An agreement between two contracting parties, originally sealed with blood; a bond, or a law; a permanent religious dispensation. The old, primitive way of concluding a covenant (, "to cut a covenant") was for the covenanters to cut into each other's arm and suck the blood, the mixing of the blood rendering them "brothers of the covenant" (see Trumbull, "The Blood Covenant," pp. 5 et seq., 322; W. R. Smith, "Religion of the Semites," pp. 296 et seq., 460 et seq.; compare Herodotus, iii. 8, iv. 70). Whether "berit" is to be derived from "barah" =to cut or from a root cognate with the Assyrian "berit" = fetter (see Nathauael Schmidt, in Cheyne and Black,"Encyc. Bibl." s.v."Covenant"), or whether both Assyrian and Hebrew come from "barah"= to cut (compare "asar" = covenant and bracelet in Arabic; see Trumbull, l.c. pp. 64 et seq.), can not be decided here. A rite expressive of the same idea is (see Jer. xxxiv. 18; compare Gen. xv. et seq.) the cutting of a sacrificial animal into two parts, between which the contracting parties pass, showing thereby that they are bound to each other; the eating together of the meat, which usually follows, reiterating the same idea. Originally the covenant was a bond of life-fellowship, where the mingling of the blood was deemed essential. In the course of time aversion to imbibing human blood eliminated the sucking of the blood, and the eating and drinking together became in itself the means of covenanting, while the act was solemnized by the invocation of the Deity in an oath, or by the presence of representative symbols of the Deity, such as seven animals, or seven stones or wells, indicative of the seven astral deities; whence ("to be bound by the holy seven") as an equivalent for "swearing" in pre-Mosaic times (see Gen. xxi. 27, xxvi. 28, xxxi. 54; Herodotus, iii. 8; Josh. ix. 14; II Sam. iii. 12-20; W. R. Smith, l.c. pp. 252 et seq.). Salt was especially selected together with bread for the conclusion of a covenant (Num. xviii. 19; see W. R. Smith, l.c. p. 252; Trumbull, "The Covenant of Salt," 1899).Covenant Between Men and Nations.
Every covenant required some kind of religious rite in which the Deity was invoked as a witness to render it valid (Gen. xxi. 23; Josh. ix. 19; Judges ix. 46; Jer. xxxiv. 18). The covenant made the life and property of the confederates ("ba'ale berit," Gen. xiv. 13) inviolable. To break "the covenant of the brothers" (Amos i. 9) was a heinous sin, and imposed the penalty of death (II Sam. iii. 28). The Mosaic law, therefore, forbade Israel making a covenant with the idolatrous inhabitants of Canaan or "with their gods" (Ex. xxiii. 32, xxxiv. 12; Deut. vii. 2). The covenant concluded by Solomon with Hiram (I Kings vi. 26), and those between the kings of Judah or Israel and the kings of Syria or Assyria and Babylonia (I Kings xv. 19; Hosea xii. 2; Ezek. xvii. 13), were therefore fraught with evil, nor could the covenant of Simon Maccabeus with Rome (I Macc. xiv. 24 et seq.) meet with anything but disapproval on the part of the Pharisees. The worst that can happen to a nation is to have its confederates ("anshe berit") conspire against it (Obad. i. 7). The pledge of matrimony also was, according to Mal. i. 13, 14; Prov. ii. 17; Ezek. xvi. 8, 61 (with which must be compared Job xxxii.), a covenant concluded before witnesses, and probably at some altar or sacrificial feast, at which the repast withthe wine seems to have been an essential feature (see Gen. xxiv. 54).God's Covenant with Men.
The relation of man to the Deity was also conceived of in Biblical times as a covenant concluded by God with certain men or nations, from which all laws derived their sanctity and perpetuity. God, when creating the heavens and the earth, made a covenant with them to observe the rules of day and night (Jer. xxxiii. 25), and when the flood caused by the sin of all flesh had interrupted the operation of the law, He hung the rainbow in the clouds as a sign of the covenant, to assure men that it would not again be suspended on account of man's sin. He thus made a special covenant with Noah and his sons, requiring them to preserve and show due regard for all human life, while pledging the preservation of the order of earthly life for all generations (Gen. ix. 1-17). Regarding this so-called Noachian covenant see below.
