PART 2: BIBLICAL COVENANTS
DEFINITION: A covenant is a legally enforceable agreement between 2 or more persons to do or to refrain from doing a certain act.
SYNONYMS: Contract, deal, pact, agreement, treaty, alliance, pledge, constitution, testament or will.
A contract or covenant has always been a crucial part of God’s relationship with his people.
Covenant is a legal concept often used in the Bible as a metaphor to describe the relationship between God and humankind. The idea of a covenant between God and humankind lies at the heart of the Bible. This idea explains the selection of the word testament, a synonym for covenant, in naming the two parts of the Bible. 1
1 J.J.M. Roberts http:// mb-soft.com/ believe/ text/ covenant.htm
COVENANTS OF PARITY
A covenant of parity was a voluntary agreement between equals. It was a conditional covenant binding them to mutual friendship or at least to mutual respect for each other’s spheres and interests. Participants called each other “brothers”.
ABRAHAM & ABIMELECH
Abraham and Abimelech made a covenant of parity (Gen 21:22-31). As equals, they negotiate the terms of the treaty. In return for securing property rights for water wells in Beersheba, Abraham promises to be kind to Abimelech and his offspring.
The name “Abimelech” (Heb: Avi-Melech), used of multiple Philistine rulers in the Bible, means “father - king” and was probably a title (like Pharaoh). Likewise, Phicol means “great” and appears to be a title used of a Philistine military leader.
Gen 21:22 (ESV) At that time Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his army said to Abraham, “God is with you in all that you do.”
Abimelech noted that God was with Abraham in everything he did. Do others see the hand of God on your life?
Prov 16:7 (NIV) When a man’s ways are pleasing to the Lord, he makes even his enemies live at peace with him.
Gen 21:23-24 (ESV) “Now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my descendants or with my posterity, but as I have dealt kindly with you, so you will deal with me and with the land where you have sojourned.” And Abraham said, “I will swear.”
Gen 21:25-26 (NIV) Then Abraham complained to Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized. But Abimelech said, “I don’t know who has done this. You did not tell me, and I heard about it only today.”
When Abraham entered Abimelech’s domain, the king gave him free grazing rights to whatever land he wanted (20:1-16). Yet this promise was violated later when Abimelech’s servants seized a well that Abraham had dug.
Abimelech was seemingly unaware of the incident. Sometimes it is good to raise issues - as the problem might be due to ignorance rather than malice. When Abimelech hears of the complaint, he enters into a covenant with Abraham, whereby he acknowledged Abraham’s right to the well and hence his continued business activity in the region.
In the earlier case of dividing the land with Lot, Abraham gave up what was rightfully his to keep.
Yet here, Abraham doggedly protects what is his. The narrator does not imply that Abraham is again wavering in faith, for the account concludes with worship (Gen. 21:33). Rather, he is a model of a wise and hard-working person who conducts his business openly and makes fair use of appropriate legal protections. In the business of shepherding, access to water was essential. Abraham could not have continued to provide for his animals, workers, and family without it. 1
1 https:// theologyofwork.org/ old-testament/ genesis-12-50-and-work/ abraham-genesis-121-2511/ abrahams-dispute-with-abimelech-genesis-201-16-2122-34
What is the modern application?
Like Abraham, people in every kind of work have to discern when to act generously to benefit others, and when to protect resources and rights for the benefit of themselves or their organizations. There is no set of rules and regulations that can lead us to a mechanical answer. In all situations, we are stewards of God’s resources, though it may not always be clear whether God’s purposes are better served by giving away resources or by protecting them. But Abraham’s example highlights an aspect that is easy to forget. The decision is not only a matter of who is in the right, but also of how the decision will affect our relationships with those around us. 1
In the earlier case with Lot, Abraham’s willing offer of first choice to Lot set the stage for a good long-term working relationship.
In the present case of his demanding access to the well … Abraham ensured the resources needed to keep his enterprise functioning. 1
In addition, it seems that Abraham’s forcefulness actually improved relationships between himself and Abimelech. Remember that the dispute between them arose because Abraham didn’t assert his position when first encountering Abimelech 1 (pretending Sarah was his sister).
Gen 21:27 (ESV) So Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made [karath: cut] a covenant.
