A covenent is a solemn agreement made between two or more parties and made binding by some kind of an oath. What is mutually agreed upon is usually the future conduct of one or both of the parties concerned. Such covenant-type relationships were ubiquitous in antiquity and in the Bible they are alluded to more frequently than a simple study of b'rit (Heb.) diathťke (Gr.) might suggest. Such relationships included compacts or pledges between private persons (e.g. Ruth 1:16-17; 3:11-11-13; Ex.21:2-6), agreements or compacts between a king and a private person (cp. Judg.4:17; 2 Sam.19:31.29), treaties or alliances between kings and/or political states (1 Ki.5:1; 2 Ki.24:17; cp. Ps.21:1-3; Is.30:1), promissory oaths proclaiming official policies (Neh.5:11-13; 9:38-10:39) and covenants between Yahweh and human beings (e.g. Ge.25:23; 1 Ki.14:7-19; 2 Ki.9:6-10; cp. Ge.12:1-3; 2 Sam.7; 21:7). The term b'rit does not appear in any of these references.
The viability of covenant relationships (in stark contrast to legal ones) depends solely on the integrity of those partners actually making promises under oath. The partners are directly accountable to one another, not to some judicial overseer. If the partners are insincere in making promises or unreliable in keeping them, then the relationship is in jeapordy, and its continued viability depends upon the repentance of the offending party and the ability of the offended party to forgive.
Because the ethical character of the covenant-makers is so crucial, almost all covenants have a spiritual dimesnion insofar as they depend upon a tangible commitment to such abstractions as honesty, integrity, loyalty, trust, selflessness and love. Oaths invoking Elohim (God) are a standard feature of covenant-making, emunah (faith) in the execution of which helping to solidify the commitment to promise-keeping. When Elohim (God) is taken seriously as the Monitor of human integrity, covenants act as functioning instruments controlling human behaviour requiring little in the way of the kind of intervention that has come to be expected of the modern state with its endless man-made laws. Where covenant relationships are little acknowledged or practiced, as is expected in a Besorah (Gospel) context, believers have tended to rely more on more on human courts set up by secular states. Because of the corruption of the latter, and their tendency to promote man-made laws antithetical to Yahweh's, believers are urged by Paul to settle their differences within the Messianic Community (Church) as far as is possible and not go to the secular courts:
As with all languages (Hebrew included), words evolve in meaning over the centuries, acquiring new nuances. The Hebrew word b'rit is a case in point, not enjoying the same stability as the English word 'covenant'. In the Tanmakh (Old Testament/OT), when referring to certain relationships between human beings, b'rit does indeed correspond very closely to the English term and the Germand Bund, unmistakably referring to bilateral agreements such as pacts, alliances and treaties. Included are compacts or pledges between private persons (e.g. Ge.31:44; 1 Sam.18:3; 2 Ki.11:4; Prov.2:17), agreements or compacts between a king and/or political states (e.g. 2 Sam.5:1-3; 1 Ki.5:12,26; 15:19; Hos.12:1-2; cp.Ps.83:5-6), and leagues involving different social groups (e.g. Ex.23:32; Josh.9).
"When one of you has a dispute with another believer, how dare you file a lawsuit and ask a secular court to decide the matter instead of taking it to other believers! Don't you realise that someday we believers will judge the world? And since you are going to judge the world, can't you decide even these little things among yourselves? Don't you realize that we will judge malakim (angels)? So you should surely be able to resolve ordinary disputes in this life. If you have legal disputes about such matters, why go to outside judges who are not respected by the messianic community (church)? I am saying this to shame you. Isn't there anyone in all the messianic community (church) who is wise enough to decide these issues? But instead, one believer sues another - right in front of unbelievers! Even to have such lawsuits with one another is a defeat for you. Why not just accept the injustice and leave it at that? Why not let yourselves be cheated? Instead, you yourselves are the ones who do wrong and cheat even your fellow believers" (1 Cor.6:8, NLT).
Over the course of time, b'rit could be applied to the oath activating the relationship: a b'rit could thus be any solemn promise made binding by an oath, regardless of whether or not it constituted a bilateral agreement. Thus in later Tanakh (OT) texts it could be applied to 'promissory notes' where one party unilaterally pledges itself to a certain course of action or policy (e.g. Jer.34:8-18; 2 Ki.23:3; 2 Chr.15:12 - at best, Yahweh may have been invoked by oath to enhance the solemnity of the act, although in none of the latter three texts does the narrator actually depict Yahweh even being aware of the proceedings, much less being a party to them). Frequently, this commitment is forcibly extracted, giving the impression that b'rit is not a 'covenant' but an 'imposed obligation'.
