‘Covenant’ in the Bible

Covenant is a common idea in the Bible. The English word covenant occurs 318 times in the scriptures (NKJV). And the covenants God has made with people are especially meaningful for understanding the biblical message. This study looks at the basic meaning of covenant in the Bible and introduces the seven major Biblical covenants God made with people as well as the three additional covenants often held theologically.

The Basic Meaning of Covenant

The Strong’s entries for the Hebrew and Greek words for covenant and their parent words are listed below.1 In summary, the basic meaning of covenant is an arrangement or agreement, or making an arrangement or agreement, between parties.

Hebrew Old Testament: Berit

The main Hebrew word for covenant is berit. It occurs 284 times in the Old Testament. All but 11 occurrences are translated covenant. It is also translated treaty 7 times (1 Ki 5:12; 15:19 x2; 20:34 x2; 2 Chr 16:3 x2), allied with 2 times (Gen 14:13; Ezek 30:5), and confederacy 2 times (Ps 83:5; Obad 7). The basic meaning of berit is an agreement between parties.

1285 בְּרִית [berit] noun. From 1262 (in the sense of cutting [like 1254]). 1 covenant, alliance, pledge. 1a between men. 1a1 treaty, alliance, league (man to man). 1a2 constitution, ordinance (monarch to subjects). 1a3 agreement, pledge (man to man). 1a4 alliance (of friendship). 1a5 alliance (of marriage). 1b between God and man. 1b1 alliance (of friendship). 1b2 covenant (divine ordinance with signs or pledges). 2 (phrases). 2a covenant making. 2b covenant keeping. 2c covenant violation.

1262 בָּרָא ,בָּרָה ,בָּרָה [barah] verb. A primitive root. 1 to eat, consume. 1a (Qal) to eat. 1b (Piel) for eating, devouring. 1c (Hiphil) to cause to eat.

1254 בָּרָא ,בָּרָא ,בָּרָא [bara] verb. A primitive root. 1 to create, shape, form. 1a (Qal) to shape, fashion, create (always with God as subject). 1a1 of heaven and earth. 1a2 of individual man. 1a3 of new conditions and circumstances. 1a4 of transformations. 1b (Niphal) to be created. 1b1 of heaven and earth. 1b2 of birth. 1b3 of something new. 1b4 of miracles. 1c (Piel). 1c1 to cut down. 1c2 to cut out. 2 to be fat. 2a (Hiphil) to make yourselves fat.

Hebrew Old Testament: Karat

There is one other Hebrew word in the Bible translated covenant, which is karat. It occurs 302 times in the Old Testament. But it is translated covenant only 3 times (1 Sam 22:8; 2 Chr 7:18; Hag 2:5). It is usually translated cut or make. The basic meaning of karat is to cut. When it is translated covenant, it has the sense of making the covenant.

3772 כָּרַת [karat] verb. A primitive root. 1 to cut, cut off, cut down, cut off a body part, cut out, eliminate, kill, cut a covenant. 1a (Qal). 1a1 to cut off. 1a1a to cut off a body part, behead. 1a2 to cut down. 1a3 to hew. 1a4 to cut or make a covenant. 1b (Niphal). 1b1 to be cut off. 1b2 to be cut down. 1b3 to be chewed. 1b4 to be cut off, fail. 1c (Pual). 1c1 to be cut off. 1c2 to be cut down. 1d (Hiphil). 1d1 to cut off. 1d2 to cut off, destroy. 1d3 to cut down, destroy. 1d4 to take away. 1d5 to permit to perish. 1e (Hophal) cut off.

Greek New Testament: Diatheke, Diatithemai

The Greek word in the New Testament for covenant is diatheke. It occurs 33 times. All but 3 of these occurrences are translated covenant. The other three occurrences are translated testament (2 Cor 3:14; Heb 9:16, 17). The basic meaning of diatheke is an arrangement between parties.