Literally “cut a covenant.” The slaughter and cutting of animals 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 is striking for several reasons. 1
It shows that God was willing to prove his devotion to the relationship by offering his own life. 1
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 covenant-making practices. 1
1 https:// www.thattheworldmayknow.com/ a-covenant-guarantee
Gen 21:28-31 (ESV) Abraham set seven ewe lambs of the flock apart. And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs that you have set apart?” He said, “These seven (sheva) ewe lambs you will take from my hand, that this may be a witness for me that I dug this well.” Therefore that place was called Beersheba (Be'er Sheva) because there both of them swore an oath (shava) .
The covenant was sealed with an oath and the 7 lambs set apart from the others as a witness were possibly used in the treaty ceremony. The Hebrew word “oath” (shava) used in verse 23, 24, 31 and 31 is similar to the word for “seven” (sheva) used in verses 28,29 and 30. Hence Beersheba can mean, “well of oath” or “well of seven.”
Seven lambs sealed the covenant between Abraham and Abimelech, but it was one spotless lamb named Jesus who forever sealed God’s covenant with his people.
ISAAC & ABIMELECH
When Isaac moved to their territory, initially Abimelech (probably the son of Abraham’s counterpart) was friendly and ordered his people, “Anyone who harms this man or his wife shall surely be put to death.” (Gen 26:11)
But similar to modern times (e.g. in South Africa), when a foreigner prospers, the local people are resentful.
Gen 26:12-22 (NIV) Isaac planted crops in that land and the same year reaped a hundredfold, because the Lord blessed him. The man became rich, and his wealth continued to grow until he became very wealthy. He had so many flocks and herds and servants that the Philistines envied him.
So all the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the time of his father Abraham, the Philistines stopped up, filling them with earth.
Then Abimelech said to Isaac, “Move away from us; you have become too powerful for us.”
So Isaac moved away from there and encamped in the Valley of Gerar, where he settled. Isaac reopened the wells that had been dug in the time of his father Abraham, which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham died, and he gave them the same names his father had given them. Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and discovered a well of fresh water there. But the herdsmen of Gerar quarrelled with Isaac’s herdsmen and said, “The water is ours!” So he named the well Esek, because they disputed with him.
Then they dug another well, but they quarrelled over that one also; so he named it Sitnah. He moved on from there and dug another well, and no one quarrelled over it. He named it Rehoboth, saying, “Now the LORD has given us room and we will flourish in the land.”
Note how Isaac assumes the role of a peacemaker. Rather than engage in conflict and demand his rights, he simply moves on until God grants him respite.
This Abimelech, who was originally hostile to Isaac, decided to enter a covenant with him, promising mutual respect.
Gen 26:23-31 (ESV) From there he went up to Beersheba… When Abimelech went to him from Gerar with Ahuzzath his adviser and Phicol the commander of his army, Isaac said to them, “Why have you come to me, seeing that you hate me and have sent me away from you?” They said, “We see plainly that the LORD has been with you. So we said, let there be a sworn pact between us, between you and us, and let us make a covenant with you, that you will do us no harm, just as we have not touched you and have done to you nothing but good and have sent you away in peace…” So he made them a feast, and they ate and drank. In the morning they rose early and exchanged oaths…
Isaac would be the forefather of the Israelites while Abimelech was an early Philistine. These two nations would later become bitter enemies. But here, Isaac and Abimelech make a covenant of peace that lasts for at least some time.
Even after being mistreated multiple times (the wells he had dug were filled or taken away, then he was asked to leave their territory), Isaac enters into a covenant of peace with the Philistines.
Likewise although we were God’s enemies he has offered us a covenant of reconciliation and peace. Romans 5:10 says that “while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son” (NIV).
We read of another covenant that was made when the Israelites – led by Joshua – were entering the land of Canaan.
RAHAB & THE SPIES
Crossing the Jordan River, Jericho was the designated first target for conquest.
Then Joshua secretly sent two spies from Acacia Grove.
Go, look over the land, especially Jericho.
So they went and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there.
The king of Jericho was told:
Look, some of the Israelites have come here tonight to spy out the land.
So the king of Jericho sent this message to Rahab:
Bring out the men who came to you and entered your house, because they have come to spy out the whole land.
Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they had come from. At dusk, when it was time to close the city gate, the men left. I don’t know which way they went. Go after them quickly. You may catch up with them.
But she had taken them up to the roof and hidden them under the stalks of flax she had laid out on the roof.
I know that the Lord has given you this land … We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you … and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed.
