What Is a Covenant? Dr. John Walton on God’s Relationship with Israel

You already know that I’m pretty gung-ho about the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. (Gung-ho enough to put an affiliate link in this article, anyway.) 

Well, the good stuff keeps coming.

dr-john-waltonDr. John Walton, who edited the OT notes in this Bible, was kind enough to let me shoot him some questions about one of the most important concepts in the Bible: covenant. Even more kindly, he sent me his responses. =)

When we hear the word “covenant” in conversation, it’s usually in the context of marriage. But the major covenants of the Bible concern God’s relationships with humans—these are huge, world-changing agreements. In fact, the majority of our Old Testament is focused on watching the covenant between God and Israel play out over time.

But enough of my words. Let’s get into the good stuff. Ladies and gents, Dr. John Walton!

JK: What is a covenant? Explain it like I’m five. =)

Dr. Walton: Like a treaty, a covenant is an agreement made between countries, cities, or people that makes them allies. In the Old Testament, it is God who makes a covenant with Israel.

JK: We’ve all heard of the 10 commandments.

But we don’t hear about a suzerain-vassal covenant being established between God and Israel. How does a suzerain-vassal covenant work, and what context are we missing today?

Dr. Walton: In the resources within the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, I explain covenants this way (p. 143, sidebar):


One of the most crucial concepts to understanding ancient Israelite religion and the theology of the OT is that of the covenant. The Hebrew word for covenant (berit) essentially means a binding legal agreement (contract) and can refer to agreements in a wide variety of contexts, including personal (Ge 31:44), familial (1Sa 20:16; Mal 2:14), business (Jer 34:8–10) and international settings (Jos 9:6; 1Ki 15:19). Other ancient Near Eastern societies utilized the same sorts of agreements, a number of which have survived to this day. The covenant established at Sinai between Yahweh and the Israelites is both like and unlike these more ordinary agreements that were necessary for the effective functioning of those societies.

There are several similarities. Like legal agreements of the day, the covenant at Sinai carried with it obligations for both parties. To “keep” the covenant for the Israelites meant obeying the laws—their covenantal obligations—set forth in Ex 20–23. In Ex 24:7 we hear of “the Book of the Covenant,” which likely refers to a written record of these obligations. Yahweh also had obligations, namely, to treat the Israelites as his own people, as his “treasured possession” (19:5).

At a more specific level, many scholars have understood the Sinai covenant to find its closest parallel in one particular type of “contract” — namely, international treaties from the ancient Near East typically called a “suzerainty treaty” or a “vassal treaty,” because it was concluded between a superior state (suzerain) and an inferior state (vassal). A number of such treaties have been preserved from the Hittite Empire (mid- second millennium BC) in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) and from the Neo-Assyrian Empire (early to mid-first millennium BC) based in northern Mesopotamia. . . . In this way we can see that the covenant takes a legal form that would have been familiar to the Israelites.

Important differences, however, must not be overlooked. Typically, both parties to a contract, treaty or similar legal agreement could expect to benefit from their commitment. It is not at all clear that the Biblical text wants its readers to believe that Yahweh will receive some benefit from this relationship with the Israelites that he would not otherwise be able to obtain. The text speaks of great benefit awaiting the Israelites for their consistent obedience to their covenantal obligations. For Yahweh’s part, his actions do not appear to be based in self-interest but in a willingness to be gracious and to extend freely his blessing. . . .

If we don’t understand this context, we may be inclined to read the Ten Commandments or other parts of the law in the OT as universal commands from God. But in the Old Testament, they are all part of the stipulations of the covenant between the suzerain, Yahweh, and his vassal, Israel. We are not parties to that covenant and therefore they do not pertain to us in the same way that they pertain to Israel. That does not mean that they are irrelevant, but we need to put them in context.

JK: How was God’s covenant with Israel at Sinai different from other ancient covenants?

Dr. Walton: Nowhere in the ANE have we found a covenant between a God and a people group. That on its own makes the covenant in the Old Testament unique. When we consider further the content and function of the covenant, we can see that it offers Israel a different way of thinking than what was found in the “Great Symbiosis” in the ancient world (see NIV CBSB, 186).

Great Symbiosis

In the ancient Near Eastern world, people believed that the gods were initially quite content to live without human beings. The gods had created the cosmos for themselves, built cities and lived together in community. As time went on, however, they grew tired of feeding themselves, making clothes for themselves and building houses for themselves. Digging ditches for irrigation to grow crops was heavy labor.

They therefore decided to create humans as a slave labor force. The responsibility of humans was to care for the gods in every way. Rituals provided food and drink for the gods. Temples provided housing. The gods then became dependent on people to provide the luxury to which they were accustomed and which they deserved. In turn, the gods would provide for the people (so the people could provide for them) and protect the people who were caring for them. This defined the codependent relationship between the gods and humans in the ancient world. It was a need­based system and comprised the religious responsibilities that people had.

. . . [T]he gods understood that if society was plagued by lawlessness, violence and disorder, the people would not be at liberty to carry out their ritual obligations. Thus there was a symbiotic relationship between gods and people (which may be called the “Great Symbiosis”), which was maintained for a smoothly operating ritual system, designed to keep the gods happy.

The difference in Israel was that even though they offered sacrifices to Yahweh, Yahweh did not need these sacrifices as food. In his covenant with Israel he promised to provide for his people and to take care of them, much like other gods did. However, what he required of them was not care and feeding, but covenant fidelity. We could therefore say that the Great Symbiosis was replaced in Israel by the Covenant Symbiosis.

