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Biblical Covenants: What they are and what's involved (Lesson 1.3)

I. The DEFINITION of a covenant:

What is a covenant? We see human covenants scattered throughout the pages of the Old Testament Scriptures. We know about the divine covenants, such as the ones that God establishes with Noah, Abraham, and David. And we're familiar with the Last Supper, when Christ spoke of inaugurating the new covenant in His blood. But what actually is a covenant? How does Scripture define for us what a covenant actually is? Theologian O Palmer Robertson gives what is perhaps the best definition (and possibly also the shortest!) when he says: “A covenant is a bond in blood, sovereignly administered.1

A) A BOND: In other words, a covenant is “an oath-bound commitment.” When we examine the more prominent human covenants in Scripture, it's clear that this aspect of oath-bound commitment is what is at the absolute forefront of the covenant. Indeed, it would seem that the giving of a solemn oath isn't just something that takes place in the context of a covenant, but is rather the very thing that constitutes the essence of a covenant. Perhaps one of the clearest examples of this is in the covenant between Abraham and Abimelech in Genesis 21. Here, Abimelech asks Abraham to swear to him that he would deal faithfully with him and his posterity after him (verse 23). Abraham then swears to him (verse 24); and we're told that “the two of them made a covenant” (verse 27). Then, to sum up what had just taken place, Scripture goes on to tell us in verses 31-32: “Therefore he called that place Beersheba, because there the two of them took an oath. So they made a covenant at Beersheba. . .” Another example is the covenant between Isaac and Abimelech in Genesis 26. Here, we're told that Abimelech comes to Isaac, saying: “Let there now be an oath between us, even between you and us, and let us make a covenant with you” (verse 28). And though we don't hear anything more in the text about a covenant,Scripture implies this is exactly what took place the next day when “they arose early and exchanged oaths” (verse 31). And we see the same thing in the covenant between Israel and the Gibeonites in Joshua 9. Here, the Gibeonites come to Joshua and all Israel asking them to enter into a covenant with them (vv6,11);and when Joshua and the people agree, this is how Scripture describes what happened: “Joshua made peace with them and made a covenant with them, to let them live; and the leaders of the congregation swore an oath to them.”(verse 15). And again, a few verses later, the covenant is directly equated to the oath that they “had sworn” (verse 18). From all these passages, it's clear that an oath is at the heart of a covenant. Indeed, a covenant is an oath-bound commitment.2

It's in light of passages such as these that theologian John Murray concludes: “When all the instances of merely human covenants are examined, it would definitely appear that the notion of sworn fidelity is thrust into prominence in these covenants. . .It is not the contractual terms that are in prominence so much as the solemn engagement of one person to another. . .It is the giving of oneself over in the commitment. . .It is the promise of unreserved fidelity, of whole-souled commitment that appears to constitute the essence of the covenant.” And O Palmer Robertson writes: “Scripture would suggest not merely that a covenant generally contains an oath. Instead, it may be affirmed that a covenant is an oath. . .'Oath' so adequately captures the relationship achieved by 'covenant' that the terms may be interchanged (Psalm 89:3, 34f; 105:8-10).” Indeed, the oath that was taken was so much a part of the covenant that it can truly be said,“in the Bible, promise and oath are often synonyms for covenant.”3

There's a beautiful illustration of this in the covenant between Israel and the Gibeonites in Joshua 9. The Gibeonites were a tribe of Canaanites who were living in the land of Canaan; which was the land that God had promised to give to Israel—and was commanding them to go in and possess. Well, the Gibeonites got word that Israel was coming. They had heard all about the Lord; they knew Israel was coming to take possession of the land; and they realized they didn't stand a chance against them. So, they came up with a plan. A few of them traveled down the road to where Joshua and Israel had set up camp. And when they came to them, they pretended to live in a far away land, and asked Joshua and all Israel to enter into a covenant with them. Joshua and the people forget to ask the Lord about it; and so they agree and make a covenant with these Gibeonites—an oath-bound commitment of total fidelity. It's three days later they find out the truth, that the Gibeonites were actually living in the land. But at that point there was nothing they could do, because they had already given their word. There was no going back now. So when the people grumble about it, Joshua and the leaders of Israel say in response: “We have sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel, and now we cannot touch them.” They even go on to say: “This we will do to them, even let them live, so that wrath will not be upon us for the oath which we swore to them.” (vv19-20). Once you make a covenant, there's no going back.4

This is a solemn thing—and it's also a precious thing as we think about what this means for us as God's covenant people.Old Testament scholar J. Alec Motyer sums it up beautifully when he writes: “The covenant idea in the Old Testament can be very simply expressed in the wordsGod makes and keeps promises.” How do we know that God will continue to be faithful to us in the midst of all our sin and failure? How can we be sure He won't get fed up with us and cast us away? Because of His covenant promises: When God enters into covenant with us,He's binding himself with a solemn oath to be our God. What we're going to see as we continue our study is that at the heart of God's covenant with His people are solemn promises He's sworn to uphold; and when He makes promises, He keeps them.5

B) A Bond IN BLOOD: So, a covenant is the giving of a solemn oath; an oath-bound commitment. But as we examine the Scriptures, what we're going to find is that it's also more than that. A covenant is the kind of oath that carries life and death consequences. Life or death was at stake in a covenant. This is why we say that a covenant is “a bond in blood.” It's not just an oath—it's a blood-bound oath.

