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Where There’s Not a Will

The Covenant Theology of Hebrews 9

ABSTRACT: Most English Bibles translate diathēkē as “covenant” throughout Hebrews — except in Hebrews 9:16–17, where they read “will.” Though good reasons lie behind the use of “will,” better evidence weighs in favor of “covenant.” Not only does the near and wider context of Hebrews make “will” unlikely, but the particular wording of the passage, along with the covenantal background it alludes to, suggests the author refers here, as elsewhere, to covenants and covenant-makers rather than wills and testators. Further, the word “will” obscures a crucial connection only hinted at elsewhere in Hebrews: when sinful humans make a covenant with God, a sacrifice must die in their place. For sinners, life with God requires death.

Poor translators! It’s not an easy job. There’s a story about one unfortunate translation — now known as the “Wicked Bible” — where the translators accidentally left out the word “not” in the seventh commandment. If you remember that commandment, the “not” is kind of a big deal. Of course, not every translation “decision” is as important, much less consequential. But every decision matters, which is why I want to argue that we should change two words in most of our English translations of the Bible to best reflect what God says to us.

Most English translations translate the Greek word diathēkē in Hebrews 9:16–17 as “will,” even though they translate this same word as “covenant” everywhere else in Hebrews.1 The ESV is representative:

For where a will [diathēkē] is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will [diathēkē] takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive.

In what follows, I will argue that we should change “will” in both cases to “covenant.” I’ll begin by first explaining why so many translations prefer “will.” As we’ll see, there are good reasons behind this decision. But I’ll then argue that “covenant” is the better option, especially because it preserves a connection between sin and death that Hebrews doesn’t make anywhere else.

Why Our Bibles Say ‘Will’

I’ll begin with the case for keeping “will” in our Bibles. As I said, there are good reasons behind this translation decision. Here we’ll consider four.

First, diathēkē referred to a will in the first-century Greco-Roman world. The word was used to describe how a testator — a will-maker — committed to having his property distributed upon his death. It could refer to other binding commitments, which is why the Greek Old Testament (third century BC) used diathēkē to describe the binding commitments God made with Abraham and Moses and David. But such alternative uses were quite rare in comparison.2 What’s more, while the author of Hebrews keeps a firm eye on his audience’s Bible (the Greek Old Testament), he is also attuned to their everyday lives (see 3:4; 5:1–4; 6:16; 9:27). Thus, the case goes, an appeal to his readers’ everyday experience of diathēkē-making (i.e., will-making) wouldn’t be out of character.

Second, Jesus could be the diathēkē-maker in Hebrews 9:16–17. He could be “the one,” Hebrews says, “who made it” and, therefore, whose “death . . . must be established” (verse 16). If these verses are about a will, then Jesus would have to be the diathēkē-maker. Who else could be the (necessarily dying) testator? Since the previous five verses focus on Jesus and his death (verses 11–15), it’s not a stretch to think verses 16–17 have the same focus, with their threefold mention of a diathēkē-maker who must die. And when we zoom out to the larger argument (8:1–10:18), we see that Hebrews has already called Jesus a “priest” (8:1–2) and a “mediator” (8:6; 9:15). It would be easy, therefore, to imagine Hebrews adding one more title to that list — “testator.”

Third, what Hebrews describes in Hebrews 9:16–17 initially may sound like a will. After connecting Jesus to a diathēkē (“He is the mediator of a new diathēkē”) and an “inheritance” (verse 15), Hebrews says, “Where a [diathēkē] is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established” (verse 16). Hebrews goes on to say the same thing two more times: “A [diathēkē] takes effect only at death” and “is not in force as long as the [diathēkē-maker] is alive” (verse 17). What Hebrews describes, to say it again, sounds like a will: a testator’s inheritance is distributed when he dies. If Hebrews is not describing a will and is instead describing a covenant, then this focus on the maker’s death would seem out of place. Moses and Israel were in covenant relationship with God and (apparently) lived to tell about it (see Exodus 24). If they had to die first, then that part seems to have been left out of the story.

Fourth, there is a good reason for briefly introducing the idea of a will in Hebrews 9:16–17. By talking about Jesus as a testator, this gives Hebrews one more way to explain the necessity of his death, which is the author’s larger point (see, e.g., “it was necessary,” verse 23). Granted, he makes the point with a parenthetical pun, since diathēkē means “covenant” everywhere else. But it’s a move that serves his purpose and was right at hand. The idea of diathēkē-as-will was simply too obvious and too useful to overlook.

