What is a Covenant?
Here's a brief definition of what a covenant is: "A solemn commitment, guaranteeing promises or obligations undertaken by one or more parties, usually between a being with more authority and someone with less authority." In ancient Near Eastern culture this was most commonly seen between great kings and vassal kings. In essence a covenant functions similar to a contract, but it encompasses much more. When a covenant is taking place between men in Genesis it includes a third party witness, namely God. If it is a covenant made with God, it comes from God to the man (with implications for his familial posterity or society in general). Further, if the covenant is between God and man it is God who initiates and establishes the covenant.
Covenants are not merely made, but the verb enacting the covenant is actually "to cut" (karat = cut; berit = covenant). Covenants were forged through the cutting of flesh and the shedding of blood. This affirms and bears witness to a covenant's solemnity and finality.
"[A] covenant is not merely a 'contract' or a 'promise' as we understand such things. Rather, it's a bond that establishes an all-encompassing relationship. A covenant is not merely a financial obligation or a military treaty. It's a claim on someone's total loyalty and allegiance . . . it's generational. When Israel entered the covenant, they did so for the generations yet to come." (Lawrence, 57)Covenants can even be accompanied by a "self-maledictory oath", which in essence means the initiator says, "may what has happened in the slaughter, cutting, and dividing of these animals happen to me if I do not fulfill my end of the covenant." Further, when God makes covenants with people it may issue in a name change. A person's very identity as an individual can be changed because of a covenant with God.This is serious stuff.
2 Kinds of Covenants
Generally speaking, in the Bible there are two kinds of covenants: (1) Works and (2) Grace. The covenant of works requires obedience to the stipulations that are laid out. The covenant of grace requires nothing of the vassal king, it's the forging of a legal relationship out of generous love, goodness, and benevolence.
Ancient Near Eastern Structure of a Covenant
Here are the elements that are included in many ancient Near Eastern covenants, which are shown in different ways in the covenants of Genesis (see Michael Lawrence, p. 56):
- Preamble ~ This identifies the king who authors the covenant.
- Historical Prologue ~ Outlining the kings past grace to the vassal king serving as a foundation for the vassal king's obedience.
- Stipulations ~ Outlining what is expected of the vassal king.
- Document Clause ~ This required that each king keep the record of the covenant and read it from time to time.
- Blessings ~ The good things that would happen if they were obedient to the covenant.
- Curses ~ The bad things that would happen if they were disobedient to the covenant.
- Oath/Sacrifice ~ After all these terms were fulfilled in some way the covenant would be ratified by an oath that involved the shedding of sacrificial blood.
Note that this is a structured covenant form of a covenant was not necessarily detailed out in the formation of God's people in Genesis. We'll see later in the Pentateuch that the Mosaic covenant exhibits these marks more clearly.
I have attempted to fit the covenants of Genesis into this scheme, and to be honest they are a little awkward, so I'm not so certain that the covenants of Genesis were following a prescribed order. However, I think its clear that many of the marks of what would later become a systematized structure are either implied or actually seen in the accounts.
In my next post I'll show how I've fleshed this out in various covenants in Genesis.
All Covenants Point to Jesus
The covenants all foreshadow and point straight at Jesus Christ, the guarantor of a better covenant (Heb. 7:22), which is built on better promises (Heb. 8:6, c.f. 12:24). All previous covenants (in fact all covenants period, marriage or otherwise) point to the covenant that was forged in Jesus' blood for the forgiveness of sins. All mankind carries the covenant obligation to be holy as God is holy. All mankind carries the obligation to live a perfect life. This is a daunting thought, because we can't do it. And we need to come to this sober realization, that everyone's relationship to God is in part a legal one. It's much more multi-faceted than just this, but our lives say something about God, and we are bound by virtue of our existence and nature to obey God's commands and be perfect as He is perfect. This is the case, because we all bear His image. If we don't fulfill our obligations as His image bearers we will be objectively/forensically and legally evaluated, and God's just ruling will be that we "miss the mark". This aspect of the covenant points to the bad news of the Bible. We are all under the condemnation of God because of our inherited and willful rebellion against Him.
This then gives way to the good news of the Bible. By virtue of the covenant God has made through Jesus Christ we have the opportunity to become part of God's family by adoption as sons! The "covenant of grace" we have witnessed beginning in Genesis 3:15 has found it's full completion and consummation in the New Covenant in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Messiah that would come to crush the head of God's enemy. Jesus was the perfect man that Adam never could have been. Jesus not only consummated the "covenant of grace" to our benefit, but He even fulfilled the "covenant of works" on our behalf. Jesus even fulfilled the just punishment that should be credited to our account because of our sin. The covenant God has made is forged by the power of Jesus' indestructible life. Now, through Jesus Christ we can be God's chosen people of the covenant, only through Jesus Christ. There is no other way that we can be justified before the legal demands of God's law.
The promise of covenant blessings that come because of faithfulness to the covenant obligations can now assuredly be ours by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. Genealogy, ethnicity, and works no longer have a bearing on who is marked out as the chosen covenant people of God. It is only in Christ that anyone can be saved into a covenant relationship with God, case closed. And what is the covenant promise and blessing that we can be certain to have through Jesus Christ? God Himself! We can be reconciled to God, not bearing the weight of God's wrath, but we can be freed through Jesus Christ to walk in uninhibited relationship and access to Yahweh, in His perfect joy, holy delight, all-powerful love, incomprehensible beauty, and incorruptible goodness.