The Diversity of God’s Covenants

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor
of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

Beginning on Sunday, October 5, I will be leading a Bible study in my church that will last five weeks. During the next five Sundays I will be studying five covenants that are found in the Old Testament.

A covenant is a solemn agreement between two parties in which they enter into a special relationship with one another. The covenant constitutes the basic concept by which we can understand the relationship between God and Israel. Israel’s faith and social obligations were based on the nation’s covenantal relationship with God. The covenant also provided the basis for the people’s relationship with one another.

The Hebrew word for “covenant” is berit, a word that appears 286 times in the Old Testament. Although the basic meaning of the word is debated by scholars, it is generally agreed that the Hebrew word derives from an Akkadian word, a word that means “to bind” or “fetter.”

The idea of binding implies that a covenant brings two parties together to establish a relationship in which the parties relate with one another through the stipulations of the agreement.

The covenant established at Sinai brought God and Israel together. Through the covenant Yahweh became the God of Israel and Israel became the special people of Yahweh. In Israelite society, the covenant also brought individuals together and gave meaning to their shared commitment to one another.

The covenant in the Old Testament has its root in Ancient Near Eastern covenants. The form of the covenant varies according to the kinds of covenants established between the parties. However, most covenants will contain the following items: promises, obligations, an oath, a sacrifice, and a sign.

In the Ancient Near East there were several types of covenants:

1. Suzerainty Covenant

In suzerainty covenants a superior binds an inferior to obligations defined by the superior.

2. Parity Covenant

In parity covenants both parties are bound by an oath. One example in the OT is the covenant between Laban and Jacob (Genesis 31: 44-50).

3. Patron Covenant

This is the type of covenant in which the party in the superior position binds himself to some obligation for the benefit of an inferior.

4. Promissory Covenant

This is the type of covenant in which two parties establish a new relationship to guarantee future performance of stipulated obligations. An example of a Promissory Covenant is the covenant between Josiah and the people of Judah in 2 Kings 23:1-3.

Most laws in the Old Testament are derived from the covenant. The Decalogue is the basic law of the covenant between God and Israel. Most of the civil laws are grouped together in a section of the book of Exodus called “The Covenant Code” (Exodus 20:19–23:33).

The two basic laws in the Old Testament are apodictic laws and casuistic laws. Apodictic law is authoritative, an unconditional law that prohibits certain kinds of human behavior or commands certain laws that Israel is expected to obey.

Casuistic laws, also known as case laws, are the decisions of Israelite courts. Casuistic laws come out of a system of justice which provided decisions on specific situations that arose in the life of the community. These laws are introduced by an “if” clause and followed by a “then” clause, a clause of consequence, which sets forth the penalty.

One example of casuistic law is found in Exodus 22:1: “When a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters or sells it, [then] he shall restore five oxen for the one ox, and four sheep for the one sheep.”

Below is an introduction to the five covenants I will be teaching in my church during the month of October:

October 5, 2014: “God’s Covenant with Noah” (Genesis 6:18; 9:8-17)

“I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you” (Genesis 6:18).

Read: God’s Covenant with Noah

October 12, 2014: “The Covenant between God and Abraham” (Genesis 15:1-21)

“On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites’” (Genesis 15:16-21).

Read 1:  The Covenant between God and Abraham

Read 2: God’s Covenant with Abraham

October 19, 2014: “God’s Covenant with Israel” (Exodus 19:1-8)

“Then Moses went up to God; the LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.’” (Exodus 19:3-6)

Read: God’s Covenant with Israel

October 26, 2014: “God’s Covenant with David” (2 Samuel 7:1-17)

“Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:11-16).

Read: God’s Covenant with David

November 5, 2014: “The New Covenant” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt– a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:31-33).

There is a sixth covenant in the Old Testament which is not listed among the five covenants I will be teaching in my church. The sixth covenant is God’s covenant with the Levites. In his covenant with the Levites, God promised to Phinehas and to his descendants “a covenant of perpetual priesthood” because of his zeal for the Lord.

“God’s Covenant with the Levites” (Numbers 25:10-13)

“The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by manifesting such zeal among them on my behalf that in my jealousy I did not consume the Israelites. Therefore say, I hereby grant him my covenant of peace. It shall be for him and for his descendants after him a covenant of perpetual priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the Israelites’” (Numbers 25:10-13).

After my presentation in church, I hope to publish these studies weekly here on my blog. My goal is to help the members of my study group and the readers of my blog to gain a better understanding of the diversity of God’s covenants in the Bible.

NOTE: For other studies on Moses, read my post Studies on Moses.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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If you are looking for other series of studies on the Old Testament, visit the Archive section and you will find many studies that deal with a variety of topics.

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