Theology Thursday: What Are the Biblical Covenants?

By Brett A. Berger, ThM

Man conducting Bible study

For a long time, I had a tough time understanding the Bible. That is not to say that I have all my questions answered now. It is simply to say that when I read the Bible in the past, there seemed to be a disconnection between my expectations, my preconception, and what the Bible said. It was difficult for me to see how the whole thing fit together, especially when it came to the relationship between the Old and New Testaments.

A Conceptual Gap

Part of this difficulty is the distance of time, space, and culture that stands between the texts of the Bible and me. A major gap stands between 21st century America and first-century Palestine that can make understanding difficult. Why is so much ink spent on circumcision? Why is eating meat such a moral dilemma for these people? Why are the Samaritans so despised?

However, there was a concept that made almost everything make sense once I understood it. The concept is covenant, and I would argue that it is one of the most important concepts to understand if you want to understand the Bible rightly.

The Concept of Covenant

A covenant in the ancient world was similar to what we in the modern world would call a contract, treaty, or a will. Each covenant established the basis of a relationship, conditions for that relationship, promises and conditions of the relationship and consequences if those conditions were unmet. One of the most familiar examples of a covenant for us is marriage.

Why do I think understanding covenant is so important? It is because the covenants provide the skeletal framework for how the whole biblical story holds together. As the story of the Bible unfolds, we see God is a covenant making, covenant keeping, and covenant fulfilling God. God establishes covenants with certain people and these covenants are the way God unfolds his redemptive plan. The covenants are the structure of the story.

The Biblical Covenants

There are several covenants in the Bible, but five covenants are crucial for understanding the story of the Bible and God’s redemptive plan: the Noahic Covenant, the Abrahamic Covenant, The Mosaic Covenant, the Davidic Covenant and the New Covenant.

The Noahic Covenant

From Genesis 9, this is a covenant God establishes with Noah after the flood in which he resets and renews the blessings of creation, reaffirming God’s image in humanity and the work of dominion. This covenant promises the preservation of humanity and provides for the restraint of human evil and violence.

The Abrahamic Covenant

See Genesis 12 and 15. This is the most central to the biblical story. In it, God promises Abraham a land, descendants and blessing. This blessing promised to Abraham would extend through him to all the peoples of the earth. Understanding the Abrahamic Covenant is paramount to understanding theological concepts like a Promised Land, election, the people of God, inheritance and so on. It provides context for understanding practices like circumcision, conflicts with surrounding nations and divisions between Jews and Gentiles.

The Mosaic Covenant

See Exodus 19 and 24. This is the covenant God establishes with the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai after he led them out of Egyptian slavery. With it, God supplies the Law that is meant to govern and shape the people of Israel in the Promised Land. This Law was not a means of salvation but would distinguish the people from the surrounding nations as a special kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:1-7). This covenant was conditional and defined blessings and curses based on obedience or disobedience (see Deuteronomy 28-29). Understanding the Mosaic Covenant is foundational to understanding the cycles of blessing and curse in the Old Testament, the exiles of Israel and Judah, the disputes between Jesus and the Pharisees and Paul’s pastoral teachings about law and grace.

The Davidic Covenant

See 2 Samuel 7. This is the covenant where God promises a descendant of David to reign on the throne over the people of God. It is a continuation of the earlier covenants in that it promises a Davidic king as the figure through whom God would secure the promises of land, descendants, and blessing. This covenant becomes the basis for hope of a Messiah and makes sense of the Gospels’ concern to show Jesus was the rightful King of the Jews.

The New Covenant

See Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Luke 22:14-23. This is language first used in Jeremiah’s promise of rescue and renewal of the exiled people of God in Babylon. It promises a coming day when God would make a new covenant unlike the one which Israel had broken. This coming day would bring forgiveness of sin, internal renewal of the heart, and intimate knowledge of God. On the night of Jesus’s Last Supper, Jesus takes the cup and declares that his death would be the inauguration of this new covenant.

These five covenants provide the skeletal framework and context for practically every page of the Bible. They are fundamental to understanding the Bible rightly. The Old Testament covenants establish promises that look forward to fulfillment. Much of the New Testament is concerned to show how Jesus Christ fulfills these covenant promises and what life should look like for a people living in the New Covenant inaugurated by his death and resurrection.

Hopefully, this brief explanation of the biblical covenants will be a starting point to help you move toward greater understanding of the Bible as it did for me.

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