Describing Diatheke: Covenant in the Bible

Graphic of a rainbow and the greek word for covenant

Abrahamic covenant, Noahic covenant, covenantalism, covenant nomism, covenant theology, covenant dispensationalism, new covenant, covenant marriage—the list of terms proliferates. Christianity has a rich tradition of covenant concern. But what does “covenant” mean? This article will seek to define covenant within its historical contexts.

“Contexts” is intentionally plural—the term “covenant” in English Bibles translates two different terms, one in Hebrew (ברית; berith) and another in Greek (διαθήκη, diatheke). Though these two terms share some semantic overlap, they also include some differences which may not only be explicitly affirmed in the biblical witness but perhaps even emphasized.(See below discussion on New Testament Covenant Context.) This will be the first of two articles seeking to develop a brief biblical theology of divine-human covenants in the Bible. This opening exercise will examine the concept of a covenant within its historical context to understand its significance for Christian theology. The second article will seek to describe the various covenants found within the text of the Bible based on these findings.

Old Testament covenant context

The term “covenant” first occurs in the Bible in Genesis 6:16 where God promises to establish his covenant with Noah. This term ברית (berith) is an “agreement or covenant” between persons, and in other places is preceded by the term כרת (carat; to cut) and is also described as a “contract” in HALOT.1 Moshe Weinfeld notes that the Hebrew term

berith is identical with Akk. birīt, “between, among” and corresponds to the Heb. Prep. ben, which indeed occurs in connection with berith (cf. berith … ben … ubhen, “covenant between X and Y”).2

Weinfeld bases his actual definition of berith on questionable etymology—on the kind of semantic anachronism that led to James Barr’s famous rebuke.3 His definition is best rejected, since the usage in Genesis 6 fits with the Akkadian usage of an agreement.4 Covenants are distinguished by multiple factors. They often included stipulations (the basis of the agreement), witnesses (forming the legality of the agreement), liturgical overtones through curses and blessings (establishing the religious nature of that agreement), and a sign of some sort.5

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Human covenants

In the ancient Near East, covenants served purposes which were legal/ethical, cultic, and political because they were an extension of the familial relationship (the social purpose).6

Socially, covenants served to establish kinship relationships between two parties who were not kin. Frank Moore Cross describes this phenomenon as a solution to the increasing dysfunction among tribal societies as they moved towards nationalization. Through this process “there were legal mechanisms or devices—we might even say legal fictions—by which outsiders, non-kin, might be incorporated into the kinship group.”7 This “legal fiction” was accomplished by the legal, cultic, and politically enforceable institution of a covenant. This kinship-creating phenomenon predated nationalization through the covenants of marriage and adoption, eventually serving as a model for other social relationships.8 In both institutions, those who are not blood relatives, outside of familial benefits, can become accepted as family legally, politically, and religiously—thereby obtaining attendant benefits. Eventually such kinship was extended through covenants to extend the same advantages to others.

Politically, covenants were often employed to cease or circumvent hostilities between opposing factions.9 This was often done through the employment of other covenantal means such as strategic marriage alliances.10 Adoptionist language is employed throughout such treaties, treaties whereby the greater king becomes the “father” of lesser kings, effectively awarding the suzerain the role of paterfamilias.11

Religiously, the covenants were enforced by the gods, who stood as witnesses, guarantors, and participants over the covenant partners.12 Legally, there were certain benefits guaranteed to members of the family, such as the right of redemption, levirate, and revenge (see Ruth 4:1–5, for example). Politically, a covenant served multiple purposes. The primary purpose was to strengthen familial ties in times of war, requiring members to answer the call to defend or aid their kinsman.15 Men could receive certain rights and guarantees politically, like access to natural resources and free trade through covenants, as seen in Genesis 21:22–34.

There were two primary types of covenants evident in the Old Testament, the suzerain vassal treaties and royal grants. The covenants of royal grants have been described as those of “divine obligation.” Often, though not always, they took the form of specific land grants.16 Suzerain vassal treaties were constructed to define “a relationship between a powerful king (suzerain) and his vassal states.”17 As Roland de Vaux has noted, these covenant treaties (which he calls “contracts”) were offered in the aftermath or in the attempted avoidance of war.18 Mendenhall and others have noted the correspondence between Deuteronomy and the Sinai covenant with suzerain vassal treaties; these treaties immediately precede a holy war.19 A royal grant was a covenant of divine obligation in which a suzerain rewarded a loyal servant for faithful service to the crown.20 This could take the form of land, status, revenue, or even raiment.22 It must be stressed that royal grants were considered a permanent and multigenerational covenant. Suzerain vassal grants were conditional under divine imprecation. Thus, a suzerain vassal treaty required a regular public reaffirmation as well as a renewal upon a change in leadership. This concept will be important for later discussion of the Mosaic covenant. All other covenants in Scripture, the Mosaic excepted, fall under the royal grant/divine obligation genre and are therefore considered permanent in nature. While this Old Testament background is foundational for understanding the biblical concept of covenants, there remain some developmental concerns during the Second Temple period which must be addressed for a proper understanding of the covenant concept.

