Elements of Covenants, Old and New

This post is based on radical insights provided by the late Meredith G. Kline about the structure of covenants in the Old Testament. His book, Treaty of the Great King: The Covenant Structure of Deuteronomy: Studies and Commentary (1963) gave me food for thought about how to find the terms and conditions of the New Covenant in the teachings of Jesus.

According to Kline (and slightly modified by his students), a suzerainty covenant had certain specific elements:

A. A Preamble that provides the name of the Great King.

B. A Historical Prologue that explains how the rule of the Great King came about.

C. Stipulations (rules or laws) of the covenant that fell into two main categories:
1. Exclusive loyalty to the suzerain.
2. Specific requirements (such as tribute payments and troop levies)

D. Sanctions (in the form of encouragments and warnings or blessings and curses)

E. Administration (Covenant document storage and instructions for review of documents)

Aside from the covenant documents themselves, two more things to note about covenant-making are that there was usually a sacrifice involved, such as in Ex. 24:1-8, and that there was usually a covenant meal involved, in which the suzerain and vassal ate together to denote fellowship and loyalty, such as in Ex. 24:9-11.

During our session November 26, we noticed (as had Kline decades ago) that the Ten Commandments begins a section of the book of exodus that is referred to as “the book of the covenant” (Ex. 20-23). The decalogue begins with the statement, “I am the Lord your God…” This could easily be seen as a preamble that names Yahweh.

It continues with “… who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” This seems to be a historical prologue that explains how they came to be at Mt. Sinai under God’s protection.

“You shall have no other gods before Me.” Once again, this fits the basic “exclusive loyalty” clause of the stipulations, which then continue basically until the end of chapter 23.

Mixed in at various points are both encouragements to obedience and warnings against disobedience (later elaborated into blessings and curses in the book of Deuteronomy).

I first encountered his book while working on an assignment for my Pentateuch class at Canadian Bible College in the late 1990’s. The assignment to compare and constrast covenants in the Pentateuch resulted in this paper: Covenant.

I noticed while doing the assignment that he considered the Ten Commandments to be a self-contained covenant. My reading of the surrounding material, and especially chapter 24, suggested that the decalogue is actually part of a longer section (Chapters 20-23) that is called the “book of the covenant” in chapter 24. I concluded that this entire section is what was engraved on each of the tablets of stone that were later to be stored in the ark of the covenant (administration or document clause). One was God’s copy and the other was to be Israel’s copy.

I suspect that their storage together in the ark of the covenant symbolizes the nearness of God to Israel and points ahead to a new covenant in which God’s law is written on “the tablet of the heart” (Prov. 7:3 and 2 Cor. 3:3).

Toward the end of the class I decided to see if there was an arrangement of Jesus’ teaching that resembled the form Kline had discovered in the Sinai Covenant. There seemed to be a correspondance of many of the elements in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, resulting in this treatment of that sermon with headings in a “Covenant of Jesus Handout”. My Pentateuch professor thought it was a worthwhile fresh approach to the New Covenant.

In future sessions we hope to delve more deeply into the Sermon on the Mount to see what this covenant-formatted teaching of Jesus has to tell us about the core of the New Covenant.


About John Valade

I facilitate and teach in Wascana Fellowship. I have been married to Wanda since 1984. M.Div. from Briercrest Seminary, SK in 2011 and B.R.E. Canadian Bible College (now Ambrose University College) in 2000.
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