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Covenant, Jewish

Covenant, Hebrew, b'rith, cutting, Biblically is the term generally applied to transactions. Properly, the term was a compact between man and man; either between tribes or nations (1 Samuel 11:1; Joshua 9:6, 15) or between individuals (Genesis 21:27) in which each party bound himself to fulfill certain conditions, and was promised certain advantages. In the process of making covenants God was solemnly invoked as a witness (Genesis 31:50), thus came the expression "a covenant of Jehovah," followed by the swearing of an oath (Genesis 21:31). Accordingly, a breach of the covenant was regarded as a heinous sin (Ezekiel 17:12-20). The marriage contact was called "the covenant of God" (Proverbs 2:17). As a witness a gift was presented, or a pile of stones set up (Genesis 31:51). Improperly, of a covenant between God and man, as man is not in the position of a constraining party, such a covenant is not strictly a mutual compact, but a promise on the part of God to arrange his providences for the welfare of those rendering him obedience.

Biblically mentioned covenants:

Covenant with Noah: God assured Noah that the judgment would not again come to men in the form of a flood; and that the recurrence of the seasons and day and night should not cease.

Covenant with Abraham: The condition of this covenant was that Abraham should leave his country, kindred, and his father's house to follow God into a land which he would show him. The promise was a fourfold blessing: Abraham would increase into a numerous people; blessing of material and spiritual prosperity; his name would be exalted; God promised not only to bless Abraham, but this blessing was to be extended to others, implicitly by the coming of the Messiah through his descendants (Genesis 12:1-3). Later this covenant was renewed, and Abraham was promised a son and a long posterity (Genesis 15). About fourteen years later the covenant was renewed with a change of his name and the establishment of the rite of circumcision, which was to be the sign of accepting and ratifying the covenant (Genesis 17).

Covenant with Israel: This covenant occurred at Sinai, when the people intimated their acceptance of the words of the covenant as found in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28; 24:3), and promised to keep the same. Their obedience to the commands of the law was to be rewarded by God's constant care of Israel, temporal prosperity, victory over enemies, and the pouring out of his Spirit (Exodus 23:20, sq.). The seal of the covenant was to be circumcision, and was called "Jehovah's covenant" (Deuteronomy 4:13), and was renewed at different periods of Jewish history as Biblically noted.

Covenant with David: This was in reality a more specific form of the covenant with Abraham. Its main objective was to mark with greater exactness the line through which the blessing promised in the Abrahamic covenant was to find accomplishment. The seed-royal thenceforth was to be in the house of David (2 Samuel 7:12; 22:51), and especially in connection with the One who was to be preeminently the child of promise in that house, all good, first to Israel, and then to all nations, should be realized (Psalms 2, 22; Isaiah 9:6, 7…).

Most, if not all, covenants were concluded or solemnized with a swearing of an oath (Genesis 26:28, 31:53; Joshua 9:15; 2 Kings 11:4) and, according to ancient custom, confirmed by the slaughtering and cutting the victim into two halves, between which the parties passed, to intimate that if either of them broke the covenant it would fare with him as with the slain and divided beast (Genesis 13:9, sq.; Jeremiah 34: 18, sq.). Moreover, the covenanting parties were to partake in a common meal (Genesis 26:30, sq., 31:54), or to partake of some grains of salt.

According to the Mosaic ritual (See Moses), the blood of the victim was divided into halves; one half was sprinkled upon the altar, and the other upon the people (Exodus 24:6, sq.). The possible meaning was that in sprinkling the blood upon the altar, the people were introduced into the gracious fellowship with God and atonement was made for their sin. Through the sprinkling of the blood upon the people Israel was formally consecrated to the position of God's covenant people. A.G.H.


Unger, Merrill F., Unger's Bible Dictionary, Chicago, Moody Press, 1966, pp. 224

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