and necessary for political and commercial reasons. Thus David depended on the friendship of various princes, e.g., Achish (1 Sm 27.2–12; 28.1–2) and the King of Moab (1 Sm 22.3–4); he married Maacah, daughter of the King of Geshur (2 Sm 3.3) and established better relations with Naas, King of the Ammonites (2 Sm 10.2). His most important alliance was with Hiram, King of Tyre (1 Kgs5.15), who sent workers to construct David's palace (2 Sm 5.11). Solomon followed this covenant policy to obtain from Hiram materials and workers necessary for the construction of the Temple (1 Kgs 5.12). This Israelite-Phoenician alliance was long remembered, for in Am 1.9 divine punishment is announced for Tyre because it forgot the fraternal covenant. Finally, Solomon's covenants with Egypt and Sheba involved also commercial interests (1 Kgs 10.1–15, 28–29), and his many marriages to seal his covenants with foreign rulers led him to favor his wives' pagan cults (1 Kgs 11.1–8).
With the split between the North and the South, antagonism between the two kingdoms opened the door for offensive and defensive alliances. Such alliances in great part explain the events of the epoch. Thus, the Egyptian invasion of Judah was provoked by Jeroboam I, King of Israel, who found an ally in Egypt (1 Kgs 11.40;14.25–26). The same antagonism between the successors of Jeroboam and Rehoboam, King of Judah, induced both the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah to seek alliances with the Syrian kings (1 Kgs 15.16–20). Such alliances, as well as the alliance of Judah with Israel against Syria, were condemned by Yahweh because they led to idolatry (1 Kgs 20.35–43; 2 Kgs 8.26). Despite divine disapproval the Judah-Israel alliance continued until the reign of Jehu (2 Kgs 9.27).
Antagonism between the two kingdoms resurrected under Jeroboam II of Israel and Amasiah of Judah (2 Kgs 14.8–14), leading at the time of Ahaz to alliances between Israel and Rezin, King of Damascus (2 Kgs 16.5) and between Judah and Tiglath-pileser, King of Assyria (2 Kgs 16.7–9). This intervention of Assyria in the international affairs of Judah and Israel marks a new period in the covenant history of the Israelites. Allusions are found both in the historical books (2 Kgs 17.4; 19.9;23.29, 33–35; 24.1–2, 7; 25.1–21) and in the prophetical works (Is 30.2–4; Jer 46.2; Ez 17.13–19; etc.).
Maccabean Period. Judas Maccabeus established an alliance with the Romans against the Syrian kings (1 Mc8.22–32), and it was renewed by Jonathan and Simon (1 Mc 12.1; 15.17). The Romans respected this alliance and accepted its renewal (1 Mc 15.16–23). In 1 Mc 12.2;14.20 there is mention of an alliance between the Jews and the Lacedemonians. Hasmonean alliances, which proved to be fatal for the Jews, are known through Flavius Josephus (Jewish Antiquities 13.9.2; 14.4.4; 14.5).
Theological Alliance. Israel, in its sacred history, expressed its special relation with God by the term b erît. Since it was a plastic human convention, sacred authors used b erît rather freely to describe the mysteries of God's salvific acts in the history of man. Hence, the biblical concern is not so much with a contract as with a divinely guaranteed promise. Man's response must always be obedience to divine law. Naturally, the divine covenant involved partners of unequal status, wherein God always took the initiative and was the exclusive Lord of the covenant because He alone could and did save the people.
Covenant in the Pentateuch. The promises made to Noah and Abraham are called b erît. In Gn 9.8–17 there is a b erît between God and creation of which Noah, according to the yahwist (Gn 8.20–22), is the mediator because of his sacrifice. If the passage of the Pentateuchal priestly writers (P) in Gn 9.1–7 properly belongs to this covenant, then the Noah covenant would also be a real contract besides a gratuitously given divine promise. The rainbow is the chosen sign of the alliance (Gn 9.13). In Is 54.9–10 (see also Sir 44.17–18) God's covenant with Noah is called a b erît of peace.
God's covenant with Abraham consists of a two-fold promise: numerous posterity and possession of the promised land (Gn 15.1–20). The parallel of P in Gn 17.1–14 prescribes both circumcision as the sign of the covenant and the injunction to walk justly before God. The covenant is perpetual (17.13) and is extended in subsequent books to Isaac and Jacob (Ex 2.24; 6.4; etc.).
