Biblical Covenants

Covenants in the Bible, especially the New Covenant, are also a part of the conversation. Covenants include promises that also require fulfillment similar to prophecies. Is it expected that these covenants will be fulfilled literally? In the example of the New Covenant, if the covenant is fulfilled literally with Israel, then it must be yet future. If it must be in the future, then the interpretation of other prophecies must also be literal—that is to say, yet future.

Covenants are a special agreement, confirming the actions of one or more parties. Generally, a covenant is made between two parties, with each party swearing an oath (or making a vow) to the terms of the agreement. If the terms are met, then stated blessings are bestowed. If the terms are broken, then stated judgment is meted out. A covenant is fulfilled, then, whenever both parties are living within the terms of the agreement.

Covenants made during the time the Bible was written usually appear in two different forms. One form is called a grant treaty. In these situations, one party makes a promise to the other party. If the second party becomes unworthy to receive the promise, then the first party can simply fulfill the promise with the next of kin. The promise will continue to be fulfilled, and that is guaranteed.

The second form is called a suzerainty treaty. This treaty was formed between the kings of two countries. Usually, one king, the suzerain, would defeat another king, the vassal, in battle. Then the suzerain would lay down the terms of the agreement in a legal code for the vassel to follow. If the vassal king broke the law, then he would be punishable. As long as he kept the terms, the suzerain would protect him. These distinctions are helpful to keep in mind as one interprets the covenants.

The first of the covenants, as they appear in the Bible, is the Noahic Covenant. The Noahic Covenant is the covenant that God makes with all mankind after the flood (Gen. 9). It is called Noahic because God made the covenant with Noah as the representative of the human race. In this covenant, God promised never to destroy the earth again by a catastrophic flood. This is the only covenant that man cannot interfere with. Man has no responsibility; he cannot keep or break this covenant. It is, therefore, truly unconditional.

The second covenant is the Abrahamic Covenant, made between God and Abram in Genesis 15. The Abrahamic Covenant is a grant covenant. That is, it is possible for Abraham or one of his descendants to disqualify himself from receiving the blessing of the covenant, but God ensures that he will distribute the blessings of the covenant. The blessing of this covenant is possession of the land of Canaan (Gen. 15:17-21). The requirement and sign of those who receive the blessing is circumcision (Gen. 17). If someone refuses to enter into the covenant, then he will be cut off from the people and the promised land.

The third covenant mentioned in the Bible is the Mosaic Covenant, the covenant made with all Israel on Mt. Sinai (Exod. 19-24). This suzerainty covenant is found in the refrain of the special relationship between Yahweh and Israel, “I shall be their God, and they shall be my people.” If Israel breaks the vows of the covenant (through idolatry), then they bring the curses of the covenant upon themselves (Deut. 28:15-68). While the curses of the covenant include expulsion from the promised land, they do not bring the covenant to an end.

The fourth covenant is called the Davidic Covenant. This covenant promises that the kingly line is through David (2 Sam. 7). Like the Abrahamic Covenant, the Davidic Covenant is a grant covenant. God again will ensure that one of David’s descendants will reign over the people Israel. Any particular son of David may disqualify himself, however, according to the terms of the agreement.

The last is the New Covenant as prophesied in Jeremiah 31, otherwise known as the covenant of peace as described in Ezekiel 37. It is also between God and a reunited and restored Israeli nation. It has promises that are very similar to the Mosaic Covenant, and it appears also to have a legal code and a new sacrificial system (Ezek. 40-48). Taking these things into consideration, it appears then that the New Covenant is also a suzerainty treaty like the Mosaic Covenant.