Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A Study Of Covenant - Part 1

Over the next several weeks I am going to post a study that I wrote a few years ago on the topic of Covenant. This is one of the most fascinating topics you can study in the Bible, and it is also one that is often overlooked and misunderstood. It is my prayer that over the next few weeks you will get enough of an understanding of what it means to be in in a covenant relationship with God that you will dig deeper into the Scriptures on your own; I guarantee that when you truly understand and embrace this truth you will never be the same.

Kay Arthur, the first teacher I ever heard teach on this topic, said:
Once you understand and embrace the reality that God is a God of covenant, you will experience a peace, a strength, a security you have never known. The Word of God will take on a whole new dimension—delighting you with wonder as you explore the height, the depth, the breadth of what it means to be in covenant with God. The words lovingkindness and friend will take on new meaning and become so precious as you identify them as covenant terms.
She also said:
Once you grasp the full understanding of covenant—and note that I said full—and begin to understand the character and ways of our covenant God, you will find the answer, the cure for pain that threatens to overwhelm you. And as long as you cling to the truth, you'll find yourself soaking in the love, the peace, the confidence, and the joy that belong to those who live in the knowledge of the covenant that God cut on behalf of every man, every woman, every child—regardless of color, nationality, or station in life. All you need to do is enter into and abide in His covenant.
With an introduction like that you can see that this is going to be a wonderful study. The outline we will use as we work our way through this study is as follows:
I. Define Covenant
A. Hebrew words and meanings
B. Greek words and meanings

II. Look at some examples of covenants in the Bible
A. The Noahic Covenant
B. Covenant between Jonathan and David

III. Study in detail the three major covenants in the Bible

A. The Abrahamic Covenant
B. The Sinai Covenant
C. The New Covenant
As we begin our journey please keep in mind that there are over 300 references to covenants in the Bible and that we will not exhaust this topic in just a few short weeks. When we finish here I encourage you to look up the word covenant in your concordance and check out some of the references that we didn't have time to cover here together.

Let's get started.

I. Define Covenant

Merriam Webster defines a covenant as a:
[F]ormal, solemn, and binding agreement
[A] written agreement or promise usually under seal between two or more parties especially for the performance of some action.
Harper's Bible Dictionary says a covenant is:

[A] formal agreement or treaty between two parties with each assuming some obligation.
The Hebrew word that we translate covenant is the word Beriyth meaning treaty, alliance, or agreement. The word Beriyth is often preceded by the verb Karath, which means to cut.

When these two words are used together it expresses the idea of cutting a covenant. This is significant because according to Easton's Bible Dictionary karath beriyth makes:
[R]eference to the cutting or dividing of animals into two parts, and the contracting parties passing between them, in making a covenant.
So literally, the definition of karath beriyth is a compact made by passing between pieces of flesh.

The Greek word translated covenant in the New Testament is diatheke, which has the same meaning as berith. It should be noted that in the KJV this word is often translated as testament, but this word should actually be translated covenant the same as berith was translated in the Old Testament since they have the exact same meaning.

Karat Berith – To Cut Covenant

As stated above the Hebrew term Karat Berith means to cut covenant. To help you get a better understanding of this I though we should look at the process and examine what takes place in the cutting of a covenant before we move on and look at some examples of covenants in the Bible.

The way in which a covenant was cut in the Old Testament is this: animals were cut in half down the spine and the pieces were placed in a line side-by-side with a path down the middle. The parties involved would remove their robes and hand them to each other to put on. They would exchange weapons. They would give the other party their belt. Then in a figure-eight pattern they would walk between the pieces while reciting the terms of the covenant. They would then point to heaven, and to the animals, while swearing an oath "God, do so to me, if I break this covenant."

Next the covenant partners would take a knife and make a cut in their wrists, clasps hands, and let their blood mingle together. Then they would recite to each other everything that they owned and everything that they owed. They would then reach down and scoop up a hand full of dirt and rub it into the cut on their wrists. After all of this they would exchange new names and then sit down to a meal. Lastly they would set up a memorial, a pile of stones, a planted tree, a written contract… something that would be a testament to the agreement they had just made.

From this point on they were forever in covenant with each other; a covenant that could only be broken by death. There is a lot of rich symbolism in this ritual, symbolism that will become very important to us as we go along, so let's take a few minutes to look at a few of these:

The first thing we see is that after the animals were slain and cut in half the parties involved would exchange robes. By doing this they were symbolizing their new covenant identity with the other person. They were in essence saying "I am putting you on, and you are putting me on; we were once two, but now we are one."

Next we see them exchanging weapons. The symbolism here is that they were saying your enemies are now my enemies and my enemies are your enemies.

Then they would exchange belts. This was a symbol of strength and they were saying that from this point forward you do not have to rely on your own strength – you now have my strength and I yours.

Then dressed as the other person, with the other person's weapons in their hand and wearing their belt, they would walk between the animals symbolizing walking into death. They did this for two reasons: first they were showing that from this point forward they were no longer living for themselves; they were now living for their covenant partner; and secondly they were saying that if they ever break the covenant, they should have done to them what was done to these animals. And they call on God to carry it out by swearing an oath, "God, do so to me, if I break this covenant."

The cut wrist and mingled blood would once again show that they were no longer two persons; from this point on they were one. As stated above they would also rub dirt into the cut; they did this so it would scar, and then every time they saw their wrist from that time forward they would remember that they have a covenant partner.

Next they would exchange new names, which symbolized a new identity - an identity based on the covenant. Then they would share a meal, a covenant meal, where they would each take a piece of bread, break it, and place it in their covenant partner's mouth. While doing this they would each say, "you are eating me, and I you."

There is one more thing we need to talk about here before we move on. A covenant is not always entered into by persons who are equals. So what happens when one of the covenant partners is the subordinate of the other? This is a very important question for us since what we are ultimately discussing here is the covenant that God made with mankind. Man is subordinate to God, we are not equals, so we need to understand how covenant works when one of the parties in inferior or subordinate to the other.

In a covenant where the involved parties are not equals the superior party lowers themselves to the level of the lower party and honors them by dealing with them on a more or less equal footing. The superior stipulates the demand of the covenant and the subordinate either accepts or rejects them. The lesser assumes the duties imposed upon him voluntarily and as a result inherits the blessings of the covenant (more on this later). The superior party is the one who assumes the full responsibility for the conditions of the covenant.

This then is a covenant; a solemn, binding agreement, a pledge cut in blood, a walk into death. And that is exactly what our relationship with God is based upon.

Next time we will look at Noahic Covenant and the Sinai Covenant.
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Nancy J Locke said...

What a great blog! I will return to do some reading. :D

Blessings! Nancy

Anonymous said...

Nice fill someone in on and this post helped me alot in my college assignement. Thank you on your information.

Missional Living Team Member said...


I've found your description of covenant to be very helpful and I'd like to know if you would allow me to use some of it for a book I'm writing about emotional abandonment. I am attempting to set the stage for the reader and covenant is a very important aspect of emotional wholeness. Please let me know. Thank you.

Christopher said...

Yes, you may use this for your book, but I would like to read how you are using it first.