(including new covenant/new testament)

Young People's Bible Dictionary

by Barbara Smith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965)

covenant. An agreement between two persons (or more), or between God and man. For covenants between men, see Gen. 21 27; Deut. 7:2; 1 Sam. 18:3; 1 Kings 20:34. The covenant between God and his people, Israel, is the subject of the O.T. In Jer 7:23 there is an explanation of this covenant. See also Gen. 17:1-7; Ex. 19:5; Deut. 5:2; Jer. 31:31-34; Matt. 26:27-28; 1 Cor. 11:25; Eph. 2:12. The word "testament," as in Old or New Testament, means covenant. 2 Cor. 3:14.

Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

covenant (Heb. berith), a formal agreement or treaty between two parties with each assuming some obligation. In the Hebrew Bible, a covenant might be a pact of mutuality concerning individuals, such as Laban and Jacob (Gen. 31:44-54) or David and Jonathan (1 Sam. 18:3; 23:18); states or other political units, such as Abraham and the Amorites (Gen. 14:13), Abraham and Abimelech, king of Gerar (Gen. 21:22-32), Abner and David (2 Sam. 3:12-13, 21), David and the people (2 Sam. 5:3), Solomon and Hiram (1 Kings 5:12), and Asa and Ben-hadad (1 Kings 15:18-19); husband and wife (cf. Mal. 2:14; Ezek. 16:8).

A covenant also might be imposed by a greater power upon a lesser one. The greater power demands loyalty and obligates itself to the protection of the lesser one, such as Israel and the Gibeonites (Josh. 9) and the request by Jabesh-gilead of the king of Ammon (1 Sam. 11:1-2). The vast majority of the references to covenant in the Bible are to such a treaty—the covenant that God makes with Israel at Sinai. This covenant must be understood on the basis of political and judicial categories.

The Sinai Covenant: The framework of the Sinai Covenant has significant affinities with suzerain-vassal treaties from the ancient Near East, specifically, the Hittite treaties of the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries b.c. and the Assyrian treaties of the seventh and sixth centuries b.c. In these documents a suzerain makes a treaty with a lesser kingship. The main elements of the Hittite treaty, for example, are: the identification of the treaty-maker (i.e., the great king); a historical introduction (prior beneficial acts done by the great power on behalf of the smaller one); the stipulations (the primary demand is for loyalty); a list of divine witnesses; and blessings and curses. The treaty was recited, a ceremonial meal eaten, and the treaty deposited at the feet of the idol.

The narrative concerning the Sinai Covenant in Exod. 19-24 has similar elements: the identification of God and his saving acts for Israel (Exod. 19:4-6; 20:2); the stipulations (Exod. 20:3-23:33); the treaty recital (Exod. 24:7); and the ceremonial meal (Exod. 24:9-11). The other elements appear particularly in Deuteronomy. The deposit of the treaty in the Ark of the Covenant is mentioned in Exod. 25:16; 40:21; Deut. 10:1-5; and 31:25-26 (the Ark elsewhere is called the footstool of God, Pss. 99:5; 132:7-8; 1 Chron. 28:2). Witnesses appear in the form of ‘heaven and earth’ (Deut. 4:26; 30:19; 31:28), in ‘this book of the Torah’ (Deut. 31:26), and the ‘Song of Moses’ (Deut. 31:19, 21). Blessings and curses are listed in Leviticus 26 and Deut. 27:11-28:68 (cf. 29:17-27). This political structure emphasizes the seriousness of the relationship between God and Israel and ipso facto eliminates the possibility of foreign alliances (e.g., Isa. 31:1-3; Jer. 2:18, 36).

The judicial element of the Sinai Covenant is manifested in the stipulations, which are the law of the nation. Now, any crime committed is against God, whether it be ritual or civil. Israel is apparently unique in its perception that all its law is divinely given.

A further social element contained in the Sinai Covenant is the familial one. The Israelites are called God’s children in Deut. 14:1 (see also Exod. 4:22 and Deut. 32:9-12, 18 with Exod. 19:4). Furthermore, the stipulations and even the covenant are called Torah (Deut. 31:25-26), which originally means ‘teaching’ or ‘instruction.’ Within the context of the covenant it is equivalent to law, but if Proverbs (e.g., 3:1; 4:2; 7:2) uses torah in its original social context—as parent instructing child—then its usage in the covenant may suggest the analogy of God instructing Israel.

Covenants with Abraham and David: The Sinai Covenant is depicted as conditional; Israel must keep the stipulations (familial, societal, dietary, ritual, agricultural, etc.) or suffer severe punishment. The two other primary divine covenants, those with Abraham (Gen. 15) and David (2 Sam. 7; Ps. 89:1-38), were originally perceived as unconditional. These two covenants are patterned after the promissory royal grant of the ancient Near East as, also, attested in Hittite and Assyrian documents. Under this kind of covenant, fiefs are granted to loyal servants by the king and require no further action on behalf of the grantee. Gen. 17:1-14 does demand circumcision of Abraham and his descendants, but this is only a sign of the covenant, and therefore of a loyalty that is to be expected.

The Davidic covenant assures David of a permanent dynasty in which the Davidic king is depicted metaphorically as the son of God (2 Sam. 7:14; Pss. 2:7-8; 89:27-28) in terminology reminiscent of other ancient Near Eastern documents. There is, however, a tendency to view the Davidic covenant as conditional and dependent on obedience to the Sinai Covenant (1 Kings 2:4; 8:25; 9:4-9; Ps. 132:12). This view was that of the minority and reflects the ideology of the editor of 1 and 2 Kings.

