Definition of Covenant

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Question
What is a covenant?
Answer
A covenant is a common political arrangement in the world of the Bible, typically between a greater king and a lesser king, and so sometimes they're referred to as suzerain — the greater king — and vassal treaties. The divine-human covenants you see in the Bible mirror that because God uses that political convention in order to reveal himself in his relationship with his people. So, the biblical covenants between God and man are a greater king — that is, God — making an arrangement, a commitment, a relationship with a lesser — that is, the people of Israel. There are various definitions offered among Old Testament scholars of what a covenant is. One very popular definition is O. Palmer Robertson's "a bond in blood, sovereignly administered." You see the elements of that. You see a bond; that is, a relationship that is more than just casual; it is a committed relationship. And so, in a covenant, God commits himself to his people, but in return they are to be committed to him as well. It's a bond in blood because sometimes you see, in the Bible, covenants are sealed with a blood ceremony, but what Robertson means, more than that, is a "bond in blood" meaning it's a life and death bond. That is, the relationship is one that can provide life, but the breaking of that relationship can result in death. And it's "sovereignly administered" in that it's not like a contract where two equal parties come together and negotiate a relationship. It's not a relationship with two equals, but it's sovereignly administered in that God is the greater. He offers these covenant relationships, and God's people enter into that relationship with him as their sovereign. Another definition that you might hear is a "love-life bond," because we have to remember that love is what motivates God to make covenant with his people. It's not merely legal. And so, in various traditions you see emphasis on the legal side; in others, you see emphasis on the relational or the love side. But it's a both-and type of relationship, and that relationship has consequences for good or for ill. And so, covenants commonly have curses that go along with the prospect of breaking the covenant, but they also offer blessing for the parties keeping the covenant. And so, in the divine-human covenants of Scripture we see blessedness is the result of walking in the ways of God, keeping his commands, and as a result that relationship is a living relationship where God imparts his divine life to his people.

Answer by Rev. Michael J. Glodo

Rev. Michael J. Glodo is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL.