printer friendly

What is a Covenant?

from Kingdom Prologue, pp. 1-6
by Meredith G. Kline

Because the subject of biblical covenants and ancient treaties has been under intensive investigation and lively dispute, some introductory observations are in order here about the nature of those biblical arrangements we call "covenants." Our chief interest in these comments is in those covenantal arrangements in which God was one party.

Of the biblical words usually rendered "covenant" the primary one in the Old Testament is the Hebrew berith, for which the Greek diatheke was the translation choice of the New Testament writers. What is it that constitutes the peculiar berith-character of that which is so denominated?

Repeatedly we read of a berith being "made." The berith-making is accomplished through a solemn process of ratification. Characteristically this transaction centers in the swearing of an oath, with its sanctioning curse. Clearly a berith is a legal kind of arrangement, a formal disposition of a binding nature. At the heart of a berith is an act of commitment and the customary oath-form of this commitment reveals the religious nature of the transaction. The berith arrangement is no mere secular contract but rather belongs to the sacred sphere of divine witness and enforcement.

The kind of legal disposition called berith consists then in a divinely sanctioned commitment. In the case of divine-human covenants the divine sanctioning is entailed in God's participation either as the one who himself makes the commitment or as the divine witness of the human commitment made in his name and presence.

A good indication that the act of commitment with the obligations thus undertaken is basic to the meaning of berith is provided by the numerous statements about keeping and remembering the berith or being false to it and transgressing it. In fact, the two possible ways of treating a berith, by observing or violating it, are the most conspicuous and pervasive ideas found in immediate association with that term in the Bible. Also, a common synonym for berith is chesed with its connotation, if not primary force, of loyalty and fidelity, underscored at times by its combination with the term, 'emeth, "truth."

Further, pointing to the centrality of commitment and specifically oath-commitment in the berith arrangement is the common use of words for oath (or curse) as synonyms for berith. For example, Moses instructs Israel assembled in the plains of Moab: "(You stand here) to enter into the covenant of Yahweh your God and into his oath-curse which Yahweh your God is making with you this day" (Deut 29:12[11]). In the marriage allegory of the Sinaitic Covenant in Ezekiel 16 the Lord says: "I sware unto you and entered into a covenant with you" (v. 8). Berith may also be the direct object of the verb of swearing (cf. Deut 4:31; 7:12; 8:18). See also Genesis 26:28.

So much was oath-commitment definitive of the berith that the act of making a berith was denoted by the imagery of the oath ritual performed when ratifying a berith. Thus, since the characteristic ratification rite was one of slaying and cutting up animals to symbolize the curse that would befall the breaker of the oath, "cut a berith" became the idiom for this transaction.

Etymology possibly affords another indication of the oath-commitment significance of berith, for its original meaning may well be "bond". Use of this term for the Old Testament covenants would then have in view the binding obligation undertaken in the ratificatory oath. For the idea of the oath as a bond see, for example, Numbers 30:2ff. (3ff.), especially the expression "binding oath" (v. 13[14]). And for the association of bond and berith note the phrase "bond of the covenant" (Ezek 20:37; cf. Jer 27:2; Dan 6:8). But whatever the etymology of berith (and this is still under debate), the proper meaning of the word used to translate it in the New Testament is clear. Diatheke means a disposition, especially (in extra-biblical usage) a testament, and its use as a rendering for berith points to an understanding of the latter as a solemnly transacted commitment.

This understanding of the meaning of berith is confirmed by the extra-biblical evidence of analogous phenomena in the ancient world, particularly certain political arrangements whose formal equivalence to the divine covenants in the Bible is established by striking and extensive parallels in their ratificatory rituals and documents and in their administrative procedures. For these similar covenantal arrangements are regularly called "bonds (i.e., obligations) and oaths." Moreover, the making of these covenants too is referred to as a cutting of the covenant, or it is denoted by some expression descriptive of a particular oath-curse ritual consisting in the dismemberment of some specific animal.

The evidence for berith as an obligation solemnly undertaken or imposed has increasingly impressed investigators of the matter and a vigorous case has been made opposing as unwarranted the translating of berith by "covenant," with its connotation of relationship. It is even suggested that "command" would be a suitable rendering, and in support of that is the fact that "law" and various terms for commandment are employed as synonyms for berith (cf. Jer 33:25). Those who defend the continued use of the translation "covenant" have to acknowledge that berith is in the first instance a matter of commitment (given or exacted). They contend, however, that berith-arrangements are bilateral in that they involve negotiations (even if one party sovereignly proclaims or imposes the terms) and that the berith-making occurs in the context of an existing relationship or mutual understanding, often a cordial relationship, which the berith then further defines. It should be observed, too, that berith is not always used in its simple primary and proper sense and that some justification for rendering it by "covenant" can be found in the secondary extensions of its meaning. For the idea of the act of oath-commitment, which may be obvious enough in passages that deal with berith-making or ratification, shades off in other passages into the idea of the contents of the commitment. And we can think of those contents per se, or as written down as the text of a berith-document (we find references in the Bible to the "words of the covenant," "the tables of the covenant," "the book of the covenant") or as embodied in the order of life or the relationship that they promise or stipulate. These nuances are so interrelated that it is difficult to say which one is dominant in some passages. For possible examples of berith referring to the contents, whether promissory or obligatory, see Exodus 31:16; Numbers 25:13 (cf. Neh 13:29; Mal 2:8); 2 Samuel 23:5 (cf. Ps 89:39); 1 Kings 20:34; and Psalm 50:16. For possible examples of berith used for the resultant alliance or relationship or order, see Genesis 17:4; Exodus 23:32; Job 5:23; Psalm 83:5(6); Isaiah 28:15, 18; Ezekiel 30:5 and Hosea 12:1. In view of these secondary uses of berith and because of the long and firmly established place of the word "covenant" in English versions of the Bible and in theological formulations it would seem expedient to continue to make use of "covenant" in translating berith and diatheke.

