What is a Covenant?

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Covenants in modern times

We use the word covenant in our ordinary business life quite frequently. If you are employed for a business at the core level where you will know company secrets or where there is fear that you might leave and go work for the competition or start your own business with the insider knowledge you learn from a company, they usually make you sign what is called a covenant not to compete.

Another type of covenant that we see done frequently is the covenant of marriage where a man and a woman come together and enter a covenant vowing to live together for the rest of their lives, loving each other, having sexual relations, sacrificing and mutually supporting one another

So then, in essence, what is a covenant?

In law and ordinary daily use, a covenant is formal agreement between two or more people to do or not do something specified in the covenant. A covenant usually has consequences for failure to keep it and blessings or profit from keeping it.

The Hebrew word for covenant is “berit” and the Greek word is diatheke. In the New American Standard Bible translation, the word covenant occurs 321 times in the bible. Evidently, covenant is something that is important to God. God is a covenant making and a covenant keeping God.

When we talk about a covenant with God or as the word is used in the Bible, the definition is not quite the same as we use it in law and in our ordinary daily work. In law and ordinary daily lives, we work with other human beings. With other fellow human beings, we enter a mutual agreement or alliance by negotiating the terms on an equal basis and then agreeing to make a covenant on those terms.

Covenants in the Bible

As used in the Bible, the word means an oath-bound promise whereby one party solemnly pledges to bless or serve another in a specific way. In some cases, some conditions must be met before the promise is kept. At other times, the oath-bound promise is made without any conditions. It is an unconditional oath-bound promise.

It’s important to note that as used in the Bible, a covenant is not a mutual contract or alliance between parties but a solemn oath-bound pledge.  The covenants between God and man are the types of covenants that are made by the superior without any input from the subordinate in deciding the terms. All that the subordinate (humans) have to do is assent or dissent. It is you take it all or leave it all. But all God’s covenants are acts of his grace.

Covenant Rituals

When the Bible records the making of a covenant, it usually uses a technical phrase “to cut a covenant” (kara berit).  This is was a reference to the animal sacrifices that were involved in making a covenant where the animal sacrificed would be cut in two. In some cases, the parties involved would symbolically walk between the pieces of the animal (see Genesis 15).  Many other rituals were done during the covenant making process.

Covenant Signs

Many covenants usually had signs that followed. These signs served as a memorial to remind the parties of the promises they had made. For example, circumcision was a sign of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. Jacob and Laban used a heap of stones. Abraham gave Abimelech seven ewe lambs. In the New Covenant (testament), we see that Baptism and Communion are signs of the new covenant (Rom 6:3-4, Col. 2:9-12).

Three Categories of covenants in the Bible

In the Bible, we see three categories of covenants: between human beings, between nations and between God and humans. For example, Joshua made a covenant with the Gibeonites (Joshua 9:15). Abraham made a covenant with Abimelech at Beersheba.  Israel made a covenant with Assyria (Hosea 12:1). And God made several covenants with the people of Israel (in the old covenant) and then with all people who put their faith in Christ (the new covenant).

After reading this, what is a covenant?

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