8 What Exactly is a Covenant?

This entry is part 8 of 10 in the series Read the Old Testament

Foundations – Family – Fulfillment and Failure

King – Kingdoms

Kicked Out – Came Back


One of the most important ideas to understand in the Old Testament is the covenant. As you read you will find covenants featuring in almost every book. Understanding the covenants of the Old Testament will do most of the work in answering the tough question of what parts of it apply to Christians. But what is a covenant? The word has become one that we sometimes hear, but only have a hazy understanding of.

We don’t tend to use the word covenant very much today but they were the standard legal form for agreements in the ancient world, including Israel. A covenant is a lifelong agreement between two parties that each will do or not do certain things or else they will suffer the wrath of whatever gods are called upon to protect this particular covenant. Notice that in the world of the Old Testament, gods were involved in covenants as enforcers of agreements between humans, but it was almost unheard of for a god to have a covenant with a nation. There are a few vague references to pagan gods making covenants, but the big exception was the Lord, the God of Israel. He was a God who made covenants and this was very unusual. I will get back to this below.

In society today, our legal systems don’t have covenants. Instead we have contracts and treaties. The closest we come to a covenant is marriage, but since marriage is now regulated by governments rather than churches, it has been reduced to just a contract. Contracts and treaties have a lot in common with covenants, but are not identical. For one thing, contracts and treaties can be amended and changed. Covenants cannot be either amended or changed. Also unlike covenants, some contracts and treaties can be canceled without penalty, laid aside, or suspended for a period of time. Once a party enters into a covenant, the only way out is either to die or to violate the terms and suffer the consequences. This was taken very seriously in the ancient world. When something bad happened, such as a drought or plague, the first thing that the priests would do would be to look to see if they king had violated any covenants and so brought on the wrath of a god. They knew that if they broke one, bad things would happen.

There were three different kinds of covenants in the ancient world and all three appear in the Bible, though I’ll only write about the two kinds that are important. The third, the “Parity Covenant” in which two parties of similar strength make promises to each other, is not important for our purposes. First I will tell you the types of covenants, then we’ll talk about the specific covenants in the Old Testament.

Promissory Covenant

Stronger promises to weaker

In this type of covenant, a powerful person, such as a king, promises to do something for one of his loyal subjects. This is why this kind of covenant was sometimes called a “royal grant.” The king gave something, usually land, as a gift to a servant who had been loyal to him. These were always freely given by the king. He was never required to give them and the servant had not earned them, even though the servant had done loyal service for the king. Sometimes, but not always, the king would even promise never to take back what he has given, even if the subject later proved unfaithful. God’s covenants with Noah, Abraham and David are promissory covenants. So is the New Covenant foretold in Jeremiah 31:31-37. These are the “Covenants of Promise” that Paul mentions in Ephesians 2:12. They are different from royal grants in one way. God promises to give a certain blessing in the future. Not one human king ever promised to do something in the future in a royal grant.

Vassal Covenant

Weaker promises to the stronger

In this type of covenant a subject (or “vassal”) of a ruler promises to perform some service for the ruler. If he does not he will suffer destruction. These were often promises made by kings of small countries to the kings of larger countries. They would promise to pay certain taxes and provide soldiers in times of war. They would sometimes also promise to “love” their master by being loyal to them and not negotiating with other kings. The master would also provide benefits to the vassal as long as the vassal kept the requirements of the covenant. Usually he promised military protection from enemies.

Since they were so common in the world of ancient Israel, we see many of them in the Old Testament, such as in Joshua 9 between Israel and the Gibeonites, and the many places where one king or nation was said to “bring tribute” to another (2 Sam. 8:6). However, only one vassal covenant is important for understanding the Old Testament as a whole. This is the Mosaic, or Sinai Covenant. The Sinai Covenant is a vassal covenant between the Lord and the Nation (Sons) of Israel. I’ll discuss the implications of this below.