However, when referring to relationships between Yahweh and human beings, it is not immediately clear that b'rit conveys the same sense as 'covenant'. When Elohim (God) makes a solemn promise bestowing favours on certain individuals (like Abraham, Phinehas and David), a special relationship is created, but it appears to resemble more of a 'charter' (a grant of rights by a sovereign) than a mutually agreed-upon 'covenant' (e.g. Ge.6:18-21; 9:1-17; 15; 17; 2 Sam.23:5, Is.54:9-10). This kind of b'rit, where Yahweh functions as a sovereign, is reflected by the royal grants that were well known in the ancient Near East.
Understandably, the Sinai B'rit with its Ten Commandments (Words/Devarim) receives the greatest attention in the Tanakh (OT) as it alone spells out what Israel must do to maintain its special relationship with Elohim (God). All biblical covenants where Israelites have sworn obligations to Yahweh (e.g. Ex.19:5; Jer.11:2-10; Dt.29:1-30:20 & 28:69 particularly; Josh.24; Mal.2:4-9 - cp.Num.25:12-13) are either subsumed ot constitute renewals of it until we later come to the B'rit Chadashah or New Covenant.
The Sinai b'rit was also referred to as the devarim (words), 'statements', 'terms (of an agreement)', al‚ ('oath') and edŻt ('sworn obligation'). Theologians disagree as to whether the Sinai b'rit was a true 'covenant' (Bund) between Yahweh and Israel, analagous to a treaty/pact, a mutually agreed-upon relationship, or whether it was an 'imposed obligation' (Verpflichtung), a unilateral arrangement by Elohim (God) that Israel had little choice but to accept. The emet (truth) almost certainly lies somewhere between the two, reflecting both man's agency and Yahweh's sovereignty.
By the time the Judahites had returned from Babylonian captivity, a further evolution of thinking about the b'rit had taken place in the light of their experience in a pagan land that further shaped their identity. This came came to represent the predominant thinking of Second Temple Judaism that persisted to the time of the first coming of Messiah (Christ) and through to the Roman-imposed exile. By the time of the New Testament era, the Mosaic b'rit had come to exclusively be regarded as obligations Elohim (God) had imposed upon the Israelites, resulting in the Rabbinical/Talmudic worldview which was at odds with the Besorah (Gospel) taught by Messiah and which came to be confounded or confused with the distorted rabbinical view of imposed Torah obligation from without which in turn would later cause an anti-Torah reaction in the development of post-apostolic Christianity. For the Messianic (Christian) Israelite the Torah was the lifestyle of the voluntary relationship entered into with the Creator, and now transferred to His plenipotentiary, Yah'shua the Messiah (Jesus Christ), until the handing back the Kingdom, with all its conferred toqef (authority) to the Father:
The effect of close contact with the Hellenistic or Greek-speaking world led to even further evolution of thought and attitude. Thus the 5th century BC injunction against intermarriage (Ezra 10:3-5) came to be viewed in the Talmudic era as a sign of ethnic election that has led, in turn, to ungodly claims of racial superiority. Greek-speaking Judahites believed the b'rit to be synonymous with diathÍke, that is to say, 'an order or institution established by authority' (such as Elohim/God), although in the technical sense is could refer to a deceased person's 'last will and testament', yielding an interesting paradox in the claim that the diathÍke was Elohim's (God's) (cp. Gal.3:15-18; Heb.9:16-17). It also explains how the New Covenant Scriptures came, as a result of the influence of the Greek language, to be called the 'New Testament'.
"Then comes the end, when He (Messiah) delivers the kingdom to Elohim (God) the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all toqef (authority) and power. For He (Messiah) must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet" (1 Cor 15:24-25, NKJV).
