“Covenant” is in the air again. The concept had enormous popularity in the early and mid-twentieth century,1 when it was hailed as the key to biblical theology. But its popularity among modern thinkers waned as biblical theologians abandoned their attempt to find the one central principle of the Bible and began to concentrate instead on discovering the multiplicity of biblical voices and their complexity. Now, however, the idea of “covenant” is reemerging as an important paradigm for our contemporary understanding of the intricate interrelationships between humanity, Israel, and God.
“Covenant” is a richer, more varied, and more complex idea in the Hebrew Bible than in later Judaism or Christianity. In Christianity, covenant was explicitly abandoned as “fulfilled” or mutated into the eschatological “new covenant,” somewhat foreseen by Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The old covenant, with its laws and conditions, was associated with the concept of “chosenness” or “election” and was dismissed as Jewish and Jewish alone. At the same time, the term “new covenant,” which in Jeremiah and Ezekiel meant nothing short of a change in human nature, became a term for Christian faith with no real separate referent. The biblical covenants did not fare much better under Judaism. The regulations of the Sinai of covenant evolved into the halakhah and remained as a core element of Judaism. But the Rabbis did not picture the halakhah and its commandments as a covenant. To them it was a “yoke” of submission to the commandments (ʿol mitzvot) or the “yoke of the Kingdom” (ʿol malkhut), submission to God. The idea of “covenant” receded and the very term brit, “covenant,” was limited in Mishnah and Talmud to brit milah, the covenant of circumcision.