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Covenants in Biblical Times
by George S. Tate
The idea of making and keeping covenants is essential to Latter-day Saints, who would readily agree "that the central message of the Bible is God's covenant with men" (Bruce, p. 139). The "covenant theme pervades Old Testament teachings" and all scripture (Ludlow). A consistent and enduring pattern in God's dealings with mankind from the beginning of the earth's history down to present time is that sacred covenants are used to unite individuals to God and to each other.
Bringing extrabiblical revelations to bear on their understanding of biblical covenants, Latter-day Saints consider the history of God's dealings with mankind to be arranged according to dispensations of the gospel, in which the gospel (including the priesthood and all the necessary ordinances) is bestowed by God upon man, and received by covenant. Each dispensation is presided over by priesthood leaders who hold keys entitling them to put people under covenantal obligations that are bound in heaven as well as on earth. Thus, Moses (Deut. 29:10-15), Joshua (Josh. 24:14-28), and Peter (Matt. 16:19) were among those having authority to act on behalf of God in making and renewing binding covenants between God and his people.
God's covenant relationship with mankind began with Adam and Eve. Texts in the Pearl of Great Price show that Adam and Eve were the first after the Fall to enter into a covenant relationship with Godthrough sacrifice, baptism (Moses 6:64-66), and receiving the priesthood and ordinances associated with the temple: "Thus all things were confirmed unto Adam, by an holy ordinance" (Moses 5:59; see also 4:4-5, 8, 10-12). Adam and Eve were promised a savior and were instructed to be obedient, to be repentant, and to do all things in the name of the Son of God (Moses 5:6-8).
Whereas the Bible first uses the term "covenant" in conjunction with Noah (Gen. 6:18; 9:9-17), its first use in other LDS scriptures is with Enoch (Moses 7:51; 8:2). Non-LDS Bible scholars (e.g., Fensham) usually arrange the principal biblical covenants into a fivefold sequence (Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the New Testament covenant), but Latter-day Saints follow a sequence of seven main dispensations (Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Christ and his apostles, and Joseph Smith), and recognize those also of the brother of Jared, Lehi, and Alma in Book of Mormon history. Where non-LDS scholars explore both connections and distinctions between the covenants mentioned in the Bible (e.g., the patriarchal covenant of Abraham continued even when the covenant at Sinai was broken), Latter-day Saints see general uniformity of the principal covenant occurrences, all of them reflecting the same underlying principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Central as they are to subsequent biblical references to covenants (e.g., Ex. 2:24; Luke 1:72-73; Acts 3:25; Gal. 3:13-14), the promises made explicit in the Abrahamic Covenant receive particular emphasis in LDS teachings (Ricks, 1985; Nyman). The book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price adds to the understanding of the promises to Abraham and Sarah. To the promises of a land of inheritance (Gen. 15:18; 17:8; cf. Abr. 2:6) and of innumerable posterity (Gen. 15:5; 17:2-6; cf. Abr. 2:9; 3:14), the book of Abraham adds priesthood blessings (Abr. 1:3-4, 18) and the promise that Abraham's seed will be the means whereby the gospel will be ministered throughout the earth so that all people might receive the gospel and obtain salvation (Abr. 2:10-11). Latter-day Saints believe that the power to give these ancient promises by way of covenant was reinstated on April 3, 1836, when Elijah, Elias, Moses, and other ancient prophets restored to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery the keys of "the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham, saying that in us and our seed all generations after us should be blessed" (D&C 110:12; 124:58; 132:30-31).
In biblical times, political and legal covenants were made in various ways. Religious covenants often drew upon these secular practices by way of analogy. For example, in the language of the Bible, one "cuts" a covenant, reminiscent of the legal procedure of cutting a small animal in a ceremony when solemnizing a contract or treaty (Gen. 15:10; Hillers, pp. 40-45).
The process of renewing covenants, individually and communally, was also an important part of religious life in biblical times. Just as individual Latter-day Saints "renew" their covenant of baptism by partaking of the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, so there are scriptural instances of communal rites of covenant renewal (e.g., Deut. 31:10-13; Josh. 1:16-18). Covenant renewals are also found in the Book of Mormon, where Near Eastern (especially Hittite) analogues are evident (Ricks, 1984, 1990).
Despite such renewals, it is clear that the old covenant, or Mosaic law, was to be replaced by a new one, as Jeremiah prophesied (Jer. 31:31). Latter-day Saints believe that this prophecy was fulfilled in the New Testament (or, more exactly, the New Covenant). Christ "is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises" (Heb. 8:6). The recurring symbol of renewal in the new covenant is the Sacrament, instituted at the Last Supper and centered in the commitment to remember Christ always, evoking the Passover imagery of the old covenant and the covenantal cry of the prophets to know God (Hosea 4:6).
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Bruce, F. F. "Bible." In The New Bible Dictionary, 2nd ed., ed. J. D. Douglas et al., pp. 137-40. Wheaton, Ill., 1982.
Fensham, F. C., "Covenant, Alliance." In The New Bible Dictionary, 2nd ed., ed. J. D. Douglas et al., pp. 137-40. Wheaton, Ill., 1982.
Hillers, Delbert R. Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea. Baltimore, 1969.
Ludlow, Victor L. "Unlocking the Covenant Teachings in the Scriptures." Religious Studies Center Newsletter, Brigham Young University 4, no. 2 (1990):1, 4.
Nyman, Monte S. "The Covenant of Abraham." In The Pearl of Great Price: Revelations from God, pp. 155-70, ed. H. Donl Peterson and C. Tate. Provo, Utah, 1989.
Ricks, Stephen D. "The Treaty/Covenant Pattern in King Benjamin's Address (Mosiah 1- 6)." BYU Studies 25 (Spring 1984):151-62.
Ricks, Stephen D. "The Early Ministry of Abraham." In Studies in Scripture, ed. R. Millet and K. Jackson, Vol. 2, pp. 217-24. Salt Lake City, 1985.
Ricks, Stephen D. "Deuteronomy: A Covenant of Love." Ensign 20 (Apr. 1990):55-59.
Whittaker, David J. "A Covenant People: Old Testament Light on Modern Covenants." Ensign 10 (Aug. 1980):36-40.
Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, Covenants in Biblical Times
Copyright © 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company
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