How Many Bible Covenants Are There?
The question of how many Bible covenants there are in Scripture is a troublesome question for some Christians. I occasionally receive email challenging my position on this topic with most people taking the position that there are multiple (seven seems to be the most prevelant number) Bible covenants.
The contradictory belief on this topic seems to be true mostly due to teaching the Christian has received during the early stages of their Christian development. I, myself, have been taught that there are numerous Bible covenants contained in the Scriptures; however, to accept this as truth just because we have been told it is a poor method of establishing biblical truth. What we need to do in all cases is to study the Scriptures to establish the truthfulness of any biblical belief. The goal of this paper is to undertake a somewhat rigorous study of this biblical word “covenant.”
The word translated “covenant” in the Hebrew is “briyth” in the Old Testament and “diatheke” in the New Testament. In addition, some translations have poorly handled this word by translating it as “testament” when it should have been translated “covenant” so we will have to look into that translated word also for completeness.
To conduct a study is no simple matter and quite time consuming as we must investigate the following appearances of the word in the Scripture:
Genesis 23 times
Exodus 13 times
Leviticus 8 times
Numbers 5 times
Deuteronomy 26 times
Joshua 16 times
Judges 3 times
1 Samuel 9 times
2 Samuel twice
1 Kings 11 times
2 Kings 10 times
1 Chronicles 14 times
2 Chronicles 15 times
Nehemiah 5 times
Psalms 21 times
Isaiah 13 times
Jeremiah 21 times
Ezekiel 15 times
Daniel 6 times
Hosea 5 times
Malachi 6 times
Hebrews 12 times
The following contain the use of the word “testament” which should be translated “covenant.”
1 Corinthians once
2 Corinthians twice
Hebrews 6 times
Let us now examine these word usages to see what we can glean from their context.
All of the Genesis 9 usages are references to the covenant made between God and Noah.
In Genesis 15:18, God makes a covenant with Abram.
In Genesis 21:27, Abraham makes a covenant with Abimelech.
In Genesis 26:28, Isaac and Abimelech make a covenant.
In Exodus 2:24; 6:4; and 6:5 God is stating His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
In Exodus 19:5, God states His covenant with the children of Israel.
In Exodus 24:7, we have a key verse concerning covenant. “And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient.” What is said here is that a “book” is associated with the covenant in the Old Testament. In verse four we are led to believe that this book contained “…all the words of the Lord…” that Moses had recorded (sound familiar?). There is also a inference in this section that God had told Moses what His expectations for the people were and they were supposed to be obedient to those expectations. Starting to sound a bit like being under the law to you? This relationship with “the book” is also found in the following.
“And the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the law” (Deuteronomy 29:21). Here we specifically find that “the book” is a reference to the “book of the law.”
“…and he read in their ears all the words of the book of the covenant which was found in the house of the Lord” (2 Kings 23:2).
“…And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments” (Exodus 34:28b). Here we see that the Ten Commandments are part of the covenant and are written in the book of the covenant.
In Leviticus 2:13, we find that the meat offerings offered to God were to be salted with “…the salt of the covenant.”
Moving on to Leviticus 24:8, we find the Sabbath was a part of this covenant.
In Numbers 25:13, we find that the physical priesthood was part of this covenant. In Deuteronomy 4:23, participants of this covenant were not to make any graven images.
In Joshua 24:25, Joshua makes a covenant with the people of Shecham.
In 1 Samuel 18:3, Jonathan and David make a covenant.
In 1 Kings 20:34, Ben-hadad and Ahab make a covenant.
In 2 Kings 11:4, Jehoiada and the rulers make a covenant.
In 2 Kings 23:21, keeping the Passover was required in the book of the covenant.
In 1 Chronicles 11:3, David and the elders made a covenant.
In 2 Chronicles 23:1, Jehoiada made a covenant with the captains.
Let’s pause here for a moment. We have been looking at two kinds of covenants; a covenant that is between one man and another, and a covenant that is made between God and man. In this study we are going to eliminate our focus on the covenants made by man between one man and another. What we are interested in are covenants between God and man. This will simplify and speed up our study.
“But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises” (Hebrews 8:6). This verse tells us that there came a time when a better covenant came along than had existed prior to that time.
“For if that first covenant (the word covenant is assumed by translators because of the context from the previous verse) had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second” (Hebrews 8:7). This verse is a SERIOUS problem for anyone that believes there are multiple Old Testament covenants! The Greek language is very clear that we are contrasting two, and only two, covenants. If when we read the Old Testament we start to believe in multiple covenants ( over two) made by God, then we have scripture contradicting itself, and we know that is not true. A contradiction can only be the result of an improper understanding of the Scripture. But let us go on.
“In that he sayeth, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away” (Hebrews 8:13). My study of the dating of the book of Hebrews dates it at approximately AD 67. Notice how this verse fits nicely into the destruction of Jerusalem and the complete passing away of the Old Covenant and the complete phasing in of the New Covenant.
“Then verily the first covenant had also ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary” (Hebrews 9:1). This verse and those following are clearly describing the first covenant as the agreement God had made for the people to follow the law and its ordinances. Notice no mention of multiple covenants.
In Hebrews 10:29, we discover that this New Covenant (the second one instituted by God) was a blood covenant due to the blood of the Son of God. This is in clear contrast with the blood of the animal sacrifices of the first covenant which foreshadowed the New Covenant.
In Hebrews 13:20, we are told that this New Covenant is an everlasting covenant.
“Who also hath made us able ministers of the new covenant; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). A contrast of the two biblical covenants again. Notice there is no mention of multiple covenants.
“And for this cause he is the mediator of the new covenant, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first covenant, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance” ( Hebrews 9:15).
NOTE: Only two covenants.
“Whereupon neither the first covenant was dedicated without blood” (Hebrews 9:18).
NOTE: Only two covenants.
To accept as truth that there are multiple covenants in the biblical record (insofar as God with mankind) is contradictory to Scripture. We must renew our minds to what we read and think we understand from the Old Testament to encompass this truth.
In summary, under the first (Old Covenant) man was to obey what God had communicated to him (laws, commandments, ordinances). This, according to the written record, man failed at doing with the exception of Jesus Himself. Under the second (New Covenant) God required mankind to believe what God had done for mankind at the cross (removing mankind from the curse of the Old Covenant).