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The covenants in the background to Paul’s letters – a summary

Before we look in detail at Paul’s use of the word “covenant”, it’s worth pausing briefly to review what we have learned about the use of the word “covenant” in the Old Testament, second-temple Jewish literature, and Greek sources. In particular, two important conclusions flow from our survey of the idea of “covenant” in the background to Paul’s thought.

Firstly, the concept of “covenant” takes many different shapes and sizes. While all covenants have the same basic nature (an elected, as opposed to natural, relationship of obligation under oath), there are various types of divine-human covenants in the documents we have examined:[1]

  1. a covenant between God and Abram (and his seed), to make him into a geopolitical nation (Gen 15).
  2. a related but distinct covenant between God and Abraham (and his seed), to bring about international blessing contingent upon his loyalty (Gen 17). This covenant involves the sign of circumcision (which seems to signify the restraint of the flesh), and is ratified by the sacrifice of his son.
  3. a covenant of law with Israel, related to the covenant of Genesis 17. If Israel is obedient to God, they will be a source of international blessing (e.g. Exod. 19). This covenant is broken by Israel as soon as it is received.
  4. a covenant of mediation between Moses and God, upon which the covenant with Israel becomes contingent (Exod 33-34).
  5. a related covenant of mediation between God and the Levitical priesthood (Num 25:11-13, Neh 13:28, Jer 33:21, Mal 2:4). This involved offering sacrifices and teaching the law. This is emphasised as a covenant of great glory in Sirach 45.
  6. the servant of Yahweh, who is “a covenant [for the] people” and (therefore) “a light [for the] nations” (Isa 42:6, 49:8).
  7. a covenant between God and redeemed Israel, that they will minister to the nations (Isa 59-61). This also appears to be the expectation of Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
  8. the single, overarching covenant of human obligation expounded in Jubilees.
  9. Philo’s allegorical interpretations of the covenants as “bequests”
  10. the unique sociological view expounded by the Qumran “Community of Those Entering the New Covenant”, in which concepts such as “community”, “entry” and boundary markers begin to make an appearance. This kind of view of the meaning of “covenant” is also often assumed by proponents of the New Perspective on Paul, even though it is the one that is farthest removed from the Old Testament.

The task of identifying any “covenantal” background to Paul’s thought must take this pluriformity into consideration. We cannot simply speak of “the covenant”, as if it is an easily identifiable, monolithic entity. We must understand which covenant (or covenants), if any, Paul is speaking about in any given passage. This observation, of course, also follows from the fact that Paul himself tends to speak of a plurality of covenants.

Secondly, there is no indication in these documents that blessing for the nations is contingent upon their “entering into” any of these covenants. The fulfillment of the covenants by Israel does, indeed, bring salvific blessing to the nations, but there is no requirement that they must be a party to any of the covenants. A salvific relationship with God, therefore, is a much broader concept than the narrower category of “covenant”.


[1] In addition to covenants that we have not examined: e.g. the covenant with David in Psalm 89.

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