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!

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.

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.

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. 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 in passing 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 ESV

“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 ESV

“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 ESV

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 threshold covenant which involves killing an animal at the door of a house, indicating an agreed relationship between a party and those living in that house. To trample on this covenant, or the blood of this animal, was to reject this covenant. And, lest the reader think that this 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 ESV

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 of 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 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 (ESV)

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 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 the world, though less so in some areas (like Europe, the source of much church theology) than other locations. According to statements in Clay Trumbull’s book “The Blood Covenant, A Primitive Rite and its Bearings on Scripture”, the African explorer 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.”

Covenant Events

The covenant feasts of Israel were not mere mechanical, ceremonial, or religious events, they were community events that were supposed to have meaning that affected their lives, much like wedding events today. (Yes, a couple can just go get the legal papers and be legally married, but it is far better to make it a social event because marriages have social significance far beyond a mere legal arrangement.) This marriage analogy is not much different than any other important relationship. If one party of a marriage has failed and wishes to restore the relationship, the restoration is not achieved by mechanically paying off the other party with a box of chocolates or a vase of flowers, but by confessing, asking forgiveness, and forsaking the offensive action. The chocolates or flowers may come later as a physical token, a gift sacrifice, that reflects the heart, but in themselves they are not what provides restoration. It is a humble forsaking of the wrongs done and a commitment to do right that brings healing and furthers the relational covenant. 

Nowhere does the Old Testament indicate that any of the typical offerings, including sin offerings, were intended to function as payments to compensate for sin, or as retribution for sin. Nor were the biblical priests sacrificial agents whose job was to appease God. The sin offerings were often combined with other offerings like food and drink that were to be a pleasing aroma to God. What we see here is not God getting paid or some other form of appeasement or satisfaction as with an angry deity, but we see a bigger version of what was already a social practice of reconciliation, recommitment, renewing a covenantal relationship, asking that mistakes (or sin) in the relationship be covered (atoned), and indicating that this relationship was still in force. The ceremony involved food offered to God, people eating, and everyone enjoying the benefits and blessings that came from having a healthy relationship with God. The entire event was involved, not simply a procedure to appease an angry God. 

Without grasping the greater covenantal social context, people fail to understand that there are several things going on in sacrifices for sin:

  1. The covering (atonement) was not so God would be appeased (propitiated). God never said anything like, “If you sin but do this I will be appeased.”
  2. The entire event of the sacrifice for sin was understood by the offeror to be a final component of reconciliation, a promise, a renewal or refreshing of a commitment to God, which of course includes committing to not sin. This is how the person was considered purified – purified from any intent to sin again, and forgiven for what had been committed. 
  3. The covering (atonement) was not about simply getting a clean slate, a blank ledger. It was also a personal dedication to be faithful to the covenant relationship with God. This was supposed to stop future sin. It is on this basis that the relationship can be restored and perpetuated. Any genuine relationship is not pleased with merely overlooking past failures, but must also include a commitment to the future of the relationship, a sincere commitment to not fail again. This causes a cleansing of sinful, offensive behavior. 
  4. When blood was used a part of the atonement ceremony (instead of flour (Leviticus 5:11-13)), the killing, suffering and death of the sacrificial victim played no role of meaningful significance. The point of the ceremony was a relational commitment sealed in blood, not a payment to compensate God for misdeeds.

Today, the typical explanation of Old Testament sin offerings gives the impression that before extending forgiveness, God wanted to see a dead sacrificial animal and blood on the altar. However, this is not a good explanation of what an Israelite would have thought he was doing in offering a sin offering, and not certainly not what God had in mind either. 

“Also one male goat for a sin offering, to make atonement for you. You shall offer these besides the burnt offering of the morning, which is for a regular burnt offering. In the same way you shall offer daily, for seven days, the food of a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the LORD. It shall be offered besides the regular burnt offering and its drink offering.” Numbers 28:22-24 ESV

“…a burnt offering, for a pleasing aroma to the LORD…” Numbers 29:2 ESV

“and their drink offering, according to the rule for them, for a pleasing aroma, a food offering to the LORD.” ESV

A National Covenant

Elements of establishing a blood covenant are seen in the following story of God entering into what we now call the Mosaic Covenant with the people of Israel. Notice that this covenant enactment includes 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 ESV

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 some 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 unforgivable. Notice how David acknowledges that a sacrifice is only legitimate after he has dealt with his 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 ESV

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 offence 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 ESV

Sadly, the PSA doctrine mostly views God being restored to the sinner by means of a transaction where Jesus is a substitutionary, propitiating gift offered to an angry God. In fact, this erroneous 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 ESV

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

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 ESV

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

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

Conclusion

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 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 operation 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.” https://www.britannica.com/topic/covenant-religion