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Covenant, Old Testament Covenant

kuv'-e-nant ((berith) a cutting)
Azzur, God, Noah, Oath, Rainbow
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Easton's Bible Dictionary

A contract or agreement between two parties. In the Old Testament the Hebrew word berith is always thus translated. Berith is derived from a root which means "to cut," and hence a covenant is a "cutting," with reference to the cutting or dividing of animals into two parts, and the contracting parties passing between them, in making a covenant ( Genesis 15 ; Jeremiah 34:18 , 34:19 ).

The corresponding word in the New Testament Greek is diatheke , which is, however, rendered "testament" generally in the Authorized Version. It ought to be rendered, just as the word berith of the Old Testament, "covenant."

This word is used

(1) of a covenant or compact between man and man ( Genesis 21:32 ), or between tribes or nations ( 1 Samuel 11:1 ; Joshua 9:6 , 9:15 ). In entering into a convenant, Jehovah was solemnly called on to witness the transaction ( Genesis 31:50 ), and hence it was called a "covenant of the Lord" ( 1 Samuel 20:8 ). The marriage compact is called "the covenant of God" ( Proverbs 2:17 ), because the marriage was made in God's name. Wicked men are spoken of as acting as if they had made a "covenant with death" not to destroy them, or with hell not to devour them ( Isaiah 28:15 , 28:18 ).

(2) The word is used with reference to God's revelation of himself in the way of promise or of favour to men. Thus God's promise to Noah after the Flood is called a covenant ( Genesis 9 ; Jeremiah 33:20 , "my covenant"). We have an account of God's covernant with Abraham ( Genesis 17 , Compare Leviticus 26:42 ), of the covenant of the priesthood ( Numbers 25:12 , 25:13 ; Deuteronomy 33:9 ; Nehemiah 13:29 ), and of the covenant of Sinai ( Exodus 34:27 , 34:28 ; Leviticus 26:15 ), which was afterwards renewed at different times in the history of Israel ( Deuteronomy 29 ; Joshua 1:24 ; 2 Chronicles 15 ; 23 ; 29 ; 34 ; Ezra 10 ; Nehemiah 9 ). In conformity with human custom, God's covenant is said to be confirmed with an oath ( Deuteronomy 4:31 ; Psalms 89:3 ), and to be accompanied by a sign ( Genesis 9 ; 17 ). Hence the covenant is called God's "counsel," "oath," "promise" ( Psalms 89:3 , 89:4 ; 105:8 - 11 ; Hebrews 6:13 - 20 ; Luke 1:68 - 75 ). God's covenant consists wholly in the bestowal of blessing ( Isaiah 59:21 ; Jeremiah 31:33 , 31:34 ).

(3) The term covenant is also used to designate the regular succession of day and night ( Jeremiah 33:20 ), the Sabbath ( Exodus 31:16 ), circumcision ( Genesis 17:9 , 17:10 ), and in general any ordinance of God ( Jeremiah 34:13 , 34:14 ).

(4) A "covenant of salt" signifies an everlasting covenant, in the sealing or ratifying of which salt, as an emblem of perpetuity, is used ( Numbers 18:19 ; Leviticus 2:13 ; 2 Chronicles 13:5 ).


the constitution under which Adam was placed at his creation. In this covenant,

(1) The contracting parties were

(a) God the moral Governor, and

(b) Adam, a free moral agent, and representative of all his natural posterity ( Romans 5:12 - 19 ).

(2) The promise was "life" ( Matthew 19:16 , 19:17 ; Galatians 3:12 ).

(3) The condition was perfect obedience to the law, the test in this case being abstaining from eating the fruit of the "tree of knowledge," etc.

(4) The penalty was death ( Genesis 2:16 , 2:17 ).

This covenant is also called a covenant of nature, as made with man in his natural or unfallen state; a covenant of life, because "life" was the promise attached to obedience; and a legal covenant, because it demanded perfect obedience to the law.

The "tree of life" was the outward sign and seal of that life which was promised in the covenant, and hence it is usually called the seal of that covenant.

This covenant is abrogated under the gospel, inasmuch as Christ has fulfilled all its conditions in behalf of his people, and now offers salvation on the condition of faith. It is still in force, however, as it rests on the immutable justice of God, and is binding on all who have not fled to Christ and accepted his righteousness.


the eternal plan of redemption entered into by the three persons of the Godhead, and carried out by them in its several parts. In it the Father represented the Godhead in its indivisible sovereignty, and the Son his people as their surety ( John 17:4 , 17:6 , 17:9 ; Isaiah 42:6 ; Psalms 89:3 ).

