The Everlasting Covenants
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 15 June 2013; Revised 17 April 2021
Scripture: Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (1995 Updated edition). Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions.
Sources: Bibliographic data for works cited may be found at the end of the article. References to the Mishnah and Talmud are from the Soncino Babylonian Talmud (1948); available online at Halakhah.com. Click here for Talmud Abbreviations. The abbreviation "LXX" ("70") stands for the Septuagint, the Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, which was in use among Jews by the mid-2nd century B.C. Online.
Syntax: Unless otherwise noted the meaning of Hebrew words is from The New Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (1981), and the meaning of Greek words is from F.W. Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (2009). The numbering system of the Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible is identified with "SH" (Strong's Hebrew number) and "SG" (Strong's Greek number). Strong's Online.
Special Terms: In order to emphasize the Hebraic nature of Scripture I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Besekh (New Testament), Yeshua (Jesus) and Messiah (Christ).
The Hebrew word for covenant is b'rit (SH-1285; pact, compact or covenant). In the Tanakh a covenant might occur between men and be considered a treaty or alliance (e.g., Gen 14:13; 21:22; 31:44), a constitution between monarch and subjects (2Sam 3:12), an agreement or pledge (2Kgs 11:4), an alliance of friendship (1Sam 18:3; 20:8), or an alliance of marriage (Prov 2:17; Mal 2:14). Most frequently b'rit is used of a covenant between God and individual men, specifically Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Aaron and David, and the nation of Israel. A divinely initiated covenant typically incorporated obligations for the recipient to keep and benefits that God would provide. Each covenant had an enduring sign of the covenant's validity.
The LXX translates b'rit with diathēkē (SG-1242), which means a formal arrangement or agreement for disposing of something in a manner assuring continuity. It refers to a covenant that either has a testamentary aspect, e.g., last will and testament (Gal 3:15; Heb 9:16f) or a perspective of God's unilaterally assumed obligation to confer a special blessing (e.g., Matt 26:28; Acts 7:8; Rom 9:4; 2Cor 3:6; Heb 7:22) (DNTT 1:365). The Jewish translators of the LXX might have chosen to use sunthēkē, a term common in classical Greek that means an agreement, compact or treaty (LSJ), to translate b'rit, but instead they chose uniformly to use diathēkē, which by its definition as a "will" requires the death of the author to make it effective.
The KJV further fogs the matter by translating diathēkē 13 out of the 33 times in the Besekh with "testament." For some Christians the word "testament," especially in the title "New Testament," carries the connotation that the "Old Testament" is obsolete, having been supposedly canceled by the atoning death of Yeshua. The LXX translation may seem strange given that in the case of the divine-human covenants (1) God obviously cannot die; (2) a testament is a solitary declaration and cannot be "with" someone, as the expression "covenant with" occurs many times in the Tanakh; (3) a covenant may have a mediator (Heb 9:15), but a testament does not; and (4) a testament does not involve sacrifices, whereas a divine covenant does (Gruber 41). Perhaps the LXX translators considered that at the heart of the divine-human covenant God was making a sacrifice of Himself, by offering grace instead of wrath and destruction.
In any event, there are some reasons that God's covenant could be thought of as a testament.
· Like a testament God made His covenants unilaterally and He alone set the terms. There was no negotiation to reach a mutually agreeable result. In this sense the divine covenants are one-sided.
· Like a testament the covenant God offered Israel is the expression of His will concerning His property (His people). After all, the concept of being "holy to ADONAI" (Ex 19:6) means to be His property.
· Like a testament God's covenant provides an inheritance for His people and instructions for distribution of that inheritance.
· Like a testament, which requires a judicial act to enforce its terms, God acts as judge to enforce the terms of His covenants.
In addition, the preposition "with" (Heb. eth, SH-854), as it occurs frequently in the phrase "covenant with" in reference to a divine covenant (e.g., Gen 6:18; 9:9; 15:18; 17:19; Ex 2:24), does not denote a mutually formulated contract, but of God's proximity to the recipient(s) of the covenant. In other words, God's presence assured fulfillment of the covenant promises. The response of the recipient of the divine covenant was to accept or reject it and then upon acceptance to obey it. Thus, in my view "testament" and "covenant" are two sides of the same coin.
