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1. The most frequent OT Heb. word for covenant is b'rith: it may be derived from an Akkadian word meaning “fetter.” Its rarity in the earliest sections of the OT leads one to conclude that Israel's covenant with Yahweh was probably designated in terms other than b'rith. “The Ten Words,” oldest designation for the Decalogue, has covenant connotations (Ex 34:28); in the ancient Near East covenants were called and regarded as “words” of the suzerain. In the light of this fact it is possible that the phrase “Word of God” was originally bound up with the covenant. The LXX and NT Gk. word for b'rith is diatheke (usual meaning: last will and testament).

2. In antiquity covenants were gen. est. as a basis for human relationships that were not kinship ties: suzerainty covenant, in which a superior binds an inferior to obligations set down by the superior; parity covenant, in which both parties are bound by oath; patron covenant, in which the superior party binds himself to some obligation for the benefit of an inferior; promissory covenant, which does not est. a new relationship bet. 2 parties, but guarantees future performance of stipulated obligations. With all these covenants, 2 conditions were necessary: there had to be witnesses, and an oath was taken to insure keeping of the covenant.

3. The covenant concept is rooted in Israel's election by Yahweh. One might say that the covenant is the working extension and implementation of election, the formal and continual application of what is implicit in election, namely the concrete responsibilities assumed by the Elector and the obligation of the electee undertaken in response.

4. Various covenants are referred to in the OT: the covenant with Noah, in which God promises the patriarch and his family deliverance from the flood (Gn 6:18–21); God's covenant with the earth, in which He binds Himself never again to destroy the world by a flood (Gn 9:13–17); God's covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in which He swears to make the descendants of these men a mighty nation and to give them Palestine for their possession (Gn 15:18–21); the Mosaic covenant, which formed the basis of Israel's laws and cultic life (Ex 24:7–8); God's covenant with David, in which the Lord promises the king an eternal dynasty (2 Sm 7); the new covenant outlined Jer 31:31–34.

5. The heart of the covenant concept may be expressed in the words: “I am your God, and you are My people” (Ex 6:7; Jer 7:23; Eze 37:26–27). In the covenant the God who of His own free will and grace brought Israel into existence, created her out of the nothingness of Egyptian slavery through the deliverance of the Exodus, and thus made her a people, this same Redeemer-God through the covenant now bound Himself to be Israel's Father, Husband, Shepherd, and Lord. In the covenant relationship Israel was bound to be this Redeemer-God's obedient son, faithful wife, submissive flock, and loyal servant. The nation's weal or woe depended on its faithful adherence to the covenant obligations. Thus the revelation of Yahweh in the covenant relationship was one that confronted Israel with obligations and responsibilities. From the beginning, Israel knew herself to be accountable. There was no theophany without obligation, no meeting God without meeting the urgency of a demand.

6. Together with her unshakable conviction that she was the chosen of Yahweh, the covenant gave Israel her consciousness of being the elect community of God. The election and covenant made and maintained Israel as a nation and gave it solidarity. God's covenant was with the people of Israel; individuals enjoyed the blessings of the covenant relationship only as long as they remained within the covenant community.

7. In the NT the word “covenant” appears in connection with the Lord's institution of the Holy Eucharist. Is it possible to connect the Lord's Supper with OT covenant traditions? The very brief account yields little, but conjecture points to numerous possibilities. The purpose of a covenant was to bind 2 parties together in a firm relationship; this becomes the whole of the NT covenant bet. Christ and the ch. The Lord's Supper was regarded as a formal act that est. a lasting relationship bet. the community and Christ, in analogy to the Mosaic covenant, but combining with it a number of motifs from OT sources, including the sacrificial animal, the Suffering Servant (Is 53:11–12; Mt 26:28), and the new covenant of Jer 31:31–34.

8. Since the individual relationship to Christ is basic to the content, form, and obligation of the covenant, all the detailed prescriptions of Jewish law are unnecessary and (for Paul) inimical to Christianity (Gl 4:21–31; 2 Co 3:6). The Letter to the Hebrews uses the covenant tradition much more frequently but in almost exactly the same way as Paul. Every possible argument is drawn to show that the new covenant fulfills and abrogates the old.

9. The surprising infrequency of references to covenant in the NT is understandable. The covenant for Judaism meant the Mosaic law, and for the Roman Empire a covenant meant a secret soc. This 2-sided conflict made it nearly impossible for early Christianity to use the term meaningfully.

P. Heinisch, Theology of the Old Testament, tr. W. Heidt (Collegeville, Minnesota, 1950); G. E. Mendenhall, “Covenant,” The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, I (New York, 1962), 71.4–723; G. E. Wright, in “The Faith of Israel,” The Interpreter's Bible, I (New York, 1952), 354–357. HEH

Edited by: Erwin L. Lueker, Luther Poellot, Paul Jackson
©Concordia Publishing House, 2000, All rights Reserved. Reproduced with Permission

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