THE NEW COVENANT

 

1. Old Testament
   1.2. Synonyms for New Covenant
      1.2.1. Everlasting Covenant
      1.2.2. Covenant of Peace
   1.3. Spirit as Cause of New Possibility of Obedience
2. Literature of the Second-Temple Period
   2.1. New Covenant as Eschatological Salvation
   2.2. Non-Sectarian Writings
   2.3. Covenant and New Covenant in Qumran Sectarian Writings
   2.4. Passover and New Covenant
3. New Testament
   3.1. Jesus
   3.2. Paul
   3.3. Letter to the Hebrews


1. Old Testament

1.1. The only reference to the new covenant (berit hadasa') in the Old Testament is found in Jer 31. In the historical context of Israel's disobedience and imminent exile as punishment for national disobedience, the prophet Jeremiah gives expression to the hope of a new or renewed covenant with Israel (berit hadasa'):

31 "Behold, days are coming," declares Yahweh, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them," declares Yahweh. 33 "But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days," declares Yahweh, "I will put my Law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 "They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, 'Know Yahweh,' for they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest of them," declares Yahweh, "for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more."

The prophet contrasts the existing covenant made with the fathers when he brought them out of Egypt (see Exod 24:8) with a covenant that God will make with the house of Israel and Judah in the latter days.  The new covenant is distinguished from the older covenant in four ways:

  • Yahweh will write the law in the minds and on the hearts of those in the new covenant.
  • Yahweh will be the God of those in the new covenant and they will be his people.
  • Those in the new covenant will know Yahweh.
  • Yahweh will forgive the iniquities and the sins of those in the new covenant. 

The new covenant, therefore, has two basic characteristics. First, it describes an internal spiritual transformation resulting in a new relationship with God and a new possibility of obedience. Second, the new covenant results in the forgiveness of sins for those in the covenant made with the fathers. Jer 31:31-34 falls into the context of the promise of the future regathering of Israel and its restoration to the land, which Jer 29:10 says will take place after seventy years of exile.

1.2. Synonyms for New Covenant

Virtual synonyms for "new covenant" appear in other Old Testament prophetic texts.

1.2.1. Everlasting Covenant (berit 'olam)

A. In the Book of Jeremiah what is denoted by the new covenant in Jer 31:31-33—with the exception of the explicit promise of the forgiveness of sins—is also called an everlasting covenant (berit 'olam). In Jer 32:37-41, Yahweh promises through the prophet that he will bring the exiles back to the land and will so transform them that they will never again turn away from him.

Behold, I will gather them out of all the lands to which I have driven them in my anger, in my wrath and in great indignation; and I will bring them back to this place and make them dwell in safety. They shall be my people, and I will be their God; and I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me always, for their own good and for the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; and I will put the fear of me in their hearts so that they will not turn away from me.

Likewise, the prophet declares in Jer 50:4-5:

"In those days and at that time," declares Yahweh, "the sons of Israel will come, both they and the sons of Judah as well; they will go along weeping as they go, and it will be Yahweh their God they will seek. They will ask for the way to Zion, turning their faces in its direction; they will come that they may join themselves to Yahweh in an everlasting covenant that will not be forgotten."

After a period of exile, exiles from both the northern and southern kingdoms (both "the sons of Israel" and "the sons of Judah") will seek Yahweh again and return to the land ("They will ask for the way to Zion"). This will be the beginning of an everlasting covenant between Yahweh and the people.

B. Ezekiel 16 contrasts Jerusalem's (a metonymy for all Israel) present state of unfaithfulness with its beginnings and its future. Like an exposed child Israel was as helpless until Yahweh adopted her. But she grew up to be a prostitute, unfaithful to her original benefactor. Nonetheless, Yahweh will both remember the covenant made with Israel in her youth and establish an everlasting covenant with the nation, making expiation for all that it has done:

"Nevertheless, I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you ... Thus I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am Yahweh, in order that you may remember and be ashamed and never open your mouth anymore because of your humiliation, when I have made atonement for you for all that you have done" (Ezek 16:60, 62-63).

C. God speaks through Isaiah saying that he will make an everlasting covenant with his restored people: "And I will faithfully give them their recompense and make an everlasting covenant with them" (Isa 61:8).
 
