Why Make a Covenant?
In Genesis 21 is an episode where a Philistine leader, Abimelech, comes to Abraham and wants him to “swear… that you will not deal falsely with me, with my offspring, or with my posterity…” (21:23). Abraham consented, but there was strife over a well which had been seized by Abimelech’s servants (21:25-26). To make sure there was understanding on both sides Abraham and Abimelech entered into a covenant (21:27, 32). In particular the point at issue was the well. Abimelech was to take seven ewes from Abraham as a witness that Abraham had dug the well (21:30). The place where the two made the oath was named “Beersheba”, which means something like “the well of the oath of seven.” The covenant clarified whose well it was and emphasized in the oath and exchange of the lambs that both parties understood exactly what the oath meant. The oath obligated the parties (particularly Abimelech, the recipient of the “witness”) to stand by the terms of the covenant.
Covenants were made to underscore a grave and solemn clarity about a specific matter or matters between people. They spelled out for one or both sides, the obligations which each were committing to carry out. In the Genesis 21 incident Abraham pledges not to mistreat Abimelech; that was the specific oath which the Philistine chief wanted settled. Then Abraham complains about mistreatment from Abimelech’s servants over the well and receives a guarantee pertaining to that. The covenant reinforces both understandings. This covenant was not for the establishing of close relations between the parties, but rather a clear understanding.
It is inconceivable to imagine Abraham causing deliberate harm to Abimelech’s family or of Abimelech commanding his forces to take the well after the covenant was “cut”. Had either one done that we would rightly conclude that they reneged on the terms of the covenant with which they bound themselves by solemn oath, or that they took the oath in bad faith, knowing they would not adhere to its words.
God Makes Covenants
Think again of a more expansive example. In Ezekiel 16 God is rehearsing the defection of Jerusalem, with the Lord rescuing and then marrying her (16:8) through covenant. But Jerusalem played the harlot excessively (16:20-34), and would be punished (16:35-43). But at the end of it all God would restore her to himself by cleansing her sins and making a [New] everlasting covenant with her (16:60-63). Elsewhere marriage is called a “covenant” (Mal. 2:14). A marriage covenant does, of course, establish a close relationship, but it stipulates the terms of the relationship within its solemn pledges.
When two people covenant together in marriage before God they are obligated to fulfill their part of the covenant. The only possible exceptions are if the covenant is broken through adultery (Matt.19:9), or if one party is an unbeliever (1 Cor. 7:15), but even then it is preferable for there to be reconciliation. But again, the main thing is that covenants provide solemn clarity about specific matters between the covenanting parties. If either party was tempted to drift they could be called back to the words of the covenant which they had entered into and reminded of their obligations.
Ecclesiastes 5:4-5 makes plain,
When you make a vow before to God, do not delay to pay it; for He has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you have vowed – better not to vow than to vow and not pay.
The vow being referenced in the passage has to do a pledge to God to do something (Deut. 23:21-23; Psa. 76:11). God takes vows seriously, and even more so when a covenant is struck (see the crucial text, Jer. 34:18. Cf. Ezek.17:15b).
Clarity is Paramount
This having been said, it ought to require no proof that in choosing the words of the covenant clarity is paramount. It is essential that both those making the covenant and those to whom it is addressed have a clear understanding of what is involved. This is what the Apostle alludes to in Galatians when he says,
Brethren, I speak after the manner of men: Though only a man’s covenant, yet if it is confirmed, no one annuls or adds to it. – Gal. 3:15.
Thus, when the Lord swears He will bring woe upon Jerusalem in Ezekiel 24, He declares,
I, the LORD, have spoken it; it shall come to pass, and I will do it. – Ezek. 24:14a.
And when He promises to redeem Israel and make it like the garden of Eden (Ezek. 36:26-35), He says,
…I, the LORD, have spoken it; and I will do it. – Ezek. 36:36.
And He does it for His holy Name’s sake (Ezek. 36:21-23), because He is obligated to carry out the terms of the covenant He made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (cf. Exod. 32:13).
When studying a covenant in the Bible it is important to pay attention to the specifics of the oath that seals it. Hence, in the first covenant recorded in the Bible it is plain to see that God pledges not to bring a great flood upon the earth the way He did in Noah’s day. When God rebukes king Zedekiah and the nobles for not performing the oath which they took in regard to the release of Hebrew slaves (which they took back after giving them a brief freedom), He points to the explicit wording of both the Mosaic covenant as well as the covenant which Zedekiah and the princes had made (Jer. 34:8-22). In verse 14 the LORD explicitly refers to the provisions regarding Hebrew slaves in Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 15. God expects the clear covenant terms to be taken at face value.
But what happens if, like so many interpreters, we do not pay close attention to “the words of the covenant”? Or what happens if we simply introduce a system of interpretation, like interpreting the Old Testament through the lens of the Gospel, which makes it expedient to in some way alter the terms of a covenant oath?