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The Names and Features of the Covenants

In this section we will identify six of the major covenants which are featured in the Old Testament. These are the covenants which God made with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Israel and David, and finally, the new covenant with the house of Israel prophesied by Jeremiah.

1. Adamic

The Bible does not specifically state that God made a covenant with Adam, unless it does so in Hosea 6:7, which says, ... they [Israel] like Adam [margin] have transgressed the covenant. Even this marginal rendering is disputed, although in our judgment it is the only rendering which does justice to the context and sense of the passage in Hosea. However, the evidence clearly indicates a covenantal relation between God and Adam.

The necessary features of a covenant are all indicated in Genesis 1 to 3. These are:

1. The contracting parties: God and Adam.

2. The conditions imposed on Adam: obedience to God's commandments, especially refraining from eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

3. The implied promise of God: eternal life and immortality, represented by access to the tree of life.

4. The threatening of death in the case of disobedience. When Adam and Eve sinned, a whole series of curses were invoked (see Gen. 3:14-19). The word curse is covenantal language, being associated with the penalty of breaking a covenant.

Besides these four covenant features, we could also point out that the whole Bible record indicates that God has no fellowship with any man outside of a covenant. The covenant is always fundamental in any union between God and man. Just as human righteousness demands a marriage contract as the basis of conjugal union, so does divine righteousness demand a covenantal basis for God's union with man.

Adam was also the covenantal head of the race or its legal representative (see Rom. 5:12-19). His relationship with God was more than a private relationship, for it was one which involved all whom he represented.

The Adamic covenant may be likened to a suzerainty treaty. God was the great Suzerain, and the terms of the covenant were unilaterally arranged by Him. Adam was but a creature of the dust, but the covenant partnership conferred upon him the dignity and authority of a king. He was given dominion over the whole created order (Gen. 1:26-28; Heb. 2:6-8). One lone restriction — to refrain from eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil — was to remind Adam that he was a vassal king under the authority of the great Suzerain. Adam could remain a monarch of the earth only as long as he recognized that he was God's creature and subject to divine authority.

2. Noahic

God made a covenant with Noah just before He destroyed the earth by the great Flood.

    . . . Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord. . . . And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth. . . But with thee will establish My covenant.... —Gen.6:8, 13,18.
That which saved Noah and his family from the awful display of divine wrath was this covenant of grace. The man in covenant union with God could never perish. After Noah came out of the ark and stepped onto the new world, he built an altar and offered sacrifices to God (Gen. 8:20), and because of this the Lord renewed His covenant with Noah. In this covenant God also promised to preserve the earth from destruction even though man's heart after the Flood was just as evil as before the Flood (cf. Gen. 8:21; 6:5).

This promise of preservation, which some theologians call "common grace," embraced the whole created order. The earth would continue under a dispensation of divine mercy because of the pleasing sacrifice of Jesus Christ foreshadowed by the beasts on Noah's altar. As long as God's elect were upon the earth (represented by Noah), God would be pledged to uphold the natural order.

The covenant was primarily made with Noah. It was a covenant of redemption and grace. Yet Noah (who represents God's elect) must yet live in this sinful world and be related to the created order. God would therefore preserve the created order for the sake of His covenant with Noah. Just as the lives of a whole shipload of people were preserved because of the presence of Paul (see Acts 27), so the sinful world benefits from God's covenant with Noah and his spiritual children.

There is a lot of comfort in this covenant message for believers today. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ has purchased even the bounties of common grace, which preserve this world and shall continue to do so until the end. Says David MacLeod, "God has undertaken to preserve this world as an arena fit for human life, and our attitude to the perils of Nuclear warfare, world food shortages, population explosion and pollution must be modified by this."  —The Banner of Truth, June, 1975.1

Although the essence of the Noahic covenant consisted in a divine promise, it did impose certain responsibilities on Noah and his posterity. The mandate first given to Adam, to cultivate the earth, is repeated (Gen. 9:1-3). There is a prohibition against eating blood (Gen. 9:4). And the sanctity of human life must be recognized and enforced by human justice (Gen. 9:6). God also gave a sign and seal of His covenantal promise. He said, "I set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth" (Gen. 9:13, RSV).