1.2.2. Covenant of Peace (berit shalom)

A. Speaking in the name of Yahweh, Ezekiel prophesies about the future covenant of peace that Yahweh will make with the people:

And I, Yahweh, will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them; I, Yahweh, have spoken. I will make a covenant of peace with them and eliminate harmful beasts from the land so that they may live securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods (Ezek 34:24-25)

In this passage, God promises that he will gather Israel, his sheep, and place David, his servant, over them as their shepherd; then he will make a covenant of peace with them, so that Israel will live in the land in safety and prosperity

B. While describing Israel's eschatological future, the prophet Ezekiel prophesies that Yahweh will make a covenant of peace with the people.

"My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd; and they will walk in my ordinances and keep my statutes and observe them. They will live on the land that I gave to Jacob my servant, in which your fathers lived; and they will live on it, they, and their sons and their sons' sons, forever; and David my servant will be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will place them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in their midst forever. My dwelling place also will be with them; and I will be their God, and they will be my people. And the nations will know that I am Yahweh who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forever" (Ezek 37:24-28)

In Ezek 37:24-28 God promises that he will make a covenant of peace with a restored Israel under a Davidic king; at this time, the Temple ("sanctuary") will be built and shall remain forever. The people will obey God; he will be their God and they will be his people. This covenant of peace is also called an everlasting covenant.

C. In Isaiah 54:8-10

In an outburst of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting lovingkindness I will have compassion on you," says Yahweh your redeemer. 9 For this is like the days of Noah to me, when I swore that the waters of Noah would not flood the earth again; so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you nor will I rebuke you. 10 For the mountains may be removed and the hills may shake, but my lovingkindness will not be removed from you, and my covenant of peace will not be removed," says Yahweh who has compassion on you.

In the context of Israel's punishment for its national disobedience, Yahweh promises through the prophet Isaiah that when he restores Zion never again will he become angry, but will have compassion on his people. This is described as his covenant of peace with the nation, which will not be removed.

1.3. Spirit as Cause of New Possibility of Obedience

In the prophets the promises of restoration, the new possibility of obedience, and national forgiveness of sin occur frequently without being connected to the concepts of the new covenant, eternal covenant, or covenant of peace. It should be noted also that in Ezek 36:26-27 the new possibility of obedience given at the restoration is associated with the giving of the Spirit (see also Ezek 37:12-13; 39:29 and Isa 32:15; 44:3 Joel 2:28).


2. Literature of the Second-Temple Period

2.1. New Covenant as Eschatological Salvation

Insofar as it denotes Israel's eschatological salvation the concept of the new covenant permeates Jewish literature of the second-temple period. The restoration under Ezra and Nehemiah was seen as only the precursor to the salvation promised by God through the prophets and did not exhaust these promises. In some cases, it seems that Jews in the second-Temple disregarded the fact of the restoration during the time of the Persian empire and held that the exile still persisted well beyond the seventy-year limit specified by the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 25, 29). It would continue until the eschaton, the time of final judgment and salvation.

In the Animal Apocalypse (1 Enoch 85-90), God, “the lord of the sheep,” abandons Israel, the sheep, because of Israel’s apostasy. From that time until the eschaton, Israel is ruled sequentially by seventy shepherds, symbolizing ruling angels, who are given instructions to destroy a certain number of the sheep (89:59-60). Thus, the biblical notion that the exile ended with the restoration is implicitly repudiated; rather, the exile continues until the last of the seventy angelic rulers has completed his period of administration. Probably, each angelic administration lasts seven years, so that between the exile and the eschaton there are a total of 490 years. Moreover, these 490 years are divided into four periods. The last of the four periods, consisting of eight-four years, represents the Seleucid period, terminates when some of the lambs “began to open their eyes and see” (90:6). This event marks the end of Israel’s oppression under the “twelve shepherds” responsible for the nation’s excessive suffering during the Seleucid reign. (Shortly afterwards, the Maccabean revolt began, which, the real author, a contemporary and supporter of Judas and one of the lambs that opened its eyes, believed to be the penultimate event before the eschaton.)

The author of the Damascus Document, writing in the second-Temple period, also believes that Israel’s exile is still continuing and will do so until the eschaton. He reminds his audience of the historical fact of the exile: “And he despised the generations…and hid his face from the land from [ ] until their destruction” (CD 2.8-9) (Ezek 39:23). The phrase “until their destruction” qualifying the clause “And he hid his face from the land” seems to set the termination of the exile as coeval with the eschatological destruction of the wicked, presumably at the hands of the destroying angels (see CD 2.6). The exile will endure until the wicked are destroyed eschatologically, for it is they who caused the exile and who are responsible for its continuation. Only at the eschaton, God will finally restore the land to the remnant that he has kept for himself (CD 2.11–12).

