What is Covenant?

Covenant and redemption are biblical concepts that were once very familiar in many ancient civilizations, but are much less familiar in modern western civilization. In our modern western society, the primary relationship that we still recognize in covenant terms is the covenant of marriage. Modern weddings retain many of the ancient traditions of covenant ceremony, and the vows are generally made with solemn awareness of the sacredness of the marriage covenant.

In fact, many of the ancient covenant traditions have been retained in modern wedding ceremonies despite their meaning having been largely forgotten. Consider the tradition of the bride and groom cutting the wedding cake and feeding it to each other. How many couples are aware that they are acting out an ancient rite of covenant, breaking bread and feeding it to each other, in a symbolic act of partaking of each other’s nature, “this is my body” (Matthew 26:26)?

A covenant is a formal promise, or promises, made under sacred oath, while solemnly calling on God to witness and enact the covenant. In our modern western society, the ancient tradition of covenant has been largely replaced by legal contracts. However, unlike legal contracts, covenant also includes, and relies on, the relationship formed under the sacred vow as well as God’s involvement as judge over the keeping of the covenant.

Ancient Semitic cultures relied on the tradition of covenant as a fundamental fabric of society. For example, if a purchase of land was made, a covenant was cut between the seller and the purchaser, in which the property was deeded over to the seller. However, the covenant did not stop with the transaction. It continued on as a relationship, in which the buyer relied on the seller to defend his ownership rights to the property.

Similarly, a debt or loan was based on a covenant, in which the borrower agreed to repay the loan to the lender. Once the debt was repaid, the debt covenant was ended. However, if the borrower was unable to pay back the loan, then he was required to serve the lender as a slave until such time as the loan could be repaid.

The most sacred of all covenants is the blood covenant, in which two parties are joined as blood brothers, agreeing to defend and protect each other. Through the blood covenant, friends become mutual friends, family becomes mutual family, and enemies become mutual enemies. In the case of marriage, which is considered a blood covenant, “the two shall become one flesh” (Matthew 19:5).

Kingdoms are based on a blood covenant between the king and the people of the kingdom, such as the covenant described in 2 Samuel 5:3 as being cut between King David and the Kingdom of Israel.

Covenants are an inheritance, passed down from father to son. It is through this covenant inheritance that ownership of property is passed to the next generation. Likewise a debt covenant is passed from father to son, and the son is responsible for repaying his father’s debts. In the same way, it is through covenant inheritance that an heir to the throne is established upon the death of a king.

Many traditions, rich in symbolism, surround the ancient rite of cutting a covenant. A blood covenant often included a letting and mixing of blood, rubbing dirt or ink into the wound to form a permanent scar or tattoo, the mark of the covenant.

The covenant ceremony frequently included a covenant meal. The covenant meal included drinking red wine to represent partaking of each other’s life, and eating bread to symbolizing partaking of each other’s nature.

A blood covenant ceremony often included an exchange of clothes and of weapons, indicating a putting on of each other’s nature, strength, and protection. It also often included an exchange of names, in which a covenant partner was given a new name, indicating that their identity had been changed in association with their new covenant partner.  Even today, a bride usually takes her groom’s last name in keeping with this ancient covenant tradition.

A blood covenant ceremony sometimes included a walk through death in which animals were killed and cut in half with the halves laid out on either side of an aisle down the middle. The covenant partners would then walk a figure-eight through the halves of the animal carcasses, while reciting solemn vows, calling on God as witness, pointing at the dead animals, declaring, “Thus may the Lord do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me” (Ruth 1:17).

The walk through death represented a dying to their former life and beginning a new life as one with their covenant partner. From this moment on, they counted themselves dead to their former life and alive to a new life with their covenant partner.

In the New Testament Church, believer baptism carries symbolism very similar to the walk through death. The Apostle Paul said, in regard to the covenant rite of baptism, “…consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11).

The Bible is full of examples of covenant and of covenant references. Some of the more significant biblical covenants include the following:

  1. Adam was created in covenant with God (Genesis 1:27 & 2:7, Hosea 6:7).
  2. When Adam sinned, he entered into covenant with the kingdom of darkness (Isaiah 28:15-18). Pursuant to Adam’s sin, scripture frequently refers to the relationship of mankind (Adam’s heirs) with the kingdom of darkness (a.k.a. sin, death, Sheol, deception, lies, the world, the flesh, father of lies, the evil one, or prince of darkness) in terms of a blood covenant relationship.
  3. After the great flood, God made a covenant with the earth, setting the rainbow as the mark of the covenant (Genesis 9:8-17).
  4. God cut a covenant with Abraham, in which God, himself, walked the figure-eight walk through death, and gave Abraham a new name and the sign of circumcision as the mark of the covenant (Genesis 15:1-21 & 17:1-22).
  5. Pharaoh cut a covenant with Joseph, through which Joseph’s father, Jacob (Israel), and his family were later granted property in Egypt and provision during the seven-year famine (Genesis 41:39-45).
  6. God cut a covenant with the Nation of Israel through which He became their God and Israel became His people (Exodus 24:1-11). The terms of the covenant (the ten commandments) were carved in stone tablets and placed inside the sacred Ark of the Covenant.
  7. Jesus cut a new covenant with the Father, on our behalf, through the shedding of His own blood and the tearing of His own flesh (Matthew 26:26-28 & Hebrews 9:1-28).

Our God, the God of the Bible, is a covenant God. God invites those He loves to enter into covenant with Him, then faithfully acts on the basis of His covenant promises. God remembers His covenant promises to His children, and eternally lavishes His loving-kindness on those with whom He is in a covenant relationship. Through covenant relationship, God imparts His nature to us, and causes our hearts to be conformed to His image. All of God’s interaction with mankind is based on covenant.

God created man in His own image. We, as His creation, as His children, as His covenant partners, are to honor and live out our covenants in faithfulness, just as He honors and lives out His covenants.

However, God never uses covenant as a tool to enslave or abuse, nor does He desire for His children to be enslaved in a covenant that has become abusive bondage. For His children who have become enslaved in abusive relationships, God offers redemption from covenants of bondage.


Author’s Note: This page is comprised largely of excerpts from my book, So You are a Believer…Who has been through Divorce…  To read more, click here.