In the first post in the series we discussed the concepts of a covenant and looked at some different types and forms of the covenants. In this post we will be looking at the concept of “breaking a covenant” and how that is different from annulling or voiding an agreement or contract.
Contents of a covenant
Just for completeness, let us look at the structure of a covenant again:
- Preamble: Identifies the parties involved in the treaty
- Prologue: Lists the deeds already performed by the Suzerain on behalf of the vassal
- Stipulations: Terms to be upheld by the vassal for the life of the treaty
- Provision for annual public reading: A copy of the treaty was to be read aloud annually in the vassal state for the purpose of renewal
- Divine witness to the treaty: These usually include the deities of both the Suzerain and the vassal
- Blessings if the stipulations of the treaty are upheld and curses if the stipulations are not upheld
- Sacrificial Meal / Ceremony: Both parties would share a meal to show their participation in the treaty
Here we see that a covenant does not contain cancellation or termination clauses like a contract typically would. What we do see is that we have a list of stipulations that must be kept and then blessing for keeping them and curses for not keeping them. This means that not upholding the stipulations of a covenant does not annul the covenant, it simply brings the penalty clause, the curses, into play.
The Sinai covenant treated as a contract
Very often we hear the theory that the original Sinaic covenant has been terminated because of the incident of the golden calf and therefor YHVH had to make another covenant with His people. Even if we make this mistake of treating YHVH’s covenant as a contract, this is not true. Let us do the academic exercise of analyzing this incident under modern contract law.
Let me start off by explaining some basic contract law so that we are all on the same page.
Disclaimer: Please note that this is a very simple explanation and will not be a tutorial on contract law. Contract law is a really specialized area of expertise and due to my profession as project manager I know just enough to realize that I need an expert when it comes to contracts. The basic training that I have received, simply helps me to avoid making the mistakes.
In modern contract law the fact that one party does not perform according to the contract does not automatically give the other parties to the contract the right to annul the contract (make it voidable). In order for the innocent party to end the contract, the term that is broken needs to be a condition of the contract. When a condition of the contract is broken the innocent party has the right (not obligation) to end the contract (rescind) and sue for damages caused by the non-performance of the other party. This right to rescind can also be lost due to several reasons, including delay and affirmation. It also implies that the performance of the innocent party is no longer enforceable as the contract has ended. If it is a warrantee (another form of a term, as opposed to a condition) of the contract that is broken, then the innocent party only has the right to sue for breach of contract. Thus, the innocent party has the right to be restored, not to terminate the contract.
If you would like to read a bit more about the basics of contract law (British Contract law to be specific) please have a look at this site.
With that bit of theoretical background, let us see what happens if we treat the covenant made at Sinai in this way. Before the incident of the golden calf we see the condition of the covenant expressed as follows:
Exodus 19:3–63 Moses went up to YHVH, and YHVH called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: 4 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. 5 ‘Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; 6 and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.”
Thus, the condition states that if Israel is obedient and keep the covenant then:
- They shall be YHVH’s chosen people
- From them shall come His priests
- They will be set apart unto Him
This condition does not mention anything about YHVH breaking His covenant; it is not part of the conditional term. It does imply that if Israel does not obey, they will no longer be His people, but just another one of the nations.
We do know from scripture that it did not take long for Israel to break the condition. While Moses was with YHVH, the nation decided to build a golden calf and worship before this calf. When they did this we saw the following discussion between YHVH and Moses:
11 Then Moses entreated YHVH his Elohim, and said, “O Elohim, why does Your anger burn against Your people whom You have brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 “Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, ‘With evil intent He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth’? Turn from Your burning anger and change Your mind about doing harm to Your people. 13 “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants to whom You swore by Yourself, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heavens, and all this land of which I have spoken I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’ ” 14 So YHVH changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.
