What is ‘The Covenant’? Part 1

By Samuel M. Frost, Th.M.

      “Covenant” is not a term we use in ordinary communication.  We much prefer to use “testament” or “contract.”  “Testament” has entered into the English speaking world through the King James Bible of 1611 and the Book of Common Prayer (1662).  Covenant sounds witchy, like a coven.  It carries with it an overtone of a blood ritual or something.  The English word, “covenant” is an old word that simply means, “agreement” or “meet agreeably” (to convene).

     The Latin Bible (405) has the word testamentum for the Hebrew and Greek terms, berith and diatheke, respectively.  The English Standard Version (2001, from the RSV, 1971) uses the word “covenant” 319 time in both the Old and New “testaments”.  This is an unfortunate division on our “Bibles”, old and new testaments, for the suggestion is that everything from Genesis to Malachi is old covenant, whereas everything in the new testament is, well, new covenant.  The Scriptures themselves did not use these artificial divisions, and neither do I.

     In the Scriptures, we have “the word of God”, “the Scriptures”, “the Law”, “the Law and the Prophets,” etc.  The term, “old covenant” (or, in Latin and older English Bibles following the Latin, “old testament”) is never used to designate Genesis-Malachi as such.  Genesis-Malachi is the Hebrew Scriptures, the Law and the Prophets and the Writings (LPW from here on out).  In fact, this is the designation give by Jewish nomenclature: the TaNaKh (Torah, Neviim, Ketuvim – Law, Prophets, Writings).  Numerous examples can be given if required.

     In fact, for this scholar, I think that the Christian division of our Bible can imply a bit of racism, historically speaking.  I am not one at all that succumbs to every pitter patter of crying “racist” like the unhinged Leftists are in this country, so do not get me wrong here.  I am not at all trying to be politically correct.  I do, however, wish to be biblically correct, and where a designation such as this stands in the way of a better understanding of our subject matter, then be rid of it!

     This is first point is actually a very important, fundamental one.  When, for example, I am reading, Zephaniah, the Prophet, I am not reading the “old testament” in terms of Bible-speak.  In terms of Bible speak I am reading, well, the Prophet Zephaniah!  Now, Zephaniah, may he be forever remembered, was a Prophet around the time of 641-610 before our common era (B.C.E., or as Christians use, Before Christ –somewhere around the 15th century).  He was not an old testament Prophet any more than he was a new testament prophet.  He was a prophet that spoke and wrote before the arrival of Messiah Jesus.  He was a Prophet from the nation of Israel, which was established by the old covenant.

     Now, the first time we find this phrase, “old testament” or “old covenant” is in the Blessed Apostle Paul.  In his letter to the Corinthian assemblies, he wrote, “But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away” (3.14).  And, in the context, it is quite plain as to what he means by “old covenant” for he wrote, “Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was…” (3.7, see also verse 13).  Verse 15 hammers away any doubt as to what Paul meant by old covenant: “Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read…”  Not when Judges is read, or Jeremiah is read, but when Moses is read.  Particularly Moses’ words which were “engraved on stone.”  This is the “old covenant.”

            In fact, and this may shock modern readers, this is the only place we find the term ‘tes palaias diathekes’ (the old covenant) in the entire Bible!  Imagine that.  Our entire Bible has been split right in two by a designation found only once.  And, in that designation only Moses is referred to!

            Now, of course, we have not yet defined what a “covenant” is, be it old or new.  So far, we are interested only its usage as a phrase found in the Scriptures, in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures.  There is only one other book in the Greek Scriptures that clearly alludes to what Paul called the old covenant in the way in which we are focused: Hebrews.[i]  In that book we find the peculiar phrase, “the first covenant” (8.7, 13; 9.1).  And it is, all agreed, in reference to the law-code of Moses, for it speaks of the Tabernacle, its furnishings, and its priestly worship (the words of Moses in Exodus-Deuteronomy given to the young nation of Israel).  The author of Hebrews uses only the adjective, “first”, but he uses a Perfect verb in Greek to describe this covenant: it has been made old following that with a Present adjectival participle, is old.  The Perfect tense in Greek is strong past tense.  It also brings out the fact that what has been done in the past is the current status in the present.  This is brought out, then, by the participle (which is descriptive, but highlights no “time” except in relation to the main verb).  If, say, the Atari game counsel has been “made old” (a while ago), then it is still old presently (no one uses it, it’s outdated).  Accordingly, then, to the author, the “first covenant” (the one made with Moses) has been made old (some time in the past), and because of this fact, it’s present status is what it has been made to be: outdated, no longer in function, not made any more, not in production).  A retail-store word would be, “discontinued.”  I’m in retail, and I come across this daily.  A customer picks up an item (we have one left) and wants another, but we can’t get it anymore.  It’s been discontinued (it still is, it is discontinued – it’s present status).  Quite frustrating to the consumer, but there’s always EBAY.

            It may be remarked as well that the use of the numerical (ordinal number) designations of “first covenant” and “second” (8.7) is not a commentary on the chronological (though that is involved), but on the comparison of the two covenants the author has in mind.  The first covenant compared to a second covenant.  If I have two credit cards in my hand and I say, “this first card needs to be shredded and we will only keep this second one” I am not at all saying, “this is the first credit card I ever had, and this is the second credit card after that one.”  It may be the case that I have many credit cards, but I am only talking about these two, this one (the first in my example) and that one (the second in my example).  Scholars understand this point simply because Moses’ covenant was not at all the first covenant in Scripture!  And, by that token, the “new covenant” (which we have yet to consider) was not the second one.  It is the last one.

            From this brief analysis it is a settled matter that when Paul or the author(s) of Hebrews (which has the influence of Paul) spoke of the “old covenant” or “first covenant” or the “covenant that has been made old and is, in fact, old as a result of its being made old sometime before” the author wrote, is in reference to Moses’ covenant (the Mosaic Covenant).  Not Jeremiah, and certainly not HaggaiHaggai was not “that which has been made old”.  Genesis has not “been made old”, either. From this, we have established that the old testament is not Genesis-Malachi.  The old testament is in the Hebrew Bible, but it is not the whole Hebrew Bible.  It is particularly in the words of God to a man named, Moses, and made with a group of people to be designated as a nation: Israel.  In our second part, we will explore the instances this word occurs in the Scriptures.

[i] This is not at all a negation of the fact that the old covenant is not designated by other terms in the Scriptures.  My only focus here is the term associated with the word, “covenant”.