Jewish Concepts: Berit
The most profound and deeply brilliant concept of the Hebrew world view is the concept of the berit between God and his chosen people. Translated into English as "covenant," the word means something closer to "promise," or "pledge." In the "promise" to Abraham, God chooses Abraham and his offspring as a special people, in fact, as the only people of God. He promises Abraham that his offspring will occupy and own the lands of Palestine, that they will be innumerable, and that they will enjoy the protection and care of God over all their oppressors. It is this promise and the relationship it implies between Yahweh, the one and only god, and his people that defines the Hebrew cultural and historical identity.
The relationship implied by the term "berit" is the relationship between a lord and his servants, for in Hebrew, a "berit" is a promise that is made unilaterally by a lord to his servants that he will protect and provide for those servants. The promise is not required by law nor forced on the lord by his servantsit is entirely voluntary. The word "covenant" means "business deal," or "contract," and implies a promise to deliver one end of the contract if the other end is met. But a covenant is a bilateral agreement; it takes the participation of both parties and they are bound only by the terms of the covenant or agreement. God's berit , however, is undertaken unilaterally without the participation of Abraham or his people in the agreement. Abraham is simply selected. As implied in the word, the relationship of God to his chosen people is a relationship of a lord to his servants; the chosen people, as servants, owe to God primarily obedience. In this sense, the Abrahamic berit is open-ended; by choosing Abraham's offspring, God is demanding of that offspring unquestioning obedience for all the rules to come in the future. For God has not revealed his rules to his chosen people in the time of Abraham; that will come centuries later when the Hebrews are delivered from Egypt.
So while it is traditional to translate the word "covenant" and to describe the relationship between Yahweh and his people as "covenantal," think of the word as meaning "promise," which is how the Greeks translate it when they translate the Torah into Greek. The Romans translate the word as "contractual pledge" and "testament" (which is a will that disposes of one's goods after one's death), from whence we get "covenant" (as well as "Old Testament" and "New Testament," which are nonsensical titles).
In your extended understanding of "berit," use the following:
"Promise": in the covenant with Abraham, Yahweh promises that the Hebrews will be a chosen people with a special relationship to God; part of this relationship is a promise that they will occupy Palestine and they will be protected from oppressors; they will also be used to carry out Yahweh's special purposes in human history.
"Obedience": as a promise made by a lord to his servants, the covenant implies that the Hebrews owe Yahweh unquestioning obedience.
"Community": the covenantal relationship is with a people rather than with individuals; the whole of the chosen people are judged as obedient or disobedient and the whole of the chosen people enjoy the promise of protection and care.
Sources: The Hebrews: A Learning Module from Washington State University, ©Richard Hooker, reprinted by permission.