The Old Testament contains 39 books that are categorized as books of the Law, history, poetry, wisdom, and prophetical books.
Despite its diverse contents, it is much more than a simple anthology. It is tied together by a successive string of five major covenants that God made with His people.
A covenant is a binding agreement between two or more parties. When we speak of Biblical covenants, we are referring to instances where God has entered into an agreement with mankind that involves both promises and responsibilities for each party.
While there are many covenants and promises found in the Old Testament, a study of the following will provide you with a framework to better understand redemptive history. (Note that this is not meant to be a discussion on Covenant Theology, but instead a look at the Old Testament through the lens of these particular covenants.)
Five of the primary covenants in the Old Testament are the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and the New Covenant. Each of these covenants is reflective of two of the main categories of covenants known in the Ancient Near East:
Suzerian-Vassal: This term harkens back to a time when a king would make a promise to his subjects, or a treaty between kings would be that depended on obedience to specific terms. You can think of this covenant as a conditional promise.
Royal Grant: Unlike the Suzerian-Vassal agreements, a Royal Grant requires no action on the part of the beneficiary. It is an unconditional promise given from one party to another.
1. The Noahic Covenant – Genesis 9
After having sent a global flood to destroy the wickedness that had become so prevalent on earth after the Fall, God promised Noah (and by extension all humanity) to never again destroy the world with a flood.
Genesis 9:11 | “I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth”
This is an example of a Royal Grant covenant; there is nothing that Noah or his descendants must do to ensure that this promise is fulfilled. Instead it finds its validity purely in God’s faithfulness.
2. The Abrahamic Covenant – Genesis 12
Genesis 12:1-3 | “Now the Lord had said to Abram: ‘Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’”
Years after the Flood, pride leads the people to rebel against God by constructing the tower of Babel. After having dispersed them by confusing their languages, God would eventually choose one man and one nation as the instrument of His blessing to the entire world. In this covenant God promised Abraham three specific things:
1. He will be made into a great nation (12:2).
2. This nation will be led into the Promised Land (12:1).
3. Through him (Abraham) all people of the earth will be blessed (12:3).
The Abrahamic Covenant is in part a Suzerain-Vassal covenant, as God required first that Abraham get up, leave his home and his family, and follow God to the land He would show him (Gen. 12:1). However, some aspects of the Abrahamic covenant are also in line with an unconditional Royal Grant. For example, God’s promise to make Abraham’s descendants into a great nation and bless all of the nations through his lineage is an unconditional promise from God (22:15-18).
3. The Mosaic Covenant – Exodus 19-24
Exodus 19-24 is key to understanding both redemptive history and the history of Israel as a nation. A conditional promise, the Mosaic Covenant is dependent on the peoples’ response to the law He gives through His servant Moses.
“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.” – Exodus 19:5-6
God tells Moses that if Israel obeys, they will be His chosen people, His treasured possession. Ultimately, these blessings will be extended to all people. This conditional promise is a Suzerain-Vassal covenant and brings Israel closer to realizing the promises made by God in the Abrahamic Covenant.
4. The Davidic Covenant – 2 Samuel 7
After the people disobeyed the commands made in the previous covenant, God made the Davidic covenant as a means to bring them back into relationship with Himself. The key passage for this unconditional promise is 2 Samuel 7:12-17:
When your days are complete and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your descendant after you, who will come forth from you, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him and he will be a son to Me; when he commits iniquity, I will correct him with the rod of men and the strokes of the sons of men, but My lovingkindness shall not depart from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever.”’” In accordance with all these words and all this vision, so Nathan spoke to David.
Here God makes a Royal Grant covenant to David and his descendants that his house will rule over Israel forever.
The promise of an eternal kingdom is ultimately fulfilled in Christ, who is of David’s kingly lineage. In the New Testament, Luke 1:30-33 tells us:
Then the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.’
Although this is an unconditional covenant, there is a part of it which has a contingency: if the ruler of Israel is obedient, he will be blessed. If not, he will be cursed. As the books of 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles show us, Israel had many examples of both disobedient and obedient kings, which eventually lead to the nation’s exile.
5. The New Covenant – Jeremiah 31
Despite the failure of God’s people to live up to the covenants that were made, God graciously made a new one with his people:
“Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah— not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” – Jeremiah 31:31-34
In this passage God makes several distinct promises:
- He would give them the ability and the desire to follow Him. He would change their hearts and give them a zeal for obedience (vs 34).
- He will be their God, and they will be His people
- He will forgive the sins of His people (vs 34b).
This promise finds its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 8:7-13; 9; 10:11-24), as it is through Him we receive forgiveness of our sins and are indwelled by the Holy Spirit who enables us to seek after the things of God.
You know have an overview of five of the Old Testament’s covenants. These are not the only covenants of the Old Testament, but studying these five promises from God allows for a fuller understanding of the unity of Scripture and of salvation history.