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Covenant in the Hebrew Bible


In the Hebrew Bible, the covenant (Hebrew: berit) is the formal agreement between Yhwh and the people of Israel and Judah, in which each agrees to a set of obligations toward the other. The language and understanding of covenant is based on ancient Near Eastern treaties between nations.

The Bible understands covenant from two different perspectives. The unconditional or eternal covenant (Hebrew berit olam) between Yhwh and Israel/Judah presumes that the covenant can never be broken, although it does allow for divine judgment.

The conditional covenant means that the covenant might be broken if the people fail to comply with the divine will; but even conditional formulations of the covenant, such as Deuteronomy 28-30 presume that the covenant will be restored when Israel repents. Both understandings refer to the same covenant between Yhwh and Israel, but individual texts portray this covenant from different perspectives.

The eternal covenant with Abraham (Gen 15, Gen 17) defines Yhwh’s relationship with the ancestors of Israel. Yhwh promises to serve as Abraham’s god, to make him a great nation, and to provide him and his descendants with the land of Israel. Abraham in turn promises to worship Yhwh alone and to observe Yhwh’s rules, including circumcision as the sign of the eternal covenant (Gen 17). This covenant is handed down to Abraham’s son Isaac and his grandson Jacob (Israel).

David’s eternal covenant is similar to Abraham’s, especially because it includes an eternal promise of sons ruling in Jerusalem over the land of Israel (2Sam 7). But the dynasty of David ruled for only four centuries, until the Babylonian exile in 586 B.C.E. (2Kgs 25). The Babylonian exile and the end of the house of David led many biblical authors to view the covenant as conditional. Consequently, many texts state that David’s sons will rule forever only if they observe the obligations of Yhwh’s covenant (1Kgs 2:4-5, 1Kgs 9:1-9; Ps 89, Ps 132).

The Sinai covenant narrative (Exodus 19-Numbers 10), which relates the covenant between Yhwh and all Israel, presents detailed civil and religious law collections meant to ensure a holy and just society in the land of Israel. Sabbath observance (Exod 31:12-17) is called an eternal covenant between Yhwh and Israel, based on the Sabbath’s role as the foundation of all creation (Gen 1:1-2:3). Num 25 defines the eternal covenant granted to Phineas, grandson of Aaron, which enables his descendants to serve as priests at the Jerusalem temple.

Both Exodus–Numbers and Deuteronomy recognize the possible conditional nature of the covenant, noting that the nation will suffer punishment and exile should the people not observe Yhwh’s will. Lev 26 and Deut 28-30 contain lengthy blessings and curses to define the rewards of observance and the consequences of failure to observe the covenant, but both texts maintain that the people will be restored when they repent.  Jer 31:31-34 presumes that the covenant has been broken, but proposes a new covenant based on the same observance of divine Torah or instruction.

The prophets likewise explain foreign invasion and exile as the result of the people’s failure to fulfill their obligations to Yhwh (for example, Hos 4; Amos 2:6-16). They view Israel’s restoration or return to the land following exile as a result of Israel’s repentance (Hos 14; Amos 3-5; Jer 7) or of Yhwh’s commitment to observe the eternal covenant (Isa 40-55; Jer 33; Ezek 33-48).

  • Marvin A. Sweeney

    Marvin A. Sweeney is professor of Hebrew Bible at the Claremont School of Theology and professor of Tanak at the Academy for Jewish Religion California. He is the author of Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible (Fortress, 2012) and 1 and 2 Kings: A Commentary (Westminster John Knox, 2007).