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Understanding Te Tiriti o Waitangi as a Covenant Relationship

Te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi, hereafter ‘the Treaty’)[1] was signed on 6 February 1840 between Māori[2] rangatira (chiefs, tribal leaders) of Aotearoa[3] and the British Crown.

 It is now often described as Aotearoa New Zealand’s founding document.[4] Many Māori describe the Treaty as a covenant. For example, Dame Cindy Kiro (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine, Ngāti Kahu, and British descent), the Governor-General of Aotearoa New Zealand, recently referred to Te Tiriti (the Treaty) as a “sacred covenant” in her 2022 Waitangi Day Address.[5]

The implied meaning of “covenant” is the ancient Jewish concept of a particular type of relationship. In this article, I argue the benefits of understanding the Treaty relationship in covenantal terms. First, I provide a theological understanding of a covenant by identifying typical characteristics of this particular type of relationship from the many examples described in the Christian Bible. I then explore the nature and context of the Treaty and identify these same characteristics that render it appropriate to seek an understanding of the Treaty in covenantal terms. While there are fundamental differences, this is not dissimilar to the Church recognising marriage as another contemporary example of a relationship best understood in covenantal terms. In this way, I show how our faith provides a unique perspective on the relationship between Tangata Whenua and Pākehā[6] in Aotearoa New Zealand. A covenantal understanding gifts us a relational perspective that takes the Treaty’s biblical roots seriously and compels us to honour the promises made by our tupuna (ancestors) in 1840.

Defining a Covenant in the Old Testament

Berit is the Hebrew word translated as “covenant” in the Old Testament. Berit describes the divine covenant between God and people and also many different covenants between people and parties, such as nation-states. The concept’s significance is evident in that berîṯ (thereafter berit) is used over three hundred times in the Old Testament.[7] The first reference to a berit is God telling Noah that the earth will flood, but “I will establish my covenant with you” (Gen 6:18). The next significant expression of the divine berit (covenant) is the Abraham covenant (Gen 15:7–21; 17), which God later renews with the whole nation of Israel (Exod 19–24). God’s covenant with King David and his lineage is another significant example (2 Sam 7:1–16).[8]

There are also various examples of Old Testament covenants between people. Covenants are made between individuals, people groups, and nation-states. Examples include friendship covenants such as the covenant between Jonathan and David (1 Sam 18:3; 20:8) and treaties or parity agreements between rulers or influential individuals, such as King Nebuchadnezzar’s covenant with the puppet king Zedekiah (Ezek 17:14). Accordingly, defining a covenant in the Old Testament involves consideration of many varied expressions and contexts.

Ernest Nicholson has surveyed the extent and content of Old Testament covenant theology over the past century. One insight is the failure of attempts at a narrow meaning of the term berit from its etymology, which James Barr has shown is a fruitless task.[9] McCarthy also notes the arguments over the etymology of berit and the significant time and effort expended by scholars seeking to determine the exact meaning of this single word. Accordingly, with James Barr and against Ernst Kutsch, he argues that seeking a single, concise meaning for berit is futile. Instead, he contends that we should be defining berit (covenant) by determining the “cluster of implications it carried with it.”[10] The important point is that most scholars, including Nicholson, Gottfried Quell, Walter Brueggemann and Gordon McConville, agree that the word berit defies reduction to a narrow and concise definition that applies universally to all Old Testament contexts. Instead, the scholarly consensus is that we determine the meaning of berit from its various usage in the Old Testament.[11] Critically, Barr argues that the Old Testament usage exhibits common characteristics despite the wide variety of contexts.[12]

Characteristics of a Covenant in the Old Testament

This section discusses nine typical characteristics of a covenant in the Old Testament. These characteristics aim at broadly defining a covenant and do not presume to be exhaustive.[13]

First, the fundamental, overarching characteristic of a covenant is that it formalises a particular type of relationship that aims to protect the relationship rather than the self-interest of either party. Thus, McCarthy’s focus on a covenant's social setting provides a helpful emphasis on berit as “relationship-making.”[14] While not all scholars agree with McCarthy’s identification of a treaty-form literary genre, most, including Brueggemann, McConville, and Goldingay, agree that a covenant is about a relationship.[15] Accordingly, Brueggemann argues that Yahweh’s covenant with Israel “asserts that the Bible is fundamentally about a God who is related.”[16] Similarly, the Expository Dictionary of Bible Words sums up the essence of berit well, arguing:

the phenomenon of “relationship” is fundamental to this concept [berit (covenant)] and underlies every occurrence of the term and every situation where a covenant motif is implied.[17]

