Covenant (!)

By Charles H. Welch

Israel are associated with a covenant, old and new. Believing Gentiles during the Acts were blessed with faithful Abraham, but by nature and in the flesh the Gentiles were strangers from the covenant of promise, and in the teaching of the Prison Epistles, no covenant of any description is known. The English word ‘covenant’ obviously means ‘to come together’, and is derived from the Latin con ‘with’, venio ‘to come’, and is cognate with such words as ‘convention’ and ‘convenient’ where the basic idea of ‘coming together’ either of persons, or the fitness and aptness of circumstances underlies the meaning and usage of such words. A testament differs from a covenant, in that there is no necessary agreement between the person who makes his will and the legatee, who may be unconscious of the contents of the will. A testament has no force while the testator lives. It can only come into operation after the death of the testator. The word ‘testament’ does not occur in the writings of ‘The Law, the Prophets and the Psalms’ commonly called ‘The Old Testament’. The word thus translated is the Greek diatheke, a word employed by the LXX to translate the Hebrew berith ‘covenant’.

Before we discuss the principle that must guide us when we come to the translation of diatheke, let us go back to the Hebrew of the Old Testament and consider the meaning of the word there employed. The Hebrew word ‘covenant’ is berith, and this word refers to something that has been ‘cut’. So important is this conception of ‘cutting’ that in most cases where we read ‘made a covenant’ the Hebrew karath, another word meaning ‘to cut’ is used - so literally ‘to make a covenant’ is ‘to cut a cutting’ - but this thus baldly stated makes no sense. Let us attempt an illustration borrowed from our own language. The word ‘indent’ means ‘to notch with teeth’ yet an ‘indenture’ means in law ‘a deed under a seal, entered into between two parties’ and so very similar to a covenant. Now, when we read the term ‘to indenture an apprentice’ we do not understand that anyone was supposed to have ‘bit’ the young fellow, the ‘indentures’ refer to the zig-zag cutting that was made across the deed, so that they would tally one with another.

‘Whose tempers, inclinations, sense and wit,
Like two indentures did agree so fit’ (Butler).

Here then is a parallel:

To covenant in the Hebrew is ‘to cut’. To execute a deed or compact in the English is ‘to notch with teeth’. This so far is useful in that it suggests that a custom or practice lies behind the peculiar use of the words ‘to cut a cutting’. In the Hebrew, the covenant or the berith was confirmed by sacrifice and a reference to Jeremiah 34:18,19 will show what lies behind the choice of this expression. We learn that Zedekiah the king had made a covenant with all the people which were at Jerusalem, to proclaim liberty unto them, but afterwards the king and the people turned and caused the servants who had been set free to become bond slaves again (Jer. 34:8-11). To these men who had thus violated their covenant, Jeremiah addressed these words:

‘And I will give the men that have transgressed My covenant, which have not performed the words of the covenant which they had made before Me, WHEN THEY CUT THE CALF IN TWAIN, and passed between the parts (through the pieces) thereof’ (Jer. 34:18).

By means of this strange ceremony the contracting parties seem to say:

‘The Lord do so to me and more also, if I keep not my promise’.

Psalm 50:5 speaks of the saints who have made a covenant upon sacrifice, and the earliest example of this custom is found in Genesis 15, where Abraham took the sacrificial animals, ‘divided them in the midst, and laid each piece one against the other’, and when the covenant was being made ‘a smoking furnace and a burning lamp’ passed between these pieces. The meticulous care with which Abraham ‘laid each piece one against the other’ closely resembles the ‘tally’ or ‘the indenture’, especially when we realize that the word ‘against’, the Hebrew qara literally means ‘to meet’ as it is so translated in Genesis 14:17. Turning to the New Testament we find that the word that is used to speak of the covenant made by God is the word diatheke, a word which means ‘to appoint’ and which contains no idea in its composition of ‘agreement’. Now if we are justified in building our doctrine on the etymology of the Greek words employed, we shall have to agree with Janius and Parkhurst, that it indicates: ‘A disposition, institution, appointment, and signifies neither a testament, nor a covenant, nor an agreement, but as the word simply requires, a disposition or institution of God’. Parkhurst says that the word ‘dispensation’ conveys the idea of diatheke, and continues:

‘I am well aware that our translators have rendered the word diatheke by covenant, and a very erroneous and dangerous opinion has been built on the exposition, as if polluted, guilty man could covenant or contract with God for his salvation’.

Now we are fully in sympathy with the impossibility of man being able to covenant or contract with God for his salvation, but that must not be allowed to blind our eyes to other equally obvious features.

First, let us consider the question of etymology. There is no doubt that diatheke is composed of elements that mean ‘to dispose’ or ‘to appoint’, just as there is no doubt but that the word ‘indenture’ means ‘to notch with teeth’ words that can be spoken of a saw. Secondly, there is no doubt but that the word diatheke was used in the Greek of the Greeks to refer to a ‘will and testament’ whereby property was bequeathed, but we must remember that the language of inspiration at the beginning was Hebrew, and that when the time came to translate the Hebrew into Greek, the Septuagint translators had no option but to take the extant Greek words and use them for their new and sacred purpose. So, although diatheke, when used of ‘a man’s covenant’ and ‘speaking after the manner of men’ retains its pagan meaning as it does when introduced by Paul into Galatians 3:15, the overwhelming evidence is that diatheke must be looked upon as the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew berith, and that we must ignore the etymology of the word, remembering its usage. Before we allow the appeal of Parkhurst, namely, that no polluted or guilty man can enter into a covenant with God, to sway us, we must remember that the covenants of the Old Testament are either covenants of obligation, in which the contracting parties agree to observe certain terms, or covenants of promise, in which no such agreement is entered.