2.2. Non-Sectarian Writings

There are only a few instances where Jer 31:31-34 or related passages have had an influence on the conceptualities of non-sectarian literature of the second-Temple period. A passage from Baruch bears the influence of Jeremiah's eschatological prophecies.

For I know that they will not obey me, for they are a stiff-necked people. But in the land of their exile they will come to themselves 31 and know that I am the Lord their God. I will give them a heart that obeys and ears that hear; 32 they will praise me in the land of their exile, and will remember my name 33 and turn from their stubbornness and their wicked deeds; for they will remember the ways of their ancestors, who sinned before the Lord. 34 I will bring them again into the land that I swore to give to their ancestors, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and they will rule over it; and I will increase them, and they will not be diminished. 35 I will make an everlasting covenant with them to be their God and they shall be my people; and I will never again remove my people Israel from the land that I have given them." (2:30-35)

In this passage, God promises that he will make an everlasting covenant (diathêkê aiônios) with his people at the restoration. As a result of making this everlasting covenant, it is said that so that the Lord will be "their God and they shall be my people." It is probable that Jer 32:37-41 has influenced the author, because in this passage God says of a restored Israel that "They shall be my people, and I will be their God" and "I will make an everlasting covenant with them." (Possibly, Jer 31:33 "And I will be their God, and they shall be my people" also stands behind this text.) Moreover, the removal of the propensity to disobedience ("I will give them a heart that obeys and ears that hear") is reminiscent of Jer 32:39-40 " I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me always...and I will put the fear of me in their hearts so that they will not turn away from me." (In the same work [3:5-7], it is implied that this new possibility of obedience was given to the exiles even before the restoration [see Jer 24:4-7].)

    In the Book of Jubilees, there is a reference to the new possibility of obedience to be given at the restoration that may have some faint allusions to Jeremiah's prophecies (Jub. 1:22-25). (It must be remembered that the Book of Jubilees as we know it is an Ethiopic translation of a Greek translation of a Hebrew original.)

And the Lord said unto Moses: 'I know their contrariness and their thoughts and their stiffneckedness, and they will not be obedient till they confess their own sin and the sin of their fathers. And after this they will turn to me in all uprightness and with all (their) heart and with all (their) soul, and I will circumcise the foreskin of their heart and the foreskin of the heart of their seed, and I will create in them a spirit of holiness, and I will cleanse them so that they shall not turn away from me from that day unto eternity. And their souls will cleave to me and to all my commandments, and they will fulfil my commandments, and I will be their Father and they shall be my children. And they all shall be called children of the living God, and every angel and every spirit shall know, indeed, they shall know that these are my children, and that I am their Father in uprightness and righteousness, and that I love them. (Jub. 1:22b-26a).

God says that, when in exile the people return to him “in all uprighteousness and with all their heart and soul,” he will effect a national spiritual transformation: “And I shall cut off the foreskin of their heart and the foreskin of the heart of their descendents” (1:23). Clearly dependent on Deut 30:1-10, the author interprets the period up to the exile as the period of Israel’s inevitable failure; this is only remedied by God’s act of eliminating all possibility of future apostasy by circumcising the hearts of the Israelites and their descendents (Deut 30:6). The Lord continues, “And I shall create for them a spirit of holiness, and I shall purify them so that they will not turn away from following me from that day and forever” (Jub. 1:23; see also 50:5). Parallel to the idea of an eschatological circumcision of the heart is that of the creation of a spirit of holiness and God’s purification of his people. The creation of a spirit of holiness is God’s implanting of a disposition towards holiness in his people; similarly, purification is the removal of the disposition to sin. The result of God’s creating a spirit of holiness for the Israelites and his purification of them is that the people will henceforth keep the commandments, never again turning away from God. Although there is nor any indication that the author understood it as the result of God's making a new covenant with a restored Israel, nevertheless the new eschatological possibility of obedience to the commandments expresses in general the promise of a spiritually transformed people in Jer 31:31-33 and 32:37-41. In addition, the statement "And I will be their Father and they shall be my children" in Jub. 1:25 may be an allusion to Jer 31:33 "I will be their God, and they shall be my people" and/or Jer 32:38 "They shall be my people, and I will be their God."

