In The Meaning of Marriage, Tim Keller writes:
Throughout history there have always been consumer relationships. Such a relationship lasts only as long as the vendor meets your needs at a cost acceptable to you. If another vendor delivers better services or the same services at a better cost, you have no obligation to stay in a relationship to the original vendor. In consumer relationships, it could be said that the individual’s needs are more important than the relationship.
There have also always been covenantal relationships. These are relationships that are binding on us. In a covenant, the good of the relationship takes precedence over the immediate needs of the individual.
What, then, is a covenant? It creates a particular kind of bond that is disappearing in our society. It is a relationship far more intimate and personal than a merely legal, business relationship. Yet at the same time, it is far more durable, binding, and unconditional than one based on mere feeling and affection. A covenant relationship is a stunning blend of law and love.
Is this description true of all covenants? Easton’s Bible Dictionary defines “covenant” at its root as “a contract or agreement between two parties.” So does “covenant” simply mean “contract,” or does it mean the particular kind of contract Keller describes?
Now, it’s true that in the New Testament almost all uses of the word translated covenant (diatheke) refer to God’s covenant with people. The two exceptions refer to human agreements in general. Because no details are provided about the latter, you could argue that they might possibly fall into the kind of covenant described here.
In the Old Testament it’s a different story. While there are many uses of covenant (berith) referring to God’s agreement with man, there are also many usages of it in agreements between people. Do the agreements between people match the description Keller gave? Some of them do, but others certainly do not. For example:
In Genesis 21:27-32 Abraham and Abimelech made an agreement that Abraham dug a certain well. Was this an intimate and personal relationship? Did the good of the relationship take precedence over the needs of the individual? No, this is as simple a business agreement as you could expect. They simply agreed on who owned the well.
A number of treaties between nations are recorded. In 1 Kings 20:34, Ben-hadad makes a covenant with Ahab—not out of selfless love, but to avoid being killed. In Ezekiel 17:12-18 the king of Babylon makes a covenant with one of the royal offspring, not out of selfless love, but simply to get a commitment that Israel would not rebel.
In Joshua 9:3-21 the Gibeonites deceive Joshua into thinking they are from a long way away, tricking him into making a covenant with them to let them live. Is this an intimate and personal covenant? Does it involve selflessly looking out for the good of the other party rather than your own? No.
In Isaiah 28:15-18, Isaiah says that the hearers have made a covenant with death. Does this mean that they had an intimate and personal relationship with death? Did the good of their relationship with death take precedence over their own well-being?
In Psalm 83:5, nations make a covenant to wipe out Israel. Their covenant isn’t with Israel, so it’s not a problem for the definition of covenant that they want to do harm to Israel. But is this an intimate and personal relationship?
In Hosea 12:1, it’s said that people multiply falsehood and violence, and make a covenant with Assyria. Is their covenant with Assyria durable and unconditional, when it’s just said that they multiply falsehood?
In light of these verses, it is not correct to define berith to mean a selfless, intimate, unconditional relationship. A berith is simply a contract. Some are selfless, intimate, and unconditional, especially ones where God is a party—but others are not. So if you want to describe that kind of arrangement, it is not enough to say “covenant”—you have to specify which kind of covenant you’re talking about.
Now, it could be said that “covenant” is English and berith is Hebrew, and so the Old Testament doesn’t have anything to say about what the English word “covenant” is used for. We don’t use it today in non-religious use, so maybe we can define the English “covenant” to refer specifically to that kind of berith. Unfortunately, English translators have already chosen what they will use “covenant” for, and it is for any contract, regardless of nature. To lean on the English word “covenant” to refer to just one type of contract risks confusion when readers of the Bible see “covenant” used in other contexts.
Why does this matter? It matters because of the risk of eisegesis, reading into the text. If someone has been told that “covenant” always refers to a selfless, intimate, unconditional relationship, and then they read the word “covenant” in the Old Testament, they will assume that that usage of the word definitely includes that sense. This could result in confusion if that meaning doesn’t make sense in that context, or, worse, misunderstanding if that meaning can make sense in that context, but it is not what the author intended.
In 2 Timothy 2:15, Paul exhorts Timothy to “be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handle the word of truth.” Defining the word “covenant” to refer to a specific type of contract is to not be diligent about accurately handling the word.
I’ve struggled about whether to say the next point. At this point it should not be a surprise to me if an adherent of covenant theology misuses the word “covenant.” The teachers of covenant theology I’ve run across have been quick to assert how all of the Bible is structured by covenants, but slow to show Biblical evidence for that view. The reason I was willing to read Tim Keller’s book on recommendation was that I wanted to give him a chance to do differently. But the pattern of covenant theologians means that, even on recommendation, I should be prepared for inaccurate handling of the word “covenant” in their works.
Back to the topic of marriage, the takeaway from this study is that the aspects we should be emulating in marriage are not about what the Bible refers to as covenants in general, but God’s kind of covenants.