3. Abrahamic

Just as God rescued Noah from a doomed world, so He rescued Abraham from an idolatrous environment and separated him for covenant partnership with Himself. The covenant was made with Abraham when the patriarch was seventy-five years old (Gen. 15) and renewed to him when he was ninety-nine—the year before Isaac was born (Gen. 17).

The covenant consisted of a divine promise (confirmed by an oath) that Abraham would have a seed and an everlasting inheritance. There were a temporal and an eternal dimension to this promise. In its immediate prospect it promised a son to Abraham and Sarah in their old age and the land of Canaan for his descendants. But it was also a redemptive covenant. It promised that in Abraham's Seed all nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:3; Gal. 3:6-8, 16) and that through Him they would inherit the redeemed earth (Rom. 4:3; Heb. 11:8-16, 39; 2:5; Gal. 3:15-19, 29). The covenant was the gospel of Christ in promise (Gal. 3:6-8,16,19). The immediate temporal promises would serve the purpose of being the vehicle of carrying forward the unfolding drama of salvation-history.

Abraham's response to God's promise was that "he believed in the Lord; and He [God] counted it to him for righteousness" (Gen. 15:6). Paul seizes on this to prove that it was a covenant of justification by faith (see Rom. 4; Gal. 3). The inheritance, Paul argues, was given to Abraham by promise and not because of his achievements in keeping the law. Abraham was justified by faith alone, but the faith which justified him was not alone. At a later time God said that "Abraham obeyed My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws" (Gen. 26:5; see also 18:19; 22:18). Abraham was not justified before God by faith and works but by a faith which worked (see Gal. 5:6).

The Abrahamic covenant was formalized by a ceremony which apparently was a well-known ancient custom. Abraham took several sacrificial beasts and birds. He divided the animal sacrifices into pieces and placed them in two rows, forming an aisle.2 According to the ancient custom of covenant making, the covenant partners were to walk together down the aisle between the divided sacrifice. As they did so, they would bind themselves under oath to be true to the terms of the pact. The dismembered animal portrayed the cursed fate which would befall the covenant breaker.

    The Hebrew form of oath, "God do so to me and more also," probably connects with such ceremonies. This is probably supported also by the threat of Yahweh, "And the men who transgressed my Covenant . . . I will make like the calf which they cut in two." (Jer. 34:18 R.S.V.)  —Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, p.69.

In the Abrahamic covenant God passed through the parts of the sacrifice while Abraham was in a deep sleep or prophetic trance (Gen. 15:17). The Lord hereby staked His own existence on His promise to Abraham.

While the covenant promise was not given to Abraham because he fulfilled the law or the covenant conditions, the Bible is also clear that the covenant would not operate apart from obedience on the part of Abraham and his descendants. The covenant fellowship imposed upon him the responsibility of being devoted and upright (Gen. 17:1 ; see also l8:19; 22:18; 26:5).

Subsequent history demonstrated that this covenant would not work automatically — that is, without the appropriate response of the human party. Not all of Abraham's descendants became heirs of the covenant promise. Ishmael and Esau were disqualified from being children of the covenant, and so were the unbelieving Jews in the time of Jesus and Paul.

Until Christ came as the promised Seed, however, there were always some unbelieving Jews who were incorporated in the nation which was covenantally related to God. It is clear that many in the nation were not real children of Abraham, for they were "children in whom is no faith" (Deut. 32:20). As strangers to divine grace, they could not be heirs with Abraham of the redeemed world (Rom. 4:13; Gal. 3:6-8). But by being associated in nationhood with the covenant people, they received many of the benefits of life in the theocracy — just as unbelieving sinners live in the same world with God's people and receive the temporal advantages of the Noahic covenant.

