The Hebrew word for covenant is brit. It is one of the most frequently used words in the Hebrew Scriptures, appearing 270 times. Brit is also one of the Hebrew Bible’s most important concepts.
The God of Prophet Abraham (a), Prophet Ishmael (a), Prophet Isaac (a), and Prophet Jacob/Israel (a) is a covenant-making God who makes covenants with both special individuals and whole communities.
God first made a covenant with the non-Jewish Prophet Noah (a); that the world would never again be destroyed by a flood (Genesis 9:8-17). The rainbow, called in Hebrew ot ha-brit (a sign of the covenant), is a symbol of that promise.
According to rabbinic tradition, there is a set of basic universal commandments which all humans, Jews or non-Jews, are obliged to obey. These laws predate the Mosaic covenant by many centuries, and are called mitzvot b’nei Noach (the commandments of the children of Noah), because Judaism considers all humans to be the spiritual descendants of Prophet Noah (a).
Centuries later Allah made a covenant with Prophet Abraham (a) (Genesis 15:18; 22:16-18, and 26:4), promising him blessings and innumerable descendants. Prophet Abraham’s (a) son Prophet Ishmael (a), and grandson Prophet Jacob-Israel (a), both have God incorporated in their names witch both end in ‘el’ the Semitic word for God. (Qur’an 3:84)
Allah also made a covenant with Prophet Ishmael (a) “…We Covenanted with Abraham and Isma’il, that they should sanctify My House for those who circle around it, or use it as a retreat, or bow down, or prostrate themselves.” (Quran 2:125)
Still later God made a covenant with Prophet David (a) (II Samuel 7:11-16), giving him the gift of kingship and dynasty.
One of the unique features of the religion of Bani Israel [the People of Israel/Jacob (a)] is the covenant between the whole community/Ummah People of Israel and its God. This was a mutual agreement. A promise of ongoing aid and protection in return for the Jewish People’s ongoing loyalty to the one and only God.
The Jewish mutual relationship concept is more like a modern marriage relationship than the traditional parent-child or King-subject relationship of the past.
A covenant between a deity and a people/Ummah was unknown in ancient polytheistic cultures because the many gods of all the other peoples did not demand exclusive loyalty from any religious community [Ummah].
Israel’s monotheistic God, however, demanded Israel’s total loyalty: “You shall have no other gods besides me.” (Exodus 20:3)
The best known commemoration of God’s covenant with his people is called in Hebrew brit milah (the covenant of circumcision). In rabbinic literature this is also called bri-to shel avraham avinu (the covenant of Abraham our father) (Avot 3:11), or brit kodesh (the holy covenant) (Berachot 14a).
Many other things are associated with God’s covenant, such as Sakinah/aron ha-brit (the ark of the covenant) which held luhot ha-brit (the tablets of the covenant), on which were inscribed the ten commandments, evidence of the covenant that God made with Banu Israel. (Deuteronomy 9:9)
The Qur’an states: “Their prophet (Samuel) said to them (The People of Israel), “Indeed, a sign of his (Saul’s) kingship is that the chest (ark of the covenant) will come to you in which is Sakinah- assurance (Ghali translates; serenity) from your Lord, and a remnant of what the family of Moses and the family of Aaron had left (the ten commandments’ stone tablets), carried by the angels. Indeed, in that is a sign for you, if you are (indeed) believers.” (2:248)
And the Qur’an says “It is God who sent down Sakinah tranquillity into the hearts of the believers, that they would increase in faith along with their (present) faith.” (48:4). Thus, the experience of Sakinah is both God’s gift of enhanced confirming faith, and the product of one’s own faithfulness. (Qur’an 9:26 & 40)
Also the Mosaic covenant, the first written collection of Divine commandments which were presented at Mount Sinai (Exodus 20-23), is called sefer ha-brit (the book of the covenant).
There is also a well-known Messianic Age prophecy uttered by Prophet Jeremiah (a): “‘The time is coming’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will make a new brit/covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.'” (Jeremiah 31:31)
Christians until recently claimed that Prophet Jeremiah (a) implies the Jewish Scriptures have been replaced by the Christian New Testament, and that God somehow has abrogated the brit/ covenant he made with the Jewish people. Consequently, most Christians concluded that the “Old Testament” is out of date except as evidence that Prophet Jesus (a) was the Messianic ‘Son of God”.
The Roman Catholic Church has officially denied this now; and teaches that both the old and the new covenants are valid.
Actually, the Hebrew adjective “new” used with “covenant” does not imply the replacement of an earlier covenant, but only implies its renewal. Furthermore, the translation “testament” is not good because it misses the connection with Jeremiah 31:31, and may be misconstrued by an English reader to mean testament in the sense of last will and testament, rather than covenant.
Allen S Maller is an ordained Reform Rabbi who retired in 2006 after 39 years as the Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, California. His web site is: www.rabbimaller.com. Rabbi Maller blogs in the Times of Israel. His book ‘Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms: A Reform Rabbi’s Reflections on the Profound Connectedness of Islam and Judaism’ (31 articles previously published by Islamic web sites) is for sale ($15) on Amazon.