How Do You Understand the Covenants of the Bible? (Part 2)

In much of the Scriptures, there is mention of covenants.

For a start, what is the meaning of the Hebrew word for covenant? Every instance in the Old testament is translated from the Hebrew word בְּרִית bĕriyth. A few times the Hebrew word is translated as confederate or league, but in most of those places, covenant could have been used instead. The word bĕriyth is from a root with the sense of “cutting”, because pacts or covenants were made by passing between cut pieces of flesh of an animal sacrifice. So actually, the expression “make a covenant” literally means “cut a covenant.” This becomes very obvious in the covenant of circumcision. Genesis 15:9-11, 17-18 shows the passing between cut pieces of flesh. Genesis 15:9-11 reads: “So He said to him, ‘Bring Me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.’ Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, down the middle, and placed each piece opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds in two.”  Genesis 15:17-18 continues: “And it came to pass, when the sun went down and it was dark, that behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a burning torch that passed between the pieces. On the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying: ‘To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates…’”

Many covenants can be compared with formal and personal contracts when God is involved. They establish relationships, especially between individuals.

The first occurring covenant in the Bible, other than the covenant of day and night (Jeremiah 33:25), is that of marriage, although it is mentioned directly only in a way that it was not being kept correctly. Malachi 2:14-16 answers the question as to why God was not receiving the offerings from their hands (compare verse 13): “Yet you say, ‘For what reason?’” God answers: “Because the LORD has been witness Between you and the wife of your youth, With whom you have dealt treacherously; Yet she is your companion And your wife by covenant. But did He not make them one, Having a remnant of the Spirit? And why one? He seeks godly offspring. Therefore take heed to your spirit, And let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth. For the LORD God of Israel says That He hates divorce…”

The first time a covenant was mentioned specifically in the book of Genesis is in chapter 6:18. God was about to destroy the earth with a flood because of all the evil upon it. He told Noah because of his righteousness, “…I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall go into the ark—you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.” The contents of this covenant is stated in Genesis 9:11-17: “‘Thus I establish My covenant with you: Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood; never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ And God said: ‘This is the sign of the covenant which I make between Me and you, and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I set My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be for the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. It shall be, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the rainbow shall be seen in the cloud; and I will remember My covenant which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. The rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will look on it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’ And God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is on the earth.’”

We can be very grateful for this covenant knowing that a flood will not destroy all flesh as it states “for perpetual generations” and an “everlasting covenant”. Interestingly, both “perpetual” and “everlasting” are translated from the same Hebrew word that is also translated “continuance, always, without end.” The fact that God uses it twice in the one passage proves its certainty.

The next covenant mentioned was given to one man, Abram, but, as we will see, the blessings of this covenant were also to his descendants. God had described this man as righteous in Genesis 15:6: “And he believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.” The covenant is stated in Genesis 15:18. At this time, Abram had just experienced a disturbing prophetic dream: “On the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying: ‘To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…’”

In that Scripture, we see that God had promised Abram descendants. But Sarai was barren up until this time. So, at her suggestion, Abram fathered a son through Hagar, Sarai’s maid. This caused upset between Sarai and Hagar and so Hagar finished up fleeing into the wilderness to escape from Sarai. Here, as related in Genesis 16:10, “…the Angel of the LORD said to her, ‘I will multiply your descendants exceedingly, so that they shall not be counted for multitude,’” and that she was to name her son Ishmael (compare verse 11). So now Abram has a son, Ishmael, whom God is going to bless greatly. And the fact that God was going to bless Ishmael is repeated three more times in later passages. However, Ishmael was not Abram’s descendant through whom God would fulfill His promise to Abram to give him the land, as we will see.

In Genesis 17 God made another covenant with Abram, one that was much more comprehensive than the previous covenant. Beginning in Genesis 17:1-9, we read: “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless. And I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.’ Then Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying: ‘As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall be a father of many nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be called Abraham; for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you. Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.’ And God said to Abraham: ‘As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations.’”

This is the first time in the Bible that God introduces Himself as God Almighty or “El Shaddai” (compare verse 1). According to the Soncino commentary, there are numerous ways to explain the meaning of these Hebrew words, including “being‘sufficient’”; “your God and Protector”; “being victorious and mighty over all”; and other interpretations. Shaddai (Almighty) has also been derived from a root meaning ‘to heap benefits’; and it would then mean ‘Dispenser of Benefits’, the friend who shepherds the patriarchs and preserves them from all harm. God is reassuring Abram that even though his hopes may be dim at times, nothing is impossible to God Almighty.

