Tuesday, April 3, 2012

C is for Covenant

From blood yesterday, we move rather naturally to covenant today.  We use the term covenant to refer to a solemn agreement.  In the times of the ancient Hebrews, the equivalent terms to our Franco-Latinate English word were used not only by them but by all the people of the ancient Near East to refer to a pact, alliance, treaty, or contract.  In ancient times, there could be no covenant without the spilling of blood.  For this reason, those being bound by the covenant would sacrifice, call on their gods, and share in the sacrificial meal.  To cut a covenant (cf. our English, "cut a deal"), something had to be cut. Note that the sign of the covenant between God and Jews is circumcision.  See the instructive entry below from the Jewish Encyclopedia (1906).  I find the bit about sucking blood highly speculative not only because I have never heard that before, but because of the lack of evidence.  The mingling of blood by slashing hands and shaking is certainly known today.  Compare also the entry in SHERK.

Horned altar at Tel Be'er Sheva, Israel.

COVENANT (= ; Septuagint, διαΘήκη; Vulgate, testamentum).

—Biblical Data: An agreement between two contracting parties, originally sealed with blood; a bond, or a law; a permanent religious dispensation. The old, primitive way of concluding a covenant (, "to cut a covenant") was for the covenanters to cut into each other's arm and suck the blood, the mixing of the blood rendering them "brothers of the covenant" (see Trumbull, "The Blood Covenant," pp. 5 et seq., 322; W. R. Smith, "Religion of the Semites," pp. 296 et seq., 460 et seq.; compare Herodotus, iii. 8, iv. 70). Whether "berit" is to be derived from "barah" =to cut or from a root cognate with the Assyrian "berit" = fetter (see Nathauael Schmidt, in Cheyne and Black,"Encyc. Bibl." s.v."Covenant"), or whether both Assyrian and Hebrew come from "barah"= to cut (compare "asar" = covenant and bracelet in Arabic; see Trumbull, l.c. pp. 64 et seq.), can not be decided here. A rite expressive of the same idea is (see Jer. xxxiv. 18; compare Gen. xv. et seq.) the cutting of a sacrificial animal into two parts, between which the contracting parties pass, showing thereby that they are bound to each other; the eating together of the meat, which usually follows, reiterating the same idea. Originally the covenant was a bond of life-fellowship, where the mingling of the blood was deemed essential. In the course of time aversion to imbibing human blood eliminated the sucking of the blood, and the eating and drinking together became in itself the means of covenanting, while the act was solemnized by the invocation of the Deity in an oath, or by the presence of representative symbols of the Deity, such as seven animals, or seven stones or wells, indicative of the seven astral deities; whence ("to be bound by the holy seven") as an equivalent for "swearing" in pre-Mosaic times (see Gen. xxi. 27, xxvi. 28, xxxi. 54; Herodotus, iii. 8; Josh. ix. 14; II Sam. iii. 12-20; W. R. Smith, l.c. pp. 252 et seq.). Salt was especially selected together with bread for the conclusion of a covenant (Num. xviii. 19; see W. R. Smith, l.c. p. 252; Trumbull, "The Covenant of Salt," 1899).


  1. C'mon, man....gimme time to write my own posts! Your posts are simply too fascinating and thought-provoking!

    I have to tell you...the picture for your post here? Oddly enough, it was the EXACT image I had in mind for my "Altar of Ridicule" albeit minus one corner decoration. And then I figured that someone out there would recognize the source material and get offended...so I decided to go without a picture.

  2. Yeah, that's a great picture, but you made me realize I used the one that was not publicly available, so I switched it out for the pic from Wikipedia. A shame, since the other one was framed just right.

    Huh. I don't think folks could tell a Canaanite altar from an Israelite altar by sight.

    What's takin' you so long anyway? ;-p