Second, a covenant is a sacred or spiritual agreement because it involves God. God’s involvement is self-evident in Yahweh’s covenant with Israel, but this is also true of other covenants between people(s). For example, some covenants between people in the Old Testament explicitly involve God as a witness. Instances include David’s covenant with the tribes of Hebron made “before the Lord” (2 Sam 5:3), Laban’s covenant with Jacob in which “God is a witness between you and me” (Gen 31:50), and David’s and Jonathan’s covenant named “a covenant of Yahweh” (1 Sam 20:8) made “before the Lord” (1 Sam 23:18). Furthermore, God is involved in covenants between people, even when not explicitly mentioned. Accordingly, Quell argues that sacred practices such as oaths and sacrifices mean that a covenant is no longer a secular agreement but is understood using divine categories.[18]

Third, a covenant persists and cannot be annulled or resiled. Thus Brueggemann argues that Israel’s theological reflection during exile understands the covenant with Yahweh to be everlasting despite Israel’s unfaithfulness.[19] Accordingly, Yahweh’s apparent abandonment will not last (Isa 54:7–8) as God desires to renew the continuing covenant relationship with Israel (Jer 31:31–34).[20]

Covenants in the Old Testament between people(s) also persist. For example, some covenants between peoples such as nations and households persist even when the original representatives die. These covenants commit future generations as heirs to the relationship. For example, when Jonathan makes a covenant with David, he seeks a covenant between their “houses” (1 Sam 20:15). In another example, God makes King David and the present generation of Israel responsible for their forebears not honouring the Gibeonite treaty (berit, covenant, see 2 Sam 21:1–14; c.f. Josh 9).

Fourth, a covenant can be adapted to renew or restore the covenant relationship. This characteristic is particularly evident in Yahweh’s significant adaptations to the divine covenant relationship in the Old Testament. First, the Law was introduced to the nation of Israel at Sinai hundreds of years after God first expressed the covenant relationship with Israel to Abraham. Second, the Old Testament prophets anticipate a “new covenant” renewal when God “will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jer 31:33; c.f. Ezek 36:27). These adaptations renewed and restored God’s covenant relationship with Israel and, more broadly, with all humanity.

Fifth, a covenant involves exclusivity. Thus, Martin Buber and others argue that Israel’s covenant relationship with Yahweh requires exclusive allegiance.[21] This exclusivity prohibited covenants with other nations that involved association and reliance on other peoples and their gods instead of Yahweh (Exod 23:32–33; Deut 7:2–6; Judg 2:2). Examples include Hosea criticising Ephraim for making a berit with Assyria and Isaiah telling Judah it has made a covenant with “death” in uniting with neighbouring countries against Assyria (Isa 28:15, 18).[22] Exclusivity in covenants between people(s) is less defined than in God’s covenant with Israel. However, the various contexts typically show some degree of exclusivity to the relationship so that the covenant commitment can be honoured.

Sixth, covenants between people(s) in the Old Testament require a response as both parties must accept the terms of the covenant for it to come into effect. This characteristic can involve one party responding to unilaterally initiated terms set by the other or a mutual response to bilaterally discussed and agreed terms. Thus, Brueggemann concludes that an Old Testament covenant can be “bilateral and unilateral, as texts can be identified for each.”[23] Examples of covenants between people involving a mutual response to terms reached through bilateral agreement include Laban and Jacob (Gen 31:44–53) and Jonathan and David (1 Sam 18:3; 20:8). Examples of more unilateral covenants between people include King Zedekiah of Judah setting covenant terms for “all the people in Jerusalem” (Jer 34:8, 10) and the defeated King Ben Hadad of Aram seeking his life from King Ahab of Israel in exchange for land and the right to trade (1 Kgs 20:34).

