The Biblical word covenant is relatively common occurring in some 272 Biblical verses. Nonetheless it has a remarkably straightforward translation profile being the product of one Hebrew word and one Greek word when used positively[1]. The aim of this brief paper is to flesh out the full meanings of this word from the original languages.

Any understanding of the word covenant has to begin with an understanding of the Hebrew word berîyth (H1285). Of all the verses containing the word covenant in the Bible 90% of them are a rendering of that word. Broadly the word means any alliance, pledge or treaty.[2] The word is a noun derived from the root bârâh in the sense of cutting; the reason being that a treaty was ratified by passing between two pieces of flesh.[3]

The vast majority of the time berîyth appears it is rendered covenant (265);[4] on the vast majority of those occasions it is referring to a covenant between God and man.[5] It should be noted however that when it does occur between men it may or may not reflect equal participation or even willingness on the part of the participants. In addition to covenant, berîyth is also rendered league(17) or confederate(3). When rendered that way it refers to a covenant between nations (or tribes) rather than individuals.

The 'rule of first use'[6] shows that covenant is closely tied to a binding relationship between God and man. Firstly in Gen 6:18 God promises to establish a covenant with Noah and then seven times in Gen 9 the word appears as the covenant is being established. The word then disappears until it reappears in Gen 15:18 as God is establishing a new covenant with Abraham. It then occurs ten times in Gen 17 as the details of the covenant are fleshed out. In Ex 2:24 we see it was memory of the covenant that provoked the Exodus and in Ex 19:5 we find the covenant is the basis of the relationship with Israel.

The Hebrew word berîyth is rendered as diathēkē (G1242) in the Greek. Verses such as Luke 1:72 and Acts 3:25 make this point clear. However it is interesting that the direct meaning of the Greek word has a rather different nuance to the Hebrew. Whereas the latter may refer to any form of league between groups or a ratified arrangement between men; diathēkē principally referred to the last will and testament of an individual. Vine takes considerable trouble to show that in contradistinction to the English word 'covenant' that emphasizes the coming together of two parties to a mutual obligation the Greek generally signifies an obligation to one party.[7] When not rendered as covenant(20) diathēkē is rendered testament(13).

There are twelve places in scripture where the word covenant appears and it is not a translation of one of the two words rendered above. Firstly in Rom 1:31 asunthetos(G802) is rendered as covenant breaker; literally one that is 'not agreed'.[8] Somewhat surprisingly the other eleven occasions the word covenant has been inserted in italics as it was deemed required by context; on those occasions it is a rendering of nothing whatsoever.

I believe that the above shows that the Holy Spirit has been very guarded and precise with regard to the definition of the word Covenant. Within both testaments it is generally a binding agreement between two parties. Within the Old the word may imply a reciprocal agreement or it may be more one sided. In terms of emphasis however it is the covenant between God and man which takes the pre-eminence and which forms the basis for many major events. The New Testament shines a slightly different light upon the concept; it is now far more about the disposition of God's affairs than about a mutual contract. This should not surprise us. Christ died, one side of the contract has been fully met, it now remains to distribute the proceeds!


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