I. The ORIGIN of the word covenant:
A) The HEBREW WORD: The Old Testament Hebrew word for covenant is berith. It's uncertain exactly where berith was derived from. Some think it was derived from the Hebrew verb barah, “to cut,” which alluded to the covenant ceremony of cutting the animals into pieces and passing between the parts (recorded in Genesis 15 and Jeremiah 34). Others think that berith was derived from the Assyrian word baru, meaning “to bind,” which would have related to the oath-binding commitment that was made between the parties involved. While both suggestions would fit with the nature of a covenant, it's not immediately clear where the word berith actually came from. At the end of the day, though, the origin of the word berith isn't all that important, since its exact meaning doesn't so much depend on where this word was derived from, but rather on the way that it's used in the Scriptures.1
B) The GREEK TRANSLATION: As we mentioned, the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) consistently translated the Hebrew berith into the Greek word diatheke. Though the ordinary word for “covenant” in Greek is suntheke—not diatheke—the Greek word suntheke carries with it the idea of a mutual agreement or pact between two equal parties. The Greek word diatheke normally means “last will” or “testament” rather than “covenant,”but it seems to have been chosen in order to emphasize two truths: 1) The sovereign nature of God's covenant with man (the fact that this isn't mutual—God doesn't need our permission); and, 2) The vast difference between the two parties involved (God's covenant with us isn't between equal parties—rather, the Creator enters into covenant with His creatures). As suntheke was inadequate to describe what was happening when God enters into covenant with man, the word diatheke was chosen instead and “received a new meaning.”2
C) The ENGLISH ROOTS: We mentioned earlier that the Old and New Testaments derive their names from the word covenant. Again, this is because our English “testament” comes from the Latin testamantum, which, in turn, had come from the Greek diatheke, which, once again, had come from the Hebrew berith. But here we can also note that when the Greek word for covenant, diatheke, was translated into Latin, it was actually translated into three distinct Latin words. One of them, as we saw, was testamantum. But it's interesting to note that another way the Greek diatheke was translated into Latin is foedus. This is where we get the English word “federal” (IE, federal government); and it's also why covenant theology is sometimes called “federal theology.” The last way diatheke is translated into the Latin is pactum, which is where we get the English word “pact.” All three terms (foedus, pactum, and testamentum) are translations of the Greek diatheke, which had come from the Hebrew berith.3
II. The TYPES of Biblical covenants:
In the Scriptures we can find three different types of covenants: There are covenants that men make with each other (human covenants); covenants that God establishes with men (divine covenants); and covenants that God's people renew with the Lord (covenants of renewal). Let's take them one by one:
A) HUMAN COVENANTS: There are many different examples of human covenants in Scripture. We know, first of all, that marriage is a covenant; for the prophet confronted God's people with these words in Malachi 2:14, “the Lord has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.” But there are other examples as well. In Scripture, covenants included treaties between nations, such as when Joshua “made a covenant” with the Gibeonites, “to let them live” (Joshua 9:15); or when “there was peace between Hiram and Solomon, and the two of them made a covenant” (1 Kings 5:12). Or, covenants could also be laws and agreements between kings and their people, as it was when “all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron, and David made a covenant with them. . .” (1 Chronicles 11:3). Covenants were also used as binding contracts for business negotiations, as it was in Genesis 21 with Abraham and Abimelech, when “the two of them made a covenant” (vv22-32). And covenants could be deeply personal commitments between friends, as it was when “Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David” and “made David vow” to deal with him and his posterity in lovingkindness (1 Samuel 20:12-17). Covenants also included any other kind of agreement between two parties, as it was when Laban and Jacob made a covenant to deal faithfully with one another (Genesis 31:44ff); or when Abner made a covenant with David to establish his throne over all Israel (1 Samuel 3:6-13ff).4
B) DIVINE COVENANTS: Throughout the Old Testament, we also see the Lord binding himself to His people through covenant. This is what we're going to be studying over the course of our time together. We're going to be looking at the covenants that God makes with Adam, Noah, Abraham, with Israel at Sinai, David, and ultimately the new covenant instituted by Christ, and we're going to be asking: What do these covenants mean? What do they teach us about who God is and what He has promised? What do they show us about the redemption He would accomplish for His people? And how is it that the covenants which the Lord establishes in the Old Testament find their fulfillment in the new covenant inaugurated in Christ? It's on these divine covenants that we'll be mainly focused.
