Religious Beliefs

What is meant by the term “covenant”?

Covenant (berith in Hebrew) describes better than perhaps any other single notion the essential quality of God’s relationship to humankind. Discussion of divine initiatives that result in the sealing of a covenantal bond appears early in the Torah and continues through the prophetic books. Covenants were a crucial social cement in many ancient Near Eastern societies, including Israel. Partners in a covenant need not be equal in status and power. Many covenants described between human partners in the Bible are between a lord or ruler and his vassals. A more or less common formula for these lord–vassal relationships evolved. This “covenant treaty” form typically began with a section in which the lord names himself in relation to the vassal or subject. A brief historical summary recalls all the good things the lord has provided. That is followed by a list of blessings that will accrue to the subject who is faithful, and the curses that will befall one who is lax or breaks the covenant. Some elements of the treaty form, as well as of the treaty “lawsuit” the lord might bring against one who violated the agreement, appear here and there in the Hebrew Bible.

Accounts of major covenants between God and his people include those with Noah (Genesis 6 and 9), marked by the appearance of the rainbow and the cessation of destruction by flood; Abraham (Genesis 15-17), sealed by the sign of circumcision; and Moses at Sinai (Exodus 19-24), embodied in the revealed Law. At various points in the historical and prophetic books we hear of covenant renewals. A leader, such as Joshua, calls the people to account for their past behavior and challenges them to reaffirm their allegiance to God, the sovereign. Joshua 24 is a fascinating example of how some elements of the ancient treaty formula apparently survived in the practice of Israel. King David’s rule is also marked by a covenant renewal led by the court prophet Nathan (II Samuel 7). Prophets, such as Jeremiah, spiritualize the notion of covenant, saying that God wishes to inscribe the special relationship on the tablets of their hearts (Jeremiah 33).


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