“‘Diathēkē’ refers to a covenant everywhere else in Hebrews — a total of fifteen times.”

These four arguments explain why so many of our translations say “will” instead of “covenant” in Hebrews 9:16–17. In these verses, translators assume that Hebrews briefly departs from his normal pattern of speech and appeals to the commonplace experience of his readers in a two-verse wordplay on diathēkē. Jesus had to die so that we might receive the inheritance he so graciously willed to us.3

Case for ‘Covenant’

While good reasons exist for keeping “will” in our English Bibles, there are even better reasons for replacing it with “covenant.” Here I’ll give the four best, moving as Hebrews does from the lesser to the greater. Further, when giving my third reason, I’ll also interact with two versions of an increasingly popular argument used in support of “covenant.” I am not convinced either is right, but both are worth considering.

1. Diathēkē Elsewhere in Hebrews

First, diathēkē refers to a covenant everywhere else in Hebrews — a total of fifteen times (7:22; 8:6, 8, 9 [2x], 10; 9:4 [2x], 15 [2x], 20; 10:16, 29; 12:24; and 13:20). Hebrews, in fact, refers to a covenant just before (9:15 [2x]) and just after (9:20) Hebrews 9:16–17. What’s more, when Hebrews 9:18 begins, “Not even the first . . . was inaugurated without blood,” most translations supply “covenant” there too, since Hebrews goes on to describe the first covenant’s inauguration in Exodus 24 (see Hebrews 9:18–22). Of course, this doesn’t mean that diathēkē must be translated “covenant” in Hebrews 9:16–17; otherwise, how could an author ever make a wordplay? Still, the evidence gives “covenant” a kind of inertia. Or, to put it another way, it predisposes us to consider diathēkē-as-covenant innocent until proven guilty.

2. Sinful Humans as Diathēkē-Makers

Second, sinful humans are the diathēkē-makers, the ones entering into covenant with God, in Hebrews 9:16–17. Jesus is present, but he is not the focus. Sinners are. Already in the previous paragraph (verses 11–14), Hebrews introduces us to people who need to be “purif[ied]” and “rede[emed]” by sacrificial “blood” (verses 12, 14). Then, just before verses 16–17, Hebrews talks about the same people, this time of their need to be “redeem[ed] . . . from . . . transgressions” by sacrificial “death” (verse 15). Without “blood” (verses 11–14) or “death” (verse 15), sinners can’t receive the benefits of a covenant relationship with God (verse 15a, “so that”). They can’t enter his presence (compare 9:1–10 with 9:24 and 10:19–21; see also 2:5–9, 10). Then, just after verses 16–17, Hebrews says that covenants are not “inaugurated without blood” (verse 18), once again linking “blood” (or “death,” verse 15) with sin — “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (verse 22).

When Hebrews talks about “death” in verses 16–17 and links that death with a diathēkē-maker, we’re prepared to see a reference to the sacrificial debt sinful humans owe because of their sin. Jesus is present, only not as the covenant-maker but as the sacrificial death that gives sinners access to God.

3. Covenantal Background

Third, what Hebrews describes in Hebrews 9:16–17 fits a covenant even better than it does a will. It’s true, on a first reading, the connection between death and diathēkē-making may seem straightforward: the diathēkē-maker himself must die. This, of course, fits a testator’s case easily since he actually dies. A covenant-maker, on the other hand, dies only vicariously — through a sacrificial substitute. The description of the diathēkē-maker’s death, however, isn’t as straightforward as it may first appear. Hebrews doesn’t say that the diathēkē-maker must die but, rather, that his death “must be established” (verse 16), which translates a verb (pherō) elsewhere translated “endure” (so 12:20; see also “go on,” 6:1; “bear,” 13:13; compare “uphold” [or “bears up” YLT], 1:3). Neither inside nor outside of Hebrews does the word ever mean “establish.” Even if “endure” (or “endured”) is the better translation, it’s still an odd way to describe someone’s death, whether covenant-maker or testator.

This “odd” word’s close-cousin (ana+pherō), however, is used in Exodus 24 to describe the sacrifices Israel “brought” (anapherō) at Sinai. Hebrews recalls this scene in 9:18–22, even quoting directly from it (verse 20, citing Exodus 24:8). The same close-cousin word is used at the end of Hebrews 9, in this case referring to the sins Jesus bore for his people: “So Christ, having been offered once to bear [anapherō] the sins of many . . .” (verse 28). Here once more, Hebrews uses language from the Old Testament, this time from Isaiah 53:12, where the Servant vicariously suffers for his people (see also pherō in Isaiah 53:4 LXX).

