OLD TESTAMENT ESSAYS
The Meaning and Significance of Covenant as Found in the
(23 May 1983)
by Christopher C. Warren, M.A.(Oxon)
The first occurence of the term "covenant" in scripture is Genesis 6:18, where the reference is the Pre-Diluvian Noahic Covenant. In this brief reference we have already an intimation of what a covenant is. The thought is as far removed as can be from that of compact, contract, or agreement between Yahweh and Noah. Yahweh announced to Noah that He will establish His covenant with him. It is a sovereign dispensing of grace on Yahweh's part, and the security arises from the action of Yahweh. It is Yahweh's covenant, and He establishes it. Flowing from this dispensation to Noah there are corresponding obligations. Noah and his family were to come into the ark and he was to bring with him the specified number of animals and birds and creeping things (Gen.6:18b-21). Thus there is no conflict between sovereign administration of grace and ensuing obligation.
The Post-Diluvian Noahic Covenant is recorded in Genesis 9:9-17, and shows us more clearly than any other instance what the essential nature of a covenant is, and it advises us again how alien to the covenant-concept is any notion or compact or contract between two parties. The thought of a bilateral agreement is wholly excluded. The keynote is "And I, behold I, am establishing My covenant with you" (see Gen.9:9). The salient should be noted:
The covenant is therefore a sovereign administration of grace and forebearance, divine in its origin, disclosure, confirmation and fulfilment.
- 1. It is conceived and established by Yahweh Himself;
- 2. It is universal in its scope - it embraces not only Noah but his seed after him and every living creature. The scopre demonstrates that the grace bestowed is not dependent upon intelligent understanding or favourable response on the part of the beneficiaries;
- 3. This covenant is unconditional - no commandment or requirement is nappended which could be construed as the condition upon which the grace bestowed is contingent. In fact, there is no ensuing obligation for Noah and his seed which could be regarded as the means through which the grace promised is realised. Hence the thought of breaking the covenant is irrelevent;
- 4. The divine monergism (the doctrine that regeneration is entirely the work of the Holy Spirit) is intensely exhibited in this covenant; there is no human contribution to the agency by which the promises are fulfilled. The sign does not even take the form of an ordinance to be performed by man at the divine behest. The bow in the cloud is for the purpose of attesting the faithfulness of Yahweh and, in anthropomorphic terms, it is to bring to Yahweh's remembrance His covenant promise. It is not a sign over which men exercise any control;
- 5. The covenant is everlasting. The perpetuity is correlative with the unilateral character and with the divine monergism. No uncertainty or mutability can belong to Yahweh's unconditional promise.
The Noahic covenants provide us with the concept of sovereign dispensation on Yahweh's part. When we study the Abrahamic Covenant we find no deviation from this governing definition. But we do discover new features. Hence it is necessary to take account of the generic characteristics and the specific.
The emphasis which falls upon the unilateral character of the covenant as a dispensation of grace on Yahweh's part and the obligation devolving upon men to keep the covenant might appear to be incompatible. Careful consideration, however, shows that these are complimentary. In the Abrahamic covenant we have grace  on the highest level because it contemplates the apex of spiritual relationship. The greater the grace, the mroe accentuated becomes the sovereignty of the bestowal. But, likewise, the greater the grace and the more intimate the relation constituted, the more intensified become the demands of that relationship. The necessity of keeping the covenant is the expression of the spirituality involved. Keeping is the condition of continuance in this grace and of its consummating fruition; it is the reciprocal response apart from which communion with Yahweh is impossible.
- 1. Generic (general) features:
These features indicate that the covenant is divinely devised, administered, confirmed and executed.
- a. Promises were given. The three expressly mentioned in connection with the covenant are the possession of the land of Canaan, the multiplying of Abraham's seed, and the promise that Yhaweh would be an Elohim (God) to him and his seed for ever (Gen.15:8,18; 17:6-8). But we cannot exclude the promise made that in him and his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen.12:3 cp. Acts 3:25);
- b. Divine monergism is distinctly in the forefront (Gen.15:18; 17:1-8);
- c. Perpetuity is emphasised as much as in the post-diluvian Noahic covenant (Gen.17:7-8,19);
- d. Confirmation is given by sanction which is irrevocable in its import (Gen.15:9-17).
- 2. Specific features:
- a. The promises have specific character; they are soteric (as opposed to esoteric) in their intent and effect, having the centre in the promise that Yahweh will be the Elohim (God) of Abraham and his seed (Gen.17:7-8);
- b. In scope the covenant is particularistic to the extent of excluding Ishmael (Gen.17:18-21). All nations are to be blessed by Abraha,'s seed. But it is not a covenant with the flesh as in Genesis 9:9-17. It is not a covenant that is to yield its benefits to all indiscriminately;
- c. The sanction by which it is confirmed is one of preculiar solemnity (Gen.15:9-17). This is of the nature of a self-maledictory (cursing) oath on the part of Yahweh (cp. Jer.34:18-20). Nothing could more effectively certify the security and immutability of the promise of the inheritance of the land of Canaan. And the other promises of the covenant, since they are so closely bound up with this particular promise, must be regarded as guaranteed by the same sanction;
- d. In this case the necessity of keeping the covenant devolves upon Abraham and his seed (Gen.17:10-14). The person failing to comply with the requirements breaks the covenant and it cut off from the people. This feature is co-ordinate with the added richness of the covenant promises and blessings in distinction from those of the Noahic. The intense spirituality of the relation constituted demands consecration on the part of those embraced by the covenant. And the particularism likewise is correlative with the keeping. A covenant that yields its blessings to all indiscriminately cannot be kept of broken;
- e. The sign of the covenant is circumcision, and therefore an ordinance to be observed by men only (Gen.17:11). Circumcision signifies the purification (cp. Ex.6:12,30; Lev.19:23; 26:41; Dt.10:16; 30:6; Jer.4:4; 6:10; 9:25) indispensable to that communion with Yahweh which is the central blessing of the covenant (Gen.17:7).
 The undeserved loving-kindness or unmerited favour of Yahweh; grace can never be earned or received as a 'reward' for works or good deeds. Accordingly Paul says one can never boast for received grace (Eph.2:9).
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