We don’t talk a lot about covenants today, but we should. Covenants are one of the most important themes in the Bible—they are the key to God’s redemptive plan to restore humanity to its divine calling. Starting in Genesis, God enters into one formal partnership (i.e., covenant) after another with various humans in order to rescue his world. These divine-human partnerships drive the narrative forward until it reaches its climax in Jesus. To tell the story of God redeeming humanity through Jesus is to tell the whole story of God’s covenantal relationship with humans.
So what is a covenant? And how does the covenantal story of the Bible begin?
What’s a Covenant?
A covenant is a relationship between two partners who make binding promises to each other and work together to reach a common goal. They’re often accompanied by oaths, signs, and ceremonies. Covenants define obligations and commitments, but they are different from a contract because they are relational and personal. Think of a marriage—a husband and wife choose to enter into a formal relationship, binding themselves to one another in lifelong faithfulness and devotion. They then work as partners to reach a common goal, like building a life or raising children together.
Covenant relationships are found all throughout the Bible. There are personal covenants between two individuals (e.g., David and Jonathan in 1 Samuel 23), political covenants between two kings or nations (e.g., King Solomon and King Hiram in 1 Kings 5), legal covenants with a nation (such as the laws about freeing Hebrew slaves), and so forth. Entering into covenants was a major part of what it meant to live in the ancient Near East. So God partnered with humans through a structure they already understood.
The Beginning of the Covenantal Story
The covenantal story began when God created humans in his image to partner with him in spreading goodness throughout the world. The word “covenant” (Heb. berit) isn’t explicitly used in Genesis 1, but the details of the relationship are similar to later covenants in the text.
God invites Adam and Eve to be priest kings and represent his generous rule on Earth. They could enjoy and reproduce blessings of eternal life as long as they continued to trust and partner with him. But as God lays out the terms of their relationship, he warns them not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because it would bring the curse of death on humanity.
And in their first test of covenant faithfulness, humans failed. They ate from the tree, fracturing the human-divine relationship and plunging humanity into corruption and death. We’d still be stuck in the wreckage if God never intervened. But the rest of the Bible is all about how God is repairing this broken partnership with humans.
A Quick Guide to Five Key Covenants
There’s no consensus on the exact number of covenants between God and humanity. However, there are five foundational covenants that God makes with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, before establishing the new covenant through Jesus.
After Adam and Eve’s exile from Eden, the biblical narrative feels grim. In Genesis 4, Cain sides with the serpent, killing his brother in cold blood, and a man named Lamech brags about his murderous, chauvinistic ways. Genesis 5 repeats the refrain “and he died” eight times, revealing how death reigned over humanity. Then there’s this weird story in Genesis 6 that’s meant to show the rapid advancement of evil. So that by the time we come to the story of Noah, sin has enveloped the whole world, sending it back into pre-creation chaos. In response, God sends a flood, making way for a restored creation that will begin with Noah and his family.
God enters a formal relationship with Noah and all living creatures, promising that, despite humanity’s corruption, he will never again flood the earth (Gen. 8:20-9:17). He will instead preserve the world as he works toward keeping his promise to rescue humanity and creation through the “offspring of the woman” (Gen. 3:15). God then invites humans to partner with him in filling and ruling his world. God’s covenant with Noah is unconditional, and his promise is accompanied with a sign of his faithfulness, the rainbow, to remind future generations of this covenant (Gen. 9:12-17).
After God makes a covenant with Noah, evil continues to ruin the world. Genesis 9-11 traces the downward spiral of humanity, and we’re left to wonder: How will God restore his good world? God’s rescue plan continues, and he calls Abraham into a covenantal relationship.
This redemptive partnership between God and Abraham is developed progressively in Genesis 12, 15, and 17. He promises Abraham a huge family that will inherit a piece of land in Canaan and bring universal blessing to all humanity.
Similar to the Noahic covenant, this covenant is also accompanied by an outward sign, a reminder to Abraham and his ancestors. God commands the men to be circumcised (Gen. 17:9-14), a symbol that sets Abraham and his family apart and shows that their fertility and future lay in God’s hands.
