Covenant, in the Old Testament
I. GENERAL MEANING
II. AMONG MEN
1. Early Idea
2. Principal Elements
3. Different Varieties
4. Phraseology Used
III. BETWEEN GOD AND MEN
1. Essential Idea
2. Covenants Recorded in the Old Testament
3. Phraseology Used
4. History of Covenant Idea
I. General Meaning.
The etymological force of the Hebrew berith is not entirely certain. It is probable that the word is the same as the Assyrian biritu, which has the common meaning "fetter," but also means "covenant." The significance of the root from which this Assyrian word is derived is uncertain. It is probable that it is "to bind," but that is not definitely established. The meaning of biritu as covenant seems to come directly from the root, rather than as a derived meaning from fetter. If this root idea is to bind, the covenant is that which binds together the parties. This, at any rate, is in harmony with the general meaning of the word.
In the Old Testament the word has an ordinary use, when both parties are men, and a distinctly religious use, between God and men. There can be no doubt that the religious use has come from the ordinary, in harmony with the general custom in such cases, and not the reverse. There are also two shades of meaning, somewhat distinct, of the Hebrew word: one in which it is properly a covenant, i.e. a solemn mutual agreement, the other in which it is more a command, i.e. instead of an obligation voluntarily assumed, it is an obligation imposed by a superior upon an inferior. This latter meaning, however, has clearly been derived from the other. It is easy to see that an agreement, including as the contracting parties those of unequal position, might readily include those agreements which tended to partake of the nature of a command; but the process could not readily be reversed.
II. Among Men.
1. Early Idea:
We consider first a covenant in which both contracting parties are men. In essence a covenant is an agreement, but an agreement of a solemn and binding force. The early Semitic idea of a covenant was doubtless that which prevailed among the Arabs (see especially W. Robertson Smith, Religion of the Semites, 2nd edition, passim). This was primarily blood-brotherhood, in which two men became brothers by drinking each other's blood. Ordinarily this meant that one was adopted into the clan of the other. Hence, this act involved the clan of one of the contracting parties, and also brought the other party into relation with the god of this clan, by bringing him into the community life of the clan, which included its god. In this early idea, then, "primarily the covenant is not a special engagement to this or that particular effect, but bond of troth and life-fellowship to all the effects for which kinsmen are permanently bound together" (W. Robertson Smith, op. cit., 315 f). In this early ceremonial the religious idea was necessarily present, because the god was kindred to the clan; and the god had a special interest in the covenant because he especially protects the kindred blood, of which the stranger thus becomes a part. This religious side always persisted, although the original idea was much modified. In later usage there were various substitutes for the drinking of each other's blood, namely, drinking together the sacrificial blood, sprinkling it upon the parties, eating together the sacrificial meal, etc.; but the same idea found expression in all, the community of life resulting from the covenant.
2. Principal Elements:
The covenant in the Old Testament shows considerable modification from the early idea. Yet it will doubtless help in understanding the Old Testament covenant to keep in mind the early idea and form. Combining statements made in different accounts, the following seem to be the principal elements in a covenant between men. Some of the details, it is to be noted, are not explicitly stated in reference to these covenants, but may be inferred from those between God and men. (1) A statement of the terms agreed upon (Ge 26:29; 31:50,52). This was a modification of the earlier idea, which has been noted, in which a covenant was all-inclusive. (2) An oath by each party to observe the terms, God being witness of the oath (Ge 26:31; 31:48-53). The oath was such a characteristic feature that sometimes the term "oath" is used as the equivalent of covenant (see Eze 17:13). (3) A curse invoked by each one upon himself in case disregard of the agreement. In a sense this may be considered a part of the oath, adding emphasis to it. This curse is not explicitly stated in the case of human covenants, but may be inferred from the covenant with God (De 27:15-26). (4) The formal ratification of the covenant by some solemn external act. The different ceremonies for this purpose, such as have already been mentioned, are to be regarded as the later equivalents of the early act of drinking each other's blood. In the Old Testament accounts it is not certain that such formal act is expressly mentioned in relation to covenants between men. It seems probable, however, that the sacrificial meal of Ge 31:54 included Laban, in which case it was a covenant sacrifice. In any case, both sacrificial meal and sprinkling of blood upon the two parties, the altar representing Yahweh, are mentioned in Ex 24:4-8, with allusions elsewhere, in ratification of the covenant at Sinai between Yahweh and Israel. In the covenant of God with Abraham is another ceremony, quite certainly with the same purpose. This is a peculiar observance, namely, the cutting of animals into two parts and passing between the severed portions (Ge 15:9-18), a custom also referred to in Jer 34:18. Here it is to be noted that it is a smoking furnace and a flaming torch, representing God, not Abraham, which passed between the pieces. Such an act, it would seem, should be shared by both parties, but in this case it is doubtless to be explained by the fact that the covenant is principally a promise by Yahweh. He is the one who binds Himself. Concerning the significance of this act there is difference of opinion. A common view is that it is in effect a formal expression of the curse, imprecating upon oneself the same, i.e. cutting in pieces, if one breaks the terms of the covenant. But, as W. R. Smith has pointed out (op. cit., 481), this does not explain the passing between the pieces, which is the characteristic feature of the ceremony. It seems rather to be a symbol that the two parties "were taken within the mystical life of the victim." (Compare the interpretation of Heb 9:15-17 in COVENANT, IN THE NEW TESTAMENT.) It would then be an inheritance from the early times, in which the victim was regarded as kindred with the tribe, and hence, also an equivalent of the drinking of each other's blood.
