Covenant - Vine's Expository Dictionary of Old Testament Words

Usage Number: 1
Strong's Number: H1285
Original Word: berît

Usage Notes: "covenant; league; confederacy." This word is most probably derived from an Akkadian root meaning "to fetter"; it has parallels in Hittite, Egyptian, Assyrian, and Aramaic. Berît is used over 280 times and in all parts of the Old Testament. The first occurrence of the word is in Gen. 6:18: "But with thee [Noah] will I establish my covenant."

The kjv translates berît fifteen times as "league": "… Now therefore make ye a league with us" (Josh. 9:6). These are all cases of political agreement within Israel (2 Sam. 3:12-13, 21; 2 Sam. 5:3) or between nations (1 Kings 15:19). Later versions may use "covenant," "treaty," or "compact," but not consistently. In Judg. 2:2, the kjv has: "And ye shall make no league with the inhabitants of this land…." The command had been also given in Exod. 23:32; Exod. 34:12-16; and Deut. 7:2-6, where the kjv has "covenant."

The kjv translates berît as "covenant" 260 times. The word is used of "agreements between men," as Abraham and Abimelech (Gen. 21:32): "Thus they made a covenant at Beer-sheba…." David and Jonathan made a "covenant" of mutual protection that would be binding on David's descendants forever (1 Sam. 18:3; 1 Sam. 20:8, 16-18, 42). In these cases, there was "mutual agreement confirmed by oath in the name of the Lord." Sometimes there were also material pledges (Gen. 21:28-31).

Ahab defeated the Syrians: "So he made a covenant with [Ben-hadad], and sent him away" (1 Kings 20:34). The king of Babylon "took of the king's seed [Zedekiah], and made a covenant with him, and hath taken an oath of him…" (Ezek. 17:13, niv, "treaty"). In such "covenants," the terms were imposed by the superior military power; they were not mutual agreements.

In Israel, the kingship was based on "covenant": "… David made a covenant [kjv, "league"] with them [the elders of Israel] in Hebron before the Lord…" (2 Sam. 5:3). The "covenant" was based on their knowledge that God had appointed him (2 Sam. 5:2); thus they became David's subjects (cf. 2 Kings 11:4, 17).

The great majority of occurrences of berît are of God's "covenants" with men, as in Gen. 6:18 above. The verbs used are important: "I will establish my covenant" (Gen. 6:18), literally, "cause to stand" or "confirm." "I will make my covenant" (Gen. 17:2, rsv). "He declared to you his covenant" (Deut. 4:13). "My covenant which I commanded them…" (Josh. 7:11). "I have remembered my covenant. Wherefore …I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians" (Exod. 6:5-6). God will not reject Israel for their disobedience so as "to destroy them utterly, and to break my covenant with them …" (Lev. 26:44). "He will not … forget the covenant … which he sware unto them" (Deut. 4:31). The most common verb is "to cut [karat] a covenant," which is always translated as in Gen. 15:18: "The Lord made a covenant with Abram." This use apparently comes from the ceremony described in Gen. 15:9-17 (cf. Jer. 34:18), in which God appeared as "a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp [flaming torch] that passed between those pieces" (Gen. 15:17). These verbs make it plain that God takes the sole initiative in covenant making and fulfillment.

"Covenant" is parallel or equivalent to the Hebrew words dabar ("word"), hoq ("statue"), piqqud ("precepts", Psa. 103:18, nasb), ‘edâ ("testimony", Psa. 25:10), tôrâ ("law", Psa. 78:10), and hesed ("lovingkindness", Deut. 7:9, nasb). These words emphasize the authority and grace of God in making and keeping the "covenant," and the specific responsibility of man under the covenant. The words of the "covenant" were written in a book (Exod. 24:4, 7; Deut. 31:24-26) and on stone tablets (Exod. 34:28).

Men "enter into (Deut. 29:12) or "join" (Jer. 50:5) God's "covenant." They are to obey (Gen. 12:4) and "observe carefully" all the commandments of the "covenant" (Deut. 4:6). But above all, the "covenant" calls Israel to "love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might" (Deut. 6:5). God's "covenant" is a relationship of love and loyalty between the Lord and His chosen people. "… If ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people … and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation" (Exod. 19:5-6). "All the commandments… shall ye observe to do, that ye may live, and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the Lord sware unto your fathers" (Deut. 8:1). In the "covenant, " man's response contributes to covenant fulfillment; yet man's action is not causative. God's grace always goes before and produces man's response. Occasionally, Israel "made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord, and to keep his commandments …, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book" (2 Kings 23:3). This is like their original promise: "All that the Lord hath spoken we will do" (Exod. 19:8; Exod. 24:7). Israel did not propose terms or a basis of union with God. They responded to God's "covenant."

The wholly gracious and effective character of God's "covenant" is confirmed in the Septuagint by the choice of diatheke to translate berît. A diatheke is a will that distributes one's property after death according to the owner's wishes. It is completely unilateral. In the New Testament, diatheke occurs 33 times and is translated in the kjv 20 times as "covenant" and 13 times as "testament." In the rsv and the nasb, only "covenant" is used.
The use of "Old Testament" and "New Testament" as the names for the two sections of the Bible indicates that God's "covenant" is central to the entire book. The Bible relates God's "covenant" purpose, that man be joined to Him in loving service and know eternal fellowship with Him through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ.

Vine's Expository Dictionary of Old Testament Words