The conditions of this covenant were,

(1) On the part of the Father

(a) all needful preparation to the Son for the accomplishment of his work ( Hebrews 10:5 ; Isaiah 42:1 - 7 );

(b) support in the work ( Luke 22:43 ); and

(c) a glorious reward in the exaltation of Christ when his work was done (Philippians 2:6 - 11 ), his investiture with universal dominion ( John 5:22 ; Psalms 110:1 ), his having the administration of the covenant committed into his hands ( Matthew 28:18 ; John 1:12 ; 17:2 ; Acts 2:33 ), and in the final salvation of all his people ( Isaiah 35:10 ; 53:10 , 53:11 ; Jeremiah 31:33 ; Titus 1:2 ).

(2) On the part of the Son the conditions were

(a) his becoming incarnate ( Galatians 4:4 , 4:5 ); and

(b) as the second Adam his representing all his people, assuming their place and undertaking all their obligations under the violated covenant of works;

(c) obeying the law ( Psalms 40:8 ; Isaiah 42:21 ; John 9:4 , 9:5 ), and

(d) suffering its penalty ( Isaiah 53 ; 2 Corinthians 5:21 ; Galatians 3:13 ), in their stead.

Christ, the mediator of, fulfils all its conditions in behalf of his people, and dispenses to them all its blessings. In Hebrews 8:6 ; 9:15 ; 12:24 , this title is given to Christ. (See DISPENSATION .)


Hitchcock's Dictionary of Bible Names

(no entry)


Smith's Bible Dictionary

The Hebrew berith means primarily "a cutting," with reference to the custom of cutting or dividing animals in two and passing between the parts in ratifying a covenant. ( Genesis 15 ; Jeremiah 34:18 , 34:19 ) In the New Testament the corresponding word is diathece (diatheke), which is frequently translated testament in the Authorized Version. In its biblical meaning two parties the word is used--

Of a covenant between God and man; e.g. God covenanted with Noah, after the flood, that a like judgment should not be repeated. It is not precisely like a covenant between men, but was a promise or agreement by God. The principal covenants are the covenant of works --God promising to save and bless men on condition of perfect obedience --and the covenant of grace , or Gods promise to save men on condition of their believing in Christ and receiving him as their Master and Saviour. The first is called the Old Covenant, from which we name the first part of the bible the Old Testament, the Latin rendering of the word covenant. The second is called the New Covenant, or New Testament.

Covenant between man and man, i.e. a solemn compact or agreement, either between tribes or nations, ( Joshua 9:6 , 9:15 ; 1 Samuel 11:1 ) or between individuals, ( Genesis 31:44 ) by which each party bound himself to fulfill certain conditions and was assured of receiving certain advantages. In making such a covenant God was solemnly invoked as witness, ( Genesis 31:50 ) and an oath was sworn. ( Genesis 21:31 ) A sign or witness of the covenant was sometimes framed, such a gift, ( Genesis 21:30 ) or a pillar or heap of stones erected. ( Genesis 31:52 )


International Standard Bible Encyclopedia

kuv'-e-nant (berith):


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.


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 (Genesis 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 (Genesis 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 Ezekiel 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 (Deuteronomy 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 Genesis 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 Exodus 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 (Genesis 15:9 - 18), a custom also referred to in Jeremiah 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 Hebrews 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 (Genesis 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 (Ezra 10:19 ; Ezekiel 17:18 , etc.).