We can see this even in the terminology that's used for “making a covenant” in the Hebrew language. In Scripture, the English phrase “to make a covenant” is literally in Hebrew,“to cut a covenant.” And though other Hebrew phrases can also be used for God's covenant dealings (see chart below), it seems that this phrase, to cut a covenant, is consistently used for the inauguration of a covenant relationship. When God first made a covenant, He literally cut a covenant. And this phrase, “to cut a covenant,” vividly describes what would happen when a covenant was inaugurated. Both in extra-biblical sources, as well as in the Scriptures themselves, we have accounts of covenants ceremonies. And what would happen in covenant ceremonies is that animals were slaughtered and then cut into pieces. Those who were entering into a covenant would then symbolically walk between the pieces of the slain animals. What was the significance? “By walking between the pieces, they were taking what is known as a self-maledictory oath. . .In other words, 'Be it done to us, as we have done to these animals if we are not faithful to our commitments that we have made to you in the covenant. Slaughter us. . .just like we have slaughtered these animals, if we break our commitments that we have made in the covenant.'”6

We see one example of this in Jeremiah 34:1-22. Here in this passage, the Babylonians had come up against Jerusalem to capture it; and the people in the city are terrified. Many of them had been living lives that didn't honor the Lord, but suddenly the people decide they want to follow God. One of the ways that they had been violating God's Word had to do with keeping their Hebrew slaves. The Law permitted them to do so for six years—and no more—but many of the people had been keeping them for much longer; so when the Babylonians come up against the city, the people decide to let them go. They come to the temple and make a solemn covenant before God(verse 15);and as they do so, they slaughter animals and pass between the pieces, telling God that they would be faithful to do what they had said (vv8-10,18). But what happens? The Babylonians go away. And when they do, the people remember that life is hard without their slaves; so they take their slaves back, breaking their word with God (vv10-11,15-16). And Jeremiah comes to them with this message: Do you not remember those animals which you slaughtered and walked between the pieces? God is going to make you like one of them, and the birds of the air are going to feast on your dead bodies; because you have broken your covenant with God (vv17-20). Indeed, a covenant is a life and death commitment—a bond in blood.7

There's another example in Genesis 15:7-21. Here, God had promised to give the land of Canaan to Abraham and to his descendants after him. But when Abraham asks for some kind of confirmation, the Lord tells him to bring a heifer, a female goat, a ram, a turtle-dove, and a pigeon. Abraham cuts them in two, laying the pieces opposite of each other; and we read in verse 17: “It came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, 'To your descendants I have given this land. . .'” (vv17-18). It's the same covenant ceremony with the self-maledictory oath; but in this case, it's not Abraham—but God himself who passes between the pieces. Abraham had actually fallen asleep (verse 12)! It's God, and Him alone, who takes the solemn vow. When Abraham asks,“How do I know?” God tells him, in effect,“It's this certain.” And it's so certain that the Lord uses the past tense: “To your descendants I have given this land” (verse 18); because in making this covenant,God was taking upon himself the blood-bound oath, calling down upon himself the curses of the covenant if He fails to make good on His word:“By this action. . .the Lord assumes to himself the full responsibility for seeing that every promise of the covenant shall be realized.” And friends, this is exactly how certain every one of the promises are that God has made to us in Christ.8

C) A Bond in Blood, SOVEREIGNLY ADMINISTERED: This is the last part of the definition for a covenant. In our survey of human covenants, we learned that a covenant is an oath; and in our brief study of the covenant ceremonies in Genesis 15 and Jeremiah 34, we saw that it's not just an oath, but a blood-bound oath. So far, so good. But when it comes to the covenants that God makes with man, there's also one more aspect that we need to include. Divine covenants are sovereignly administered.

What does that mean? It means, first of all, that it's God alone who initiates His covenant with man. It's not man who chooses to enter into covenant with God. Nor is it a mutual agreement, as it is in the case of human covenants. Rather, in divine covenants, God alone establishes His covenant with those whom He chooses. We see this in God's covenant with Noah, where the Lord comes to him and tells him that He's going to destroy the earth; and He says to Noah: “But I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife, and your sons' wives with you. . .” (Genesis 6:18). It's not Noah who chooses to establish this covenant with God; rather, it's God who draws near to Noah and enters into this covenant with him, for his own salvation, and the salvation of

his household. God is the One who initiates the covenant. And it's the same thing in God's covenant with Abraham, for it's the Lord who comes to him in Genesis 12, telling him to leave his country, his relatives, and his father's house, for the land that He would show him (vv1-3). It's not Abraham who initiates this covenant with God, but God who initiates the covenant with Abraham. Old Testament scholar Alec Motyer sums it up well when he says: “The covenant men were what they were because God chose them to be so. . .What happened to Noah and Abraham happened by divine decision.”9

Secondly, it's God alone who sets the terms of His covenant with man. In other words, God alone is the One who decides what He is requiring in the covenant, and what He is promising in the covenant. When God established His covenant with Noah, He didn't ask for suggestions; nor did He leave any room for negotiations. He simply came to him and told him: “This is how it's going to be.” Again, it was the same way in His covenant with Abraham. The Lord sovereignly imposes both the promises and the requirements:Abraham is to leave behind everything he knows and journey to the land which God would show him; that was the requirement. There were also promises that were set before him: God would make him a great nation; and bless him; He would make his name great; and bless all the families of the earth through him. But Abraham has no say in any of it; it's God who sets the terms.10

II. The ELEMENTS of biblical covenants:

Often, in biblical covenants (both human and divine) there were certain elements that were connected with the making of the covenant. Probably the best example we have to help us understand this today is a wedding ceremony. At the heart of the wedding is the marriage covenant—the solemn oath-bound vows that are exchanged between husband and wife. But there are often other elements that go along with the wedding as well. For instance, these oath-bound vows, which we just mentioned, usually take place in the context of a marriage ceremony. And in the context of the marriage ceremony there is (at least in the west)the symbolic giving of rings, which function as covenant signs—tokens of the marriage covenant. Ofte