C) COVENANTS OF RENEWAL: This is the last type of biblical covenant. This kind of covenant has to do with what we might call covenant renewal, when God's people come together corporately in order to renew their covenant relationship with the Lord. We see examples of this in passages such as 2 Kings 11:17, where Jehoiada the priest “made a covenant between the Lord and the king and the people, that they would be the Lord's people. . .” In a similar way, Hezekiah gathered the priests and Levites together during the course of his reign, and told them it was in his heart “to make a covenant with the Lord God of Israel” that His anger would turn away from them (2 Chronicles 29:1ff). Ezra the priest likewise urges the people to repent of their sins and covenant afresh with the Lord (10:1-5). It's important to recognize that the ones making these covenants are already in covenant relationship with the Lord; but in these instances God's people are corporately seeking to renew their allegiance.5
1 Berkhof notes: “The Hebrew word for covenant is always berith, a word of uncertain derivation. The most general opinion is that it is derived from the Hebrew verb barah, 'to cut,' and therefore contains a reminder of the ceremony mentioned in Genesis 15:17. Some, however, prefer to think that it is derived from the Assyrian word beritu, meaning 'to bind.' This would at once point to the covenant as a bond.” (Berkhof). Witsius says: “With respect to [the Hebrew word berith, the learned are not agreed. Some derive it from barah, which, in Piel, signifies 'to cut down'; because, as we shall presently observe, covenants were solemnly ratified by cutting or dividing animals asunder. It may also be derived from the same root in a very different signification; for, as barah properly signifies 'to create'; so, metaphorically, [it may signify] to 'ordain', or 'dispose'. . .Others had rather derive it from bara. . .signifying, besides other things, 'to choose'. And in covenants, especially of friendship, there is a choice of persons between whom, of things about which, and of condition upon which, a covenant is entered into. . .” (V1, p42). Along with the possibility that berith came from the Akkadian root baru, 'to bind, to fetter,' and its related noun beritu, 'band' or 'fetter', Robertson notes a few other options: “[Another] suggestion points to the verb barah, which means 'to eat.' If this were the case, the reference would be to the sacred meal which often was associated with the covenant-making process. . .[And Martin] Noth favors the suggestion that 'covenant' derives from the Akkadian birit, which relates to the Hebrew preposition 'between'. . .[which] took took on the substantival meaning of 'a mediation,' which consequently required the introduction of a second preposition 'between' and finally evolved into the normal word for 'covenant,' which could be used with verbs other than 'to cut' (between).” (p5). Robertson asserts that the etymology of the Old Testament term for covenant has proven inconclusive, but affirms that“the contextual usage of the term in Scripture points rather consistently to the concept of a 'bond' or 'relationship.'” (Robertson, p5). Roberts had earlier noted many of these possibilities in his volume (pp10-11).
2 Berkhof writes: “In the Septuagint the word berith is rendered diatheke in every passage where it occurs with the exception of Deuteronomy 9:15 (marturion) and 1 Kings 11 (entole). . .This use of the word seems rather peculiar in view of the fact that it is not the usual Greek word for covenant, but really denotes a disposition, and consequently also a testament. The ordinary word for covenant is suntheke. Did the translators intend to substitute another idea for the covenant idea? Evidently not, for in Isaiah 28:15 they use the two words synonymously, and there diatheke evidently means a pact or an agreement. . .But the question remains: Why did they so generally avoid the use of suntheke and substitute for it a word which denotes a disposition rather than an agreement? In all probability the reason lies in the fact that in the Greek world the covenant idea expressed by suntheke was based to such an extent on the legal equality of the parties, that it could not, without considerable modification, be incorporated in the Scriptural system of thought. The idea that the priority belongs to God in the establishment of the covenant, and that He sovereignly imposes His covenant on man was absent from the usual Greek word. Hence the substitution of the word. . .The word diatheke thus. . .received new meaning.” (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology).
3 From Ligon Duncan's course on Covenant Theology.
4 These three distinct categories of human covenants, divine covenants, and covenants of renewal are set forth by O Palmer Robertson, who speaks of “covenants inaugurated by man with man, covenants inaugurated by God with man, and covenants inaugurated by man with God” (p8). Zach Keele gives these helpful sub-categories to the human covenants in Sacred Bond.
5 As O Palmer Robertson carefully notes: “These covenant relations initiated by man with God should be understood in a context of covenant renewal. It is only on the basis of a relation previously existing that man may presume to covenant with God (cf. 2 Kings 11:17; 23:3; 2 Chronicles 29:10).” (Christ of the Covenants, pp8-9). Probably the best way to understand the present significance of these covenants of renewal is by thinking about our corporate times of Sabbath worship: As we gather together every week, corporately presenting ourselves before the Lord, we are renewing our covenant relationship with Him.