Biblical Backgrounds: Covenant

All biblical studies students must develop or find a structure by which they might grasp and understand Scripture. “If there is a single most important theological structure in the Old Testament, few would disagree that it must be the covenant.”(John Walton, Covenant pg 10) In his Old Testament theology, Walther Eichrodt emphasizes the theme of covenant as the center in biblical studies. Since the publication of his work, many have agreed that the covenant being central is not “out of step with the Ancient Near Eastern world (ANE).”(Cleon Rogers, Covenant with Abraham pg. 241) Though many have utilized Eichrodt’s covenant construct, the term has become what Sandra Richter calls “Biblish.” Biblish is a word that is “so overused and poorly understood that much of its meaning has been lost.”(Sandra Richter Epic of Eden pg. 70)

“In its native context a covenant was an agreement enacted between two parties in which one or both make promises under oath to perform or refrain from certain actions stipulated in advance.”(Richter, 70) Frank Cross rightly highlights that covenants were mechanisms “by which outsiders, non-kin, might be incorporated into the kinship group.”7 “A covenant, in its normal sense, is an elected, as opposed to natural, relationship of obligation under oath.”(Gordon Hugenberger, Marriage as Covenant pg. 11) Within the biological familial relations one will not find covenant structures, for the intended outcome of a covenant (loyalty, responsibility) were already understood within the family construct. As such, not only did a covenant connect unrelated persons together, but also deities. “The close relationship between deity and tribe or tribes was rooted in kinship relations and historical experience.”(Patrick Miller Religion of Ancient Israel pg. 4)

There are two major types of covenants, Suzerain Vassal and King Grant

The first type of covenant to be handled is the promissory. Mendenhall notes that promissory covenants are unconditional and opposite to obligatory covenants.(Covenant Forms in Israelite Tradition pg. 62) As an opposition, Weinfeld notes that the grant focuses upon the “obligation of the master [suzerain] to his servant [vassal].” (Covenant of Grant in the OT and ANE pg. 185) God in his covenant with Abraham and David obligates himself to fulfilling the covenant, rather than Abraham and David being obligated to duties.

Similar non Biblical Covenants: 
treaty of Hattušiliš III with Ulmi-Tešup of Dataša
Edict of Cyrus

The second and most common type of covenant found in the Ancient Near East is the obligatory covenant otherwise known as the suzerain vassal treaty. Vassal treaties – not military conquest – accounted for much of the growth expansion of the great empires. Unlike the grant covenant, the suzerain treaty contained obligations for the vassal and benefits for both the suzerain and the vassal. If faithfulness was expected from the covenant it was the vassal’s role to remain faithful and obedient to the suzerain. (Mendenhall, Covenant Forms in Israelite Traditions pg. 52) The Mosaic covenant most notably fits within this Suzerain Vassal form.

Similar non Biblical Covenants: 
Hittite Treaty

Here’s why Covenant types matter. 
Depending upon the type of covenant utilized to establish a respective relationship one will better understand the role each party has to play. Suzerain covenants require more rigid law / command based relationships, whereas the king grant shows an overflow of mercy and grace upon the lesser party. In New Testament context, this understanding rings true. The Apostles moved the active relationship out of the Mosaic Suzerain relationship and into the king grant relationship. Thus, believers are shown grace and mercy from Christ who upon his faithfulness saved the church! 

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