3. Different Varieties

In observing different varieties of agreements among men, we note that they may be either between individuals or between larger units, such as tribes and nations. In a great majority of cases, however, they are between the larger units. In some cases, also, when an individual acts it is in a representative capacity, as the head of a clan, or as a king. When the covenant is between tribes it is thus a treaty or alliance. The following passages have this use of covenant: Genesis 14:13 ; 21:27 , 32 ; 26:28 ; 31:44 ; Exodus 23:32 ; 34:12 , 15 ; Deuteronomy 7:2 ; Joshua 9:6 , 7 , 11 , 15 , 16 ; Judges 2:2 ; 1 Samuel 11:1 ; 1 Kings 3:12 ; 15:19 parallel 2 Chronicles 16:3 ; 1 Kings 20:34 ; Psalms 83:5 ; Isaiah 33:8 ; Ezekiel 16:61 ; 17:13 - 19 ; 30:5 ; Daniel 11:22 ; Amos 1:9. In other cases it is between a king and his subjects, when it is more a command or ordinance, as 2 Samuel 3:12 , 13 , 11 ; 5:3 parallel 1 Chronicles 11:3 ; Jeremiah 34:8 - 18; Daniel 9:27. In other cases it is between individuals, or between small groups, where it is an agreement or pledge (2 Kings 11:4 parallel 2 Chronicles 23:1 ; Job 31:1 ; 41:4 ; Hosea 10:4). Between David and Jonathan it is more specifically an alliance of friendship (1 Samuel 18:3 ; 20:8 ; 23:18), as also apparently in Psalms 55:20. It means an alliance of marriage in Malachi 2:14, but probably not in Proverbs 2:17, where it is better to understand the meaning as being "her covenant with God."

4. Phraseology Used

In all cases of covenants between men, except Jeremiah 34:10 and Daniel 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.


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 (Psalms 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

A covenant of this general kind is said in the Old Testament to have been made by God with Noah (Genesis 9:9 - 17 and elsewhere). In this the promise is that there shall be no more deluge. A covenant is made with Abraham, the thought of which includes his descendants. In this the promise of God is to multiply the descendants of Abraham, to give them the land of Canaan, and to make them a blessing to the nations. This is narrated in Genesis 15:18 ; 17:2 - 21, etc. A covenant is made with the nation Israel at Sinai (Horeb) (Exodus 19:5 ; 24:7 , 8 ; 34:10 , 27 , 28 , etc.), ratified by a covenant sacrifice and sprinkling of blood (Exodus 24:4 - 8). This constituted the nation the peculiar people of God, and was accompanied by promises for obedience and penalties for disobedience. This covenant was renewed on the plains of Moab (Deuteronomy 29:1). In these national covenants the individual had a place, but only as a member of the nation. The individual might forfeit his rights under the covenant, however, by deliberate rebellion against Yahweh, sinning "with a high hand" (Numbers 15:30), and then he was regarded as no longer a member of the nation, he was "cut off from among his people," i.e. put to death. This is the teaching of the Priestly Code (P), and is also implied elsewhere; in the mercy of God, however, the punishment was not always inflicted. A covenant with the tribe of Levi, by which that became the priestly tribe, is alluded to in Deuteronomy 33:9 ; Jeremiah 33:21 ; Malachi 2:4. The covenant with Phinehas (Numbers 25:12 , 13) established an everlasting priesthood in his line. The covenant with Joshua and Israel (Joshua 24) was an agreement on their part to serve Yahweh only. The covenant with David (2 Samuel 7 parallel 1 Chronicles 17; see also Psalms 89:3 , 18 , 34 , 39 ; 132:12 ; Jeremiah 33:21) contained a promise that his descendants should have an everlasting kingdom, and should stand to God in the relation of sonship. The covenant with Jehoiada and the people (2 Kings 11:17 parallel 2 Chronicles 23:3) was an agreement on their part to be the people of Yahweh. The covenant with Hezekiah and the people (2 Chronicles 29:10) consisted essentially of an agreement on their part to reform the worship; the covenant with Josiah and the people (2 Kings 23:3), of an agreement on their part to obey the Book of the Law. The covenant with Ezra and the people (Ezra 10:3) was an agreement on their part to put away foreign wives and obey the law. The prophets also speak of a new covenant, most explicitly in Jeremiah, but with references elsewhere, which is connected with the Messianic time (see Isaiah 42:6 ; 49:8 ; 55:3 ; 59:21 ; 61:8 ; Jeremiah 31:31 , 33 ; 32:40 ; 50:5 ; Ezekiel 16:60 , 62 ; 20:37 ; 34:25 ; 37:26 ; Hosea 2:18).

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 Hosea 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 (Leviticus 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 Hosea 3:3 ; 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 (Jeremiah 31:32). Accordingly he speaks of a new covenant (Jeremiah 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 Isaiah 56:4 ; Psalms 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.



berith, bible commentary, bible history, bible reference, bible study, covenant, covenant of grace, covenant of works, define, diatheke



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