Covenant Runs Deep Through the Bible

We live in shallow times. An endless array of images and characters displayed on flat, two-dimensional screens offer up countless knee-deep worlds all clamoring for our attention. In this environment, our relationships with God and a world of others are too often reduced to silhouettes, mere surface reflections of the shared life we are called to in Christ. An impoverished spiritual depth perception keeps many from seeing and being seized by the grace of concrete life together in Jesus. But biblical faith calls us out of the shallows to something more.

Depth is a spatial metaphor connected to wide boundaries (up/down, inside/outside, here/there, near/far). It accrues meaning as an idiom through our primal relationship with the earth and the sea. The “deep sea” (Gen 1:2 CEB) in biblical language evokes the fertile source of life itself. The “deep” also points us to the mysterious threats that drown our lives with chaos.

Depth indicates “more than what easily appears.” It refers to the hidden presence of what is below, behind, and beneath the obvious. We know we must dig deep to get at what’s really going on when we point out regions of meaning and reality “beyond the surface.” Depth speaks to experiences of profound and penetrating intensity, because true encounters with our world extend beyond and beneath surface relationships that are dominated by our “thin settlements” (Walter Brueggemann’s phrase) that resist personal transformation.

Of course, when Christians speak about a deep relationship with God, we invoke the language or images of covenant. To express the relationship, we might say “God is my father” or, “Jesus is my friend.” These expressions invoke commitment and signify depth.

Covenant is the solemn and enduring commitment made between God and human beings to be in this fruitful and creative relationship. Grace is the unmerited favor of God that pursues, permits, purifies, and mends the relationship, which is possible because of God’s faithful love and Jesus’s faithfulness on the cross. By “covenant” we mean that Jesus commits himself, or makes a solemn promise, to reconcile us to God when the relationship is breached.

At the root of our theologies (Protestant as well as Roman Catholic traditions) are distinct understandings of covenant and of the purpose of God’s unmerited favor and our loyal love. These theologies draw from pervasive biblical narratives and instructions about covenant.1

Therefore, when we look for a root metaphor to wade deep and develop a series of themes throughout the whole Bible, covenant is a compelling organizing pattern.2

Covenant helps make sense of the biblical Torah, in which God’s relationship with God’s people is grounded in covenants. Torah is the Instruction (or Teaching) that maintains the relationship between God’s word (the expectations established by God) and God’s faithful (or loyal) people. The Torah, for example, shows that what we put in our mouths and consume with our minds will affect the health of our relationship with God.

Covenant is the organizing principle for the core narratives of the Bible. Covenant defines relationships for the leading personalities in the Bible, including covenants that are based in community promises fulfilled through Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus. The stories of Esther and Ruth are case studies in faithful covenant love. The historiography from Deuteronomy through 2 Kings is based in a covenant theology that shows how the well-being of God’s people is related to their loyalty to God and their commitment to this relationship. When they are attentive to their relationship to God and cultivate it, they flourish.

The most fruitful approach for a comprehensive Bible study emphasizes covenant in terms of kinship and community, from which the notion of covenant in the Bible was ultimately drawn. This idea recognizes the close connection in a covenant relationship between the unmerited graciousness and deep loyalty that is part of kinship relationships.

Sometimes covenant is also understood in contractual and legal terms. The theology of Deuteronomy can be informed by an analogy to ancient international treaties, where a powerful ruler would make a covenant with a less powerful ruler. While these legal analogies can stimulate useful conversation in appropriate biblical texts about the responsibilities or accountabilities that are embedded in covenant relationships, the legal sanctions and retribution within them raise difficult issues of judgment for each interpreter.

Many of the prophets, but especially Hosea and Jeremiah, are schooled by covenant theology as they confront leaders who have responsibilities toward God and their communities. A breached covenant is how the prophets eventually explain the exile and the near extermination or dispersion of Israel by Babylon and Assyria. Jeremiah, in the “Book of the Covenant” (Jer 30–33), yearns for a new covenant that is cut into our hearts.

We look back at that expectation and yearning for a covenant inscribed on our hearts, and we realize that this new life is possible through the new Moses—through Jesus, the Human One, God’s Son who reconciles us to God on the cross. In the Gospels, “God’s kingdom” is a vision of a better future for the new community of Christ-followers. The Gospels are written to respond to particular covenant issues in the new community, and the community is continually reshaped to do the right things through its relationship with Jesus.

When the early Christians are “born again” and refer to each other as “sister” or “brother,” they establish their kinship through the covenant relationships of a family. Covenant life is the context when the letters to the Christian communities (for example, at Corinth or Ephesus) grapple with the ethical implications of living in relationships, or when referring to Jesus as the head and the church as the body. This is why Paul often refers to himself as the father of his parishioners. He relates intimately to the new Christians as their “wet nurse.” When we think of the most intimate relationships known to human beings—mother, father, sister, brother, lover, child, partner, spouse, friend—each of these identities is used by the earliest Christians to describe the covenantal relationships between Christians, their Lord, and their community.

An in-depth and comprehensive Bible study is inherently based in the social chemistry of a covenant. The group participants form a lasting connection with each other as they examine and practice what it means to live in relationship with God. By verbatim report from most leaders who have incorporated deep Bible study into their churches’ lives, that bonding and belonging doesn’t happen in a weekend or from a six- or eight-week experience. As the participants learn to share and love and serve together, they make a solemn commitment to each other. They may offend each other and learn to forgive each other, because they make a commitment together to restore or deepen their relationship with God through Jesus Christ.


  • Disciplined reflection and meditation across the whole of scripture
  • Time to grow together with authenticity and commitment
  • Esteem with others in shared awe, attraction, beauty, and joy
  • Respect and presence with others in frustration, suffering, pain, and the bewildering perplexity that accompanies a life
  • Openness to sacred presence and faithful love that illuminates every corner of our self and our world

Visit the Covenant Bible Study website to find out how your church can start groups with this video-based study that wades deep through the whole of scripture.

1 For a biblical overview of covenant, see Walther Eichrodt, Old Testament Theology, vol. 1 (Louisville,KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1967), 36-37.The two-volume classic work from the 1960s follows the trail of “covenant and grace” throughout the Old and New Testaments. Also see the article by John Goldingay on covenant in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 1, A–C (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006).
2 Other viable ways are available to organize a path through scripture, including divine presence (Hansen), testimony (Brueggemann), the mighty acts of God (Wright), and several more. So the intent is not to claim “the center” of the Bible; rather, it is to identify a viable pattern across the quilted theologies of the Bible. Covenant is especially helpful as a pattern when the aim through Bible study is to explore and develop a mature relationship with God and others.

comments powered by Disqus