We don’t talk a lot about covenants today. But we should. They’re one of the most important themes in the Bible because they act as the skeletons upon which the entire redemptive story is built. They’re like the backbone of the Bible. From Genesis on, God enters into one formal relationship after another (i.e., covenants) with various humans in order to rescue his world. These divine-human relationships push that narrative forward until it reaches its climax in Jesus. Thus, to tell the story of God redeeming his people through Jesus is to tell the story of God’s covenantal relationship with his people.
Pretty important, right? That’s why we’re going to explore the key biblical covenants. But before we do, let’s back up and consider what a “covenant” is and how the covenantal story all began.
What’s A Covenant?
A covenant is a chosen relationship or partnership in which two parties make binding promises to each other and work together to reach a common goal. They’re often accompanied by oaths, signs, and ceremonies. Covenants contain defined obligations and commitments, but differ from a contract in that they are relational and personal. Think of a marriage. In love, a husband and wife choose to enter into a formal relationship binding themselves to one another in lifelong faithfulness and devotion. They then work as partners to reach a common goal, like building a career or raising children together. That’s a covenant.
This type of relationship is very common in the Bible. There were personal covenants between two individuals (think David and Jonathan in 1 Samuel 23), political covenants between two kings or nations (again, think King Solomon and King Hiram in 1 Kings 5), legal covenants with a nation (like the laws about freeing Hebrew slaves), and so forth. Covenanting was part and parcel of what it meant to live in the ancient near east. It makes sense then that a merciful God would reach out to humans to reveal himself and bring about reconciliation through a structure they already understood. How strategic!
The Beginning of the Covenantal Story
Like every good story, the covenantal story began long ago in a land far, far away—the garden of Eden. It’s there that God created humans in his image to be in relationship with him and to act as partners to help him spread goodness throughout the world. The word “covenant” (Heb. berit) isn’t explicitly used in Genesis 1-3, but the details of the relationship are similar.
Our first parents, Adam and Eve, were to live as priest-kings on God’s behalf, replicating and ruling over the world and representing his righteousness to all (this is often referred to as the “cultural mandate”). They would enjoy the blessings of eternal life with God as long as they didn’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. To do so, however, would bring the curse of death on humanity. Easy-peasy, right?
Wrong. Unfortunately, we humans didn’t live up to our end of the deal. Imagine that. Adam and Eve chose to disbelieve God and trust their own instincts about right and wrong. They sinned against God, fracturing the human-divine relationship, and plunged humanity into sin and death. This “fall” accounts for the brokenness and corruption we experience in the world today. We’d be stuck in the wreckage of Genesis 3 were it not for divine intervention through the covenants. Thankfully, the rest of the Bible describes how God sets out to repair this broken partnership with humans.
Cue the covenants.
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A Quick Guide to Five Key Covenants
There’s no consensus on the number of divine covenants. There are, however, five explicit covenants that form the backbone of the Bible: those God makes with Noah, Abraham, Israel, and David and the New Covenant inaugurated by Jesus. You’ll want to know these as they keep the narrative moving along until we get to the climax of the story—Jesus!
1. Noahic Covenant: God enters a formal relationship with Noah and all living creatures promising that despite humanity’s evil he will never again destroy them. Rather, he will preserve the world as he works towards fulfilling the promise of Genesis 3:15, rescuing humanity and creation through the offspring of the woman. He reiterates the cultural mandate (Genesis 1:28), inviting humans to partner with him in filling and ruling his world.
Scripture: Genesis 8:20-9:17
Situation: After Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden, the narrative is pretty grim. In Genesis 4, Cain sides with the Serpent, killing his brother in cold blood, and a man named Lamech brags about his murderous, chauvinistic ways. Genesis 5 repeats the refrain “and he died” eight times revealing how death reigned over humanity. Then there’s this weird story in Genesis 6 that’s meant to show the rapid advancement of evil. Sin has enveloped the whole world. So God sends a destroying flood upon the earth to purge it of wickedness, making way for a restored creation that will begin with Noah and his family.