Before the spies lay down for the night, she went up on the roof and said to them:
When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.
Rahab then requested an covenant of mercy.
Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you.
Our lives for your lives! If you don’t tell what we are doing, we will treat you kindly and faithfully when the LORD gives us the land.
So she let them down by a rope through the window, for the house she lived in was part of the city wall.
This oath will not be binding unless you have tied this scarlet cord in the window through which you let us down, and unless you have brought all your family into your house.
Agreed. Let it be as you say.
So she sent them away and they departed. And she tied the scarlet cord in the window.
When they left, they went into the hills and stayed there three days, until the pursuers had searched all along the road and returned without finding them.
Then the two men started back. They went down out of the hills, forded the river and came to Joshua son of Nun and told him everything that had happened to them.
The Lord has surely given the whole land into our hands; all the people are melting in fear because of us.
After the city fell to the conquering Israelites, Joshua said to the two men who had spied out the land:
Go into the prostitute’s house and bring her out and all who belong to her, in accordance with your oath to her.
So the young men who had done the spying went in and brought out Rahab, her father and mother, her brothers and sisters and all who belonged to her. They brought out her entire family and put them in a place outside the camp of Israel.
The scarlet cord, which symbolised the promise of protection in this covenant, has been regarded as typical of the blood of Christ in the New Covenant, which protects us from God’s righteous anger against sin.
In return for offering the Israelite spies protection, Rahab negotiates a covenant for her family’s protection. And so the Israelites spared the family of Rahab when they saw the scarlet cord which was the sign of their covenant with her.
Rahab was commended as one of the heroes of faith.
Heb 11:31 (NIV) By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.
Just as Rahab was spared death when the Israelites saw the scarlet cord, so God will spare and forgive us when he ‘sees’ the blood of Jesus (which justifies those who are parties of the New Covenant).
Rom 5:10 (NIV) … when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son…
Like Rahab we must have the covenant sign (Jesus’ blood) to spare us from the coming judgment of God.
We noted in our previous study how in a Suzerain-vassal covenant the greater king (the suzerain) would offer protection to the lesser party (the vassal).
So too, our great king promises us protection.
Ps 74:19-21 (NIV) Do not hand over the life of your dove to wild beasts; do not forget the lives of your afflicted people forever. Have regard for your covenant, because haunts of violence fill the dark places of the land. Do not let the oppressed retreat in disgrace; may the poor and needy praise your name.
Interestingly Matthew includes Rahab in the lineage of David and hence Jesus. 1
She married a man called Salmon, was the mother of Boaz and thus the mother-in-law of Ruth.
Ruth was thus the great grandmother of David, while Rahab was his great-great grandmother. Hence this former harlot who covenants with the people of God became an ancestor of the Messiah.
1 Matt 1:5-6 (NIV) Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.
Of the 5 women mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy:
Tamar: pretended to be a prostitute to seduce her father-in-law.
Rahab: a former Canaanite prostitute
Ruth: an accursed Moabitess
Bathsheba: an adulteress
Mary: a suspected adulteress
At least 2 of the 5 - Rahab and Ruth - were Gentiles, with Bathsheba as a possible third (married initially to Uriah the Hittite).
The question might well be, “Why not rather list women who were known and honoured as virtuous Israelites?”
God often places value in those people and things that men despise and reject. He can use anyone to accomplish his purposes and often chooses the despised and humble.
1 Cor 1:26-29 (NIV) Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things - and the things that are not - to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.
THE COVENANT CLOTHING
The closest relative (kinsman redeemer) of Ruth’s late husband chose not to purchase the family’s field, nor to take Ruth as his wife.
Instead, he allowed the next-in-line relative, Boaz to acquire the land and marry Ruth. He yielded up his right to possession by removing his sandal and handing it to Boaz.
Hence the covenant Boaz makes is ratified by one party giving the other party one of his sandals.
Ruth 4:7-8 (NIV) (Now in earlier times in Israel, for the redemption and transfer of property to become final, one party took off his sandal and gave it to the other. This was the method of legalizing transactions in Israel.) So the guardian-redeemer said to Boaz, “Buy it yourself.” And he removed his sandal.
When Jonathan made a covenant with David, he went even farther than this and gave him his own clothing and weapons as a sign of their covenant.