Christians are accustomed of thinking of only one covenant pertaining to the Jews, the Old Covenant. Paul speaks of "covenants" (plural) in Romans 9:4. One could say that there is one covenant with a number of versions, just as in computer software there can be different versions of the Windows operating system. While there is much in common between them, each "version" of the covenant introduced something new in terms of expectations, promises and signs. Christians generally miss the significance of this single word and the history it encapsulates.
The Divine Covenants
The word "covenant" does not occur in the narrative of Adam and Chavah (Eve) in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 1−5), but a covenant is inferred from Hosea 6:7, "But like Adam they have transgressed the covenant." The obligations of the first couple in the first covenant were straightforward: (1) guard the Garden; (2) be fruitful and multiply; (3) subdue the earth; (4) rule over the environment; and (5) avoid the tree of knowledge (Gen 1:27-30; 2:15-17). The first covenant included some precious gifts. Adam and Chavah walked with God in regular fellowship. They had a perfect environment that suited their naked condition. They had the sustenance of unlimited fruit-bearing trees and plants with no need to kill any animal for food.
The Edenic covenant does not name a sign as the later covenants, but there are two possibilities. The first possible sign was the stars:
"Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years; 15 and let them be for lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth”; and it was so. 16 God made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, and the lesser light to govern the night; He made the stars also. 17 God placed them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, 18 and to govern the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness." (Gen 1:14-18)
The heavenly lights were created to function as "signs," and not just as aids to navigation. They were to be portents with religious significance. The sun and moon determined the climatic "seasons," but this term Heb. mo'adim, is used in the Torah to refer to sacred seasons or festivals, especially in Leviticus 23 (BDB 417). The belief in the twelve constellations, or groupings of stars having special religious significance, is very old as alluded to in Job 9:9, "Who makes the Bear, Orion and the Pleiades, and the chambers of the south?” (cf. Job 38:32; 2Kgs 23:5; Isa 13:10.)
According to the Talmud the twelve constellations were created for the benefit of Zion (Ber. 32b). The standards of the tribes identified in Numbers 2 corresponded to the Hebrew (zodiacal) symbols of the constellations, so that in the east was the standards of Judah, Issachar and Zebulun corresponding to Aries, Taurus, and Gemini; in the south the standards of Reuben, Simeon and Gad corresponding to Cancer, Leo, and Virgo; in the west the standards of Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin corresponding to Libra, Scorpio, and Sagittarius; and in the north the standards of Dan, Asher and Naphtali corresponding to Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces ("Zodiac," Jewish Virtual Library).
If the stars were meant as signs and a benefit to Zion, i.e., Israel, what was that benefit? The panorama of interstellar planets and constellations visible in the night sky announced the full scope of God's plan of redemption and specifically the advents of the Messiah (cf. Num 24:17; Ps 19:1-4; Isa 60:3; Matt 2:2; 24:29; Luke 21:25f; Rom 10:18; 2Pet 1:19). When the Magoi came to Jerusalem seeking the King, they said, "we saw his star in the east" (Matt 2:2). Scientist Dr. Ross Olson demonstrates that the planets and constellations associated with Israel had been portending the coming of the Messiah as early as 7 BC. (See Dates of Significant Astronomical Events, Twin Cities Creation Science Association; and Barry Setterfield, The Christmas Star.)
In modern times Evangelical Christians have theorized what the details of this message in the stars might be. God's story of the Virgin, the promised Seed, the substitutionary sacrifice, and the destruction of the Serpent are all displayed in the stars. The most widely quoted author on the "Gospel in the Stars" is Joseph Seiss who published his work in 1884. Click here for an online Summary.
The second possible sign may be inferred from the promise given to Chavah after she and Adam sinned, "And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel" (Gen 3:15). Thus, the sign of the first covenant is the blood shed by an atoning sacrifice to redeem mankind from the penalty of death (cf. Ex 12:13). The shedding of blood was manifested by God sacrificing animals to provide skin-clothing to cover the nakedness of Adam and Chavah (Gen 3:21).
The first time the word "covenant" occurs in Scripture is in reference to the covenant God made with Noah and his descendants (Gen 6:18; 9:1-17; Jer 33:25). For those who don't grasp the obvious all the people presently alive on the earth descended from Noah's family. While Scripture describes covenants made between humans (e.g., Abraham and Abimelech, Gen 21:27; and marriage, Mal 2:14), God's covenants are unique. Each of these covenants set forth specific expectations, promises, the duration and a sign or perpetual reminder of the covenant.
