Technical Meaning of Covenant
The Old Testament
The Hebrew word for covenant is berith. "Attempts to derive the meaning of the term from etymology have not led to any clear or certain conclusions." —Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Kittel (Eerdmans), Vol.2, p.107. The majority of scholars, however, seem to think that berith is derived from an equivalent Assyrian word which means to bind or to fetter.
Since berith or covenant occurs nearly 300 times in the Old Testament, its meaning may be fairly well established by noting the word's context and usage. Besides the biblical usage, covenants were very common in the ancient world of the Middle East, and from the numerous ancient inscriptions that archeologists have unearthed, the general sense of covenant is quite clearly demonstrated.
In the Bible we read about a number of different covenants between men. For instance, Jacob and Laban settled family hostilities by making a covenant. They set up a heap of stones as a witness to their mutual pledges, offered sacrifice, and ate a covenant meal together (Gen. 31:44, 45). David and Jonathan made a covenant to seal their friendship and to guarantee a peaceful relationship between the house of David and the house of Jonathan (1 Sam. 18 & 20). We also read about a covenant between tribes (1 Sam. 11:1; Judg. 2:2; Ex. 23:32), between kings (1 Kings 20:34), and between a king and his people (2 Kings 11:4; 2 Chron. 23). There was even a covenant imposed by a conquering king on a vanquished king (1 kings 20:34). The most common type of covenant between people, however, was the marriage contract between a man and his wife (see Mal. 2:14).
Outside of biblical literature the most important use of the covenant idea is found in some international treaty documents of the second millennium B.C. In recent years archeologists have unearthed a great number of these treaties, which were drawn up by the Hittite kings or suzerains. These suzerainty treaties were unilaterally drawn up by the Hittite conquerors and imposed on a subjugated vassal king. The vassal was obliged to swear allegiance, fidelity and exclusive loyalty to the suzerain. The suzerain pledged that he would help and protect his faithful vassal.
There are two of these human covenants which especially help us to understand the meaning of God's covenant with man:
1. The first is the suzerainty covenant. In 1954 G. E. Mendenhall, in The Covenant Forms and Israelite Tradition, was the first to demonstrate quite conclusively that the sacred covenant documents between God and Israel, as recorded in Exodus and Deuteronomy, follow a form similar to the suzerainty treaties of the Hittite kings. (We will say more about this treaty form in our section on "The Names and Features of the Covenants.")
While some covenants between human parties are like negotiated agreements, God's covenant is more like a suzerainty covenant. It has nothing in it of the nature of a bargain or a negotiated agreement. It is a disposition or arrangement which originates unilaterally with the superior party. The inferior party may accept or reject the arrangement (for covenants generally imply reciprocity and a bilateral operation), but he cannot negotiate or alter the terms of the disposition in any way.
2. The covenant between God and man is also likened to a marriage contract (see Ezek. 16:8, 60; Hosea 2:16; Isa. 54:5; Jer. 3:14; 31:32). The relationship is wholly initiated by God. The election of Israel to be Jehovah's wife is entirely a divine act. Here again we see that God's covenant is unilateral in origin but bilateral in operation. God and His people are bound together by a covenant which is likened to a marriage contract.
In the light of the foregoing evidence we can say that the covenant is a bond, an alliance, an agreement, a compact, a treaty, a pact, a contract.1 Its essential idea is union between God and man. God offers man partnership with Himself. It is a union and partnership based on a binding legal contract. It cannot be stressed too strongly that while the covenant is a fellowship between God and man, it is a fellowship which has a legal basis.
The New Testament
The Greek work for covenant is diatheke. It is used more than thirty times in the New Testament. Like many other key words or expressions found in the New Testament, it has an Old Testament background and quite obviously incorporates the idea inherent in the Hebrew covenant.
