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A Crash Course in Covenant Cutting: The Types

asstasselCovenant is a Genre based on the concept that the Holy is actively involved in the affairs of Man, Holding Men to their oaths. Men call upon the gods to bless or curse them in keeping with promises made concerning general or specific expressions of loyalty to another.

To speak of genre is to speak of artistic form, artistic type. To speak of genre is to speak of systems of recognizable symbols, like words, acts, artifacts, or patterns of the same that represent the goals of a form… say, Wedding or funeral, special kinds of news report like gospel or birth announcements for them or sports, weather and human interest for us; There are special kinds of court edicts, specific types of worship songs, letters, laws, etc…

As with biblical worship songs, which have sub-categories like Lament, Thanksgiving, Praise, etc, Covenant too has sub-categories. All covenant is united around self-cursing and divine judgment, but there seem to have been covenants that have different levels and different kinds of expectation.

Now, whether the ancients had particular names for them or not, we are not certain, but we have recognized differences and sought to classify them, to categorize them.

We have discussed Suzerain-vassal treaties in past posts,[1] and chosen this as a starting point for convenience sake, since they appear to be the most elaborate covenants that we have encountered in ancient texts… but there are others.

Some covenants are about protection for travelers in which a household extends hospitality to a stranger, eating a unifying covenant meal, by which, for a short time, the guest is afforded complete protection. The guest cannot harm his hosts without divine curse and the host cannot permit harm to come to his guest, even at the cost of his own family. It is a sacred bond. Think Saul with the witch of Endor. (1 Samuel 28:21-25) Think Lot and the Angels. (Genesis 19:1ff)

Some covenants are about petition, whereby a person entreats another, by seizing onto the hem of their garment. The one who does the seizing is deemed to have come under the covering, under the protection of the one who was seized. The one whose garment is seized is expected to meet the request if it is within his power to do so. Think Ruth at Boaz’s feet. (Ruth 3:7-9) Think Samuel granting Saul an odious request that he has already denied. (1 Samuel 15:26-31)

Some covenants are about a peace accord between equal rivals. Lines may be drawn, friendship or brotherhood offered. Think Laban with Jacob, in Gen 31:44-54, “Come now, let us make a covenant, you and I. And let it be a witness between you and me… This heap is a witness… that I will not pass over this heap to you, and you will not pass over this heap and this pillar to me, to do harm…”

A more controversial covenant form is GRANT. Remember when I said previously that in a Suzerain-Vassal Treaty  the Suzerain is bound by unstated promises of hesed (i.e. covenant loyalties) which are translated “loving kindness” while the vassal is the one who actually ratifies the covenant by swearing to stipulations and making self-curses before the gods. Well, grant, is one form that hesed can take. It is a suzerain’s covenant response to faithfulness from a vassal. The suzerain, in a show of love and gratitude, gives something in perpetuity to the vassal. This might be a land grant, (Think Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis 15:1ff and David’s receiving of Ziklag in 1 Samuel 27:6), or a priest grant, (Think Phinehas in Numbers 25:12-13), or a dynasty grant (Think David in 2 Samuel 7:16). It is a grant, but what kind of grant would the Noahic covenant be? (Genesis 9:9-12)

The controversy regards the interconnection of grant to the suzerain-vassal treaty relationships from which they spring. Abraham’s covenant is pure land grant in Genesis 15:7-21, being sealed in ratification by YHWH, himself (Genesis 15:17-18) but is mingled with issues of obedience in Genesis 17:9-14, being given a sign (Circumcision), and anticipating that some of Abraham’s biological children will be cut out… though the covenant grant itself is as unbreakable as YHWH himself. It was Abraham’s response of faith in Genesis 15:1ff to promises of seed and reward (Reiterations of those in Genesis 12:1-3) that led to the Grant… does failure to express the faith of Abraham cut one off from participation? Conversely, does having the faith of Abraham lead to one’s inclusion? The seed of Abraham is not part of the covenant grant; the seed of Abraham is one of the grant recipients.

So, the Mosaic covenant is a suzerain-vassal treaty sworn and kept (or broken) by Israel, but the Abrahamic covenant, the Noahic Covenant, the Davidic Covenant and the Phinehas covenant are sworn and kept by YHWH without fail.

Now the big question: What kind of covenant is the New Covenant? Do Old Testament era categories work in this covenant? Are there stipulations? Is there grant? What is the exact role of Baptism? What is the exact role of Communion? How does the Baptism of the Holy Spirit play into things as a seal from God to our acceptable faith?



[1] “A Crash Course in Covenant Cutting: The Structures.”

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