Covenant, First Steps
And I will establish my covenant between you and me
and your seed after you in their generations
for an everlasting covenant, to be a God to you,
and to your seed after you (Genesis 17:7).
Three things create difficulties for us when reading the Bible: Language, culture and dogma. Language is always a problem because any time you translate from one language to another, there is the possibility of losing meaning. Culture is a problem, because we have limited understanding of how things were done in ancient times. For example, we have only the vaguest notion of what marriage was like. Was there a ceremony? Was there someone like a rabbi who stood in front of people officiating, and did they break a glass under foot? Did they make oaths and swear vows? Did they sign a marriage contract, or did they just move in together? The Bible doesn't tell us very much. Archaeology attempts to describe ancient cultures, but frequently has to guess. There is still disagreement among scholars over whether the settlement at Qumran was a kind of monastery, or a pottery factory. For all we know, it could have been both.
As if these peculiarities were not enough, we have problems with dogma. This is a tricky item because when you attempt to examine what happened in Old Testament times, you are influenced far more than you think by the doctrinal structure of your church or denomination. Nowhere is this more evident than in the study of the covenants.
While we wrestle with issues of language, culture, and dogma, what we are really looking for is meaning. What did God mean when he used the word “covenant,” and how did men like Abraham understand it? It is tempting, when you do a word study, to try to find a single word that will fit all contexts. That doesn’t work in English, and there is no reason we should think it works in Hebrew. In any case, it’s not a word we're looking for, it's meaning.
The word “covenant” has a broad application in the Bible. A covenant can be an agreement, a compact, a contract, a promise, a commitment, a relationship, even a real estate transaction. So when we encounter the word, we have to think about the circumstances where it is used. Take for example the first occurrence of the word in the Bible. God was speaking:
And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; and every thing that is in the earth shall die. But with you will I establish my covenant; and you shall come into the ark, you, and your sons, and your wife, and your sons’ wives with you (Genesis 6:17-18).
This does not read like an “agreement” between two parties. Rather it reads like instructions on how to save your life. The usage is also different from some later covenants in that it is “established.” In later usage, a covenant is “cut,” presumably because literal cutting was involved in creating the covenant. In some cases, a covenant created a new relationship where one did not exist before, but that doesn’t work well here. We have to look further.
After the flood was over, God described the covenant further:
And God spoke to Noah, and to his sons with him, saying, “Behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you; And with every living creature that is with you, of the fowl, of the cattle, and of every beast of the earth with you; from all that go out of the ark, to every beast of the earth. And I will establish my covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:8-11).
God does not “establish a relationship” with cows, so we are still looking for the meaning of covenant. “Well,” one might say, “it is a promise.” True, but it is more than that. This covenant is a commitment. What is the difference? Take a real estate transaction as an illustration. If we are dickering over the price of a piece of land, I may say, “I will take 75,000 dollars for the land.” You reply, “It’s a deal.” That is a verbal agreement. But when we sign a dated contract and I accept earnest money, I am committed to sell the land to you. Up to that point, I could change my mind without legal obligation. There is a moment when a promise is formalized, and when a consideration is accepted as a token of the agreement. After that, I can be compelled by law to follow through with the sale.
This one chapter has no less than seven occurrences of the word the word, “covenant,” and in all cases, the idea of commitment is central. But there is one thing more—a token of the covenant that formalizes the commitment.
And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth (vv. 12-13).
There is a constant in law which has survived through the ages. It is one thing to give your word. It is another thing to formally give your word. In court, for example, a witness is asked to raise his right hand and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It is this oath that formally binds a man under the law. In a way, it is the moment of covenant. The witness is formally committed to tell the truth and there are consequences if he does not. The raising of the right hand and the oath are tokens of a covenant to tell the truth. In the same way, the rainbow is the token of God’s covenant with man that he will never send a flood like that again. It is a promise, but it is more than that. It is a formal commitment.
The next time we encounter a formal covenant in the Bible is with the man Abraham, and the covenant that arose on this occasion is a landmark. The conversation between God and Abraham began:
After these things the word of the LORD came unto Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram: I am your shield, and your exceeding great reward. And Abram said, Lord GOD, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus? (Genesis 15:1-2).
Inheritance was a very big deal in those days because of the enormous responsibility it entailed. Abram was a wealthy and powerful man. He had a wife and a household to oversee. He owned vast flocks and herds, and had so many servants that he was able to field a private army of 318 trained fighting men. I suspect this translated into close to a thousand men, women and children for whom he was responsible. Thus, Abram’s concern. What was to happen to these people once he was gone? The only one capable of keeping it together was Eliezer, a man who had been born into Abram’s household. Abraham had known him since he was a child, and no doubt had trained him well.
