Have you ever cut a covenant?

I’m checking a translation of Genesis these days. I came across a passage where the translation spoke of God “cutting” a covenant. I had never heard anyone refer to cutting a covenant before, so I had to check to see if the word “cut” was a typo or accurately reflected something in the Hebrew original.

The translation in question is based on the Hebrew words karath b’rith which literally refer to cutting a covenant. The Hebrew words form an idiom whose meaning we normally express in English with wordings such as “make a covenant” or “establish a covenant”. The Hebrew idiom is, as so often, descriptive and powerful, for Hebrew speakers, at least.

In the Bible translation process we are interested in what speakers of the biblical languages understood their idioms to refer to, and we use that information to help us sort through the options for translating the meaning of those idioms to other languages.

If you came across the wording “cut a covenant” in an English Bible, would you have known what those words referred to? If so, how did you learn what those words refer to?

30 thoughts on “Have you ever cut a covenant?

  1. Taylor says:

    I would, but only because I know Hebrew. That is easily the most common way Hebrew describes making a covenant. Usually it is simply translated with the word “make”. In what verse and in what version did you find the literalistic rendering? I’m surprised that it ever made it into English. Chances are, there are a lot of other places where that version uses “make” to translate the same Hebrew phrase.

  2. Wayne Leman says:

    Thanks for your answer, Taylor. The verse was Gen. 15:17. Sorry, but I’m not permitted by the publisher to say which version it is until it is ready to release its translation.

  3. Jason A. Staples says:

    I would know it, mainly because when studying covenant some years ago I learned that early covenant ceremonies (like the second-millennium B.C.E. practice as reflected in Gen 15) involved cutting animals apart (often as an example of what would happen to the violator of the covenant).

    The verb became idiomatic presumably from that origin, though Scripture seems to retain the actual meaning of the word in that the violator of a covenant will be “cut off” (same word for “cut”); this notion was often included in the terms of a covenant (such as in Deuteronomy or Leviticus). So there is some reason for retaining the notion, though it may initially give an English speaker (for whom the concept of Covenant itself is typically quite foreign) some difficulty.

  4. Mark Wutka says:

    The English phrase “cut a deal” comes to mind as something similar. I was also familiar with the Hebrew idiom, so I asked my wife how she would interpret the phrase, and she said she would think of it like “cut a deal”. It does sound unnatural, though.

  5. Jonathan Wiebe says:

    I have not heard anyone refer to cutting a covenant in everyday English, perhaps because the word covenant is not often used in everyday English 🙂

    However I have often heard people refer to cutting a deal. Even without knowledge of Old Testament customs I knew what they were referring to.

    That said, when I learned a little bit more about Old Testament covenant ceremonies it deepened my knowledge of and insight into this metaphor.

  6. Tim Worley says:

    I agree with most of the above. While I’ve never encountered the term outside of a religious context, I think it’s an idiom worth retaining. The concept of “cutting” expresses something deeply significant about the nature of the ANE understanding and practice of covenant. For God to “cut a covenant” with Abraham connotes more than simply “making a deal.” There is, along with the promise, an implied threat of the same fate if the covenant is not upheld.

  7. Gary Simmons says:

    While I can see letting several idioms slide, there is good rationale for wishing to retain this one in translation.

    However, “cutting a deal” is a different idea. That’s the idea of shaving off part of the price of something, and it’s an informal statement.

    Is there anything more formal or serious than a covenant that requires cutting animals in two? As such, I don’t think “cutting a deal” will cut it here.

  8. Dannii says:

    Unfortunately there is no English idiom to express this Hebrew one, by which through a painful and bloody ‘cutting’ the strongest bindings are made! In English the concepts of cutting and covenanting are basically opposites. It’s a tough one.

  9. Tapani says:

    I would agree that the phrase is understandable though not commonplace in English. I know what it means because I have studied Hebrew and OT theology/ANE history.

    Historically, the Hebrew idiom may have developed as a memory of an ancient custom, but that custom is central, not only to early ANE history, but to the concept of covenant itself. In addition to ‘cutting off’, mentioned above a few times, the fact that the covenant was established by the shedding of blood is vital to both Testaments. Without that cutting, the NT is ultimately incomprehensible (just read Hebrews).

    So if you want to be as idiomatic as possible, you won’t want ‘cut’—but you will want a good Study Bible…

  10. ElShaddai Edwards says:

    If one wanted to convey the blood aspects of making a covenant, perhaps something along the lines of “becoming blood brothers” would be applicable? Certainly not the same in a legal sense…

  11. Peter Kirk says:

    Interestingly exactly the same idiom was used in the language I was working on a translation into – from geographically not too far from Israel, but a completely unrelated language. So we were able to translate the Hebrew literally. The same word “cut” was also used for killing animals, so I suspect the origin of the idiom was that traditionally a sacrifice was made as part of the covenant ceremony.

