An agreement between two or more persons to do or refrain from doing some act; a compact; a contract. The Hebrew word berithʹ, whose etymology is uncertain, appears over 280 times in the Hebrew Scriptures; more than 80 of these occurrences are in the five books of Moses. That its basic meaning is “covenant,” comparable to our modern legal word “contract,” is seen from cuneiform tablets found in 1927 at Qatna, an ancient non-Israelite city SE of Hamath. “The contents of the two tablets [of 15 found] are simple. Tablet A contains a list of names . . . Tablet B is a ration list . . . List A is thus a compact in which the men in question . . . agree to enter someone’s service or to carry out certain obligations. List B, written by the same scribe, then illustrates the nature of the compact; the men were to receive specified rations in return for their services. . . . the Israelite concept of berit, ‘covenant,’ was a central theme in Yahwist theology. Here we have the first published extra-biblical occurrence of the word from early times—not later than the first third of the fourteenth century B.C.”—Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, February 1951, p. 22.
In some translations of the Christian Greek Scriptures the word di·a·theʹke is variously rendered “covenant,” “will,” “testament” (testamentum, Vg). However, M’Clintock and Strong’s Cyclopædia (1891) says, under “Covenant”: “There seems, however, to be no necessity for the introduction of a new word [other than “covenant”] conveying a new idea. The Sept[uagint] having rendered [berithʹ] (which never means will or testament, but always covenant or agreement) by [di·a·theʹke] consistently throughout the O.T., the N.T. writers, in adopting that word, may naturally be supposed to intend to convey to their readers, most of them familiar with the Greek O.T., the same idea. Moreover, in the majority of cases, the same thing which has been called a ‘covenant’ (berithʹ) in the O.T. is referred to in the N.T. (e.g. 2Cor. iii, 14; Heb. vii, ix; Rev. xi, 19); while in the same context the same word and thing in the Greek are in the English [in KJ] sometimes represented by ‘covenant,’ and sometimes by ‘testament’ (Heb. vii, 22; viii, 8-13; ix, 15).”—See also NW appendix, pp. 1584, 1585.
Repeatedly in the book of Hebrews (Heb 7:22; 8:6, 8, 9, 10; 9:4, 15, 16, 17, 20) the writer uses the word di·a·theʹke with undeniable reference to a covenant in the old Hebrew sense, even quoting from Jeremiah 31:31-34 and referring to “the ark of the covenant.” In translating these verses of Jeremiah, the Greek Septuagint uses di·a·theʹke for the ancient Hebrew berithʹ, meaning “covenant.” Also, Hebrews 9:20 quotes from Exodus 24:6-8, where a covenant is unmistakably spoken of.
Application of the Word. Covenants always involved two or more parties. They could be unilateral (where the party on one side was solely responsible to carry out the terms) or bilateral (where parties on both sides had terms to carry out). Besides the covenants in which God is a party, the Bible records the making of covenants between men, and between tribes, nations, or groups of persons. To break a covenant was a grievous sin.—Eze 17:11-20; Ro 1:31, 32.
The term “covenant” is applied to a sure ordinance, such as that concerning the showbread (Le 24:8), or to God’s creation governed by his laws, as the unchangeable succession of day and night (Jer 33:20); it is also used figuratively, as in the expression “covenant with Death.” (Isa 28:18) Jehovah also speaks of a covenant in connection with the wild beasts. (Ho 2:18) The marriage compact is called a covenant. (Mal 2:14) The expression “owners (masters) of a covenant” has the sense of “confederates,” as at Genesis 14:13.
In effect, any promise made by Jehovah is a covenant; it is certain to be carried out; it can be relied on with confidence for its fulfillment. (Heb 6:18) A covenant is in force as long as the terms of it are operative and the obligation to perform rests on one or both parties. The results or the blessings brought about by the covenant may continue, even forever.
