The word ‘covenant’ gets used frequently in discussion about biblical content and theology. However, the meaning of the word is often assumed rather than discussed.
Many people will offer what they think are synonyms, like ‘promise’, or ‘agreement’. But while a covenant might include such things, they don’t really define what a covenant is.
So what is a covenant?
A covenant is the formal initiation and regulation of a relationship that does not occur naturally. It stipulates who the parties in the relationship are, and what kind of relationship they are entering.
There are some relationships that occur naturally and, as such, don’t need covenants. These are largely biological. For example, the biological parents of a child don’t need a covenant to become the parents of their child. They don’t need to ‘sign on the dotted line’, because their child is by nature theirs and they are by nature the child’s parents. The child’s birth certificate doesn’t create the parent-child relationship. It simply acknowledges the existence of their naturally occurring relationship.
However, when a couple adopts a child that is not genetically their own, they do need to ‘sign on the dotted line’. They must go through a formal process that initiates the relationship, and then recognises it as specifically a parent-child relationship. Once the covenant is made, no one has the right to question the parent-child relationship, because it has been formalised and continues to be regulated, despite the relationship not occurring naturally.
In the Bible, God makes a number of covenants with various people. It’s not enough to say that God makes certain promises or agreements with people, because that doesn’t necessarily define what kind of relationship God initiates and maintains with them.
That’s also why we must say that there is more than one covenant in the Bible. God does not relate the same way to the various parties with whom he makes covenants. Each covenant creates a different kind of relationship. The covenants certainly relate to each other (excuse the pun!), because God is party to them all. And they also share some common themes and promises. But in each case, God initiates a different kind of relationship and, therefore, he regulates them in different ways that are appropriate to the kind of relationship that the covenant establishes.
That’s why, for example, God doesn’t give the Law to Abraham, but to Moses and the nation of Israel. God makes a covenant with Abraham to be his personal, household deity, with certain associated promises (land, descendants, name, blessing to others). So he relates to Abraham in a very personal way, usually with implications for Abraham’s family and where his household should be. Law would be an inappropriate way for God and Abraham to relate to each other within this covenant. But at Sinai, God creates a covenant with Israel to become the nation’s head of state—their patron deity. Law is an appropriate means of regulating a relationship with an entire nation as a socio-political entity located in a particular territory. And that’s why he gives the Law to Moses.
There is a positive and a negative side to a covenant. The positive side is that it brings two parties together. The negative side is that these two parties may not otherwise naturally have associated with each other. This is why stipulations are brought to bear on the relationship. They keep the relationship going and regulate it, for otherwise there is a danger of the relationship dissolving.
We can see this positive and negative side, for example, with the covenant that God forges with Israel at Sinai. It’s positive in that it reflects God’s gracious and loving initiative towards the Israelite nation. The negative side is that it implies God does not have a natural relationship with them. God has to enter the relationship with Israel to be their head of state in a conscious and deliberate manner. And he regulates it through the Law and the sending of prophets.
In the next instalment, we’ll look at whether there is a covenant at creation and what implications the answer might have.
This is a reproduction of an article I wrote for another blog that is now defunct.