Thus, through Hellenistic influence, the Sinai diathÍke and its numerous laws (nůmoi) came to be viewed as Elohim's (God's) ultimate 'will/testament' for Israel, the special cultural 'heritage' or 'legacy' that He has irrevocably 'bequeathed' exclusively to the Jews. Readers of the Greek Bible (Septuagint/LXX) - including the apocryphal and pseudepigraphic literature - thus came to understand Yahweh's covenants to exclusively be the unilateral and ultimate expressions of His binding will and disposition (whether toward Israel, Abraham, David or whatever), not some mutual agreement between two parties (the sense of which would have been conveyed instead through the Greek word synthÍke).
Yah'shua (Jesus) did not accept as authoritative these later connotations though it is difficult to follow His train of thought as He does not use b'rit/diathÍke terminology. Unlike the evolved rabbinical Judaism of His day, He regarded Israel's bond to Elohim (God) as a dynamic process of interrelatedness (which He names 'kingdom/rule of Elohim/God), not a theologoumenon designating Israel's traditional heritage. His reliance was on the earlier tavnith or pattern of covenant becomes clearer when we see Him as a 'reformer' insisting that Israel is now directly accountable to Yahweh and to the higher righteousness implied in the Torah (Law) (i.e. the stipulations of the Sinai b'rit), and no longer accountable to Yahweh indirectly through adherence to the modus operandi of Talmudic/Rabbinical accumulated religious tradition and its self-elected leaders.
Perhaps in a parody of the traditional view that the b'rit was Yahweh's final and binding 'testament' (diathÍke) for Israel, Yah'shua's (Jesus') parables frequently depicted Elohim (God) as an absentee landlord, a rich man on a journey, a king off to a distant land, whose return always spells disaster for those entrusted with the master's business (i.e. oversight of the religious community). The keepers of Rabbinical/Talmudic tradition (the Pharisees, Saducees and Scribes/Torah-teachers) correctly understood that such parables and similar teachings about Yahweh's 'coming' kingdom were aimed at them, and they responded ruthlessly (Mt.21:45-46). The source of conflict between them and Yah'shua (Jesus) was two competing (and authoritative) views about the essence of the relevance of Israel's b'rit with Yahweh: for them it was a theologoumenon that sanctified the traditions over which they presided (the same view of the popes and patriarchs of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, respectively - and others like them - today). But for Yah'shua (Jesus) it was an historical enactment that had little regard for human (or Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, etc.) institutions or hierarchies.
At the end Yah'shua (Jesus) acquiesced to their ruthlessness (so that He could complete His journey to the cross), but not before speaking of a b'rit chadashah or 'new (not 'renewed') covenant' that would be inaugurated by His death and resurrection and would draw His talmidim (disciples) into the ultimate relationship with Israel's Elohim (God) (Mk.14:24; 1 Cor.11:25). The connection is unmistakably to the eschatological b'rit in Jeremiah 31:
Likewise, Paul uses b'rit/diathÍke terminology sparingly and always with significant qualification. This is not surprising given his testimony that the Sinai covenant had not supplanted the Abrahamic and that it no longer has a rŰle to play in defining the distinctive essence of Israel's emunah (faith) (Gal.3:15-18). In Romans 9:4 he lists diathÍkai (plural, 'covenants') as part of the distinct heritage or legacy that Yahweh had bequeathed Israel. While this usage is typical of first century AD (especially Hellenistic) Judaism, it is not clear which diathÍkai Paul has in mind. In 2 Corinthians 3:14 he explicity links the 'old diathÍke (covenant) to Mosaic legislation written in the Pentateuch but specifically understands it in the traditional sense of imposed obligations instituted by Yahweh (cp. diathÍke in Heb.9:1).
"Behold, the days are coming, says Yahweh, when I will make a new b'rit (covenant) with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah - not according to the b'rit (covenant) that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My b'rit (covenant) which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says Yahweh. But this is the b'rit (covenant) that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says Yahweh: I will put My Torah (Law) in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their Elohim (God), and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, 'Know Yahweh,' for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says Yahweh. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more" (Jer.31:31-34, NKJV).
Paul's animating belief that Judaism was no longer to be based on divinely-imposed obligations not only justified his use of the adjective "old" (Gk. palaid) but also found expression in his allegory of Hagar and Sarah each of whom represents a diakÍthe (Gal.4:21-31). Hagar represents the Sinai (= "old") diathÍke, which is clearly an 'imposed obligation' (douleŪa, 'bondage', 'slavery'). In fact, when referring to Sinai and its operational dynamic Paul's word of choice is usually nůmos ('law' or 'customary obligation'), not dathÍke. For Paul, the equation of dathÍke with 'imposed obligation' or 'law' adequately and accurately summarises the current state of traditional 1st century Judaism (represented by Jerusalem - Gal.4:25), in which religion (like Ishmael) is conceived with respect to the princople of relying on self and the age-old way of doing things (i.e. "the flesh" or 'salvation by works').
