“This is the covenant…” (Jeremiah 31:33)
Western cultures are familiar with the idea of blood brothers, but they are often not so familiar with the concept of a blood covenant, which is important in much of the world.
Covenant is also one of the most important concepts and central themes found in the Bible.
The Hebrew word for covenant is brit, which appears 284 times in the Tanakh (Old Testament). (Strong’s)
This word implies pact, contract, treaty or agreement between two parties and is likely derived from the Hebrew verb barah, which means to cut.
This Hebrew root brings to mind the Covenant of the Pieces (Brit bein HaBetarim or Covenant Between the Parts) in which the smoking firepot and blazing torch passed between the halves of the heifer, goat, and ram that Abraham cut when God promised him the Land, providing its physical dimensions:
“When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadie of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates….” (Genesis 15:17–21; see also Jeremiah 34:18)
And because the physical dimensions of the Land are provided in this covenant, there can be no over-spiritualizing its meaning into some otherworldly spiritual realm.
The word brit (covenant) carries a connotation of the shedding of blood. This is nothing unusual: even from the earliest of times, covenant agreements were often ratified by animal sacrifice or an exchange of blood.
Such a covenant is so binding that to break it would result in the death of the person who broke it and often the family as well.
Abraham, therefore, was following an ancient custom when he cut the three animals in two and placed them in such a way that the blood formed a pathway.
The two parties entering into this covenant would walk through the blood to confirm a covenant in which each party could lay claim to all the possessions of the other party.
But in the case of this covenant, only the smoking, burning Presence—a manifestation of God that is reminiscent of the pillar of fire that guided the Israelites through the wilderness centuries later—walked through the blood.
Why? Only God could establish this everlasting covenant, and the responsibility for maintaining it fell solely upon Him.
This was no mere contract that could be voided. It was an unconditional, eternal trust. This covenant is often referred to as the Abrahamic Covenant.
Implied Covenants in the Garden of Eden
“The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” (Genesis 3:21)
The first covenant between man and God was probably made with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and it did not involve the shedding of blood.
Though Genesis does not use the word covenant in regards to God’s conditional promises made to Adam, the Prophet Hosea does refer to it as a covenant:
“As at Adam, they have broken the covenant; they were unfaithful to Me there.” (Hosea 6:7)
Hosea seems to be speaking of God’s commands when he placed Adam in Gan Eden (Garden of Eden) to care for it:
“You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:15)
Perhaps the earliest example of a blood covenant can be traced to the time in the Garden when animals were first killed to provide clothing for Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:21).
This was the second covenant that God made with them.
Because Eve, and then Adam, succumbed to the temptation of the serpent, their connection with God was severed. They realized they were naked and tried to weave a garment of fig leaves to cover their shame.
In response, God promised to give the Messiah who would come to destroy the work of the serpent and restore the relationship between humankind and God.
The promise is worded in such a way as to infer that God would be intimately involved in the person of this promised Redeemer:
“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike His heel.” (Genesis 3:15–16)
What followed is considered by some to be an implied covenant: the shedding of innocent blood (of animals) to provide a covering (not only of their nakedness but of their transgressions) that was necessary as a result of their sin.
“Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: … I establish My covenant with you: Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.’” (Genesis 9:8–11)
The first covenant explicitly spoken of in the Bible is the covenant God made after the flood destroyed the earth.
It is unique in that God made it with all of humankind; and through this covenant, all of humanity is still in a covenant with God in which people are not permitted to eat blood or to commit murder (Genesis 9:4–6).
In this covenant, God promised to never again destroy the earth through a flood as he had during Noah’s time.
The sign that God gave Noah to seal this covenant is the rainbow (Genesis 9:12–17).
“I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.” (Genesis 17:7–8)
In the Abrahamic Covenant, God promises Abraham the Land of Israel, descendants, and blessings. (Genesis 12:1–3)
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:1–3)
Understanding the Abrahamic Covenant is extremely important, since it governs God’s unique relationship with Israel as well as His relationship with the nations.
Each of the three aspects of the Abrahamic Covenant—land, descendants, and blessing— form a basis for three other covenants:
- God’s promise of land is expanded with the Land Covenant (Deuteronomy 29:1–30:20).