And, behold, the word of the LORD came unto him, saying, This shall not be your heir; but he that shall come forth out of your own bowels shall be your heir. And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall your seed be. And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness (vv. 4-6).
This is the first formal statement of what it takes to be counted righteous before God. You have to believe God, which in this case, required a great deal of trust. Abram was an old man, his wife, Sarah, was far past the change of life, and that sky full of stars was awesome. Paul cited this passage in his classic defense of justification by faith. Jehovah continued speaking to Abraham:
And he said unto him, I am the LORD that brought you out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give you this land to inherit it. And he said, Lord GOD, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it? (vv. 7-8).
It turns out that my earlier analogy of a real estate contract is apt. First, God gave Abram a verbal, then Abram asks for a contract—in this case a covenant. The steps necessary to formalize the covenant follow:
And he said unto him, Take me an heifer of three years old, and a she goat of three years old, and a ram of three years old, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon. And he took unto him all these, and divided them in the midst, and laid each piece one against another: but the birds divided he not. And when the fowls came down upon the carcases, Abram drove them away (vv. 9-11).
There is nothing in the account which explains this, but we know a little bit about the ancient rites of covenant. In this case, the animals had to be cut in two, hence the expression, “to cut a covenant.” Now God speaks further:
And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, lo, an horror of great darkness fell upon him. And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance. And thou shalt go to your fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age. But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full (vv. 12-16).
In real estate contracts, there is usually a date of possession, so the delay in this covenant has to be explained. Full possession is delayed for 400 years, and what is to happen to his descendants is outlined. The last sentence in that statement is of some interest. It seems to be saying that the corruption of the Amorite people was not sufficient to warrant eviction from the land at that time, but that would come. By the time Israel’s sojourn was complete, they would be fully justified in dispossessing the Amorites.
And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp that passed between those pieces. In the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto your seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates (vv. 17-18).
Following the real estate contract analogy, we must include a property description. This one is stunning. All the land from the Nile to the Euphrates would belong to Abram’s descendants.
This is the first time in the Bible the word “cut” is used in connection with a covenant and the first time the cutting of animals is involved. Thus, we have the first blood covenant. Among Semitic peoples, the blood covenant involved cutting, often cutting themselves and drinking one another’s blood. It seems gruesome to the modern mind, but it was highly symbolic. It meant that the men were now blood brothers. A new relationship existed where one had not existed before—a new relationship with all the obligations, rights, privileges, and burdens that go with family. The men had formally bonded.
In later generations, the blood of an animal was substituted for human blood, but God put a stop to that practice. Animal sacrifice remained a part of the making of a covenant, but men ate the flesh of the sacrifice instead of drinking the blood.
If you are familiar with the Bible, you are already hearing echoes of the New Testament, especially with something Jesus said to the Jews on one occasion:
Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, has eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day (John 6:53-54).
This passage makes no sense unless you understand the concept of blood covenant. Jesus’ audience on this occasion did not seem to grasp what Jesus was driving at. Even his disciples would not understand it until the last Passover with Jesus. But we mustn’t get ahead of ourselves. The cutting of the covenant with Abram is only the first step in an ongoing relationship. Later:
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.” Abram fell face down, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you” (Genesis 17:1-6 NIV).
The rendering, “I will confirm my covenant,” is correct. The covenant was already cut. Now it was confirmed and advanced. Abram would have only one son and two grandsons, but one of those grandsons, Jacob by name, would have 12 sons. Once his name was changed to Israel, a history was begun that would indeed result in nations and kings. And this was the point where Abram’s name was changed to Abraham.
The original covenant with Abram appeared to be an uncon-ditional grant. Now a condition is added, something of an addendum. “Walk before me, and be blameless.” The word here rendered “blameless” is the Hebrew tamiym, which means “entire” or “complete.” I take God to be saying, “I am El Shaddai. Go all the way with me and I will confirm my covenant with you.” Moreover, this covenant would be perpetual:
I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.” Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come” (vv. 7-9).
We have moved somewhat beyond the mere covenant grant to the establishing of a relationship that must be “kept”—i.e., hedged about, guarded. The relationship of Abraham and his children with God was not passive. They were expected to keep covenant with God—to be faithful to the covenant. Moreover, this covenant was not merely personal. It involved all of Abraham’s family, and his household:
This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, a servant who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants. A servant who is born in your house or who is bought with your money shall surely be circumcised; thus shall My covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant” (Genesis 17:10-14 NASB).