Further, I will publish the following in a forthcoming work:

In this symbiotic relationship, the people took care of the gods (so that the gods did not bring ruin or destruction on them), and the gods took care of the people so that their needs continued to be met by those people. Given that this is the way people thought about deities in the ancient world, it was essential for Yahweh to offer revelation of himself in order to provide the basis for a newly forged relationship with the humans he created. And this revelation was especially important, because unlike the ancient Near Eastern gods, Yahweh did not have needs. As Yahweh revealed himself to Israel, the ANE symbiosis of codependence, reciprocity, and mutual need was replaced by what we might call the “Great Enterprise,” which was established through the Covenant. In the Great Enterprise, Yahweh protected Israel and provided for them just as the gods of the ancient Near East did for their worshipers. The difference was that instead of meeting the needs of the gods as their neighbors did, Israel was given a role in the plan and purposes of Yahweh. (Old Testament Theology, forthcoming from IVP Academic, 2017).

JK: Why is it important for modern Bible readers to understand the Bible’s covenants in their ancient contexts? (Or is it?)

Dr. Walton: Many find it important for apologetics concerning the uniqueness of Israel or the date of the OT books—but I am more interested in theology than apologetics. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible contains this section (p. 35):

The Covenant

Though the agreement between the Lord and Abram is not termed a “covenant” until Ge 15:18, the first articulation of the general terms of the covenant occurs in Ge 12:1–3. The monotheistic worship of Yahweh is a clear distinctive for Israel in contrast to the peoples of the ancient world, but more distinctive still is the covenant relationship between God and people. Israel’s self-identity, her view of history, her belief in her destiny, her understanding of the attributes of God (e.g., as holy and faithful), her understanding of her obligations to God (articulated in the torah), and the basis of the prophetic institution all derive directly from the covenant.

In each of those areas, despite the existence of similarities with the rest of the ancient world, the Abrahamic covenant marks the departure and underlies the unique-ness of Israel. In the ancient world gods may have been viewed as personal gods who undertook the protection of the family, but they did not make covenants.

Not only does the covenant help us to understand the uniqueness of the relationship between them and Yahweh, it also shows that Yahweh communicated to Israel in ways that were culturally familiar to them. This pattern is well-established throughout the Bible and is something that we should take seriously. When we come to a deeper understanding of the Covenant in its context, we can gain a deeper understanding of what a covenant relationship with God is all about. We are not parties to the Old Covenant, but we remain in covenant relationship through Christ. That doesn’t just mean that we are “saved.” The covenant in the Old Testament shows us that we have shared objectives with God and a new identity that he has given us that we, as the church, are expected to reflect.

JK: OK, what did God have against eating pigs and bats? And why is it suddenly OK for Christians to eat this stuff in the New Testament?

The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible gives some excellent background to this issue. Regarding unclean food, I write the following (p. 197):

Unclean Food


Leviticus 11 does not provide an explicit rationale for its division of animals into clean/permitted versus unclean/forbidden categories. Interpreters have proposed a wide variety of possible rationales, including … [among many others], the need to teach reverence for the sanctity of life by limiting animal slaughter, and the concept that nonpermitted animals depart from the creation ideal of life in that they are associated with death in various ways (e.g., those that burrow in the ground or are predators) …

[T]hese rationales are persuasive insofar as they can be understood in relation to the reason given in Lev 11 for this dietary legislation as a whole: the requirement that God’s people should be holy as he is. 

The dietary laws were intended to differentiate Israel from the culture surrounding them. Consequently, the specifics are culturally relative. They do not offer insight into better hygiene. They are provisions in light of cultural associations so that Israel would self-identify as people of Yahweh vis-à-vis the perceptions that were current in the ancient world. We are in a very different culture, and are no longer “Israel” for whom the same identity markers would work or have any significance. The purity laws indicated how Israel was to relate to the presence of God in their midst. All of that law is dependent on Yahweh dwelling in the midst of Israel geographically. Purity and holiness both continue to be important for God’s people, but we find ourselves living in a different time with different sensitivities and in a different relationship with God. We experience God’s presence not geographically, but through the indwelling Spirit. We would, of necessity, have different ideas about what was or was not appropriate. Israel’s mandates were culturally derived and culturally shaped.

Impurity should not be equated with immorality or sinfulness. Sometimes it just pertained to things that were considered inappropriate. For example, when I was growing up it would not have been unusual to hear parents admonishing their children, “Don’t run in church!” Running children was culturally considered to be contrary to the necessary gravity and even sacredness of the church. (For more discussion of the whole area of purity and morality see the forthcoming Lost World of the Conquest and Old Testament Theology for Christians.)

Who would you say is the most underrated character in the Bible? Is there anyone that you wish got more credit in modern Christianity?

The most underrated character in the Bible is God, and he is the central character of the Bible. We have grown too accustomed to talk about the heroes of the Old Testament. There is one hero in the Old Testament: God. We underrate him because we seem to think that we can stand in judgment of him, second-guess him, hold him accountable to our standards, and customize him to our satisfaction. We further underrate character—that is, the character that is expected of God’s people who are to shape their identity as those who are partners with God, participating in his plans and purposes. We are not simply God’s people based on our eventual destination and the benefits that we enjoy because of the work of Christ. Being God’s people gives us responsibilities that pertain, among other things, to our character as God’s people.