New Testament covenant context

The term διαθήκη (diatheke) is employed throughout the LXX as a translation for the term ברית (berith). The Greek term typically means a last will and testament. However, when the term is used to translate ברית (berith) in the LXX, it

retains the component of legal disposition of personal goods while omitting that of the anticipated death of a testator. A Hellenistic reader would experience no confusion, for it was a foregone conclusion that gods were immortal. Hence a [διαθήκη (diatheke)] decreed by God cannot require the death of the testator to make it operative.23

This notion has been challenged, however, since Hebrews 9:16–26 and Galatians 3:15–18 do employ death language in their immediate contexts. Scott Hahn has provided an alternative explanation of these passages, understanding Paul to always use the term διαθήκη (diatheke) as a covenant, and not as a “will and testament,” but he notes that there is dispute over this question among New Testament scholars.24 The primary usage of the term as a last will and testament is compounded by the historical context of Paul’s milieu. There was an entire genre of “testaments” (Διαθηκη), in the second temple period.25 One type of intertestamental literature known as “testaments” were pseudonymous accounts of a patriarch’s (or some other hero’s) final words, blessings, and prophecies to their direct descendants immediately before death. Jesus announced the New Covenant at the the Last Supper after foretelling his imminent death, establishing similarities to these preceding “final will and testaments” (see Luke 22:20, Matt 22:28). The kinship nature of wills that carried on from ancient times through that of the Second Temple period—and even through modern times—shows that to be included in another’s will is to be in some form considered family.26 Hahn is surely right to aver that the LXX translators would have been aware of the difference between a covenant and a will, and therefore that they employed this term intentionally.27 Perhaps the reason for this use of the word is that the emphasis in either case, whether will or covenant, is on a binding legal agreement that exists for the benefit of another individual. These legal agreements benefited biological kin, or non-biological relations granted rights as kin, at the sole discretion of the benefactor.

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Why covenant matters

Covenants in the ancient Near East served to establish kinship ties and prevent or end hostilities. If this analysis is correct, then divine-human covenants in Scripture would likewise serve these two primary purposes. The divine-human covenants which explicitly employ covenant terminology (berith and diatheke) are intended to form a theological theme through repetition. This is apparent by the term’s limited employment as a type of thematic highlighting. Frank Moore Cross has noted the idea of God as a divine kinsman through covenantal terms noting that:

The Divine Kinsman, it is assumed, fulfills the mutual obligations and receives the privileges of kinship. He leads in battle, redeems from slavery, loves his family, shares the land of his heritage (naḥălâ), provides and protects. He blesses his kindred, curses those who curse his kindred. The family of the deity rallies to his call to holy war, “the wars of Yahweh,” keeps his cultus, obeys his patriarchal commands, maintains familial loyalty (hesed), loves him with all their soul, calls on his name.28

These types of relationships are strikingly evident throughout the covenantal texts of the Bible. These covenantal occurrences have similar narrative frameworks. The Lord delivers an oracle to some male leader, employs covenantal language, and affirms his kinship relationships in some way. The covenant places one, the other, or both the LORD and the human participant(s) under kinship obligations. Since these similarities occur in narrative, they also establish a literary type. Walter Kaiser has noted that a type must have historical correspondence, divine intent, a progressive escalation between the type and anti-type, and a Christological prefiguration.31

I noted the existence in Scripture of two primary types of covenants: the royal grant and the vassal treaty.32

This article will seek to examine the divine–human covenants throughout Scripture by classifying them, analyzing their relationship to previous covenants, and explaining how they establish kinship relationships between God and mankind while preempting or abolishing hostility between the parties. If this analysis is successful, this study will show that the divine–human covenants, employing the terms berith or diatheke, signal a typological association which progressively move mankind from estrangement with God to the status of “family.”33

Noahic Covenant

The first biblical occurrence of ברית is in Genesis 6:16. After God had grown weary of mankind’s sinfulness, he intended to inflict mass judgment on them via a worldwide flood (Gen 6:5–7, 13–17). Before that judgement, the Lord appeared to Noah and proposed a covenant. The covenant is promised in Genesis 6:16 as a reward for faithful services (the building of the ark), and is therefore conditional.34 Noah was obedient, was delivered as he was promised to be, and received the covenant. God established his ברית with Noah’s family, their offspring, and every creature with them: he promised never to flood the earth again to destroy all life (Gen 9:9–11). The covenant is announced conditionally, but it is unconditional upon its initiation, a fact seen in God’s permanent language: “Never again will I …” (Gen 9:11). Though Noah, his sons, and the animals receive stipulations, God’s self-imposed stipulations are permanent and independent of his covenant partners’ loyalty. The divine assessment in Genesis 8:21 informs the reader that God expects mankind to fail in their covenantal stipulations. This assures the readers that this is a royal grant covenant, a promise given independent of future obedience.

Covenants, regardless of type, served to establish kinship ties and preempt or end hostility. The Noahic account implies a kinship bond through its use of repeated terminology. Genesis 9:6 uses the term “image” (צלם) to describe mankind’s relationship to God, a clear allusion to Genesis 1:26–27.35 However, the same phrase is used to describe Adam’s relationship to his son, Seth (Gen 5:3). Therefore, a kinship relationship is implied by use of the term צלם within Genesis, and this kinship to God is reaffirmed in the Noahic Covenant despite the apparent effects of the fall. A pact of peace in the face of recent violence is clear from God’s promise to never flood the earth again, despite mankind’s continued sinfulness as well as God laying down his war bow (Gen 8:21, 9:11–13).36 Since the Noahic Covenant is the first explicit covenant (that is, the first explicitly employing the term ברית) in the Bible, it should be considered the prototype by which all subsequent covenants are understood. If this is correct, then covenants are redemptive relationships initiated by God to benefit mankind by reestablishing kinship relationships and circumventing hostilities which were the result of the fall and sin.