God concluded a covenant with Abraham (Gen. xv. 18, xvii. 2, 7) by which He entered into a special relationship with him and his descendants for all time; and as a sign of this covenant he enjoined on them the rite of Circumcision. This Abrahamitic covenant, expressive of the religious character of the descendants of Abraham as the people of Yhwh, the one and only God, was renewed on Mount Sinai when, before the giving of the Law, Israel as a people pledged itself to keep His covenant (Ex. xix. 8). After the giving of the Law Moses sprinkled "the blood of the covenant sacrifice" half upon the people and half upon the altar of the Lord (Ex. xxiv. 6-8), to signify the mystical union of Israel and its God. Of this "everlasting" Sinaitic covenant between God and Israel the Sabbath is declared to be the sign forever (Ex. xxxi. 13-17). At the same time the tables of the Law upon which the pledge was made were called "the book of the covenant" (Ex. xxiv. 7), and the Ten Commandments "the words of the covenant" (Ex. xxxiv. 28); and so the tables containing these became "the tables of the covenant" (Deut. ix. 9, 15). Of peculiar significance to the people during its wanderings in the wilderness, and in its settled state in Palestine, was the Ark of the Covenant(Num. x. 33; Deut. x. 8, xxxi. 26; and frequently in Joshua, Samuel, and Kings), which was regarded as "the testimony" ("'edut") to the presence of the God of the Covenant in its midst.Renewal of Covenant.
Four times in the history of Israel this covenant of Sinai was renewed: by Moses in the plains of Moab (Deut. xxix. 1, 9); by Joshua before his death (Josh. xxiv. 25); by the high priest Jehoiada after the idolatrous Queen Athaliah had been deposed and young Jehoash proclaimed king (II Kings xi. 17); and finally by King Josiah after the book of the Law had been found in the Temple and "all the words of the book of the covenant" had been read before all the people (II Kings xxiii. 2, 3). In fact, the Book of Deuteronomy dwells with special emphasis (see ch. iv.-v. and xxviii.-xxix.) upon the covenant made in Horeb for all generations; and Jeremiah (see ch. xi., xxxi., xxxiv.), as well as Ezekiel (ch. xvi., xvii.) also recurs often to the covenant; but Isaiah never mentions the word "covenant." This fact has led many modern Bible critics to assume that the covenant idea originated among the late prophets of Judea. But the accusation that Israel "forsook the covenant of the Law" was made as early as the time of the prophet Elijah (I Kings xix. 10), while both Hosea (ii. 18-20) and Jeremiah held out the promise that the covenant which Israel had broken, thereby forfeiting its existence as a nation before God, shall be written anew and upon the hearts of all, never to be broken again (Jer. xxxi. 31-34). It must be observed, however, that parallel with the Sinai covenant there is also continuous reference to the older covenant which God concluded with the Patriarchs as the guaranty of Israel's redemption and renewed salvation (Ex. vi. 4; Lev. xxvi. 42-45; Deut. iv. 31, vii. 12).Covenant with Aaron and David.
Besides the covenant with the people of Israel, God concluded a special covenant with the priestly tribe of Levi, and specifically with the houses of Aaron (Num. xviii. 19; xxv. 12, 13; Deut. xxxiii. 9; Jer. xxxiii. 21; Mal. ii. 4; compare Ex. xxxii. 29; Deut. x. 8, xviii. 5) and King David (II Sam. xxiii. 5; Jer. xxxiii. 21; Ps. lxxxix. 4, 35; cxxxii. 12; II Chron. xiii. 5). These two covenants, together with the one made with Abraham (Gen. xv. 18), were meant to perpetuate the three possessions: the land, the Davidic monarchy, and the Aaronitic priesthood. The perpetual character of the Sinai covenant was accentuated by the seer of the Exile, and Israel itself was declared to be "a covenant of the people"; that is, a covenant-people among the nations united by the word of God (Isa. xlii. 6, xlix. 8, liv. 10, lv. 3, lix. 21, lxi. 8; compare Jer. i. 5).Meaning of the Divine Covenant.
While every sacrifice was regarded as a renewal of the covenant with God (Ps. 1. 5), the conception of religion as a covenant concluded by God with man is peculiarly Jewish. The idea of the covenant of God is therefore coeval with the beginning of Israel as the people of God. It is also easy to understand why "berit" (covenant) became synonymous with the Law (Isa. lvi. 6 et seq.; Ps. xxv. 10, 14; 1.16; I Kings xi. 11). On the other hand, the idea of Israel as the covenant-people became more powerful when a prophet, "the messenger of the covenant," who would renew the covenant in the person of Elijah (Mal. iii. 3 [iv. 5]) was looked for, and still more when the preservation or violation of the covenant—that is, the maintenance or extermination of Judaism—was the question at issue between the two parties during the Syrian persecution (Dan. xi. 28-32; I Macc. i. 15. 63; Judith ix. 13; Ps. lxxiv. 20; see Elijah).