At Sinai, Israel became the people of God (Ex 6.7; Lv 26.12; often in Jeremiah and Ezekiel). This alliance is called the Decalogue in Ex 34.27, 38 and Lv 26.15 and a renewal of the patriarchal covenant in Ex 24.7–8. The sign of this alliance is the sabbath (Ex 34.27–28). Recent studies concerning renewals of this covenant are those of N. Lohfink on Josiah's Covenant in 2 Kgs 23.3 and of J. L'Hour on Shechem Covenant in Jos 24.1–28. Possibly Dt 11.29–30; 27.1–26 is a tradition of the Shechem alliance independent of Jos 24.1–28. The latter passage contains elements of ancient covenant form and is more motivational than ritual or contractual (see TC ch.11). In Exodus ch. 19–24 the treaty form is reflected only remotely, with emphasis on ritual (see TC ch. 12). The Book of Deuteronomy, on the other hand, has the complete treaty form (see TC ch. 9). Its theology is that of the heart, as it is in the prophetic and the wisdom traditions, leading the hearer to respond to the love of Yahweh.
Prophetic Covenant. The divine promise through Nathan to David (2 Sm 7.5–16), that Israel was the people of Yahweh and that David's dynasty would last forever, is expressed by later authors as a b e rît (2 Sm 23.5; Ps 88.40; Sir 45.25). In 2 Chr 13.5 its incorruptibility is stressed by calling it a covenant of salt (b erît melah ). The kingship now shared in the solidity of the Mosaic covenant, and sacred sonship culminated in the king of Israel. The Davidic covenant was bound up later with Temple tradition (Psalm 131 ), exemplified by the biblical chronicler, who was intent on David and the Temple. In the prophetic books, this covenant was bound up with the prophetic-messianic expectation of the Davidic shoot (Is 11.1, 10; etc.). Hence, the people of God now had David as true shepherd (Jer 23.5; Ez 34.23–24; 37.24).
Moreover, the Prophets untiringly repeated the demands of Yahweh, His threats and His promises. Even though the word b erît rarely occurred, the reality of the covenant found expression in such comparisons as betrothal (Hos 2.16–25) and paternal love (Hos 11.1–4), which Hosea attached to the Exodus, as Amos did with the idea of divine election (Am 3.1–2). Moreover, the reality of God's covenant with Israel is presupposed in Hos1.1–3.5 and Am 2.4–5. What all the Prophets, by reason of their vocation, were intent on was the application of the Mosaic Law to the existing circumstances.
Above all, there emerges the prophetic idea of a New Covenant, already described in Hos 2.18–25. It is not the same as the covenant of the fathers, but one written on hearts, and therefore spiritual (Jer 31.31–40; 32.38–42). Yet for Ezekiel the New Covenant is to be a renewal of the one made at the Exodus (Ez 20.34–38). Moreover, there is the covenantal guarantee concerning restoration of Temple cult and reestablishment of the priestly succession of Levi from Aaron and Phinehas to Zadok (Ez 44.15–31). After the Exile, the Levites make a formal covenant with God (Ezr 10.1–9; Nehemiah ch. 9–10). In Deutero-Isaiah, the first Exodus is both type and guarantee of the new Exodus from Babylon (Is 41.17–20;43.16–21; 48.20–21); in the Songs of the suffering ser vant the servant becomes "a covenant of people, a light for nations" (Is 42.6). Finally, in Dn 9.4–6 the Law and the Prophets are united as b erît.
Covenant in the New Testament
The NT uses the Septuagint term διαθήκη 33 times for b erît, although in non-biblical Greek διαθήκη means last will and testament. In the NT διαθήκη almost always means covenant. On the question of continuity or discontinuity between the OT and the NT, see R. Murphy, "The Relationship between the Testaments," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 26 (1964) 349–359, and J. Oesterreicher, The Israel of God (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.1963).
In the Synoptics and Acts. The benedictus (canti cle of zechariah) refers to God's covenants with David and Abraham (Lk 1.68–75); for Luke, διαθήκη is a sworn promise fulfilled in the Messiah whom God has sent, rather than a bilateral pact.
Regarding the meaning of the word διαθήκη in the institution of the Eucharistic consecration of wine (Mt 26.28; Mk 14.24; Lk 22.20; 1 Cor 11.25), there are three opinions: (1) last will and testament; (2) covenant, with allusions to Ex 24.8; and (3) both. The more probable opinion is the second. The first Old Covenant was made through Moses and ratified by sacrifice. The New Covenant is the Christian dispensation ratified by Christ's sacrifice on Calvary. In NT context, however, this New Covenant cannot be separated from the many promises that Christ gave to those who love Him (e.g., John ch. 14–17).
