|COVENANTS - A BOND IN BLOOD
O. Palmer Robertson
HIS GLORY REIGNS
March 21, 2008
The phase "bond-in-blood" or bond of life and death expresses the ultimacy of the commitment between God and man
in the covenantal context. By initiating covenants, God never enters into a casual or informal relationship with man.
Instead, the implications of his bonds extend to the ultimate issues of life and death.
The basic terminology describing the inauguration of a covenantal relationship vivifies the life-and-death intensity of
the divine covenants. The phrase translated "to make a covenant" in the Old Testament literally read "to cut a
This phrase "to cut a covenant" does not appear just at one stage in the history of the biblical covenants. Much to the
contrary, it occurs prominently across the entire spread of the Old Testament. The law, the prophets, and the writings
all contain the phrase repeatedly.
It might be supposed that the passage of time would have dulled the vivid imagery of "cutting a covenant." Yet the
evidence of an abiding awareness of the full import of the phrase appears in some of Scripture's most ancient texts as
well as in passages associated with the very end of Israel's presence in the land of Palestine. The original record of
the inauguration of the Abrahamic covenant, laden as it is with internal signs of antiquity, first introduces the concept
of "cutting a covenant" to the biblical reader (Genesis 15). At the other extremity of Israel's history, Jeremiah's
prophetic warning to Zedekiah at the time of Nebuchadnezzar's siege of Jerusalem literally bristles with allusions to a
"cut-covenant" theology (Jeremiah 34).
A further indication of the permeating significance of this phrase is found in the fact that it is related to all three of the
basic covenantal types. It is employed to describe covenants inaugurated by man with man; covenants inaugurated by
God with man; and covenants inaugurated by man with God.
Particularly striking is the fact that the verb "to cut" may stand by itself and still clearly mean "to cut a covenant." This
usage indicates just how essentially the concept of "cutting" had come to be related to the covenant idea in Scripture.
This relating of a "cutting" process to the establishment of a covenant manifests itself throughout the ancient
languages and cultures of the Middle East. Not only in Israel, but in many of the surrounding cultures, the binding
character of a covenant is related to a terminology of "cutting."
Not only the terminology, but the rituals commonly associated with the establishment of covenants reflect quite
dramatically a "cutting" process. As the covenant is made, animals are "cut" in ritual ceremony. The most obvious
example of this procedure in Scripture is found in Genesis 15, at the time of the making of the Abrahamic covenant.
First Abraham divides a series of animals and lays the pieces over against one another. Then a symbolic
representation of God passes between the divided pieces of animals. The result is the "making" or "cutting" of a
What is the meaning of this division of animals at the point of covenantal inauguration? Both biblical and extra-biblical
evidence combine to confirm a specific significance for this ritual. The animal-division symbolizes a "pledge to the
death" at the point of covenant commitment. The dismembered animals represent the curse that the covenant-maker
calls down on himself if he should violate the commitment which he has made.
This interpretation finds strong support in the words of the prophet Jeremiah. As he recalls Israel's disloyalty to their
covenant commitments, he reminds them of the ritual by which, "...they cut the calf in twain, and passed between the
parts thereof " Jeremiah 34:18. By their transgression, they have called down on themselves the curses of the
covenant. Therefore they may expect dismemberment of their own bodies. Their carcasses "...and their dead bodies
shall be for meat unto the fowls of the heaven, and to the beasts of the earth." Jeremiah 34:20.
It is in this context of covenant inauguration that the biblical phrase "to cut a covenant" is to be understood. Integral to
the very terminology which describes the establishment of a covenantal relationship is the concept of a pledge to life
and death. A covenant is indeed a "bond-in-blood." or a bond of life and death.
This phrase "bond in blood" accords ideally with the biblical emphasis that, "without shedding of blood is no
remission." Hebrews 9:22. Blood is of significance in Scripture because it represents life, not because it is crude or
bloody. The life is in the blood (Leviticus 17:11) and so the shedding of blood represents a judgment on life.
The biblical imagery of blood-sacrifice emphasizes the inter-relation of life and blood. The pouring out of life-blood
signifies the only way of relief from covenant-obligations once incurred. A covenant is a "bond-in-blood," committing
the participants to loyalty on pain of death. Once the covenant relationship has been entered, nothing less than the
shedding of blood may relieve the obligations incurred in the event of covenantal violation.
