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
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,
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).
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
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).
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
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.
© 2007 Meredith G. Kline