A Word for Today: Covenant (Gk. Diatheke)


The terms ‘covenant’ or ‘deed of covenant’ are rarely used today in general conversation other than in formal legal contexts. But the practical use of prescribed ‘deeds of covenant’ was quite popular at one time with many parents in the United Kingdom to gain tax relief to help fund their children’s higher education. A far cry from the present student loan regime! We are, however, probably more familiar now with the terms ‘testament’ or ‘will’, although the Greek word diathêkê can be translated in the New Testament as either ‘covenant’ or ‘last will/testament’. De Witt Burton states that ‘the essential distinction between the two meanings is that in a testament the testator expresses his will as to what shall be done after his death, especially in respect to his property; the covenant is an agreement between living persons as to what shall be done by them while living’.1

The corresponding Hebrew word berith, meaning covenant, occurs extensively in the Old Testament. It is used generally of non-theological agreements or treaties that individuals, or states, enter into for some specific reason or other. For example, in Genesis chapter 26 verses 28-31, Isaac enters into a covenant, or treaty of peace and amity, with Abimelech; similarly, in 1 Kings chapter 5 verse 12, Solomon makes a state treaty with Hiram based upon mutual friendship. Marriage and family arrangements are also closely linked with this word as is evident from Malachi chapter 2 verse 14, where a wife is literally referred to as a covenanted spouse, cp. Ezek. 16. 8. In Genesis chapter 31 verses 43-54, Laban and Jacob settle a family dispute by way of a treaty or covenant endorsed by the swearing of oaths before God, and then ratified by the offering of sacrifice. W. E. Vine suggests that the expression to ‘cut a covenant’ came from the practice of cutting in two the various sacrifices that would be made to initiate a covenant, see, for example, Genesis chapter 15 verses 9-10 and 17.2 Covenants drawn up between peoples or states in the Old Testament are generally bilateral agreements requiring action on the part of both contracting parties. This is contrasted when the word berith is used of the covenants that God enacts with His chosen people. These covenants, which are normally unconditional, are directly linked to the sovereignty of God, and are guaranteed by His immutable character, i.e., the covenants are not only promissory, but depend on His faithfulness alone, thus they are a matter of grace and mercy; see, for example, Psalm 89 verse 28. McConville points out that, ‘steadfast love is the typical quality of the covenant relationship, a quality of God (Ps. 136; Jer. 9. 24(23))’.3

The table below shows important unconditional covenants between God and men.

Covenant (s) Text Nature / Sign
Genesis 6. 18; 9. 8-17
Genesis 15. 18; 17. 2-14
2 Samuel 7. 8-17;2 Chronicles 13. 5
Promissory / Rainbow
Promissory/ Circumcision
Promissory/ Salt4

The Mosaic covenant described in Exodus chapters 19 to 24 is, however, the exception, in that whilst it still depended upon the faithfulness of God, it also required compliance and a loving response on the part of Israel, see Deut. 7. 9. This was therefore a conditional covenant, and despite Israel’s failure on so many occasions to comply with their covenant responsibilities, the relationship endured because of God’s steadfast love,

In the Greek classical period diathêkê mainly came to be understood in terms of a will or testament especially linked to the adoption of an heir. The Septuagint (LXX) follows this use of diathêkê as the main translation of berith, and what is remarkable is that the translators chose the word diathêkê in the first place to translate berith rather than use the normal word in Greek for a covenant, sunthêkê. This latter word was used to describe reciprocal agreements which could be changed by the contracting parties. Diathêkê brought with it the notion of a legal disposition, hence a testament or will that could not be altered. Invariably, this was the sense applied to the word by Josephus, and in the large number of non-theological papyri of the New Testament era. An appropriate word, then, to describe the unalterable agreements that God effected with men.

When we come to the New Testament, we find that the word diathêkê occurs over thirty times. It is the word used by Stephen to describe God’s covenant with Abraham, Acts 7. 8, and the word Paul uses in his allegory of the two covenants typified in the lives of Hagar and Sarah, Gal. 4. 24. But its frequent occurrence in the Epistle to the Hebrews makes it an important theological term as it relates to a new or better covenant. The very fact that this covenant is termed ‘new’, Heb. 9. 15, means that if the first covenant had been perfect it would not have been superseded, 8. 7. Christ Himself is declared to be the mediator, 8. 6, and guarantor of this new covenant, 7. 22.5 The first covenant was inaugurated by blood through a mediator, 9. 18-22; similarly, the new covenant has been formally sealed by the death of Christ, i.e., the death of the testator, 9. 15; 13. 20, making it therefore legally secure.

The purpose of this new covenant is seen not only to secure the forgiveness of sins once and for all, Matt. 26. 28; Heb. 9. 15 – something that could not be achieved under the old covenant, Heb. 10. 1-4 – but also to enable God’s people, through the indwelling Holy Spirit, to live the sort of lives they should, in conformity to His word, Jer. 31. 31-34; Heb 10. 15f. If, under this new covenant, we have the promise of an eternal inheritance, Heb. 9. 15, an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade, 1 Pet. 1. 4 NIV, why do we fail, so often, to rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 1 Pet 1. 8 ESV?

For further reading/study


  • The Practical Use of the Greek New Testament by Kenneth S. Wuest.


  • ‘Covenant’ (pgs. 65-111) in The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross by Leon Morris.



Galatians, pg. 500.


Expository Dictionary of Old Testament Words, pg. 45.


NIDOTTE, pg. 752.


The expression ‘covenant of salt’ in 2 Chronicles chapter 13 verse 5 may be a metaphor for permanence based on Numbers chapter 18 verse 19.


Lane (Hebrews, pg. 188) states that the term guarantor ‘refers to an individual who offers his own life as the guarantor of another person’.


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