Do you remember the first time you read the Bible? Perhaps it was after receiving your own copy of the Bible as a child. Perhaps it was as an adult. Whenever it may have been, if you are at all like me, you probably recall the strangeness of it. This book was about God and about people who lived thousands of years ago in places many of us have never seen. Everything about them seemed different. Their cultures and customs were strange. Even the terminology presented challenges. As we read the Bible for the first time, we are often confronted with unfamiliar words.

The first time I read the Bible, one of the words that puzzled me the most was covenant. The first time I saw the word, I simply added it to my mental list of other unfamiliar words, something to look up at another time. However, as I continued reading, I noticed this word occurring with some regularity in obviously important contexts. God kept “establishing” covenants (Gen. 9:9; 17:7; etc.) and “making” covenants (Gen. 15:18; Ex. 34:10; etc.) and “remembering” covenants (Gen. 9:15; Ex. 2:24; etc.). There were “signs” of covenants (Gen. 17:11), and God’s people were commanded to “keep” the covenants (Gen. 17:9). The biblical authors, however, never provided a definition of the word. They obviously assumed that the original recipients of their books knew what they meant.

The word covenant appears for the first time in Genesis 6:18, where God says to Noah, “I will establish my covenant with you.” It occurs another 270 times throughout the Old Testament. Most often, it is a translation of the Hebrew word berith. In addition to being used to refer to covenants established by God with man, it is also used to refer to covenants made by men with one another (e.g., Gen. 21:27), to marriages (Mal. 2:14), to friendships (1 Sam. 18:3), to vows (Ezra 10:3), and to commitments (2 Kings 11:4), among other things. Covenants are even made with impersonal things such as stones and animals (Job 5:23), eyes (Job 31:1), death (Isa. 28:15), and the day and night (Jer. 33:20). But what are these covenants?

As I began to study the Bible with more seriousness, I noticed that different reference works defined the word covenant in slightly different ways. In various lexicons and dictionaries, the word is defined as a “pact,” an “agreement,” an “obligation,” a “mutual commitment,” and a “solemn promise made binding by an oath.” Some authors define it as a unilateral promise. Others define it in terms of a contract. Although there was some overlap in many of these definitions, the diversity of meanings remained confusing to me.

The word covenant is used to refer to a formal arrangement between two or more parties.

Additionally, many of these definitions of the word covenant don’t fit with every use of the word in Scripture. Often, it seemed that certain authors had focused on one specific biblical covenant as the archetypal covenant and then constructed a definition based on that specific covenant. The definition was then applied across the board to every use of the word. Some, for example, looked at God’s covenant with Abraham as the archetypal covenant and then defined the word covenant in Abrahamic terms. In such cases, the word covenant tended to be defined as a unilateral promise. Others looked at the Mosaic covenant as the archetypal covenant and then defined the word in a way that fit that context. In such cases, the word tended to be defined in terms of a treaty. If we take this approach to defining the word covenant, however, we quickly encounter problems. We soon discover that our definition doesn’t really apply in every case in which the word covenant is found.

A better approach is to examine every context in which the word covenant is used and attempt to discover the basic ideas that applies in every context. If we do this, we find that in every context, the word covenant (berith) is used to refer to a formal arrangement between two or more parties. That is the most broad and general idea communicated by the biblical word covenant. It is important to note that the kind of formal arrangement depends on the specific context and the nature of the parties involved. The formal arrangement might be a unilateral promise made by one party to another. The formal arrangement might be a bilateral agreement—a pact or a bond. If the formal arrangement is a pact or a bond, it will entail certain obligations. Some formal arrangements will be ratified with oaths and ceremonial rites. Some will confirm an existing relationship between two or more parties, and some will establish new relationships. Some will be accompanied by a sign. This more general understanding of the word covenant also enables us to understand how Scripture can speak of covenants made with stones and animals, eyes, death, and day and night. These too are formal arrangements between two or more parties.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on May 22, 2020.

An Everlasting Meal

How to Reconcile with Another Christian