The entire underpinning of the Bible rests on the covenants that God has made with His creation. It is common to hear references to the “Old Covenant” and the “New Covenant.” Sometimes references are made to an “Edenic Covenant,” an “Adamic Covenant,” a “Noahide (or Noahic) Covenant,” an “Abrahamic Covenant,” a “Mosaic Covenant,” and a “Davidic Covenant.”
What are all these covenants, and what bearing do they have on our life today?
To begin, let’s look at the definition of a covenant.
The Definition of a Covenant
The English dictionary defines a covenant as “an agreement, usually formal, between two or more persons to do or not do something specified.”
In the Bible, the word “covenant” is first encountered in Genesis 6:18, and is the Hebrew word “beri?yth” (Strong’s number H1285). The word is used 285 times in the KJV, and is translated “covenant” 265 times out of those 285. It is also translated as “league,” and “confederate” or “confederacy.”
“Beriyth” is related to the word “ba?ra?h” (H1262) meaning “to select” and “ba?ra?'” (H1254) meaning “to cut.” It is frequently used with the word “ka?rath,” which also means “to cut.” In Genesis 9:11 where the KJV reads “I will establish my covenant,” it is literally saying “I will cut my covenant.” The context of “cutting a covenant” is portrayed in Genesis 15 when God has Abraham cut a heifer, a goat, and a ram in half, then God passes between the halves.
In the New Testament, the word for “covenant” is the Greek word “diathe?ke?” (Strong’s number G1242). The same word is also translated “testament.”
Old Testament Covenants
As mentioned previously, the first use of the word “covenant” in the Bible is found in Genesis 6:18.
But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.
Here, God is speaking to Noah and giving him instructions on how to build the ark. At this point, it appears that the establishment of the covenant is future tense (“I will establish”). After the flood, we find the record of God initiating and defining His covenant with Noah.
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” (Genesis 9:8-17 ESV)
Things to note about this covenant:
1. Who are the parties to the covenant?
God makes the covenant with Noah, all the animals, and all future generations.
2. Is a duration given for the covenant?
The covenant is an “everlasting covenant” made with “all future generations.”
3. Is the covenant conditional?
No conditions are mentioned.
4. Is there a sign of the covenant.
The rainbow is the sign of the covenant.
From these observations, we can conclude that the covenant applies to everyone who came after Noah, including those of us alive today, believer and unbeliever alike. The sign of the covenant is still visible as proof that the covenant is still in effect.
From God’s covenant with Noah and the rest of creation, we proceed to the next use of the word “covenant” (beri?yth) in Genesis 15:18.
On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.” (Genesis 15:18-21 ESV)
The description of the making of the covenant is in the preceding verses.
After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. And he said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. (Genesis 15:1-17 ESV)
At least in the immediate context, there are no conditions placed upon Abram. In fact, Abram was asleep when the terms of the covenant were stated and God passed between the carcasses. (Note: at the time God made this covenant with Abram, he was between 75 (Gen. 12:4) and 85 (Gen. 16:3) years old.)
15 or so years later, God revisits His covenant with Abram and expounds on it.
When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” (Genesis 17:1-14 ESV)
In this passage we see some similarities to the covenant God made with Noah.
1. The covenant is not only with Abraham, but with his offspring.
2. The covenant is an everlasting covenant.
3. A sign of the covenant is given.
However, in verse 14 we see a significant difference between this covenant and the one God made with Noah. Disobedience to God’s command regarding circumcision results in the covenant being broken.
Another difference from God’s covenant with Noah is that His covenant with Abraham is not all-encompassing. Not ALL future offspring are members of the covenant. God specifies that He will establish His covenant with Isaac, not Ishmael.
There are some other covenants made in the book of Genesis, but they are between men. God reaffirms the covenant He made with Abraham to Isaac (Gen. 26:3-5,24) and Jacob (Gen. 28:13-15, 35:9-12), but we do not see any new covenants initiated by God.
Of interest is the fact that yet again, God’s covenant with Abraham is selective; he established the covenant with Jacob, but not Esau. As Paul stresses in Romans 9, this should make it clear that God is completely free to select the recipients of His grace at His own discretion. At the time God choose Isaac over Ishmael, one might have thought that His selection was based on Isaac being a “true” son as opposed to Ishmael being the son of a handmaiden. However, Jacob and Esau were twins, sons of Isaac’s favored wife Rachel. God’s choice of Jacob had nothing to do with heritage. In fact, Esau was the firstborn, so God even saw fit to reverse the natural order.