Seven, mutual responsibilities more clearly define the covenant relationship between distinct parties as each contributes to the flourishing of the other. Accordingly, McConville argues that all Old Testament covenants between people involve mutual responsibilities, even if not explicitly stated. He points out that even King Nebuchadnezzar’s relatively one-sided covenant with Zedekiah made the all-powerful king responsible for safeguarding the Jewish kingdom (Ezek 17:14).[24] Similarly, Goldingay argues that the divine covenant also involves human response and responsibilities.[25]

Eighth, a covenant involves a mutual commitment to faithfully live out covenant responsibilities. Therefore, a lack of personal commitment to living out responsibilities limits a covenant relationship. Some Old Testament scholarship confuses the covenant with a contract by stressing accountability to God in an unhelpful conditional manner. However, a conditional interpretation is not the Old Testament’s image of God in an intimate, marital relationship with Israel (Jer 31:32; Ezek 16:7–8). Instead, the prophets (Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel) picture the outworking of God’s ḥě·sěḏ(thereafter hesed, “steadfast love”) in seeking reconciliation at great personal cost, which reveals the unfathomable depth of the love of God.

The critical point is that covenant responsibilities are unconditional. Therefore, fulfilling covenant responsibilities is self-governed and self-implemented as parties are “responsible” for their own actions rather than “accountable” to an external overseer. Thus, to account for, impose, coerce, or forcibly extract covenant responsibilities is to impose a condition that turns a covenant into a contract. Therefore, a covenant relationship relies on the participant’s character in choosing to protect the relationship rather than self-interest.

Finally, a covenant aims to be beneficial as both parties appreciate a shared future. Most covenants between people or parties in the Old Testament show that the aim of mutual responsibilities is mutual benefit. Ideally, mutual benefit is tangible and balanced, as in a marriage covenant (Mal 2:14; Ezek 16:8; Prov 2:19) or the friendship covenant between Jonathan and David (1 Sam 18:3; 20:8). An important distinction is that God does not benefit from the divine covenant relationship as it does not arise out of need or lack in God, who is utterly self-sufficient.[26] God’s selfless giving for humanity becomes even more apparent as we turn to the New Testament understanding of a covenant.

The Covenant in the New Testament

The Greek term for “covenant” in the New Testament is diathēkē, which scholars agree conveys the same sense and meaning as the Hebrew term berit.[27] However, the usage of diathēkē (covenant) in the New Testament differs from the usage of berit (covenant) in the Old Testament in two ways. First, the thirty-three explicit occurrences of the word diathēkē in the New Testament, of which seven are Old Testament citations, are comparatively few.[28] Secondly, it refers exclusively to God’s covenant with humanity and particularly the renewal of the covenant through the person and work of Jesus. This singular focus means that diathēkē (covenant) is not used in the New Testament to describe covenants between people(s). [29] Regardless, the usage by New Testament authors reinforces the typical characteristics of a covenant identified in the Old Testament, as discussed below.

The fundamental, overarching characteristic of the covenant in the New Testament remains consistent, as the “new covenant” in Christ formalises a particular type of relationship aimed at protecting the relationship rather than self-interest. Jesus confirms God’s existing covenant relationship with Israel and extends this promise and privilege to all humanity by creating “one new humanity” (Eph 2:15) in relation to God. Protecting the relationship rather than self-interest is epitomised in God’s gracious, costly, self-giving in Christ to reconcile the relationship with humanity despite its unfaithfulness.

The covenant in the New Testament remains profoundly sacred or spiritual. This characteristic is enhanced as Jesus participates in the covenant relationship on behalf of humanity and gifts the Spirit to indwell believers and draw them to God.

God’s covenant relationship with humanity persists through Jesus enacting the definitive event in the salvation history of Yahweh (Luke 1:68–73). Thus, the “new” covenant is not a “different” covenant. Instead, at the Last Supper, Jesus shows that his death and resurrection are the fulfilment of the covenant hopes of Israel in continuity with their covenant history. Accordingly, the distinct newness that Jesus brings to the covenant is yet another renewal of the one continuing covenant.

God’s covenant is radically adapted in Jesus to bring about divine renewal and reconciliation of God’s relationship with humanity. Jesus effects two critical adaptations as he becomes the covenant’s mediator and enables the inclusion of all humanity. Historical covenant norms and customs are fulfilled and radically adapted as cultic practices (e.g., sacrifice) and Law observance (e.g., circumcision) fall away, and the gift of the Spirit empowers all humanity to worship freely in a new way.

The exclusive allegiance of both parties remains a New Testament expectation of the covenant relationship between God and humanity. Ultimately, God’s gracious provision in Christ ensures humanity’s allegiance to the covenant matches God’s expectations. However, human response to the divine covenant is still required as God will not coerce involuntary participation. Therefore, we now participate by responding with faith in Christ as acceptance of the covenant relationship secured on our behalf.