Abrahamic Covenant

The term ברית does not occur in Genesis 12. Like Noah, Abraham receives a conditional call that will form the basis of a later-revealed covenant found in Genesis 15:17. This consistent delay in covenant-making through narrative progression is important, signifying a royal grant. There is prospect, service, promise. Genesis 12 describes what will be contained in the royal grant of Genesis 15. Abraham’s obedient journey is rewarded with a particular piece of land (“from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates” [Gen 15:18]) and status (“I will make of you a great nation … and make your name Great” [Gen 12:2]) promised in Genesis 12. The Lord places himself under obligation to multiply Abraham’s descendants, bring them to the land of Canaan, and to protect them while making them a source of blessing to the nations, only after Abraham’s journey (12:5–7).

There is a historical correspondence between the covenant given to Noah and that given to Abraham. In both instances, the covenant is initiated by God (Gen 6:13; 12:1), requires a journey (Gen 7:13; 8:4; 12:1), results in reward for services rendered (Gen 9:1–f11; 15:18–21), and bears a relationship to divine judgement upon sinners (Gen 7:23; 15:16). Divine intentionality for the Abrahamic Covenant is evident since the Lord is the primary actor in the covenant-making ceremony (Gen 15:17). These similarities in two accounts invite exploration for a typological association. Kaiser requires an escalation in antitype and prefiguration of Christ for a typological relationship to be established.37 In the Covenant with Abraham, there is a clear escalation in antitype as the status granted to Abraham supersedes that given to Noah. Where Noah was promised physical protection, Abraham is promised honor, a nation, and the privilege of mediating blessing; his family, too, is promised political prominence (Gen 12:2–3). Christological prefiguration is evident here, since the Covenant announced that Abraham would be a source of worldwide blessing (Gen 12:3). This blessing was obtained through Christ’s mediatorial work, as the singular seed of Abraham who died on the cross (Matt 1:1; Gal 3:16).38

The first function of covenants—establishing kinship relationships—is nowhere clearer than in the account of Abraham. Abram begins the narrative incapable of continuing his family name, unable to father kin. God promises to intervene on Abraham’s behalf to establish a kin group for Abraham, a promise which causes God to safeguard Abraham’s kin group multiple times (Gen 12:10–20; 20:1–18; 50:20). Through divine intervention, Abraham produces offspring (Gen 21:1). Abraham leaves his father’s (apparently idolatrous?) house and forms a new factual kin group through divine intervention, for the service of God (Gen 18:19).39

The second function of covenants—preempting hostility—is also evident in the Abrahamic ברית. The genealogy of Terah shows Abram living in apparent idolatry after the dispersion at Babel (Josh 24:2–3). God calls Abram out of this sinful state, inviting Abram to follow the Lord wherever he might lead. Travel in the ancient Near East was a dangerous endeavor, and leaving the clan was highly inadvisable.40 Abram was under divine threat at Ur for idolatry, remained under divine threat in Haran, and would be under human threat if he traveled to Canaan. By God’s revelation to Abram, he preempts the divine hostility Abram deserved for his idolatry. By God’s promise to bless those who blessed Abram and curse those who cursed, God preempts human hostility against him.

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Mosaic Covenant

Moses delivered the covenant twice: once at Sinai, and once again on the plains of Moab in Deuteronomy. This covenant followed the Lord’s conquest of Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt and preceded a failed conquest attempt by the Israelites in Canaan (Exod 14:4; Num 13:31—14:45). The Covenant of Deuteronomy was given immediately preceding the successful conquest of Canaan by a second generation (Deut 1:1–8). While previous covenants were grants for faithful service rendered, this Covenant was delivered with no such service by the Israelites. Therefore, a royal grant can be ruled out for the Mosaic Covenant(s). Though the Covenant was delivered twice and has some differences in matter, they should be viewed as one singular Covenant. This is how they are treated in Scripture.41 This reiteration of covenants fits the suzerain-vassal treaty paradigm. Though the Sinai Covenant has some similarities to a Hittite suzerain-vassal treaty, Deuteronomy displays the form in all its diplomatic splendor.42 Hittite suzerain vassal treaties had a standard structure, and they were conditional. They required both regular readings and renewal ceremonies upon a change of leadership—thus explaining the presence of Deuteronomy.43 With Moses’s impending death, the death of the wilderness generation, and the ascension of Joshua, a covenant renewal was necessary for continued smooth relations between God and Israel. The Covenant at Sinai formed the Israelites into a nation and awarded the community vassal status as a nation under the auspices of a great ancient Near East suzerain. The Sinai Covenant therefore granted Israel legitimate nationhood, validating their conquest—which was reaffirmed in Deuteronomy.

As with other covenants, ברית is used to define the relationship between the parties. It is initiated by God’s appearance to a patriarchal male figure (Moses). This relationship placed stipulations upon both God and Israel, but the emphasis fell on Israel’s proper response to God’s redemptive actions (Exod 20:1–17; Deut 28:1–68).44 Divine intentionality is seen through the theophany at Sinai and the repeated allusions to the Abrahamic Covenant within this new Mosaic one.45 There is an escalation in antitype as this Covenant now portrays the relationship which Israel is to have with the Lord: they will now be a nation of priests and kings. This is how they will fulfill the mediatorial role announced to Abraham (Gen 12:3).46 The Mosaic Covenant prefigures Christ in multiple ways: Christ is the prophet like Moses; he is the Passover sacrificial lamb of God who makes atonement for sin. (John 1:29).47 Therefore, one is warranted in observing a typological association with the Abrahamic Covenant.

