Chapter 6 – Bible Covenants

Author: Kevin George

This book is a work in progress. Posts on this blog are to enable readers to examine the manuscript and make commentary. These blog posts are NOT the final version!

“I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations.” Isaiah 42:6

Covenant-based Societies

Most people in ancient times were illiterate and it would have been of no use to write down a written covenant if one or more of the parties had no ability to read it. To overcome this weakness, one or both parties could have an event that would etch the promise in their minds, something dramatic like a social event or the slaughtering of an animal that would picture the degree of commitment to death. The covenant feasts of Israel (and other societies) were not merely mechanical, ceremonial, or religious events, they were community events that were supposed to have meaning that affected their lives, much like wedding events today. The events marked either the beginning of a new relationship, a new order, or the reaffirming of a prior covenant. “The oath was usually accompanied by a ritual or symbolic act that might take any of an enormous range of forms. One of the most frequent of these was the ritual identification of the promisor with a sacrificial animal so that the slaughter and perhaps dismemberment of the animal dramatized the fate of the promisor if he were to violate the covenant.”

Those who have studied biblical theology are aware of various covenants in the Bible. These are known as the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic Covenants, and others. What is lesser known is the role of covenants in general in ancient societies, and how they were a common way to function in relationships, as they often did not have governments maintaining records, detailed laws, courts, and controls as we have today.

“Covenants in the ancient world were solemn agreements by which societies attempted to regularize the behavior of both individuals and social organizations, particularly in those contexts in which social control was either inadequate or nonexistent.”

It is also important to understand that covenants were typically relational in nature, not legal. Marriage covenants today still reflect this, as the marriage covenant is more than a mere contract – is the basis of a long-term relationship. The law mostly comes into play in a marriage if it is failing and the covenant is being annulled. Similarly, God primarily deals with mankind on a relational basis. God’s legal part, judgment, applies when this relationship is broken.

The Bible mentions various covenants about which little is known but are mentioned as if the reader is expected to already understand due to it being basic common knowledge of its day and time. For example, we read of a mysterious salt covenant:

“You shall season all your grain offerings with salt. You shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be missing from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.” Leviticus 2:13

“All the holy contributions that the people of Israel present to the LORD I give to you, and to your sons and daughters with you, as a perpetual due. It is a covenant of salt forever before the LORD for you and for your offspring with you.” Numbers 18:19

“Ought you not to know that the Lord God of Israel gave the kingship over Israel forever to David and his sons by a covenant of salt?” 2 Chronicles 13:5

The Bible does not give us an explanation about these salt covenants. We can conjecture or infer, based on the properties of salt, that it speaks of preservation, protection, and a good-will flavor in a relationship, but the fact remains that this was an existing social element that we no longer relate to and is just an assumed background knowledge in the biblical cultural context.

In addition to the covenant of salt, there are various other covenants mentioned, like the covenant of peace (Numbers 25:12). There is also a likely threshold covenant that was a cultural norm, indicating an agreed relationship between a party and those living in that house. And, lest the reader thinks that the use of covenants only applied in very ancient Israel, we also read about it in the book of Hebrews, written in the first century, regarding the blood of Christ, which is understood to be a covenant!

“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?” Hebrews 10:26-29

Even today when writing this book (2020-2022), people in the Middle East show insult to their enemies by signaling with the bottom of their foot, or by trampling on something like their enemy’s picture, their flag or something else. People in Western societies are woefully ignorant of these basic social elements and at times this can lead to gaps and errors in their Bible interpretation and doctrine.

In the biblical context, various events or ceremonies were components of declared covenants or assumed covenants. A part of many covenants was eating a meal together, as the elders of Israel did when they agreed to the Mosaic covenant (Exodus 24:3-11). Many references to eating together imply a covenant arrangement or event, as people did not eat together unless it was assumed that they were in agreement. Reconciliation was also accomplished by either a new covenant or the renewal or reaffirmation or recommitment to an existing covenant. Once the strained parties were reconciled and in agreement, they would share a meal together. We read of this in Genesis 31:43-54 between Laban and Jacob. We find this covenant meal concept in the New Testament as well, with what is called the Lord’s Supper, and even in the book of Revelation:

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” Revelation 3:20

Blood Covenants

The failure to grasp the social covenantal realities of Biblical relationships is an enormous cause of misunderstanding with regard to the atonement. In relationships, blood was often indicative of a covenant. Relationships govern people’s actions, and blood was not just a physical substance with some allegorical, mystical, magical, esoteric meaning. It was a serious business that related to a person’s honor, reputation, faithfulness, trust, and identity. A covenant involving blood was what people lived and died over, superior in many cases (rightly or wrongly) to other covenants such as marriage and family.

