10 What Exactly is a Covenant?

Remember: God made the world a good place where we could know Him and He could bless us, but we rebelled and brought evil into the world. So God chose one person, Abraham, from whom He made a nation, Israel, so that through this one nation He would save all nations. The Old Testament is their story, the story of God preparing this people so that He could become a human being by being born to a woman of Israel. He did this in order to become the Savior and King of the whole human race, fulfilling His original intention for us to know Him and be blessed by Him.

Foundations – Family – Fulfillment and Failure

King – Kingdoms

Kicked Out – Came Back

I wrote last time about the narrative genre and gave you some advice about how to read it. This time we will look at one of the most important concepts in the Old Testament: the covenant.


One of the most important ideas to understand in the Old Testament is the covenant. As you read you will find covenants 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 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 the 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.

Abrahamic Covenant

A Promissory Covenant

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 the Lord made with Abraham in Genesis 15 that guarentees the promises He gave in Genesis 12 is between the Lord and 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. This is clear because God later says that the promise is not for Abraham’s son Ishmael, but Isaac, and then 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 (Rms. 9:6-7).

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.

There is some complexity to how this covenant was given. First, the Lord gave Abraham the promise we just read above. This was when Abraham was 75 years old. Abraham obeyed the Lord, left his homeland and went to the Promised Land. Twenty-four years later, the Lord again told Abraham that his reward would be very great. Abraham’s response was to question how this can be. A lot of time had passed and he had no child. He frankly told this to the Lord. He was honest with God and expressed his doubts. What Abraham says sounds so much like unbelief that the narrator goes out of his way to tell us that Abraham did believe God, and that God counted this belief as righteousness (Gen. 15:6). Notice how the Lord responded. He didn’t just tell Abraham to trust Him; He went a step further. He had Abraham take five animals and cut them in half and lay the two halves so that there was a path between them. This was the beginning of a covenant ceremony. In a normal covenant ceremony, it is the lesser party who kills the animal and does something symbolic with the body, in this case, walking between the pieces. The implication is that if he breaks the covenant, he and his family will suffer what these animals have suffered. But this covenant ceremony breaks this expectation.

12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. … 17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi[a] of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates— 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.” (Gen. 15:12-21 NIV).

In a shocking twist, it is the Lord, not Abraham, who passes between the pieces, indicating that if this covenant fails, the curse will fall upon Him.

Kings do not do this, but our God did. Here we see again what kind of God He is. Notice, too that there was a barrier to the final fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham. Because Abraham, like all of us, was sinful, there was a price that had to be paid in order for him to be truly and fully blessed. His sin and the guilt of his sin had to be dealt with and we now see that it was the Lord whose body was broken to ensure that these promises were fulfilled.

Paul pointed out that Abraham’s “seed” is singular and 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. 3:16, 29)

Davidic Covenant

A Promissory 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

A Promissory 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.

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

Foundations – Family – Fulfillment and Failure

King – Kingdoms

Kicked Out – Came Back

Questions for Discussion

  1. How would you express what is different between a covenant and a contract?

  2. Since the way a lesser ruler “loved” his master was by being loyal to him and not negotiating with other kings – shopping around for a better deal. How does this apply to your love for Jesus?

  3. Almost all the covenants God made with humans were promissory covenants, not vassal covenants. What do you conclude from this? What would it be like if God made vassal covenants with us?

  4. Could you explain to someone else why it was shocking when God made a covenant with Abraham, that He passed between the pieces of the dead animals? What is God telling us about Himself in this passage in the Old Testament? What is the message for us today? Do you have a friend that would be helped if you told him or her this story?

  5. Jesus fulfills God’s promise to David that his descendants would rule forever. How should the fact that Jesus is not just a savior and teacher, but a king, effect how we think of Him and behave towards Him?

  6. Read Jeremiah 31:31-34. Can you see the salvation offered through Jesus foreshadowed in these verses? How?

  7. Can you explain how a Christian today is connected to the Abrahamic, Davidic and New Covenants?

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

Lesson Nine

Lesson Eleven