  12. Dru says:

    This is not all that similar, but the older English word for a more formal written agreement, an Indenture, refers to the practice of writing a document twice, on parchment, meeting at the top. The parties sealed it. It was then cut along the line between the two parts. Each person took one copy. So if there was an argument, the two documents could be brought together to see if the cuts matched.

    English law to this day draws a distinction between a contract, where each party gives and receives something, and a covenant, where a person gives a unilateral commitment. Because there is no consideration – the person giving the covenant is not receiving anything in exchange, called consideration – a covenant is only enforceable if entered into in the correct form, which a person is not likely to do without realising it or by a mistake.

  13. Joel H. says:

    “Cut a covenant” in English strikes me as overly literal — a.k.a, wrong. It’s clearly an expression in ancient Hebrew, and equally clearly not one in modern English.

    Even if it’s true that there’s some historical reason for using karat (“cut”) for “making” a covenant, I still don’t think that’s the right translation in English, for two reasons. First, the history of a term is different than the term itself (I have an example below), and secondly, the English doesn’t convey the history.

    By comparison, we might look at the expression “red tape.” (It means “bureaucracy.”) There’s a rumor that the phrase — originally “to cut through the red tape” — reflects the difficulty in accessing Civil-War veterans’ records, which were bound in red tape. I’m dubious, but there’s probably an interesting history to the phrase “red tape,” and it probably originally involved tape that was red.

    Still, should the English phrase be translated literally into, say, French? I don’t think so (unless French has such an expression).

    So even if covenants were originally “cut” in some regard, I still don’t think “cut a covenant” is accurate in English for karat b’rit. While that odd English translation might capture an obscure cultural nuance of ancient covenants, it seems to me that it does so at the expense of the meaning of the text.

  14. Moe Bergeron says:

    We shouldn’t be taken back when the foreskin of a man’s heart of flesh is cut by the Spirit as He brings grace and peace to needy sinners.

    The Need

    Genesis 17:11: And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you.

    The Promise

    Deuteronomy 30:6: And the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live.

    A Fulfillment

    Acts 2:37: Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, Brothers, what shall we do?

  15. Gary Zimmerli says:

    In this region I have frequently heard the expression “cut a check” meaning to write a check. I always picture it as being a more precise or more permanent thing than simply writing a check, almost like carving (or cutting) it out of stone. Is this just a local idiom?

  16. Wayne Leman says:

    Gary, cut a check is not just local. It’s used for a precise writing of a check that is typically done with a check-writing machine. The check looks nicer than one that is hand-written.

  17. Wayne Leman says:

    Thanks, everyone, for these interesting comments.

    English has many idioms with the verb “cut”. But we must be careful that we don’t assume that English “cut” idioms come close to the meaning of the Hebrew “cut” idiom.

    He couldn’t cut it, so he dropped out of the Marines.
    He cut the deck.
    He’s a cut above the rest.
    He cut the cheese 🙂

    Translation of idioms is a complicated issue. Joel H. is correct that we must not lose the meaning of the original idiom is our attempt to preserve the literal mechanics of the original idiom. Translation is never a perfect match between languages. But if referential meaning, at a minimum, is not translated accurately, a translation is not adequate. Referential meaning is meaning that refers to the entity, quality, or action that is being described. Other kinds of meaning that may accompany referential meaning are connotational, allusional, etc. Often we can’t get all these other meanings to go along for the ride when making sure we at least get referential meaning right.

  18. Rich Rhodes says:

    I’m sorry, but the linguist in me winces.

    Because we tend to think about language word by word, we miss that language is, at its root, redundant, something like 50%. One of the places that that redundancy shows up is in verb-object collocations. Particular objects “demand” particular verbs. (It’s actually more complicated, but this will get us started.) So if you want to “do” X, then there is a verb that must be used.

    “do” a sin = commit a sin
    “do” a decision = make a decision (Brit. take a decision)
    “do” a risk = take a risk
    “do” a conclusion = draw a conclusion

    For the most part these verbs have little or no semantic content of their own. Linguists call them light verbs.

    FYI, the complexities arise because:

    1) the meaning is actually spread across the whole expression in some cases, like commit isn’t just for sins, but for all kinds of social mistakes from crimes down to (minor) errors, so the verb has some of the mistake meaning in it.

    2) sometimes there are a couple of verbs that can be used and they have slightly different senses, e.g., ask a question (quite literal) next to pose a question.