In this allegory Sarah represents a heavenly (= "new") diathÍke for Israel that is clearly not an imposed obligation. It summarises the Christian or Messianic/Evangelical worldview which, like Isaac, is conceived with respect to the principle of a living relationship (i.e. "the ruach/spirit") of trust in Yahweh's ability to keep His promises. In fact, when referring to this heavenly covenant and its operational dynamic Paul's word of choice is not diathÍke but epangelia or "promise". Paul, like Yah'shua (Jesus), thus expresses the idea that "covenant" draws one into a living relationship of direct accountability to a partner, not conformity to religious traditions, institutions and personnel who claim to mediate that relationship.
This notion that Israel's special bond with Yahweh is not an 'imposed obligation' is not, actually, quite so 'new' but is rooted in the ancient Melchizedek, pre-Mosaic tavnith (pattern) of meaning that still understood Yahweh's b'rit with Israel - even the Sinai (Aaronic, Levitical) b'rit - more on the model of a mutual agreement.
Jeremiah was not the only Tanakh (OT) navi (prophet) to anticipate that a new b'rit was to replace the old b'rit by imposition (Is.55:3; 59:2; Jer.31:31-34; 32:37:41; Ezek.16:60; 37:26; Hos.2:18,20). In this anticipated b'rit, obligations would not be forcibly imposed (beginning at day #8 for males with circumcision) but freely embraced due to a transformation of the human heart (as soon as a male or a female is old enough to makle a decision for Messiah, be regenerated and to enter into a b'rit of baptism). The early believers linked this prophetic tiqveh (hope) with Yah'shua's (Jesus) Last Supper allusion to the "new covenant". For them, the resurrection of Yah'shua (Jesus) not only vindicated His teaching but linked Yahweh's ultimate "will" or "testament" (Heb.9:16-17) not to the Sinai b'rit but to the fellowship of those who are "in Messiah" who, in response to their salvationm, are obediently living the Torah (Law, doctrine, teaching, lifestyle) as talmidim (disciples) in this entirely new way.
This is very different to the teaching of many messianics who feel they are resurrecting the Old b'rit (covenant) by renewing it. To believe this is to fundamentally misunderstand the whole purpose of the new covenant. They not untypically confuse the b'rit (covenant) with the mitzvot (commandments), as though they were one and the same. They are not. There are still mitzvot (commandments) in the New Covenant and our obedience to them is a test as to whether or not we truly love Yah'shua (Jesus):
These are identical the mitzvot (commandments) that Yahweh the Father originally gave, save those which have gone in fulfilment by the work of the cross:
"If you love Me, keep My mitzvot (commandments)" (John 14:15, NKJV).
The tradition of dividing the Bible into two 'testaments' - 'Old' and 'New' - indicates that Christianity has seen 'covenant' as the organising principle providing meaning and coherence to the whole of Scripture. The Tanakh's (OT's) emphasis on Israel's unique status as 'the people of Yahweh' signals the definitive rŰle that covenant plays in shaping life and identity. That organising principle has never changed but rather - now, in Messiah - it is organised on a different or 'New' basis of non-compulsion and with its own rites of passage - baptism and chrism. The morals and ethics are the same in both 'Testaments', as are the mitzvot (commandments) generally, only now obedience grows out of spiritual regeneration and not external imposition. Once regenerated or born again, the individual is free to choose to be grafted into Messianic Israel by supernatural means (as opposed to the old way of natural birth followed by ritual circumcision) or to remain outside of Israel's b'rit altogether. There is only one way in to the Kingdom and it is only through the new covenant of spiritual regeneration. Thus to study the biblical notion of 'covenant' is to study what is arguably the central or core concept of the entire Bible.
"I do exactly what my Father has commanded Me" (John 14:31, NIV; cp. Rev.12:17; 14:12).
The New Covenant Assemblies of Yahweh (NCAY) is such a covenant Community, raised up in the last days, to be a model for the Remnant gathering for its final task before the Second Coming of Messiah. Learn more about what the biblical b'rit is in the articles below.