Circumcision was given by God to be the sign or seal of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 17:10, 11). By metonymy the covenant became known as "the covenant of circumcision" (see Acts 7:8). According to Paul circumcision was the sign or seal of righteousness by faith (Rom. 4:11), for Abraham was given the promise of justification and salvation by Christ before he was circumcised. The Judaizers, however, perverted the sign and turned it into a means of obtaining the inheritance.

4. Sinaitic

The most important Old Testament covenant was the one made between God and Israel at Mount Sinai. It was the foundation of Israel's relationship with God and that which determined and gave character to the subsequent history of the chosen people.

Of the 286 times covenant is mentioned in the Old Testament, at least 150 of these refer to the Sinaitic covenant. Sinai was the high point of Old Testament history, and the covenant which was made there so dominates the Old Testament record that the collection of thirty-nine books has been named after this covenant.

It was only a few years ago (1954) that G.E. Mendenhall was able to demonstrate that the Sinaitic covenant bore a remarkable similarity to the ancient Hittite treaties. These Hittite treaties were made between a Hittite sovereign (suzerain) and a vassal. They contained six main features:3

1. Preamble. In this the name of the suzerain is identified. For example, one such treaty begins, "These are the words of the Sun Mursilis, the great king, the king of the Hatti land the valiant, the favorite of the Storm-god, the son of Suppiluliumus," etc.

2. Historical Prologue. Here the previous relationship between the Hittite ruler and the vassal is described. It may embrace several generations. The emphasis is on the benevolent acts of the suzerain toward the vassal's father or ancestors and/or on the suzerain's present benefactions. This sets the stage for the obligations that are to be imposed upon the vassal, which he is now expected to discharge in grateful acknowledgement of the suzerain's acts of kindness.

3. Stipulations. The obligations which are imposed by the suzerain upon the vassal are spelled out. The fundamental demand is always for thorough commitment to the suzerain to the exclusion of all alien alliances. Thus Mursilis insists: "But you, Duppi-Tessub, remain loyal toward the king of the Hatti land, the Hafli land, my sons [and] my grandsons forever . . . Do not turn your eyes to anyone else." The stipulations define the duties of the vassal in preserving peace within the domain of the suzerain. "Unwavering trust in the Suzerain was mandatory, and murmuring against him was always regarded as violation of obligation."4  —The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Buttrick, art. "Covenant" (Abingdon).

4. Depository. The treaties generally made provision for their preservation and regular rereading. "The treaty is put in the most sacred shrines of the chief gods of the involved, for an obvious purpose so that the gods could read it and be reminded from time to time of the provisions of the oath sworn in their presence." —Delbert R. Hillers, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea, p.35. A typical treaty also says, "At regular intervals shall they read it in the presence of the sons of the Hurri country." —Ibid.

5. Witnesses. The gods, many and sundry, are called upon to witness the covenant oaths (ibid., pp. 36, 37).

6. Sanctions. Blessings are pronounced on the keeper of the covenant, while curses pronounce the destruction of the offender — all that he is and all that he has.

The Sinaitic covenant, described in Exodus, chapters 19 to 24, has a similar structure to the Hittite treaties, although it is not completely identical. Comparing these chapters with the treaty formulary, we have a basic outline as follows:

1. Exodus 19 presents the historical introduction, which stresses the grace of God in His dealings with the Israelites.

2. The stipulations follow in chapter 20 in the form of the Ten Commandments.

3. In chapter 23:20-33 there is a series of promises and threats.

4. Chapter 24 describes how the covenant is ratified in a blood sacrifice and a covenant meal.

The Ten Commandments constitute the real text of the treaty between God and Israel (Ex. 34:28; Deut. 4:13). The form of the Decalogue bears a very remarkable resemblance to the suzerainty treaty:

1. To begin with, there is the very characteristic preamble: "I am the Lord thy God (Ex. 20:2). D.J. McCarthy5 points out that the parallel with the Hittite treaties breaks down because whereas the Hittite treaties begin in the third person and identify the name and titles of the suzerain, the brief introduction to the Ten Commandments does not do this. However, the full name and title of the divine Suzerain do appear in the fourth commandment (". . . for in six days Yahweh made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is."). Here we have the name (Yahweh), title (Creator) and realm (heaven and earth) of the great Suzerain. Meredith G. Kline points out that "the Sabbath sign presented in the midst of the ten words [is] the equivalent of the Suzerain's dynastic seal."  —The Treaty of the Great King, p.18.

