IF YOU HAVE EVER BEEN A PARTY to an important contract, such as a real estate transfer, whether you know it or not, you have entered into a covenant – a formal, solemn and binding agreement between parties concerning serious matters, such as borders, property, finances, or ways of life. A covenant establishes a bond between the parties – whether nations or individuals – which goes beyond the specifics agreed upon. A covenant implies a relationship of trust in other areas of life between the parties as well.
Covenants such as these are called bilateral, because they are between two equal parties – two nations, two companies or two individuals – who agree on the terms of their relationship. The Scriptures speak often of covenants between God and individuals, the people of Israel, or the entire human race. These covenants are not bilateral, but unilateral. They are not mutual agreements between equal parties, but unsought gifts of God to man. As Pope Benedict XVI described it, “The covenant then is not a pact built on reciprocity, but rather a gift, a creative act of God’s love” (“The New Covenant: A Theology of Covenant in the New Testament”).
It is God who determined the terms of the bond which He offers to the recipients of His covenants. This is not “unfair,” because what God offers is so far above and beyond what the other party can contribute. God gains nothing by making a covenant with man; man has everything to gain by keeping the terms which God has established.
The Covenant with Adam (Genesis 1:27-2:3) – The Jews understood creation itself to be a covenant with mankind. God’s part was to create our first ancestors in His image and likeness, and give them “dominion over … every living thing that moves on the earth” (v.28) with “every herb … and every tree …for food” (v.29), except for “the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden” (Genesis 3:3). Man’s part was to “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28): to replenish and cultivate, or put in order, the creation God had given.
The Genesis story concludes as follows: “Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made” (Genesis 2:3). The Jews considered keeping the Sabbath as the sign which would remind them of God’s covenant with Adam.
The Covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:9-15) –After the flood waters receded, God made another covenant with mankind through Noah, promising to keep creation from being destroyed: “Behold, I establish My covenant with you … never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” In addition to the herbs and fruit of the trees, God now provided that “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you” (Genesis 9:3). But man was not to eat “flesh with its blood” (blood was the stuff of sacrifice – it was an offering for God, not for man to consume). Man’s part in the covenant was, again, to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Genesis 9:2).
Here, too, the covenant had a sign: God says, “I set My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be for the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. … and I will look on it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (Genesis 9:13-16). Unlike the covenant in Eden, this sign of the covenant was to remind God, rather than man, of what he had promised.
The Covenant with Abram – Gen 12 – The next covenant was with Noah’s descendant Abram, whose name God changed to Abraham. “Behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall be a father of many nations.
… And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, Also, I give to you and your descendants … all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession” (Genesis 17:4-9).
While the earlier covenants were between God and all mankind through Adam and Noah, the covenant with Abram/Abraham was with him and his descendants. Their part was to observe the sign of the covenant, circumcision, which would identify them as being of Abram’s tribe, heirs of God’s promise. “This is My covenant which you shall keep, … Every male child among you shall be circumcised … My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant” (Genesis 17:10, 11, 13).
The Covenant with Moses (Exodus 19:3-9) – The promise that Abraham’s descendants would inherit the land of Canaan was fulfilled through Moses. God promised, “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, … you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ (Exodus 19:5)
The people’s part of the covenant was to keep the Ten Commandments and the other precepts God had given them. These precepts were written for posterity and animals were sacrificed to seal the covenant. Moses “…And Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, “This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you” (Exodus 24:7, 8).
The sign of this covenant was the observance of the three pilgrimage feasts: Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost), and Sukkot (Booths): “Three times in the year all your men shall appear before the Lord, the Lord God of Israel” (Exodus 34:23).
The Covenant with David (2 Samuel 7:12-16) – When David was securely established as the Israelite king, he received this promise from God: “The Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house [descendants].
When your days are fulfilled, and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He it is who shall build a house for my name.” This offspring was Solomon, who erected the first temple in Jerusalem.
But then the promise continues and expands: “I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (verse 13), and “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me” (verse 16). What began as a promise concerning Solomon, turns into something greater—the promise of an everlasting kingdom. Another Son of David would rule forever and build a lasting House.
This Covenant is unconditional because God does not place any conditions of obedience upon its fulfillment. The promise made rests solely on God’s faithfulness and does not depend at all on David or Israel’s obedience.
The New Covenant – In the Epistle to the Hebrews Jesus is called the “Mediator of the new covenant” (Hebrews 9:15). In this covenant, prophesied by Jeremiah (see Jeremiah 31:31), Jesus renews many aspects of the Old Covenants described above. As God rested on the seventh day from His work of creation, so Jesus rested on the “Great Sabbath,” from His work of redemption. Animal blood was not to be consumed in the days of Noah because it was an offering to God, but the “blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28) is to be consumed in the Eucharist. While Israel under Moses was to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,’ all the baptized are “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people” (1 Peter 2:9). Gabriel told Mary at the Annunciation, that Jesus “will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:31). The New Covenant fulfills all the promises of the earlier Covenants.