In the covenant with Noah God expressed four expectations of mankind: (1) every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you (2) you shall not eat flesh with its blood. (3) whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed; and (4) populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it (Gen 9:3-7). Rabbinic interpretation of this covenant found seven expectations:
"Our Rabbis taught: the sons of Noah were given seven commandments: practicing justice and abstaining from blasphemy, idolatry, adultery, bloodshed, robbery, and eating flesh cut from a live animal" (Sanh. 56a).
Judaism views these seven commandments as obligatory of all mankind, fundamental to human righteousness, and without which moral death must inevitably result. The standards set for disciples of Yeshua by the meeting of elders in Jerusalem (Acts 15:20) may possibly be a variation of these Noachide principles (Stern 278). The promise of this covenant is that God will not destroy the earth again by water, and that the seasons and the day and night will continue as long as the earth stands (Gen 8:22; 9:11). The sign of this covenant is the rainbow, which still regularly broadcasts God's faithfulness in spite of mankind's repeated failure to keep these commandments (Gen 9:13-14).
The rest of the covenants are specifically with Abraham and his descendants through Jacob, eight covenants in all (or eight versions of the covenant). All the covenants may be properly called Messianic covenants because they concern preserving the Messianic line and the promises of future salvation through the Messiah of Israel. The salvation of Noah's family assured the survival of the line of Shem, the ancestor of Abraham.
The next divine covenant was made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the land of Canaan. God promised Abraham a great name, that all nations would be blessed through him, that a direct heir would come from his body and Sarah, that he would be the Father of many people and nations, that his descendants would be delivered from bondage, and that his descendants through Isaac would possess the lands from the Nile River to the Euphrates River, especially the land of Canaan. The covenant was unconditional and everlasting and circumcision was the sign of this covenant (Gen 12:1-3; 15:1-21; 17:1-22). See my article The Story of Abraham.
God reiterated this covenant with Abraham's son Isaac (Gen 26:2-5, 23-24), which specifies that the Messianic line would not go through Ishmael. God continued the Abrahamic covenant with Isaac's son Jacob (Gen 28:10-22; 35:9-12), affirming the same promises and specifying that the Messianic line would not go through Esau. The covenant with Jacob introduced something new: Jacob's name was changed to Israel ("God perseveres," BDB 975) and God promised that from him would come a nation and an assembly of nations. See my article Our Father Jacob.
After the patriarchs God made a covenant with the descendants of Jacob, to wit, the twelve tribes of Israel and formalized at Mt. Sinai (Ex 19:5-6; 31:16-17). God's expectations were that Israel would keep His commandments and that they would be a Kingdom of priests and a holy nation (wholly His). God reiterated the promise of the Land as given to the patriarchs, that Israel would be a treasured possession and would be spared the plagues of Egypt. The sign of this covenant would be the Sabbaths (Ex 31:13) and the covenant would last forever (Lev 24:8). This covenant is Messianic because atonement would be accomplished by the shedding of blood and these sacrifices served as a type of Yeshua who shed his blood for the nation (Heb 9:13-25). It was also in the wilderness time that God prophesied a "star out of Jacob" who would have dominion (Num 24:17, 19; Matt 1:2-3; Luke 3:34; Rev 22:16).
While Christian commentators typically classify this covenant as conditional because of its curses for disobedience and God's judgment on the wilderness generation, the terms of the covenant still remained in force. The covenant with Israel is an everlasting covenant (Lev 24:8; 1Chr 16:17; Isa 24:5). The Land still belonged to Israel for the sake of the fathers and the unfaithfulness of the wilderness generation had no effect on God's sovereign plan. God was even willing to wipe out the whole nation and start over with Moses (Ex 32:10), which illustrates that God never entertained the thought of making a covenant with another nation. His promises to the fathers were irrevocable (Rom 11:29).