Let’s look at the important covenants contained in the Old Testament. I will skip the covenant with Noah (Gen. 9:9-17) because it is a promissory covenant that is not hard to understand.


Genesis 12, 15, 17

After God scattered the nations at Babel (Gen. 11:1-9), God chose Abraham to be the man through whom He would establish the nation by which He would bless the world. We know that this ultimately meant that Jesus would descend from Abraham (who was then called Abram). God promised:

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:1-3 NIV)

God guarantees that these promises will come to pass. They are not something people have to earn through good behavior, however, a descendant of Abraham can reject the covenant and not get its blessings. Here, God promised several things:

  1. To bless and protect Abraham,

  2. That a nation would come from him,

  3. That the whole human race would be blessed through him.

  4. He later specifically promises to give the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants (Gen. 15:18-21).

This covenant is from the Lord to Abraham and “his seed” (Gen. 12:7; 15:18; 17:7). The “seed of Abraham” is not the same thing as all his physical descendants because God later says that the promise is not for Abraham’s son Ishmael, but Isaac, and not for Isaac’s son Esau, but Jacob. The seed is also not identical with the nation of Israel, because only those who have faith in God, the same faith Abraham had, are included.

It is important to notice that God does not promise to bless Abraham more than He blesses other nations. It promises to bless not just Abraham, but all who bless Abraham. It is also a promise to bless all the other nations through Abraham.

Paul pointed out that Abraham’s “seed” is singular and so refers to Christ. The New Testament perspective is that all who trust Jesus Christ are joined to Him and therefore are heirs of the promise to Abraham through their connection with Jesus. (Gal. 3: 29)

Davidic Covenant

2 Samuel 7:12-16; Ps. 89:20-37

In this promissory covenant, God swore to King David that one of his descendants would rule forever. Specifically, it promises that David’s son would succeed him as king, that God would not reject this son (Solomon) even if he sins, and that David’s throne would be established forever. This means descendants of David would rule without end. This is not a covenant with Israel, but with David and his Son. Later, David’s descendants were so unfaithful to God that he took them off the throne. This does not violate the covenant He made with David, for this was an interruption in the rule of David’s house, not an end. Even before God took David’s descendants off the throne, the prophet Amos already spoke of the future restoration of “David’s tent” (Amos 9:11). Jesus, the descendant of David, is King of the Universe and this kingdom will have no end. Jesus’ reign fulfills the Davidic Covenant (Luke 1:32-33).

New Covenant

Jeremiah 31:31-34

The New Covenant is prophesied in the Old Testament, but is not made until the New Testament (Luke 22:20, Heb. 8:7-13; 10:15-18). God says that this covenant will be one in which

He will write His law on the hearts of those who are in it. This means they will want to obey Him. They will all know God. They will have total forgiveness of sin. It will not be like the Sinai covenant, which Israel broke. This is looking ahead to the salvation revealed in the New Testament, based on the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus.

Sinai Covenant

Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers

The Sinai Covenant was a vassal covenant between the Lord and the Sons of Israel that Israel freely agreed to while they were camped at Mount Sinai (Ex. 24:3-8). God took Israel to be His special people, the people He rules directly. He instructed them to build a tent for Him to live in among them (The Tabernacle) and later the Temple. So God was actually living on earth among people for the first time since the Garden of Eden. For their part, Israel agreed to obey God’s laws. God also promised them financial and physical blessing if they obeyed the terms of the covenant. If Israel kept the terms of the Covenant (the Law), then they would be blessed more than the other nations. Notice that this is different from the Abrahamic Covenant where God promised to bless all nations through Abraham’s seed. If Israel obeyed, they would have more crops than they would normally expect, their herds would grow quickly, they would be healthy and if anyone attacked them, Israel would lose, even when the enemy was much stronger they them (Deut. 28:1-14).