2. In classical treaty form the Decalogue contains the brief historical prologue: " . . . which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage ' (Ex. 20:2).

3. The stipulations of the covenant are the Ten Commandments, which are called "the words of the covenant" (Ex. 34:28). These oath-bound stipulations are often referred to as "the testimony" (Hebrew, edut: see Ex. 31:7; 32:15; 34:27~29).6

4. The covenant blessings and cursings are interspersed among the stipulations (Ex. 20:6, 7,12).

5. Finally, the covenant was deposited in the sacred ark and kept in the most holy place of the tabernacle. Consequently, the ark is called "the ark of the covenant," and the tabernacle itself is called "the tabernacle of the testimony" (Ex. 32:15; 38:21; Num. 10:33; Rev. 11:19; 15:5).

The treaty formulary appears the clearest of all in the book of Deuteronomy. Forty years after Sinai, just before Israel's entrance into the promised land, Moses led the people into a great covenant renewal while they were camped on the plains of Moab, poised for their conquest of Canaan. The book of Deuteronomy presents us with a lengthy covenant renewal document which follows the classic pattern of the treaty in the ancient Near East. This document more clearly spells out the covenant blessings and curses and also provides for witnesses to the covenant—"heaven and earth" (Deut. 4:26; 30:19; 31:25f.). In his excellent little book, The Treaty of the Great King, Kline demonstrates how Deuteronomy follows the classical treaty lines — as follows:

1. Preamble: chapter 1:1-5.
2. Historical prologue: chapters 1:6 to 4:49.
3. Stipulations: chapter 5 and amplified to the end of chapter 26.
4. Sanctions: chapters 27 to 30:20.
5. Depository, witnesses, etc.: chapters 31 to 34.

Leaving now the similarities between God's covenant at Sinai and the suzerainty treaties, we will take special note of some other major features of God's covenant with Israel:

1. The covenant between God and Israel was a kind of marriage covenant (see Ex. 20:5; Deut. 4:24; Ezek. 16; Jer. 24; Hosea 1-3; Jer. 31:31,32). The oft-repeated words, "I shall be thy God; ye shall be My people," imply an exclusive relationship represented by marriage.

Yahweh brooks no rival; the more real the marriage, the less He permits His bride the luxury of an affair with another. Put it this way: We can measure the faithfulness of His covenant by the intensity of His jealousy. Were He a less passionate husband, His jealousy would not be so keen. The Bible speaks of God's wrath in the same manner. Here too we can make the equation that His wrath is measured by His love. If God did not love so strongly, He would not become so angry.

In this atmosphere, the word "jealous" is a beautiful word. It belongs to the language of love. Only a suitor can be jealous. Hence the expression "to provoke to jealousy." It is precisely because God is a loving husband that Israel can move Him to jealousy. Israel stirs up jealousy when it whores after other gods [Deut. 32:16, 21; 1 Kings 14:22; Ps. 78; Ezek. 8:31.—Harry M. Kuitert, Signals from the Bible (Eerdmans), p.57.

2. The covenant at Sinai was ratified by a blood sacrifice and by a covenant meal eaten in God's presence by the representatives of the people (Ex. 24). Both of these practices were common in ancient covenant making. The blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled on both altar and people. Exodus 24 does not tell us the significance of this ceremony, but it probably represents the cleansing and dedication of the nation to God (see Ezek. 16; Heb. 9:19-23).

