Covenant a mutual contract or agreement between two parties, each of which is bound to fulfill certain engagements to the other. In Scripture it is used mostly in an analogical sense, to denote certain relations between God and man. (See Danville Review, March, 1862.)
I. Terms. — In the Old Test. בּרַית, berith' (rendered "league," Jos 9:6-7,11,15-16; Jg 2:2; 2Sa 12:13,21; 2Sa 5:3: 1Ki 5:12; 1Ki 15:19, twice; 2Ch 16:3, twice; Job 5:23; Eze 30:5; "confederacy," Obad. 7; "confederate," Ge 14:13; Ps 83:5), is the word invariably thus translated (Sept. διαθήκη; once, Wisdom of Song 1:16, συνθήκη; Vulg. faedus, pactum, often interchangeably, Ge 9; Ge 17; Nu 25; in the Apocrypha testamentum, but sacramentum, 2 Esdras 2:7; sponsiones, Wisdom of Song 1:16; in N.T. testamentum [absque foedere, Ro 1:31; Gr. ἀσυνθέτους]). The Hebrew word is derived by Gesenius (Thes. Heb. p. 237, 238; so First, Hebr. Handzw. p. 217) from the root בָּרָה, i. q. בָּרָא, "he cut," and taken to mean primarily "a cutting," with reference to the custom of cutting or dividing animals in two, and passing between the parts in ratifying a covenant (Ge 15; Jer 34:18-19). Hence the expression "to cut a covenant" (כָּרִת בּרַית, Ge 15:18, or simply כָּרִת, with בּרַית understood, 1Sa 11:2) is of frequent occurrence. (Comp. ὅρκια τέμνειν, τέμνειν σπονδάς, icere, ferire, percuterefoedus. See Sicvogt, De more Ebraeor. dissectione animalium foedera ineundi, Jen. 1759.) Professor Lee suggests (Heb. Lex. s.v. בּרַית) that the proper signification of the word is an eating together, or banquet, from the meaning "to eat," which the root בָּרָה sometimes bears; because among the Orientals to eat together amounts almost to a covenant of friendship. This view is supported by Ge 31:46, where Jacob and Laban eat together on the heap of stones which they have set up in ratifying the covenant between them. It affords also a satisfactory explanation of the expression "a covenant of salt" (בּרַית מֶלִח, διαθήκη ἁλός,, Nu 18:19; 2Ch 13:5), when the Eastern idea of eating salt together is remembered. If, however, the other derivation of בּרַית. be adopted, this expression may be explained by supposing salt to have been eaten or offered with accompanying sacrifices on occasion of very solemn covenants, or it may be regarded as figurative, denoting, either, from the use of salt in sacrifice (Le 2:13; Mr 9:49), the sacredness, or, from the preserving qualities of salt, the perpetuity of the covenant. (See below.)
In the New Test. the word διαθήκη is frequently, though by no means uniformly, translated testament in the English Auth. Vers., whence the two divisions of the Bible have received their common English names. This translation is perhaps due to the Vulgate, which, having adopted testamentum as the equivalent for διαθήκη in the Apocrypha, uses it always as such in the N.T. (see above). There seems however, to be no necessity for the introduction of a new word conveying a new idea. The Sept. having rendered בּרַית (which never means will or testament, but always covenant or agreement) by διαθήκη consistently throughout the O.T., the N.T. writers, in adopting that word, may naturally be supposed to intend to convey to their readers, most of them familiar with the Greek O.T., the same idea. Moreover, in the majority of cases, the same thing which has been called a "covenant" (בּרַית) in the O.T. is referred to in the N.T. (e.g. 2Co 3:14; Heb 7; Heb 9; Re 11:19); while in the same context the same word and thing in the Greek are in the English sometimes represented by "covenant," and sometimes by "testament" (Heb 7:22; Heb 8:8-13; Heb 9:15). In the confessedly difficult passage, Heb 9:16-17, the word διαθήκη has been thought by many commentators absolutely to require the meaning of will or testament. On the other side, however, it may be alleged that, in addition to what has just been said as to the usual meaning of the word in the N.T., the word occurs twice in the context, where its meaning must necessarily be the same as the translation of בּרַית, and in the unquestionable sense of covenant (comp. διαθήκη καινή, Heb 9:15, with the same expression in 8:8; and διαθήκη, 9:16, 17, with ver. 20, and Ex 24:8). If this sense of διαθήκη be retained, we may either render ἐπὶ νεκροῖς, "over, or in the case of, dead sacrifices," and ὁ διαθέμενος, "the mediating sacrifice" (Scholefield's Hintsfor an improved Translat:on of the N.T.), or (with Ebrard and others) restrict the statement of ver. 16 to the O.T. idea of a covenant between man and God, in which man, as guilty, must always be represented by a sacrifice with which he was so completely identified that in its person he (ὁ διαθἐμενος, the human covenanter) actually died (comp. Mt 26:28). SEE TESTAMENT.