God tells Abraham to leave his land and follow wherever he leads, train his family to do what is right and just, and practice circumcision in every generation. This covenant is both conditional and unconditional. God and Abraham each have a part to play, but ultimately, God will keep his promise to give Abraham a family who will inherit the land and bless the world.
Exodus opens with Abraham’s offspring multiplying rapidly in Egypt, which threatens the new Pharaoh’s ego. He enslaves God’s people, and they cry out to God to rescue them. God hears them, sending Moses to be his instrument of divine power to lead the people out of Egypt and toward the land God promised to Abraham.
After a harrowing escape, the people reach the foot of Mount Sinai, where God shows up to revisit the promises he made to Abraham. Acting as the representative for Israel, Moses ascends the mountain to hear the terms of God’s covenant with the people. God promises to make Israel into a holy kingdom of priests that will spread his blessing and glory to all the nations.
God instructed Israel to obey all the laws given at Mount Sinai, promising to bring blessings if they followed his commands and curses if they ignored them (see Deut. 28). Israel’s allegiance to Yahweh will be outwardly reflected in the way that they live, keeping the commands and, most notably, observing weekly Sabbath rest (Exod. 31:12-18).
God’s people enter Canaan (the promised land) and eventually demand a king, stoking their desire to be like other nations. (Already, we are seeing the people lose sight of their covenant at Mount Sinai.) Saul is anointed as Israel’s king, but he fails to obey God and is rejected. God then chooses David as king over Israel. David becomes a successful leader, overcoming Israel’s enemies and restoring order, and he wants to build a temple for God to dwell with his people again. God responds to this desire by making a covenant with David, promising to make his name great and raise up a descendant from David’s line, whose throne and kingdom will last forever (2 Sam. 7; Ps. 72, 89, 132).
David and his descendants must remain faithful to God, following the covenantal laws. However, despite David and his sons’ failures, God keeps his promise to provide a faithful descendant of David to reign.
All of these covenants thematically build on one another. After God’s covenant with David, as readers, we are left waiting for the great deliverer, the Messiah from David’s line, who will make right the fractured relationship that began in the garden.
The New Covenant
For generations, Israel ignored the terms of their covenant with Yahweh, breaking commands and living by their own definitions of good and evil. Amidst rebellion and exile, the Hebrew prophets spoke of a new covenant, saying that God would one day fulfill all of his promises, repairing his relationship with his people and blessing the nations through them (Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 36:22-32).
This new covenant is to be everlasting. God will write his law on the hearts of his people, bring complete forgiveness of sin, and raise up a faithful king from the line of David who will restore all that has been broken.
The anticipation of this covenant pushes the story forward into the pages of the New Testament, where we are introduced to Jesus (Matt. 26:26-29; Luke 22:19-22).
Do you notice how the covenants progressively build upon one another, forming a complete redemptive storyline? God preserved the world through Noah, initiated redemption through Abraham, established the nation of Israel through Moses, promised an eternal shepherd-king through David, and then fulfilled all of his covenants through Jesus. With each covenant, God’s promises and plans to save the world through the seed of the woman become clearer and clearer until we finally see that redemption can only come through King Jesus.
Jesus Is the Covenantal Climax
The New Testament authors present Jesus as the offspring of Abraham who trusted Yahweh, even to the point of death, and became a blessing to all nations. He is the greater Moses, leading us out of bondage, and he is the obedient Israelite who perfectly follows the laws of God. He is the royal son of David who inaugurated God’s Kingdom in his life, death, and resurrection, and who now sits at God’s right hand forever reigning as the one true King.
Jesus perfectly succeeded at every point where humanity failed. He is the guarantor and mediator of the new and better covenant (Heb. 7:22, 9:15). Now people from every nation, tribe, and tongue who trust Jesus can become a part of God’s covenant family.
In the new covenant, we receive the forgiveness of sins and God’s empowering Spirit to help us live lives full of self-giving love. Because of Jesus, we can live righteously and partner with him as he renews the world.