3. Just as the rainbow was the sign of the Noahic covenant and circumcision was the sign of the Abrahamic covenant, so the Sabbath of the fourth commandment was the designated sign of the covenant between God and Israel (see Ex. 31:16,17; Ezek. 20:12). This sign or seal of God's covenant is not a new feature, however, for it appears in the record of God's covenant with Adam (see Gen. 2:1-3).
    The Sabbath, the rainbow, and circumcision are, in fact, the three great covenants established by God at the three critical stages of the history of mankind, the creation (Gen. 1:1, 2, 3; Ex. 31:1 6f), the establishment of mankind after the flood (Gen. 9:1-17), and the birth of the Hebrew nation (Gen. 17). —Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Vol.2, p.264.

4. Although the background of the Sinaitic covenant was God's gracious deliverance from Egypt and His electing love toward Israel, there is no question but that the covenant accented the human stipulations. Fellowship between God and Israel would only be possible as Israel fulfilled the stipulations which required wholesouled obedience to God. Whereas the Noahic and Abrahamic covenants accented the promises which God made, the Sinaitic covenant emphasized the promises which Israel made to God (Ex. 19:8; 24:3).

As we pointed out earlier, God's covenant with Israel dominated the history of the Old Testament. That history is marked by several great covenant renewals. It was first renewed a few days after the covenant was broken by Israel's apostasy in making the golden calf (Ex. 34:10, 27-29). Then it was renewed to the next generation in the plains of Moab just before the death of Moses. The record of this renewal is the book of Deuteronomy. There was a great renewal of the covenant before the death of Joshua (see Josh. 24; here the covenant bears another remarkable resemblance to the suzerainty treaty). Another great covenant renewal occurred in the days of King Josiah (see 2 Kings 23:2, 3). The last great renewal in Old Testament history took place after the Babylonian Exile (see Neh. 9 & 10).

5. Davidic

God made a covenant with David concerning his royal house. The Lord declared:

    . . . I will set up thy seed after thee, which shall proceed out of thy bowels, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build an house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he shall be My son. —2 Sam. 7:12-14.

There is no record of how this covenant was formalized or ratified. In fact, the word covenant is not used in 2 Samuel 7. Elsewhere, however, it is called a covenant and an oath (2 Sam. 23:5; Ps. 89:3, 28, 29). Like the Abrahamic covenant, it was wholly promissory. God made a promise to David and confirmed it by an oath. We read of no promises made by the human party. "In David, the promise to the patriarchs is fulfilled, and renewed."—The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, art. "Covenant."

Although the covenant was promissory, it did not work automatically without human responsibility. The king who sat on David's throne was obligated to obey the commandments of God (1 Chron. 28:7; 2 Chron. 7:17,18). Failure to do this would mean disqualification from the blessings of the covenant. This actually took place in the overthrow of Judah and the royal line in the Babylonian captivity. Yet even when the Jews were cast off into exile, the covenant with David gave them hope that a son would yet sit on David's throne, for even the children's apostasy could not prevent the fulfillment of the covenant (Ps. 89:29-37).

Like God's covenant with Abraham, the Davidic covenant reached beyond the immediate seed (Isaac or Solomon) and the immediate temporal blessings (Canaan or the throne in Jerusalem) to the real Seed of Abraham and David. That Seed was Christ. Solomon, who ruled in an era of peace and built the temple, was only a type of Christ. God promised that the Son of David would be David's Lord. He would sit at God's right hand and be a Priest forever after the order of Melchizedek (Ps. 110). Moreover, His dominion would be universal, and all nations would be brought into subjection to Him (Ps. 2). Even the Jews understood that the Davidic covenant was Messianic. The later prophets amplified this hope of Israel's coming King (Isa. 9:6; Zech. 9:10; Dan. 7:14; Ezek. 37:24,25; Micah 5:2).

6. New

The new covenant is first brought to view in Jeremiah 31:31-34:

Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which My covenant they brake, although I was an Husband unto them, saith the Lord: but this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put My law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be My people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know Me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.