Here in verse 14 we see that for several reasons YHVH decided not to harm the Israelites. We all know this was pure grace, but if we put our modern contract law hats on, we would call this an affirmation. YHVH has made the choice to waive His right to rescind. This means that the “contract” is still in force.
Thus, it is clear, even if we make the mistake of thinking in terms of contracts, that the covenant did not cease to exist when the Israelites worshipped the golden calf because the right to rescind was not exercised. This also proves clearly that grace is not something that came into force with the renewed covenant after the death of Y’shua. It was already in place from the book of Genesis!
Also, if this covenant was broken and terminated, why would Peter quote the exact same words when he talks to the believers?
1 Peter 2:4–10
4 And coming to Him as to a living stone which has been rejected by men, but is choice and precious in the sight of YHVH, 5 you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to YHVH through Y’Shua ha Messiach. 6 For this is contained in Scripture: “Behold, I lay in Zion a choice stone, a precious corner stone, And he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.” 7 This precious value, then, is for you who believe; but for those who disbelieve, “The stone which the builders rejected, This became the very corner stone,” 8 and, “A stone of stumbling and a rock of offense”; for they stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this doom they were also appointed. 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for YHVH’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; 10 for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of YHVH; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Peter is still under the impression that this covenant exists and is still in force.
But now, let us return to the correct way of looking at this. Let us treat these promises of YHVH as covenants.
Breaking of a covenant
As explained earlier, if the stipulations of a covenant are not kept, then the curses of the covenant come into effect. Let us get a bit more specific about the breaking of a covenant.
What happens if you person breaks covenant with another person?
Even if the covenant is between two people (a parity covenant), YHVH still ensures that the breaker of the covenant suffers the result of his covenantal unfaithfulness.
15 ‘But he rebelled against him by sending his envoys to Egypt that they might give him horses and many troops. Will he succeed? Will he who does such things escape? Can he indeed break the covenant and escape? 16 ‘As I live,’ declares YHVH Elohim, ‘Surely in the country of the king who put him on the throne, whose oath he despised and whose covenant he broke, in Babylon he shall die.
Also remember: a marriage is also a covenant between two people where YHVH is called as a witness!
What happens if man breaks his covenant with YHVH?
In the covenants between YHVH and His people there are some stipulations attached. If His people obey His stipulations, they will receive the benefit of the covenant – the blessings. The covenants have different stipulations and thus different ways in which these could be broken. Let us have a look at some examples of covenants and the result of man breaking these covenants with YHVH.
15 Then YHVH Elohim took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. 16 YHVH Elohim commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; 17 but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”
The result of breaking this covenant was death. By introducing sin into the world, man has brought death into the world.
1 Corinthians 15:21–22
21 For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Messiah all will be made alive.
Covenant with Abraham
1 Now YHVH said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father’s house, To the land which I will show you; 2 And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; 3 And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”
In the previous post, we saw that this covenant is in the form of a royal grant treaty. This implies that there is no obligation on the decedents of Abraham. There are no rules that may not be broken specified here; thus no explicit condition. However, it is an implied condition in any royal grant treaty that the receiver of the grant and his descendants stay loyal to the giver of the grant. For some reason, during the stay in Egypt the nation was not longer loyal to YHVH. We found proof of this in the book of the prophet Ezekiel.
5 and say to them, ‘Thus says YHVH Elohim, “On the day when I chose Israel and swore to the descendants of the house of Jacob and made Myself known to them in the land of Egypt, when I swore to them, saying, I am YHVH your Elohim, 6 on that day I swore to them, to bring them out from the land of Egypt into a land that I had selected for them, flowing with milk and honey, which is the glory of all lands. 7 “I said to them, ‘Cast away, each of you, the detestable things of his eyes, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am YHVH your Elohim.’ 8 “But they rebelled against Me and were not willing to listen to Me; they did not cast away the detestable things of their eyes, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt. Then I resolved to pour out My wrath on them, to accomplish My anger against them in the midst of the land of Egypt. 9 “But I acted for the sake of My name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations among whom they lived, in whose sight I made Myself known to them by bringing them out of the land of Egypt. 10 “So I took them out of the land of Egypt and brought them into the wilderness.
Thus, they were being cursed via slavery and oppression under the Egyptians. By the grace and mercy of YHVH, they were saved out of their slavery. The covenant with Abraham was the reason YHVH delivered the Israelites out of Egyptian captivity. He is a covenant-keeping Elohim!
24 So YHVH heard their groaning; and YHVH remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
YHVH remembered the covenant He made with their forefathers and brought the repentant Israelites (if we assume that the groaning was repentance) out of captivity; back to the land of Israel that He had promised to Abraham. Thus the grant to Abraham still stayed intact, even thought the descendants did not stay loyal to YHVH. Yet again, alone by His grace!
Covenant at Sinai
The covenant at Sinai is a typical Suzerainty covenant (as detailed in the previous post) that had stipulations that Israel had to keep. We also see recorded in Scripture the result of them not obeying these rules.
14 ‘But if you do not obey Me and do not carry out all these commandments, 15 if, instead, you reject My statutes, and if your soul abhors My ordinances so as not to carry out all My commandments, and so break My covenant, 16 I, in turn, will do this to you: I will appoint over you a sudden terror, consumption and fever that will waste away the eyes and cause the soul to pine away; also, you will sow your seed uselessly, for your enemies will eat it up.
Here we see that the nation can break the covenant by not obeying YHVH and carrying out His commandments. The result of this is not the annulling of the covenant, but it causes the nation to be cursed as described in the rest of Leviticus 26.
The result of man breaking the covenant
We have now seen that different covenants can be broken in different ways with the ensuing results. There are actually still more ways in which a covenant can be broken with different results. From scripture we see that there is more than one way in which the covenant can be broken. It can be broken:
- By one person with the result upon himself (and his family)
- By one person with the result on the whole nation
- Or by the nation as a whole
An individual with the result upon himself
The nation was again given the commandment to obey the Sabbath.
14 ‘Therefore you are to observe the sabbath, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people.
In the book of Numbers, we see the result of a person not keeping this commandment. The result of this action has an effect on the person, but not on the nation.
32 Now while the sons of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering wood on the sabbath day. 33 Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation; 34 and they put him in custody because it had not been declared what should be done to him. 35 Then YHVH said to Moses, “The man shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.”
Thus the individual that had broken the covenant, suffered the direct result of sin – death. The rest of the nation did not suffer.
An individual with the result upon the nation
An example of the acts of individuals placing a curse upon the whole nation can be seen in Joshua where an individual took things that were under then ban and the nation was defeated in war.
1 But the sons of Israel acted unfaithfully in regard to the things under the ban, for Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, from the tribe of Judah, took some of the things under the ban, therefore the anger of YHVH burned against the sons of Israel.
11 “Israel has sinned, and they have also transgressed My covenant which I commanded them. And they have even taken some of the things under the ban and have both stolen and deceived. Moreover, they have also put them among their own things. 12 “Therefore the sons of Israel cannot stand before their enemies; they turn their backs before their enemies, for they have become accursed. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy the things under the ban from your midst.
Here, the whole nation was punished via a war they lost for the actions of Achan. Eventually his complete family had to suffer the curse of his sin.
24 Then Joshua and all Israel with him, took Achan the son of Zerah, the silver, the mantle, the bar of gold, his sons, his daughters, his oxen, his donkeys, his sheep, his tent and all that belonged to him; and they brought them up to the valley of Achor. 25 Joshua said, “Why have you troubled us? YHVH will trouble you this day.” And all Israel stoned them with stones; and they burned them with fire after they had stoned them with stones.
Once the nation had cast this sin from their midst, they were completely restored to the covenant again and YHVH gave them victory over the enemy.
1 Now YHVH said to Joshua, “Do not fear or be dismayed. Take all the people of war with you and arise, go up to Ai; see, I have given into your hand the king of Ai, his people, his city, and his land. 2 “You shall do to Ai and its king just as you did to Jericho and its king; you shall take only its spoil and its cattle as plunder for yourselves. Set an ambush for the city behind it.”
The nation as a whole not keeping the commandments
7 ‘For I solemnly warned your fathers in the day that I brought them up from the land of Egypt, even to this day, warning persistently, saying, “Listen to My voice.” 8 ‘Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but walked, each one, in the stubbornness of his evil heart; therefore I brought on them all the words of this covenant, which I commanded them to do, but they did not.’ ”
We also see many examples in scripture where the nation of Israel did not keep these commandments (including not worshiping idols). In every case, they were cursed in some way and upon their return to YHVH, were restored to His covenant. During the time of the judges we see that YHVH had to send 15 judges (including Eli and Samuel) to restore the nation after they had been oppressed by their surrounding neighbors. During the time of the kings, we see several kings, including Asa, Jehoshaphat, Joash, and Uzziah restoring the nation to YHVH. Not all of them were truly successful in their restoration attempts. However, never does YHVH break His covenant with Israel; He remains their Elohim. He punishes them as He promised, but then when they do return to Him, He restores His covenant with them.
The nation of Israel was given the commandment to observe the Sabbatical (7th) and Jubilee (50th) years once they had entered the land and became a free nation with a land of their own.
2 “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When you come into the land which I shall give you, then the land shall have a sabbath to YHVH. 3 ‘Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its crop, 4 but during the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath rest, a sabbath to YHVH; you shall not sow your field nor prune your vineyard.
Later in the book of Leviticus, we are also told that the people will be sent into exile if they do not allow the land to enjoy its Sabbaths.
34 ‘Then the land will enjoy its sabbaths all the days of the desolation, while you are in your enemies’ land; then the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths. 35 ‘All the days of its desolation it will observe the rest which it did not observe on your sabbaths, while you were living on it.
However, the nation as a whole did not obey these commandments and did not allow the land to rest and/or set their slaves free. The curse that was put upon the nation as a whole was the curse of the sword and eventual deportation of the nation to foreign lands (Assyria and Babylon).
2 Chronicles 36:19–21
19 Then they burned the house of YHVH and broke down the wall of Jerusalem, and burned all its fortified buildings with fire and destroyed all its valuable articles. 20 Those who had escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon; and they were servants to him and to his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia, 21 to fulfill the word of YHVH by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its sabbaths. All the days of its desolation it kept sabbath until seventy years were complete.
Yet the prophet Jeremiah had prophesied before the exile to Babylon that YHVH would put an end to the exile after seventy years.
11 ‘This whole land will be a desolation and a horror, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years. 12 ‘Then it will be when seventy years are completed I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation,’ declares YHVH, ‘for their iniquity, and the land of the Chaldeans; and I will make it an everlasting desolation.
Thus we see here the nation breaking the covenant with YHVH and their punishment as a result. We also see that this is a curse and not the annulling of the covenant, as Jeremiah prophesied before that this would only be a temporary arrangement.
We find several scriptures where YHVH makes it clear that His covenant is made not only with a specific person, but also with his descendants. This means that the covenant is forever. In some case we also have the covenants being explicitly called an everlasting covenant. Let us look at proof points for some specific covenants.
Covenant with Noah
The covenant made with Noah after the flood is an everlasting covenant as it is made with Noah and with his descendants after him.
8 Then YHVH spoke to Noah and to his sons with him, saying, 9 “Now behold, I Myself do establish My covenant with you, and with your descendants after you; 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you; of all that comes out of the ark, even every beast of the earth. 11 “I establish My covenant with you; and all flesh shall never again be cut off by the water of the flood, neither shall there again be a flood to destroy the earth.”
Covenant with Abraham
7 “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be Elohim to you and to your descendants after you.
Thus, it is very clear that this covenant that promises Abraham a dynasty and a land, is made with him and all his descendants and this will be everlasting. I do not think we can get it much clearer than that.
When the nation of Israel did not stay faithful to YHVH, He told Moses and His prophets that He would punish the nation by sending them out of the land. However, even before Judah was sent to Babylon He had already told His prophet that He would bring them back to the land that He had given to Abraham and his descendants. As we see in Genesis, YHVH calls this an everlasting covenant. If they are no longer loyal to YHVH, He punishes, but does not forget.
41 I also was acting with hostility against them, to bring them into the land of their enemies—or if their uncircumcised heart becomes humbled so that they then make amends for their iniquity, 42 then I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and My covenant with Abraham as well, and I will remember the land. 43 ‘For the land will be abandoned by them, and will make up for its sabbaths while it is made desolate without them. They, meanwhile, will be making amends for their iniquity, because they rejected My ordinances and their soul abhorred My statutes. 44 ‘Yet in spite of this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, nor will I so abhor them as to destroy them, breaking My covenant with them; for I am YHVH their Elohim. 45 ‘But I will remember for them the covenant with their ancestors, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their Elohim. I am YHVH.’ ”
YHVH explicitly states that He will not break this covenant, even if Israel breaks it.
44 ‘Yet in spite of this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, nor will I so abhor them as to destroy them, breaking My covenant with them; for I am YHVH their Elohim. 45 ‘But I will remember for them the covenant with their ancestors, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their Elohim. I am YHVH.’ ” 46 These are the statutes and ordinances and laws which YHVH established between Himself and the sons of Israel through Moses at Mount Sinai.
36 “Now therefore thus says YHVH the Elohim of Israel concerning this city of which you say, ‘It is given into the hand of the king of Babylon by sword, by famine and by pestilence.’ 37 “Behold, I will gather them out of all the lands to which I have driven them in My anger, in My wrath and in great indignation; and I will bring them back to this place and make them dwell in safety. 38 “They shall be My people, and I will be their Elohim; 39 and I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me always, for their own good and for the good of their children after them. 40 “I will make an everlasting covenant with them that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; and I will put the fear of Me in their hearts so that they will not turn away from Me.
Covenant with David
YHVH also made a covenant with King David that his throne shall be established forever after his death.
2 Samuel 7:12–16
12 “When your days are complete and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your descendant after you, who will come forth from you, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 “He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 “I will be a father to him and he will be a son to Me; when he commits iniquity, I will correct him with the rod of men and the strokes of the sons of men, 15 but My lovingkindness shall not depart from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. 16 “Your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever.” ’ ”
Later in one of the Psalms, we have a description of what YHVH had said to His godly ones. Here we see that YHVH states that even though the sons of David will not keep His commandments, he will punish them but His covenant will not be violated.
30 “If his sons forsake My law and do not walk in My judgments, 31 If they violate My statutes And do not keep My commandments, 32 Then I will punish their transgression with the rod And their iniquity with stripes. 33 “But I will not break off My lovingkindness from him, Nor deal falsely in My faithfulness. 34 “My covenant I will not violate, Nor will I alter the utterance of My lips. 35 “Once I have sworn by My holiness; I will not lie to David. 36 “His descendants shall endure forever And his throne as the sun before Me.
From this study, we have seen that YHVH has made several everlasting covenants with His people. These covenants do contain explicit or implicit stipulations. Although Israel has broken these covenants by their disobedience and unfaithfulness, YHVH has chosen to still keep these covenants as everlasting covenants. When we break these covenants, we do experience the results and we have to suffer the curses that are contained in these covenants. These curses could have a result on ourselves or the nation as a whole. Our repentance of our sins brings us in good covenantal standing with YHVH.
In the next article we will start looking in more detail at specific covenants. Please ensure that you subscribe here to our e-mail list to ensure that you do not miss it.
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