Then God made a further covenant with Abraham, the covenant of circumcision, also referred to in Acts 7:8. Genesis 17:10-11 reads: “This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you.”

So now we also see that this covenant in Genesis 17:1-9 has a sign, that of circumcision, just like the covenant with Noah had a sign, that of the rainbow. The difference is that circumcision was itself a covenant, as well as a sign, while the rainbow was a sign, but not a covenant.

Then God spoke about Sarai, that her name was to be changed to Sarah and that she would be a mother of nations; kings and peoples will be from her at ninety years old. This was such a miraculous thing that God here reveals her age, something He does with no other woman in the Bible.

In Genesis 17:18-21, we read: “And Abraham said to God, ‘Oh, that Ishmael might live before you!’ Then God said: ‘No, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you. Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall beget twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this set time next year.’” So, as mentioned before, Ishmael was to be greatly blessed, but the covenant blessings God promised to Abraham were to pass down through Isaac.

After Isaac was born, and when he was weaned, Abraham had a great feast to celebrate the occasion (compare Genesis 21:8). Ishmael, up until this time had been Abraham’s only son, but now was relegated into second place, as he was not the offspring of Sarah, but of Sarah’s maid. On this occasion, he laughed at or ridiculed Isaac (verse 9). Galatians 4:29 says, he persecuted Isaac: “But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now.” Sarah asked Abraham to “cast out” Ishmael and his mother, but the matter was “very displeasing in his sight” (Genesis 21:11).  So God comforted Abraham again showing him that Ishmael would be blessed. Genesis 21:12-13 states: “But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not let it be displeasing in your sight because of the lad or because of your bondwoman. Whatever Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice; for in Isaac your seed shall be called. Yet I will also make a nation of the son of the bondwoman, because he is your seed.”

Again, Ishmael would be blessed but God emphasised the covenant blessings would pass through Isaac. In Genesis 21:18, when Ishmael was dying of thirst, God again reveals that Ishmael would be a great nation when He said to Hagar: “Arise, lift up the lad and hold him with your hand, for I will make him a great nation.” This is the fourth time God has promised blessings to Ishmael.

Of course, God’s covenants with Abraham were not the only covenants mentioned in the Bible. In the same chapter, there arose a dispute over a well that Abimelech’s servants had seized. Abimelech denied knowledge of this so Abraham and Abimelech made a covenant at Beersheba in which Abraham made a witness of the covenant by giving seven ewe lambs to Abimelech. They were a “witness” or we might say, a sign of this covenant. In this instance, they swore an oath and made a covenant (compare Genesis 21:27-32.)

As an aside, when Abraham died, both Isaac and Ishmael buried Abraham where Sarah had been buried in the field of Heth (compare Genesis 25:9-10). This implies that Ishmael was aware of the happenings in the land of his birth, so even though he was not living with his father, he was living close enough to travel to the burial.

The continuation of the covenants and their blessings occur with Isaac’s sons, Esau the firstborn and Jacob. In Genesis 25:27, we read: “So the boys grew. And Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field; but Jacob was a mild man, dwelling in tents.” He may have been mild, but he was also cunning. After all, his name meant supplanter.

In Genesis 26:3-5, God again reminded Isaac of the oath He had sworn to Abraham after Abraham had shown that he was willing to sacrifice Isaac: “Dwell in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; for to you and to your descendants I give all these lands, and I will perform the oath which I swore to Abraham your father. And I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven; I will give to your descendants all these lands; and in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; because Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.”

Galatians 3:16 explains that the promises which God gave to Abraham included the promise of the “Seed”—Jesus Christ—and that through Him, all the nations of the earth would be blessed (compare Genesis 22:18). The covenant which God established with Isaac makes specific mention of the promise of the Seed.  It was a prophecy of the Messiah to come, and it was still because of Abraham’s righteousness, not because of anything Isaac had done. But of course, Isaac had to agree to the covenant which God wanted to make with him, which he obviously did.

In the book of Luke 1:72-73, we read that God would “perform the mercy promised to our fathers And to remember His holy covenant, The oath which He swore to our father Abraham.” The implication of this verse is that the oath God swore and the covenant are closely related and the covenant was established and confirmed by an oath.  In fact, the terms oath and covenant are used together, as we will see.

During this time another covenant was made between Isaac and Abimelech that Isaac would not harm Abimelech or his people since he recognized that God was with Isaac (compare Genesis 26:28-30).

(To Be Continued)

Lead Writer: Paul Niehoff (Australia)