Special stress was laid on circumcision and the Sabbath during the Exile as the signs of the Israelitish covenant (Ps. lvi. 4-6), and they were regarded as the bulwarks of the faith in the Maccabean era (I Macc. i. 15, 45-48).
From this point of view the history of divine revelation was in the second pre-Christian century, seen in a new light. The broader and more cosmopolitan view dwelt on the covenant of God withman. According to Ben Sira, God made a covenant of life even with the first man (Ecclus. [Sirach] xvii. 12, probably based on Hosea vi. 12; compare Sanh. 38b). But it is especially the covenant of Noah which was interpreted by the Rabbis to include all the laws of humanity.Noachian and Abrahamitic Covenant.
The strictly nationalistic view found its vigorous expression in the Book of Jubilees, according to which the Noachian covenant, particularly resting on the sacredness of blood, was concluded upon the identical day, the fifteenth of Siwan, on which the Sinaitic covenant was concluded (Book of Jubilees vi. 11 et seq.); it puts the Abrahamitic covenant, however, in the foreground (ib. xv. 11-34, xxi. 4, xxiii. 16, xxx. 21, xxxiii. 19) as the only condition of eternal salvation for Israelites.The Old and the New Covenant.
When Jeremiah spoke of "the new covenant" which the Lord "will make with the house of Israel and the house of Judah" (Jer. xxxi. 31) he immediately explained his words by saying: "I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts" (ib. xxxi. 33; compare xxxiii. 40). Judaism knows of no other than the old Sinaitic covenant. Eternal as the covenant with heaven and earth is God's covenant with the seed of Jacob (Jer. xxxiii. 25 et seq.). Christianity, however, interpreted the words of the prophet in such a way as to indicate a new religious dispensation in place of the law of Moses (Heb. viii. 8-13). The Septuagint translation of the term "berit" being διαθήκη, which signifies both a compact and a last will or testament (Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion more correctly translate "berit" συνθήκη = covenant), the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews writes: "A testament is of force after men are dead, but not while the testator liveth; wherefore the first testament could not be dedicated without blood, as in fact Moses did enjoin the people by the blood of the testament; Jesus, however, as the mediator of the new testament offered his own blood for the redemption of the transgressions under the first testament" (ib. ix. 15-25 et seq., Greek). This strange view is based upon the idea expressed by Paul (Gal. iii. 15 et seq., Greek). "A man's testament [A. V. "covenant" gives no sense] if it be confirmed, no one disannulleth or addeth thereto. Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made, and this seed is Christ. The testament then confirmed by God in Christ can not be annulled by the law four hundred and thirty years thereafter. The law was added because of transgressions till the seed should come in Christ." It was obviously in opposition to the Passover blood of the covenant (Ex. xii. 23; Ezek. xvi. 6) that the early Christians at their communion meals proclaimed their faith in the crucified Christ as "the new testament (I Cor. xi. 25; Luke xxii. 20; Matt. xxvi. 28; Mark xiv. 24; see New Testament; Passover).
Bibliography:—In Rabbinical Literature:
- Cheyne and Black, Encyc. Bibl., and Hastings, Dict. Bibl. s.v. Covenant;
- J. Selden, De Jure Naturali Gentium Juxta Disciplinam Habrœorum, ii. 1;
- H. Clay Trumbull. The Blood Covenant, New York, 1885;
- Valeton, in Zeitschrift für Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, 1892-93;
- Kraetzschmar, Die Bundesvorstellung im Alten Testament, 1896;
- S. Bernays, Gesammelte Schriften, i. 52;
- Winer, B. R., and Riehm, Handwörterbuch des Biblischen Alterthums, s.v. Bund.
The term "berit" is used occasionally in Talmudic-Midrashic literature in referring to the laws of nature, which are regarded as a sort of covenant between God and things (see Gen. R. xxxiv.; Niddah 58b); or it is used in the sense of a contract, as, for instance, "a covenant made with the lips" (M. Ḳ. 18; Num. R. xviii.), or a covenant made with the thirteen middot, that they may be efficient during prayer" (R. H. 17b; Yer. Ber. v. 9a), but it refers chiefly to God's covenant made with Israel, and with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Phineas, and David (Derek Ereẓ Zuṭa, i., end). Frequent reference is made in the liturgy to "the covenant with the fathers" (Lev. xxvi. 42, Hebr.). In one passage there is also a reference to the covenant made with the twelve progenitors of the tribes, by which a covenant like that made with the "fathers" is meant (Torat Kohanim; Beḥuḳḳotai, xxvi. 45). The intimacy existing between God and Israel as the descendants of the "fathers" was shown in the form of a covenant when Israel received the Torah (compare also Tanna debe Eliyahu R. iii.; Sifre, Deut. 4).Repeated Covenants.
