What is the Covenant? Part 2

By Samuel M. Frost, Th.M.


In Part 1 of this series, we showed how the term, “old covenant” (or, “old testament”) related only to the specific covenant given to Moses and the then formed Nation of Israel.   The Scriptures mention other covenants as well.  Before we dive into those, we have to first define this term, which in Hebrew is berith, and Greek, diatheke.  The Latin is testamentum.  The King James Bible (1611) has both testament and covenant for words in Hebrew and Greek.

If I may be allowed to quote from work a Professor of mine edited: “The etymology of the word is uncertain. It may be related to the Akkadian word burru which means “to establish a legal situation by testimony with an oath” (CAD baru, p. 125); but some (O. Loretz, VT 16: 239-41) tie it to the Akkadian word birtu “a fetter” which is a derivative of the word meaning “between.” L. Kohler claims the word was related to the root brµ which has to do with the food and eating involved in the covenant meal (JSS 1: 4-7). The root is nowhere used as a verb in the OT nor is any other derivative of this root used, but the action involving covenant making employs the idiom “to cut a covenant” (Gen 15:18; etc.), that is making a bloody sacrifice as part of the covenant ritual, Kohler then would have the animal eaten in the covenant meal” (Theological Workbook of the Old Testament, Harris, Archer, & Waltke).  The article is rather detailed and shows the extremely voluminous works on the subject.

Be that as it may, when we survey the occurrences of the word itself, it is a form of a pact, or contract, or treaty.  Often times blood is associated with it.  Commandments come with it as well (stipulations).  There are promises for honoring it, and penalties for breaking it.  When we come to the total occurrences of the term, well over two hundred times in the Hebrew Scriptures, and over a hundred in the Greek (ESV has 319 total), we can see that this is an important term.  Indeed, foundational for understanding biblical mentality.

The very first occurrence of the word in the Bible is Genesis 6.18, “But with thee will I establish my covenant; and thou shalt come into the ark, thou, and thy sons, and thy wife, and thy sons’ wives with thee.”  This is a covenant between God and a man named, Noah.  Presumably the readers understood what this word meant, as well as Noah.  So, in the following verses god “commands” Noah to bring animals with him on the Ark, and Noah obeyed.  If he didn’t, he would die.  If he did, he would survive the holocaust and live (a little while longer).  In other words, the covenant is made with the assumption that Noah would eventually die (as all do), and so when we read threats like this: “you will die” and “you will live” we must understand that life and death are here spoken of “living longer than you would if you disobeyed.”

The second time we see this word is again between God and Noah, “And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you” (9.9).  Now, according to the biblical story, Noah and his three sons with their wives repopulate the earth.  And, of course, Noah is a descendent of Adam.  This is what makes this passage interesting, because “your seed” is directly alluding to the promise God made to Eve: “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (3.15), which many understand that through the genealogical descendents of Eve, One would come who would bruise the head of the corrupt deceiver, the “beast-serpent”.  Therefore, it is very important that the “seed” continue.  God could have destroyed all flesh, but did not because he promised Eve that in time the One would come.

Now, this brings us to an interesting point, for many think that God established a covenant with Adam (though without using this actual word).  Hosea 6.7 reads, “But they like Adam have transgressed the covenant: there have they dealt treacherously against me (ASV).”  All the ingredients that make a covenant a covenant are there in the first chapters of Genesis with Adam.  I tend to think that this is a plausible view.

As God establishes his covenant with Noah, he himself promises that he would no longer decimate all mankind with a flood (which makes it very hard to view this as a “local flood” since those have been devastating mankind for thousands of years).  The Yellow River Flood in 1887 China killed an estimated 9,000,000 people.  It is hard to estimate that 9,000,000 people even existed in the days of Noah (1,656 years between Adam and Noah).  Some estimates based on statistical population computations (don’t ask) bring the number to around 50,000. Other estimates to over 1 billion.  It is not a great feat, mathematically speaking, to get the 7 billion total population today from three women (Noah’s sons’ wives), if we take the years from the time of the flood to 2017 AD.  Nonetheless, the Ark story was a success and we are here today.

Apart from that small digression, if God made a covenant with Adam, a great deal (“all but eight”) perished of Adam’s “seed.”  Yet, the covenant was kept; man did not entirely perish.  I don’t think we appreciate the magnitude of how many were killed in this flood due to their sins.  The covenant appears to be made in order to preserve mankind.  In other words, a covenant is established by God on an oath that he himself takes, binding himself to it for the benefit of mankind.  He swore that a “seed” would come from Eve.  He had every right to destroy all of the creation that was his to begin with.  Yet, before he does this he makes a covenant with Noah and preserves the Seed.  It is through covenant that God saves mankind in spite of mankind.  A covenant, then, is the demonstration of a merciful God who is not obligated to show mercy, yet does.  To signify his mercy, he establishes a covenant which is not for his benefit, but the benefit of mankind.  A covenant will always have a tangible, visible signa reminder.

And, this, of course is what we get in the Story of Noah: “And God said, This is the Sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: My bow I have given in the cloud, and it hath been for a token of a covenant between Me and the earth.” (9.12, 13).  And, in verse 15 the bow is for a “remembrance”.

The first things we should take away from this is that God establishes covenants.  Covenants are pledges, or oaths.  They are accompanied with a visible sign so that whenever seen, it should serve as a reminder of the covenant.

Up to this point, we have not really seen any “blood” involved.  However, if one takes into account that Eve was taken from the side of Adam, blood must have been involved.  When God clothed Adam and Eve with the skins of an animal, blood must have been shed.  Likewise, when Abel offered his animals, there must have been blood.  Finally, in the vast annihilation of the population of Mankind, there was certainly blood involved.  In each of these instances, a sacrifice was made.  Indeed, “And Noah builded an altar unto the LORD; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar” (8.20).  The blood of mankind was shed in order to preserve mankind.  In return, the blood of animals was shed in response to God’s mercy (as with Abel for the offering God provided for Adam and Eve).  So, blood was involved.  It will continue to be involved as we go on in this series.