This prophetic promise was made at the time of the Babylonian captivity. The chosen people had so transgressed the covenant that the great rupture took place. As Adam, the covenant breaker, was expelled from Eden, so the Jews were expelled from the promised land and sent into captivity. Yet this was not to be a full end. The prophets spoke hopefully of a new beginning. Hosea likened it to the faithful God taking back the faithless wife. Isaiah spoke of a new exodus, Ezekiel of a new temple and a new Davidic King, while Jeremiah spoke of a new covenant.

No doubt the Jews anticipated that these prophecies would be fulfilled at the end of their seventy-year exile, and there was some justification for this expectation. Jeremiah's prophecy of the new covenant is written in the context of the return from captivity in Babylon (see Jer. 31). In the prophets there is a mingling of the local historical fulfillment and the final eschatological fulfillment.

When the promise of a new covenant with Israel is seen in its historical setting, it becomes clear that God is referring to a grand covenant renewal. The conditions of the covenant remain unchanged, but God will forgive the sins of His people and put His laws in their hearts (see also Ezek. 36:26, 27). The writing of God's law in the heart is not to be confined solely to New Testament times, for through Isaiah the Lord addresses the returning exiles with these words: "Hearken unto Me, ye that know righteousness, the people in whose heart is My law . . . (Isa. 51:7). Isaiah 56:1-6 refers to the covenant renewal also and mentions the Sabbath and the covenant interchangeably. Evidently Sabbath renewal and covenant renewal went hand in hand (see also Neh. 9:39; 10:31).

Of course, we now know that the new covenant promise reached its full realization in the coming of Jesus Christ and His gospel. Just before His death Jesus spoke of that death as a covenant sacrifice. He instituted the Supper as the sacral meal of the new covenant (Matt. 26:27, 28). But even here the covenant is the kainos covenant, and like the new (kainos) commandment and the new (kainos) heaven and earth in the Revelation, it really means a renewed covenant. Because of Christ's death as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45), God is able to forgive the sins of believers and take man back again in lawful partnership and fellowship with Himself.

It was prophesied by Jeremiah that the new covenant would be made with "the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah." The New Testament makes it clear that this new covenant is made with the new Israel. Since Christ is the Seed of Abraham, every believer, being in Christ, is a true son of Abraham (Gal. 3:29) and an heir of the new Canaan, which is the new heaven and earth (Rev. 21:1).

Like the covenant made with Abraham and David, the new covenant is overwhelmingly promissory. God promises forgiveness of sins and the writing of His law in the heart (see Heb. 8:10-12)—or as we could say theologically, justification and sanctification, a title to heaven and a fitness for heaven. This is not to deny that there are obligations resting upon new covenant believers. The New Testament is quite explicit about the sort of whole-hearted obedience demanded by those who are joint heirs with Christ. Yet their obedience does not fulfill the stipulations of God's covenant and is not the procuring cause of God's blessing. As it was with Abraham, the inheritance is wholly of grace, wholly of promise. The obedience of God's children adds nothing to God's promise but testifies that His children are genuine believers in Jesus Christ: While no man is saved by good works, it is also true that no one will be saved without good works; or to put it another way, salvation is not by obedience but to obedience. He who does not obey God demonstrates that he is not saved by grace through faith.



1 We cannot agree with MacLeod, however, when he says that the Noahic covenant "is not a redemptive covenant." we concur with Westminster scholar K. M. Campbell, who says, "The covenant is a covenant of common grace as well as of saving grace." —God's Covenant (Presbyterian & Reformed), p.25.
2 Some scholars suggest that there were three rows, forming two aisles.
3 For documentation of the Hittite treaty formulary, see G.E. Mendenhail, The Covenant Forms and Israelite Tradition; Klaus Baltzer, The Covenant Formulary: In Old Testament, Jewish and Early Christian Writings (Fortress); Delbert R. Hillers, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea.
4 Compare Israel's murmuring against the Lord in Numbers 21.
5 Old Testament Covenant (John Knox Press), pp.17, 18.
6 "Edut is related to the Akkadian ade, which is used as a general appelation for the contents of the suzerainty treaties. "— Kline, Op. Cit., p.16.