Mutual responsibilities remain a feature of the covenant between God and humanity in the New Testament. As in the Old Testament, God’s “responsibility,” or promise, is an unconditional hesed (steadfastly loving) commitment to the relationship. Likewise, Israel’s responsibility to reciprocate covenant commitment now extends to all humanity. However, Jesus provides for covenant faithfulness on our behalf so that the relationship can flourish, thus defining the relationship as one of grace. Our remaining unconditional “responsibility of grace” is our faithful, grateful, and joyful participation in the covenant relationship.

God’s extreme self-giving in Christ is a testament to God’s covenant commitment and ultimately fulfils the human commitment to the relationship. Nonetheless, a remaining human commitment involves behaviour that protects the covenant relationship with God and others. For example, the Corinthian’s unity at the Lord’s Table is essential to them imaging Christ as his representatives in the world (1 Cor 11:17–22).

As already discussed, the divine covenant only benefits humanity as it does not arise out of need or lack in God, who is utterly self-sufficient. The beneficial newness Jesus brings to the covenant relationship highlights this reality. Specifically, we can now all fully participate in a shared future with each other and God as we are transformed into the image of Christ by the Spirit who brings us life and freedom (2 Cor 3:17–18).

Te Tiriti o Waitangi and a Covenant Relationship

The Treaty was signed on 6 February 1840 by Māori rangatira and Governor William Hobson, the British Crown’s representative. By this time, Māori had lived in Aotearoa for over five hundred years and had developed a tribal society with chiefly leadership and a distinct language and culture. Scholars generally agree that Hobson’s primary goal in negotiating a treaty was to peacefully secure British sovereignty over New Zealand and facilitate the acquisition of Māori land by settlers.[30] Historians including Ruth Ross, Ranganui Walker (Te Whakatōhea), James Belich, and Claudia Orange point out significant shortcomings in the Treaty documents and process. These shortcomings include the distribution of different texts and issues with the translation that has led to conflicting interpretations and continuing confusion over the meaning and terms of the Treaty.[31]

Ruth Ross points out the irony of modern readings of Lord Bledisloe’s 1934 prayer at Waitangi that refers to the Treaty as a “sacred compact” that must be “faithfully and honourably kept for all time to come.” [32] She argues that the Crown has neglected the Treaty, and Ross suggests that many New Zealanders accord it little or no value. Thus, she challenges those seeking a theological understanding of the Treaty as a sacred document by arguing that such a theological reading is “sheer hypocrisy.”[33] Furthermore, the Treaty is not an ancient covenant identical to those recorded in the Bible. Instead, it is a much more recent agreement made in a different time, culture, and location. Accordingly, it is essential to ask ourselves how we can equate such a potentially flawed, more recent document with the ancient, Jewish concept of a covenant found in the Bible?

I have shown that the overarching characteristic of a covenant is a relationship between two people or parties that aims to formalise and protect the relationship. This overarching characteristic must also be true of the Treaty for us to understand it legitimately in covenantal terms. One way to determine whether the Treaty primarily aims at protecting a relationship is to consider whether the Māori rangatira in particular, and the British Crown understood the Treaty in this way when they signed it in 1840.[34]

The Māori Rangatira

English missionaries introduced the biblical concept of a kawenata (covenant) to Māori years before the Treaty was signed. Orange notes that Māori became familiar with biblical concepts via bible texts and prayers translated into Māori and widely circulated by missionaries in the decade prior to 1840.[35] Similarly, David Moxon argues that Māori eagerly received biblical material as it provided “an opportunity to explore Maori language in written form, to acquire literacy and also to discover the spiritual treasures of the Gospel itself.”[36] Accordingly, Judge Edward Taihakurei Durie (Rangitāne, Ngāti Kauwhata and Ngāti Raukawa) argues that,

the missionaries played a major role in presenting and explaining the Treaty to Maori people, at Waitangi and throughout New Zealand. It must also have been readily apparent to the Maori that the Treaty was written in what could best be described as “Missionary Maori”.[37]

