Faith in Focus

The Covenant Concept in Scripture


In this article we shall examine the biblical usage of the term "covenant" (Hebrew berith) with a view to ascertaining the essential elements of the covenant concept. We shall then move on to examine whether these elements are present in the covenant that God established between himself and his people.

In Genesis 21:22-24 we read of the establishment of a covenant between Abraham and Abimelech. At first glance, it may appear that in this case, "covenant" must be understood as a contractual arrangement for mutual benefit of the parties concerned - rather like a business arrangement. Abimelech wishes to establish an alliance or treaty with Abraham for the purpose of preventing future hostilities between the two parties. However, in verse 22, Abimelech remarks: "God is with you in all that you do". Against the background of this acknowledged divine blessing, Abraham is asked to swear by God that there will be no false dealings between the two individuals or between their respective offspring. And further, the kindness that Abimelech has shown to Abraham will be reciprocated and perpetuated down through the generations (cf. vs. 23). So the covenant established between Abraham and Abimelech confirms and perpetuates the relationship already established between them. It will bind them with an oath of friendship and loyalty.

When we read of a covenant made between David and Jonathan in 1Sam. 18:1-5, details of a covenant making ceremony and of an oath taken are not given in the text. But what we are told is that the "soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as himself." Then in verse 3 we read that Jonathan made a covenant with David again, because he loved him as himself. The Hebrew term translated in verse 1 as "knit" means to bound together in a knot or tie inseparably. It carries the connotation of strong affection - affection that even goes beyond that which is ordinarily experienced in families. Jonathan also arrays David in his own personal clothing, which according to H. Clay Trumbull, in his book The Blood Covenant, was a common feature of blood covenanting in the ancient world. Here the personal relationship and affection between the covenant making parties is even more clearly expressed. Indeed, it is on the basis of this affection that the berith is made. In this way, the covenant bond perpetuates the communion and mutual commitment of the parties entering into it. John Murray writes correctly that with regard to the biblical usage of the term covenant:

It is not the contractual terms that are in prominence so much as the solemn engagement of one person to another. To such an extent is this the case that stipulated terms of agreement need not be present at all. It is the giving of oneself over in the commitment of troth that is emphasised and the specified conditions as those upon which the engagement or commitment is contingent are not mentioned. It is the promise of unreserved fidelity, of whole-souled commitment that appears to constitute the essence of covenant. There is promise, there may be the sealing of that promise by an oath, and there is the bond resultant upon these elements. It is a bonded relationship of unreserved commitment in respect of the particular thing involved or the relationship constituted (The Covenant of Grace, Tyndale Press, p. 10)

But it cannot automatically be assumed that what is true of covenants within human society in Scripture is also true of the covenant God established between himself and his people. It is to this latter covenant that we now turn. Limited space will not permit us to give an exhaustive treatment of this subject. We will concentrate here on the covenants made with Noah and Abraham, both of which are parts of the one covenant of grace (cf. Westminster Confession, ch. 7, sections 5, 6).

The term berith first appears in the Bible in Genesis 6:18, where God declares to Noah that he will establish his covenant with him immediately after declaring that he will soon destroy "all flesh in which is the breath of life, from under heaven" (vs. 17). The reason for the cataclysmic judgement is given earlier in verses 5-6:

Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth and he was grieved in his heart.

By contrast with the rest of mankind, which had significantly departed from God and his ways, Noah "found favour in the eyes of the Lord" (vs. 8). Noah, we read in verse 9, "was a righteous man, blameless in his time; Noah walked with God." The Hebrew term translated "walked" means to wander about in no particular direction. When it is said of Noah that he walked with God in this sense, it implies that God was Noahís friend and companion. The two of them walked around together. Still further, the Hebrew term "righteous" primarily refers to conduct within a relationship and only secondarily or derivatively is it a forensic or legal word defining status. "Righteousness" is conduct that is appropriate to and consistent with a relationship that is established. So Noahís behaviour and attitude stands in diametric contrast to that of the world at large.