Methods of Ratifying a Covenant. God was often invoked as a witness. (Ge 31:50; 1Sa 20:8; Eze 17:13, 19) An oath was sworn. (Ge 31:53; 2Ki 11:4; Ps 110:4; Heb 7:21) Men at times arranged a sign or witness, such as a gift (Ge 21:30), a pillar or heap of stones (Ge 31:44-54), or the naming of a place (Ge 21:31). Jehovah used a rainbow in one instance. (Ge 9:12-16) One method was to kill and divide animals, the covenanting parties passing between the pieces; from this custom came the standard Hebrew idiom ‘cut a covenant.’ (Ge 15:9-11, 17, 18, ftn; Jer 34:18, ftn, 19) At times festivities accompanied the making of alliances. (Ge 26:28, 30) A communion meal might be participated in, as in conjunction with the making of the Law covenant. (Ob 7; Ex 24:5, 11) The superior party might present to the other some article of his dress or arms. (1Sa 18:3, 4) Some pagan nations followed the custom of drinking one another’s blood or blood mixed with wine (in violation of God’s prohibition to all persons, at Genesis 9:4, and to Israel under the Law), and the covenanters uttered the strongest curses on the party who should later violate the covenant.
The Bible uses the expression “covenant of salt” to denote the permanence and immutability of a covenant. (Nu 18:19; 2Ch 13:5; Le 2:13) Among ancient peoples it was a sign of friendship to eat salt together and denoted enduring fidelity and loyalty; the eating of salt with communion sacrifices symbolized perpetual loyalty.
Written Instruments. The Ten Commandments were written on stone by “God’s finger” (Ex 31:18; 32:16); Jeremiah wrote a deed, affixed a seal, and took witnesses (Jer 32:9-15); clay tablets of ancient peoples have been found, setting forth the terms of contracts. Often these were sealed within clay envelopes.
The Edenic Promise. Jehovah God, at Genesis 3:15, stated his purpose prophetically in the garden of Eden in the presence of Adam, Eve, and the “serpent.”
As to the identity of those involved in this promise and prophecy: The vision given to the apostle John, at Revelation 12:9, informs us that the “serpent” is Satan the Devil. Evidence indicates that the “seed” of the “woman,” long looked for by righteous men, is to be identified with the “seed” of Abraham, Jesus Christ. (Ga 3:16; Mt 1:1) The “seed” was to be bruised in the heel by the serpent. Jesus Christ was put to death, a wound that proved not to be permanent, however, for God raised Jesus out of death. But the “seed” is, in turn, to bruise the serpent’s head, defeating him permanently.
Who is the “woman” involved in the covenant? Certainly not Eve, who had become God’s enemy. In order to defeat, “bring to nothing,” the spirit creature Satan the Devil, the “seed” would have to be, not human, but spirit. (Heb 2:14) Jesus at birth was a human Son of God, but at the time of Jesus’ baptism God acknowledged him as His Son, sending holy spirit down upon him. Jesus here became the spirit-begotten Son of God. (Mt 3:13-17; Joh 3:3-5) Later, at his resurrection, he was “made alive in the spirit.” (1Pe 3:18) Who, then, was the “mother,” not of the human babe Jesus but of the spirit-begotten Son of God? The apostle Paul says that Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Hagar, and Ishmael figured in a symbolic drama, in which Isaac represented those who had heavenly hopes, including Paul himself. Paul then states that their “mother” is “the Jerusalem above.” Jesus Christ calls these his “brothers,” indicating they have the same mother. (Heb 2:11) This provides a basis for identifying the “woman” of Genesis 3:15 with “the Jerusalem above.”—Ga 4:21-29.
The terms of the promise imply a lapse of time during which the “serpent” would bring forth a “seed” and enmity would develop between the two ‘seeds.’ Some 6,000 years have passed since the statement of the promise. Just prior to Christ’s Thousand Year Reign the “serpent” will be hurled into the abyss of inactivity, and following the end of the thousand years he will be annihilated forever.—Re 20:1-3, 7-10; Ro 16:20.
