1. Patriarchal Days
God's wonderful Creation is like a piece of beautifully embroidered fabric. Man's disobedience to God's law was like tearing that piece of fabric so that it needed repair. Our first parents broke the rules that God had given them and in doing so they broke the relationship between Creator and Creation. Their rebellion and sin affected the Earth over which they had been placed as stewards and restoration of the relationship could only be effected by reconciliation of the estranged parties. The universe is a system of relationships and when they break down there is need for reconciliation. Paul's words to the Colossians (1.20) wonderfully describe that reconciliation "God made peace through his Son's death on the cross and so brought back to himself all things, both on earth and in heaven." This was the repair of the wonderful fabric. Reconciliation is made by a covenant that provides the structure to bridge the gap between conflicting parties. The Creator suffered more than anyone else did by man's rebellion, but He was the first to act to bring reconciliation.
Covenants are used in the normal activities of national life. They are legal instruments based on promises and trust. In commerce covenants are called contracts. In politics they are called treaties. A marriage relationship is based on a covenant between husband and wife. Covenants made between charities and their donors are recognised by the Inland Revenue to repay tax on this basis.
The idea of a covenant can be expressed in different ways. The parties involved may be friendly equals as were David and Jonathan; or the covenant may be made between a stronger conquering tribe that dictates terms and rules to the vassal tribe. Israel's covenant with the Gibeonites was like that.
Covenants have been made between people, tribes and nations since very early times. The covenants of Israel have interesting similarities with those made by the Hittites who conquered tribes to enlarge their Empire 4000 years ago. The earliest Bible covenant was made long before that, in the time of Noah. Just as the old world was destroyed by the Flood, God told Noah that He would make a covenant with him (Genesis 6.18). As the eight persons emerged from the Ark and the waters subsided, God established His covenant as described in Genesis 9. This covenant was between the Creator and creation. The covenants of later times were to follow a similar pattern with conditions and promises. On the human side the essential input is obedience. On God's side He offers mankind His loving friendship with care and provision for its welfare. To Noah and his descendants were promised safety from natural disaster and the regular seasonal supplies. Men might well have wondered if their sin would again cause all to perish, but God said that never again would all flesh be destroyed. Instead, He made it clear that He intended that the human race should flourish in spite of its sin. God made a covenant with Creation and gave the pledge or token that when light of the sun shines through the rain drops it would split into its spectrum colours in the shape of a bow as a reminder that God keeps His word. Within God's promise was the early evidence of God's love, He cared about His creation. The first step in the repair and reconciliation of the relationship broken in Eden between God and man was that first covenant with Noah and his family
The next step is more fully documented in the Bible. Each of the four major covenants marked a turning point in the history of mankind. Just as the covenant with Noah expressed God's concern for the whole of Creation so the same principle was enshrined in the great promise to Abraham, that his family would bring blessing to the whole human family. That promise was made while Abram still lived in Haran (Genesis 12.3), the home that his father established after their migration from Babylonia. The actual covenant was not made till Abram arrived in Canaan. By that time he had been to Egypt because of famine and his nephew Lot had separated from him and now lived in the lush Jordan valley. The patriarch had rescued him from marauding but well organized tribes and it was after the encounter with Melchizedek that the full ceremony of the covenant occurred and was recorded in Genesis 15.
In the Bible our English word 'covenant' is translated from the Hebrew word 'berith'. A covenant is instituted by a sacrificial ceremony involving the 'cutting of the covenant'. This is when the animal for sacrifice is cut into two parts, each part represents one of the two parties involved in the covenant. The remarkable account in Genesis 15 describes carefully the ceremony of 'cutting the covenant' ‑ karat berith. The sacrificial animals were divided in two, representing the two parties involved in the covenant. In the Hittite parallel, the two halves of the sacrifice represented in some mystical way the joining of the lives of those participating in the contract.
Mildenhall has researched the way that the Hittites annexed smaller tribes which then became 'one' with the larger empire. The smaller party was promised protection and provision by the suzerain which demanded obedience to its laws including the payment of revenue in return.
Obedience is an interesting aspect of Abraham's life from his migration to Canaan to the offering of his son on Mount Moriah. But the obedience most closely connected with the making of the covenant is described in Genesis 17 where Abraham is told that he and his male descendants must be circumcised; and in fact it has been described as the covenant of circumcision. The ritual must continue so long as the covenant exists. When Israel marched through the desert, the ritual lapsed and there was a sense in which the covenant lapsed too. When the nation finally entered the Land of the Promise the custom was restored by the River Jordan in Gilgal (Joshua 5).
There is an aspect of God's covenant with Israel that is worth a careful study in itself. There are two main ideas concerning love in the Old Testament. Firstly there was His election-love whereby He chose Israel to be His own people and this is enshrined in the words 'I will be your God and you shall be my people'. There is however another form of God's love' which is expressed in the Hebrew word 'cherith'. The Revised Standard Version rightly and consistently translates this word as 'steadfast love' and Psalm 136 is a fascinating example. Abraham must have known about it, for Eliezer uses 'cherith' in his prayer at the Haran well while searching for a wife for Isaac (Gen.24.12). Others may be false, forgetful and ignorant but our God is faithful forever. In faithful love He must punish wrong-doing but He also rewards corresponding faithfulness. If he makes a promise He keeps it; if He makes a covenant He is true to it. As a result He was trusted by His people for He kept His Word as no man has ever done. People interpret facts and call it truth but it is never the same as the veracity of God. When God spoke to Noah he called His covenant an 'Everlasting Covenant' and that is the expression of the writer to the Hebrews in the great benediction (13.20). Maybe all the other covenants that God makes are phases or aspects of the one great eternal relationship that He makes with 'His People'.
God's promise in Genesis 12 included Abraham becoming the father of a great nation that would have God's protection. Later he was to learn that such a promise entailed he and Sarah having a miraculous son. In Genesis 15 the land of Canaan was promised to Abram and his descendants because it is God's land and He would live there with them. In Genesis 17 a further sign of the Covenant was God's change of Abram's name to Abraham indicating that he would be the father of nations. A conflict arose between Abraham and Abimelech recorded in Genesis 20 and 21. Although it is not explicitly stated the trouble may have ended with a covenant between them. A similar conflict arose between Isaac and Abimelech, documented in Genesis 26 where in verse 28 there is a definite request for a covenant sealed with an oath. More importantly at the beginning of that chapter is a renewal of the covenant between God and Isaac, re-stating the promises originally made to Abraham.
When Jacob left Canaan ‑ the land of the Promise and the Covenant -- God appeared to him in that now famous dream. He spoke wonderful words to the patriarch assuring him that although he was leaving the land of the covenant He would be with Jacob wherever he went until he returned. As he was returning, richer than when he left Canaan, Jacob made a covenant with his father-in-law Laban for their mutual protection against the other (Gen.31.44). Then at Bethel (Genesis 35) the covenant promises were renewed to Jacob in a most moving experience discovering and rediscovering the greatness and kindliness of the God of his fathers.
Finally, Jacob gave his blessing to his sons as his life came to an end. The main thrust of those blessings was toward Judah and Joseph. Judah's descendants would one day be part of the Davidic Covenant and the Messianic vision. Joseph had already begun to understand the wonder of the providential care and forgiveness of the covenant-keeping God.