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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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COVENANT . The term is of frequent occurrence in the Bible, and is used in the general sense of a compact or agreement between parties, and also in the more technical and legal sense of an arrangement entered into by God, and confirmed or sealed with the due formalities. The Hebrew word ( berîth ) has a similarly wide signification; whilst the Greek ( diathçkç ) is used alike in the classics and on the papyri in the further sense of ‘testament’ or ‘will,’ though Aristophanes ( Av . 439) is a good witness for the meaning of mutual agreement. The rendering ‘testament’ is retained by the RV [Note: Revised Version.] in two places only ( Hebrews 9:16-17; cf. margin of Galatians 3:15 ), and is perpetuated in the titles given to the two main parts of the Bible (see Testament).

As for the formalities in concluding a covenant, the primitive way seems to have been for the two parties to swallow each a drop of the other’s blood, thus becoming covenant-brothers. This actual mingling of blood soon became distasteful, and substitutes were found, such as the cutting of sacrificial animals into two parts, between which the contracting parties passed (Genesis 15:10; Genesis 15:17 , Jeremiah 34:18 f.), the meat probably being eaten afterwards in a joint meal. This ritual appears to have been inherited from the nomadic period, and it afterwards generally gave way to a solemn oath or invocation of God, combining a pledge to observe the covenant ( Genesis 26:31 , Hebrews 6:17 ) and the imprecation of a curse on non-observance ( Deuteronomy 27:15 ff.). Sometimes a handshake took the place of the oath ( Ezra 10:19 , Proverbs 6:1; Proverbs 17:18; Proverbs 22:26 , 1 Chronicles 29:24 marg., 1Ma 6:58 ), or was added to it ( Ezekiel 17:18 ). In very early times an agreement between two men was sometimes confirmed by setting up a pillar or a heap of stones ( Genesis 31:44-48 ), the religious sanction being added ( Genesis 31:49 f., Genesis 31:53 ). When God was Himself directly one of the parties, and an obligation was thought to be assumed by Him rather than by both, a token was substituted ( Genesis 9:12 ); but in these cases the transaction takes the form chiefly of a pledge or assurance, though the idea of some obligation upon the other party is often implicit. Compacts would often be made or confirmed at a shrine; and the god was invoked as a witness ( Genesis 31:49 ff., Joshua 24:27 , 2 Kings 11:4; 2 Kings 23:3 ), or a sacrificial meal accompanied the act ( Genesis 26:30; Genesis 31:54 , 2 Samuel 3:20 ). Sprinkling of sacrificial blood ( Exodus 24:8 , Zechariah 9:11 , Hebrews 9:20 ) was a specially solemn indication of God’s approving presence and of the obligations undertaken; and its significance survives and is deepened in the death of Christ ( Hebrews 10:29; Hebrews 13:20 ) and in the Eucharist ( Matthew 26:28 , Mark 14:24 , Luke 22:20 , 1 Corinthians 11:25 ).

Of the covenants referred to in Scripture, there are two classes.

1. Covenants between men . These, again, are of several kinds, the most frequent being international alliances ( e.g. Genesis 21:27 , Joshua 9:6 , Psalms 83:5 , Amos 1:9 ), judicial decisions and codes ( Sir 38:33 , possibly Exodus 24:7 ), agreements between a ruler and the people ( 2 Samuel 5:3 , Daniel 9:27 ), and civil and domestic compacts of every variety. The word was used for alliances of friendship ( 1 Samuel 18:3 , Psalms 55:20 ), and of marriage ( Proverbs 2:17 , Malachi 2:14 ). By an easy metaphor, a covenant in the sense of an imposed will may be made with the eyes ( Job 31:1 ); or, in the other sense of agreement, with the stones ( Job 5:23 ), but not with Leviathan ( Job 41:4 ), because of his greatness and intractability, nor wisely with death either in scorn of God ( Isaiah 28:15; Isaiah 28:18 ) or in yearning ( Wis 1:16 ). In Daniel 11:22 ‘the prince of the covenant’ is sometimes rendered ‘a prince in league with him’; but if the other translation stands, ‘covenant’ will represent the nation as a religious community (cf. Daniel 11:28; Daniel 11:30 , Psalms 74:20 ), and the prince will be the high priest, Onias III., who was deposed by Antiochus about b.c. 174. Similarly in Malachi 3:1 ‘the messenger of the covenant’ may be the attendant of God, His instrument in dealing with the nation (cf. RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ).