In Peter's discourse in the Temple, διαθήκη is the divine promise given to Abraham (Acts 3.25). The promised blessings are realized in Christ. For Stephen, διαθήκη is the precept of circumcision, and he calls "uncircumcized in heart and ear" those who reject and thus "do not keep the Law received as an ordinance of angels," i.e., the Sinai covenant (Acts 7.8, 51–53).
In the Pauline Epistles. In Rom 9.4 and Eph 2.12 διαθ[symbol omitted]και includes all ancient pacts established by God. In Rom 11.27, however, the reference is specifically to the messianic covenant, the New Covenant foretold by the Prophets.
In terms of covenantal law, 2 Cor 3.6–18 presents the two διαθ[symbol omitted]και as opposite orders. The old was a dispensation that condemned, whereas the new is a dispensation that justifies. The old was of the letter that killed, whereas the new is of the spirit that gives life, namely, Christ. The old was transient, whereas the new is permanent.
In Gal 3.15–18, 29 and 4.21–31 the two διαθ[symbol omitted]και are presented as opposite orders in terms of slavery and freedom. As the slave girl hagar, the mother of Ishmael, represents the Sinai of Mosaic legislation, that is, the Jerusalem of Paul's time, so Sarah, mother of Isaac, the freeborn son of promise, represents the New Jerusalem, that is, the Church. Hence, for Paul the Abrahamitic covenant was superior to the Sinaitic covenant.
In Hebrews. The author reflects on all God's ancient covenants, e.g., with Noah (Heb 11.7), Abraham (6.13–20), Moses (3.1–6), David and the Prophets (11.32–33), and Levi (7.4–17), but especially on the New Covenant of the Messiah (ch. 8).
The Old Covenant was a shadow of the new (10.1), imperfect (9.7), and obsolete (8.13). On the other hand the New Covenant is superior, κρεíττων (7.22), enacted on the basis of superior promises (8.6), faultless (8.7), a new and living way (10.20). Hebrews, in contrast to 2 Cor 3.6–18, speaks of insufficient-provisional and perfect-everlasting covenants.
Christ is the hope of the promise made to Abraham (6.19). He is the eternal High Priest superior to Levi because he is priest by divine oath (7.20–21), according to the order of Melchizedek (7.17), who was superior to both Abraham and Levi (7.1–10). As mediator, high priest, and victim, Christ enters the heavenly sanctuary only once to sacrifice Himself for the destruction of sin (8.1–5; 9.11, 26–28). Thus, the blood of Christ inaugurates the new διαθήκη (9.18–22). Although in Heb9.16–17 διαθήκη is used juridically in the sense of last will and testament, in 9.15, 20 it has its usual biblical meaning of covenant—in v. 15 of the one sealed by the blood of Christ, in v. 20 of the other sealed by the blood of the Sinaitic sacrifice.
Conclusion. The theology of covenant in the Bible is consistently a theology of divine promise. Whether in a profane or sacred sense, the sacred authors use the conventional b erît to trace the line of salvation history toward its divinely willed goal. For the NT authors, Christ is not only the culmination of OT covenants, but He also inaugurates the New Covenant that culminates in the apocalyptic heavenly Jerusalem, where the redeemed are God's people, and He is their God (Rv 21.3).
Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 432–439. v. hamp and j. schmid, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 2:770–778. j. hempel and l. goppelt, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 1957–65) 1: 1512–18. l. g. da fonseca, "Διαθήκη—foedus and testamentum?" Biblica 8 (1927) 31–50, 161–181, 290–319, 418–441; 9 (1928) 26–40, 143–160. d. j. mccarthy, Treaty and Covenant (Analecta orientalia 21; 1963). n. lohfink, "Die Bundesurkunde des Königs Josias," Biblica 44 (1963) 261–288, 461–498. j. l'hour, "L'Alliance de Sichem," Revue biblique 69 (1962) 5–36, 161–184, 350–368. g. e. mendenhall, "Covenant Forms in Israelite Tradition," Biblical Archaeologist 17 (1954) 50–76. e. f. siegman, "The Blood of the Covenant," American Ecclesiastical Review 136 (1957) 167–174.