1 Sam 18:3-4 (NIV) And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt.
Jonathan demonstrates his commitment to this solemn covenant by giving David his royal robe. In a symbolic sense, (especially as this practice was understood in ancient times) in the context of covenant, David is “putting on” Jonathan. David is taking on the identity of his covenant partner Jonathan. 1
1 https:// www.preceptaustin.org/ covenant_the_ exchanging_of_robes
Rummel refers to an Akkadian document discovered at Ugarit in which Utrisharruma, a thirteenth–century king of Ugarit, makes a divorce settlement with his queen. The couple’s son, the crown prince, may go with his mother if he wants, but in that case he will abdicate his right to the throne. He must indicate this decision by leaving his clothes on the throne. 1
There is a surrender of self-interest for the covenant partner.
When we remember that Jonathan would normally have succeeded Saul as Israel’s king, his friendship for David is especially impressive. The OT contains no finer example of what it means to be a friend. 2
1 Ibid. 2 The Bible Reader’s Companion
Ralph Davis comments that “Jonathan also stripped himself of his robe and gave it to David, as well as his war coat or armour, his sword, bow, and belt. All this was both significant and surprising; significant because the clothes signify the person and his position — hence Jonathan renounces his position as crown prince and transfers, so far as his own will goes, the right of succession to David.” 1
1 https:// www.preceptaustin.org/ covenant_the_ exchanging_of_robes
.... Jonathan, the king’s son, stands humbly in his undergarment, while the shepherd boy dons the prince’s robe and armament. Jonathan’s act was one of honour, equality, and vulnerability. To wear the robe of a king was an immense honour, as testified by Haman’s fateful request to wear the Persian king’s robe and parade through the streets (cf. Esther 6:6, 7, 8, 9). Jonathan’s symbolic divestiture formally abolished David’s status as a shepherd and placed him side by side as an equal. His disrobing was a conscious display of vulnerability and real risk. 1
Wearing the clothing of the other covenant party meant taking on their identity. So too, Jesus laid aside his royalty, took on our identity and was clothed in flesh.
Phil 2:6-8 (NIV) Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!
Heb 2:11, 14 (NIV) Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters… Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity…
As David, a humble shepherd, gets to wear the robes of royalty because of the covenant love of Jonathan, likewise we bear the name of Christ.
1 Pet 4:16 (NIV) However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.
As covenant partners with Jesus, what is our responsibility because of our new “clothes” and new identity?
To live in such a way that others see Christ’s life not ours. “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20), “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27) and “Christ, who is your life” (Col 3:4).
We must “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord,” our covenant partner (Col 1:10).
THE COVENANT SALT
The Bible refers to “a covenant of salt” and “the salt of the covenant.”
Lev 2:13 (NIV) Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings.
According to the New Oxford Annotated Bible, “of salt” most likely means that the covenant is “a perpetual covenant, because of the use of salt as a preservative.”
E.g. 1: God establishes a priestly “covenant of salt” with Aaron.
Num 18:19 (NIV) “Whatever is set aside from the holy offerings the Israelites present to the LORD I give to you and your sons and daughters as your perpetual share. It is an everlasting covenant of salt before the LORD for both you and your offspring.”
E.g. 2: When God promised David an everlasting kingdom it is called “a covenant of salt.”
2 Chron 13:5 (NIV) “Don’t you know that the LORD, the God of Israel, has given the kingship of Israel to David and his descendants forever by a covenant of salt?”
A Middle Eastern saying, “There is bread and salt between us,” meant that a relationship had been confirmed by sharing a meal. 1
When men ate together they became friends. Cf. the Arabic expressions, “There is salt between us”; “He has eaten of my salt,” which means partaking of hospitality which cemented friendship; cf. “eat the salt of the palace” (Ezra 4:14). Covenants were generally confirmed by sacrificial meals and salt was always present. 2
1 Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (p. 538)
2 International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, revised edition, 1979
However the term “covenant of salt” doesn’t just illustrate the perpetual nature of the covenant but also the friendly nature of it.
In the New Covenant we have not only an eternal covenant, but a covenant of friendship.
Hence when Jesus shares the covenant meal (Last Supper) with his disciples he says, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. ”
(John 15:15, NIV)
Unless otherwise stated, Scripture quotations are taken from the NIV:
THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV®
Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™
Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Scripture quotations taken from the ESV:
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB:
New American Standard Bible®,
Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation
Used by permission. (http://www.Lockman.org)