When God first made His covenant with Abraham, He told him that his offspring would be afflicted for 400 years (Gen. 15:13). So when God “remembers” His covenant in Exodus 2:24, it is after the children of Israel have lived in Egypt for about 400 years and grown into a nation.
God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.
Notice that God did not make individual covenants with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He made one covenant with all three patriarchs.
The events that transpire between Exodus 2:24 and the giving of the law at Mount Sinai are the fulfillment of Genesis 15:14. Exodus chapters 3 and 4 record the call of Moses. Chapters 5 through 11 record the interaction of Moses and Aaron with Pharoah and the first 9 of the 10 plagues. Chapters 12 and 13 describe the Passover and the exodus from Egypt. The crossing of the Red Sea is in chapter 14, and chapters 15 through 18 describe the travels through the wilderness up until they reached Mount Sinai.
God mentions His covenant again in Exodus 19:3-6. He tells Moses,
“Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: …if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
(Sidebar: In Exodos 20:20, after delivering the Ten Commandments to the people, Moses informs them that “God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” It is obvious from the rest of the Old Testament that the Israelites failed the test. Man’s fear is not sufficient to keep him from sinning. Only God Himself is able to keep us from sin. Hence our need for a saviour and the New Covenant.)
Moving ahead to the next mention of the covenant, we come to Exodus 24:7, where we find Moses reading the “Book of the Covenant” to the people. What is the content of this “Book of the Covenant,” what is it’s source, and how and when did it come into being?
Between Exodus 19 and Exodus 24 God is giving Moses a list of His commandments. According to Exodus 24:4, Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord, and it was this record of God’s commandments that comprised the Book of the Covenant. The “official” establishment of this covenant is found in Exodus 24:8. After Moses read the Book of the Covenant, and the people voiced their agreement, the blood from animal sacrifices was used to signify the sealing of the covenant. It is worth noting that the Law or Torah is part of this covenant made at Sinai.
Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.
(Note the similarity between the language Moses uses here, and the language Jesus uses in Matthew 26:28 and Mark 14:24…”This is my blood of the covenant.” The writer of Hebrews discusses this parallel in Hebrews 9:18-22.)
After the covenant with Israel had been established, God gave Moses more details regarding His commandments and the original two tablets with the Law insribed on them (chapters 25-31). In Exodus 31:13-17 God indicates that the Sabbath is a sign of the covenant. So we see, that like the rainbow was a sign of God’s covenant with Noah, and circumcision was a sign of His covenant with Abraham, so the Sabbath was a sign of His covenant with the nation of Israel.
In Exodus 34, after God had replaced the tablets that Moses had broken, He says, “Behold, I am making a covenant” (v.10) and “Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel” (v.27). So we have the contents of the covenant, in the Book of the Covenant, written by Moses, and the tablets of the covenent, the Ten Commandments, written by God. We also have the recipients of the covenant, Moses and the nation of Israel. And we have a sign of the covenant, the Sabbath.
The remainder of the book of Exodus records the carrying out of God’s instructions to Moses on Mount Sinai. Then, in the book of Leviticus, God conveys more commands to Israel.
Towards the end of Leviticus, in chapter 26, God says that if Israel breaks His covenant, He will bring calamity upon them (vv. 14-39). In verses 42-45, He promises to remember His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
God also makes some separate covenants with the Levites and the descendents of Aaron. In Numbers 18:19 God makes a “covenant of salt” with Aaron and his descendents that they should receive a portion of the offerings that the Israelites would bring. He also makes a covenant with Phinehas, Aaron’s grandson, that the priesthood would not depart from his family.
In Deuteronomy, before the Israelites cross the Jordan River into Canaan, Moses reviews with them the events that have occured and the covenant that God has established with them. Deuteronomy 5:2-3 make it clear that the covenant established as Mount Sinai was a distinct covenant, separate from the covenant with their fathers (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). However, the proceeding text in Deuteronomy 7-8 reveal that while the covenant at Sinai was distinct from the covenant with Abraham, it was a result of God’s covenant with Abraham (cf. Dt. 7:12, 8:18).
After Moses reviews the Sinia Covenant with the Israelites, He outlines a second covenant or “sub-covenant” in Deuteronomy 29-30. As seen in Deuteronomy 30:6, this second covenant includes a promise of the New Covenant.
The LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your
offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with
all your soul, that you may live.
This is the New Covenant that Jeremiah (cf. Jer. 31:33) and Ezekiel speak of later, and that Jesus reveals at the Last Supper.