The immutability of a covenant is everywhere assumed, at least theoretically.
Other features beyond those mentioned cannot be considered as fundamental. This is the case with the setting up of a stone, or raising a heap of stones (Ge 31:45-46). This is doubtless simply an ancient custom, which has no direct connection with the covenant, but comes from the ancient Semitic idea of the sacredness of single stones or heaps of stones. Striking hands is a general expression of an agreement made (Ezr 10:19; Eze 17:18, etc.).
3. Different Varieties:
In observing different varieties of agreements among men, we note that they may be either between individuals or between larger units, such as tribes and nations. In a great majority of cases, however, they are between the larger units. In some cases, also, when an individual acts it is in a representative capacity, as the head of a clan, or as a king. When the covenant is between tribes it is thus a treaty or alliance. The following passages have this use of covenant: Ge 14:13; 21:27,32; 26:28; 31:44; Ex 23:32; 34:12,15; De 7:2; Jos 9:6-7,11,15-16; Jg 2:2; 1Sa 11:1; 1Ki 3:12; 15:19 parallel 2Ch 16:3; 1Ki 20:34; Ps 83:5; Isa 33:8; Eze 16:61; 17:13-19; 30:5; Da 11:22; Am 1:9. In other cases it is between a king and his subjects, when it is more a command or ordinance, as 2Sa 3:12-13,11; 5:3 parallel 1Ch 11:3; Jer 34:8-18; Da 9:27. In other cases it is between individuals, or between small groups, where it is an agreement or pledge (2Ki 11:4 parallel 2Ch 23:1; Job 31:1; 41:4; Ho 10:4). Between David and Jonathan it is more specifically an alliance of friendship (1Sa 18:3; 20:8; 23:18), as also apparently in Ps 55:20. It means an alliance of marriage in Mal 2:14, but probably not in Pr 2:17, where it is better to understand the meaning as being "her covenant with God."
4. Phraseology Used:
In all cases of covenants between men, except Jer 34:10 and Da 9:27, the technical phrase for making a covenant is karath berith, in which karath meant originally "to cut." Everything indicates that this verb is used with reference to the formal ceremony of ratification above mentioned, of cutting animals in pieces.
III. Between God and Men.
1. Essential Idea:
As already noted, the idea of covenants between God and men doubtless arose from the idea of covenants between men. Hence, the general thought is similar. It cannot in this case, however, be an agreement between contracting parties who stand on an equality, but God, the superior, always takes the initiative. To some extent, however, varying in different cases, is regarded as a mutual agreement; God with His commands makes certain promises, and men agree to keep the commands, or, at any rate, the promises are conditioned on human obedience. In general, the covenant of God with men is a Divine ordinance, with signs and pledges on God's part, and with promises for human obedience and penalties for disobedience, which ordinance is accepted by men. In one passage (Ps 25:14), it is used in a more general way of an alliance of friendship between God and man.
2. Covenants Recorded in the Old Testament:
A covenant of this general kind is said in the Old Testament to have been made by God with Noah (Ge 9:9-17 and elsewhere). In this the promise is that there shall be no more deluge. A covenant is made with Abraham, the thought of which includes his descendants. In this the promise of God is to multiply the descendants of Abraham, to give them the land of Canaan, and to make them a blessing to the nations. This is narrated in Ge 15:18; 17:2-21, etc. A covenant is made with the nation Israel at Sinai (Horeb) (Ex 19:5; 24:7-8; 34:10,27-28, etc.), ratified by a covenant sacrifice and sprinkling of blood (Ex 24:4-8). This constituted the nation the peculiar people of God, and was accompanied by promises for obedience and penalties for disobedience. This covenant was renewed on the plains of Moab (De 29:1). In these national covenants the individual had a place, but only as a member of the nation. The individual might forfeit his rights under the covenant, however, by deliberate rebellion against Yahweh, sinning "with a high hand" (Nu 15:30 f), and then he was regarded as no longer a member of the nation, he was "cut off from among his people," i.e. put to death. This is the teaching of the Priestly Code (P), and is also implied elsewhere; in the mercy of God, however, the punishment was not always inflicted. A covenant with the tribe of Levi, by which that became the priestly tribe, is alluded to in De 33:9; Jer 33:21; Mal 2:4 ff. The covenant with Phinehas (Nu 25:12-13) established an everlasting priesthood in his line. The covenant with Joshua and Israel (Jos 24:1-33) was an agreement on their part to serve Yahweh only. The covenant with David (2Sa 7:1-29 parallel 1Ch 17:1-27; see also Ps 89:3,18,34,39; 132:12; Jer 33:21) contained a promise that his descendants should have an everlasting kingdom, and should stand to God in the relation of sonship. The covenant with Jehoiada and the people (2Ki 11:17 parallel 2Ch 23:3) was an agreement on their part to be the people of Yahweh. The covenant with Hezekiah and the people (2Ch 29:10) consisted essentially of an agreement on their part to reform the worship; the covenant with Josiah and the people (2Ki 23:3), of an agreement on their part to obey the Book of the Law. The covenant with Ezra and the people (Ezr 10:3) was an agreement on their part to put away foreign wives and obey the law. The prophets also speak of a new covenant, most explicitly in Jeremiah, but with references elsewhere, which is connected with the Messianic time (see Isa 42:6; 49:8; 55:3; 59:21; 61:8; Jer 31:31,33; 32:40; 50:5; Eze 16:60,62; 20:37; 34:25; 37:26; Ho 2:18).
