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Hebrew Word Study: COVENANT (BRIT)

by Dr. Eitan Bar
2 minutes read

In Hebrew, the term “to make a covenant” consists of two words, with the first translating to “excision” or “amputation.” Rather than “making” covenants, the Hebrew context suggests physically “cutting” them—this is reflected in the English idiom “to cut a deal.” The second word signifies “covenant.” The idea of “cutting” a covenant denotes the incorporation of blood, which explains why biblical references to covenant-making invariably include blood.

In the current era, marked by action-packed movies, violent video games, and ceaseless news reports of violent incidents, it’s hardly surprising that we often associate ‘blood’ with negative connotations such as violence, terrorism, warfare, suffering, and wrath. However, for the ancient Israelites, blood symbolized life, serving as a token of life itself committed to the agreement. Blood had a purifying, atoning, and healing significance. But primarily, blood symbolized LIFE, as stated in Leviticus 17:11:

“For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.”

Consider the example of Abraham. When God summoned Abraham to abandon his home and step into the unknown, He first bestowed blessings upon him—promising him heirs, land, and authority, much like the blessings in Genesis 1:28. Genesis 15 reiterates this covenant but adds a visual component that Abraham could comprehend. Abraham was instructed to gather and slaughter a heifer, a ram, a goat, a dove, and a pigeon, then split the animals in half and lay the pieces in two lines, creating a clear pathway through the center. This act was a familiar sign in the ancient Near East, symbolizing the formation of a covenant—the participants would walk the path between the slain animals, essentially declaring, “I stake my life on this.” It was the most solemn form of commitment.

Interestingly, this covenant in Genesis 15 stands out because God, appearing to Abraham once he fell asleep, traversed the path between the dissected animals alone. It was a unilateral covenant with all obligations on God and none on Abraham. God was essentially pledging His life to fulfill the promises He made to Abraham—an incredibly reassuring gesture, considering God’s eternal nature and inability to break an oath or die.

One might wonder why a King would enter a covenant with a peasant. When God forms a covenant with us, it’s not out of necessity or want. Unlike other deities who formed deals out of self-interest, Yahweh doesn’t need us and can create countless more like us. His covenant signifies His decision to care for us, even though we have nothing to offer in return. By establishing a covenant, God assures us of His unwavering love and commitment, regardless of our actions. Abraham’s role was simply to believe.

This covenant also foreshadowed the one to be established through Jesus. As in Abraham’s case, we were the ones who killed the sacrifice, and God was the one who made the promise. All we have to do is believe. But the New Covenant, sealed with Christ’s eternal blood, offers an everlasting guarantee of our eternal salvation—a promise far superior to any previous covenants. Like Abraham, all we need to do is trust that God will fulfill His promise of salvation to those who choose to believe (John 3:16). This unwavering assurance can provide immense confidence regarding our eternal future. I may falter and lack trust in myself with trivial matters, let alone my eternal destiny. But with God, I can rely on Him, and my soul finds peace knowing it’s not up to me, a flawed being, to secure my own eternal fate.

This article was an extract from my new small book,
Lost in Translation: 15 Hebrew Words to Transform Your Christian Faith.

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Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist