A covenant is a binding relationship based on mutual commitments. It usually involves promises and obligations on both sides. Particular rituals are often carried out to mark the formal establishment of the special relationship.

Covenants between God and people

Noah's Thanksoffering by Joseph Anton KochCovenants in Old Testament times typically involved participants of unequal power, the stronger guaranteeing protection and other benefits, whilst the weaker pledged loyalty and obedience. This is characteristic of the covenantal relationship between God and those he called to belong to him.

Chronologically, the key covenants (or phases of covenant) are as follows:

After an overwhelming flood to wipe out sinful humanity, the Noahic covenant was a promise by God to Noah and his descendants (who were saved from the devastation), that never again would he send such a flood. It was sealed by the sign of the rainbow Genesis 9:8-15.

The Abrahamic covenant was a special relationship between God and all of Abraham’s offspring Genesis 17:1-10. God promised to make Abraham’s descendants a great nation, to give them a land of their own and to bless the rest of the world through him. The covenant was conditional on the ongoing circumcision of all male descendants.

The Mosaic covenant between God and Israel was established in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy by the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai Exodus 24:3-8. These were subsequently kept in the Ark of the Covenant.

More on the Ark of the Covenant: The Ark of the Covenant was a wooden chest kept in the holiest part of the tabernacle (later Temple). It contained the stone tablets on which were en-graved the Ten Commandments – the basis for Israel’s covenant relationship with God. It also contained Aaron’s staff and a jar of manna Hebrews 9:3-4 – objects that testified to God’s faithfulness and provision.

The last mention of the Ark’s location is during the reign of Josiah (c. 7th century BC) 2 Chronicles 35:1-4; it is not known what became of it since. Some believe it was seized during the 6th century BC Babylonian siege of Jerusalem 2 Kings 24:11-13.     

God designated the Israelites as a chosen people: a ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ Exodus 19:3-6. In return, they were to live in accordance with the Torah. The keeping of the Sabbath as a special holy day of rest was instituted as a sign of the covenant Exodus 31:16-17.

The Davidic covenant pertained to King David and his offspring, who were called ‘sons of God’ and promised a permanent throne over Israel 2 Samuel 7:8-16. The Old Testament prophets anticipated that the Messiah would be a descendant of David Isaiah 11:1-5. Christians understand Jesus, whose earthly father Joseph came from the ‘house of David’ (Luke 2:4-5), as the ultimate fulfilment of this expectation: an eternal king over all of God’s people, including gentile believers Romans 1:1-6.

Human failure and God’s response

God’s covenant faithfulness was a recurring theme of praise, thanksgiving and hope (e.g. Psalms 105:8-11). However, the Israelites were not always successful at keeping their side of these agreements (e.g. Jeremiah 11:6-8) and there was a point in the sixth century BC they were exiled from their ‘promised land’ as a punishment for their rebellion. However, even at this low point in Israelite fortunes, God committed himself to a fresh, unconditional covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34.

Jeremiah’s prophecy of a new covenant was about God’s promise to forgive, and to dwell within, each believer, so that his law is written ‘on their hearts’ (as opposed to the external tablets of stone of the old Mosaic covenant). Christians see the fulfilment of this in the forgiveness offered through faith in Christ, and the indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit in believers once Jesus had returned to heaven.

The covenant of Christ outlined in the New Testament is the new relationship between God and all of humankind which was established by the death and resurrection of Jesus Hebrews 9:13-15. Holy Communion (also known as the Lord's Supper or Mass) is a sign of this covenant 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, under which sins are forgiven Matthew 26:27-28 and humans have relational access to God Ephesians 2:17-18.

How covenants shaped the scriptures

The New Testament Greek word for ‘covenant’ can also be translated ‘testament’, meaning a formal declaration. The Christian Bible is divided according to the sections which pertain to the old covenants (thus, the ‘Old Testament’) which required laws to be kept, and the new covenant of grace (depicted in the ‘New Testament’). 

No human except Jesus was able to fulfil the obligations of the first covenant, which was be-tween God and Israel, and required full obedience to the law Matthew 5:17. The new cov-enant is between God and all of humankind. It was established by the atoning death of Jesus and is entered into by faith Romans 5:1-2.

Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. 

Hebrews 9:15  ESVUK

Marking covenants

Covenant sacrifice

Historical sources indicate that many ancient cultures practiced animal sacrifice as part of the process of sealing (or ‘cutting’) a formal covenant. The death of the animal(s) represented the fate due to any party who violated the agreement made.

God’s covenant with Abraham is ‘cut’ by the sacrifice of a heifer, a goat, a ram, and two birds. The establishing of the Mosaic covenant also had a sacrificial element Exodus 24:3-8. As Jesus prepares his disciples for his coming death, he indicates that his own shed blood is to be a covenant sacrifice Luke 22:20.

Covenants between people

The Bible also describes covenants between humans:

  • Jonathan gives David his robe, armour and sword as a sign of the covenant commitment of friendship between them 1 Samuel 18:3-4.
  • Abimelech and Abraham ‘cut’ a covenant to agree that a particular disputed well belonged to the latter Genesis 21:25-30.
  • All marriage relationships can be understood as covenant relationships Malachi 2:14, marked by the giving and receiving of rings.

Covenant in literature

  • In the German legend, Faust makes a pact with the devil to gain knowledge and pleasure in exchange for his soul. Famous versions include Christopher Marlowe’s English play Doctor Faustus (c. 1604) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s German play Faust (1808).
  • In Willy Russell's musical Blood Brothers (1983), Eddie and Mickey make a pact to become 'blood brothers', not realising that they are actually separated twins.
  • In Moby Dick (Herman Melville, 1851), Queequeg initiates a marriage-like pact with Ishmael which makes them 'bosom friends'.


  • 'Blood brotherhood' is a pact of loyalty and friendship between two people which is sealed by the pressing together of a small cut on the hand or arm of each. In Norse mythology, Loki and Odin are blood brothers.
  • In Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) the protagonist is in a race against time to discover the Ark of the Covenant before a group of Nazis, who believe it will make their army invincible.

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