While at Sinai God made a special covenant with Aaron, the high priest (Ex 28; Num 18:19-20). God expected that Aaron, the Levites and their descendants would be holy to the Lord. If they were faithful God promised that all of the first fruits, first issue of the womb and other offerings would belong to the seed of Aaron and that since the tribe of Levi would have no land apportioned to them the Lord would be their portion. The sign of this covenant would be salt, which was frequently added to sacrificial offerings. This covenant, too, is Messianic, as Paul explains in his letter to the Hebrews. Aaron served as a type of the Messiah and, although not of the tribe of Levi, the office of high priest has been both fulfilled and superseded by Yeshua (Heb 2:17; 3:1; 4:14-15; 5:10; 6:20; 7:26; 8:1; 9:11).
The generation that received the covenant at Sinai rebelled against its terms and perished in the wilderness, with the exception of Moses, Caleb and Joshua and their families. After forty years of wandering the nation of Israel camped in the plains of Moab (Heb. Moav) opposite Jericho (Num 33:49; cf. Deut 1:5). While there God renewed the expectations and promises of the covenant given at Sinai. God clarified and emphasized the sign of the sabbath (Deut 6:12-15) and added many new statutes related to domestic and community relations and the administration of justice. However, at least four new elements are significant in this fifth covenant (Deut 29:1-15; 30:1-6).
First, the Moab covenant was not only made with the generation then living, but also "with those who are not with us here today," i.e., all the future descendants of the tribes of Israel in perpetuity (Deut 29:15).
Second, the Moab covenant promised that when God uprooted his people from the Land because of their sins, He would one day bring them back.
"If your outcasts are at the ends of the earth [lit. the heavens, Heb. shamayim], from there the LORD your God will gather you, and from there He will bring you back. The LORD your God will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and He will prosper you and multiply you more than your fathers." (Deut 30:4-5)
The "end of the heavens" is most likely an allusion to the horizon where the sky meets the earth, so the implication is that Israelites (Jews) would be gathered from all over the earth, not just Babylon. This promise had not been fulfilled by the time of Paul and it properly belongs to the modern age when Jews began to make aliyah ("going up") to Israel beginning in the 1800s until culminated in the reestablishment of the nation of Israel in 1948. The promise also hints at an eschatological aliyah when the people of God are gathered from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven (Mark 13:27).
Third, the Moab covenant spoke of a heart change that hints at the New Covenant.
"Then ADONAI your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your children, so that you will love ADONAI your God with all your heart and all your being, and thus you will live." (Deut 30:6 CJB)
Even though the Lord insisted that his expectations were doable (Deut 30:11), he knew that future generations of Israelites would not have the zeal of the people receiving this covenant in Moab (Deut 31:29).
Fourth, the Moab covenant hinted at salvation by faith through a resurrected Messiah in Deut 30:11-14. Paul, in fact, quotes this section in Romans 10:4-7 to make this very point. The Moab covenant is the covenant and Torah that God directed Joshua to obey (Josh 1:7). The Moab covenant is Messianic because it was here that Moses prophesied that the God of Israel would raise up a prophet like him (Deut 18:15, 18).
Several hundred years later God made a special covenant with King David in which God promised that Israel would be assured of their Land, that the Lord would build David a house and that God would raise up a descendant of David and establish his throne forever (2Sam 7:11-15; 23:5; Ps 89:3). The sign of this enduring covenant would be a house, used with a dual meaning, both house of worship or Temple and his descendants that would one day produce the Messianic King (2Sam 7:12-13; Isa 9:6; 11:1-5; Jer 23:5; 33:14-22; Acts 11:23; Rom 1:4).
