What is a Covenant? (Topic Under Revision)

Short Answer: In the temple, a covenant is a binding agreement between God and an individual or a couple. In the scriptures, God makes covenants with both individuals and groups.

Longer Answer:

Although there are differences, a covenant is functionally very similar to a contract or treaty. Among the ancient Israelites and their neighbors, the covenant pattern had several parts, though not every part was expressed in every covenant, nor was the order of these elements rigidly fixed. Understanding this pattern can help us understand the scriptures and the temple ordinances.

  1. The Preamble- The two parties making the covenant are identified. I’m going use buying a car as an example of a contract, the modern counterpart of a contract. The “preamble” of a contract specifies that the two parties involved are, say, Smithson Honda Dealership and John Doe.
  2. The Historical Prologue- The relationship of the two parties is spelled out. In the covenant at Sinai, for example, “I am the Lord your God. I brought you out of Egypt and delivered you from the house of bondage.”
  3. Stipulations or Terms – The requirements of the covenant. In Exodus, these would be the 10 Commandments and the other stipulations or commandments that Moses gives. In our car example, the stipulations would be that you pay x amount of money per month for y months to the car dealership (or bank). These stipulations can be quite detailed.
  4. Deposition of the Text- The covenant/contract is written down and made known in detail to all involved parties.
  5. Witnesses- Israelites frequently called upon God, heaven, and earth to witness their covenants. Other nations made covenants in the names of whatever gods they worshipped. The car dealership might have multiple signatures on the document, or perhaps a notary public to provide an official witness.
  6. Blessings and Cursings- Covenants frequently spelled out precisely what the blessing was for obedience to the covenant. Similarly, they also spelled out the opposite of a blessing, a cursing or penalty if the covenant was not kept. The seriousness of the covenant at Sinai can be clearly seen in Deuteronomy 27:14-28:68, where both the blessings and cursings appear in graphic detail. In essence, God “set before [them] life and death, blessings and cursings.” (Deuteronomy 30:19) Similarly, our car contract probably specifies that if we make our payments in accordance with the agreement, then at a certain time, the car legally becomes ours without being holden to the bank. If we do not make our payments, breaking the agreement, then the dealership sends someone to repossess the car.

All of these elements can be seen in the experience of the Israelites at Sinai (Exo. 20-24, esp. 24:5-8) and elsewhere throughout the Old Testament, and even the Book of Mormon, as in Alma 46:21-22. Covenants were enacted in a covenant ceremony or ritual, most frequently involving the sacrifice of an animal. Sometimes the covenant ceremony also included a ritual meal.

In Hebrew, one does not “make” a covenant. Rather, one “cuts” a covenant (Heb. karat berit), because an animal is “cut” and killed in the covenant-making process. (Joseph Smith seems to have been particularly aware of this, as JST Hebrew 9:17-18 demonstrates. This passage is not included among the JST excerpts in the LDS KJV, but it can be read here.) Normally, the person who brought the animal cut its throat with his right hand and collected the the blood with his left. This blood was the “blood of the covenant,” as in Exo 24:8. When instituting the sacrament, Jesus invoked covenantal/sacrificial symbolism by calling the sacramental wine “the blood of the new covenant.” ( Matt. 26:28.)

In effect, the sacrificed animal stood as a proxy, as a physical representation of what would happen to the covenant-maker if they failed to live up to the terms of the covenant. Scholars refer to this as a “simile curse.” In Exodus 24, the “blood of the covenant” is splashed on the Israelites, as the blood would be if their throats had been cut as the animal’s throat had been cut. It was a “symbolic action in which the people were identified with the sacrificed animal, so that the fate of the latter is presented as the fate to be expected by the people if they violated their sacred promise (i.e., it is a form of self-curse). Thus the ratification ceremony was, in effect, the pledging of their lives as a guarantee of obedience to the divine will.” (Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1:1185 “Covenant.”)

The Israelites’ neighbors made these curses explicit in the written record of their treaty/covenants. “This head is not the head of the ram; it is the head of Mati’ilu. . . . Just as the ram’s head is torn off, . . . so may the head of [Mati'ilu] be torn off if he breaks the covenant.” Another example, chosen from many, comes from the city of Alalakh- “Abbael swore the oath to Yarimlim and cut the neck of a lamb, [saying] ‘If I take back what I have given you [then may such happen to me.]‘ ” Similar curses in the Book of Mormon are discussed in this article.

Thus, the Israelites in Exodus 24 bound themselves to follow the Law (Heb. torah or “teaching”) of Moses on pain of death, a very solemn and serious covenant indeed. Given that they almost immediately began to have serious obedience problems, why don’t we have more stories of Israelites being killed for violating the Law? At least two human witnesses were required to put someone to death, according to Deuteronomy 17:6. This rarely happened, at least as written in the Old Testament. Why didn’t God, who is both a reliable witness and sees all, exercise justice and enforce his covenantal right as sovereign? The answer is that God is also merciful and, knowing that his children would not be perfect, provided a way to teach about the atonement and allow the Israelites time to learn and repent.

Leviticus chapter 1 describes the “burnt” offering. This sacrifice required a male animal with no imperfections to be brought to the door of the Temple/Tabernacle. The person offering it placed his hand on the animal’s head, indicating that the animal was the proxy for the person- the animal was “acceptable on his behalf,” or in his place (Lev. 1:4.) Then the offerer killed the animal by cutting the throat and collecting the blood. The priests then scattered the blood and burned the animal completely upon the altar of the Temple.

In this way, the curse, the agreed-upon covenantal penalty for violating the terms of the covenant, was still carried out, but by proxy, on a male animal without blemish. Having made and ratified the covenant by sacrifice (Psa. 50:5), each sacrifice offered after that represented atonement for the person (Lev. 1:4), as well as a reminder and renewal of the original covenant.

I should note that what I am setting forth here is not the full Law of Moses, which was a complex and diverse set of “performances and of ordinances, a law which they were to observe strictly from day to day, to keep them in remembrance of God and their duty towards him.” I have simplified the presentation somewhat to show how “these things were types of things to come” (Mosiah 13:30-31.) That is, the sacrifices of the law of Moses typified “the great and last sacrifice” (Alma 34:10-14).

Though it should be obvious how this relates to Jesus and the Atonement, let me point out a few scriptures. Remember that “the reward of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Paul taught that Jesus “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’” (Gal. 3:13). The Law of Moses specified in Deuteronomy 21:22-23 that someone who committed a crime worthy of death was cursed and their body would be publicly displayed on a tree or stake. Paul draws on that passage to show that Jesus, like the burnt offering, bears the curse of the covenant for us, goes in our place, and dies in our behalf. “Surely, he hath borne our sins, and carried our sorrows.” (Isa 53:4). In doing so, Jesus, by his own blood, both fulfilled the Old Covenant and was the sacrificial animal for ratifying the New Covenant, which we make at baptism and renew each week by partaking of the sacrament. (See Jeremiah 31:31, Hebrews 9, Matthew 26:28, Moroni 4-5)

So just how does all this relate to Temple covenants? For starters, we don’t sacrifice animals there and there’s no blood involved. But, the ordinances and other things in the Temple are highly symbolic. As with all symbols, they can mean different things depending on the context they’re in and the background of the interpreter. Some symbols may already be familiar to you, depending on your background and familiarity with symbolic systems.

The ordinances of the Temple are strongly rooted in the symbolism of the Old Testament sacrificial system, which, as shown above, represented covenant making and atonement. The Atonement itself is rooted in the symbolism of the Old Testament sacrifices. Sacrifice, atonement and covenant are very closely tied together in the scriptures AND in the Temple. (See the Ensign article on Atonement here.)

As noted above, Israelites sacrificed animals in making covenants, binding them to obey the Lord’s commandments. Indeed, they were commanded to do so in specific terms by the Law of Moses. However, Psalm 51:17 also teaches that “the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart….” That should sound familiar. Once Jesus fulfilled the Law of Moses by his death, he taught the Nephites that they should “offer up unto me no more the shedding of blood; yea, your sacrifices and your burnt offerings shall be done away, for I will accept none of your sacrifices and your burnt offerings.” What were they to offer as a sacrifice? “And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit.” (3 Nephi 9:19-20) In other words, the Nephites were to continue making their sacrifices of will, of humbling themselves and committing to do what God asked, just as they had done all along, but these were not to accompany animal sacrifice. Again, note the connections between atonement, sacrifice, and humbly keeping covenants in 2 Ne. 2:7 “Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit;” Ritual action (sacrifice) was associated with and designed to teach moral action (obediance to covenants).

We make the same covenants of obedience that the Israelites and Nephites made, but without the shedding of blood, just as they did after Christ came and the Law of Moses was no longer in effect. Are our covenants any less serious than theirs? Speaking to those who had made Temple covenants, Heber C. Kimball said “You can’t sin so cheap now as you could before.” Heber C. Kimball: Mormon Patriarch and Pioneer (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 196): 118.

As I mentioned, there are differences between covenants and contracts. For example, in today’s world contracts are hammered out by lawyers acting in the selfish interests of the respective parties. By contrast, God “does nothing save it be

In our covenants, it is God who sets the terms and the resultant blessings and cursings. God is our “partner” in the covenant, and thus any breach of the covenant can come only from our side. God is perfectly faithful, and the scriptures are unambiguous on this point. “I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.” (D&C 82:10). “God is no lying mortal, nor a fallen being who arbitrarily changes his mind. Has he ever promised, and then not done it? Has he ever spoken, and not brought it to pass?” (My loose translation of Numbers 23:19). “Who am I, saith the Lord, that have promised and have not fulfilled?” (D&C 58:31) In other words, when God predicates certain blessings on our obedience and faithfulness, we can know that that promise is certain.

When men go forward and attend to other ordinances such as receiving their endowments, their washings, their anointings, receiving the promises connected therewith, these promises will be fulfilled to the very letter in time and in eternity—that is, if they themselves are true to the conditions upon which the blessings are promised.

- Elder George Q. Cannon, Gospel Truth, p.177.

Now these people go into the Temple; instruction is given them there that these ordinances are sacred, and holy, and must be kept. They raise their hands, and they enter into a covenant that they will observe and keep these covenants which they receive in the house of the Lord. Then straightway they go out, and, like the man that James speaks of who looked into the glass, saw his face, and then went away and forgot what manner of man he was, so do they. I say unto you, the Lord is not bound, unless you keep the covenant. The Lord never breaks his covenant. When he makes a covenant with one of us, he will not break it. If it is going to be broken, we will break it. But when it is broken, he is under no obligation to give us the blessing, and we shall not receive it. There are people who go into the house of the Lord and receive covenants which are based on faithfulness, who go out and are unfaithful, shall they not receive their reward?

- President Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 2:256-7.

See also The Holy Temple, chapter 15.

Further readings on covenants and the covenant pattern from the Temple Index. ©

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