Then the Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” (Genesis 18:17-19, NIV)
Then the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “By myself I have sworn,” this is the Lord’s declaration: “Because you have done this thing and have not withheld your only son, I will indeed bless you and make your offspring as numerous as the stars of the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your offspring will possess the city gates of their enemies. And all the nations of the earth will be blessed by your offspring because you have obeyed my command.” (Genesis 22:15-18, CSB)
In the Bible we encounter a number of covenants to which God is one of the parties. We read of God’s covenant “with the day” and “with the night” (Jer. 33:19-20); of God’s covenant with Adam (Hos. 6:7); of God’s covenant with Noah and his offspring and with all living creatures (Gen. 9:8); of God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob (see, e.g., Gen. 12, 15, 17, 22, 26, 28, 35); of God’s covenant with the nation of Israel at Mt. Sinai (Ex. 20, 24); of God’s covenant with Israel in Moab (Dt. 29:1); of God’s covenant with Phinehas (Num. 25:12-13); of God’s covenant with the Levitical priests (Jer. 33:21, Mal. 2:8); of
God’s covenant with David (2 Sam. 7); and of God’s new or everlasting covenant of peace with Israel (see, e.g., Dt. 30, Is. 49:6-8, Jer. 31, Ezek. 37) and the nations (Is. 42:5-9, 49:6-8).
Covenants were an important part of the cultural world in which the various books of the Bible were written.
In the ancient world, covenants were an alliance-forming mechanism with legal, binding force, by means of which various groups, nations, or individuals forged solemn, and even family-like, bonds of loyalty with one another. 1
When promises are embedded in a covenantal format, they are sworn into effect with an oath and are therefore freighted with great weightiness and solemnity.
To break a promise solemnly sworn into effect by the invocation of God’s name was (and still is) a serious offense in the eyes of God.
In the Bible there are two different types of covenant into which God enters with a human party, both of which have their own particular features and formats: The suzerain-vassal covenant (in which the superior party imposes certain covenant terms on a vassal party), and the royal grant covenant (in which the superior party grants a gift or reward to a vassal/servant whose loyalty has been proven and demonstrated over time).
The “gospel,” or good news, is built on specific promises that God made through various covenants with people in the past.
Some of these covenants are suzerain-vassal covenants, while others are royal grant covenants.
Since the promises of the biblical covenants are part of God’s one, overall plan to restore the creation, they are sometimes referred to simply as “the promise” (see, e.g., Rom. 4:13-14).
In his covenants, God promised that he would:
1) faithfully and forever sustain the created order, causing the day and the night to come “at their appointed time” (Jer. 33:20, ESV);
2) issue a fatal blow, through Eve’s offspring, to the original deceiver of humanity, the serpent, and his offspring (Gen. 3:15);
3) bless Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their offspring, multiply them greatly, make them into a great nation and community of nations, give them the land of Israel as an everlasting possession, and bless all the nations through them (see, e.g., Gen. 12, 15, 17, 22, 26, 28, 35);
4) overturn death through bodily resurrection, so as to allow Abraham himself and his righteous offspring to inherit the land promised to them (see, e.g., Gen. 15:8, 50:24-25; cf. Ezek. 37);
5) draw the people of Israel into a time of national repentance, purify their hearts, and gather them back to their land after a time of disciplinary exile among the nations (see, e.g., Lev. 26; Dt. 4, 28, 30);
6) raise up a king—a “Christ,” or “Messiah”—from King David’s line to sit on David’s throne in Jerusalem (2 Sam. 7; 1 Chr. 17), from where he would rule Israel and the nations in justice and righteousness forever (see, e.g., Is. 2, 9, 11, 42);
7) through the mission of his chosen Servant, enter into a new and everlasting covenant of peace with the people of Israel (see, e.g., Jer. 31; Ezek. 37) and the nations (Is. 42:5-9, 49:6-8) through which they would be forgiven of their sins, enabled to obey God through the work of his Spirit on their hearts and minds, and qualified to inherit the things previously promised (see, e.g., Is. 42:5-9, 49:6-8, 52-53; Jer. 30-31; Ezek. 36-37).
