Covenant in the Hebrew Bible by Marvin A. Sweeney

In the Hebrew Bible, the covenant (Hebrew: berit) is the formal agreement between Yhwh and the people of Israel and Judah, in which each agrees to a set of obligations toward the other. The language and understanding of covenant is based on ancient Near Eastern treaties between nations.

The Bible understands covenant from two different perspectives. The unconditional or eternal covenant (Hebrew berit olam) between Yhwh and Israel/Judah presumes that the covenant can never be broken, although it does allow for divine judgment.

The conditional covenant means that the covenant might be broken if the people fail to comply with the divine will; but even conditional formulations of the covenant, such as Deuteronomy 28-30 presume that the covenant will be restored when Israel repents. Both understandings refer to the same covenant between Yhwh and Israel, but individual texts portray this covenant from different perspectives.

The eternal covenant with Abraham (Gen 15, Gen 17) defines Yhwh’s relationship with the ancestors of Israel. Yhwh promises to serve as Abraham’s god, to make him a great nation, and to provide him and his descendants with the land of Israel. Abraham in turn promises to worship Yhwh alone and to observe Yhwh’s rules, including circumcision as the sign of the eternal covenant (Gen 17). This covenant is handed down to Abraham’s son Isaac and his grandson Jacob (Israel).

David’s eternal covenant is similar to Abraham’s, especially because it includes an eternal promise of sons ruling in Jerusalem over the land of Israel (2Sam 7). But the dynasty of David ruled for only four centuries, until the Babylonian exile in 586 B.C.E. (2Kgs 25). The Babylonian exile and the end of the house of David led many biblical authors to view the covenant as conditional. Consequently, many texts state that David’s sons will rule forever only if they observe the obligations of Yhwh’s covenant (1Kgs 2:4-5, 1Kgs 9:1-9; Ps 89, Ps 132).

The Sinai covenant narrative (Exodus 19-Numbers 10), which relates the covenant between Yhwh and all Israel, presents detailed civil and religious law collections meant to ensure a holy and just society in the land of Israel. Sabbath observance (Exod 31:12-17) is called an eternal covenant between Yhwh and Israel, based on the Sabbath’s role as the foundation of all creation (Gen 1:1-2:3). Num 25 defines the eternal covenant granted to Phineas, grandson of Aaron, which enables his descendants to serve as priests at the Jerusalem temple.

Both Exodus–Numbers and Deuteronomy recognize the possible conditional nature of the covenant, noting that the nation will suffer punishment and exile should the people not observe Yhwh’s will. Lev 26 and Deut 28-30 contain lengthy blessings and curses to define the rewards of observance and the consequences of failure to observe the covenant, but both texts maintain that the people will be restored when they repent.  Jer 31:31-34 presumes that the covenant has been broken, but proposes a new covenant based on the same observance of divine Torah or instruction.

The prophets likewise explain foreign invasion and exile as the result of the people’s failure to fulfill their obligations to Yhwh (for example, Hos 4; Amos 2:6-16). They view Israel’s restoration or return to the land following exile as a result of Israel’s repentance (Hos 14; Amos 3-5; Jer 7) or of Yhwh’s commitment to observe the eternal covenant (Isa 40-55; Jer 33; Ezek 33-48).

Marvin A. Sweeney, "Covenant in the Hebrew Bible", n.p. [cited 22 Jan 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/covenant-in-the-hebrew-bible

Contributors

Marvin A. Sweeney

Marvin A. Sweeney
Professor, Claremont School of Theology

Marvin A. Sweeney is professor of Hebrew Bible at the Claremont School of Theology and professor of Tanak at the Academy for Jewish Religion California. He is the author of Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible (Fortress, 2012) and 1 and 2 Kings: A Commentary (Westminster John Knox, 2007).

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

The period between 586 and 539 B.C.E., when the leaders and elite of Judea were exiled to Babylon. The exile ended when Cyrus of Persia defeated Babylon and allowed the Judeans to return home.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A sequence of rulers from the same family.

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

The promise made by Yahweh to the ancestors in Genesis, including the promise of offspring, land, and blessing. Eventually the covenant becomes the essential part of this promise.

The name of Israel's god, but with only the consonants of the name, as spelled in the Hebrew Bible. In antiquity, Jews stopped saying the name as a sign of reverence. Some scholars today use only the consonants to recognize the lost original pronunciation or to respect religious tradition.

Gen 15

God's Covenant with Abram


1After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be v ... View more

Gen 17

The Sign of the Covenant


1When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameles ... View more

Gen 17

The Sign of the Covenant


1When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameles ... View more

2Sam 7

God's Covenant with David


1Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him,

2the king said to the pro ... View more

2Kgs 25

1And in the ninth year of his reign, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came with all his army against Jerusalem, ... View more

1Kgs 2:4-5

4Then the Lord will establish his word that he spoke concerning me: ‘If your heirs take heed to their way, to walk before me in faithfulness with all their hear ... View more

1Kgs 9:1-9

God Appears Again to Solomon


1When Solomon had finished building the house of the Lord and the king's house and all that Solomon desired to build,

2the Lord appe ... View more

Ps 89

God's Covenant with David


A Maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite.


1I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever;


with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness ... View more

Ps 132

The Eternal Dwelling of God in Zion


A Song of Ascents.


1O Lord, remember in David's favor


all the hardships he endured;

2how he swore to the Lord


and vowed to th ... View more

Exod 31:12-17

The Sabbath Law


12The Lord said to Moses:

13You yourself are to speak to the Israelites: “You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throu ... View more

Gen 1:1-2:3

Six Days of Creation and the Sabbath


1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,

2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face o ... View more

Num 25

Worship of Baal of Peor


1While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab.

2These invited the people to the ... View more

Lev 26

Rewards for Obedience


1You shall make for yourselves no idols and erect no carved images or pillars, and you shall not place figured stones in your land, to wor ... View more

Deut 28-30

Blessings for Obedience


1If you will only obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the Lord your God ... View more

Jer 31:31-34

A New Covenant


31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.

32It will not be lik ... View more

Hos 4

God Accuses Israel


1Hear the word of the Lord, O people of Israel;


for the Lord has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land.


There is no faithfulness ... View more

Amos 2:6-16

Judgment on Israel


6Thus says the Lord:


For three transgressions of Israel,


and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;


because they sell the righteous for ... View more

Hos 14

A Plea for Repentance


1Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God,


for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.

2Take words with you


and return to the Lord;


say t ... View more

Amos 3-5

Israel's Guilt and Punishment


1Hear this word that the Lord has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of the la ... View more

Jer 7

Jeremiah Proclaims God's Judgment on the Nation


1The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord:

2Stand in the gate of the Lord's house, and proclaim there this wo ... View more

Isa 40-55

God's People Are Comforted


1Comfort, O comfort my people,


says your God.

2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,


and cry to her


that she has served her term,


that her pena ... View more

Jer 33

Healing after Punishment


1The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah a second time, while he was still confined in the court of the guard:

2Thus says the Lord who mad ... View more

Ezek 33-48

Ezekiel Israel's Sentry


1The word of the Lord came to me:

2O Mortal, speak to your people and say to them, If I bring the sword upon a land, and the people of th ... View more

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