The Davidic covenant captivated the popular imagination, which saw in it a promise of permanent security in the continued stability of government, worship (centered in the Temple), and life of the people. As such, it ran contrary to the conditionality of the Sinai Covenant taught in the Pentateuch and understood by the prophets as dominant. The prophets did believe in the ultimate validity of the Davidic covenant, though, as expressed in their prophecies of messianic expectation.

Obedience to the stipulations of the Sinai Covenant was perceived by the prophets as necessary for the continued existence of Israel on its land. The covenant in its strict sense of a suzerain-vassal treaty, did not, however, totally define the relationship between God and Israel. It only served as a prevalent image of that relationship. When Israel broke the covenant, therefore, the relationship was not destroyed. According to the prophets, the relationship was permanent and the breaking of the covenant once it had taken place was viewed only as a momentary setback. Thus, Jer. 31:27-37 (building upon Hos. 2) predicts the people’s return, growth, and prosperity followed by God’s establishing a new covenant with Israel. The uniqueness of this covenant lies not in its content, which is identical to the Sinai Covenant (the Torah, v. 33), but in its form—it will be given internally. The covenant will become part of the nature of each individual, so that obedience is guaranteed (v. 34). Thus, it is unbreakable, and its eternality is assured (vv. 35-37; cf. Jer. 32:36-44). Thereby, Jeremiah was able to depict a future in which by an act of God’s mercy, sin, the lack of repentance, and the consequent catastrophic punishment would no longer exist.

In the NT: NT authors, influenced by the idea of a new covenant, saw in the death of Jesus of Nazareth the beginning of it (Mark 14:24; 1 Cor. 11:25) and saw his followers as members of that new covenant (cf. 2 Cor. 3:6), although that did not annul the first covenant given to Israel (Luke 1:72; Acts 3:25; Gal. 3:17). The Letter to the Hebrews makes the greatest use of covenant language in the nt (e.g., Heb. 7:22; 8:8-13; 9:15; 12:24).

New Testament, the collection of writings comprising the second portion of the Christian Scriptures, the first part being the ot.

Origin of the Name: ‘New Testament’ (nt) is a variant translation of ‘new covenant.’ The background of the concept is Jer. 31:31-34, a passage influential in both the Qumran community and early Christianity (1 Cor. 11:25; 2 Cor. 3:6; Heb. 8:8-13; 9:15; 12:24; cf. Luke 22:20 in some manuscripts). In the latter, the term new covenant is used of a new declaration of God’s will in Jesus, not, at this early period, of Christian writings.

The transfer of the terminology to a collection of Christian writings was a natural extension, however, given Paul’s use of ‘old covenant’ to refer to the writings of the Mosaic covenant (2 Cor. 3:14), usage followed in the second century by the Christian writer Melito of Sardis. The transition may be tracked in an unnamed anti-Montanist writer of a.d. 160-180, quoted by the fourth-century church historian Eusebius, who speaks of not wanting to add to ‘the word of the new covenant of the gospel’; in Tertullian (second and third centuries a.d.), who says, ‘If I fail in resolving this article [of our faith] by passages which may admit of dispute out of the Old Testament, I will take out of the New Testament a confirmation of our view…both in the gospels and in the [writings of the] apostles’; and the great Christian scholar Origen’s contention, ‘we take in addition, for the proof of our statements, testimonies from what are believed by us to be divine writings, that is, from that which is called the Old Testament and that which is called the New.’ By the fourth century, it was common practice to refer to the then canonical Christian writings as the nt.

Contents of the Canon: Although disagreements among Christians about the contents of the nt are fewer than about the ot, unanimity has not been reached (e.g., some branches of the Syriac church do not include 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation; certain Protestant scholars, following Martin Luther, who would not accept Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation as of equal authority with the rest, argue for a ‘canon within the canon,’ a smaller core that is truly normative within the larger twenty-seven-book whole). Roman Catholics by virtue of the Council of Trent (April 8, 1546) and most Protestants by virtue of custom (e.g., Anglican Articles 6: ‘All the books of the New Testament as they are commonly received, we do receive’) accept a twenty-seven-book nt that corresponds to the list of Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria in a.d. 367...

The New Covenant: The nt speaks about the new covenant God established with his people (as foretold in Jer. 31:31-34). Whereas the covenant instituted through Moses at Sinai was based on the gracious initiative of God in the Exodus (Exod. 20:2; Deut. 5:6) and was broken by a faithless people (Jer. 31:32), the new covenant is rooted in God’s grace in and through Jesus the Christ (1 Cor. 11:25) and is enabled by a new ingredient. In the new covenant, God not only graciously set people in relationship with himself but also acted at Calvary, on Easter, and at Pentecost so as to assume responsibility for his people’s faithfulness to the relationship. This good news is variously expressed in the Christian Bible: for example, God puts his law within his people, writing it on their hearts (Jer. 31:33); there is a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:6); the Christians’ righteousness or faithfulness to the relationship is enabled by the indwelling Christ whose faithfulness to God in the days of his flesh is now lived out in and through the believers (Phil. 3:9; Col. 1:27); life in the new covenant is an abiding in Christ in which he abides in the believers, enabling them thereby to bear fruit (John 15:4-5).

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