“For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to Him, and to keep His commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.” (Deuteronomy 30:16)
- God’s promise of descendants is expanded with the Davidic Covenant and its promise of the coming King Messiah (2 Samuel 7:11–16; 1 Chronicles 17:10–14).
“I will set Him over My house and My kingdom forever; His throne will be established forever.” (1 Chronicles 17:14)
- God’s promise of blessing is expanded through the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
“I will put My law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people. … they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more. (Jeremiah 31:33–34)
As an eternal sign of His covenant with Abraham, God gave him the Brit Milah (Covenant of Circumcision) (Genesis 17:9–14).
The Brit Milah takes place with every Jewish male infant on the eighth day after birth.
This rite of circumcision is the vehicle through which every generation is able to enter into the covenant formed between God and Abraham.
The Mosaic Covenant
“Now if you obey Me fully and keep My covenant, then out of all nations you will be My treasured possession. Although the whole earth is Mine, you will be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5–6)
When God cut the Covenant of the Pieces with Abraham, He told Abraham that his descendants would be 400 years in a country that was not their own.
The Mosaic Covenant is the covenant that God made with the Israelites—Abraham’s descendants—at the end of this 400 year period, after He saved them from slavery in Egypt.
In this covenant, God separated the Israelites from the nations, making them a light for those nations—a kingdom of priests and a holy nation that serves the One True covenant-keeping God.
He gave His law to the Jewish People through Moses on Mount Sinai—laws that govern morality, the sacrificial system, the priesthood, and civil life.
To violate any one of these laws is to violate the Law as a whole.
While the Abrahamic Covenant is unconditional, the Mosaic Covenant is conditional.
If Israel is obedient to this covenant, they will experience the blessings of this covenant, but if they are disobedient, they will experience its curses.
The blessings and curses that are associated with this conditional covenant are detailed in Deuteronomy 28.
This covenant reveals the absolute holiness of God and the sinfulness of mankind.
It is a continuous reminder to the Jewish People, indeed, all the nations, of our need for the Redeemer, the promised Messiah.
As with other covenants, blood is involved. When Moses ratified the covenant with the Israelites, he sacrificed young bulls:
“Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.’” (Exodus 24:8)
Furthermore, the covenant has a sacrificial system that provides a means of entering the presence of the righteous and holy God. This system also provides coverings (atonements) for the sins of the people of Israel.
While circumcision is the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant, the Sabbath can be considered the sign of the Mosaic Covenant (Exodus 31:12–18).
“Say to the Israelites, ‘You must observe My Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the LORD, who makes you holy.” (Exodus 31:13)
The New Covenant
“‘Days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.’” (Jeremiah 31:3)
The New Covenant, which is a term that is only explicitly used once in the Tanakh (Old Testament) in Jeremiah 31:31–34, is founded on covenant promises that came before it.
It fulfills the promise that God made in the Garden to Adam—that One would come to crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15; Hebrews 2:14; 1 John 3:8; Colossians 2:15; Romans 16:20) and restore an intimate relationship with the Holy God.
This promised One came through Abraham’s lineage under the Abrahamic Covenant.
Jeremiah states that the New Covenant will not be like the Mosaic Covenant of law that God made with the Israelites when He brought them out of Egypt, which they broke.
It is an unconditional covenant of grace given to Israel that is capable of transforming people from the inside out so that God’s laws are internalized and written on the heart—one in which His people can draw close to Him.
The New Covenant was ratified through Messiah’s sacrificial death on the Roman execution stake.
Whereas we were unable to keep the Mosaic Covenant, continually turning away from God and suffering the consequences, in the New Covenant, Yeshua alone has the ability to save those who put their faith in Him; this salvation cannot be attained by good works or by keeping the law or by anything other than faith in Him.
Moreover, He has provided the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) to empower Believers to keep the covenant and receive an eternal inheritance.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8–9)
Many have argued that the New Covenant abolishes or replaces the Mosaic Covenant, but Yeshua said this was not so:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17–19)
The New Covenant also does not end the Abrahamic Covenant; it is a measure for carrying out the blessings purposed in it.
In fulfillment of the blessings that the Abrahamic Covenant would bring to the nations (Galatians 3:14), those who put their faith in Yeshua (Jesus) are grafted into the olive tree of Israel.
“You, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root.” (Romans 11:17)
After all, God promised Abraham that he would be “the father of many nations.” (Genesis 17:3)