Dr Manuka Henare (Ngāti Hauā, Te Aupōuri, Te Rarawa and Ngāti Kahu) and Orange argue that missionaries presented the Treaty as a covenant in biblical terms.[38] This is because they recognised the Treaty as formalising that particular type of relationship described by covenants in the Bible. Henry Williams was a prominent missionary tasked with translating the Treaty into te reo Māori (the Māori language) and travelled the country, obtaining signatures from many rangatira. He conveys his own understanding of the Treaty relationship in covenantal terms when recollecting his advice to Māori the evening before the Treaty was signed. He writes that Māori “would become one people with the English, in the suppression of wars, and of every lawless act; under one Sovereign, and one Law, human and divine.”[39] Thus, for Williams, the Treaty was not a mere human agreement but a sacred relationship uniting two peoples under God. Henare concludes that many of the Māori chiefs had the vocabulary and conceptual background required to understand the Christian concept of a covenant as used in the missionaries’ explanation of the Treaty. He writes:

Many Rangatira who sought advice from CMS and WMS missionaries seem to have understood the evangelical notions [of a covenant] used, and, as time went by this understanding developed.[40]

Dr Henare notes that by 1839 the Church Missionary Society (CMS) had ten mission stations run by thirty-four Pākehā and twenty-three Māori missionaries who “were already preaching the Gospel among their own hapuu [subtribes] and among other hapuu.”[41] One example was Hone Heke, a Ngāpuhi Anglican Rangatira, who signed the Treaty and spoke of it as similar to the New Covenant relationship between Jesus and humanity. Orange suggests that the comparison conveys a recognition that the Treaty developed the relationship between the Crown and the Māori rangatira.[42]

Thus the influence of the missionaries in introducing the kawenata concept cannot be understated. However, Māori would not have laid aside a lifetime of traditional learning simply because the missionaries understood the Treaty in covenantal terms. Instead, Māori would have reflected on their own traditional cultural concepts in understanding the Treaty as a sacred, reciprocal relationship and thus articulated it as a kawenata. Accordingly, Henare argues that many Māori recognise the Treaty as a covenant and a taonga tapu (a sacred treasure). He writes:

Amongst Maaori, the Treaty is often referred to as He Kawenata, a covenant, and as, He Taonga Tapu, a sacred treasure. What influenced them in this thinking were both traditional cultural concepts and biblical teachings.[43]

Sam Chapman (Ngāti Tūwharetoa and Ngāti Porou) argues that a Māori community is a “relational environment” in which “the natural and the spirit is inseparable,” and this makes the European notion of a “secular” treaty irrational.[44] Thus, Henare argues that, for Māori, the action of their tupuna (ancestors) in putting their moko (mark, signature) on the Treaty makes it tapu (sacred).[45] Similarly, Hiwi Tauroa (Ngāpuhi, Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Kahu) argues that “agreements between people were tapu (sacred) and therefore binding.”[46]
Joan Metge explains how the Māori cultural practice of gift exchange informs an understanding of the Treaty “exchange” as a sacred, reciprocal relationship. She explains that the practice of giving valued taonga (treasures) such as cloaks, carvings and ornaments in Māori culture is a symbolic exchange governed by tikanga (customary protocol) to foster relationships. She writes:

more important still is the underlying purpose: to establish and maintain an ongoing reciprocal relationship that binds the parties to each other (tuituia) in much the same way that the topstrakes of a canoe are bound to the hull by lashing.[47]

Sir Joe Williams (Ngāti Pūkenga and Te Arawa) argues that the Māori rangatira understood the Treaty using the traditional cultural concepts of whanaungatanga (relationship, kinship, sense of family connection)[48] and mana (authority, influence, status) as concepts natural to them in 1840.[49] Williams explains that whanaungatanga encompasses the “centrality of kinship and careful attention to relationships.”[50] He reminds us that in 1840, Māori were aware that Britain was a mighty nation but still firmly held power in Aotearoa (New Zealand), vastly outnumbering the European settlers. Against this background, Williams argues that Māori understood the Treaty as a mutual relationship between equals in a manner consistent with the relational drivers of their culture. He argues that for the Māori rangatira, the Treaty:

was the creation of a relationship, and the key ideas here were whanaungatanga, the creation of a kinship relationship with Victoria, and with what the Māori saw as her metaphorical descendants ­– Hobson and so on and so forth. For them the treaty was about creating a relationship of mutual advantage …. And the point in the whanaungatanga relationship was mana [authority, influence, status]. Mana ā iwi, mana ā hapu [mana of the tribe and subtribe] ­– that was the point. If your mana was not going to be enhanced, the mana of your hapu [subtribe], the mana of your iwi [tribe] was not going to be enhanced, then there was no point in doing this [entering into the Treaty relationship].[51]

Thus we see that a number of Māori scholars consider that traditional cultural concepts informed a Māori understanding of the Treaty as a sacred, reciprocal relationship. This understanding resonated strongly with their earlier understanding of a kawenata in the Bible as a mutual, sacred relationship, which was logically also informed by these same traditional cultural concepts. It was, therefore, perfectly logical for the Māori rangatira to understand and articulate the Treaty as a kawenata as they likely understood this concept more thoroughly than many historians give credit.

