In general terms, a “covenant” is an agreement between two or more parties. But in the ancient world, a covenant was not so loosely defined. A covenant was an agreement between a lesser party and a greater party. There was no real choice about entering a covenant. Conquering kings made covenants with those they conquered. It was a sort of “agree or else” kind of thing.
God made a covenant with Israel, but no one should think Israel had a lot of choice about it. They could have refused, but the result would have been mass destruction.
Covenants committed the kings to certain promises to the conquered – and often, the promises were elaborate. They also committed the conquered to certain obligations. As long as the conquered kept their obligations, the kings were required to grant their promised favors. On the other hand, covenants always stipulated the penalties for disobedience.
We are reminded at least three times in the Pentateuch that Israel’s relationship with God was one of covenant. Chapter 26 is one of those times (others can be found at Exodus 23:25-33; Deuteronomy 28:1-68).
There is a main difference between the covenants of the ancient world and the one God makes. God always acts first in the best interests of His people. God does not subjugate and then offer terms of peace. God frees (as He did in the exodus), then calls the freed to covenant.
These are important points. God has provided freedom from sin and an invitation into His family. Refusal is an option, but not a good one. It will result in certain destruction. Acceptance will lead to great blessing, provided we are faithful to the covenant’s requirements.
One final matter. God believes that punishment is a way to encourage behavior. Our world today is loath to punish, but God knows it works – and even if it doesn’t change the impenitent, they still get the justice of God and precisely what they deserve.