Through the placement of the tabernacle, the Lord effectively becomes kin to the clan. De Vaux notes that outsiders who joined a community were reckoned as kin among the Bedouin-type societies of the ancient Near East.48 Kinship ties are also emphasized by the frequent employment of the credo, “You will be my people.”49 This covenant relationship served to prevent future hostilities via covenant faithfulness as seen in the covenant blessings and curses. Hostility and violence are directly correlated to the Israelite’s covenant unfaithfulness while obedience results in peace and security. So long as the Israelites maintained covenant faithfulness to the suzerain, they were spared from both divine and human hostility (Deut 28:1–14). Disobedience led to divine and human violence upon the community (Deut 28:15–68).

Davidic Covenant

The Davidic Covenant is different than the others for two reasons. First, the term ברית is not used in the oracle Nathan gives to David about the building of the temple. Later biblical writers, however, identify this oracle as a divine covenant (2 Sam 23:5; Ps 89:3). For this reason, the account of 2 Samuel 7 will be considered a divine–human covenant. In this passage, David has sought to be a loyal servant of God and to build him a house, i.e., a temple, to bring honor and glory to YHWH. The Lord is pleased with David’s intentions but will not permit David to complete the proposed task. However, David’s heartfelt desire to glorify the divine suzerain is rewarded by God through the receipt of a covenant. This covenant is further complicated by the fact that there seem to be conditionals in some passages and unconditional aspects in others.50 The reasons for this mixed evaluation may be the nature of a perpetual monarchy. While God can unconditionally promise that a Davidic monarch would rule, he was under no obligation to promise unconditionally that the monarchs would not be removed or replaced by other members of the Davidic house. This necessitated the continuing faithfulness of the Davidic descendants for the prospects of their own individual rules.51 For this reason, the Davidic Covenant will be considered a divine grant to David’s line, though the members of that line had covenant stipulations to retain their place in the monarchy.

Previously, the divine oracle initiating the covenant was unmediated. But the Davidic Covenant is mediated by Nathan (2 Sam 7:4). However, the Davidic Covenant shares historical correspondence with the others in that it is an instance of prophetic fulfillment. Just as Noah and Abraham as patriarchs established a new community as leaders—of a new earth and new nation, respectively—David is now that nation’s king. He is granted worldwide dominion, to be passed down to his sons perpetually. This Covenant renders the Davidic line recipients of the covenant promises prophesied by Jacob (Gen 49:10). The Davidic Covenant, like the Mosaic Covenant, is described as torah (2 Sam 7:18–19). The fact that this oracle is delivered by a prophet and confirmed in a vision to David assures divine intention, a fact witnessed by later writers’ use of ברית. There is a progressive narrowing of the previous covenant promises escalating each successive antitype. All humanity was blessed through the Noahic Covenant; all of Israel was blessed through the Abrahamic Covenant; all Israel was placed under vassal stipulations with the Mosaic Covenant. With the Davidic Covenant, there is one specific family within Israel who receives a divine grant to rule in perpetuity. This Covenant clearly prefigures Christ, as the apostles frequently cite Christ as the ultimate fulfillment of David’s Covenant (e.g., Acts 2:30).

The Davidic Covenant establishes kinship for the monarchy, where the kings of Judah are particularly viewed as God’s sons, and God is described as the king’s father (2 Sam 7:14; 1 Chr 17:11–14; 2 Chr 6:16; Ps 2). There is also an emphasis on the cessation and prevention of hostility (Ps 2). Throughout the account, God lays out the groundwork for avoiding divine retribution (seemingly conditional) but makes an unconditional claim towards at least one king (2 Sam 7:15).52 Though many have sought to describe the conditional and unconditional elements of the Davidic Covenant, it seems best to explain the Covenant as being unconditional in scope with conditional elements until the promised eschatological ruler arrived.

New Covenant

The New Covenant is foretold throughout the prophets (Isa 59:21; Jer 31–33; Ezek 36:24–28, etc.). It is a Covenant which Al Fuhr and Gary Yates describe as erasing “the failures of the past and provide[ing] enablement for future obedience.”53 In Jeremiah’s description of the New Covenant, the Lord makes promises to the nations of Israel and Judah (31:31) and to the city of Jerusalem (31:38). He also promises a restoration of the Davidic line (30:4–11).54 As such, the primary recipients and focus of this Covenant remain on national and ethnic Israel. The New Covenant includes a number of amplifications from the previous covenants: God writes his laws on human hearts (31:33) and promises a Davidic leader who supersedes previous leaders. He also restores the failed “marriages” of Israel and Judah to the Lord and makes the nation of Israel children of God (Hos 2:2–23).55 The New Covenant is also found in the New Testament, of course. It is announced in the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:20).

What kind of covenant is the New Covenant? Its stipulations are primarily placed on the Lord (OT) and Jesus (NT). They must effect this covenant (διαθήκη). They are the ones who grant New Covenant members special privileges and relationships. Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross grants New Covenant members a new status (Gal 3:29), awards them new raiment (Gal 3:26–27), and enables them through their new status to keep divine laws (Heb 8:10–11). The dichotomy between the Old Covenant and the New in the book of Hebrews points away from the suzerain-vassal type of the Mosaic Covenant and instead to a grant-type covenant. In the New Covenant, God’s self-imposed stipulations enable blessing.56

The historical correspondence is evident in the idea of a “New” Covenant. There is something that was deficient in the Old Covenant (i.e., the Mosaic Covenant), something in need of replacement (Heb 8:7). This replacement altered the relationship between God and man—it changed the covenant between them from a suzerain-vassal treaty to a grant. Obligations are now placed upon the suzerain for faithful service to a particular servant. The faithful service which earned the grant was that of the suffering servant, Jesus Christ. Through the incarnation, Jesus, who was God, became kin to mankind. By taking on a body, and sharing the blood line of Adam, he became factual kin to mankind, while retaining his deity.57 Jesus shared kinship with mankind and God. Through his faithful service as a man, he was able to extend the benefits of the royal grant perpetually to his kin, the rest of mankind.58 A divine intentionality between the New Covenant and the Old is apparent. In prophetic oracles, prophets claimed to speak on behalf of God. These prophets claimed that God would institute a “new” covenant due to “old” covenant failures. The escalation is seen in the New Covenant’s better law, written on mankind’s heart; better circumcision, being one of heart; and having a better ruler, being sinless and divine. The New Covenant prophecies of the Old Testament clearly prefigure Christ by being literal prophecies of Christ’s works as Jesus interprets them in the Last Supper (Luke 22:20). The typology is clear. Since the New Covenant replaces and supersedes the Old Covenant and clearly prophesies Christ, a type is warranted.