Covenant With Noah. Jehovah God made a covenant with Noah, who represented his family, with regard to His purpose to preserve human and animal life while destroying the wicked world of that day. (Ge 6:17-21; 2Pe 3:6) Noah had begun to have sons after he was 500 years old. (Ge 5:32) At the time God revealed this purpose to Noah, his sons were grown and married. Noah, on his part, was to build the ark and take in his wife, his sons, and his sons’ wives, as well as animals and food; Jehovah was to preserve flesh on earth, both of man and animals. Noah’s obediently keeping the terms of the covenant resulted in Jehovah’s preservation of human and animal life. The covenant was completely fulfilled in 2369 B.C.E., after the Flood, when men and animals were again able to live on the ground and to reproduce their kind.—Ge 8:15-17.
Rainbow Covenant. The rainbow covenant was made between Jehovah God and all flesh (human and animal), as represented by Noah and his family, in 2369 B.C.E., in the mountains of Ararat. Jehovah stated that he would never again destroy all flesh by means of a flood. The rainbow was then given as a sign of the covenant, which endures as long as mankind lives on earth, that is, forever.—Ge 9:8-17; Ps 37:29.
Covenant With Abraham. The covenant with Abraham apparently went into effect when Abram (Abraham) crossed the Euphrates on his way to Canaan. The Law covenant was made 430 years later. (Ga 3:17) Jehovah had spoken to Abraham when he was living in Mesopotamia, in Ur of the Chaldeans, telling him to travel to the country that God would show him. (Ac 7:2, 3; Ge 11:31; 12:1-3) Exodus 12:40, 41 (LXX) tells us that at the end of 430 years of dwelling in Egypt and in the land of Canaan, “on this very day” Israel, who had been in slavery in Egypt, went out. The day they were delivered from Egypt was Nisan 14, 1513 B.C.E., the date of the Passover. (Ex 12:2, 6, 7) This would seem to indicate that Abraham crossed the Euphrates River on his way to Canaan on Nisan 14, 1943 B.C.E., and evidently that is when the Abrahamic covenant took effect. God appeared to Abraham again after he had traveled into Canaan as far as Shechem and enlarged on the promise, saying, “To your seed I am going to give this land,” thereby giving an indication of the connection of this covenant with the promise in Eden, and revealing that the “seed” would take a human course, that is, would run through a human line of descent. (Ge 12:4-7) Other enlargements by Jehovah were later expressed, as recorded at Genesis 13:14-17; 15:18; 17:2-8, 19; 22:15-18.
The covenant promises were passed on to Abraham’s posterity through Isaac (Ge 26:2-4) and Jacob. (Ge 28:13-15; 35:11, 12) The apostle Paul says that Christ (as primary one) and those in union with Christ are the real “seed.”—Ga 3:16, 28, 29.
God revealed the purpose and accomplishments of the Abrahamic covenant, saying that through Abraham the seed of promise would come; this seed would possess the gate of his enemies; Abraham’s seed through Isaac would number many, uncountable to man at that time; Abraham’s name would be made great; the seed would possess the Promised Land; all families of the earth would bless themselves by means of the seed. (See above texts from Genesis.) There was a literal fulfillment of these things, which was typical of the greater fulfillment through Christ. Paul gives additional information as to the symbolic and prophetic nature of the terms of this covenant when he says that Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Hagar, and Ishmael enacted a symbolic drama.—Ga 4:21-31.
The Abrahamic covenant is “a covenant to time indefinite.” Its terms require that it extend on until the destruction of all God’s enemies and the blessing of the families of the earth have been accomplished.—Ge 17:7; 1Co 15:23-26.
In discussing the Abrahamic and the Law covenants, Paul stated the principle that “there is no mediator where only one person is concerned,” and then he added that “God is only one.” (Ga 3:20; see MEDIATOR.) Jehovah made the covenant with Abraham unilaterally. It was in reality a promise, and Jehovah set forth no conditions that Abraham must meet in order for the promise to be fulfilled. (Ga 3:18) Thus, no mediator was needed. On the other hand, the Law covenant was bilateral. It was made between Jehovah and the nation of Israel, with Moses as mediator. The Israelites agreed to the terms of the covenant, making a sacred promise to obey the Law. (Ex 24:3-8) This latter covenant did not invalidate the Abrahamic covenant.—Ga 3:17, 19.
Covenant of Circumcision. The covenant of circumcision was made in 1919 B.C.E., when Abraham was 99 years old. Jehovah made the covenant with Abraham and his natural seed; all males of the household, including slaves, were to be circumcised; anyone refusing was to be cut off from his people. (Ge 17:9-14) Later, God stated that the alien resident who desired to eat the passover (one who wished to become a worshiper of Jehovah with Israel) would have to circumcise the males of his household. (Ex 12:48, 49) Circumcision served as a seal of the righteousness Abraham had by faith while in the uncircumcised state, and it was a physical sign of the covenant relationship of Abraham’s descendants through Jacob, with Jehovah. (Ro 4:11, 12) God recognized circumcision until the ending of the Law covenant, in 33 C.E. (Ro 2:25-28; 1Co 7:19; Ac 15) Even though physical circumcision was carried on under the Law, Jehovah repeatedly showed that he was more concerned with its symbolic significance, counseling Israel to ‘circumcise the foreskin of their hearts.’—De 10:16; Le 26:41; Jer 9:26; Ac 7:51.
Law Covenant. The Law covenant between Jehovah and the nation of natural Israel was made in the third month after their leaving Egypt, in 1513 B.C.E. (Ex 19:1) It was a national covenant. One born a natural Israelite was, by birth, in the Law covenant and was thus in this special relationship with Jehovah. The Law was in the form of a code, arranged in an orderly way, its statutes grouped together. The Law, transmitted through angels by the hand of a mediator, Moses, was made operative by a sacrifice of animals (in the place of Moses, the mediator, or “covenanter”) at Mount Sinai. (Ga 3:19; Heb 2:2; 9:16-20) At that time Moses sprinkled half the blood of the sacrificed animals on the altar, then he read the book of the covenant to the people, who agreed to be obedient. Afterward he sprinkled the blood upon the book and upon the people. (Ex 24:3-8) Under the Law, a priesthood was established in the house of Aaron, of the family of Kohath of the tribe of Levi. (Nu 3:1-3, 10) The high priesthood passed by descent from Aaron to his sons, Eleazar succeeding Aaron, Phinehas succeeding Eleazar, and so forth.—Nu 20:25-28; Jos 24:33; Jg 20:27, 28.
The terms of the Law covenant were that if the Israelites kept the covenant they would be a people for the name of Jehovah, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, with His blessing (Ex 19:5, 6; De 28:1-14); if they violated the covenant, they would be cursed. (De 28:15-68) Its purposes were: to make transgressions manifest (Ga 3:19); to lead the Jews to Christ (Ga 3:24); to serve for a shadow of the good things to come (Heb 10:1; Col 2:17); to protect the Jews from false, pagan religion and preserve the true worship of Jehovah; to protect the line of the seed of promise. Added to the covenant with Abraham (Ga 3:17-19), it organized the natural seed-nation of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob.
The Law covenant extended benefits to others not of natural Israel, for they could become proselytes, getting circumcised, and could receive many of the Law’s benefits.—Ex 12:48, 49.
How did the Law covenant become “obsolete”?
However, the Law covenant became in a sense “obsolete” when God announced by means of the prophet Jeremiah that there would be a new covenant. (Jer 31:31-34; Heb 8:13) In 33 C.E. the Law covenant was canceled on the basis of Christ’s death on the torture stake (Col 2:14), the new covenant replacing it.—Heb 7:12; 9:15; Ac 2:1-4.
Covenant With the Tribe of Levi. Jehovah made a covenant with the tribe of Levi, that the entire tribe should be set aside to constitute the tabernacle service organization, including the priesthood. This occurred in the wilderness of Sinai, in 1512 B.C.E. (Ex 40:2, 12-16; Mal 2:4) Aaron and his sons, of the family of Kohath, were to be priests, the remaining families of Levi taking care of other duties, such as setting up the tabernacle, moving it, and other matters. (Nu 3:6-13; chap 4) Later, they served likewise at the temple. (1Ch 23) The installation services for the priesthood were carried out Nisan 1-7, 1512 B.C.E., and they began serving on Nisan 8. (Le chaps 8, 9) The Levites had no inheritance in the land, but received tithes from the other tribes, and had enclave cities in which to dwell. (Nu 18:23, 24; Jos 21:41) On account of Phinehas’ zeal for exclusive devotion to Jehovah, God made a covenant of peace with him, a covenant for the priesthood to time indefinite for him and his offspring. (Nu 25:10-13) The covenant with Levi continued in operation until the ending of the Law covenant.—Heb 7:12.