In view of the covenant between God and Israel concluded on Mt. Sinai, the phrase "the oath on Mt. Sinai" ("mushba' me-har Sinai"), referring to the duty of the Israelites to observe the Torah, frequently recurs in Talmudic literature. The following three ceremonies preceded this covenant: "milah" (circumcision), "ṭebilah" (baptism), "harẓa'at dam" (sprinkling of the sacrificial blood (compare Ex. xxiv. 6); hence they are deemed indispensable for the admission of a proselyte into the Jewish community (Ker. 9a; compare Proselytes and Proselytism). Besides the one on Mt. Sinai, a covenant was made on the departure from Egypt, and another shortly before the entry into the promised land (compare Deut. xxix. 11), when God made the Israelites swear that they would observe the Torah (Tan., Niẓẓabim, ed. Buber, p. 50; compare Soṭah 37b, top). Some especially important miẓwot are called simply "berit." In the first place stands circumcision (Shak. 135a; Mek., Yitro, ed. Weiss, 71), also designated "berito shel Abraham abinu" (the covenant with our father Abraham) (Abot iii. 17); and in the liturgy, in a passage dating from tannaitic times, "berit ḳodesh" (holy covenant). Akiba took "berit" (Ex. xix. 5) to mean the observance of the Sabbath and the recognition of God (Mek., Yitro, l.c.), while in the Zohar the Torah, circumcision, and God are designated by "berit" (Aḥare Mot, iii. 73b; compare also Zohar Pinḥas, iii. 220b, bottom).Covenants Among Men.
The covenants between God and some of the elect mentioned in Scripture are a favorite subject of the Haggadah; and as early as the Book of Jubilees there is an explicit reference to the covenant between God and Noah when the latter left the ark (vi. 10, 11). God's covenant with the sons of Noah was, however, not made for all eternity, but was intended to be coeval only with the existence of this world (Gen R. xxxiv.). When God promised Noah to send no deluge, he also made a covenant with theearth that men should be filled with love for their homes so that all parts of the earth might be inhabited (Gen. R. l.c.). The Haggadah treats with much detail of God's covenant with Abraham, mentioned in Gen. xv. 9-21, which is designated in the liturgy as "berit ben ha-betarim" (the covenant between the sacrificial pieces) (compare also the Syriac Baruch apocalypse, iv. 4). "God showed him Gehenna and the dominion of the nations on the one side, and the revelation on Mt. Sinai and the service in the Temple on the other side, and said: 'If your children honor these last two [the Torah and worship], they shall be spared the first two; if not, the Temple shall be destroyed, and you may now choose between suffering under the heathen and suffering in Gehenna as the punishment of your descendants.' Abraham was at first inclined to choose the latter, but God induced him finally to choose the sorrows of the exile as punishment for Israel, in order that they might be spared the torments of hell" (Gen. R. xliv.; Pirḳe R. El. xxviii.). The Apocalypse of Abraham is in large part a detailed description of the "berit ben ha-betarim." Abraham is often severely censured for having made a covenant with the pagan Abimelech (Gen. xxi. 27; Tanna Eliyahu R. vii.; Yalḳ., Gen. 95; compare also Abimelech in Rabbinical Literature).—In Arabic Literature:
The belief in a covenant ("mithaḳ") existing between the divinities and their worshipers was prevalent in pre-Islamic times. The offering of sacrifices had no other object than that of strengthening the covenants between the divinities and the officiants, and blood was considered to be the best agent. A covenant concluded between men was often solemnized by dipping the hands in blood. The Banu 'Adi ben Ka'b and the Banu 'Abd al-Dar concluded a covenant, and to give it greater force the parties dipped their hands in a plate of blood (Ibn Hisham's "Life of Mohammed," p. 125). Mohammed taught, both in the Koran and the Tradition, that in the beginning God called all the souls of mankind together and made a covenant with them. "The Lord brought forth their descendants from the reins of the sons of Adam, and took them to witness against themselves" (Koran, vii. 171). In explanation of this verse Ubai ibn Ka'b relates that when God created the spirits of the sons of Adam He gathered them together and took from them a promise ("wa'dah") and a covenant ("mithaḳ"). Then Adam saw among them prophets appointed by special covenant (compare 'Ab. Zarah 5a, where this legend is given in detail).