Stipulation(s): None. It’s an unconditional covenant grounded in the promise of God to never again destroy the world until redemption is fully accomplished.
Sign: Rainbow (Genesis 9:12-17). God has withdrawn his weapons of war and his warrior’s bow will remain at rest until the final day of judgment.
2. Abrahamic Covenant: God enters a redemptive partnership with Abraham, developed progressively in Genesis 12, 15, and 17. He promises Abraham a huge family that will inherit a promised piece of land in Canaan and bring universal blessing to all humanity through his family. You can remember these promises like this: 1) offspring, 2) land, and 3) universal blessing.
Scripture: Genesis 12, 15, and 17
Situation: The covenant with Noah provided the circumstances in which redemption could come but wasn’t redemptive in and of itself. Evil continued to reign over the world. Genesis 9-11 traces the downward spiral of mankind, peaking in the story of the tower of Babel. There, humans tried to overthrow God’s authority by building a new world center to exalt themselves above God. It was humanity’s way of giving God the finger, revealing the nature of the human heart. God scatters the nations in judgment and we’re left to wonder, How in the world will humanity be saved?! But, in a stunning act of grace, God selects Abraham and calls him into a covenantal relationship.
Stipulation(s): Abraham is to leave his land and follow God wherever he leads, walking blamelessly before God and training his family to do what is right and just, and keeping circumcision in every generation. This is both a conditional and unconditional covenant. God and man each have a part to play, but ultimately these promises will be fulfilled because God will see to it that they come to pass.
Sign: Circumcision (Genesis 17:9-14). A symbol setting this family apart to God, showing that their fertility and future lay in God’s hands.
3. Mosaic Covenant (Israel): God rescues Israel from slavery in Egypt and promises to make them his own treasured possession, a holy, set apart nation. He will personally dwell in their midst and bring them into the promise land. He (Yahweh) will be their God and they (Israel) will be his people. Moreover, they will be a kingdom of priests that mediate his goodness and glory to all the nations. An epic role in redemptive history.
Scripture: Exodus 19-24
Situation: Exodus opens with Abraham’s offspring multiplying rapidly in Egypt. It’s like a really big family now, which threatens the new Pharaoh’s ego. He forces God’s people to become slave-laborers in his building campaigns. They cry out to God and God hears them, sending Moses to be his instrument of divine power to lead them out of Egypt towards the promise land. When they reach the foot of Mt. Sinai God shows up in a big way (like huge!) to revisit his promises made to Abraham and enter a formal relationship with Israel.
Stipulation(s): This was a conditional covenant of grace. Israel was to obey the terms embodied in all the laws given at Mt. Sinai (summarized in the ten commandments). God promised to bring blessings if they followed his commands, but curses if they disobeyed (see Deuteronomy 28), most notably exile into foreign lands. (And we get the feeling in Deuteronomy 30:1 that the water is poisoned from the start.)
Sign: Sabbath (Exodus 31:12-18). A sign that God sanctified and set apart Israel to be holy unto him.
4. Davidic Covenant: God establishes David as king over Israel and promises to make his name great. He’ll give David a royal kingdom in which the promises made to Abraham and Israel will be fulfilled through his lineage. God will raise up a Davidic descendant who will build a house for the Lord and his throne and kingdom will last forever. God’s steadfast love will never depart from him.
Scripture: 2 Samuel 7; Psalm 72, 89, and 132
Situation: God’s people enter Canaan and eventually demand a king so they could be like the other nations. Saul from the tribe of Benjamin is anointed, but fails to obey God so he’s rejected as king. God then chooses David, the son of Jesse, from the tribe of Judah. (This should peak your interest. Wasn’t there supposed to be a messianic ruler from the line of Judah?) David becomes a successful leader, overcoming Israel’s enemies and restoring the presence of God to the city of David. When there’s national rest, he decides to build a house for God. But God has other plans. He will build an everlasting kingdom and throne for David, not the other way around.