1 See, e.g., Elmer B. Smick, “282 ברה,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament
In the Bible we read of God entering into (or confirming or renewing) the above-mentioned covenants at different historical junctures and in a variety of contexts and circumstances.
Although we are not told explicitly when it was that God made a covenant “with the day” and “with the night” (Jer. 33:19-20), the context assumed by this statement is either the beginning, when God brought these “covenant partners” into existence (see Gen. 1), or the post-Flood context, in which God promises to sustain the day-and-night cycle (Gen. 8:22), or perhaps both.
As for God’s covenant with Adam, the description of the Fall in covenantal terms (see Hos. 6:7) implies that God entered into covenant with Adam prior to the Fall. (Although the word “covenant” does not explicitly appear in the early chapters of Genesis where the story of Adam and Eve is recounted [Gen. 1-3], some of the features typical of ancient covenants are present there.)
As for God’s covenant with Noah and his offspring, this covenant was formed in the third millennium B.C. after the Flood (Gen. 9:8).
As for God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, this covenant was established, confirmed, and renewed over a period of time and in context to a series of events in the early second millennium B.C. (see, e.g., Gen. 12, 15, 17, 22, 26, 28, 35).
As for God’s covenant with the nation of Israel, this covenant was first established at Mt. Sinai (see Ex. 19-24) in the second half of the second millennium B.C., and then was subsequently confirmed and renewed at different times in Israel’s history.
It was not long after the initial formation of his covenant with the nation of Israel at Sinai that God entered into a covenant with the priestly tribe of Levi in general (see Ex. 27:21, 32:25-29; Num. 3, 18; Dt. 10:6-9, 33:8-11; cf. Jer. 33:17-16 and Mal. 2:19), and then, during Israel’s time in the wilderness, into a covenant with one Levitical priest in particular, named Phinehas (Num. 25).
As for God’s covenant with David (2 Sam. 7), this covenant was formed in the early first millennium B.C. while David was reigning as Israel’s king.
As for God’s new or everlasting covenant of peace with Israel (see, e.g., Dt. 30; Is. 49:6-8; Jer. 31; Ezek. 37) and the nations (Is. 42:5-9, 49:6-8), this covenant was established through the events of Jesus’ first coming (see Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25; 2 Cor. 3:6; Heb. 8, 9:15, 12:24), and serves as the means through which he prepares his Jewish and Gentile followers for his Second Coming, at which time the entire nation of Israel will enter into the new covenant and, on the basis of its provisions, will join all other righteous Jews throughout history in receiving everything previously promised to the nation in the covenants (see, e.g., Jer. 31; Ezek. 37, 40-48; Zech. 12; Mt. 19:28).
God entered into covenant with Adam (Hos. 6:7) in the Garden of Eden.
As for God’s covenant with Noah and his offspring and with all creatures, this was formed at Mt. Ararat, which is in modern day Turkey (Gen. 8-9).
As for God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, this was established and confirmed at various places within the land of Israel (see, e.g., Gen. 12, 15, 17, 22, 26, 28, 35). Mt. Sinai, located somewhere in the Sinai Peninsula or in what is today northwestern Saudi Arabia, is where God established his covenant with the people of Israel (Ex. 20, 24); he also entered into covenant with them in the land of Moab, an ancient kingdom that bordered the Dead Sea on the east and which today is part of the country of Jordan (Dt. 29:1). It was at a place called Shittim on the plains of Moab (Num. 25:1, 33:49) that God made his covenant with the Levite priest Phinehas (Num. 25:12-13), while Mt. Sinai and the wilderness of Sinai served as the initial context for his covenant with Levi (see Ex. 27:21, 32:25-29; Num. 1, 3, 8, 18; Dt. 10:6-9, 33:8-11; cf. Jer. 33:17-16 and Mal. 2:19; cf. also Dt. 10:8, where the priestly calling of the Levites is reiterated).
The city of Jerusalem is where David was when God entered into covenant with him (2 Sam. 7), and, as the place where the blood of the new covenant was poured out through Jesus’ crucifixion (Luke. 22:20), also served as the context for the inauguration of the new covenant.
