Biblical Covenants and the Covenant Theme
In this article, I hope to provide an overview of the main covenants in the Bible and to present thoughts on the intercanonical theme of covenant. Many books have been written on the theme of covenant; so, I don’t plan on going into great depth on the subject. We will look at what a covenant is, a listing of the major covenants in Scripture, and some thoughts with regards to the covenant theme.
What is a covenant? A contemporary concept with some similarities is the idea of a contract. However, contracts can be somewhat impersonal, often being established between parties whose only mutual interest is the content of a contract. With covenants, there is often some shared history or relationship between the parties. The closest equivalent is probably the concept of marriage; wherein there is a legal component, yes, but there is also a shared relational history and desired future together. In ancient cultures contemporaneous with Old Testament times, there were two treaties similar in structure to the covenants in Scripture. These treaties can help inform how we understand covenants. Gentry and Wellum (2012) state it nicely, “Two types of treaties in the ancient Near East are especially noteworthy: (1) the suzerain-vassal treaty and (2) the royal charter or land grant. The first type is a diplomatic treaty between a great king, or suzerain, and client kings, or vassals. The focus of these treaties was to reinforce the interests of the suzerain by arguments from history and oath-bound affirmations of loyalty on the part of the vassal states, backed up by divine sanctions. The second type of treaty involved a grant of property or even a privileged position of a priestly or royal office given as a favor by a god or king.” (p. 166). Between those two ancient treaties, the suzerain-vassal treaty is closest to the covenants throughout Scripture, though not identical. A summary statement of a covenant in Scripture can be as follows: God establishes a covenant (contract / promise) with a person(s) (Noah, Moses, David, etc.) wherein he issues decrees or promises to take particular courses of action, sometimes dependent on what the other party in the covenant does. A listing of key components of a covenant can include God entering into the covenant with particular person(s), the stating of stipulations / commands, and consequences for following or breaking the stipulations.
With the preceding idea of a covenant in mind, let us look at the various major covenants in Scripture. The first is the Adamic covenant. Though the word “covenant” isn’t used in explicitly in relation to Adam, the core components of a covenant are present in the first few chapters of Genesis. God gives stipulations to particular people wherein various consequences are promised in response to actions taken or not taken by those people. God commands Adam not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. If he does, death is promised as a consequence. It is noteworthy that Hosea references the idea of an Adamic covenant:
“But like Adam they transgressed the covenant” – Hosea 6:7
Additionally, Romans 5 compares the actions of Jesus in effecting the New Covenant with the actions of Adam. Consequently, the idea of an Adamic covenant is often accepted.
Next is the Noahic covenant found in Genesis 9:
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
In this covenant, we see God’s promise regarding the means by which he won’t destroy humanity / earth. It should be noted that included party is about as extensive as it gets, including all Noah’s descendants and all the living creatures with him.
The next covenant is the Abrahamic covenant. Its content is found in Genesis:
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 17:3-14
In this covenant, we see God’s promise of descendants to Abraham and promise of the “land” to those descendants. One of the most recognizable external components of the Abrahamic covenant was circumcision.
The next major covenant is the Mosaic covenant, given on Mount Sinai to the Israelites after God delivered them from Egypt. This is one of the most extensive and is described in multiple books of the Pentateuch. Exodus chapters 19-24 is the initial description and contains the following:
“Then [Moses] took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.’ And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.’” – Exodus 24:7-8
The Davidic covenant comes next and is found in 2 Samuel:
Now, therefore, thus you shall say to my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be prince over my people Israel. And I have been with you wherever you went and have cut off all your enemies from before you. And I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more. And violent men shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel. And I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.’” In accordance with all these words, and in accordance with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David. – 2 Samuel 7:8-17
Here we see God’s promise of a Davidic king who will reign forever. References to this covenant are profuse throughout the Psalms and Prophets.
Finally, we see the promised New Covenant described in Jeremiah:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” – Jeremiah 31:31-34
The initiation and subsequent implications of the New Covenant are shown in the New Testament.
What then are some heuristic capabilities / implications of the covenant theme? It should be noted that Jesus is key in the fulfillment of all those covenants. He is involved in the devastation of earth described in the book of Revelation, devastation coming through non-flood means. He is through whom Abraham’s blessing to the nations come. He is who kept the Law completely and effected redemption for his people. He is Davidic king who reign forever. He is the effector of the New Covenant. A thorough understanding of how Jesus fulfills those covenants allows us to preach Christ when preaching on those covenants.
There are those who identify the covenant theme as the main meta-narrative of Scripture which subsumes all other themes. That position claims all the various stories and components of Scripture are to be understood in relation to covenants in Scripture. It should be noted that all the covenants from the Noahic Covenant to the New Covenant are often categorized under the umbrella of “covenant of grace”. The idea is that all those saved during the times of those covenants were saved by grace through faith in what the Messiah would / did do. That is in contrast to the Adamic Covenant, which is often labeled a “covenant of works”, as Adam’s works impacted his outcome under that covenant. I believe this theme helps us orient large parts of Scripture in relation to Christ, and it covers most of the Bible. However, a criticism of this theme is that there are parts of the Bible it doesn’t subsume or bear obvious relation to, such as the Wisdom Literature. Though, I have read attempts to do so in newer books on the subject.
I hope this discussion on what a covenant is, the listing of covenants in Scripture, and thoughts on the covenant theme has proven useful. Much of Scripture exists in relation to the various covenants; and, of course, we exist in the era of the New Covenant. Consequently, it is beneficial for us to comprehend the intercanonical theme of covenant and use it further see Christ in all of Scripture.
Gentry, P. J., & Wellum S. J. (2018). Kingdom through covenant: A Biblical-theological understanding of the Covenants. Wheaton, IL: Crossway.