Especially intriguing is the meaning of the Greek word diatheke. The apostles were not the first to use this word to translate the Hebrew word berith. More than 100 years before them the Septuagint (the first Greek translation of the Old Testament) also chose the word diatheke to translate berith.2 At the time of the Septuagint's translators and also during the time when the New Testament was written, the word diatheke generally had the meaning of a testament or will. It is quite apparent that a last will and testament is not really what the Old Testament word berith means, even though there may be some similarities. The Greeks did have the word suntheke, which meant a compact, a treaty, an alliance, etc. So the intriguing question is, Why did not the Septuagint translators use the word suntheke? And why did the apostles also prefer to use diatheke?
There are two things to be said in answer to this question:
1. Diatheke did not only mean a will and testament. Scholars have been able to demonstrate that it did have the meaning of a disposition or arrangement. Says Moulton-Milligan:
Diatheke is properly disposition, an "arrangement" made by one party with plenary power, which the other party may accept or reject, but cannot alter. A "will" is simply the most conspicuous example of such an instrument, which ultimately monopolized the word just because it suited its differentia so completely. —Cited in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 2, p.128.
2. As we have seen, God's covenant is not a mutual agreement or negotiated treaty. As Louis Berkhof (Systematic Theology [Eerdmans]) suggests, the word suntheke sounds too much like an agreement between equals; and since the Bible is majoring on the divine covenant (an essentially religious idea), diatheke more nearly meets the idea of an arrangement which is unilateral in origin.
There has been some uncertainty (evidenced by the New Testament translators, for instance) as to whether the New Testament diatheke should be translated as covenant or testament (will). Undoubtedly, in view of the fact that the concept comes from the Old Testament, covenant is the better translation, with the possible exception of Hebrews 9:16,17. Some scholars, wishing to bend everything into the mold of berith, even contend that Hebrews 9:16, 17 does not mean will and testament.3 This, however, is not supported by the face-value context. The Bible does not always fit into the precise systematic mold of scholars. Granting that the New Testament word diatheke primarily means disposition and arrangement corresponding to the Old Testament berith, is it not conceivable that, since diatheke also had the popularly understood meaning of will and testament, the apostles could at times make a play upon this double meaning? Perhaps in Galatians 3:15 Paul is also making a play upon the double meaning of diatheke.
G. S. Duncan sensibly comments that "it matters little which of the two renderings we adopt, for from a truly spiritual standpoint a 'covenant' in which God takes part is as essentially a one-sided proposal as a 'will' is." — The Moffatt New Testament Commentary, Galatians, p.106.
Leon Morris also clears the air with these comments:
The very fact that the expression "the new covenant" is used indicates that the berith of the Old Scriptures is in mind and that the New Testament writers, when they used covenant, are thinking primarily of a disposition of God along the lines of Old Testament models, and not the conception of a will. Nevertheless, in view of the universal use of the word outside the Scriptures and of the place they assigned to the death of Christ in the making of the new covenant, it seems probable that in most cases where diatheke occurs there is the secondary thought of a death to be discerned with a corresponding benefit to those who were heirs. —The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, p.97.
One further point also shows us that the Hebrew covenant and the Greek will and testament are not so far apart in meaning after all. The disposition of an inheritance is very prominent in the covenants which God made with Abraham, Israel and David. And, of course, the disposition of an inheritance is the essence of a will and testament. In both cases the arrangement is unilaterally made, in both cases it is sealed by a sacrifice or by death, and in both cases the recipient may not negotiate or alter the stipulations.
1 Some scholars have argued that since God's covenant is unilateral in origin, it is a disposition and not a contract, compact or agreement. But the concepts of disposition and contract are not mutually exclusive. In the sense that man has no say in determining the terms of the relationship, it is a disposition of the divine will. But in that man is called upon to respond to God's covenant and God Himself condescends to guarantee rights and privileges to man, it is a treaty or contract. It is as much a contract as marriage is a contract. The rights, privileges and responsibilities of each party are clearly defined and legally guaranteed.
2 1n 270 cases the LXX chose the word diatheka.
3 For instance, R. B. Girdlestone, Synonyms of the Old Testament (Eerdmans), p.214.