The verb form of covenant, diatithemai, also occurs in the New Testament 6 times. It is translated bestow 2 times (Luke 22:29), make 3 times (Acts 3:25; Heb 8:10; 10:16) and testator 2 times (Heb 9:16, 17). The basic meaning is to make arrangements with another.

1242 διαθήκη [diatheke] noun. From 1303. 1 a disposition, arrangement, of any sort, which one wishes to be valid, the last disposition which one makes of his earthly possessions after his death, a testament or will. 2 a compact, a covenant, a testament. 2a God’s covenant with Noah, etc.

1303 διατίθεμαι, διατίθημι [diatithemai] verb. Middle voice from 1223 and 5087. 1 to arrange, dispose of, one’s own affairs. 1a of something that belongs to one. 1b to dispose of by will, make a testament. 2 to make a covenant, enter into a covenant, with one.

1223 διά [dia] prep. A primary preposition denoting the channel of an act. 1 through. 1a of place. 1a1 with. 1a2 in. 1b of time. 1b1 throughout. 1b2 during. 1c of means. 1c1 by. 1c2 by the means of. 2 through. 2a the ground or reason by which something is or is not done. 2a1 by reason of. 2a2 on account of. 2a3 because of for this reason. 2a4 therefore. 2a5 on this account.

5087 τίθημι [tithemi] verb. A prolonged form of a primary theo. 1 to set, put, place. 1a to place or lay. 1b to put down, lay down. 1b1 to bend down. 1b2 to lay off or aside, to wear or carry no longer. 1b3 to lay by, lay aside money. 1c to set on (serve) something to eat or drink. 1d to set forth, something to be explained by discourse. 2 to make. 2a to make (or set) for one’s self or for one’s use. 3 to set, fix establish. 3a to set forth. 3b to establish, ordain.

Ancient Near East Covenants

In the Ancient Near East (ANE), making covenants was a widespread practice. Covenants formally outlined the details of the relationship between parties. The major features of these covenants included a historical review of the relationship, each party’s role and expectations, and a formal act of ratifying the covenant.2 Many ANE covenants had the following parts:

Identification of the parties. Many covenants were between a powerful lord and a weaker vassal. Such covenants were usually exclusive—the vassal was not permitted to enter into any other treaties with others.

Review of the relationship. The history of relations between the parties was reviewed, including any benefits the lord had already provided the vassal. This very detailed section was the basis for the vassal’s obligations, on the principle of gratitude.

Terms of the covenant. This section, usually stated in an “if … then …” format, expressed the interests of the parties. The stipulations also made clear what were public concerns vs. private issues and disallowed activities that might harm the relationship.

List of witnesses. This list often included the deities of both nations as well as different aspects of creation (rocks, trees, etc) and was intended to be exhaustive. These were to serve as enforcers and witnesses for the vassal’s keeping of the covenant.

Blessings and curses. The rewards and punishments for keeping or breaking the covenant were listed. These included aspects of life beyond human control, such as agricultural/economic prosperity, birth and fertility, health, peace, etc.

Preserving the covenant. The covenant terms were usually kept in the vassal’s temple and read publicly on a regular basis. They were considered sacred and binding. It was important that the terms be integrated into the value system of the covenanted parties.3

Ratifying the covenant. The covenant was typically ratified with a formal ceremony, which included animal sacrifice. Sometimes the animals were cut in two and the parties walked between the pieces. Sometimes portions of the sacrifice were eaten or burned.

Sign of the covenant. Many covenants also included a sign. The sign was a reminder of the promises each party made as part of the covenant.4

The Biblical Covenants between God and People

The first time the word covenant occurs in the Bible is in Genesis 6. In context, God pronounced judgment on the entire human race because “every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5). The just penalty for such wickedness is death, which God brought upon humanity through the Flood. But God saved Noah and His family, delivering them through the Flood on the Ark. He then made a covenant with Noah called the Noahic Covenant (Gen 9).

