At one time, the whole of the Old Testament was seen as governed by the covenant between YHWH and Israel. Today, scholars tend to be more cautious. Almost the whole of the Old Testament testifies to a relationship between YHWH and Israel. But not all Old Testament texts depict that relationship as originating in, or determined by, a covenant. This article will only deal with those texts that speak of the making of a covenant. Many other texts, especially in the historical books, some of the prophets, and the Psalms, refer to a covenant already made.
Meaning of the word
What is meant by a ‘covenant’? The Hebrew word berit occurs 285 times in the Old Testament and is usually translated ‘covenant’, sometimes ‘treaty’. Sometimes it refers to an international treaty between kings or peoples (e.g., Joshua 9; Ezekiel 17:13); sometimes to an agreement or pledge of loyalty between individuals (Genesis 31:43-54; 1 Samuel 18:3). Theologically more important are covenants between God and human beings (or all creatures—Genesis 9:8-17), with the people of Israel, or an ancestor of Israel, or King David representing his dynasty. It does not mean simply an agreement or pact; it always involves a solemn commitment on one side or the other, or on both, usually made through ritual (e.g., Exodus 24; Jeremiah 34:18-19) or oaths (Deuteronomy 29:12; Ezekiel 17:13), or both. The word has been defined as ‘an act of commitment made by solemn acts or words on the part of one or both of two parties in the presence of them both, defining their future rights and duties towards one another’ (Houston 2013, 73).
Types of covenant
(a) The parties are equal and each accepts obligations to the other, as in 1 Kings 5:12.
(b) The superior party takes on an obligation to the inferior, e.g., Joshua 9.
(c) The superior party imposes obligations on the inferior, e.g., Exodus 24:3-8.
(d) A third party imposes obligations on one or both of the parties, e.g., 2 Kings 11:17.
Covenants with God in the Pentateuch
These are normally of type b or c (Deuteronomy 29:12-15 is of type d), and it is always God who takes the initiative. There is a series of covenants in the Pentateuch which mark successive stages of the story and bind God and Israel together in mutual commitment.
Genesis: Noah and Abraham
The covenants in Genesis are all of type b: God voluntarily takes on a commitment. In Genesis 9:8-17, given to Noah, it marks the beginning of life after the Flood, and conveys God’s solemn promise never again to bring a flood to destroy the earth. Those in Genesis 15 and 17, addressed to Abraham, mark the beginning of God’s project with Israel, and commit God to maintain relationship with Abraham and his offspring, and to give him descendants and possession of the land where he is wandering. The same commitment is repeated to Isaac and Jacob, but without covenant terminology. Once the solemn commitment has been made, God cannot go back on it, and one would not expect it to be repeated. The repetition in chapters 15 and 17 is generally taken to occur because different sources have been drawn upon (see Pentateuch and Genesis).
The covenants in Exodus and Deuteronomy are of type c or d: God, or Moses on behalf of God, imposes obligations on Israel. But this does not mean that God does not make any commitment to them. The obligation to be faithful to YHWH as their one God (Exodus 20:3; Deuteronomy 5:7), and all that follows, is to be the response to YHWH’s commitment to make them his ‘treasure’ (Exodus 19:5-6). The covenant at Sinai/Horeb (Exodus 19-24, Deuteronomy 5) marks the beginning of the life of Israel as a people with YHWH. In Exodus (24:3, 7), Moses tells them and later reads them the laws, presumably those in Exodus 20-23, and they express their intention to obey them.
When the people break this covenant (Exodus 32:1-6), YHWH eventually agrees to forgive the people and to make a new one (Exodus 34). This includes YHWH’s renewed commitment to them (v. 10), together with the demand to obey, implicitly, all the previous commands. This time the people are not asked to respond. All that matters is YHWH’s sovereign decision.
In Deuteronomy 5 the covenant at Horeb (the equivalent of Sinai in Deuteronomy) consists simply in YHWH announcing the Ten Commandments. The people do not respond, but plead with Moses to be their intermediary. This introduces the long series of laws in Deuteronomy 12-26. The covenant in the plains of Moab (Deuteronomy 26:16-19; 29) commits them to obey the laws Moses has just given them (26:16; 29:1), and marks the preparation of the people to cross the Jordan into the promised land. The covenant is marked by the lengthy blessings for obedience and far lengthier curses for disobedience in Deuteronomy 28.
In Leviticus 26 the covenant with the ancestors and the covenant at Sinai are merged into a single conception, illustrating how together they structure the relationship. Blessing for keeping the covenant consists in the blessings of Abraham (see Leviticus 26:9 with Genesis 17:6-7), and after punishment for disobedience forgiveness is available because YHWH remembers the covenant with Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham (Leviticus 26:42).