While Old Testament covenant kinships were legal fictions, the church enjoys kinship as a legal fact. When Jesus Christ became a man, he became factual kin to humanity. In West Semitic tribal groups “kinship was conceived in terms of one blood flowing through the veins of the kinship group.”59 By Christ sharing mankind’s blood, he became kin, thereby becoming capable of offering redemption. This redemption resulted in New Covenant participants—primary (Jews) and secondary (Gentile)—being reckoned as children of God (John 1:12) and the bride of Christ (Rev 21:2). As the bride of Christ, the church has seen God the Father move from kinsman in law to kinsman in flesh through the work of Christ.60 Thus, New Covenant participants have become kin in-fact, as kin as kin can be. Though this may sound somewhat irreverent, C. S. Lewis’s evaluation of the goal of Christianity is poignant: we are all becoming “little Christs.”61 Through his vicarious sacrifice, Christ shed the blood our “clan” was required to shed, and through his meritorious life he was able to redeem his kinship group and initiate a better covenant whereby we enjoy participation in the divine kinship made available through Christ’s divine nature.

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Questionable covenants

It would be negligent to describe these biblical covenants while neglecting some other covenants which have long been advanced by various popular theological systems. Covenantal theology has long held to the existence of an eternal covenant of redemption and an Adamic covenant of works.62 These covenants will be evaluated briefly using the same criteria above.

Charles Hodge argues that the existence of the covenant of redemption “is implied in the frequently recurring statements of the Scripture that the plan of God respecting the salvation of men was of the nature of a covenant, and was formed in eternity.”63 Hodge is careful to assert that such a covenant is not clearly stated within the Scriptures, but he nonetheless asserts its existence based on the presence of two elements: promises and conditions. This is a problematic view. If the role of an interpreter using the grammatico-historical method of interpretation is to derive the usus loquendi, then Moses’s understanding of covenants should be decisive for understanding the term.64 A covenant served to make kin of non-kin and to preempt or end the potential of violence. The Trinity has no need to enter a covenant because they are in fact kin, though they may indeed have agreements, promises, and conditions common to all kin relationships.

The historic, orthodox position of the church is that the Trinity shares an essence while having distinct personalities. They are as kin as kin can be. To posit a situation that would imply they are not kin would border upon tritheism. A shared will among the Trinity would make such a covenant, if possible, superfluous. Covenant terms such berith or diatheke are not employed for parity covenants in Scripture relating to God; only vassal and grants which require a greater party’s imposition of obligations upon a lesser. To posit a “covenant” among the persons of the Trinity would be to imply a parity treaty (if orthodox) apart from biblical evidence, or it would lead to eternal subordinationism. The terms employed in Scripture for “covenant” have a distinct theological usage within the Scriptures, a usus loquendi that incorporates these qualifications (forming kin of non-kin and pre-empting or ending violence between non-equals). To affirm a covenant of redemption is to notice similarities with historical covenants but to disregard the term’s theological usage in Scripture, resulting in alternative problems. Though God had an eternal plan for redemption, there is no basis for calling this plan a covenant. Hodge’s appeal to Adam’s covenant for additional support is likewise problematic, and very likely incorrect.

A covenant of works with Adam relies upon two very important arguments. The first is that Adam seems to receive a land grant through the Garden of Eden. And covenant language is employed, specifically blessings, curses, and stipulations.65 This assessment seems problematic. Royal grants were considered permanent, even in the face of disloyalty, and were transferable property among the descendants of the covenant beneficiary.66 Eden was not a permanent gift to Adam; it was lost for disloyalty, and his descendants no longer have access to it. This idea is further complicated by the fact that the divine–human relationships that are explicitly mentioned seem to evince a redemptive purpose which is not found in Adam’s narrative. In fact, the exact opposite seems to be true: Adam receives a piece of land which he is incapable of keeping. How can one explain the covenant familial language then? The simple absence of the term ברית mentioned by dispensational scholars has been dismissed as simplistic, and rightfully so.67 Indeed, it seems that the familial language is intentional.

As was argued above, Adam was indeed kin to God and had no need of a kinship-forming covenant. As God’s son, God provided Adam with an inheritance, thus explaining the familial language employed. When one examines the wills/testaments/patriarchal blessings, it becomes apparent that the same terminology is utilized there when fathers bless children with land and other benefits. Furthermore, where a divine grant was irrevocable, an inheritance was not. A son could be disinherited for disloyalty through a legal procedure, just as one witnesses with Adam.68 This disinheritance severed familial bonds, resulting in increasing levels of estrangement and violent judgment through the exile and death of Adam’s descendants. Therefore, Adam’s stipulations for maintaining Eden served to fracture his kinship with God, thus necessitating all subsequent covenants. Because of these problems with the “covenant of works” view, it seems advisable to view Adam’s receipt of Eden instead as an example of a birthright/inheritance from God, the paterfamilias, and not as a “covenant.”