2.3. Covenant and New Covenant in Qumran Sectarian Writings

The Qumran community understands itself as the fulfillment of the promise to Israel that after the exile God shall turn again in mercy to his people and renew the covenant made with the patriarchs. Thus, the biblical idea of the remnant of Israel is defined in such a way that it includes only those Jews who have truly repented and in so doing have become part of the community. The fact that the community is the result of the renewal of the covenant made with the patriarchs explains why entrance into the community is synonymous with entering or crossing over into the covenant (1QS 1.16–20). It also explains why the community is called “the council of God” (1.8): The members of the community represent the totality of God’s people (see 1QS 2.25; 3.2, 6; 6.16; 7.2; 8.1, 5).

    In the Damascus Document, there is a salvation-historical accounts of the founding of the community. The members of the community are understood as the remnant from the nation, with whom God has renewed the covenant. In CD 1.1–2.1 the author explains that God had a dispute with pre-exilic Israel. Yet, in spite of his dispute with the nation, God was true to his covenantal promise to the patriarchs, insofar as he did not completely destroy the nation but preserved a remnant from it. The author identifies this remnant with the founders, the nucleus of the community. Thus, the beginning of the community is brought into relation with the end of Israel’s exile: “When he remembered his covenant with the men of former times, God left a remnant for Israel and did not give them to destruction” (CD 1.4–5a). The phrase “He remembered his covenant with men of former times” derives from Lev 26:45. What is implied is that for the author the community is the biblical remnant. CD 1.5b–8a confirms that the members of the community view themselves as this remnant. This text explains that three hundred and ninety years after the onset of his wrath, when the people were given into the hands of Nebuchadnezer, God “visited them, and caused a root of planting to grow from Israel and Aaron to possess the land” (CD 1.7–8a) (see Isa 60:21). In this context, God’s visitation is synonymous with his salvation, the beginning of Israel’s promised restoration and therefore the beginning of the end of the time of God’s wrath, which began with the exile and has lasted for 390 years. On the assumption that this date is to be taken more or less literally, the inception of the community in the early second century BCE represents for its members the first stage of the promised restoration, in contradistinction to the biblical interpretation of Israel’s post-exilic history (see Hag 1:12–14; 2:2; Zech 8:6, 11–12). No longer does the remnant refer to all of the Israelites descended from those who survived the exile, but now to an obedient minority from among the descendents of the survivors of the exile. Implicitly, Israel is now being defined as a voluntary religious group and no longer exclusively on the basis of racial identity.

    Later in the Damascus Document, the inception of the community is interpreted as the latest phase of God’s saving work in Israel’s history (CD 3.12b–4.12a). After the exile, God established a covenant forever with Israel. From the context, however, Israel now denotes an obedient minority within the nation, equivalent to the founders of the community (CD 3.13). This renewed covenant is contrasted implicitly in the Damascus Document with the covenant of the forefathers (berit ri'shonim), the covenant that God made with Moses and the generation of the exodus. Because of their disobedience, the members of the covenant of the forefathers came under the wrath of God, which culminated in the exile; in contrast God made a covenant forever (berit ad 'olam) with the remnant who held fast to the commandments, revealing to them the hidden things in which Israel went astray (CD 3:10-14). It is not so much that there exists in God's purposes two different covenants, but rather one covenant with two different phases: a preliminary phase ending in failure and an eschatological phase ending in God's final victory over all wickedness, beginning at some point after the exile.

    Not surprisingly, in the Qumran sectarian writings, the covenant into which the members of the community enter is sometimes called the new covenant; this is because the renewal of the covenant is interpreted to be a fulfillment of the “new covenant” in Jer 31:31–34. The members of the community are called “those who entered the new covenant in Damascus” (CD 6.19b; see 8.20–21; 19.34; 20.11–13). This implies that the community understood itself as those with whom God has established his eschatological covenant. It follows that God has renewed the covenant not with the entire nation but only a remnant from it. Being a participant in the new covenant guarantees “life for a thousand generations” (CD 7.6). Apostates are said to be permanently expelled from the community, being denied all the benefits accruing to those who enter into the new covenant (CD 19.33b–35/CD 8.21b; CD 20.8b–12).

    There is a probable reference to the new covenant in the Habakkuk Pesher (2.3). The apostates of the community are called “those who betr[ayed] the new [covenant]. The implication is that the Jeremian promise of the new covenant has come to realization. The new covenant is actually the renewed covenant. Presumably, as Jeremiah predicts, the new covenant includes the possibility of forgiveness. Since it represents God’s offer of mercy to his covenant people, the rejection of the offer of the new covenant brings dire consequences for a Jew. Synonymous with “new covenant” is “covenant of God” occurring in the next clause: Those who betrayed the new covenant did so, “be-cause they did not believe in the covenant of God” (2.3b–4a). What is meant by not believing in the covenant of God is not accepting that the community is the tangible expression of God’s merciful renewal of the covenant with his chosen remnant, which is identical to the new covenant.

