God’s promise – the Covenant
A covenant is a pact or agreement between two parties. In the Hebrew Bible, it is an agreement between
- God and certain individuals, or
- God and the whole of the chosen nation of Israel.
The writers of the Old Testament wanted to emphasise the idea of ‘covenant’ as a secure, certain relationship: we can depend on God and God has the right to depend on us.
Paintings: a covenant agreement with God
Noah’s Covenant, the Ark and rainbow, James Tissot
Noah sacrifices after the Flood, Antonio Carracci
David hears the voice of God, Gerrit van Honthorst
Covenants in the Bible
The idea of a covenant was not new. In fact, it was based on normal practices of contract-making at that time. For example, Genesis 21:27 (click to see the Bible text) describes a covenant between Abraham and Abimelech.
Ancient agreements involved an oath or solemn promise, made by both parties to fulfill the terms of the contract. If either party broke the terms, they automatically drew a curse down on themselves. Sometimes this curse was enacted at the time of the agreement by cutting animals in half (this is described as something Abraham did in Genesis 15:9). If the person broke the contract, the same would happen to them.
God made his first covenant with Noah – the story is in Genesis 9:9-17. This was a divine promise not to repeat the great Flood/deluge that had destroyed almost everything on the earth. The rainbow was to be the sign of this promise. The significant word in the story is ‘remember/recall’ – God will remember what he has promised, to fulfil his side of the covenant. The implication is that people will remember to walk in God’s ways, to fulfil their side of the contract.
This promise/covenant shows God’s future priority in his relationship with all creation: the protection of life. Compare God’s words in Genesis 6:7 with what he says in 8:21-2: no natural catastrophe or human sin will prevent God from protecting all forms of life. He will remember always.
God made his second covenant with Abraham. The descentents of Abraham who will be numerous as the stars in heaven, were promised eventual possession of the land of Canaan. The sign of this covenant was circumcision of their male children (Genesis 17). The covenant in the first few verses of Genesis 17 is pivotal for the Hebrew people: though they are still a scattered people, they begin to live as a community whose central focus is their relationship with God, and the wandering for forty years in the desert (the Exodus story) was the central event that shaped the Hebrew people and defined them as God’s chosen people. The extraordinary things God did for them – the series of ten plagues, the defeat of Pharaoh and his army, and the parting of the Red Sea, were all signs of God’s love for them. Moreover, they believed God had promised them a place to live out the covenant as a community.
This belief shaped their history, and it had a profound impact on their relationship with God. They gradually came to understand what it meant to live in ‘right relationship’ with God. This relationship meant being faithful to the covenant they had with God, to live in fidelity to the code for living called the Ten Commandments
Bible quotes relating to Covenant
Genesis 21:27 So Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a covenant.
Genesis 15:9 He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.”
Genesis 9:9-17 9 “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.[a] 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
Genesis 6:7 7 So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”
Genesis 8:21-2 21 And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.
Genesis 17 1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. 2 And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring[d] after you. 8 And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.”
9 God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. 13 Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
15 God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live in your sight!” 19 God said, “No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. 20 As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. 21 But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year.” 22 And when he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham.
23 Then Abraham took his son Ishmael and all the slaves born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 25 And his son Ishmael was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 26 That very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised; 27 and all the men of his house, slaves born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.
Bible study activity
Write about an event in your life which has transformed you. Explain how you came to recognise the importance of this event and how/why you remember it.
Bible Study Resource: The Covenant with God in the Book of Genesis in the Bible
God’s covenant links
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