Conclusion

This two-part study has established that in the historical context of the ancient Near East covenants functioned to establish fictive kinships among non-kin and were initiated by an individual of superior social standing in order to extend kinship benefits and peace to lower-ranking members of society. The study also identified the theological employment of the covenant terminology (berith and diatheke) in divine–human relationships to show the redemptive efforts of God to incorporate mankind into kinship relations with God, undoing the hostility brought about by the Fall. Through a systematic examination of the biblical divine–human covenants, a type was established. Within these types, one can see a progressive revelation of God’s relationship with mankind.

Adam, as the son of God, failed as heir of God’s new creation (Rom 5:12–14). Through disloyalty and sin against the paterfamilias, Adam was estranged and cut off from the family inheritance, and his children were effectively orphaned. Kinship ties with God were jeopardized through sin. The Noahic Covenant reaffirmed God’s commitment to the divine–human relationship, showing God’s mercy despite mankind’s continuing rebellion. The Abrahamic Covenant(s) established God’s plan of redemption through creating a new human kinship group which would mediate God’s blessings to all other existing and future kinship groups. The Mosaic Covenant revealed God’s expectations of his covenant partners, established the inability of mankind to maintain covenant relation with God through their own ability, and revealed the necessity of atonement for covenant transgressions. The Davidic Covenant established and identified a divine fictive kinship with the Israelite monarchy and emphasized the Israelite king’s role in mediating blessings to the Gentile nations. The New Covenant fulfilled all the other divine-grant covenants’ expectations by providing a seed of Abraham through whom the nations would be blessed; this seed was from the Davidic line and therefore became a rightful claimant upon Israel’s throne; and this seed, through his mediatorial sacrifice and perfect life, was able to do what the Mosaic Covenant could not—permanently satisfy the wrath of God that abided on mankind for sin.

Through Christ’s sacrifice, which guaranteed the New Covenant, there is hope that mercy can be found. That hope is that covenant participants can be spared from a terrible judgment, like the one which fell in Noah’s day. While all previous covenants established fictive kinship bonds, the New Covenant established a factual kinship bond when the deity became flesh. Human blood coursed through Christ’s veins while he was simultaneously the divine seed through the work of the Holy Spirit. What the other covenants could not do, the New Covenant did. It made those who were not family through the Fall now fully family through Christ as children of God and the bride of Christ Jesus.

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  1. Ludwig Koehler et al., s.v. “ברית” in The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 1994–2000), 157.
  2. Moshe Weinfeld, s.v. “בְּרִית,” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1977), 254.
  3. See James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1983), 4.
  4. Barr, Semantics of Biblical Language, who defines the term as “synonymous with law and commandment” based on the bond etymology of Akkadian and Aramac biritu for “‘clasp’ ‘fetter’” noting the Talmudic byryt. Weinfeld notes Psalm 111:9 and Judges 2:20 as important for his definition leading to the charge of “semantic anachronism.” D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996), 33, describes semantic anachronism stating that “This fallacy occurs when a late use of a word is read back into earlier literature.” Barr (206–62) lamented such issues as being common to theological dictionaries while directly referencing Kittle’s.
  5. Frank Moore Cross, From Epic to Canon: History and Literature in Ancient Israel (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 8.
  6. Scott Hahn, “Covenant in the Old and New Testaments: Some Current Research (1994–2004),” Currents in Biblical Research 3, no. 2 (April 2005): 263–92, https://doi.org/10.1177/1476993X05052433, 265.
  7. Cross, From Epic to Canon, 7.
  8. Hahn, “Covenant in the Old and New Testaments,” 267.
  9. Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions, trans. John McHugh (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 254–55.
  10. Marc Van de Mieroop, A History of the Ancient Near East Ca. 3000-323 BC (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2016), 146.
  11. Cross, From Epic to Canon, 11, notes that “brotherhood” and “fatherhood” language are covenant terminology because covenants are inherently kinship oriented; see also Ron E Tappy, “The Code of Kinship in the Ten Commandments,” Revue Biblique 107, no. 3 (July 2000): 321–37, 336; see also M. Weinfeld, “The Covenant of Grant in the Old Testament and in the Ancient near East,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 90, no. 2 (1970): 184–203, https://doi.org/10.2307/598135, 192, who describes covenant grants as initiating the adopted “sons” who received royal grants as having the duties of a son.
  12. Cross, From Epic to Canon, 8.
  13. Cross, From Epic to Canon, 4–5.13 The covenant bond also had benefits at lower political levels. For example, a woman married into a certain house could expect the house to rally to her aid should she become widowed, violated, or impoverished.14Robert L. Hubbard, The Book of Ruth, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 187.
  14. Hahn, “Covenant in the Old and New Testaments,” 267.
  15. Eugene H. Merril, Michael A. Grisanti, and Mark F. Rooker, The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Academic, 2011), 124.
  16. de Vaux, Ancient Israel, 254–55.
  17. George E. Mendenhall, Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East (Pittsburgh, PA: Biblical Colloquium, 1955); Meredith G. Kline, Treaty of the Great King: The Covenant Structure of Deuteronomy: Studies and Commentary (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2020); Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1994).
  18. Weinfeld, “Covenant of Grant,” 185.
  19. Weinfeld, “Covenant of Grant,” 199–201.[?note]

    Divine-human covenants

    When covenant concepts are used to describe the divine-human relationship, they are described as covenants of divine obligation or human obligation (though mutual obligations are implicit in both instances, the emphasis is typically placed on one side in explicit terms).21Cross, From Epic to Canon, 15–16.