It was stated earlier that there is a close connection between divine covenant and divine kingdom. Viewed as commitment transactions with their rituals, documents, and stipulated terms and procedures, covenants function as administrative instruments of God's kingly rule. Indeed, the connection is sometimes closer than this. As we have observed, berith in some passages denotes the actual historical realization of the arrangement defined in the covenantal stipulations and sanctions. Covenant thus becomes a particular administration of God's kingship, whether in the bestowal of his holy kingdom as a royal grant on a special covenant people as their peculiar inheritance or in the sovereign government of a temporal world order whose benefits are common to all alike (as in the postdiluvian common grace covenant of Gen 9). It is in this sense that covenant is used to designate the major divisions of covenant theology.

Converging lines of evidence have indicated that what is designated berith is primarily a legal disposition, characteristically established by oath and defined by the terms specified in oath-bound, divinely sanctioned commitments. We have also found that there is a functional aspect common to the divine berith transactions which provides warrant for those engaged in theological analysis to employ the term covenant in the sense of kingdom administration.

In adopting these conclusions we are rejecting certain counterproposals in which the covenant concept gets unduly restricted. These would make essential to the definition of covenant as a biblical theological category features that are not present in all berith arrangements, features pertaining to the substance of the covenantal commitment or to the resultant covenantal order.

Thus, with respect to the substance of the covenant commitment it has been held that nothing is properly called covenant except sovereign administration of grace and promise. However, as will be argued below, there are berith arrangements in the Bible that are informed by the principle of works, the opposite of grace. One of these is the original order in Eden. In postlapsarian history, where we encounter covenants both of works and grace, the identity of the party who takes the ratification oath is an indicator of which kind of covenant it is in a particular case. It must be noted here that not all oaths of covenantal commitment function as ratification oaths. For example, the role played by the oath ritual of circumcision (Gen 17) is that of a supplementary seal added to the Abrahamic Covenant, which had been ratified by God's oath on an earlier occasion (Gen 15). More precisely, in the situation after the Fall it is the presence or absence of a human oath of ratification that provides the clue as to the governing principle, for divine oath is at least implicit in the ratification of all divine-human covenants, whether of works or grace. If the covenant is ratified by divine oath alone, it is a covenant of grace, either saving or common. But when the covenant-making includes a human oath of ratification, as in the case of Israel's oath in the Sinaitic Covenant (Exod 24), the arrangement is informed by the works principle. (On the complex relation of works and grace in the old covenant, see further below.) Man's ratificatory oath is a commitment to perform the obligations imposed by his Lord, while the divine oath in such a works covenant is a commitment to enforce the sanctions appropriately, rewarding obedience with the promised blessing and recompensing disobedience with the threatened curse. But our immediate concern is simply to observe that in view of the data indicating that some biblical covenants are of the works variety, the fundamental feature of divinely sanctioned commitment in our definition of covenant may not be restricted to commitment of sovereign grace and promise.

Improper restriction of the biblical theological definition of the berith concept has also occurred by inclusion of what is effected by the covenantal transaction. Some suggest that the main component in this definition should be the effecting of a religious relationship, more specifically, a holy fellowship in love between God and a chosen people. If we were limiting our analysis to those covenants in which God bestows his holy kingdom on a sanctified community, we might properly include in an expanded definition of covenant this feature of the union and communion of God and man in recognition that this is the acme of blessedness secured in these covenants and the chief end in view, under the glory of God. However, if our definition is intended to cover all the divine covenants in Scripture, this feature of special relationship must be omitted, for there is also the common grace covenant (cf. Gen 9) in which God commits himself to maintain a certain order of life but does not therein bestow his holy kingdom and communion on an elect people.

Once we are satisfied that we have arrived at a proper concept of covenant and have in mind employing the succession of divine covenants as a general scheme for a biblical theology, the question arises whether we should classify as covenants various arrangements that are not specifically labelled berith or diatheke in the Bible. This problem takes a couple of different forms. One involves the traditional procedure of covenant theology whereby the individual berith-diatheke transactions of redemptive history are combined into ever more comprehensive "covenant" entities, culminating in what is usually called the Covenant of Grace, which encompasses all the redemptive administrations from the Fall to the Consummation. If it is recognized that there is a fundamental unity among all the individual covenants brought under the overarching Covenant of Grace, the process of identifying higher levels of covenantal unity is surely proper, for the biblical authors themselves already did that kind of systematizing of the covenants. For example, in Psalm 105:9,10 (cf. 2 Kgs 13:23; 1 Chr 16:16,17) there is a virtual identifying of God's separate covenantal transactions with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And the separate covenants enacted by Moses at Sinai and in Moab and the later renewals of this arrangement in Joshua 24 and elsewhere in the Old Testament are repeatedly spoken of by later Old Testament authors and by New Testament authors as one covenant of the Lord with Israel, which the Book of Hebrews refers to as the "first" over against the "new" or "second" covenant (Heb 8:6-8). In principle then there is biblical precedent for the systematic organizer of the covenants to identify the over-all unity of the redemptive covenants by some such term as the Covenant of Grace.