I have been interested in the “covenant formula” for a while, because it appeared to be an important aspect of the covenant language of the Old Testament. I found myself further drawn to the covenant formula when I began to notice its appearance in Revelation 21:3 and 21:7. In The Covenant Formula, Rendtorff provides a helpful introduction to the covenant formula and its relationship to various elements of Old Testament theology. I will attempt to summarize some of the significant points that he makes about the covenant formula.
Before one can study the covenant formula, one must know what it is. So, what is it? According to Rendtorff, the formula has three basic “versions.” Version A is “I will be God for you.” Version B is “You shall be a people for me.” Version C is the combination of version A and B into a single statement ( Rendtorff 13). In these statements, A or B can come first. Now that I have spelled out what the covenant formula is, you may recognize it as a common formula that you find in the Old Testament. Rendtorff also reminds us that there are other variations on the covenant formula that do not use the exact words of versions A or B. For example, Exodus 19:6 says, “You shall be to me (for) a possession,” which is surely related to the declaration “You shall be a people for me” (Rendtorff 27-28).
The formula is significant and important to notice, because it becomes a way of referring to God’s covenant with his people. It occurs in passages that contain the word covenant, but it also points the reader to the covenant even where “covenant” does not occur. The formula has a tendency to appear in certain theologically important passages. It occurs for the first time in Genesis 17.
The Covenant Formula and Abraham in Genesis 17
“I will establish my covenant between me and you and your seed after you for all of their generations as an eternal covenant, in order to be God to you and to your seed after you” (Genesis 17:7)
“And I will be their God” (end of Genesis 17:8)
It seems entirely fitting that the covenant formula appears for the first time in the context of God’s promises to Abraham. Abraham is the father of the people of God and therefore central to the Old Testament’s people of God theme. God speaks about the “covenant” that he is making with Abraham in Genesis 17:2 and 17:4. Then, in Genesis 17:7-8, the covenant formula (version A) appears twice. The formula occurs in Genesis 17:7 right alongside of “I will establish my covenant.” Therefore, the covenant formula occurs “right at the beginning of God’s history with Israel” and serves to explain “what God’s covenant means for Abraham and his descendants” (Rendtorff 15). God will be God to Abraham and to his seed after him.
Not only that, but there are two sides to the covenant. It is a gift that Abraham receives, but it comes with an obligation. In Genesis 17, entry into the covenant places one obligation or commandment before Abraham. He must circumcise every male. Anyone who is not circumcised has violated the covenant (17:14) (Rendtorff 58).
Given its prominence in Genesis 17:7-8, it is not surprising that the covenant formula will occur again and again in the Old Testament in passages that have to do with God’s covenant relationship with his people. Notice that at the origination of the covenant formula the emphasis falls upon “I will be God for you.” The introduction of God’s covenant people (“you shall be my people”) will occur with the next instance of the covenant formula in Exodus 6:6.
Coming Up: The covenant formula in Exodus 6:6 and beyond.