  20. William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 228.
  21. Scott Hahn, “Covenant, Oath, and the Aqedah: Διαθηκη in Galatians 3:15-18,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 67, no. 1 (January 2005): 79–100.
  22. Wolfram Kinzig, “Καινὴ Διαϑήκη: The One Title of the New Testament in the Second and Third Centuries,” Journal of Theological Studies 45, no. 2 (1994): 523–25, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23967637.
  23. John W. Herbst, s.v. “Inheritance,” Lexham Theological Wordbook (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014), describes the process of an inheritance stating that, “A biblical heir is almost always identified prior to the time of the actual property transfer, and once the heir is identified, the property is usually identified as well.” This process could have been written or oral but was always considered legally binding as a will. In the ancient Near East, the heir was universally reckoned as the firstborn son unless circumvented through a legal procedure which required a legal process. See Deut 21:15–17 for the legal priority of the firstborn; see James Bennett Pritchard, ed., “The Code of Hammurabi,” in The Ancient near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), 171. See statute 168 for an example of a law concerning disinheriting the firstborn which required a legal procedure and witnesses.
  24. Hahn, “Covenant, Oath, and the Aqedah,” 80.
  25. Cross, From Epic to Canon, 6.
  26. Walter C. Kaiser, The Uses of The Old Testament in the New (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 106–10.29

    In the case of biblical divine covenants, human beings began as children of God (see Luke 3:38) and were estranged from God through the entrance of sin into the world. Adam and Eve broke the command of the paterfamilias, resulting in their own fractured relationship with God as well as that of their children. This estrangement made mankind willing children of the devil (John 8:44, Eph 2:3), as if through emancipation from their true Father. Therefore, mankind was now an enemy of God (Rom 5:10), outside of his familial blessings. God chose to reconcile this broken relationship through the institution of covenant relationships, thereby taking those who were not family and making them family (John 1:12). God’s first explicit covenant was that made with Noah. As the first occurrence, it becomes the paradigmatic “type.” In the Noahic covenant, God accepts a divine responsibility to avoid future mass judgment of all living beings through a deluge (Gen 9:9–11). From the first stated occurrence, covenants seem to have the redemptive purpose of mitigating divine judgement.

    The final occurrence of covenant, the New Covenant initiated by Christ, seems to completely reverse the effects of the curse, ending hostility between God and his covenant partners. Through the New Covenant, human beings can permanently avoid threat of divine punishment for sin (Rom 8:8, 1 John 4:18) while also obtaining full kinship status.

    This kinship status is seen in two ways. The first is that covenant partners are reckoned as God’s children through the work of Christ (Gal 3:26). The second is through their inclusion in the church, which becomes the bride of Christ (2 Cor 11:2, Eph 5:22–23). In this way, covenants find their full expression in Christ who has removed the condemnation that rested on man, while granting his covenant partners full kinship rights through the analogies of adoption and marriage.

    Covenants in Christian theology

    In this article I have attempted to show that a covenant served two primary purposes:

    1. to establish kinship relationships among non-kin, and
    2. to establish peace where there was potential for violence.

    I have shown, too, that these covenants had legal/ethical, religious, political, and social ramifications. I also demonstrated that there were two primary types of covenants in the biblical era that operated outside of the organic home: the royal grant and the vassal treaty.

    Covenants are central to Christian theology because they describe the way in which God makes a people who were not his people, his people (Exod 6:7). God accomplishes this through making himself their God when he was not formerly their God. Covenants therefore serve to make family of those who are not family, and to bring peace where there was previously hostility. This is the essence of the gospel. Mankind stands as enemies of God under divine wrath (John 3:36) and sons of Satan (John 8:44). Through the new covenant, God has made a way to make peace through the blood of Christ abolishing that hostility (Eph 2:16–17) and giving mankind the right to become children of God (John 1:12) and betrothing the church to Christ (Matt 9:15, Rev 21:2).

    Classifying the central covenants of Christianity

    I have demonstrated that a covenant in biblical times served two primary purposes:

