What is the difference between a covenant and a contract?

In today's English vernacular, there is little distinction between a contract and a covenant. In fact, the word covenant is rarely used. One might come across the word when purchasing a house in a neighborhood with a home owners' association or when enrolling a child in a private school. These organizations refer to their legal agreements as covenants in order to highlight the desire that the families joining them will be in a relationship of loyalty together, committing to more than simple financial payment, but also to looking out for the neighborhood's or school's best interest. This emphasis on loyal commitment to the other's best interest hints at the historical differences between a covenant and a contract.

A contract is a legal agreement to exchange goods or services without any relational requirements. Examples include: employment contracts where an employee agrees to perform a service in exchange for a certain income from the employer, purchase contracts where a buyer agrees to pay a specified amount of money over a period of time in exchange for a particular good from the seller, or rental contracts where a landlord agrees to allow renters to use the property in exchange for monthly payment. Covenants in biblical times involved much more than a simple exchange of goods or services.

In the ancient Near East, a covenant was a process whereby two parties agreed to unite as one and remain in loyal relationship forever. Covenants were made (or cut) between different types of people in a myriad of situations. For instance, covenants often occurred when a victorious king would annex the newly conquered territory (called a suzerain-vassal relationship). A covenant could be made when neighboring landowners would settle disputes over boundaries or water rights. Of course, the most recognizable covenant from ancient times that is still practiced today is the covenant of marriage.

In ancient times, covenant partners would engage in a ceremony where each step symbolized the new relationship they were entering. First, animals would be slaughtered, split along the spine, and laid out on the ground each piece across from its other half. Then, the partners would exchange outer robes symbolizing the taking on of a new identity now being a representative of the other. At this time, one or both might also be given a new name to further express this new identity. Next, the covenanting parties would exchange weapons promising to rise to the other's defense and act for their protection. Afterwards, they would exchange belts symbolizing the offer of strength thereby giving the other access to one's wealth and resources. Then, they would comingle their blood by making a cut in their arm or hand and either dripping the blood into a cup from which they would each drink or by clasping hands allowing the other's blood to flow directly into each other's bodies. Subsequently, they might rub dirt or ash into the wound in order to create a permanent scar as a visible reminder of this covenant. Alternatively, they may exchange rings, set up a pillar, plant a tree, dig a well, or in some other way create a permanent sign of the covenant. Then, the parties would pass between the slaughtered animal halves calling the gods to bless the other person if they upheld this agreement and calling down curses on the other person and themselves if either should fail to live by this covenant. Finally, the animals would be sacrificially offered to the gods and a feast prepared and eaten together in this new relationship of unity.

Through this ceremonial process of cutting covenant, the two parties essentially became one tribe or clan now holding the rights and responsibilities to each other of blood kinship. In this manner, entering a covenant relationship is similar to the process of adoption in today's society. Adoption is a legal agreement whereby adults who are not biologically related to a child agree to take on the responsibilities of parenthood and that child is then considered to have the status and rights of any biologically born, blood-related son or daughter for the rest of his or her life. In the same way, a covenant was to be a permanent relationship of unity together.

There are many examples of covenants throughout the Bible. One example where a victorious king annexed new land and changed the names of his subjects is recorded in Daniel 1:1–7 when King Nebuchadnezzar changed Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah's names to Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. One covenant resolving water rights between landowners happened between Abraham and Abimelech (Genesis 21:22–33). Abimelech and Abraham's son Isaac also covenanted (Genesis 26:26–33). A covenant that settled the question of succession to the throne but that was motivated by love and loyalty occurred between Jonathan and David (1 Samuel 18:1–5). Jacob and his uncle Laban also made a covenant with one another (Genesis 31:43–55). However, covenants were not restricted to only human relationships.

God made covenants with His people too. He made a covenant with Noah, his descendants, and all living creatures after the flood never to destroy the earth by water again (Genesis 8:20—9:17). God made a covenant with Abram and changed his name to Abraham (Genesis 12:1–9; 13:14–17; 15:1–21; 17:1–27). He made a covenant with the Israelites after liberating them from Egypt (Exodus 19:4–8; 24:1–11; 31:16–18; 34:10–28). He covenanted with the tribe of Levi (Malachi 2:4–7; Leviticus 8:1–36) and with King David (2 Samuel 7:8–16; Psalm 89:1–52).

God promised a new covenant whereby sins would be forgiven and everyone would have the opportunity to know God intimately (Jeremiah 31:31–37). Jesus declared the institution of that new covenant at His last Passover meal right before His death on the cross and resurrection three days later (Luke 22:20). All people are invited to enter a covenant relationship with God through faith in Jesus (John 3:16–18; Romans 8:1–17; Ephesians 1:3–14; 2:1–10; 2 Peter 3:9–10).

God has already taken the steps of covenant by taking on our identity as humans through the incarnation of Jesus (Philippians 2:6–7), conquering our enemy of sin, death, and Satan, and rising to our defense (John 1:29; Romans 6:10; Luke 11:4; 1 Corinthians 10:13; 15:54–58), offering His strength and resources (John 14:14), shedding His blood on the cross, and sending His Spirit to dwell in us (like having His blood in our veins) (Romans 8:11–16). He has extended the invitation to "all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself" (Acts 2:39). When we enter this covenant with God, we take on a new identity whereby we represent Him to the world (2 Corinthians 5:17–21; John 13:34–35; Acts 1:8), promise to treat His enemy—sin in the human heart—as our own enemy (Romans 6:1–23; 7:22–23; 1 Peter 4:1–2), offer our strength and resources for His use (Romans 12:1–2; Philippians 3:7), allow His spirit to dwell in us (Romans 8:9), and ultimately be united with Him in this eternal relationship of oneness (John 17:20–21, 26).

Seeing the extent to which covenant is meant to change one's entire life and very identity, it is easy to understand how a contract to simply exchange goods or services is tremendously different. Praise God for this opportunity to have a lasting loyal relationship of unity with Him through the new covenant!

Related Truth:

What is a covenant?

The Noahic Covenant – What is it?

The Abrahamic covenant – What is it?

The Mosaic covenant – What is it?

The new covenant – What is it?

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