The second series of occurrences of covenant is in Genesis 15. In this passage, God came to Abraham and formalized the promises He made to Abraham in Genesis 12. This covenant, called the Abrahamic Covenant, is clarified and renewed several times, including Genesis 17, 22, and especially in the Deuteronomic, Davidic, and New Covenants.

The next biblical covenant God made with people was at Sinai. Here, God established a covenant with Israel. This covenant very clearly has conditions for obedience with corresponding blessings and punishments, depending on Israel’s corporate response. The terms of this covenant are given especially in Exodus 19 to 24. This covenant, called the Mosaic Covenant, included very detailed religious, civil, and social laws for the theocracy of ancient Israel.

After Israel departed for the Promised Land, while camped in the plains of Moab, God made a covenant with Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron. This covenant is sometimes called the Priestly, Levitical, or Zadokite Covenant.5 It came after Israel’s idolatrous sexual harlotry with the Midianites, instigated by Balak king of Moab through the counsel of Balaam the prophet (Num 31:16; Micah 6:5; Rev 2:14). It specifically involved the Levitical priesthood.

God made another covenant with Israel before entering the Promised Land (Deut 29–30). This covenant is sometimes called the Deuteronomic or Palestinian Covenant. This covenant specifically addresses Israel’s relationship with the Promised Land and the people who were already living in the land. This covenant is a clarification and renewal of certain promises God made in the Abrahamic Covenant.

During the monarchy of ancient Israel, God made a covenant with King David (2 Sam 7). This covenant, called the Davidic Covenant, is one of many prophecies about the Messiah coming from the line of David. This covenant also addresses issues of Israel as a kingdom. This covenant is another clarification and renewal of the Abrahamic Covenant.

The seventh biblical covenant God made with people is the New Covenant, which He made with Israel (Jer 31). This covenant especially addresses the spiritual issues facing Israel. These issues included repentance, renewal, and restoration. It also includes details about the land (Ezek 11), atonement (Ezek 16), and the kingdom (Ezek 37). This covenant is yet another renewal and clarification of the Abrahamic Covenant.

The Theological Covenants of God

There are three additional covenants commonly held in theology. Chronologically, the first theological covenant is the Covenant of Redemption. This covenant is inferred from a combination of passages and refers to the arrangement among the Godhead for the promise and provision of salvation through Jesus Christ (1 Tim 1:9–10) and God’s bestowal of an eternal Kingdom upon Jesus Christ (Luke 22:28–30).6

The second theological covenant is the Covenant of Works. This covenant was between God and Adam, representative of humankind, in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. The biblical basis for this covenant is understood to be Genesis 2:15–17. Some believe these instructions are the broken covenant mentioned in Hosea 6:6–7.7

The third theological covenant is the Covenant of Grace. This covenant is also between God and Adam, representative of humankind, and also includes Satan. The biblical basis for this covenant is understood to be Genesis 3:14–21, where God promised a changed relationship between humankind and himself, with one another, and with Satan. as well as the promise that the seed of Eve would crush Satan.8


Covenants are an important theme in the Bible. They formally outline the relationships between parties. There are seven biblical covenants God made with people: the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Priestly, Deuteronomic, Davidic, and New Covenants. There are three additional covenants commonly found in theology: the Covenants of Redemption, Works, and Grace. Studying the covenants more in-depth will give us insights into God’s purposes for Creation, history, and His intent for us to live in relationship with Him.


  1. James Strong, Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon (Logos Bible Software, 1995).
  2. George E. Mendenhall and Gary A. Herion, “Covenant,” in The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1180. Logos Bible Software.
  3. Ibid., 1180–82.
  4. Steven B. Cowen, “Covenant,” in Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, ed. Chad Brand, Charles Draper, and Archie England (Nashville, TN: Holman, 2003), 355–359. Logos Bible Software.
  5. William D. Barrick, “The Mosaic Covenant,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 10, no. 2 (Fall 1999): 214. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials.
  6. Cowen, “Covenant,” 356.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.

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