by David Bivin
The Hebrew word for covenant is brit. It is one of the most frequently used words in Hebrew Scripture, appearing 270 times. It is also one of Scripture's most important concepts.
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a covenant-making God. He made a covenant with Noah that the world would never again be destroyed by flood (Genesis 9:8-17). The rainbow, called in Hebrew ot ha-brit (the sign of the covenant), was established as a symbol of that promise. God made a covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15:18; 22:16-18, and 26:4), promising him blessings and innumerable progeny. He also made a covenant with David (II Samuel 7:11-16), giving him the gift of kingship and dynasty.
One of the unique features of the religion of Israel is the covenant between the people and its God. This was not a mutual agreement, but rather a promise of aid and protection solely in return for loyalty. A covenant between a deity and a people was unknown in other ancient cultures. Apparently, the gods of other peoples did not demand exclusive fealty. Israel's God, however, demanded absolute loyalty: "You shall have no other gods besides me" (Exodus 20:3).
The best known commemoration of God's covenant with his people is called in Hebrew brit milah (the covenant of circumcision). In rabbinic literature this is also called bri-to shel avraham avinu (the covenant of Abraham our father) (Avot 3:11), or brit kodesh (the holy covenant) (Berachot 14a; compare Luke 1:72).
Many other things are associated with God's covenant, such as aron ha-brit (the ark of the covenant), which held luhot ha-brit (the tablets of the covenant), on which were inscribed the ten commandments, witnesses of the covenant that God made with Israel (Deuteronomy 9:9). The Mosaic covenant, the commandments presented in Exodus 20-23, are called sefer ha-brit (the book of the covenant), and the Hebrew name for the guardian angel of the congregation mentioned in Malachi 3:1 is malak ha-brit (the messenger of the covenant).
According to Jewish tradition, there is a set of universal commandments which all men, Jews or Gentiles, are obliged to obey. These laws predate the Mosaic covenant, and are called mitzvot b'nei Noach (the commandments of the sons of Noah), because all men are considered the descendants of Noah. Those Gentiles who observe these laws are called b'nei Noach (the sons of the covenant of Noah).
The concept of covenant has been carried into modern Hebrew. In Israel today, for example, one calls the United States artsot ha-brit (the countries of the covenant), which refers to the federation of states which signed an agreement to become one nation. The U.S.S.R. is referred to as brit hamo atsot (the covenant of the councils), since the Soviet Union is a federation of councils or soviets. Another modern use of the Hebrew word for covenant is B'Nai B'rith (sons of covenant), an international Jewish organization which is celebrating its 144th year.
Hebrews 12:24 speaks of Jesus as the mediator of "a new covenant." This is a reference to the well-known prophecy uttered by Jeremiah: "'The time is coming' declares the LORD, 'when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah'" (Jeremiah 31:31). However, nowhere in the New Testament is the term "new covenant" used as a name for the collection of books which Christians refer to as the New Testament. "Scripture," for the early followers of Jesus, meant the Hebrew Scriptures. The term "New Testament" was coined much later in history.
Nevertheless, ha-brit ha-hadasha (the new covenant), is the term used in Hebrew today to refer to the "New Testament." What Christians call the "Old Testament" is referred to in Hebrew as Tanach. This is an abbreviation of the Hebrew words for three sections of the Jewish Bible, TNK: Torah (Law), ne-vi-im (Prophets), and ketuvim (Writings).
Calling the Jewish Scriptures the "Old Testament" designates the Hebrew Bible. "Old Testament" seems to imply that the Jewish Scriptures have been replaced by the Christian New Testament, and that God somehow has abrogated the covenant he made with the Jewish people. Consequently, some Christians have concluded that the "Old Testament" is out of date and does not warrant such serious study as the New Testament.
Actually, the Hebrew adjective "new" used with "covenant" does not necessarily imply the replacement of an earlier covenant, but may only imply its renewal. Furthermore, the translation "testament" in this context is unfortunate because it misses the connection with Jeremiah 31:31, and also may be misconstrued by the English reader to mean testament in the sense of last will and testament, rather than covenant.
All this serves to illustrate once again how helpful it is to get back to more Hebraic terminology and a more Hebraic perspective.
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David Bivin has lived in Israel since 1963, when he came to do graduate studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. From 1970 to 1981, he was director of the Hebrew Language Division of the American Ulpan, and also director of the Modern Hebrew Department of the Institute of Holy Land Studies on Mt. Zion. David is co-author of two books: Fluent Biblical and Modern Hebrew, and Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus. He is now publisher of Jerusalem Perspective, a monthly report on research into the words of Jesus.
Since 1981, David has served as Yavo's Director of Research and Education. David additionally serves as director of the Jerusalem School for the Study of the Synoptic Gospels, a team of Jewish and Christian scholars engaged in preparing a Gospel commentary that will present the life and teachings of Jesus in their original Hebraic context.
Yavo Digest, Vol. 1, No. 4., 1987
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Last update 16 April 2020