In the ancient world, entering into a covenant was an extremely serious matter. Covenants were put into effect through the swearing of a solemn oath (in which deity was invoked), and therefore to violate a covenant or disregard its terms was to invite divine punishment and discipline.
Although God could easily have made promises independently of a covenant, he wanted to assure his people, in the strongest terms possible, of his unwavering loyalty to his plan of salvation and of the complete reliability of what he had pledged to do for the sake of his people and the rest of creation.
By tying his promises to covenants and swearing to their dependability by his very self (as the Creator, there was no one greater by whom he could swear a covenantal oath), he loaded them with the utmost sanctity, weight, and solemnity (Heb. 6:13-20).
This is meant to serve as a powerful source of strength to God’s people, who are sometimes called to suffer, or perhaps even die, as a demonstration of their allegiance to the Creator and of their faith in his promises (see, e.g., Jm. 1:12; Heb. 6:19).
Through his covenants, God assures us that not a single word he has ever spoken will fail. His promises are worth living and dying for, and faith in them will be vindicated in the end when Jesus returns.
Many of the things that characterized covenant formation in the ancient world generally are also observed in the formation of covenants in the Bible. As noted above in “The ‘What’ of the Covenants,” those covenants in the Bible to which God himself is one of the parties typically fall into one of two categories:
The suzerain-vassal covenant (in which the superior party imposes certain covenant terms on a vassal party), and the royal grant covenant (in which the superior party grants a gift or reward to a vassal/servant whose loyalty has been proven and demonstrated over time).
Features of suzerain-vassal covenants usually included some or all of the following:
2 1) a preamble (i.e., a statement in which the suzerain is identified, with reference to the vassal possibly being made as well);
2) a historical prologue (i.e., statements in which the history of the relationship between the suzerain and the vassal is recounted);
3) various stipulations (i.e., covenant obligations that the suzerain places upon the vassal, of whom obedience and total loyalty is expected);
4) a document clause (i.e., the terms of the covenant are written down, and the covenant partners commit to reviewing them regularly);
5) witnesses (i.e., deities are called upon as witnesses to, and as enforces of, the covenant; in biblical covenants things other than gods serve as covenant witnesses, since idolatry is forbidden);
6) solemn oaths (i.e., the parties to the covenant swear to follow through on their promises and covenantal commitments on pain of divine sanction and punishment);
7) blessings and curses (i.e., blessings are invoked in case of faithfulness and obedience, while curses are invoked in case of unfaithfulness and disobedience);
8) ritual enactments (i.e., the significance and meaning of the covenant is dramatically or symbolically acted out);
9) the use of relationship-defining language (i.e., certain terms may be used to signal the nature of, or to add warmth and affection to, the covenantal relationship—such as “lord” and “servant,” or “father” and “son”);
10) signs and reminders (i.e., various objects or actions are chosen to serve as reminders of the covenant); and
11) subsequent renewals (i.e., after the initial formation of the covenant, certain steps may be taken to confirm the covenant and ensure that it remains strong and its terms heeded from one generation to the next).
While some of the elements listed above might also be found in a royal grant covenant, there are also some differences. In a royal grant covenant, a suzerain/king rewards a servant for his continued and demonstrated loyalty, faith, and obedience. 3 Because a royal grant covenant is made as a reward for loyalty demonstrated over a period of time, it is not the vassal, but only the king/suzerain, who swears the oath in this kind of covenant. In other words, this covenant is made unilaterally, and only the king is bound by solemn oath in this covenant. Because of this, that which the king promises to the servant—such as a piece of land—is guaranteed and unilateral with respect to the specific person to whom it is granted. 4 The benefits of such a covenant may be extended to the servant’s heirs and descendants, but only if they demonstrate the same kind of loyalty as the one to whom the royal grant was originally given: “The grant was normally perpetual, but the servant’s heirs benefited from it only as they continued their faither’s loyalty and service.” 5
2 See, e.g., Delbert R. Hillers, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea, 5. print., Seminars in the history of ideas (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1977), 29–38; Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, The New American Commentary v. 2 (Nashville, Tenn: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 439; Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, Nachdr., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2009), 30.
3 NET Bible Notes, Gen. 15:6.
4 NIV First-Century Study Bible (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2014), 16.