Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Some Notes about Biblical Covenants

Professor of Bible and Old Testament, Irvin A. Busenitz, in TMSJ 10/2 (Fall 1999), pg 173-189, writes some interesting things about Biblical Covenants in his "Introduction to the Biblical Covenants; the Noahic Covenant and the Priestly Covenant". The bulk of the rest of this post is lifted from that document.

He says there are six covenants that provide the foundation for understanding God's working in human history:
  • The Noahic
  • The Abrahamic
  • The Priestly
  • The Mosaic
  • The Davidic
  • The New Covenant
I would add the Adamic covenant, although the term "covenant" does not appear to be used in this case. (There are other Biblical covenants as well, but they don't have as much influence on our understanding as do these six or seven covenants.)

The English word "covenant" comes from the Latin "covenire", meaning "to convene, meet together, to assemble for a common purpose", but the Hebrew word, "berit", has a more obscure meaning, possibly meaning "to bind, fetter", or being related to "food, eating", but its usage in the Tanakh (Old Testament) doesn't really fit these two definitions. Instead, there seem to be two basic usages therein: as an agreement between two equal parties, and as an agreement in which one greater party does something for or to a lesser party.

The equal-party covenant is seen in such cases "as David and Jonathan (1 Sam 18:3-4), between families such as Jacob and Laban (Gen 31:54), or between nations such as Israel and the Canaanites (Exod 23:32, 34:12, 15). Similar terminology describes the marriage covenant (Prov 2:17; Mal 2:14) or international trade agreements (1 Kgs 20:34)."

The unequal-party covenant "depicts an arrangement imposed by a superior on subordinates (e.g., Joshua 9; 1 Sam 11:1-2). It usually designates an agreement made to or for, not with, the subordinate, depicting a legally binding promise which one party makes toward an other. In other words, parity between the two parties is absent. Second Kings 11:4 describes a covenant made by Jehoida the priest and the Carites to protect young Joash from the wicked queen Athaliah. Ezra 10:3 speaks of making “a covenant with our God to put away all the [foreign] wives and their children.”

When this type of covenant is instituted by God between Himself and Man (the usual usage, although sometimes it's instituted by Man, between himself and God, or between himself and other men), it usually acts as a "grant" when the emphasis is on the greater party's obligation to the lesser party, as in the Noahic Covenant when God promises certain things such as not flooding the earth again, and as a "treaty" when the emphasis is on the lesser party's obligation to the greater party, such as in the Mosaic Covenant when Israel is obligated to observe God's laws.

In the New Testament, the word generally used for "covenant" is "diatheke", and refers to a "last will and testament". The main concept to be noted in this usage is that the covenant is the "declaration of one person's will, not the result of an agreement betw[een] two parties".

A major difference in the Hebrew and Greek usages is that in the Tanakh, the death of the person making the will was not required in order to put the will into effect, whereas in the New Testament, the term requires just that. In fact, the death of the covenant-maker in the Hebrew usage nullified the covenant.

Whereas covenants were sometimes granted, or given, or made, the "predominant verb associated with covenant-making" is "karath", "to cut", and most likely refers to the ancient practice of cutting a sacrifice in pieces and walking between them.

Sometimes the making of a covenant included a one-time "pledge", or gift, such as when Abraham gave sheep and oxen to Abimelech, or when "Jonathan gave David his robe, armor, sword, bow, and belt (1 Sam 18:4)."

Sometimes the making of a covenant included a repeatable "sign", such as the rainbow, or circumcision, or Sabbath observance.

Covenants were often made in the presence of witnesses, whether human (Gen 23:16; Ruth 4:9), divine (Gen 31:50), or inanimate (Josh 24:27).

Covenants had consequences. They were intended to be kept, and if so, then would result in blessing; if broken, they could result in cursings. "In the case of a covenant between individuals, walking between the pieces of the sacrifice (e.g. Gen 15:12-18) provided a visual threat of similar dismemberment should the covenant obligations go unmet", and is probably the source of the phrase "may God do so to me and more also", such as is found in Ruth 1:17 and other passages.

A covenant could be unilateral (only one party has responsibilities) or bilateral (both parties have responsibilities). Five unilateral covenants are found in Scripture:
  • the Noahic
  • the Abrahamic
  • the Priestly
  • the Davidic
  • the New
"Scripture has no evidence of any obligations required of the recipients of these five covenants. It should be noted, however, that this does not deny the possible need for consequent obedience. But it does establish the fact that obedience is not a contingency for its fulfillment."

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