    The point is one cannot sensibly discuss collocations without a prior understanding of what they are and how they function. Only then can you tell if the author is trying to make intertextual connections or not.

    Time for a post on this topic.

  19. Gary Simmons says:

    Though I wish that “to cut a covenant” could be retained in English, there’s simply no way it would be fully understandable. I’m thankful for study Bibles, though. Wayne, thank you for expanding on my cutting-edge puns to make a great point.

  20. Diego Santos says:

    I’ve heard about “cutting a covenant” in the introduction of NVI (a portuguese version of NIV). Although it doesn’t make sense in English (neither in Portuguese), I think that it’s worthwhile the translations put a footnote explaining the Hebrew idiom, with a more natural translation “to make a covenant” in the main text.

  21. Wayne Leman says:

    You’re welcome, Gary. Sometimes we just have to cut our losses, cut to the chase, and cut through the confusion to come up with a translation which can cut it. 🙂

  22. Tammy Nelson says:

    Too bad you couldn’t use something like “solemnized a covenant” but solemnized is probably too archaic for a modern version and I just like the old words. To me it just seems to carry the weight of what has just taken place more than made a covenant does and you can still use the footnotes to explain the cut a covenant idiom.

  23. Diego Santos says:

    If we are trying to preserve a little of the original symbolism of this idiom, perhaps “they made a vital covenant” is a good alternative: death is the punishment of a transgression of the covenant.

  24. Gary Simmons says:

    Diego: nobody would understand its implications from a straight reading, though. This is one of those idioms that will have to be relegated to Study Bible comments.

  25. J-Schaef says:

    In Biblical times a practice of making covenants or agreements they would take an animal sacrifice, cut it in half, and the two parties would walk in between the two halves. In Gen 15:9, 10 show this is what Abraham did and in vs. 17 the fire represented God’s presence. Thus by passing through the halves they ratified their covenant. Compare Jeremiah 34:18
    This expression ‘cutting a contract’ is also used at Nehemiah 9:38
    This practice possibly meant that the covenant would have to be honored by both parties-two halves of the agreement. From this the Hebrew idiom “cut a contract” comes, and probably the English “cut a deal”.

  26. melvin says:

    Oh, Yes, I have already confessed my sins to the church and I really repent and I do not want to get in trouble. I think that I am not ready to make covenants. Because I am not enough and sufficient prepared and mature. I think that only God can make covenants. I made a serious mistake and a serious trangression. I did not know how to do it. I think that I am in trouble with God for having made the wrong accident. I do not know what to do. I only pray to God for forgiveness of my sins. I will not do it anymore. No, way. I do not want to experience anger again. No, too much way for me. Not for me. I rather choose to do right things and stay right with God with a clean conscience and start and move on.Hey, friends, I apologize for the wrongdoing I have been in this stuck and confusing laberynth. I am sorry for all of the things I have done because I was searching for my won but I made the wrong road. I asked Jesus to forgive me all of my sins and I really repent what I have done. I plead Jesus to cleanse me and give me an opportunity and move on and overcome the desire to make covenants again. Because I do not want to make it again. I really regret what I have done. I am very sorry. I really beg God to forgive me. I am very embarrassed and ashamed but I am free and refreshed and can fly. Forget about it. Never mind. I move on.

  27. Keith W. says:

    I came across the concept of cutting a covenant last year while using a concordance, and to this day I am still studying the concept.

    In Hebrew, three different words are used for making a covenant: cut, make, establish. Unfortunately English translations hide the word cut, or it would already be a commonly understood phrase. The best examples of the distinction between the three I believe to be some of the covenants God makes with men. The covenant with Noah was not a cut covenant. The covenant with Abraham was a cut covenant. The old covenant at Sinai was a cut covenant. The new covenant is a cut covenant.

    Not every place where the phrase cut covenant is used mentions a sacrifice, or the blood of the covenant, but it is implied from the word cut. If the word cut is hidden because of translation then the implication that a covenant sacrifice is part of the meaning is lost.

    Consider the old covenant in Exodus 24:8. It was a cut covenant — karath berith. The blood of the covenant was mentioned. The covenant was ratified by the sprinkling of the blood of the covenant sacrifice.

    Consider the new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31. It is a cut covenant — karath berith. But it is not until the New Testament that the blood of the new covenant is mentioned, and whose blood it is, and the sprinkling of that blood. This connection cannot be established without understanding that the new covenant is a cut covenant.

  28. Anna says:

    The first covenant was the marriage covenant. God sacrificed Adam, who typified Christ, for his bride….that is why she is called the ‘Better half.’ This is an eternal covenant sealed in blood. He confirmed it in the Abrahamic covenant and ratified it in Christ. God himself provided the lamb, slain before the foundation of the world.

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