This was meant to be a way to show Gentiles the benefits of obeying the God of Israel. (Deut. 4:6-8). So Israel was to be a light to the nations (Ps. 67:3,7), but if Israel broke the Law, God would punish them by replacing blessing with cursing. Some of these curses are that their land would produce less than it naturally should. Their armies would lose, regardless of their numbers or strength (Deut. 28:23-25, 38-40). If they ignored these warnings and continued to disobey God, He would enact the curses of the Covenant by expelling them from the Promised Land (Lev. 26:14-39; Deut. 28:64). This is exactly what happened.

Understanding the Sinai Covenant and what it means to Christians is one of the biggest sources of confusion regarding the Old Testament. Because of this, this lesson and the next two will deal with it in one way or another.

How do the Covenants Apply to Christians?

First we need to ask why God worked through covenants. The fact that He did tells us something very important about Him. Did He have to make covenants? Couldn’t God have brought salvation to the world without them? Since everything God says is true, why didn’t He just tell us His plans without the unnecessary addition of promises? Why would He swear oaths and make covenants? The answer is that, yes, of course He could have saved us without making promises and oaths. He always intended to save everyone who trusts Him and this alone was enough to ensure that He would do this, even if He had never told us so.

However, God did not make oaths for His own sake or to make sure He actually did what He said He would do. He swore oaths (which includes making covenants) because He wanted us to be sure that He would not change His purpose. We see this in Hebrews 6:13-18. Of course He Himself knows that He will do what He says, but He wants us to have security, certainty and encouragement. This is also why He chose the covenant to be the form His assurance came in. Covenants were something people were used to and understood, so God used them rather than inventing some other way of relating to His people to help them understand. God’s intentions for the human race have always been good because He is unchanging in his character. No one who goes to Him for refuge will ever be disappointed (Is. 28:16; Rms. 10:11; I Ptr. 2:16). He know this and makes covenants so that we can know it too. He wants us to have peace and certainty that we are safe with Him.

We have seen that the Promissory Covenants of the Old Testament all apply to Christians in one way or another. The Abrahamic covenant was made with Abraham and his seed (singular), which is Jesus Christ, the ultimate seed of Abraham. Since all who trust Christ are joined to Christ, therefore all who trust Christ are included in the promises to Abraham (Gal. 3:15-16, 26-29). The Davidic Covenant is with Jesus, who is our king and we can have confidence that his Kingdom will never end. The New Covenant is the ultimate covenant for us, the one that brings together all the promises of God in Jesus and delivers them to everyone who trusts Him (2 Cor. 1:20).

However, since covenants do not transfer between parties and the Sinai Covenant was made between the Lord and the Sons of Israel, it does not apply directly to Christians. It is true that Israel was the people of God in the Old Testament and the Church is the people of God now, but the Sinai Covenant was not made with “the people of God,” but the Sons of Israel. The Church is a new entity (Eph. 2:15) and so God made a New Covenant with the new entity. Christians are not connected to the Sinai Covenant . It has ended and is not in force. This has a big implication for how you read much of the Old Testament. When the Lord spoke to Israel (or “the children of Israel,” or “the sons of Israel,” or “Judah” or “Ephraim” or “Jacob” these are all collective terms for the nation of Israel or a part of Israel) and gave them particular instructions or promises, He was speaking to them within the context of the Sinai Covenant . Those things He said to Israel are not spoken to you and you should not claim the specific promises He made to Israel that connect to the terms of the Sinai Covenant . However, just because the Sinai Covenant is ended doesn’t mean you it isn’t very valuable for you to read.

The Mosaic Law and Christians

There is a complication. When we talk about the “Law of Moses” we usually are referring to the parts of the Sinai Covenant that described what Israel was supposed to do: the Ten Commandments, instructions for priests, laws regarding personal injury, and so forth. On the other hand, the “law” or “instruction” (or “Torah” to use the Hebrew word) of God is the books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These contain the Law of Moses, but also stories and other content. In the Bible, especially in the New Testament, sometimes “the Law” refers to the Sinai Covenant and sometimes to God’s instructions in general.