Even though a given servant was not a descendant of Abraham, if he was to be a part of the community that formed around Abraham’s leadership, he was to be circumcised. This may be the earliest example of what is today called a “social contract.” It also sheds light on the expression, “cut off from his people.” If a man rejects the obligations of the covenant, he has left the social contract, the community, and loses all the rights and privileges that contract provides.
Then God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. And I will bless her, and indeed I will give you a son by her. Then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, “Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before Thee!” (Genesis 17:15-18 NASB).
For Abraham to doubt God on any issue is unusual, to say the least. But there is a part of me that understands. I am merely 73, and I feel rather old to be chasing a child around. Abraham was 99. And, I think he was truly fond of Ishmael and wished the birthright for him. It was not to be:
But God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I will bless him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall become the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this season next year.” And when He finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham (vv. 19-22 NASB).
While God did not reject Ishmael or his people, he did not establish a relationship with them. Ishmael would be blessed, but the covenant would rest on Isaac. God would give Ishmael and his sheiks the Arabian Peninsula, But the original land covenant would remain with the descendants of Isaac. I call this the Abrahamic Covenant and it forms the basis of the later Sinai Covenant with Israel.
Circumcision was the token of this covenant, and this sheds light on the decision of the Jerusalem conference that Gentiles need not be circumcised. Not being descendants of Isaac, they were not heirs of the land anyway, and circumcision was a token “in the flesh.” Not being fleshly descendants of Abraham, it was pointless for Gentiles to be circumcised. It's my impression that in the early Christian church, Jewish Christians continued to circumcise their children while Gentile Christians did not.
Later, we come to a different kind of covenant altogether—a “covenant treaty.” Abraham was becoming increasingly powerful in the region, and was coming up against his neighbors, one of whom was a king named Abimelech. Sharing a border, they needed an understanding of the relationship between the two houses:
Now it came about at that time, that Abimelech and Phicol, the commander of his army, spoke to Abraham, saying, “God is with you in all that you do; now therefore, swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me, or with my offspring, or with my posterity; but according to the kindness that I have shown to you, you shall show to me, and to the land in which you have sojourned.” And Abraham said, “I swear it.” (Genesis 21:22-24 NASB).
But there remained an issue. Water rights were very important in that dry land, and there had been a dispute over a well between Abraham’s servants and those of Abimelech. Abraham registered a complaint, and the king assured him that he had known nothing of the dispute.
And Abraham took sheep and oxen, and gave them to Abimelech; and the two of them made a covenant. Then Abraham set seven ewe lambs of the flock by themselves. And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What do these seven ewe lambs mean, which you have set by themselves?” And he said, “You shall take these seven ewe lambs from my hand in order that it may be a witness to me, that I dug this well.” Therefore he called that place Beersheba; because there the two of them took an oath. So they made a covenant at Beersheba; and Abimelech and Phicol, the commander of his army, arose and returned to the land of the Philistines (vv. 27-32 NASB).
The comparison to a real estate contract suggests itself again. First, Abraham swore, which was a verbal agreement as to their border. Then consideration is given in the form of sheep and cattle. Abraham then included a token of the deal that assured ownership of the well. Thus a permanent relationship between two nations, tribes, was established by a covenant.
Yet another conflict arose between these two families, and it involved a well again. A famine had come to the region of Palestine, and Isaac had to pull up stakes and move. He went, as his father had done, to Abimelech, because God had told him not to go to Egypt:
And the LORD appeared unto him, and said, Go not down into Egypt; dwell in the land which I shall tell you of: Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for unto you, and unto your seed, I will give all these countries, and I will perform the oath which I swore unto Abraham your father (Genesis 26:2-3).
The old saying is that possession is nine tenths of the law. If Isaac abandoned the land, he might have lost title to it. But there was more in this statement:
And I will make your seed to multiply as the stars of heaven, and will give unto your seed all these countries; and in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; Because that Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws (Genesis 26:4-5).
This last is of special interest in that there existed a known system of God’s Law at this time. Not only that, but the covenant of Abraham was made possible by his obedience. That is not to say that his obedience gave him the land or created the covenant. His obedience made the relationship with God possible.
But there is one kind of covenant we have not yet considered, and it is older than all these. It is the marriage covenant.
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