Describing Diatheke: Covenant Centrality 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.29Walter C. Kaiser, The Uses of The Old Testament in the New (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 106–10.30

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).

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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,, 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,, 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,
  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.
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

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Written by Donald C. McIntyre