The Sinai Covenant has ended, but this does not mean that God’s instructions are not vitally important. This is why God can say that in the New Covenant, His law will not be done away with, but would be written on hearts, even though the Mosaic Law is gone. There is a higher moral law which the Mosaic Law was just a particular outworking of. The moral law of God continues forever because it is just an expression of God’s unchanging goodness. This is why the New Testament can criticize Christians for trying to follow the Law, such as in Galatians, and yet can also say that the requirements of the law are fulfilled in Christians when we live according to the Spirit (Rms. 8:4). God always knew that the human race could never be or become good by following a list of rules like we have in the Sinai Covenant . We need a special kind of help from God to change us from the inside. Israel’s failure to keep the law God gave them demonstrates to everyone that this is true. Of course, if someone thinks they can do better than Israel, they are free to try for themselves by living their lives according to a list of rules. Sadly, many people are very busy on this very project, especially in churches.

Since the goal of this course is to help you begin to read the Old Testament, not to make you an expert, I will not spend a lot of time on how to interpret the Mosaic Law. If you regard it as having been given to Israel, that it doesn’t apply to you the way it applied to Old Testament Israel, but that it reflects God’s unchanging moral nature, you have made a good start. As you become more familiar with it you will see more and more how it shows the kind of world God wants for us. What you should never do is think that it is somehow bad.

God’s giving the Law to Israel was actually one of the greatest acts of grace in the history of His dealings with humanity. Not only did it tell them what He desires, and give deep insight into His character, but it is also an indescribably useful description of reality. The Law gives us much insight into how God wants us to live and why. More than this, though, it is God’s Word and so has a particular power to heal the human soul. Over and over the Old Testament says that filling your mind with God’s instructions will change your heart, heal your soul and transform your life (Ps.1; Ps 119; Josh. 1:7-9)

This is not the same thing as saying, “If you keep these rules, then God will reward you, or you will get good things, or God will love you more, or that your soul will be healed.” By the time of Jesus, many people in Israel had taken God’s instructions to be something they did in their own strength so that they would be more worthy of God’s blessing. The Law could never actually bring blessing in this way because God’s love is not something to be earned. If we don’t understand this, we don’t really know what He is like. We can never earn good things from God, as if God would owe us something, but God’s Word inherently has the power to bring wholeness to the human heart when we accept it and let it fill our minds.

I’ll close with a verse that reminds us that there are moral principles which are underneath the Law of Moses and that this idea is not even a New Testament one. God reminded Israel of this when His prophet said in Micah 6:8.

He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (NASB)

This is what God wants from every person: that we live in a humble relationship with Him doing justice and loving kindness.

Here are the major covenants of the Old Testament.


With Whom

What God will do

Human conditions


Where located


Human race and animals

Maintain a stable natural order


Gen. 9 (8:21-9:17)


Abraham and his seed

Blessing, land, bless all nations

Personal Faith


Gen. 12,15,17


Sons of Israel

Bless Israel above the other nations if they keep the Law

Keep the Law

Sabbath Keeping

Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers


David and his son

Ensure a descendant of David would rule forever

None stated

2 Sam. 7:8-16, Ps. 89:20-37; 132:11-18


All who believe

Write Law on Hearts, forgive sins

Personal Faith

Baptism, Lord’s Supper

Jer. 31:31-34

Old Testament History Chart:

Name Famous stories and people
Foundations Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood
Family Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph
Fulfillment and Failure Moses, the 10 plagues, Exodus, 10 Commandments, wilderness wandering

Joshua, Jericho, Rahab, Deborah, Gideon, Samson, Samuel, Ruth

Kings Saul, David, Solomon
Kingdoms Elijah, Elisha, Ahab, Jonah, Hezekiah, Josiah, Isaiah, Jeremiah
Kicked Out Ezekiel, Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar, Fiery furnace
Came Back Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther
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