When Israel stood before Mount Sinai, and said, ‘all that the LORD hath spoken we will do’ (Exod. 19:8), we read that Moses ‘returned the words of the people unto the LORD’. Consequent upon this agreement, the ten commandments were given, and became the covenant which Israel miserably ‘broke’. This covenant, they received at the hands of a mediator, and that mediator was Moses. Whenever man has entered into any agreement or covenant of this character disaster has inevitably followed. When Noah and his family stepped out of the ark to make a new world and a fresh start, the Lord made a covenant with them that ensured the recurrence of day and.COVENANT 103 night, seed time and harvest, summer and winter, cold and heat. No undertaking was entered by the family of Noah, for the Lord knew, before they had time to make it manifest, that the imaginations of man’s heart are evil from his youth. Here in Genesis 8:21,22 we have an example of a covenant of promise (Gen. 9:9-17), and the covenant has remained inviolable to this day.

Similarly, when the Lord made the covenant with Abraham that is detailed in Genesis 15, Abraham instead of walking between the pieces, and so becoming one of two contracting parties, was put into a ‘deep sleep’. Consequently the covenant with Abraham is called a covenant of promise, which the covenant and obligation given 430 years after could not disannul. The Mediator of the covenants of promise is Christ, and He faileth not:

‘He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ’ (Gal. 3:16).

Titus 1:2 says that the eternal life was ‘promised before the world began’. 2 Timothy 1:9 says that the believer was called according to the Lord’s own purpose and grace ‘which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began’. Ephesians 1:4 says that such were ‘chosen IN HIM before the foundation of the world’. Here are covenants, agreements, promises, but they were not made with or to us, they were all made in and with Christ. So, when we examine 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 we see that everything turns on two mediators - Moses and Christ. How thankful should we not be, to think that so far as the Church of the one Body is concerned there are no contractual agreements, no covenants, no testaments, that involve the believer, he finds all in his completeness in Christ.

We must now turn our attention to the employment of the words ‘testament’ and ‘testator’ in Hebrews 9:16,17. In Hebrews 9:16,17 we read in the A.V.: ‘For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is of force after men are dead; otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth’. This is not only a bad and a biassed translation, it is futile, for what congruity is there in the figure of a person who makes his last will and testament, bringing confusion to his heirs, by rising again from the dead? It is entirely unscriptural to speak of Christ as a Testator, upon Whose death His last will and testament becomes effective, and it is entirely inconsistent with the context of Hebrews 9, for the following verse attaches this reference to a ‘testator’, with the action of Moses when he dedicated the first ‘covenant’ with blood, as a reference to Exodus 24:6 will show.

The following is adapted from Dr. Bullinger’s Greek Lexicon, under the heading, ‘Testator’.

Gar for, hopou where, diatheke a covenant (is), thanaton a death, anagke necessary, pheresthai, to be brought in, tou of him, diathemenon that makes the covenant, gar for, diatheke a covenant, epi over, nekrois dead ones, or victims (is) bebaia sure, epei since, mepote at no time, ischuei has it force, hote when, ze he is living, ho the one who is, diathemenos making the covenant. Thus all is clear when we remember that He Who makes the covenant of which the apostle speaks, is Himself the victim, and hence must of necessity die’.

MacKnight’s paraphrase reads:

‘For to show the propriety of Christ’s dying to ratify the new covenant, I observe that where a covenant is made by sacrifice, there is a necessity that the death of the appointed sacrifice be produced. For according to the practice both of God and man, a covenant is made firm over dead sacrifices; seeing it never hath force whilst the goat, calf or bullock, appointed as the sacrifice of ratification liveth’.

The introduction of the figure of will making into Hebrews is entirely beside the apostle’s argument, the nature of the subject, and the character of the Hebrews themselves. It would take us too far afield at this point to make a digression, and show that the epistle to the Galatians was written at the same time as the epistle to the Hebrews, and was indeed the covering letter for that epistle to the Hebrews which does not, consequently, bear the apostle’s name. Where the apostle speaks of a man’s ‘will’ is in Galatians 3, a figure which he introduces with the formula: ‘I speak after the manner of men’, and there he plainly declares that he speaks of ‘a man’s covenant’ which here, alone of all the occurrences of the word diatheke, demands the translation ‘testament’. This word ‘testament’ is used in the A.V of Hebrews on six occasions, and ‘covenant’ on eleven occasions, but without consistency. What justification is there to translate Hebrews 7:22:

‘By so much was Jesus made a surety of a better testament

and on the very next occasion to render the passage:

‘By how much also He is the Mediator of a better covenant?’ (Heb. 8:6).

Or again, what warrant is there for translating Hebrews 9:15, ‘new testament’, when the passage refers most surely to the ‘new covenant’ of Hebrews 8:8? In every passage whether in Matthew 26:28, 2 Corinthians 3:6 and 14, the seventeen occurrences in Hebrews, or the remaining occurrences of diatheke, in every passage with the one exception already noted in Galatians 3:15, diatheke must be rendered consistently ‘covenant’. To attempt to make the Hebrew berith or the Greek diatheke bear the meaning of a will whereby one may dispose of property after death, introduces man’s ideas to the confusion of the reader and the contradiction of revealed truth. We must reject the etymology of Greek words, as the basis of our doctrine, for such a basis is untrustworthy. We must ignore the composition of the word diatheke, and, in its place put the usage of the word as found in the Septuagint. It then becomes synonymous with the Hebrew berith, and means a covenant. It may not be possible for us to avoid the use of the terms Old Testament and New Testament as titles of the two great sections of the Bible, but we must remember that they are accommodations only.

The relationship of the Lord’s Supper with the new covenant is considered in the article entitled LORD’S SUPPER.

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