It is quite easy to surmise that covenant (berit), which plays such a central role in scriptural revelation, is a form of the social contract so frequently discussed by modern thinkers. When first glancing at biblical covenants from a modern perspective, one could very well take the institution of covenant to be a precursor of modern ideas of social contract formulated in the political theories of philosophers from Hobbes to Rawls (and, perhaps, even earlier). Even now there are those who still use the two terms “contract” and “covenant” interchangeably.1 But this is a serious mistake if one takes the English term “covenant,” in its usual modern sense, to be a translation of the Hebrew term berit as it is used in Scripture.2 A covenant in its original Hebrew sense is much more than a merely primitive contract, and a contract is much less than a more highly developed covenant. Neither term can be reduced to the other without great conceptual confusion.
Contract and covenant designate two different types of social, political, and legal relationships. The confusion of covenant and contract arose in early modernity, and it has found its way into some Jewish political theory as well.3 Those who mistake a covenant for a contract inevitably overestimate the role of a social contract while simultaneously underestimating the role of the covenant, at least as far as Judaism is concerned. Here, though, we shall examine the original idea of covenant and see how it is
1 See Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 3:1070b. Even the great medieval commentator R. Abraham ibn Ezra in his Commentary on the Torah: Gen. 6:18, ed. Weiser, p. 38, defines berit as a general “agreement” (haskamah), basing this etymology on the word barah as in 1 Sam. 17:8. Nevertheless, one could interpret his definition of berit to mean that in Scripture, anyway, all agreements are covenantal, which is different than saying all covenants are mere agreements.
2 Some have questioned whether the term “covenant” itself is adequate to the Hebrew berit. See Roland de Vaux, The Early History of Israel, trans. D. Smith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978), 450–51. Nonetheless, I shall use the more religious connotation of “covenant,” carefully distinguishing it from the more secular connotation of “contract.”
3 The confusion of covenant and contract is even made by some traditionalist Jewish thinkers, who erroneously assume that one can contract with God as one can contract with a human equal. For a critique, see D. Novak, Jewish Social Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 33–36.