Covenant With Israel at Moab. Just before Israel entered the Promised Land, in 1473 B.C.E., Jehovah made a covenant with natural Israel at Moab. (De 29:1; 1:3) Much of the Law was here restated and explained by Moses. The purpose of the covenant was to encourage faithfulness to Jehovah and to make adjustments and set forth certain laws necessary for the Israelites as they changed from a life of wandering to a settled life in the land. (De 5:1, 2, 32, 33; 6:1; compare Le 17:3-5 with De 12:15, 21.) This covenant ended with the abolition of the Law covenant, for it was an integral part of the Law.
Covenant With King David. The covenant with David was made at some time during David’s reign in Jerusalem (1070-1038 B.C.E.), the parties being Jehovah and David as representative of his family. (2Sa 7:11-16) The terms of this covenant were that a son from David’s line would possess the throne forever, and that this son would build a house for Jehovah’s name. God’s purpose in this covenant was to provide a kingly dynasty for the Jews; to give Jesus, as David’s heir, the legal right to the throne of David, “Jehovah’s throne” (1Ch 29:23; Lu 1:32); and to provide identification for Jesus as the Messiah. (Eze 21:25-27; Mt 1:6-16; Lu 3:23-31) This covenant included no priesthood; the Levitical priesthood served in conjunction with kings of David’s line; priesthood and kingship were strictly separate under the Law. Since Jehovah acknowledges this kingship and works through it forever, the covenant has everlasting duration.—Isa 9:7; 2Pe 1:11.
Covenant to Be a Priest Like Melchizedek. This covenant is expressed at Psalm 110:4, and the writer of the Bible book of Hebrews applies it to Christ at Hebrews 7:1-3, 15-17. It is a covenant made by Jehovah with Jesus Christ alone. Jesus apparently referred to it when making a covenant for a kingdom with his followers. (Lu 22:29) By Jehovah’s oath Jesus Christ, the heavenly Son of God, would be a priest according to the manner of Melchizedek. Melchizedek was king and priest of God on earth. Jesus Christ would hold both offices of King and High Priest, not on earth, but in heaven. He was installed permanently into office after his ascension to heaven. (Heb 6:20; 7:26, 28; 8:1) The covenant is forever in operation, since Jesus will act under Jehovah’s direction as King and High Priest forever.—Heb 7:3.
New Covenant. Jehovah foretold the new covenant by the prophet Jeremiah in the seventh century B.C.E., stating that it would not be like the Law covenant, which Israel broke. (Jer 31:31-34) On the night before his death, Nisan 14, 33 C.E., when he established the celebration of the Lord’s Evening Meal, Jesus Christ announced the new covenant, to be validated by his sacrifice. (Lu 22:20) On the 50th day from his resurrection and 10 days after he had ascended to his Father, he poured out the holy spirit, which he had received from Jehovah, on his disciples gathered in an upper room in Jerusalem.—Ac 2:1-4, 17, 33; 2Co 3:6, 8, 9; Heb 2:3, 4.
The parties to the new covenant are Jehovah, on one side, and “the Israel of God,” the spirit-begotten ones in union with Christ, making up his congregation or body, on the other side. (Heb 8:10; 12:22-24; Ga 6:15, 16; 3:26-28; Ro 2:28, 29) The new covenant is made operative by the shed blood (the sacrifice of the human life) of Jesus Christ, the value of which was presented to Jehovah after Jesus’ ascension to heaven. (Mt 26:28) When one is selected by God for the heavenly calling (Heb 3:1), God brings that one into His covenant over Christ’s sacrifice. (Ps 50:5; Heb 9:14, 15, 26) Jesus Christ is the Mediator of the new covenant (Heb 8:6; 9:15) and is the primary Seed of Abraham. (Ga 3:16) By means of Jesus’ mediatorship of the new covenant, he assists those in the covenant to become part of the real seed of Abraham (Heb 2:16; Ga 3:29) through forgiveness of their sins. Jehovah declares them righteous.—Ro 5:1, 2; 8:33; Heb 10:16, 17.