Jeremiah: the New Covenant
There are a number of references in the book of Jeremiah to the covenant ‘which I (YHWH) commanded your ancestors when I took them out of Egypt’ (11:4): see Jeremiah 11:1-14 in particular. After the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, the story of the covenant which YHWH requires Israel to observe had to be read as a story of failure, since the disaster was explained as punishment for breaking the covenant. Jeremiah 31:31-34 can be read as a response to this, ‘The days are coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant… which they broke.’ What is new about this covenant is that ‘I will put my teaching (torah) within them and write it on their hearts.’ There is presumably no change in the teaching, but the people will no longer be tempted to break it. The author cuts right through the problem of disobedience by imagining a future when disobedience will be impossible (also Ezekiel 36:25-27).
The Covenant with David
In 2 Samuel 7 the prophet Nathan announces to David God’s promise that he will always have descendants upon his throne. This is not said to be a covenant. However, in Psalm 89, YHWH is quoted as affirming a type b covenant with David (vv. 3-4), and its content is given at length in vv. 19-37 (the word is used again in vv. 28, 34), which includes many echoes of Nathan’s prophecy. In v. 39 YHWH is accused of breaking his covenant, in that the reigning king has lost, or is likely to lose, his throne. But Psalm 132:11-12, as against 89:30-34, and 2 Samuel 7:14-15, suggests that this covenant was conditional on the loyalty of David’s heirs.
Like everything we can say about God, the idea of covenant is a metaphor, which takes an aspect of human experience and applies it to God and God’s relationship with humans and the earth. But why this particular metaphor? Since the 1950s, many scholars have connected the Sinai covenant with international treaties whose texts have been discovered by archaeologists in the Middle East. The type of treaty compared is the vassal treaty, that is, a treaty imposed by a powerful king on a less powerful king or nation to promise their loyalty, and pay tribute and supply troops when required (type c). The first such treaties discovered were those of the Hittite kingdom in what is now Turkey, which date between 1500 and 1200 BCE. It was argued, and is still held by some, that the regular form of Hittite treaty texts was imitated in Exodus and Deuteronomy, and so that these covenant texts go right back to the time when according to the biblical chronology Israel came out of Egypt.
However, later vassal treaties have been discovered from the Assyrian kingdom, dating between 800 and 600 BCE. This is the time when Israel and Judah were kingdoms with diplomatic services which would have been familiar with such treaties, and each had to agree to at least one with the Assyrian king. Some wording in the curses of Deuteronomy 28 strongly recalls wording in Assyrian treaties, which suggests that Deuteronomy offers YHWH as the object of Israelite loyalty in place of the king of Assyria. Many scholars argue that this is the origin of the covenant metaphor, and that covenant texts in the Old Testament do not go further back than Deuteronomy (7th century BCE). Many also would bring them down further, until after the exiles of 597 and 587/6 BCE. It was then that the people of Judah realised that they could not rely unconditionally on YHWH’s protection and their leaders deduced that the relationship depended on YHWH’s grace and their obedience.
However, the uses of this metaphor are too varied to be traced to a single origin, and since making covenants was a common experience, even if not an everyday one, in ordinary life, its use is understandable even apart from the treaties. Further, Nicholson points out that Deuteronomy is not a legal document in the same way as the treaties are.
Wherever the covenant metaphor is used, it implies that the existing situation is not something natural and to be taken for granted, but the result of a an act of choice and commitment. The order of creation continues in being (Genesis 9) not because it must; it depends on the will and promise of God to preserve it. While it was (and is) usual for nations to consider that they occupy their land by right, often because they have supposedly done so since time immemorial, or else because they have conquered it, the story of God’s covenant(s) with Abraham tells that Israel’s very existence, as well as their occupation of their land, and their relationship with their God, solely depends on that God’s gracious commitment.
The various versions of a covenant of obedience demanded by YHWH from Israel in Exodus and Deuteronomy all imply that YHWH has chosen to give them his blessing and protection, but that in return their loyalty and obedience is required. YHWH is their God not because he always has been and always will be, but because of choice and commitment on both sides. The ‘new covenant’ in Jeremiah 31 seems to undermine this position by suggesting that choice on the human side is not required.
It would be normal for a ruling dynasty to claim the support and protection of the national god. When Psalms 89 and 132 claim that YHWH made a covenant with David (type b, or for Psalm 132 type c?), they imply that YHWH is not bound to support his dynasty because of a natural connection between them, but does so by his gracious choice. This again is the lesson drawn from the threat or actuality of the dynasty’s fall.
Houston, Walter J. Pages 71-85 in The Pentateuch. London: SCM Press, 2013.
McKenzie, Steven L. Covenant. St Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2000.
Nicholson, E. W. God and His People: Covenant and Theology in the Old Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.