Judeochristianity Jewish star Christian cross

The Meaning of the “Covenant”

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant.
Genesis 17:7

The word “covenant,” though at times confusing, is important for understanding both the relationship between Christianity and Judaism and Jesus’s message itself.

A “covenant” essentially means a reciprocal promise. It is a sacred agreement. In Hebrew the word is berīt. In the Bible it first occurs in Genesis 9, when referring to God’s promise to Noah:

God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”

God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
(Genesis 9:12-17)

It is noteworthy that this very first covenant is between God and all living beings. And in addition to the promise, something is required:

Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life. (Genesis 9:12-17)

The Talmud found in these requirements a basis for the “Seven Laws of the Children of Noah,” essential commandments that all people without distinction must obey:

This first reciprocal act of relationship between God and human beings was universal. Later on it is recorded that God made a more specific covenant between Abraham and his descendants, who became the Jewish people:

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.”

Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant....

“As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations.”
(Genesis 17:1-7,9)

A covenant is not just something to receive; it is something to keep. “Walk before me, and be blameless” (well, at least to the best of our human ability).

Outward signs of the covenant included the land in which the people would live, and circumcision of male children to seal the covenant in the flesh. Those are the signs (in Hebrew, ot ha-berīt), but they are not the essence. The essence of this covenant finds expression in these prophetic utterances:

I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. (Exodus 6:7)

And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people. (Leviticus 26:12)

And you shall be my people, and I will be your God. (Jeremiah 30:22)

Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God. (Ezekiel 11:20)

The essence of the Covenant (with a capital “C”) is that God’s presence is promised to us to support us and give us strength and transformation no matter what we must go through in this life and no matter how painful.

But as noted, the Covenant is reciprocal. Something is required of us as well. What that is will become clearer later on. The one unconditional aspect of the Covenant is that God never walks away from it; however, we can abandon it if we choose. But once God makes a Covenant it is eternal. “Where is your mother’s bill of divorce, with which I put her away?” (Isaiah 50:1). The question is rhetorical; God’s promise is never revoked.

A critical question arises in history: Can this Covenant be replaced by another one? Clearly not, because if God were to abrogate one Covenant even in favor of a different one, then God would be unfaithful. The goodness of God would no longer remain good, since God would become untrustworthy.

Then how can Jeremiah possibly speak of a “new” Covenant? Let’s look closely at what Jeremiah says:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt - a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, 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 within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

This is not really a different Covenant. It is exactly the same: “I will put my law [better: ‘teaching’] within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Compare this with what the people had already received through Moses: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart” (Deuteronomy 6:5-6). The “newness” consists of making a fresh start, forgiving and disregarding the sins of previous generations. Thus this “new” Covenant will be different only in the sense of being refreshed and revitalized, not because God’s promises change.

Therefore it would be more precise not to speak of a “new” Covenant but of a renewed one.

Now we must consider the very confusing terms by which our Bible is traditionally known: “Old Testament” and “New Testament.” Where does this word “testament” come from?

The term “Old Testament” is foreign to Jews. Jews call this body of writing the “Hebrew Bible.” “Testament” is a Christian term that comes from the Septuagint’s translation of the Hebrew berītdiathēke. That word literally means “testament,” as in “last will and testament.” Thus “New Testament” is kainē diathēke. This has created much ambiguity in understanding the Bible as a whole.

Some modern translations have tried to be more exact, using the terms “Old Covenant” and “New Covenant.” This too is problematic since it implies that the “old” Covenant is obsolete, and that God can break a covenant after it has been made and replace it with a different one. If one covenant cannot be trusted, then how can another?

Jesus never spoke about creating a “new” Covenant. When asked how we must fulfill our part of the Covenant Jesus responded by quoting the words above from Deuteronomy 6, and also from Leviticus 19 about loving one’s neighbor. The Covenant did not change.

