The Structure of Covenants and Specific Covenants in Scripture

In his essay entitled “The Covenant Relationship,” Scott Hafemann explains the structure of covenants in the Scriptures. He argues for the threefold covenant structure of the relationship between God and his people.

The first structural element involves God’s providential and unconditional acts by which he establishes the covenant relationship. God always initiates the first move in the covenant relationship which is based on his love and grace.

The second part of the covenant structure involves “the covenant stipulations or ‘conditions’ which the covenant relationship is maintained.”[1] These stipulations have no merit in and of themselves, but rather they are stipulations of faith, hope and love in God. Thus, obedience to the covenant stipulations is not an exercise of personal willpower, but rather God graciously grants to his people the ability to obediently live according to the covenant stipulations.

The third aspect of the covenant structure involves “the covenant promises or curses based on keeping or not keeping the covenant.”[2] Future promises or curses are dependent on obedience in the present. Thus, God’s covenant promises are conditional based on the obedience of his people as an expression of faith in him.[3]

After explaining covenant structure, Hafemann discusses the different covenants he sees in Scripture. First, he describes the covenant at creation between Adam and Eve. While Hafemann acknowledges that the word ‘covenant’ is not used in Genesis 1-3, he explains that the narrative follows the threefold covenant structure. God freely and graciously initiates the relationship by creating them and providing for them. God gave the stipulations that Adam and Eve were to trust and depend upon him. God promised future blessings to Adam and Eve as they followed the stipulations, but also God promised curses if they lived apart from the stipulations.[4]

Next, Hafemann describes the Abrahamic covenant. God sovereignly and  unconditionally appeared to Abraham and called him to travel to Canaan where he would inherit the land and become the father of many nations. Abraham trusted and obeyed God throughout his life and by doing so, he fulfilled God’s covenant stipulations. God kept his covenant promises and showed his commitment to Abraham by sustaining him and blessing him.

Hafemann continues by describing the Sinai covenant which was an extension of the creation covenant and the Abrahamic covenant in that God purposed “to make for himself a people on the basis of his grace.”[5] Moreover, the Sinai covenant is similar to the prior covenants in that God pursued and delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and called them his people. He stipulated that they trust and obey him and following his stipulations would “mean the inheritance of God’s promise and the fulfilment of his purpose for the nation.”[6]

Lastly, Hafemann mentions the new covenant where Jesus established a new humanity for himself through his broken body, shed blood and resurrection. Under this new covenant, God’s people respond in faith and obedience. In the present life and in the life to come, they will experience God’s fulfilled promises and blessings.[7]


[1] Scott J. Hafemann, “The Covenant Relationship” in Central Themes in Biblical Theology: Mapping Unity in Diversity, edited by Scott J. Hafemann and Paul R. House (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007, 27-28. [2] Hafemann, “The Covenant,” 35. [3] Hafemann, “The Covenant,” 38. [4] Hafemann, “The Covenant,”40-42. [5] Hafemann, “The Covenant,”45.[6] Hafemann, “The Covenant,” 46. [7] Hafemann, “The Covenant,” 48.