Troublesome Topic: What is a Covenant?

Lesson 2 of 10

An ancient covenant was a carefully defined relationship that brought life or death. This was true because, upon entering into a covenant relationship, the parties swore upon themselves a self-imposed death curse should they violate that covenant.

A covenant has been called a union made in blood because it was often inaugurated with animal sacrifices showing that the same could happen to the one who violated the covenant conditions.

The use of blood to inaugurate covenants may have originated with the original covenant between God and Adam and Eve which did not start with the shedding of blood but ended with the shedding of blood.

The First Covenantal Relationship

God’s relationship with Adam and Eve was a covenant because it had this primary characteristic of bringing either life or death.

Genesis 2:17


but of the tree

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of the knowledge

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of good

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and evil

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you shall not eat,

for in the day you eat from it, in dying you will die.

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but you should not eat from the source of wisdom that gives discernment about what will bring about pleasing  results and what will bring about unpleasant results, for on the very day you eat of it you will definitely suffer separation; there will be no escaping it, no alternatives, no “ifs, ands or buts.”

Normal relationships don’t have the constant threat of death hanging over them (unless you are connected to the mafia, or a drug cartel).

If you are still wondering if indeed God’s relationship with Adam and Eve was a covenant relationship, Hosea 6:7 should settle the matter for you; speaking of Israel God said:

Hosea 6:7


but they, like Adam, went beyond

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the covenant.


but they acted like the first covenant-breaker, they invalidated the covenant by acting outside of its parameters.

A Covenant Is Not a Contract

A contract is a serious agreement; in fact, it is legally recognized. But there is no self-imposed death curse that accompanies the signing of a contract.

The word covenant is sometimes used in contractual agreements related to the purchase or use of property. However, there is no self-imposed death curse that accompanies the purchase of that property.

Sometimes church membership is described as a covenants. But I don’t know of any church membership ceremony that involves a self-imposed death curse.

I once saw a bank that used the word covenant to describe its relationship with its accountholders. I didn’t go inside to ask, but I doubt there was a self-imposed death curse included in the paperwork for opening an account.

A covenant is not an agreement; it is a relationship, a relationship of the most serious kind.

What about Marriage?

Marriage is depicted in Scripture as a covenantal relationship. That tells us how seriously God wants us to take marriage. Marriage is more than a contract.

As you probably remember, the marriage ceremony does include something about “till death do us part.” Although there is no self-imposed death curse, it is indeed a commitment until death.

Divorce is a separation, and in Scripture, separation is death. Does a divorce cause spiritual death? No. Does spiritual death cause divorce? Ah, now we’re getting closer.

 Divorce is usually a symptom, found in one or both spouses, of a spiritual disease called “I want it my way” and that disease will cause separation from God which is spiritual death. Therefore the word covenant does apply to marriage, although in a limited way.

A Covenant Is Not a Promise

Another common misconception, due to what we have been conditioned to think, is that the word “covenant” is equivalent to the word “promise.” However, in modern culture there is no self-imposed death-curse associated with making a promise. Although covenant included a pledge, it was much more than a pledge; it was an ongoing relationship. (I will return to the issue of promises later.)

Who Sets the Limits?

Another characteristic of a covenant is that, if there is a lesser and a greater, the greater one, the sovereign entity, determines the conditions of that covenant. The one that is the lesser can only choose to say yes, and obey, or say no, and rebel.

Did Adam and Eve participate in setting the limits to the first covenant relationship? Did they vote on it? No. God alone determined what the limitation would be. This is the way covenants work.

God Has This Authority Because He Is the Creator

The Genesis account does not tie the one limitation God placed on Adam directly to Him being the Creator. However, the statements about this tree start in Gen 2:9 and the prohibition comes in Gen 2:16-17. By placing the prohibition within the creation narrative, the intended connection is absolutely clear. The reason God was able to give such a command was that He is the Creator. The first reason we should see God as sovereign is that He is the creator of the universe.

Thus the creation/evolution debate is a crucial one. Evolution seeks to eliminate the Creator. If a creator can be erased from human history there is no basis for morality, spirituality or even social responsibility. Without a creator there is no covenant relationship, and without a covenant there are no conditions that limit our behavior.


Have I been trying to establish the limits or boundaries of my relationship with God?

Have I been living my own version of the Christian life instead of seeking to understand God’s version of it?

Am I willing to repent of these things and change the way I look at my relationship with God?

Think of (and discuss with your group if you are with others) times in your life that you have tried to set the parameters of your relationship with God rather than letting Him do that.

The next lesson in all three series on Covenants is The Curse



Was it an apple tree? NO! We can be confident that it was not any of the fruit trees we are familiar with. According to the writer of the Jewish blog, the myth of the apple got started because the Latin word for “evil” sounds similar to the word that Latin borrowed from Greek meaning “apple.”


The word I have rendered as “knowledge,” means “knowledge” and also “wisdom.” It is often used in the proverbs for wisdom, although it is not the only word for “wise or wisdom” used in Proverbs. This word focuses on the knowledge needed to make good choices, whereas the other word for wisdom focuses on the act of choosing well between the choices available. One is the knowledge necessary to make a good choice, but you have to want to make the right choice; the other one is a demonstration of that desire by having made the right choice. The word “discernment” can be used of each of them and is thus the point where the two words overlap.


The word “good” is the most commonly used Hebrew word for “good.” It is usually not moral in connotation, but it can be moral goodness depending on the context. The word means “pleasant, pleasing, agreeable, favorable, advantageous, and right.” God is calling this choice of action good because it will bring pleasing and favorable results, not just “because I said so.”


The Hebrew word I have translated as “evil” means “disagreeable, unpleasant, unhappy, evil, and malignant.” It is more often used of moral issues than is the word for “good.” Once again the emphasis is on the consequences of the action.

5: “In dying you will die”

For emphasis the author uses two forms of the word “die” back to back, just like he did with the word “in eating you will eat” in the previous verse. The Hebrew text is beautiful in its balance and symmetry, but it is hard to render such phrases in English without using a long and cumbersome explanatory clause, which I have done in my paraphrase. It is a struggle to know how to convey the power of the Hebrew phrase without sounding ridiculous in English. In my paraphrase column I have shown what I think is the true intent of this emphatic phrase, while I admit that it is cumbersome.

Notice that this command was given to Adam before Eve was separated from him. It was his responsibility to communicate it properly to her later.


“went beyond” carries with it a sense of movement and usually means things like, “to pass, to go beyond, to cross over.” It can also mean “to invalidate by going beyond or crossing over a barrier, e.g. a law or covenantal condition.”