Mohammed frequently reproaches the Jews with having broken the covenant: "O children of Israel! Remember my grace which I conferred upon you [when I said] keep the covenant with me and I will keep the covenant with you" (Koran, ii. 37). Mohammed connects the covenant which God made with the children of Israel with the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai: "And when we made a covenant with you and lifted the mountain above you, saying: 'Receive with steadfastness what we have brought you, and remember what it contains'" (ib. ii. 60). The commentator Baiḍawi explains the expression "and the mountain was lifted above you" ("waruti' fauḳakum al-ṭur") by the following legend: When Moses brought the Torah, the children of Israel, seeing the numerous obligations imposed upon them, refused to accept it. Then God commanded Gabriel, and he tore out the mountain and suspended it over the Israelites. A similar legend is found in Shab. 88a: "'And they stood at the nether part of the mount' [Ex. xix. 17], said R. Abdimi bar Ḥana. From this expression we learn that God suspended the mount over them as a bat, and said to them: 'If you accept the Torah, it is all right; if not, you will find here your tomb.'" In regard to the covenant with the Prophets, Mohammed said: "Remember we have entered into covenant with the Prophets, with thee Mohammed, and with Noah, and with Abraham, and with Musa, and with Jesus, the son of Mary, and we made with them a covenant (sura xxxiii. 7).—Critical View:
The Hebrew "berit," usually translated "covenant" in the A. V., has a wider range of application than its English equivalent, since it is the ordinary term for any kind of agreement or compact. Naturally the word has to be considered in the sense of a solemn agreement; but it must be noticed that all agreements among ancient peoples were solemn and sacred, having the sanction of an oath or "curse," while covenant-breaking of any sort was held to be most sacrilegious. It is its comprehensiveness of meaning along with its intrinsic sacredness that gives the berit such great significance in the Hebrew Scriptures. The most binding covenant was naturally that made "before Jehovah" (I Sam. xxiii. 18), and the name Baalberith is a reminiscence of some similar covenant made before the "Ba'al" of the land.
This Ba'al seems originally to have been the patron deity of Shechem (Judges viii. 33; ix. 4, 46), which, being one of the oldest cities of the land, retained even in later days its prominence as the capital of a confederation. Jacob buys a piece of land; that is, enters into a covenant with it (Gen. xxxiii. 18, 19; xxxiv. 2). It is appointed as a city of refuge—in other words, a covenant city (Josh. xx. 7). It is here that Joshua delivers his farewell address (Josh. xxiv. 1). Its rôle under Jeroboam (I Kings xii. 25) points in the same direction. By the Ba'al of the chief city the covenant between the component tribes must have been sanctioned. Hence this Ba'al became the Ba'al-berit par excellence. Though unsupported by epigraphic proof, the theory that among the Phenicians' a Ba'al called also "Ba'al Elyun," or "Elyun Beruth," had a similar preeminence as the protector of an alliance of various cities (Creutzer, "Symbolik," ii. 87), throws light on the function of this Ba'al.
Besides the oath formally taken or implied, a ceremony was often performed, such as "passing between" the parts of a sacrificial victim slain for the purpose (Gen. xv. 18; Jer. xxxiv. 15), or giving the hand, or partaking of salt in common. Very primitive, wide-spread, and potential was the blood-covenant.
A peculiar Hebrew custom is that of imposing a berit upon another or others; e.g., the covenantimposed by Joshua upon the Gibeonites (Josh. ix. 7, xi. 19), or that by Jehoiada the priest upon the people (II Kings xi. 17). So important is this apparently one-sided relation that it has molded the dominant prophetic conception of God's attitude toward His people. Thus the commands given at Sinai on "the tables of the covenant," and the whole giving of the Law, have come to be known as the Sinaitic covenant. Here the obligation is upon the side of the people. But in the progressive development of Yhwh's relations to Israel as God of the covenant there is an increasing assumption of obligation on His part, with all solemnity of assurance as to the fulfilment (see, for example, Jer. xxxiii. 20 et seq.). The idea is indeed the most germinal of all religious conceptions, for when Jeremiah utters the profoundest sentiment of the Old Testament, that the Law of God should be written upon His people's hearts, the promise is called "a new covenant" (ib. xxxi. 31 et seq.).
- The lexicons of Gesenius and Siegfried and Stade, s.v. ;
- the Biblical theologies of Schultz, Dillmann, Smend, and Marti:
- Smith, Rel. of Sem. lectures 8 and 9;
- Kraetzschmar, Die Bundesvorstellung im Alten Testament.