3. Phraseology Used:
Various phrases are used of the making of a covenant between God and men. The verb ordinarily used of making covenants between men, karath, is often used here as well. The following verbs are also used: heqim, "to establish" or "confirm"; nathan, "to give"; sim, "to place"; tsiwwah, "to command"; `abhar, "to pass over," followed by be, "into"; bo, "to enter," followed by be; and the phrase nasa' berith `al pi, "to take up a covenant upon the mouth of someone."
4. History of Covenant Idea:
The history of the covenant idea in Israel, as between God and man, is not altogether easy to trace. This applies especially to the great covenants between God and Israel, namely, the one with Abraham, and the one made at Sinai. The earliest references to this relation of Israel to Yahweh under the term "covenant" are in Ho 6:7; 8:1. The interpretation of the former passage is doubtful in details, but the reference to such a covenant seems clear. The latter is considered by many a
later addition, but largely because of this mention of the covenant. No other references to such a covenant are made in the prophets before Jeremiah. Jeremiah and Ezekiel speak of it, and it is implied in Second-Isaiah. It is a curious fact, however, that most of the later prophets do not use the term, which suggests that the omission in the earlier prophets is not very significant concerning a knowledge of the idea in early times.
In this connection it should be noted that there is some variation among the Hexateuchal codes in their treatment of the covenants. Only one point, however, needs special mention. The Priestly Code (P) gives no explicit account of the covenant at Sinai, and puts large emphasis upon the covenant with Abraham. There are, however, apparent allusions to the Sinaitic covenant (Le 2:13; 24:8; 26:9,15,25,44-45). The facts indicate, therefore, principally a difference of emphasis.
In the light partly of the facts already noted, however, it is held by many that the covenant idea between God and man is comparatively late. This view is that there were no covenants with Abraham and at Sinai, but that in Israel's early conceptions of the relation to Yahweh He was their tribal God, bound by natural ties, not ethical as the covenant implies. This is a larger question than at first appears. Really the whole problem of the relation of Israel to Yahweh throughout Old Testament history is involved, in particular the question at what time a comprehensive conception of the ethical character of God was developed. The subject will therefore naturally receive a fuller treatment in other articles. It is perhaps sufficient here to express the conviction that there was a very considerable conception of the ethical character of Yahweh in the early history of Israel, and that consequently there is no sufficient reason for doubting the fact of the covenants with Abraham and at Sinai. The statement of W. Robertson Smith expresses the essence of the matter (op. cit., 319): "That Yahweh's relation is not natural but ethical is the doctrine of the prophets, and is emphasized, in dependence on their teaching, in the Book of Deuteronomy. But the passages cited show that the idea had its foundation in pre prophetic times; and indeed the prophets, though they give it fresh and powerful application, plainly do not regard the conception as an innovation."
A little further consideration should be given to the new covenant of the prophets. The general teaching is that the covenant was broken by the sins of the people which led to the exile. Hence, during the exile the people had been cast off, the covenant was no longer in force. This is stated, using other terminology, in Ho 3:3 f; Ho 1:9; 2:2. The prophets speak, however, in anticipation, of the making of a covenant again after the return from the exile. For the most part, in the passages already cited, this covenant is spoken of as if it were the old one renewed. Special emphasis is put, however, upon its being an everlasting covenant, as the old one did not prove to be, implying that it will not be broken as was that one. Jeremiah's teaching, however, has a little different emphasis. He speaks of the old covenant as passed away (31:32). Accordingly he speaks of a new covenant (31:31,33). This new covenant in its provisions, however, is much like the old. But there is a new emphasis upon individuality in approach to God. In the old covenant, as already noted, it was the nation as a whole that entered into the relation; here it is the individual, and the law is to be written upon the individual heart.
In the later usage the specific covenant idea is sometimes less prominent, so that the term is used practically of the religion as a whole; see Isa 56:4; Ps 103:18.
Valeton, ZATW, XII, XIII (1892-93); Candlish, The Expositor Times, 1892, Oct., Nov.; Kraetzschmar, Die Bundesvorstellung im Altes Testament, Marburg, 1896; articles "Covenant" in Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible (five volumes) and Encyclopedia Biblica.
George Ricker Berry