What is of special interest for us to note is that the divine covenant with Noah is predicated upon and expresses a relationship of friendship or communion. Already we have observed a similar ambit in the divine berith to that of the berith between David and Jonathan. Both arise from and express intimate communion or friendship. Certainly this covenant was unilateral in the sense that it came from God to Noah as an expression of his grace and this point is frequently made. But the resulting covenant bond seals and perpetuates the friendship upon which it is established. It was because man departed from God and no longer communed with him in friendship that the judgement of the Flood (de-creation) occurred. With the recreation of the world after the Flood, the covenant is again in place and the stated commitment from Godís side is that it will be a perpetual relationship, including Noahís posterity for "everlasting generations" (Genesis 9:12).

In the case of Abraham, the call to leave Ur of the Chaldeans comes against the immediate context of the Tower of Babel incident in Gen.11:1-9. We are informed in verse 1 that the "whole earth used the same language and the same words". Once again, the focus is on humanity at large, and again it becomes clear that humanity at large has no interest in living in communion with God. In the east, in the land of "Shinar", the "whole earth" conceives of the idea of building "a tower whose top will reach into heaven" (vs. 4). Of particular interest to us here is the stated motivation for this project in the text. The desire on the part of humanity at large is to "make for ourselves a name; lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth" (vs. 4). This construction is in fact the symbol of mankind in complete and determined independence from God. In essence, this is the very problem that led to the judgement of the Flood, but we have already been informed that such a universal destruction will not occur again. In answer to this universal arrogance and defiance, God (ironically) comes down to observe the feeble construction and then proceeds to bring about the very confusion and scattering that mankind was trying to obviate (verses 8 and 9).

Against this poignant background, God summons, from a region to the south-east of Shinar, a man called Abram. To this man God says:

Go forth from your relatives and from your fatherís house, To the land which I will show you; And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Gen. 12:1-3).

Thus the arrogant self-assertion of humanity deliberately separated from God ("let us make for ourselves a name" is answered by the divine ("I will make your name great"). Furthermore, God indicates to Abram that he will take his side, or we could possibly read "my Spirit will strive with you". Certainly the implication is that God will stand with Abram, vindicating him before his enemies and exercising judgement upon them. It therefore comes as no surprise that later in Gen. 17, when the terms and promises of the covenant relationship are set forth in more detail, God should say:

"I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. And I will establish my covenant between Me and you, and I will multiply you exceedingly" (Gen. 17:1,2).

Abraham is required (literally) to "walk before [Godís] face". Indeed, Abraham and Yahweh were to remain companions, even as Noah and Yahweh had been companions, walking in step with one another. The adjective translated "blameless", has the connotation of being "complete", "whole", or "entire". Abraham is to be a sound person, a whole person, both morally and in every other way, and that wholeness will arise out of and be maintained within this covenant relationship between himself and Yahweh. Further, this covenant will also embrace Abrahamís posterity:

"And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you" (vs. 7).

In other words, the companionship between Yahweh and Abraham was intended to extend also to Abrahamís descendants and the confirmation of this was the sign of circumcision (vs. 11).

In contrast to a world set in opposition to God, Abraham was Godís "friend forever" (2Chron. 20:7, cf. Isaiah 41:8). Both he and Noah stood apart as Godís intimate companions. It is true that the covenant making ceremony was undertaken by God in Genesis 15 because of Abrahamís weakness and doubt in relation to the promise. But the two were already close friends, walking with each other. The events of Genesis 15 arise from and confirm something that was already in existence Ė namely Ė the communion between God and his covenant partner. It follows that obedience and faithfulness, far from being incompatible with the nature of the covenant as an administration of grace, are rather necessities arising from the intimacy and spirituality of the religious relation involved. In the covenant between God and his people, as in the covenant of marriage (cf. Mal 2:14), the imperative of obedience (do this!) arises out of and, is consistent with, the nature of the relationship itself. Disobedience amounts to covenantal disloyalty and is by that very fact a violation of the relationship.

We are now in a position to consider the anthropopathic (passages that ascribe human emotions to God) language of Scripture against the background of the covenant concept. What does it mean that God is grieved at the covenant disloyalty of his people? How should we understand his wrath? What is lovingkindness and how does it apply to us? It is to these questions that we will turn in the next article.

Mr Michael Flinn is the Minister of the new Dovedale Congregation in Christchurch.

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / gmilne@xtra.co.nz / revised July 2000 / Copyright 2000