II. Their Application. — In its Biblical meaning of a compact or agreement between two parties, the word "covenant" is used —
1. Properly, of a covenant between man and man; i.e. a solemn compact or agreement, either between tribes or nations (1Sa 11:1; Jos 9:6,15), or between individuals (Ge 21:34), by which each party bound himself to fulfill certain conditions, and was assured of receiving certain advantages. In making such a covenant God was solemnly invoked as witness (Ge 31:50), whence the expression "a covenant of Jehovah" בּרַית יהוָֹה, 1Sa 20:8; comp. Jer 34:18-19; Eze 17:19), and an oath was sworn (Ge 21:31); and accordingly a breach of covenant was regarded as a very heinous sin (Eze 17:12-20). A sign (אוֹת) or witness (עֵד) of the covenant was sometimes framed, such as a gift (Ge 21:30), or a pillar, or heap of stones erected (Ge 31:52). The marriage compact is called "the covenant of God," Pr 2:17 (see Mal 2:14). The word covenant came to be applied to a sure ordinance, such as that of the shew- bread (Le 24:8); and is used figuratively in such expressions as a covenant with death (Isa 28:18), or with the wild beasts (Ho 2:18). The phrases בִּעֲלֵי ברַית, ברַית אִנשֵׁי, "lords or men of one's covenant,' are employed to denote confederacy (Ge 14:13; Ob 1:7). SEE CONTRACT.
2. Improperly, of a covenant between God and man. Man not being in any way in the position of an independent covenanting party, the phrase is evidently used by way of accommodation. SEE ANTHROPOMORPHISM. Strictly speaking, such a covenant is quite unconditional, and amounts to a promise (Ga 3:15 sq., where ἐπαγγελία and διαθήκη are used almost as synonyms) or act of mere favor (Ps 89:28, where חֶסֶד stands in parallelism with בּרַית) on God's part. Thus the assurance given by God after the Flood that a like judgment should not be repeated, and that the recurrence of the seasons, and of day and night, should not cease, is called a covenant (Ge 9; Jer 33:20). Generally, however, the form: of a covenant is maintained, by the benefits which God engages to bestow being made by him dependent upon the fulfillment of certain conditions which he imposes on man. Thus the covenant with Abraham was conditioned by circumcision (Ac 7:8), the omission of which was declared tantamount to a breach of the covenant (Genesis 17); the covenant of the priesthood by zeal for God, his honor and service (Nu 25:12-13; De 33:9; Ne 13:29; Mal 2:4-5); the covenant of Sinai by the observance of the ten commandments (Ex 34:27-28; Le 26:15), which are therefore called "Jehovah's covenant" (De 4:13), a name which was extended to all the books of Moses, if not to the whole body of Jewish canonical Scriptures (2Co 3:13-14). This last- mentioned covenant, which was renewed at different periods of Jewish history (De 29; Jos 24; 2Ch 15; 2Ch 23; 2Ch 29; 2Ch 34; Ezr 10; Ne 9; Ne 10), is one of the two principal covenants between God and man. They are distinguished as old and new (Jer 31:31-34; Heb 8:8-13; Heb 10:16), with reference to the order, not of their institution, but of their actual development (Ga 3:17); and also as being the instruments respectively of bondage and freedom (Ga 4:24). Consistently with this representation of God's dealings with man under the form of a covenant, such covenant is said to be confirmed in conformity with human custom by an oath (De 4:31; Ps 89:3), to be sanctioned by curses to fall upon the unfaithful (De 29:21), and to be accompanied by a sign (אוֹת), such as the rainbow (Genesis 9), circumcision (Genesis 8), or the Sabbath (Ex 31:16-17). Hence, in Scripture, the covenant of God is called his "counsel," his "oath," his "promise" (Ps 89:3-4; Ps 105:8-11; Heb 6:13-20; Lu 1:68-75; Ga 3:15-18, etc.); and it is described as consisting wholly in the gracious bestowal of blessing on men (Isa 59:21; Jer 31:33-34). Hence also the application of the term covenant to designate such fixed arrangements or laws of nature as the regular succession of day and night (Jer 33:20), and such religious institutions as the Sabbath (Ex 31:16); circumcision (Ge 17:9-10); the Levitical institute (Le 26:15); and, in general, any precept or ordinance of God (Jer 34:13-14), all such appointments forming part of that system or arrangement in connection with which the blessings of God's grace were to be enjoyed.