2. Covenants between God and men . The idea of a covenant with Adam, beyond the simple injunction of Genesis 2:16-17 , has been found by some writers in Sir 17:12 , which is more easily interpreted of the transactions on Horeb ( Deuteronomy 5:3 ). In Psalms 25:14 , as in Psalms 55:20 , the word has its fundamental meaning of an alliance of friendship, with a specific allusion in the former case to the Deuteronomic covenant of the tenth verse. In other cases the technical meaning of an agreement with signs and pledges is more conspicuous. The Noachian covenant ( Genesis 6:18; Genesis 9:8-17 , Isaiah 54:9 f., Jeremiah 33:20; Jeremiah 33:25 ) guarantees the stability of natural law. The covenant with Abraham ( Genesis 15:18; Genesis 17:2-21 ) was confirmed in its promise to Isaac and Jacob ( Exodus 2:24 , Leviticus 26:42 , Psalms 105:9 f.), and ensured a blessing through their seed to all nations, circumcision being adopted as the token (cf. Acts 7:8 , 1Ma 1:15 ). Of still greater significance was the covenant at Horeb or Sinai ( Exodus 19:5; Exodus 34:10; Exodus 34:27 f. et al. ), which was renewed in the plains of Moab ( Deuteronomy 29:1 ), and is frequently referred to in the OT. It was really a constitution given to Israel by God, with appointed promise and penalty, duly inscribed on the tables of the covenant ( Deuteronomy 9:9; Deuteronomy 9:11; Deuteronomy 9:15 ), which were deposited in the ark ( Deuteronomy 10:2; Deu 10:5 , 1 Kings 8:9; 1Ki 8:21 , 2 Chronicles 5:10 , Hebrews 9:4 ). Elsewhere the covenant is described as set forth in words ( Exodus 34:28 , Deuteronomy 29:9 ) and written in a book ( Exodus 24:7 , 2 Kings 23:2 ). Amongst other covenants of minor importance are that with Phinehas establishing an everlasting priesthood in his line ( Numbers 25:12 f.), and that with David establishing an everlasting kingdom ( Psalms 89:3 f., Jeremiah 33:21; cf. 2 Samuel 7:1-29 ). Joshua and the people covenant to serve Jehovah only ( Joshua 24:25 ); so Jehoiada and the people ( 2 Kings 11:17 ). Hezekiah and the people solemnly agree to reform the worship ( 2 Chronicles 29:10 ); Josiah ( 2 Kings 23:3 ) and Ezra ( Ezra 10:3 ) lead the people into a covenant to observe the Law.

Whilst the Sinaitic covenant is rightly regarded as the charter of the Jewish dispensation, the establishment by God of a new constitution was contemplated by a series of prophets (Jeremiah 31:31; Jeremiah 31:33; Jeremiah 32:40; Jeremiah 50:5 , Isaiah 55:3; Isaiah 59:21; Isaiah 61:8 , Ezekiel 16:60; Ezekiel 16:62; Ezekiel 20:37; Ezekiel 34:25 ). Some of the pledges were new, and not confined in their range to Israel, whilst the Messianic Servant becomes ‘for a covenant of the people’ ( Isaiah 42:6 f., Isaiah 49:8; cf. ‘messenger of the covenant,’ Malachi 3:1 ). The Sinaitic covenant is thus transformed, and, whilst continuing as a note of racial separation until the period for the Incarnation was come, gave way then to a new dispensation with increased emphasis on personal religion and the provision of means adequate to ensure it ( Hebrews 8:6-13 ). Yet the ancient covenant, even that with Abraham, was everlasting ( Genesis 17:7 ), and still stands in its supreme purpose ( Leviticus 26:44 f., Acts 3:25 , Romans 11:26 f.) of making men the people of God, the new elements consisting mainly in the adoption of more effective influences and inspiration. The Exile is sometimes thought of as marking the dissolution of the Old Covenant ( Jeremiah 31:31 ff.), though the new one was not fully introduced until some centuries later. The act of making the New Covenant is compared with the transactions in the wilderness ( Ezekiel 20:36 ff.). On God’s part there is forgiveness with the quickening of the inner life of man ( Ezekiel 36:24 ff.). And both the activity and the blessedness are associated with the Messianic expectations ( Jeremiah 33:15 f., Ezekiel 37:21-28 , Luke 1:20 ).

In the later OT writings the word ‘covenant,’ as appears from the previous citations, has lost much of its technical signification, and does not always denote even a formal act of agreement, but becomes almost a synonym, and that without much precision, for the conditions of religion (Psalms 103:18 ). St. Paul recognizes a series of covenants ( Romans 9:4 , Ephesians 2:12 ) on an ascending scale of adequacy ( 2 Corinthians 3:6 , Galatians 4:24 ff.; cf. Hebrews 7:22; Hebrews 8:6 ff.); and Sinai is but a stage ( Galatians 3:15 ff.) in the course from Abraham to Christ.

Of special phrases, two or three may present some difficulty. ‘A covenant of salt’ (Numbers 18:19 , 2 Chronicles 13:5 ) is a perpetual covenant, the eating of salt together being a token of friendship as sealed by sacred hospitality. ‘The salt of the covenant’ ( Leviticus 2:13 ) has probably the same primary suggestion, as at natural accompaniment of the sacrificial meal, and with it constituting an inviolable bond. Sometimes the two great divisions of Scripture are called the books of the Old and of the New Covenant respectively. The name ‘Book of the Covenant’ (see next article) is given to Exodus 20:22-23; that of ‘Little Book of the Covenant’ to Exodus 34:11-26 . A distinction is often drawn between the Covenant of Works, assumed to have been made by God with Adam ( Genesis 2:17 ), and that of Grace or Redemption ( 2 Timothy 1:9 ), whereby Christ becomes to man the medium of all spiritual blessings.

R. W. Moss.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Covenant'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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