The covenants with Israel and David are permanent and unaffected by the level of their obedience as Paul declares in Romans 9:1-5. This truth is eloquently explained with these profound words to Jeremiah,
20 thus says ADONAI: "If you can break My covenant with the day and My covenant with the night, so that day and night would not be at in their appointed time, 21 only then may My covenant be broken with My servant David, that he would not have a son to reign on his throne, and the Levitical kohanim [priests] would not be My ministers. 22 As the host of heaven cannot be numbered, nor the sand of the sea measured, so I will multiply the offspring of David My servant, and the Levites who minister to Me." 23 The word of ADONAI came to Jeremiah, saying: 24 "Have you not noticed what this people have spoken, saying: 'The two families which ADONAI did choose, He has rejected them'? Thus they despise My people—no longer a nation before them." 25 Thus says ADONAI: "If I have not made My covenant of day and night firm, and the fixed patterns ordering the heavens and earth, 26 only then would I reject the offspring of Jacob, and of My servant David so that I would not take from his offspring rulers over the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For I will restore them from their exile, and have compassion on them." (Jer 33:20-26 TLV)
The seventh covenant was made with Judah and Israel (Isa 55:3; Jer 31:31-33; 32:36-40; Ezek 11:17-21; cf. Heb 8:10-13). No Gentiles and certainly no Christian Church are mentioned. The terms of the New Covenant (Heb. B'rit Chadash) were that God would write the Torah on their hearts, that ADONAI will be Israel's God, that Israel will be his people, that all would know God without a teacher, that there would be forgiveness of sins and that all the former promises are "Yes" in Him. The New Covenant of which Yeshua spoke at the Last Supper (Luke 22:20) is the New Covenant of the Hebrew prophets.
The apostles also declared that these promises find their fulfillment in Messiah Yeshua (Heb 12:24; cf. Isa 42:6). Gentiles receive the benefits of this covenant by virtue of being grafted into the Olive Tree (Rom 11) and being granted citizenship in the Commonwealth of Israel (Eph 2). So, the New Covenant does not replace the Old Covenant, but rejuvenates it and empowers disciples to fulfill its expectations (cf. Rom 8:3-4).
The meal of the New Covenant finds its meaning in the Old Covenant. This fact is vividly portrayed in the account of establishing the covenant with Israel by sprinkling sacrificial blood to make the people clean.
"And Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, "This is the blood of the covenant which ADONAI has made with you according to all these words." 9 And Moses went up, and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, 10 and they saw the God of Israel; and under His feet a work of paved sapphire stone, and it was like the heavens in its purity. 11 But He did not send His hand against the nobles of the sons of Israel; and they saw God, and they ate and drank." (Ex 24:8-11 BR)
Note that in this passage the "blood of the covenant" is juxtaposed with a covenant supper in the presence of God. The blood accomplishes a different task than the blood on the doorposts in Egypt where the blood saved from death. The blood of the covenant cleanses from sin, which is why Yeshua had to die on Nisan 15 when the lamb was sacrificed as a sin offering. Thus, the apostles would later remind us, "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness" (Heb 9:22), and "the blood of His Son Yeshua purifies us from all sin" (1Jn 1:7 TLV). Indeed, his shed blood also became the ground for an eternal covenant (Heb 13:20).
Covenant of Shalom
The final covenant, arguably could belong to the New Covenant, but much of the descriptions belong to the second advent of the Messiah and the millennial kingdom (Isa 54:10; 61:8; Ezek 34:25; 37:26). Isaiah 54:10 portends the prophecy of Zechariah 14:4 which predicts an earthquake that splits Mount of Olives at the coming of the Messiah. Then the covenant of shalom in Ezekiel 34:25 is set in the context of promising the restoration of Israel. Ezekiel 34:17-22 predicts the millennial judgment of the Messiah as described in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats (Matt 25:31-32). Ezekiel 37 predicts a restoration and reunion of Israel remarkably close to the founding of the modern state of Israel. Yet, that covenant of shalom (Ezek 37:26) only reaches its climax with the enthronement of the Davidic King, namely the Messiah. God then makes this significant promise:
26 "I will make a covenant of peace with them, an everlasting covenant. I will give to them, increase their numbers, and set my sanctuary among them forever. 27 My home will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. 28 The nations will know that I am ADONAI, who sets Israel apart as holy, when my sanctuary is with them forever." (Ezek 37:26-28 TLV)
Blessed be ADONAI for all His covenants!!
BDB: The New Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. London: Oxford University Press, 1907. Reprinted by Associated Publishers and Authors, Inc., 1981.
Danker: F.W. Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, University of Chicago Press, 2009.
DNTT: Dictionary of New Testament Theology. 3 Vols., ed. Colin Brown, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975.
Gruber: Daniel Gruber, The Separation of Church and Faith, Volume 1: Copernicus and the Jews. Elijah Publishing, 2005.
LSJ: Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon (1889). rev. by Sir Henry Stuart Jones. Clarendon Press, 1940. Online
Stern: David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary. 5th ed. Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc., 1996.
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