Covenant - Testament
It is just at this point that the effort to relate the "covenant" idea in Israel's life and experience to the concept of a "last
will and testament" must be rejected. It is simply impossible to do justice to the biblical concept of "covenant" and at
the same time to introduce an idea of "last will and testament."
The major point of confusion in these two concepts of "covenant" and "testament" arises from the fact that both a
"covenant" and a "testament" relate to "death." Death is essential both to activate a last will and testament and to
inaugurate a covenant. Because of this similarity, the two concepts have been confused.
The two ideas of covenant and testament actually diverge radically in their significance. The similarity is only formal in
nature. Both " covenant" and "testament" relate closely to "death." But death stands in relationship to each of these
concepts in two very different manners.
In the case of a "covenant," death stands at the beginning of a relationship between two parties, symbolizing the
potential curse-factor in the covenant. In the case of a "testament," death stands at the end of a relationship between
two parties, actualizing an inheritance.
The death of the covenant-maker appears in two distinct stages. First it appears in the form of a symbolic
representation of the curse, anticipating possible covenantal violation. Later the party who violates the covenant
actually experiences death as a consequence of his earlier commitment.
The death of the testator does not come in two stages. No symbolic representation of death accompanies the making
of a will. The testator does not die as a consequence of the violation of his last will and testament.
The provisions of the "last will and testament" inherently presume death to be inevitable, and all its stipulations build
on that fact. But the provisions of a covenant offer the options of life or death. The representation of death is
essential to the inauguration of a covenant. The consecrating animal must be slain to effect a covenant. But it is not at
all necessary that a party to the covenant actually die. Only in the event of covenant violation does actual death of the
It is in the context of covenantal death, not testamentary death, that the death of Jesus Christ is to be understood.
Christ's death was a substitutionary sacrifice. Christ died as a substitute for the covenant-breaker. Substitution is
essential for the understanding of the death of Christ.
Yet death in substitution for another has no place whatsoever in the making of a last will and testament. The testator
dies in his own place, not in the place of another. No other death may substitute for the death of the testator himself.
But Christ died in the place of the sinner. Because of covenantal violations, men were condemned to die. Christ took
on himself the curses of the covenant and died in the place of the sinner. His death was covenantal, not testamentary.
Certainly it is true that the Christian is presented in Scripture as the heir of God. But he is heir by the process of
adoption into the family of the never-dying God, not by the process of testamentary disposition.
On the popular level, it has been assumed that the Lord's Supper was the occasion of Christ's making his last will and
testament. But it must be remembered that it was a convenantal meal that was being celebrated on this occasion. In
the context of the covenantal meal of the Passover, Jesus introduced the provisions of the new covenant meal.
Clearly, his intention was to proclaim himself as the Passover Lamb, who was taking on himself the curses of the
covenant. His death was substitutionary; his blood was "poured out" for his people. His words were not those of
testamentary disposition, but those of covenant fulfillment and inauguration.
The Old Testament concept of the covenant must not be re-interpreted in terms of a "last will and testament." The
total perspective of the Old Testament people concerning their relation to God was consistently convenantal. A
complete redirection of their thinking simply cannot be accomplished.
Even on a more modest scale, the concept of "testament" cannot be substituted for covenant in the "Old Testament"
Scriptures. The presence of provisions in the ancient Near Eastern treaty forms relating to succession arrangements
does not provide adequate basis for imposing a "testamentary" idea on the biblical concept of covenant. A treaty
agreement may include succession arrangements as one part of its stipulations. But the inclusion of such a section
does not create a testamentary document. All the provisions of a last will and testament await the death of the
testator. Certainly that is not the case with respect to the covenant commitments which God has made to his people
throughout the ages.
A "covenant" may well include aspects which insure continuation of its provisions beyond those people then living. As
a matter of fact, the biblical covenants extend to a "thousand generations" (Deuteronomy 7:9; Psalms 105:8).
A "covenant" is not a testament.
A "covenant" is a bond-in-blood. It involves commitments with life-and-death consequences. At the point of
covenantal inauguration, the parties of the covenant are committed to one another by a formalizing process of
blood-shedding. This blood-shedding represents the intensity of the commitment of the covenant. By the covenant
they are bound for life and death.
The Christ of the Covenants, by O. Palmer Robertson, Copyright 1980, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing
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