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The Particulars of a Covenant

  

Central to our identity as Christians is that we are a covenant people. The Pilgrims and the Puritans understood it, but in our times the significance of this has been lost. That covenant is central to the Bible is evidenced by the fact that the word for the two main divisions of the Bible – testament – is simply a synonym of covenant. God’s entire written revelation to man is contained in the form of two covenants. And in order to understand the larger picture it is necessary first to understand the particulars of what constitutes a covenant.

Ps 50:5
Gather to me my faithful ones, who have made a covenant with me by sacrifice.

A covenant is “cut”, not “made”. Just how a covenant was cut in Old Testament practice is detailed in the following verse:

Jeremiah 34:18-20
And the men who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant which they made with me, I will make [them] like the calf which they cut in two and passed between its parts…I will give them into the hand of their enemies.

Two individuals entered into covenant by sacrificing an animal. It was cut into two parts which then were placed opposite each other with a space in between. The parties to the covenant passed in between the parts to seal the covenant.

The particular kind of covenant described here is a blood covenant. It is a covenant which has been documented in most traditional societies, particularly those emanating from the Middle East. The particulars of the rite vary – many forms involve the actual inter-commingling of the parties’ blood – but blood is nonetheless always involved, even at times to the drinking of a representative amount of it. Why blood? It indicated the commingling of the very lives of the two parties involved. H. Clay Trumbull writes: The root idea of this rite of blood-friendship seems to include the belief, that the blood is the life of a human being; not merely that the blood is essential to life, but that, in a particular sense, it is life; that it actually vivifies by its presence; and that by its passing from one organism to another it carries and imparts life. The inter-mingling of the blood of the two organisms is, therefore, according to this view, equivalent to the inter-commingling of the lives, of the personalities, of the natures, thus brought together; so that there is, thereby and thenceforward, one life in the two bodies, a common life between the two friends; a thought which Aristotle recognizes in his citation of the ancient ‘proverb’, “One soul [in two bodies].’

Further, in the Bible a covenant could not be ratified without a sacrifice.

Hebrews 9:16
For where a will [covenant] is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a covenant takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive.

The sacrifice symbolized the death of each party to the covenant. As each party walked between the pieces of the slain animal, he was saying in effect, “That animal died as my representative. He died in my place.”

 

One Response to “The Particulars of a Covenant”

  1. on 17 Dec 2006 at 7:11 pmJohnO

    Covenants are definitely found throughout the entire Bible, but I think that the division between Old and New at Malachi/Matthew is misleading into thinking there are only two covenants. There are many convenants besides mosaic and “new” (Noah, Abraham, David, etc) and some don’t have any sacrifice (like Noah’s, or David’s).

    And if we were to divide up based on covenants we’d end up with dispensationalism, something we’ve left behind before.

  

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