These spirit-begotten, anointed brothers of Christ become underpriests of the High Priest, “a royal priesthood.” (1Pe 2:9; Re 5:9, 10; 20:6) These do a priestly work, a “public service” (Php 2:17), and are called “ministers of a new covenant.” (2Co 3:6) These called ones must follow Christ’s steps closely, faithfully, until laying down their lives in death; Jehovah will then make them a kingdom of priests, making them sharers in divine nature, and will reward them with immortality and incorruption as joint heirs in the heavens with Christ. (1Pe 2:21; Ro 6:3, 4; 1Co 15:53; 1Pe 1:4; 2Pe 1:4) The purpose of the covenant is to take out a people for Jehovah’s name as a part of Abraham’s “seed.” (Ac 15:14) They become the “bride” of Christ, and are the body of persons whom Christ takes into a covenant for the Kingdom, to rule with Him. (Joh 3:29; 2Co 11:2; Re 21:9; Lu 22:29; Re 1:4-6; 5:9, 10; 20:6) The purpose of the new covenant requires that it continue in operation until all of the “Israel of God” are resurrected to immortality in the heavens.
The benefits from that accomplished purpose will be everlasting, and for this reason it can be called “an everlasting covenant.”—Heb 13:20.
Jesus’ Covenant With His Followers. On the night of Nisan 14, 33 C.E., after celebrating the Lord’s Evening Meal Jesus made this covenant with his faithful apostles. To the 11 faithful apostles he promised that they would sit on thrones. (Lu 22:28-30; compare 2Ti 2:12.) Later, he showed that this promise extended to all spirit-begotten ‘conquerors.’ (Re 3:21; see also Re 1:4-6; 5:9, 10; 20:6.) On the day of Pentecost he inaugurated this covenant toward them by the anointing with holy spirit of those disciples present in the upper room in Jerusalem. (Ac 2:1-4, 33) Those who would stick with him through trials, dying his kind of death (Php 3:10; Col 1:24), would reign with him, sharing his Kingdom rule. The covenant remains operative between Jesus Christ and these associate kings forever.—Re 22:5.
Various Other Covenants. (a) Joshua and the chieftains of Israel with the inhabitants of the city of Gibeon to let them live. Though they were cursed Canaanites, whom the Israelites were to destroy, yet a covenant was considered so binding that the Gibeonites were allowed to live, but the curse was carried out by making them gatherers of wood and drawers of water for the assembly of Israel. (Jos 9:15, 16, 23-27) (b) Joshua with Israel to serve Jehovah. (Jos 24:25, 26) (c) The older men of Gilead with Jephthah at Mizpah to make him head over the inhabitants of Gilead if Jehovah gave him victory over the Ammonites. (Jg 11:8-11) (d) Between Jonathan and David. (1Sa 18:3; 23:18) (e) Jehoiada the priest with the chiefs of the Carian bodyguard and of the runners. (2Ki 11:4; 2Ch 23:1-3) (f) Israel with Jehovah to put away foreign wives. (Ezr 10:3) (g) Jehovah to give his servant as a covenant of (for) the people. (Isa 42:6; 49:8) (h) David with all the older men of Israel, at Hebron. (1Ch 11:3) (i) A covenant of the people, during Asa’s reign, to search for Jehovah with all their heart and soul. (2Ch 15:12) (j) Josiah with Jehovah to keep Jehovah’s commandments, according to the Law. (2Ch 34:31) (k) The “braggarts” who ruled Jerusalem were erroneously thinking they were safe in “a covenant with Death.”—Isa 28:14, 15, 18.