There’s a reason I’ve been writing this week about word studies. Because covenant is the topic I’m researching this summer, I’m using a word study as one of my tools.
In Hebrew, the word for “covenant” is b’rit. I need to do some more work in the theological dictionaries to look for nuances, but the basic definition of b’rit is “covenant, agreement.”
Running a search on b’rit in the Hebrew Bible reveals 264 references. If I want to do a proper job on my word study I will need to translate all of these verses (whew), but just looking at the list in English is enough to teach me some new things and uncover some questions:
A man who had escaped came and reported this to Abram the Hebrew. Now Abram was living near the great trees of Mamre the Amorite, a brother of Eshkol and Aner, all of whom were allied with Abram. (Genesis 14:13 NIV)
Here’s an example where b’rit is translated using an entirely different word, and also an example of a covenant between several human people, not one between a person or people and God. Both of those things tell me something about covenants in the ancient world.
I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. (Genesis 17:7 NIV)
Why in this instance is the covenant specified as “everlasting?” Did most covenants have a time limit?
This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. (Genesis 17:10-11 NIV)
Was it normal for covenants to be marked with signs? Is this an ordinary type of sign, or a weird one?
So Abraham brought sheep and cattle and gave them to Abimelek, and the two men made a treaty. (Genesis 21:27 NIV)
Once again we have a covenant between two human people, using a different word to translate covenant. Also some new details about the process involved in creating this covenant between the two men -- a gift of livestock was involved.
They answered, "We saw clearly that the LORD was with you; so we said, 'There ought to be a sworn agreement between us'-- between us and you. Let us make a treaty with you that you will do us no harm, just as we did not harm you but always treated you well and sent you away peacefully. And now you are blessed by the LORD." (Genesis 26:28-29 NIV)
In this instance the covenant is compared to a “sworn agreement,” which gives yet further information about what a covenant was and how it was put in place.
Friends, I’ve only reached the end of Genesis! Clearly this word-study business is going to give me plenty of new questions to answer.
I’ll write about what I find as I go, but first I’ve got some translating to do. Hebrew grammar, here I come!