    Finally, an echo of Jeremiah’s prophecy that God will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, which, in part, will result in God’s placing his Law within the people and in writing it upon their hearts (Jer 31:31–34) is found in 1QHa 12[4].10–12. In this passage, the founder affirms that God has engraved his Law upon his heart (see 1QHa 4[17].23). This is why his opponents were not able to turn him from obeying the Law as God had revealed it to him. So, although he always remains as the righteous judge of all human beings, God enables human beings, who are inherently weak and sinful, to meet his righteous standards. This is no doubt what the founder meant when he says that God has not abandoned him “to the designs of my inclination” (1QHa 13[5].6a).

2.4. Passover and New Covenant

Although the Feast of Weeks was understood by some Jews of the second-Temple period as the time when God made covenants with human beings and became, therefore, the occasion of the annual renewal of the covenant (see Jub. 6:17; 1QS), the new covenant by implication came to be associated with Passover in early rabbinic Judaism, since Passover was seen as the day of eschatological salvation. LXX Jer 31:8 (38:8) places the restoration of Israel—and by implication the establishment of the new covenant—on Passover. Likewise, in the poem of the four (Passover) nights, found in Targum Neofiti and the Jerusalem Targum (Exod 12:42), Nisan 15, Passover night, is understood to be the time of Israel's messianic deliverance. (See also (Mekilta Pisha 14:78-121 [Exod 12:41]; Exodus Rabbah [Exod 12:1].)


3. New Testament

3.1. Jesus

At his last Passover meal, Jesus said of the cup of blessing, the third Passover cup, that it was "the blood of the covenant shed for many" (Mark 14:24), "the blood of the covenant shed for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matt 26:28), "the new covenant in my blood" (1 Cor 11:25) or "the new covenant in my blood shed for you" (Luke 22:20).  In so doing he was affirming that his death was the means by which the new covenant—a synonym for the Kingdom of God—would come about. That Jesus did this on Passover is also significant, since, as was seen, Passover and eschatological salvation were salvation-historically related concepts; Jesus likely conceived himself as the eschatological Passover sacrifice bringing about the eschatological salvation of all Israel, typologically parallel to the original exodus. In addition, Jesus probably understood his death and its salvation-historical significance in light of the Isaian servant passages.  As the servant, Jesus would be a covenant for the people and a light for the nations, but would do so only by means of his vicarious and expiatory death described in Isa 53.

3.2. Paul

Apart from its occurrence in the words of institution quoted by Paul in 1 Cor 11, the concept of the new covenant is found only twice in Paul's writings. Paul understands the new covenant as having been realized through the death and resurrection of Christ and the giving of the Spirit, and contrasts this salvation-historical phase with that of the Law. In Gal 4:21-31 he differentiates between two covenants represented by Hagar and Sarah and their sons Ishmael and Isaac. The former produces slavery to the law (represented by Mt. Sinai/present Jerusalem), whereas the latter produces freedom from the law and correlatively life in the Spirit (represented by Jerusalem above). In 2 Cor 3:3-18 Paul similarly contrasts the old covenant which condemns—identified with the law (letter)—with the new covenant which brings righteousness—of which he is a minister—identified with the Spirit. Paul's statement in 2 Cor 3:3 that the Corinthians are a letter of Christ written with the Spirit on the fleshy tablets of the heart evokes the Old Testament promise that God will write the Law upon the hearts upon his people; the Corinthians, however, were mostly gentile by descent.

3.3. Letter to the Hebrews

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews explicitly asserts that Jer 31:31-34 is fulfilled by means of the Jesus' death, who is both the greater High Priest and better sacrifice. Jesus as mediator of the new covenant is superior to the Aaronic high priests, the mediators of the first covenant; likewise, as the better sacrifice, Jesus truly expiates guilt, unlike the blood of animals. The focus of the letter is on the forgiveness of sins promised in the new covenant; the author's purpose is to prove that the Levitical sacrificial system, the means of obtaining forgiveness in the first covenant, has been rendered obsolete and will soon disappear. Jesus' blood is said to be the blood of the covenant parallel to the blood of the first covenant in Exod 24:8. (See Heb 8:7-13; 9:15-22; 10:15-18, 29; 12:24; 13:20.) The term "blood of the everlasting covenant" is found in 13:20, and appears to be a synonym for new covenant.

 

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