Many Māori in the generations since the Treaty's signing continue to understand it as a covenant. For example, Professor Margaret Mutu (Ngāti Kahu, Te Rarawa, Ngāti Whātua and Scottish descent) argues that:

For 170 years Māori have held fast to the Treaty of Waitangi, the sacred covenant between Māori and the Queen of England, signed by the rangatira (tribal leaders) and the Queen’s representative at Waitangi on 6 February 1840.[52]

The British Crown

History has seen the Crown use the Treaty to advance its interests often with little regard for Māori well-being, and this may suggest that they did not consider the Treaty a genuine, mutual relationship when it was signed. However, prior to much of this history playing out, the Crown (and over 200 Māori rangatira) explicitly ratified the Treaty as a “covenant” at the Kohimarama Conference in 1860, just twenty years after signing the Treaty.[53] The Church’s significant influence in England meant that Christian concepts were familiar to Crown representatives and broader English society. Accordingly, Moxon argues that the Crown’s Christian understanding of history and time is evident in the Treaty calendar reference, “in the year of our Lord.”[54] The critical point is that Crown representatives at the Kohimarama Conference understood the relational connotations of a covenant and ratified the Treaty as such. Thus, the written affirmation of the Treaty being a covenant is significant, even if diplomatically motivated. It is also reasonable to assume that the Crown was cognizant of missionary and Māori covenantal understandings when the Treaty was signed. Subsequent neglect does not negate the Crown’s awareness that the Treaty was understood to be a genuine, mutual relationship, but it arguably makes that neglect a damning betrayal.

The Governor-General now represents the British Crown in New Zealand. However, the New Zealand Government effectively holds power to affect or breach the Treaty and has shown an increasing understanding of the Treaty as an ongoing relationship since the mid-to-late 1980s. One example is a new direction in the court’s interpretation of the Treaty with the promotion of “Treaty Principles” comprising “partnership”, “redress” and “active protection” of Māori interests.[55] However, the Waitangi Tribunal[56] has recognised that the importance of the Treaty to Māori is not shared by many Pākehā. Thus, the Tribunal argues that “for over a century the Maori people have placed a significance on the Treaty far in excess of that given by the general public.”[57] Accordingly, regaining a theological understanding of the Treaty in covenantal terms will be a new perspective for most Pākehā and provides a relational understanding more like that held by many Māori. This new understanding has the potential to change attitudes and behaviours.

Understanding the Treaty Relationship in Covenantal Terms

I have shown that the Treaty exhibits the fundamental, overarching characteristic of a covenant as the signatories appreciated that it would protect the relationship between Tangata Whenua and Pākehā. From this essential foundation, we can now briefly consider whether the Treaty is consistent with the other eight typical characteristics of a covenant. An initial concise comparison in Table 1 shows that the Treaty and its context map well onto all the identified characteristics of a covenant, and this provides further confidence in the legitimacy of understanding the Treaty relationship in covenantal terms.

Table 1. Comparison of the Treaty with the Typical Characteristics of a Covenant (please click on the table to enlarge).


Te Tiriti o Waitangi formalised a relationship between Tangata Whenua and Pākehā in Aotearoa New Zealand, which is best understood not in contractual but in covenantal terms. A covenantal understanding provides Pākehā with a relational frame more innate to Māori. This new perspective offers many insights that inform attitudes and behaviours as we look beyond grievance toward a mutual relationship with both parties appreciating a shared future. The first step is to realise and acknowledge the spiritual, sacred nature of the covenant relationship established by the Treaty. A perspective that acknowledges God’s participation in relational commitments made by God’s people throughout history and connects our faith with the Treaty relationship. We can then recognise the Treaty as not merely historical, but a relationship that continues through each generation, motivating us to honour our covenant responsibilities. Living into this understanding will vary depending on our everyday contexts and the people involved.[59] However, seeking the best for the other party to protect the relationship rather than self-interest is fundamental. It is not difficult to determine if our attitude and behaviour honour a covenant relationship. As in a marriage, we simply need to keep asking ourselves, “are we protecting and nurturing the relationship or merely our own interests?” This posture of living out the Treaty as a covenant relationship will help us honour the promises made in 1840 and ensure that this relationship benefits all people in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Hamish Maclean has completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Theology through Laidlaw College and a Master of Theology degree with the University of Otago while on a scholarship with St John’s Theological College|Hoani Tapu te Kaikauwhau i te Rongopai. He currently works as a civil engineer in Auckland. Particular areas of interest include how the gospel informs our understanding of the engineering vocation and Te Tiriti o Waitangi. 

