A Quick Guide to Five Key Covenants
There’s no consensus on the number of divine covenants. There are, however, five explicit covenants that form the backbone of the Bible: those God makes with Noah, Abraham, Israel, and David and the New Covenant inaugurated by Jesus. You’ll want to know these as they keep the narrative moving along until we get to the climax of the story—Jesus!
1. Noahic Covenant: God enters a formal relationship with Noah and all living creatures promising that despite humanity’s evil he will never again destroy them. Rather, he will preserve the world as he works towards fulfilling the promise of Genesis 3:15, rescuing humanity and creation through the offspring of the woman. He reiterates the cultural mandate (Genesis 1:28), inviting humans to partner with him in filling and ruling his world.
Scripture: Genesis 8:20-9:17
Situation: After Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden, the narrative is pretty 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. Sin has enveloped the whole world. So God sends a destroying flood upon the earth to purge it of wickedness, making way for a restored creation that will begin with Noah and his family.
Stipulation(s): None. It’s an unconditional covenant grounded in the promise of God to never again destroy the world until redemption is fully accomplished.
Sign: Rainbow (Genesis 9:12-17). God has withdrawn his weapons of war and his warrior’s bow will remain at rest until the final day of judgment.
2. Abrahamic Covenant: God enters a redemptive partnership with Abraham, developed progressively in Genesis 12, 15, and 17. He promises Abraham a huge family that will inherit a promised piece of land in Canaan and bring universal blessing to all humanity through his family. You can remember these promises like this: 1) offspring, 2) land, and 3) universal blessing.
Scripture: Genesis 12, 15, and 17
Situation: The covenant with Noah provided the circumstances in which redemption could come but wasn’t redemptive in and of itself. Evil continued to reign over the world. Genesis 9-11 traces the downward spiral of mankind, peaking in the story of the tower of Babel. There, humans tried to overthrow God’s authority by building a new world center to exalt themselves above God. It was humanity’s way of giving God the finger, revealing the nature of the human heart. God scatters the nations in judgment and we’re left to wonder, How in the world will humanity be saved?! But, in a stunning act of grace, God selects Abraham and calls him into a covenantal relationship.
Stipulation(s): Abraham is to leave his land and follow God wherever he leads, walking blamelessly before God and training his family to do what is right and just, and keeping circumcision in every generation. This is both a conditional and unconditional covenant. God and man each have a part to play, but ultimately these promises will be fulfilled because God will see to it that they come to pass.
Sign: Circumcision (Genesis 17:9-14). A symbol setting this family apart to God, showing that their fertility and future lay in God’s hands.
3. Mosaic Covenant (Israel): God rescues Israel from slavery in Egypt and promises to make them his own treasured possession, a holy, set apart nation. He will personally dwell in their midst and bring them into the promise land. He (Yahweh) will be their God and they (Israel) will be his people. Moreover, they will be a kingdom of priests that mediate his goodness and glory to all the nations. An epic role in redemptive history.
Scripture: Exodus 19-24
Situation: Exodus opens with Abraham’s offspring multiplying rapidly in Egypt. It’s like a really big family now, which threatens the new Pharaoh’s ego. He forces God’s people to become slave-laborers in his building campaigns. They cry out to God and God hears them, sending Moses to be his instrument of divine power to lead them out of Egypt towards the promise land. When they reach the foot of Mt. Sinai God shows up in a big way (like huge!) to revisit his promises made to Abraham and enter a formal relationship with Israel.
Stipulation(s): This was a conditional covenant of grace. Israel was to obey the terms embodied in all the laws given at Mt. Sinai (summarized in the ten commandments). God promised to bring blessings if they followed his commands, but curses if they disobeyed (see Deuteronomy 28), most notably exile into foreign lands. (And we get the feeling in Deuteronomy 30:1 that the water is poisoned from the start.)
Sign: Sabbath (Exodus 31:12-18). A sign that God sanctified and set apart Israel to be holy unto him.
4. Davidic Covenant: God establishes David as king over Israel and promises to make his name great. He’ll give David a royal kingdom in which the promises made to Abraham and Israel will be fulfilled through his lineage. God will raise up a Davidic descendant who will build a house for the Lord and his throne and kingdom will last forever. God’s steadfast love will never depart from him.
Scripture: 2 Samuel 7; Psalm 72, 89, and 132
Situation: God’s people enter Canaan and eventually demand a king so they could be like the other nations. Saul from the tribe of Benjamin is anointed, but fails to obey God so he’s rejected as king. God then chooses David, the son of Jesse, from the tribe of Judah. (This should pique your interest. Wasn’t there supposed to be a messianic ruler from the line of Judah?) David becomes a successful leader, overcoming Israel’s enemies and restoring the presence of God to the city of David. When there’s national rest, he decides to build a house for God. But God has other plans. He will build an everlasting kingdom and throne for David, not the other way around.
Stipulation(s): David and his descendants must remain faithful to God, walk in covenantal faithfulness, and lead Israel in obedience to the covenantal laws. However, there are conditional and unconditional elements to the covenant. Despite the kings’ failures, God guaranteed a faithful Davidic king on the throne. (Hmmm…I wonder who that could be?!)
5. The New Covenant: The new covenant is the culmination of God’s saving work in his people. He promises to make an everlasting covenant with his people in which he will write his law on their hearts, bring complete forgiveness of sin, put his Spirit in them to empower them to love and obey his commands, raise up a faithful Davidic king to rule over them, bring them back into the land to reunify them into one people of God, and cause them to be a light to the nations. Wow!
Scripture: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:22-32; Matthew 26:26-29; Luke 22:19-22
Situation: The new covenant is (explicitly) introduced by the prophets in the context of total failure. The kings, the people, and even the religious leaders failed to keep God’s commands. It turns out that God’s covenantal people were nothing but covenant-breakers! The curses of the covenant came upon them as they were exiled to Babylon. But, there, the prophets give us hope—God would one day bring about a new covenant. The anticipation of this covenant pushes the story forward into the pages of the New Testament where we are introduced to Jesus, the one who will fulfill all the prophetic promises and bring about blessing for all peoples.
Stipulation(s): There are no stipulations to this unconditional covenant of grace. God both gives the promises and brings them about through the work of his faithful Son Jesus.
Sign: This could be a big discussion! But in Matthew 26:26-29 and Luke 22:19-22, Jesus connects his death to the new exodus/new covenant themes highlighted in Isaiah and Jeremiah. While Pentecost activates new covenant themes from Ezekiel 36 and Jeremiah 31. So the death and resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the Spirit can be seen as signs of the new covenant.