Stipulation(s): David and his descendants must remain faithful to God, walk in covenantal faithfulness, and lead Israel in obedience to the covenantal laws. However, there are conditional and unconditional elements to the covenant. Despite the kings’ failures, God guaranteed a faithful Davidic king on the throne. (Hmmm…I wonder who that could be?!)
5. The New Covenant: The new covenant is the culmination of God’s saving work in his people. He promises to make an everlasting covenant with his people in which he will write his law on their hearts, bring complete forgiveness of sin, put his Spirit in them to empower them to love and obey his commands, raise up a faithful Davidic king to rule over them, bring them back into the land to reunify them into one people of God, and cause them to be a light to the nations. Wow!
Scripture: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:22-32; Matthew 26:26-29; Luke 22:19-22
Situation: The new covenant is (explicitly) introduced by the prophets in the context of total failure. The kings, the people, and even the religious leaders failed to keep God’s commands. It turns out that God’s covenantal people were nothing but covenant-breakers! The curses of the covenant came upon them as they were exiled to Babylon. But, there, the prophets give us hope—God would one day bring about a new covenant. The anticipation of this covenant pushes the story forward into the pages of the New Testament where we are introduced to Jesus, the one who will fulfill all the prophetic promises and bring about blessing for all peoples.
Stipulation(s): There are no stipulations to this unconditional covenant of grace. God both gives the promises and brings them about through the work of his faithful Son Jesus.
Sign: This could be a big discussion! But in Matthew 26:26-29 and Luke 22:19-22, Jesus connects his death to the new exodus/new covenant themes highlighted in Isaiah and Jeremiah. While Pentecost activates new covenant themes from Ezekiel 36 and Jeremiah 31. So the death and resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the Spirit can be seen as signs of the new covenant.
The new covenant is the culmination of God’s saving work in his people.
Do you see now how the covenants progressively build upon one another forming a backbone of sorts to the redemptive storyline? God preserved the world through Noah, initiated redemption through Abraham, formed a special people through Israel, promised a shepherd-king through David, and then fulfilled all of his covenantal promises through Jesus. With each covenant, God’s promises and plans to save the world through the seed of the woman become clearer and clearer until we finally see that redemption can only come through King Jesus.
Jesus is the Covenantal Climax
This wouldn’t be any fun if we didn’t see how the covenants pointed towards and were fulfilled in Jesus. That’s the best part! The New Testament presents Jesus as the offspring of Abraham who trusted his Father, even to the point of death, and so became a blessing to all nations. He is the obedient Israelite who perfectly kept, fulfilled, and thus transcended the law of God. He is the royal son of David who inaugurated God’s kingdom in his life, death, and resurrection, and now sits at God’s right hand reigning as shepherd-king over the earth and will continue to reign forever over the new creation.
Think about it—Jesus perfectly succeeded at every point humans failed. This makes him the guarantor and mediator of the new and better covenant (see Hebrews 7:22 and 9:15). Now people from every nation, tribe, and tongue who are joined to Jesus in faith are part of God’s covenant family and experience the rich blessings of the new covenant.
In this new covenant we get total forgiveness of sins and cleansing from shame. We get new hearts of flesh and the indwelling Spirit, causing us to love God’s laws and to walk in his ways. We can actually do justice and righteousness, and so be a light to all the nations. In light of the biblical storyline, that’s amazing! We can walk in freedom and light, rather than sin and darkness. We have bold access to God and stand in the realm of grace. We trust that a renewed world is coming where peace and righteousness will reign forever under the rule of King Jesus. And it’s all possible because of him, the perfect covenant-keeper.
See. We told you that you’d want to know the covenants.
Whitney Woollard is a writer, speaker, and Bible teacher in Portland, OR. She holds her M.A. in biblical and theological studies from Western Seminary and loves sharing her passion for the Bible with others. You can check out her work at her website, whitneywoollard.com