Hebrews also doesn’t say that a diathēkē “takes effect only at death” (verse 17a). Rather, he says, “upon dead bodies” (epi nekrois). Again, it’s an odd way to describe someone’s death. This peculiar language, however, also recalls the Sinai story, this time the bodies — the calves — Israel sacrificed (Hebrews 9:18; see Exodus 24:5). It’s a moment in Israel’s story later described in the Psalms in language almost identical to Hebrews: “Bring my faithful people to me — those who made a covenant [diathēkē] with me by giving sacrifices [epi thysiais]” (Psalm 50:5 NLT; compare Brenton LXX). A diathēkē upon bodies — it’s an unusual way to talk about death, but it certainly fits a covenant better than a will.

The same can be said for other details in Hebrews 9:16–17. For example, Hebrews says a diathēkē “takes effect” (bebaios, verse 17a) and is “in force” (ischyō, verse 17b) only upon its maker’s death. In the first century, these were true not at death but at the moment a will was drawn up and notarized. If we insist that both refer instead to the execution of a will, then we still run into trouble. For starters, neither word means “execution.”4 And Hebrews goes on to claim that a diathēkē is “never [mēpote] in force [i.e., executed] as long as the one who made it is alive” (verse 17b; on “never,” see NIV, NASB, CSB). Such a sweeping claim would be out of step with first-century will-making, which allowed for the execution of a will before the testator’s death.5


Some think the details of Hebrews 9:16–17 fit a covenant better than a will for another reason. These insist that Hebrews describes a well-known covenant-making ritual known as a drohritus. In the ritual, covenant-makers swore an oath, calling down curses upon themselves were they to violate the terms of the covenant (see, e.g., Ezekiel 17:13–19, esp. verses 15–16). The oath would then be followed (in some cases) by a sacrifice symbolizing the penalty if the oath should be broken. Thus, the parties said, in effect, “What we are doing to this animal, may God do to us if we violate our covenant commitments” (see Jeremiah 34:18–20). The ritual’s focus on future, potential sins (i.e., covenant-breaking), however, is out of step with Hebrews. In Hebrews, it is actual sins that must be forgiven by sacrifice if sinners are to enter into covenant with God (9:22; also verse 15).

Still others insist that Hebrews 9:16–17 describes the self-maledictory ritual from the perspective of covenant-breaking, not covenant-making. These argue that a covenant-maker must die “since [a broken covenant] is not in force as long as the one who made it [and has now broken it] is alive (verse 17b; compare Ezekiel 17:15). This view rightly maintains the connection between death and actual sin but wrongly characterizes the sin as covenant-breaking. Those needing and receiving forgiveness in Hebrews aren’t first-covenant breakers but faithful believers who sinned under the first covenant (9:15) and whose subsequent sacrifices pointed to but simply could not provide the forgiveness they needed (see, esp., 9:8–10 and 10:1–4; see also 11:39–40). There were first-covenant breakers (10:28). But in their case, the problem went beyond the limits of the Levitical priesthood and included hearts hardened by disobedience and unbelief (3:7–4:13; see also 8:8–9; compare with the faithful in 11:1–40). Again, this latter group is present in Hebrews but not in Hebrews 9:16–17 (see “called,” verse 15; also “our,” verse 14).

“Hebrews 9:16–17 uniquely explains what Levitical sacrifices pointed to and what Jesus’s death finally provides.”

We might also wonder why, if Hebrews 9:16–17 have a broken first covenant in view, Hebrews 9:18 then says, “Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood.” Hebrews 9:18 makes it sound like verses 16–17 have another covenant and covenant inauguration (not maintenance) in view. If, however, we grant that the transition from Hebrews 9:16–17 to 9:18 is from the first covenant’s breaking (verses 16–17) to its beginning (verse 18), we are still surprised by “not even” (oude). We would expect “not” (ou): “The first covenant is enforced by sacrifice, since it was not inaugurated without blood.” That is to say, “Of course the first covenant is enforced by a death penalty, since it did not begin without sacrificially symbolizing such a punishment.” Again, I can see how “not” fits that reading; however, I do not see how “not even” can.

Further, Hebrews says the (inauguratory) blood of Hebrews 9:18 was necessary for “forgiveness of sins” (verse 22). That is different from saying it prefigured the forgiveness future sins would require. Plus, a focus on future sins downplays the immediate and continued, if still insufficient, cleansing first-covenant members needed if they were to live in covenant with God. It downplays, in other words, the connection Hebrews everywhere makes between sacrifice and atonement (see, for example, 5:1–3; 7:27; 8:3–5; 9:1–10, 11–14, 18–22, 23, 25; 10:1–4, 11). Finally, on either drohritus reading, the need for “better sacrifices” in Hebrews 9:23 is hard to explain. In the ritual, the quality of the sacrifice isn’t relevant — beyond, of course, being blemish-free. What mattered was the symbolism: “As to this animal, so to me.” Even allowing for a substitute penalty-taker, the substitute’s quality matters only if it is somehow less than the guilty party (e.g., an animal). To require something more than or superior to the covenant-breaker wouldn’t fit the ritual.

4. Life Through Substitutionary Death

Fourth, Hebrews uses diathēkē-as-covenant in Hebrews 9:16–17 to make a theological connection only hinted at in other places. Life with God (i.e., the goal of covenant-making) is here explicitly linked with the sinful covenant-maker’s necessary death. The idea is implied elsewhere in the purification, redemption, and forgiveness available in sacrificial blood (see verses 15 and 18–22; compare Hebrews 2:9). Animals — to put it plainly — weren’t killed for their own sins! But Hebrews only here explains that the sacrifice’s death takes the place of the sacrificer’s (necessary) death. Thus, after saying that “transgressions” require “death” if sinners want to experience a relationship with God (Hebrews 9:15), Hebrews explains,

For where a covenant promising life to sinful human beings is involved, sin’s debt — the death of the human covenant partnermust be borne. For a covenant like this takes effect only upon dead bodies, since a covenant promising life to sinful human beings is not in force as long as the sinful human partner lives and sin’s debt remains unpaid. (verses 16–17, ESV altered + my own additions)

“Take away ‘covenant,’ and we lose a crucial step in the author’s larger argument.”

Hebrews 9:16–17, in other words, uniquely explains what Levitical sacrifices pointed to and what Jesus’s death finally provides: death-escaping life with God for sinners. What’s only hinted at elsewhere finally rises above the surface here.6

Recovering ‘Covenant’

Translating the Bible is tough business — and not just for those poor souls in the pre-digital age! Those who give their lives to this task deserve our gratitude and our support and, on occasion, our thoughtful feedback. Such is the case in Hebrews 9:16–17. As we’ve seen, the reasons for translating diathēkē as “covenant” are superior to those for translating it as “will.” On top of this, the decision made in most of our English translations comes with a hidden cost. After all, take away “covenant,” and we lose a crucial step in the author’s larger argument. For the moment, this step has been lost in translation. And I think it’s time we ask to have it back.

  1. Foreign translations often follow suit. For example, see the French LSG and German LUT versions of the Bible. 

  2. For proof, see James Hope Moulton and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament, part 2 (New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1915), s.v. diathēkē

  3. For further reading on diathēkē as “will,” see Harold W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989); F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990); Craig R. Koester, Hebrews: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AB 36 (New York: Doubleday, 2001). 

  4. P.Yadin 19 (see, esp., echein tēn progegrammenēn . . . apo tēs sēmeron kai . . . meta te teleutēsai . . . bebaiōs eis ton hapanta chronon [“possesses . . . from today and . . . after the death . . . certainly for all time”]) and, e.g., P.Hamb 1.73 (see, esp., bebaion moi einai thelō akolouthōs tautē mou tē boulēsei [“I am certain that I will follow this will of mine”]) are no exception, contra Kyu Seop Kim, “The Concept of Διαθήκη in Hebrews 9.16–17,” JSNT 43, no. 2 (2020): 256–57. 

  5. See, e.g., Sabine R. Hübner, The Family in Roman Egypt: A Comparative Approach to Intergenerational Solidarity and Conflict (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 131–32. 

  6. For further reading on diathēkē as “covenant,” see Jared Compton, Psalm 110 and the Logic of Hebrews, LNTS 537 (New York: T&T Clark, 2015); Scott Hahn, Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises, ABRL (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009); John J. Hughes, “Hebrews 9:15ff and Galatians 3:15ff: A Study in Covenant Practice and Procedure,” NovT 21 (1979): 27–96. Hahn was the first to introduce the idea of a broken covenant. Hughes magisterially champions the drohritus view. 

is associate professor of New Testament and biblical theology at Bethlehem College & Seminary.