What is the Covenant?

Rainbow in a blue sky

One of the most prominent features of the Old Testament is the covenantal relationship between God and His people. Unlike the distant or aloof god figures in other Ancient Near East traditions, the Bible tells us that God is personal; He desires us to know Him and He speaks and communes with His people. One of the primary ways God’s interpersonal nature is demonstrated in scripture is through the establishment of legal covenants.

What exactly are covenants, and what role do they play in God’s plans and promises for creation? To help you along your journey, give Biblical context, and spark discussion on the important themes of Scripture, we’ll explore the various covenants and reflect on what they mean.

One hand offering a flower to another

Defining Covenants

In broadest terms, the word "covenant" is a type of formal agreement or alliance, similar to a contract. A covenant requires at least two parties and an agreed upon set of conditions. We see an example of a covenant established between Abraham and his nephew Lot. When Lot and Abraham separate, they agree that Lot will choose which direction he prefers to go and Abraham will take to opposite direction. This binding agreement in designed to keep the peace and to establish claims for areas of land.

The Old Testament references a number of covenants in which one of the primary parties is God. God promises and/ or commits to humanity, He binds Himself to them by His own word. God’s righteousness and faithfulness is so great that He always upholds His end of a covenant, even if the other party—humanity—has violated their promises.

There is some disagreement among scholars over precisely how many Biblical covenants there are, with the number ranging from anywhere between 1 and 12+. We’ll take a closer look at a some of the most major Biblical covenants between God and His people and what they tell us about the Lord.

The Edenic Covenant

The Edenic Covenant is the first in all of creation and applies to all of humanity. It is found in the book of Genesis chapter 1:28-30. God creates the entire world, including humanity in His image. Humans are given stewardship over all the earth and are tasked with filling and caring for it. This first God's covenant sets the tone for God’s relationship with humanity. God's desire is the flourishing of creation; this covenant establishes Divine providence and care, as God promised that humans will be strengthened and protected by nature and commands us to cultivate and protect it in return.

The Noahic Covenant

The covenant God established with Noah also extends to all of creation. In the aftermath of the Great Flood, God made the promise to never again flood and destroy the earth. The rainbow is given by God as a sign of this covenant, an affirmation of God’s faithfulness and mercy. And indeed, the Noahic covenant demonstrates that the Lord is merciful. While wickedness on the part humanity led to the flood, God protected and preserved Noah and family and all the creature of the earth. God’s judgement was not annilhilatory and His grace endures.

Rainbow over the hills

The Abrahamic Covenant

Perhaps the most well-known of all the Biblical covenants is the covenant with Abraham found in Genesis 12-17. Established by God between God’s self and Abraham, this covenant consists of two key parts. The first is the promise to bless Abraham with a multitude of descendants and to make his name great. The second is the gift of the Promised Land, which will be given to the children of Abraham. The sign of this covenant is circumcision, which God calls Abraham and all of his male descendants to undergo. This covenant with Abraham establishes the children of Abraham as God’s chosen people, though it also specifies that through God’s work with Abraham, all people of the earth will be blessed.

The Mosaic Covenant

Stones stacked on top of each other

As the name suggests, the Mosaic covenant was established between God and the Israelite people through Moses. It is recorded in Exodus 19-24 and essentially designates Israel as a nation. A part of this covenant is the conveyance of the Ten Commandments and the Law, which God’s people must obey. Through this covenant, God shows us how He desires His people to live; God’s Ten Commandments outline life properly oriented in worship to the Lord and lived in care and love for each other and all of creation. It helps correct humanity back to the God's redemptive plan outlined by the Edenic Covenant of the other side of the Fall. On our own, humanity had failed to properly care for our world, so God gives us guideline for doing so.

The Davidic Covenant

The Davidic covenant establishes David and his line as the kings of Israel. More than that, God promises the ultimate king, the Messiah, will come from the line of King David. In the Christian faith, this everlasting covenant is understood to be fulfilled by Jesus, who comes from David’s line and who is great King of kings and savior of all the world. Again, this covenant demonstrates God’s dedication to grace and restoration. In the face of the shortcomings of humanity—when we fail to obey God, God remains steadfast and committed to ensure our ultimate salvation.

The New Covenant

Ripples across the surface of water

The New Covenant was established by Jesus at the Last Supper. Here God’s grace and mercy are finalized through the sacrifice of Christ. By the blood of the cross the whole world is saved and new life is offered to any who accept Jesus as Lord. The New Covenant replaces the Law previously given—salvation is understood be something we receive by faith alone, not by our ability (or inability) to fully keep every aspect of the Law.

Final Words

The Bible tells the story of God’s great love for humanity and all the world. Through the various covenants covered here, God commits to protect and restore humanity, and He keeps His word even when humans fall short. If you are interested in further study around the Biblical covenants, consider reading the books of Genesis, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the four Gospels, available on our website. These visually striking books are designed for all and will encourage you to deepen your relationship with the Bible and with God through its design and meaningful images.