[1] I refer to te Tiriti o Waitangi/ the Treaty of Waitangi using the term “the Treaty.” However, there are two different texts in the Māori and English languages and multiple copies of the English text. Some scholars refer to the Māori language text as “te Tiriti” and the English language text as “the Treaty,” mainly when the differences between the texts are in view. However, I do not focus on the much-discussed differences and discrepancies between the various texts in this paper. Accordingly, I use the term “the Treaty” to refer to the agreement signed between the British Crown and Māori rangatira as set out collectively in all these documents. Consequently, my use of “the Treaty” does not imply the priority of the English language text but merely reflects that I have written this paper in the English language.

[2] Māori are the original Polynesian settlers in Aotearoa New Zealand. The term “Māori” literally means “normal” or “ordinary” and was not initially used by tangata whenua (indigenous people, literally “people of the land”) to describe themselves.

[3] Aotearoa is the current Māori language name for New Zealand, often translated as “land of the long white cloud.” In this paper I use both the names “Aotearoa” and “Aotearoa New Zealand.”

[4] James Belich, Making Peoples: A History of the New Zealanders From Polynesian Settlement to the End of the Nineteenth Century (Auckland: Penguin, 1996), 193.

[5] Cindy Kiro, Waitangi Day Address 2022, 6 February 2022, Speech, The New Zealand Government,

[6] Pākehā is the Māori name for non-indigenous people of New Zealand. Particularly those whose forebears came from the United Kingdom.

[7] Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, s.v. “Covenant,” 217.

[8] cf. Ps 89:3–4; Jer 33:20, 21; 2 Chr 21:7. There are instances of a berit between God and non-human creatures and even between God and inanimate parts of creation. For example, God makes the Noahic covenant with “all living creatures on the earth,” and in Jeremiah, God speaks of “my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night” that ensure the day and night “come at their appointed time” (Jer 33:20). The focus of this paper is limited to covenants between people and between God and people. This focus is due to the similarity with the Treaty as an agreement between two peoples. Accordingly, discussion of covenants involving non-human creation is minimal. For example, I do not explore the implications of the Noahic Covenant for the entire creation. Further research in this direction would add to the discussion but has not been essential to the particular focus of this paper.

[9] Nicholson draws attention to the work of Ernst Kutsch, who sought a narrow definition of the word berit from both its usage in the biblical text and its etymology. Barr argues that significant uncertainty arises due to a variety of numerous possibilities from which berit might be derived, including bar, “open field,” bārāh, “to see” and bārāh, “to eat.” Barr concludes that the semantic range of berit is very broad and translates to a correspondingly wide range of English terms, including “covenant,” “agreement,” “treaty”, “contract,” “promise,” and “obligation.” Thus, the various contexts are critical to determining the meaning from amongst a wide semantic range of associated English terms. Ernest W. Nicholson, God and His People: Covenant and Theology in the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 94-103; James Barr, “Some Semantic Notes on the Covenant,” in Beiträge zur Alttestamentlichen Theologie: Festschrift für Walther Zimmerli zum 70. Geburtstag, ed. R. Hanhart H. Donner, R. Smend (Göttingen: Publisher Required, 1977), 31–35.

[10] Dennis J. McCarthy, Treaty and Covenant: A Study in Form in the Ancient Oriental Documents and in the Old Testament (Rome: Biblical Institute, 1978), 18.­­­

[11] Walter Brueggemann, Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 39; Gordon J. McConville, “ברית berîth,” New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 747; Gottfried Quell, "The OT Term ברית," Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 2:107–09.

[12] Barr, “Some Semantic Notes,” 31–35; Nicholson, God and His People, 103.­

[13] This section builds on some of the characteristics identified by Dr Don Moffat. Don Moffat, “Treaty, Partnership and Covenant Theology” (paper presented at the Te Korowai o Te Rangimarie Conference, St Johns College, Auckland, New Zealand, 1–2 October 2019).

