What is a covenant?
A covenant is nothing more complicated than a treaty or pact between two parties. It can be between two equals for mutual benefit, or between a superior and a subordinate. A common Middle Eastern treaty or covenant in ancient times was often contracted (or ‘cut’) when a powerful kingdom or empire took over a weaker country. The conqueror would say for example, that in return for your loyalty and annual tribute of gold, animals, grain etc, I will protect you and preserve you. It is this type of covenant – that of a superior to a subordinate – that typifies those that God entered into with the people of Israel.
Another important thing to realise about covenants, is that they cannot be revoked or nullified. Nor can a present covenant replace a former one: “Whatever God declares shall be forever” (Ecc 13:14); “The word of YHVH shall stand firm forever” (Isa 40:18); “And it shall be a law for all time” (Num 19:21); "I will not annul my covenant with them," (Lev 26:44); "I will not violate my covenant, nor change what I have uttered," (Ps 89:35). Covenants can be exanded and appended to, but not annulled or changed.
People in ancient times took covenants very, very seriously. They were usually sealed by a binding and irrevocable oath, accompanied by a shared meal, or the sacrifice of an animal and dividing the parts between the two parties concerned. Breaking the terms of a covenant was viewed as a heinous crime. If two equals made a covenant, and one of them broke it, then a feud would result, or the wronged party would sue for the heaviest possible compensation. If a client state broke a covenant with a ruling empire, then that empire would come in and destroy the smaller country, and carry off its citizens as slaves.
With this mindset that ancient people had surrounding covenants, you can understand how seriously God viewed the covenant he made with the people of Israel, and how the Israelites understood that relationship.
The format of ancient Middle Eastern Covenants
Covenantal agreements or treaties took a certain format:
Now, upon reading the typical biblical covenants, the last bit – the curses – sound really nasty. To the modern mind, they are totally unacceptable; we do not need to cower with the threat of a whip hanging over us. However, one has to understand that the world that these covenants were written for was a very different one, with different values and a different view of what was acceptable or not.
A typical biblical covenant goes something like this:
This is in fact bits and pieces from several covenants, but it gives you an idea of the form that a covenant took, so that next time you read the bible, you will be able to recognise a covenant when you see it. You will be able to understand why God speaks in the way God does in the bible.
Remember how I said that one covenant cannot replace another? Well, the bible describes six covenants, two made with the whole of humankind, and four with the people of Israel.
Each successive covenant adds to, enhances, extends and expands the ones before, but never replaces the previous ones. God seems to be gradually building up a relationship with us, gradually training us to see things God’s way.
The six covenants are as follows: