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Biblical Archaeology Review 49:1, Spring 2023

Epistles: How Many?

Biblical Archaeology Review

How many covenants did Yahweh establish with his people in the Hebrew Bible?

Answer: Five

In the Hebrew Bible, Israel’s God Yahweh gives five successive covenants to his people. He does so through the agency of some of the Bible’s most prominent figures: Noah (Genesis 6:18; 9:9–17), Abraham (Genesis 12; 15; 17), Moses (Exodus 19; 24), Aaron (Exodus 29; Numbers 18:19), and David (2 Samuel 7). Called by the Hebrew term berit, Yahweh’s covenants established a relationship between God and his people, and they separated and distinguished Israel from the rest of the nations (see “Covenants in Context,”). In each case, the first prerequisite of such a special and intimate relationship—both for Yahweh and the people—was love (Hebrew: khesed), hence the marriage vocabulary in the biblical depictions of that relationship.

Much of the Hebrew Bible, however, is devoted to telling the story of how the people broke each of the five covenants. Therefore, God promised a new, permanent covenant (Jeremiah 31:31–40) that he would write directly on the hearts of his people. While for Jeremiah this was tied to the pledge of restoration after the Babylonian Exile, the New Testament authors interpret this promise as fulfilled through Jesus (Luke 22:20; Hebrews 8:7–13).

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