Blood covenants were not only a social custom of ancient Israel and the Middle East, they were common throughout much of the world, though less so in some areas (like Europe, the source of much church theology) than in other locations. According to statements in Clay Trumbull’s book “The Blood Covenant, A Primitive Rite and its Bearings on Scripture”, the African explorer Henry M. Stanley made many blood covenants on his trips through Africa. On page 37, we read Stanley as saying,

“Myobi, the chief was easily persuaded by Yumbila to make blood-brotherhood with me; and for the fiftieth time my poor arm was scarified, and my blood shed for the cause of civilization.”

A National Covenant

Elements of establishing a national blood covenant are seen in the story of God entering into what we now call the Mosaic Covenant. The enactment of this covenant involves sacrifices, blood, one party (Moses and the seventy elders) who approach another potentially dangerous party (God), and they eat in the presence of God (presumably they eat the meat from the sacrifices, but this is not stated).

“When Moses came and told the people all the words and ordinances of the LORD, they all responded with one voice: “All the words that the LORD has spoken, we will do.” And Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD. Early the next morning he got up and built an altar at the base of the mountain, along with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel. Then he sent out some young men of Israel, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as peace offerings to the LORD. Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he sprinkled on the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people, who replied, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” So Moses 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.” Then Moses went up with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and they saw the God of Israel. Under His feet was a work like a pavement made of sapphire, as clear as the sky itself. But God did not lay His hand on the nobles of Israel; they saw Him, and they ate and drank. Exodus 24:3-11

The above scene is the event when the nation of Israel entered into a blood covenant with God. For those under this covenant, sin was an infraction, a tear, an injury of the covenant. When the offender made a sin offering, or when the High Priest made the annual sin offering for the nation, the event was a reminder of the initial blood covenant and a refreshing, a renewal, a recommitment to this covenant. The sin offering was not thought of as the sinner providing a direct satisfaction, an expiation, a propitiation, or any other complex or pagan concept. The sinner was simply requesting forgiveness and demonstrating a commitment to the covenant, including ceasing from sin.

Covenant Renewal

We see a commitment to a covenant relationship in David’s Psalm 51, after having committed sins that were classified as not atoneable. Notice how David acknowledges that a sacrifice is only legitimate after he has dealt with his personal internal problems:

You will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise…THEN will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; THEN bulls will be offered on your altar.” Psalm 51:16,17,19

Jesus also referenced this same principle, that God wants your heart and relationships to be right before an offering is given. Notice also in this next passage that he did not consider an offering to be an acceptable substitute for repenting and repairing the offense that had been done to another. Furthermore, the offering is a gift to God, not a payment. Jesus taught:

“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Matthew 5:23-24

Sadly, the PSA doctrine mostly views God being restored to the sinner by means of a transaction where Jesus is a substitutionary, propitiating (appeasing) gift offered to an angry God, often with no expectation of genuine relational reconciliation. The PSA-based reconciliation is merely a legal fiction! In fact, this erroneous sacrificial payment-for-propitiation idea is what apparently happened to Israel as well, because after many generations they began to treat the sacrifices as if God were a pagan deity who needed to be paid off. This was a corruption and it made God very angry. Compare the idea of paying God for sin versus what God said He really wants:

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations— I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” Isaiah 1:11-18

“And Samuel said, “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.” 1 Samuel 15:22

To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice.” Proverbs 21:3

In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.” Psalm 40:6

“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Hosea 6:6

“And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” Matthew 12:7


The role and function of covenants in ancient society is not well known today. This allows many Bible concepts to be read within a legal and courtroom framework that people are used to instead of thinking in relational terms. God is called Father, and as a Father He is relational just as any good human father should be, as we are made to be in His image. A father who deals with his family as a strictly legal organization would be cold, calculating, and unloving. The God of the Bible is a good Father who loves His creation and enjoys having a good relationship with His creatures.

Additional references:

Additional information related to ancient covenants is available here:

“The oath was usually accompanied by a ritual or symbolic act that might take any of an enormous range of forms. One of the most frequent of these was the ritual identification of the promisor with a sacrificial animal, so that the slaughter and perhaps dismemberment of the animal dramatized the fate of the promisor if he were to violate the covenant.”