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created human beings with the ability, even the deep need, to be in relationship
with him. When Adam and Eve sinned, they broke the friendship between God and
his creatures. So God developed a plan of salvation that would restore his
children to himself. To help them understand the depth of his love and
commitment, God chose to seal the relationship with a familiar cultural form:
A COVENANT IS A RELATIONSHIP
The people of the Bible understood covenants well. In fact, they made
covenants daily to define and describe their relationships with each other.
Abraham made a covenant with the Philistine king Abimelech to resolve their
conflict over a water source (Gen.
21:22?34). David and Jonathan made a covenant that established their
everlasting friendship and that affirmed David's right to the throne of Israel
Sam. 18:3 and 23:18).
Jacob and Laban, his father-in-law, made a covenant in which each promised never
to harm the other and Jacob promised to provide for Laban's daughters (Gen.
The fundamental difference between covenants and other agreements is the
relationship established between the covenant makers. Each party made specific
promises and could expect certain benefits (and penalties, if the promises were
broken) based on the terms of the covenant. But this relationship went far
beyond legal concepts. Covenanted parties viewed each other as friends who were
bound together permanently. Abraham's covenant with Abimelech allowed these two
very different men to live peaceably in the same area (Gen.
21:34). The covenant between David and Jonathan was one of mutual loyalty
and love (1
Sam. 18:3). The legal obligations of a covenant relationship were based on
the friendship established by the covenant itself. To be in covenant was to be
Covenants were made before witnesses?sometimes things (Gen.
31:52), sometimes God himself (Gen.
31:53). Often, symbols were used to remind the parties of the obligations
and benefits established by the covenants. Jacob erected standing stones as a
reminder of his relationship with Laban (Gen.
31:45?46,52). God sealed his covenant (his promise to never destroy the
earth with another flood) with Noah by placing a rainbow in the sky for everyone
A COVENANT IS "CUT," NOT MADE
Though our biblical translations refer to people "making" a covenant, the
Hebrews described the establishment of this type of relationship as "cutting" a
The cutting, symbolized by the slaughter of animals
24:5,8), indicated that each person in the covenant promised to give his or
her own life to keep its terms. To break a covenant was to invite one's own
death as a penalty. There are no more serious relationships than those that are
a commitment of life itself.
Thus God's use of covenants to describe his relationship with his people (Gen.
13:20?21) is striking for several reasons. It shows that God wanted to bond
eternally with a people who persistently rejected him. It shows that God was
willing to prove his devotion to the relationship by offering his own life.
Finally, and probably most stunning of all, it shows that God not only was
willing to offer his own life to keep the covenant, but he also was willing to
pay the price for any covenant failure on the part of the human beings with whom
he was in relationship. This promise certainly exceeded the limits of human
Many of the human covenants in the Bible are between equals. Marriage is such
a relationship (Mal.
2:14). In the culture of the ancient Near East, there were also covenants
between unequal parties. These relationships were defined and established by the
superior party and could not be changed by the lesser party, such as when great
kings made treaties with conquered kings who became vassals. The lesser party
could either accept the offer of relationship or reject it and exist in conflict
with the greater party.
Ancient Near Eastern covenants, especially those between unequal parties,
were complex relationships. There were many factors that had to be
considered?for example, the right of the greater party to make the covenant, the
obligations of each party, the penalties and benefits of the relationship, and
the history of the relationship. Because of the large number of issues involved,
covenant documents were usually quite long. God's covenant with Israel through
Moses is recorded in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. God's
covenant with us in Jesus is described in all 66 books of the Bible.
Because of the length of covenants, a certain pattern was followed so that
people could make sense of them. This pattern governed the material contained in
a covenant, including its content and form. A summary document representing the
entirety of the relationship and following the accepted form of a covenant
document was also provided. If the Torah is God's covenant with Israel, the Ten
Commandments, inscribed on stone tablets, are a summary document.
We must be careful to recognize that there are many covenant forms and that
God does not always use existing practices (which he caused to develop anyway)
in dealing with his people. But once we understand what a covenant relationship
meant and how it was established, we will realize the extent of God's love for
us and his desire to restore the relationship sin destroyed. Keeping in mind
that God cut covenants as the superior party so he alone determined their
content, let's briefly review the components of the covenant God made with the
In general, ancient Near Eastern covenants had five sections:1. The
This section identified the two parties of the covenant. In the
Torah, God established the identities of the parties in the creation story. He
was the Creator, and Israel was his creation. In the covenant summary, the Ten
Commandments, he said simply, "I am the LORD your God" (Ex.
2. The Historical Prologue
In this part of the document, the
history leading to the cutting of the covenant was recited to prove the right of
the superior party to make it. In the Torah, the stories of the Fall, Noah,
Abraham, and the Exodus are detailed as the basis for God's making the covenant
with Moses on Mount Sinai. In the Ten Commandments, the summary is simply, "...
who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (Ex.
3. Requirements (Commandments)
The Torah contains 613 of the
requirements God placed on the people with whom He was in relationship. The
number of obligations he placed on himself was even greater. In the summary of
the commandments, these requirements were simplified to 10 (Ex.
). Some scholars have noted that Jesus reduced his summary even
further, to just two (Matt.
4. Blessings and Curses
Keeping a covenant brought specific
rewards, and breaking a covenant brought specific penalties. In the Torah, such
blessings and curses are many and varied. Moses summarized both in Deuteronomy
28 in a powerful challenge to the Israelites. The summary document also contains
curses and blessings scattered throughout the discussion of the requirements
(see, e.g., Ex.
for curses, and Ex.
5. The Summary Document
The summary document served two
purposes. Because it was short, it could be easily read and stored. Because it
summarized the entire covenant, it represented the total relationship between
the parties. Normally, two copies of this document were made, and each party
would take a copy and put it in a sacred place for safekeeping.
Because the Bible is silent about what was written on each tablet of the Ten
Commandments, and because the culture demanded that two identical copies of a
covenant always be made, it seems clear that each tablet contained all 10
commandments. One copy was God's, and the other belonged to the people of
Thus when God gave both tablets to Moses, he was making a profound statement.
Since God trusted Moses with his copy of the covenant, it indicated that his
sacred place was the same as Israel's: the ark of the covenant in the Holy of
Holies in the tabernacle.
PRESERVING A COVENANT
A covenant was carefully recorded and preserved. It was to be read regularly
and obeyed always. Moses wrote down the words of God's covenant with his people
in the Torah and commanded that it be read every seven years (Deut.
31:9?13,24?26). The summary document, the Ten Commandments, was stored in
the most sacred place: the ark of the covenant, God's earthly throne.
The Ten Commandments were God's covenant with Israel, and they are his
covenant with us today. To read the commandments is to learn God's will for
human society. It is important to remember that the commandments, as a summary
document, represent the total covenant?the total relationship?between God and
his people. To read them is far more than to review a checklist of God's
requirements. It is to hear God say, "I am God, and I love you enough to make a
covenant (be in relationship) with you through my own blood."
It is only in the person of Jesus that we can fully understand this love. In
Christ, God fulfilled the promise he made to the Hebrews of giving his own life
to seal the covenant he had made with them. For this reason, Jesus could say,
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not
come to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Matt.
God's choice of the covenant to describe his relationship with his people
highlights the degree of his love for us. Not only does the great sovereign
Creator of heaven and earth descend to be in relationship with sinful human
beings, but he offers his own life to provide escape for covenant breakers.
Understanding what a covenant was in ancient Near Eastern culture made
relationship with God an indescribable gift to those who believed in him.
It should be no less for us.