Biblical concepts like “covenant” attempt to express a relationship with God that is, strictly speaking, a mystery. We call this move condescension when viewed, so to speak, from God’s side; from our side, it is usually called anthropomorphism, i.e. the description of God in terms ordinarily reserved for human emotion or relationship.
The English word covenant refers to an association bound together by a vow or law or agreement on certain behavior. Originally from Latin convenire via French covenir – “to come together,” the term was first used in the King James Bible to translate Greek – ”diathiki.” There was a theological reason to use the term; namely, the growing concept of “covenant theology” in the Scottish Presbyterian Church. This Calvinistic approach to the pattern of biblical theology focused on a series of covenants God made with humanity regarding redemption (in Christ) and works (in Adam) and grace (to eternal life). The idea is that one overarching model or concept demonstrates God’s ongoing choice to enter into relationship with humanity, but this is extended over time and through a series of noteworthy individual biblical covenants.
The Hebrew word for covenant is b’rith. This word is still used today for the ceremony of circumcision on the eighth day after a male child is born. The word refers to the early idea of slaughtering an animal and walking between the two parts of it as an oath to be faithful to your partner in the contract. This usage is found at Genesis 15:10 and Jeremiah 34:18-20. It comes from a root that has to do with grain and thus, the idea of fattening up an animal for slaughter. The Hebrew phrase for “make a covenant” is karat berith, which literally means to cut the fatted animal.
This series of covenants is an accepted framework for looking at the Bible and is not limited to the “covenant theology” mentioned above. Each of the covenants supposedly carried a sign by which people could be reminded of their relationship to God. Here is the list:
COVENANT SIGN LOCUS
1. The covenant with Adam perhaps “soul” Genesis 2
2. The covenant with Noah rainbow Genesis 9
3. The covenant with Abraham circumcision Genesis 15, 18, 22
4. The covenant with Jacob/Israel circumcision Genesis 32
5. The covenant with Moses the Torah Exodus 20 etc.
6. The covenant with David the land/Temple II Samuel 7
7. The covenant with Jesus Christ cross and resurrection
8. The covenant ends at the final judgment, when there will be no more need for it; we will see God “face to face” beyond worship or Temple (see Revelation 20)
Meredith G. Kline pioneered studies on covenant in the Bible in the 1960s and 1970s, building on prior work by George E. Mendenhall of the University of Michigan, by identifying the form of the covenant with the common Suzerain–Vassal treaties of the Ancient Near East in the 2nd millennium BC. One of the highlights of this work is the ongoing comparison of the Mosaic Covenant with the Hittite Suzerainty Treaty formula. These treaties were concluded between conquering empires and vassals; hence, they are known as non-parity treaties: one member of the treaty pact is superior to the other. Their formal structure has been studied, and it compares almost exactly to the overall structure of the 20th Chapter of Exodus and the entire book of Deuteronomy:
¥ Preamble (cf. Deuteronomy 1:1-4)
¥ Historical prologue (cf. Deuteronomy 1:5-3:29)
¥ Stipulations (cf. Deuteronomy 4-26)
¥ Document clauses (cf. Deuteronomy 27)
¥ List of gods as witnesses (notably lacking in Deuteronomy) – but “heaven and earth” are called to witness here and elsewhere, as at Micah 6
¥ Sanctions: curses and blessings (cf. Deuteronomy 28; 31-34).
¥ (Instructions for annual reading at a covenant renewal ceremony – Deut 29 – see also Joshua 24)
¥ (Place of sacred deposit for the covenant)
An extension to the notion of the covenant is the covenant lawsuit – called a ribh in Hebrew (the word means “contention”). This literary device, as might be imagined, developed during the period of the great writing prophets in the 8th – 6th Centuries BCE, whose particular calling was to proclaim to the nation, on one hand, that it had forsaken the terms of the covenant God had made; and, on the other, to propose ways in which the nation might achieve return (T’shuvah = the Hebrew word for repentance) and reconstruction. The ribh may be seen at, among other places, Isaiah 1, Amos 3-4, and Micah 6.
The components are: Micah
1. summoning the witnesses 6:1
2. pleading the case on behalf of God and 6:2-5
3. naming the outcome of the lawsuit in judgment (missing but found in other examples)
4. offering the option for leniency 6:6-7
5. renewing the terms of the covenant 6:8
The words used to describe the relationship with God in the covenantal framework are significant.
1. chesed is the Hebrew word that describes the particular kind of loving relationship that God offers to his covenant enrollees. It is not the generic word for love in the Old Testament; that is ahabah, although ahabah comes to be used for covenant relationships too. Chesed is often translated “loving kindness” (RSV) or “tender mercy” (KJV). Psalm 136, which we Orthodox call the polyeleos, meaning “great mercy,” is a principal recitation of God’s “tender mercy” toward Israel. The Psalm moves from God’s love in creation to Israel’s redemption and thence to a generic idea of ongoing love for the people through providential care.
2. Shalom is another key term – it means wellbeing, wholeness, health, and it is one of the gifts of the covenant relationship; it has to do with achieving balance and thus implies restitution.
3. L’olam – the covenant is everlasting, eternal; olam carries the idea of looking at an ever-receding horizon line.
4. Emunah – God is faithful to the covenant even when the people are unfaithful. The key dramatic story that demonstrates this is the Book of Hosea the prophet. This word for faithfulness is related to the word for truth, and both signify reliability, steadfastness, and commitment. It shows up in the conclusion to prayers: amen.