Many of the biblical covenants contained identifiable components comparable to ancient secular agreements. Bradshaw lists the following (1998):
1. Title or preamble, which identified the parties and their relationship to each other.
2. Historical prologue, which explained why the suzerain demanded allegiance from the vassal.
3. Stipulations and law. All secular covenants were conditional, and were nullified through failure to observe the specified conditions (Busenitz 1999, p.180).
4. Deposit in the temple (the heart of society) and periodic public reading.
5. List of witnesses. God Himself was the principle witness in Biblical covenants (Estes 2003).
6. Oaths, ceremonies, and symbols. Every covenant had its accompanying sign. The covenant with Noah had the rainbow, Abraham was given circumcision, and the Mosaic covenant was observed by the Sabbath day (Deffinbaugh 2006a).
7. Sanctions. If the treaty were to be broken the suzerain could declare that act as the agent of the deities and attack the vassal kingdom. Biblical covenants contained blessings and curses which functioned as incentives.
Covenants Between God and Man
When God entered into a relationship with man, He held absolute unilateral sovereignty. He initiated, defined and confirmed each covenant, not on the basis of human merit but solely according to His own grace and mercy. People were “recipients, not contributors” (Van Groningen 1996). There was no “bargaining, bartering, or contracting” with God (Robertson 1980) and yet in all, man retained his power to choose to keep or reject, to obey or transgress. In short, God was wholly responsible for covenantal security. Man’s part was merely to accept and obey (Busenitz 1999, p.179).
The Nature of God’s Covenants
“God’s covenants contain two especially important components: terms and duration. Although humans may reach covenants or other agreements through their own devices, God’s covenants with people are usually unilateral. He alone determines the terms and conditions; humans choose whether to accept them.
“For example, after God clearly defined aspects of the covenant He was making with the nation of Israel, including the blessings for honoring it and the consequences for ignoring it (Leviticus 26;Deuteronomy 28-30), both parties – God and the people of Israel -accepted it. Through this process God and Israel entered into a covenant relationship, a binding commitment to honor and fulfill their respective roles.
“A second important concept for us to understand about God’s covenant with Israel is its continuing relevance to our day. In reaffirming the covenant with the generation of Israelites who were poised to enter the Promised Land, Moses explained that they were doing this “that (God) may establish you today as a people for Himself, and that He may be God to you, just as He has spoken to you, and just as He has sworn to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I make this covenant and this oath, not with you alone, but with him who stands here with us today before the LORD our God, as well as with him who is not here with us today” (Deuteronomy 29:13-15). The covenant clearly applied to Israel’s descendants as well.”
Given, on the one hand, the unilateral nature of divine covenant and its gracious and promissory nature, while on the other, the presence of stipulations the question of the conditionality or otherwise of individual covenants is a difficult one, and there is diversity of opinion. John Murray understands the answer to be in the relational aspect of the covenant which when present “implies mutuality” so that the conditions “are simply the reciprocal responses of faith, love and obedience, apart from which the enjoyment of the covenant blessing and of the covenant relation are inconceivable. In a word, keeping the covenant presupposes the covenant relation as established rather than the condition upon which its establishment is contingent” (Murray, 19).
The Six Parts to A Covenant
A basic understanding of what a covenant is will help as we study the covenants of the Bible and how they relate to us. There are several covenants mentioned in the Bible and most of them have six basic parts in common, they are the parties, promises, conditions, duration, sign and dedication.
Let us look at how each of these parts of the covenant fit together.
A covenant is an agreement or treaty between two people or groups of people.
Each party declares his promises to the other party.
Each party is responsible to fulfill his promises. If one fails to keep his promise (breaks the covenant), the other is no longer bound to the covenant.
The length of time that the covenant is binding upon each party.
Often there is a visual object used as the sign of the covenant. When the parties of the covenant look upon the sign, they are reminded of the covenant. This may be an object (such as a ring in a marriage covenant) or the covenant contract itself.
A dedication is performed, often in the form of a ceremony. This often involves the shedding of blood.