Understanding Covenant, II: Old Testament Covenants
The Scriptures speak of God as loyal to covenant, faithful to those with whom He has made such an agreement. We have seen how a covenant is an agreement between two parties with mutual obligations and promises. We do well to consider the covenants into which God entered as made known in the Old Testament.
The Garden of Eden
The Scriptures do not explicitly speak of the relationship between God and Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in terms of covenant, yet many markers of covenant relationship exist: the promise of living in the Garden and to enjoy its fruit as long as the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was not eaten, and a curse if that guideline was disobeyed (Genesis 2:1-25). Adam and Eve partook of that fruit, and the curses became in force (Genesis 3:1-24).
The Noahide Covenant
The first covenant called as much in the Bible is promised in Genesis 6:18 and brought to its fulfillment in Genesis 9:9-17: a covenant between God and all the earth in the days of Noah.
God made an unconditional covenant with all the creatures of the earth to no longer flood the entire world with water (Genesis 9:11). This covenant is not conditioned on anything man would or would not do. The rainbow is the sign of the covenant: when God sees the rainbow, He will remember His promise to no longer destroy all flesh by water (Genesis 9:12-16).
God’s covenant with all flesh in the days of Noah is the last covenant in the Old Testament which maintains all mankind in view, not just the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It also remains in force until this day, and God has proven faithful.
The Abrahamic Covenant
Of all the people and families of the earth God chose Abram, whom He renamed Abraham, with whom to enter into a powerful covenant, promising blessings in Genesis 12:1-3, and establishing the covenant in Genesis 15:18-21, 17:1-14, and 22:16-18.
God entered into a covenant not only with Abraham but with all of his descendants after him: the promises would be ratified with Isaac and Jacob, and the blessings would eventually come to all who would share in the faith of Abraham through Jesus the promised Seed (Genesis 26:1-5, 28:10-22, Romans 4:1-25, Galatians 3:1-29). God entered into the covenant with Abraham on account of his faithfulness; many of its promises would only be maintained if Abraham’s descendants proved faithful to God themselves (Genesis 17:1-2, 9-10). God promised to make Abraham a father of many nations, to be his God and the God of his descendants, to give the land of Canaan to those descendants, and to bless all the nations of the earth through his Descendant, the Christ (Genesis 12:1-3, 17:1-9). Abraham and his descendants would have to honor God as their God and follow His ways (Genesis 17:9). Circumcision of every male over eight days old was the sign of this covenant (Genesis 17:10-14).
God proved faithful to His covenant with Abraham: Abraham fathered many nations, the Israelites overtook the land of Canaan, and in Jesus of Nazareth all the nations of the earth have been blessed and have been able to share in the faith of Abraham (Genesis 24:1-Joshua 24:28, Romans 4:1-25).
The Mosaic Covenant
God promised Abraham that He would enter into a covenant with Abraham’s descendants; He fulfilled this promise for Israel in the Wilderness, having led them out of captivity in Egypt, seen in Exodus 19:1-Deuteronomy 34:12.
God made this covenant between Himself and the children of Israel (Exodus 19:1-24:18); He made it known through His servant Moses, and so it is known as the Mosaic covenant. God entered into this covenant in faithfulness to His promise to Abraham; whether Israel would be blessed or cursed was dependent on Israel’s faithfulness to the covenant (Leviticus 26:1-46). God promised to be the God of Israel, to give Israel the land of Canaan, to bless them and give them victory over their enemies, and maintain Israel as His elect nation; the Israelites were obligated to keep Torah, instruction or law, as God set forth to Moses (thus known as the Law of Moses; Exodus 20:1-34:12). Circumcision remained a sign of the covenant, since the covenant between God and Israel was a continuation and fulfillment of the covenant between God and Abraham; the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle also functioned as signs (Exodus 35:1-40:38).
God proved faithful to His covenant with Israel despite Israel’s continual faithlessness. Israel would endure all the curses of the covenant on account of their disobedience (2 Kings 17:7-23, 2 Chronicles 36:15-16); their rejection of the Messiah God sent them meant the full end of the observance of Torah as written, and the people of God re-centered upon those following Jesus the Christ (Matthew 24:1-36, Galatians 6:16, Ephesians 2:11-18, Colossians 2:14-17, 1 Peter 2:3-10).
The Davidic Covenant
YHWH reigned as king over Israel until Israel sought its own king; YHWH would eventually choose a king according to His own desire, David, and would make a covenant with him (1 Samuel 13:14, 7:8-16, 23:5).
God entered into a covenant with David and his descendants; God entered this covenant because of David’s faithfulness, and its promises were dependent on his descendant’s continued faithfulness (2 Samuel 7:8-16). God promised to make a house, or dynasty, of David, who always would have a descendant on the throne; David and his descendants would have to serve God faithfully according to the Torah given to Israel. No sign was established for this covenant.
God faithfully maintained a man on the throne of David from Solomon his son until the days of Zedekiah son of Josiah; the continual disobedience of those descendants led to a diminished kingdom and then the loss of all temporal power (2 Chronicles 36:1-16). God’s promises to David met their complete fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of David who proved faithful and was given an eternal kingdom and dominion which remains to this day (Daniel 7:13-14, Luke 1:32-33, Acts 2:36, Hebrews 4:15, 5:7-8).
At various points in the Old Testament these covenants were ratified again for different generations; other evidence exists for covenants among men. Yet the covenants described above substantially represent the covenants in which God entered in the Old Testament. We have seen how they all ultimately point to Jesus of Nazareth and the work God has accomplished in Him. May we prove faithful to God in Christ and find salvation and the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry