A Covenant People: Old Testament Light on Modern Covenants

In the Book of Mormon, several specific episodes involve covenant-making. For example, Alma the Elder’s converts make covenants when they are baptized at the Waters of Mormon. The title page of the Book of Mormon states that one of its functions is to teach modern Israel to “know the covenants of the Lord.”

Latter-day Saints feel strongly about being a covenant and covenant-making people. Part of Joseph Smith’s mission was that an “everlasting covenant might be established” (D&C 1:22). Part of the Book of Mormon’s mission is to unite the covenant people of the Old World and covenant people of the New World through a covenant people of the latter days. 1 Nephi says one reason his record quotes Isaiah at such length is to tell his readers about the covenants that are to be fulfilled in the last days (see 2 Ne. 6:12–13). Thus the “marvelous work” of the last days was specifically undertaken “that I [the Lord] may remember my covenants” and “recover my people” (2 Ne. 29:1).

The Book of Mormon is an inspired text that tells us about our covenant relationship to God and our responsibilities resulting from these covenants. Latter-day scriptures perform exactly the same function. In fact, covenant concepts are so important that covenants makes half the title of the Doctrine and Covenants. And since our modern covenants and covenant texts are so important, it is exciting to see the greater clarity and meaning they receive when we look at the function of covenants and covenant-making in ancient Israel.

Covenants in Ancient Israel

Yada. Ancient Israel claimed a divine relationship identified as a covenant between the people and God. This covenant relationship, making Israel separate from her neighbors, demanded that ancient Israelites have yada for their God, as he had for them. The Hebrew verb yada (or da’ath) is usually translated “to know” or “to be acquainted with.” But the covenant context adds both a mental and an emotional act. In Genesis 4:1, “Adam yada Eve” (King James: “Adam knew Eve his wife”); that is, in their covenant relationship they had mutual obligations and mutual concerns [Gen. 4:1]. Adam acted out of concern, inner engagement, dedication, and affection for Eve. The relationship summed up as yada was more than just physical.

And the Old Testament is filled with examples. Yada describes the covenant relationship of mutual obligation and concern between God and Israel, his people. 2 The prophet Hosea clearly condemned Israel when he said: “My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge [yada]” (Hosea 4:6). Hosea was not just suggesting that Israel had lost a knowledge of her God, but that they had ceased to identify with God’s causes and purposes. Israel had lost her ability to understand the great purposes the covenant relationship had been established to convey.

Covenants and treaties. The language of the Old Testament (mostly Hebrew) uses berith for both a civil treaty between political states and for the religious covenant between Israel and her God. Thus, studying the forms of ancient treaties has given Bible students insight into the form of ancient covenants as well. Following the studies of George Mendenhall, scholars have discovered that Hittite and Egyptian treaties follow a certain pattern. 3

An ancient treaty usually contained the following major parts: (1) The preamble. Since most of these treaties were between a king and a vassal (usually a group defeated in battle), the preamble spelled out the power relationship. Since the major power or conqueror spelled out this relationship, the preamble identified this personage and often gave his titles, attributes, and genealogy.

(2) The historical prologue. This section told the history of the two parties from the point of view of their new relationship, not to “rub in” the vassal’s weakness but to base their relationship on their history, not on force. Thus, this section attempted to create a sense of obligation on the vassal’s part. Here the sovereign recalled his great acts of protection and caring for the vassal in times past.

(3) The stipulations. This section spelled out the vassal’s essential obligations. The chief obligation was loyalty; that is, the vassal was to have no independent foreign connections or policy and no other sovereign or lords. As the chief threats to this loyalty would come in times of war and opposition (physical, economic, and moral), the vassal was forewarned to avoid these temptations. Most treaty stipulations contained either conditional clauses (“if … then”) or unconditional requirements (“thou shalt not”).

(4) Provisions for depositing the text and for public reading. This section required the contract’s public reading at regular intervals, usually at annual festivals or holy days. The text itself was to be placed in the central and sacred shrines of the vassal state. Often a special marker inscribed with the treaty was set up.

(5) Witnesses to the treaty. The god or gods of both the vassal and the major power were listed; nature could also be called upon (stones, rivers, mountains, valleys).

(6) Blessings and curses. This section recounted the blessings of protection, prosperity, and happiness the vassal would receive if he were loyal and true, and the curses if he were disloyal—usually a threat to totally destroy the offender and all he had.

(7) Ratification ceremonies. Ancient treaty-making ceremonies were usually climaxed or “sealed” by special ceremonies such as eating a meal together, sharing a drink from a common cup, using blood or salt symbolically or actually, giving the vassal a new name, or slaughtering an animal representing the vassal and cutting the carcass in pieces. Hence, karat berith or “to cut a treaty,” appears as a common phrase in ancient texts. The Old Testament reveals many parallels to treaty patterns. (See the basic structure of Deuteronomy, Josh. 24 and 1 Sam. 12.) Abraham cuts sacrifices apart, possibly a foreshadowing of circumcision as a ratification rite, and the Lord accuses Israel of transgressing a “covenant … made before me, when they cut the calf in twain” (see Gen. 15:7–12, 17–18; Jer. 34:17–19). Other treaty/covenant elements found in the Old Testament include blood, salt, giving new names as part of covenant-making, and setting up stone pillars as witnesses of the covenant. (See Ex. 24:3–8; Lev. 2:13; Gen. 17:5; Gen. 32:27–28; Deut. 28:10; Gen. 31:44–45; Josh. 24:27; Deut. 27:2–3.) In all of this these people used the treaty language, structure, and concepts to express their relationship to God.

The covenant lawsuit. Understanding Old Testament covenants as forms of treaties illuminates much of the prophetic literature. The prophets warn the people of the curses their disobedience will bring because they have violated the terms of the covenant. Some students of the Bible have suggested that the prophets are the Lord’s covenant “lawyers” who call Israel to account in a covenant lawsuit (rib), which has its own formal structure and occurs frequently enough in the Old Testament to reaffirm the covenant relationship’s importance throughout Israel’s history. 4

Functions of the covenant. From the beginning of the earth’s history, covenants have united individuals to God and to each other. From Abraham’s time, divinely revealed covenants united a family, then diverse tribes, and finally a nation, providing channels so that individuals could yada their true God, thus learning who and whose they were.

By entering into covenant relationships, we may give our loyalty to someone greater than ourselves and prove ourselves through our subsequent choices. Covenant relationships thus open new possibilities and relationships. Covenant-making ceremonies in ancient Israel dramatically brought the congregation to a point where they had to choose between one of two ways, thereby making decision and commitment and pledging loyalty. After this ceremony, there could be no excuse for disloyalty. (See Deut. 30:15–20; 1 Kgs. 18:21; Josh. 24:14–15.) This positive commitment gave Israel an inner strength and vitality that, barring apostasy, could have sustained her throughout time.

Covenants in the New Testament

The New Testament explains the new covenant made possible by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ within the framework of the old. In the New Testament, the Greek word for covenant is diatheke and conveys the same meaning as berith. The Last Supper and the establishment of the sacrament became the symbols of the new covenant; but the form, structure, and function of ancient covenants remain intact. Clearly the sacrament is a ceremony that renews oaths of loyalty, obligation, and concern. It reviews commitments, involves eating and drinking together, and is a time of “cutting” (literally “breaking”) bread. It is a time to yada our God, a relationship made possible by the loving sacrifice of the Savior.

Covenants in Modern Israel

Covenants in the Book of Mormon. I have been impressed that the Lord told Joseph Smith in the First Vision that the restoration was needed because men’s hearts were “far from me” (JS—H 1:19). In other words, the world lacked yada and one of Joseph Smith’s main responsibilities would be to again make it possible for man to know God through covenant relationships. The Prophet’s first assignment was to translate an ancient covenant text, the Book of Mormon, which proclaims on its title page that one of its major functions is to teach modern Israel to “know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever.” Nephi quotes Isaiah because “my soul delighteth in the covenants of the Lord” (2 Ne. 11:5). He and other prophets remind their people that they are of the house of Israel, that they reside in a land given them by covenant, and that they are under obligation to keep the covenant or be cursed.

Several specific episodes involve covenant-making. Alma the Elder’s converts make covenants when they are baptized at the Waters of Mormon (see Mosiah 18); General Moroni puts his army under covenant to protect their freedoms as “a remnant of the seed of Jacob [Israel]” (see Alma 46:22); the resurrected Lord explains how the old covenants in the Law of Moses have been replaced by his new covenants (see 3 Ne. 12; 3 Ne. 15).

King Benjamin’s speech to his people and their pledge to be obedient to the Lord sounds very like many of ancient Israel’s holy days, when covenant texts were read to the congregation, who responded by making or renewing covenants (see Mosiah 3–6). Both religiously and politically, the people were drawn closer together by such ceremonies. 5

And as Moroni closes the Nephi record, in Isaiah’s words he challenges us, the Gentile readers of the last day, to “awake, and arise from the dust … that the covenants of the Eternal Father which he hath made unto thee, O house of Israel, may be fulfilled” (Moro. 10:31).

Covenants in the Doctrine and Covenants. This volume of modern scripture was printed with the title we know it by in 1835, its very name suggesting the importance of covenants. The first section, known as the Lord’s preface and addressed to those who will read the whole volume, tells us that he spoke to Joseph Smith so “that mine everlasting covenant might be established.” He explained that this covenant was necessary before that “which was written by the prophets” could be fulfilled (D&C 1:18, 22). In some important ways, then, this first section fulfills the function of preamble and historical prologue of a treaty-covenant in ancient Israel.

In the sections that follow, the words covenant or covenants appear over seventy-five times. An important place is the sacramental prayers, brief covenants meant to be repeated as the “church meet[s] together often” in worship settings (D&C 20:75). As the Lord restores the oath and covenant of the priesthood, he repeats how this priesthood was transmitted from Adam through the patriarchs to Moses and Aaron and then affirms that “the Father teacheth him [every man who is obedient to the Spirit] of the covenant which he has renewed and confirmed upon you” (D&C 84:48). The revelations throughout the Doctrine and Covenants teach that one of the major functions of the priesthood is to administer covenant ceremonies so that all of God’s children who will hearken to the restored gospel can have a covenant relationship with their Savior and Father.

Accountability has always been a key factor in covenant-making, and as we have seen, is an important part of the ancient treaty-covenants. The Doctrine and Covenants not only specifies the age of eight as the precise age at which one becomes accountable, but it consistently instructs those under covenant that “every steward” must “render an account of his stewardship, both in time and in eternity” (D&C 68:25–28; D&C 72:3).

The Doctrine and Covenants also records the new and everlasting covenant of marriage, explains the role of the Holy Spirit in ratifying covenants, and reminds us that part of abiding “in my covenant, even unto death” is to turn “the hearts of the Jews unto the prophets, and the prophets unto the Jews” (D&C 131:1–4; D&C 132:7; D&C 98:14–17).

Covenants and the individual. Our moral and ethical commitments are intensely personal. Naturally we would expect these kinds of covenants to find expression in our most sacred acts of worship—the ceremonies of the sacrament and the temple. In both cases, covenant-making ceremonies function as they did in ancient Israel. In the sacrament service, the actual content of the covenant (baptism) is assumed and the sacrament itself is a renewal ceremony.

Obviously, the act of partaking of the broken bread and water fulfill the requirements of a covenant ratification. And the bread, broken as part of the service, equally obviously suggests the “cutting” or dismembering of the sacrificial animal that is also part of the treaty-covenant ceremony.

While the content of the temple covenants is sacred knowledge reserved for the covenant-makers, those covenants are clearly linked with the covenants of ancient Israel in both their subjects and their form. Some of the more obvious elements are the sacred space in which the Saints worship, the covenant acts, and the deposit of covenant texts within the temple. Like ancient Israel, modern Israel comes to make these covenants in groups, and the commitments thus made turn the individual towards a life of service and love in the larger group. Just as the temples are “central places” in many of the communities where they are constructed, the covenants made there are central places in our individual and group spiritual lives. By providing a common standard and common goals, these covenants have the potential to make modern Israel of “one heart and with one mind” (D&C 45:65).

How Covenants Teach

Modern covenants, like ancient ones, remind us of God’s love. They provide a relationship based on something besides force and power. They provide us the opportunity to yada our God through the life of Jesus Christ. That is why the free and loving gift of the Savior’s atonement lies at the heart of our covenant relationship.

But there are other important lessons to be learned by covenant making. The giving and taking of new names is part of covenant making, as we have seen. King Benjamin gave his people a “name that shall never be blotted out, except it be through transgression” (Mosiah 1:12). As part of the sacrament ritual we take upon us the name of Christ and our temple worship also follows this pattern. Names not only symbolize new relationships between the givers and receivers, but provide new examples for us to emulate.

In short, covenants are channels through which we can all assume a new identity and a new relationship to our Lord. Every person born into the world is a child of God. By making covenants, we can become the sons and daughters of Christ, a conscious and purposeful separation from the fallen world around us, a transition from being a natural person to being a spiritual person, and an incorporation into the community of the righteous.

On one level, covenants are the mortar in the household of God, pulling the Saints together by giving us common goals and uniting us in common fellowship with both the living and the dead. Covenant relationships have been an essential part, not only of our religious history, but of our economic and political history as well, in this last dispensation. Without understanding the centrality of covenant making, it may well be impossible to understand Latter-day Saint history.

But on a more intimate level, covenants are the core of our personal development. Elder John A. Widtsoe of the Quorum of the Twelve suggested years ago that a covenant was “a promise to give life to knowledge.” 6 Thus the essential function of a covenant is to give us new knowledge of God and to establish a relationship with him that will let us enjoy a fullness of joy and blessings.

Covenants relate us to the universe, calling us to repentance by reminding us of our eternal potential and eternal obligations. They provide comfort and security in a painful world of doubt and suffering. They bind us to meet the needs of others through love, service, obedience, and loyalty—and insure that our own needs will be met in the same community.

But above all, covenants give us someone to emulate, for by focusing our attentions and our intentions on Christ, covenants draw us to him in righteousness. As righteous individuals, families, and communities, we can truly rejoice in the Lord’s words:

“Verily I say unto you, blessed are you for receiving mine everlasting covenant, even the fulness of my gospel, sent forth unto the children of men, that they might have life and be made partakers of the glories which are to be revealed in the last days, as it was written by the prophets and apostles in the days of old” (D&C 66:2).

[illustration] Detail from Cain and Abel Offering Their Sacrifices, by Gustave Dore.

[illustration] Detail from Baruch Writing Jeremiah’s Prophecies, by Gustave Dore.

[illustration] Detail from The Last Supper, by Gustave Dore.

[illustration] Detail from Alma Baptizes in the Waters of Mormon, by Arnold Friberg.

David J. Whittaker, an instructor in Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University, is a Sunday School teacher in his Provo, Utah, ward.

Show References


  1.   1.

    For a more complete examination of this topic with extended references see Whittaker, “A Covenant People” in The Seventh Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium, January 27, 1979 (Provo, Utah: BYU Press for the Church Educational System, 1979), pp. 196–216.

  2.   2.

    See Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, 2 vols. (New York: Harper and Row, 1969), 1:57–60.

  3.   3.

    See George E. Mendenhall, “Covenant Forms in Israelite Tradition,” in The Biblical Archaeological Reader, Edward F. Campbell, Jr., and David Noel Freedman, eds. (New York: Doubleday, 1970), 3:25–53; and Delbert R. Hillers, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969).

  4.   4.

    See Bernard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975), pp. 317–318. For examples of the covenant “lawsuit” see Micah 6:1–8; Jer. 2:4–13; Hosea 4:lff; Deut. 32; and Isa. 1:2–3, 18–20; Isa. 3:15–18; Isa. 49.

  5.   5.

    See Hugh Nibley, “Old World Ritual in the New World,” in his An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1964), pp. 243–56.

  6.   6.

    “Temple Worship,” Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine, 12 (Apr. 1921): 61.