What did change was its recognized scope. Jesus began by addressing his ministry only to the Jewish people (Matthew 10:5-6, 15:24). But that did not last; soon he found himself reaching out to Samaritans and Romans and anyone who came to him for help. They too, he realized, were part of God’s Covenant. It is not a different Covenant, but is “new” in the sense that we now realize it encompasses not only the Jewish people but all of humanity.

Therefore, instead of calling the two parts of the Bible “Old Testament” and “New Testament,” it would be more accurate to refer to them as “Original Covenant” and “Extended Covenant.” It is the same Covenant. Jesus put it like this:

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
(Matthew 36-40)

This formula distills the essence of the “Law and the Prophets,” which is the term used in Jesus’s time to refer to the Hebrew Bible as it existed then. Their teachings guided the Jewish people in observing the Covenant. Jesus’s response is not very different from that given by the Jewish sage Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus, to the demand to state the essence of Judaism “while standing on one foot”: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. All the rest is commentary.”

The Apostle Paul carried further the mission of proclaiming the Covenant to the Gentiles. Unfortunately there was much conflict and mutual misunderstanding between him and his Jewish colleagues in the new Christian movement. After Paul, Christianity obtained political power when the Roman Empire made it the state religion. The separation between Christianity and Judaism became hardened and permanent.

The history of this separation is long and complex and way beyond our present scope. Analysis of the conflict between Paul and the Jerusalem leaders also deserves attention since both made moves contributing to the separation. That will have to become the subject of a different study. Most relevant for our present purpose is the observation that today and for many years two different religious groups, each claiming roots in Hebrew history and prophecy, have believed that the Covenant belongs to it alone. For the most part Jews, while not intolerant of other religions, do not extend their sense of being chosen to non-Jews. And Christians, calling the Jewish Bible the “Old” Testament, have traditionally felt that their “New” Covenant supersedes the Jewish one, and that outside Christianity there is no salvation.

There are signs that this can change. Communication between the two faiths, while not always productive, has nevertheless been more frequent, more respectful, and often more fruitful than at any previous time in history.

We can even imagine a Jewish Christianity that might be a response to this split within the Covenant. This is Christianity consciously indebted to its Jewish roots. It is Christianity aware of its Jewish origin and its continuity with Jewish tradition. It is Christianity participating in the universalization of the Covenant God made with the Jewish people, instead of claiming to replace that Covenant with a new one that is its exclusive property.

Jewish Christians (and not “Hebrew Christians” or “Jews for Jesus,” which are entirely different things) recognize Jesus as Messiah without abandoning Judaism. They see a single, common Covenant uniting Jews, Christians, and everyone else. They can also still celebrate Jewish history as a journey of discovering this Covenant and revealing it to the entire world.

Jewish Christianity (or Judeochristianity) does not ask Jews to change their observances or even to believe anything about Jesus, but only to consider that the Covenant is not theirs alone, and that when God said to Abraham “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3) God meant it seriously. It also asks of Christians that they recognize Judaism as the core tradition to which they are indebted, that it too is a path to God, and that Jews should not become a target for missionizing.

Can one be both Jewish and Christian? At one time it was so. The first Jewish Christians were in fact the leaders of the Jerusalem church. They kept their Jewish observances while accepting non-Jewish believers also as under God’s promise (Acts 15:19-20). But for a long time afterwards the two traditions have viewed each other with suspicion. It need not be that way any longer.

When Jesus told us (Matthew 6:33) to seek only God’s Kingdom and then God’s presence will sustain us, he encapsulated the Covenant in a single phrase that made no distinctions of ethnic origin or religious belief. This is the Covenant that Jews and Christians as partners should proclaim to the world. Jews were ‘chosen” to discover God’s “choosingness” and to share it with the world - there is no threat to Judaism in acknowledging this. Jews and Christians may differ on the identity of the Messiah, but they can still recognize the renewed Covenant as a universal and saving truth.

October 2016