    1. to establish kinship relationships among non-kin and
    2. to establish peace where there was potential for violence.30Frank Moore Cross, From Epic to Canon: History and Literature in Ancient Israel (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 8; and Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions, trans. John McHugh (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1997), 254–55.
    3. Adoption and marriage are covenantal as noted in Cross, From Epic to Canon, 8; however, they are not explicitly called such in the scriptural account through ברית or διαθήκη in examples of parity treaties/covenants between two equal parties. Parity treaties such as marriage and adoption between God and mankind are only employed in Scripture after kinship has been established by a preceding royal grant or vassal treaty. The last article argued that the term ברית and διαθήκη were employed theologically by the biblical writers to show a redemptive effect, which is not present in parity treaties. It should also be noted that politically, the parity covenants of marriage and adoption were often utilized in political covenants, i.e., grants and vassal treaties, as a way of strengthening the kinship bonds between nations and ensuring fealty between the vassal/servant and the suzerain as seen in Cross, From Epic to Canon, 11. Therefore, it stands to reason that the imagery of marriage and adoption are secondary to the preceding grants and vassal treaties which employ the requisite terminology.
    4. This study will employ the four requirements for a type offered by Walter C. Kaiser, The Uses of the Old Testament in the New (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 106–10.
    5. Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, vol. 1: Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas, TX: Word, 1987), 175.
    6. K. A. Mathews, Genesis 1–11:26, vol. 1A: The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 405; see also Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 127, who notes that, “This verse makes the point that the image and likeness of God which was given to Adam at creation was inherited by his sons. It was not obliterated by the fall.”
    7. Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 317.
    8. Kaiser, Uses of the Old Testament in the New, 107–110.
    9. Paul R. House, Old Testament Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 75.
    10. Hamilton, Book of Genesis, 363.
    11. de Vaux, Ancient Israel, 10.
    12. Herbert Wolf, An Introduction to the Old Testament Pentateuch (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2007), Kindle ed., loc. 4693; who sees Deuteronomy as a renewal of the Sinai Covenant, as does Daniel I. Block, Covenant: The Framework of God’s Grand Plan of Redemption (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021), 229; and Paul R. Williamson, “The Biblical Covenants,” Gospel Coalition, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/the-biblical-covenants/. Accessed February 2, 2023. It should also be noted that a covenant appears with the Levites concerning the priesthood. That covenant will be considered as part of the Mosaic Covenant for this article since it commissions the cultic participants necessary for fulfilling the overarching Mosaic Covenant. For a description of the Levitical covenant see Block, Covenant, 205–26.
    13. Eugene H. Merril, Michael A. Grisanti, and Mark F. Rooker, The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2011), 443–45.
    14. Merril et al., World and the Word.
    15. Block, Covenant, 156–57.
    16. Block, Covenant, 145–52, 235.
    17. Eugene H. Merrill, Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 98.
    18. Patrick Schreiner, Matthew, Disciple and Scribe: The First Gospel and Its Portrait of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019), 55; Gary Wheaton, The Role of Jewish Feasts in John’s Gospel (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 83.
    19. de Vaux, Ancient Israel, 10.
    20. Mark J. Boda, The Heartbeat of Old Testament Theology: Three Creedal Expressions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 75.
    21. Scott Hahn, “Covenant in the Old and New Testaments: Some Current Research (1994–2004),” Currents in Biblical Research 3, no. 2 (April 2005): 263–92, https://doi.org/10.1177/1476993X05052433, 276–277.
    22. Hahn, “Covenant in the Old and New Testaments.”
    23. Hahn, “Covenant in the Old and New Testaments.”
    24. Richard Alan Fuhr and Gary E. Yates, The Message of the Twelve: Hearing the Voice of the Minor Prophets (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016), 15.
    25. House, Old Testament Theology, 31.
    26. Fuhr and Yates, Message of the Twelve, 70.
    27. Scott W. Hahn, Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 325–26, who notes that as the author of Hebrews “progresses in his argument (cf. chs. 3–6), he demonstrates that this plan of God to draw man into familial relationship with himself—intended at creation and renewed by covenant oath to Abraham—is not advanced by the Mosaic Covenant economy, which results in curse due to infidelity (Heb 3–4), but is advanced by the blessing gained by David and his heirs, which God grants to them by oath (Heb 5–6). Thus, the discussion of Moses and his generation in Hebrews 3:1–4:13 is dominated by the rebellion in the wilderness (Num 14; Ps 95:7–10) and the resultant divine curse (Num 14:20–23; Ps 95:11; Heb 3:7–11, 15; 4:3, 5–7). But Jesus’s more effective ministry (Heb 4:14—6:20) is characterized as the fulfillment of solemn blessings given to David and his sons by oath (Pss 2:7; 110:4; Heb 5:5–7). This Davidic blessing, fulfilled in Christ, is traced to and grounded in the covenant oath of blessing to Abraham in Genesis 22:15–18, as can be seen by the explicit treatment of this Abrahamic oath at the end of Hebrews 6 (vv. 13–18) and its relationship to Christ’s high priesthood according to the Davidic psalms (Ps 110:4; Heb 6:19–20).” Due to the continuation of Abrahamic and Davidic promises, both grants, and the subordination of the Mosaic suzerain-vassal, it stands to reason that the New Covenant is best understood as a grant.
    28. Cross, From Epic to Canon, 3; Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2020), 664.
    29. Grudem, Systematic Theology, 707.
    30. Cross, From Epic to Canon, 3.
    31. Cross, From Epic to Canon, 11.
    32. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: HarperCollins, 1998), 111.
    33. E.g., John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics 1 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 428, says, “Now we can clearly see from what has already been said that all men adopted by God into the company of his people since the beginning of the world were covenanted to him by the same law and by the bond of the same doctrine as obtains among us,” presupposing a covenant of works. For a covenant of redemption, see Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 360.
    34. Hodge, Systematic Theology, 360.
    35. Walter C. Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching and Teaching, Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), loc. 1171.
    36. See Hodge, Systematic Theology, 117, who asserts that, “God made to Adam a promise suspended upon a condition. … God then did enter into a covenant with Adam. That covenant is sometimes called a covenant of life, because life was promised as the reward of obedience. Sometimes it is called the covenant of works, because works were the condition on which that promise was suspended, and because it is thus distinguished from the new covenant which promises life on condition of faith.”
    37. Hahn, Kinship by Covenant, 269.
    38. For a description of how a covenant can be validated without the term, see Hahn, Kinship by Covenant, 265–77.
    39. Joseph Fleishman, “Legal Continuation and Reform in Codex Hammurabi Paragraphs 168–169,” Journal for Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical Law 5 (1999): 54–65. For biblical evidence, see Genesis 49:3–4.
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Written by
Donald C. McIntyre

D. C. "Mac" McIntyre is a licensed Southern Baptist minister and concurrently a PhD student at Baptist Bible Seminary (Old Testament) and Liberty University (Theology and Apologetics). Mac's research interests include the Pentateuch, Psalms, Matthew, intertextuality, and expository preaching. Mac and his wife Sara live in Charleston, West Virginia, with their four children. Mac's sermons can be found at www.youtube.com/walkstrongmin.

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Written by Donald C. McIntyre