[14] McCarthy, Treaty and Covenant, 14, 20.

[15] McCarthy, Treaty and Covenant, 20; John Goldingay, “Covenant, OT and NT,” The New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, 777; Moffat, "Treaty, Partnership"; McConville, "ברית berîth," 751–52.

[16] Brueggemann, Reverberations of Faith, 37. Emphasis mine.

[17] EDBW, s.v. "Covenant,” 219. Speech marks original. Brackets mine.

[18] Similarly, Thomas Torrance argues that all covenant relationships between Jewish people were spiritual, as God’s hesed (steadfast love) sustained all relational ties and covenants amongst the Israelites. This dynamic is explicit in the covenant between David and Jonathan as David extends the “hesed of God” to Jonathan (1 Sam 20:14) and, later, to Mephibosheth as a member of Saul’s family (2 Sam 9:3). Quell, “The OT Term ברית,” TDNT 2:109–10; T. F. Torrance, “The Doctrine of Grace in the Old Testament,” SJT 1.1 (1948): 55–65.

[19] (Gen 9:16; 17:7–9; Isa. 55:3, 61:8; Ezek 37:26).

[20] Brueggemann, Reverberations of Faith, 38–39.

[21] Nicholson and McCarthy also argue that Israel’s relationship with Yahweh requires exclusive allegiance. McCarthy, Treaty and Covenant, 21-22; Nicholson, God and His People, 209-11; Goldingay, “Covenant, OT and NT,” NIDB 770–71; Martin Buber, Moses: The Revelation and the Covenant (New York: Harper, 1958), 113.

[22] Goldingay, “Covenant, OT and NT,” NIDB 770–71.

[23] Brueggemann, Reverberations of Faith, 38–39.

[24] McConville, “ברית berîth,”NIDOTT 748.

[25] The primacy of God’s initiative in some expressions of the unilateral divine covenant leads to ambiguity over whether it involves a one-sided commitment by Yahweh alone, to fulfil the covenant promise for passive recipients. For example, the expressions of the covenant with Noah and Abraham do not explicitly mention human response or responsibilities. However, Goldingay argues that Noah’s acceptance makes humanity responsible for caring for each other and creation (Gen 9:1–7), and Abraham’s acceptance makes Israel responsible for keeping the covenant and males being circumcised as a sign of the covenant (Gen 17:1, 9–13). Goldingay, “Covenant, OT and NT,”NIDB 768–77.

[26] Thus, the divine covenant cannot aim for mutual benefit in the same way as human covenants. God’s covenant relationship with humanity involves a promise and commitment as an act of God’s steadfast love (hesed) that benefits the human party only. Consequently, God’s act of covenantal love not only appreciates but enables a shared future.

[27] The Hebrew term berit is translated using the Greek term diathēkē in the Septuagint (LXX), an early Greek translation of the Old Testament. Accordingly, most scholars agree that the Greek term diathēkē conveys the same sense and meaning as the Hebrew term berit. The New Testament follows the LXX in using the term diathēkē when further developing the Old Testament concept of a “covenant” (berit).

[28] The word diathēkē occurs nine times in Paul’s writing, seventeen times in Hebrews, four times in the Synoptic Gospels, twice in Acts and once in Revelation. Comparatively, the Old Testament uses berit around three times more when considering the proportion of total words in each Testament. Johannes Behm, "The Greek Term διαθήκη," Theological Dictionary of the New Testament 2:129; EDBW, s.v. "Covenant," 217; Quell, "The OT Term ברית," TDNT 2:106.

[29] It is noted that two instances of diathēkē carry the usual secular Greek meaning of a person’s ‘last will and testament’ in Gal 3:15 and Heb 9:16. However, these two instances of diathēkē as a human disposition are merely used as analogies to explain the nature of God’s divine covenant with humanity. Thus, the New Testament implicates diathēkē as a human disposition twice but only as an analogy to explain the predominant meaning of diathēkē, which is God’s covenant with humanity.

[30] Claudia Orange, The Treaty of Waitangi (Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2011), 41; Belich, Making Peoples, 179; Marcia Stenson, The Treaty: Every New Zealander's Guide to the Treaty of Waitangi (Auckland: Random House, 2004), 16–19.

[31] Orange, The Treaty of Waitangi, 40–91; Belich, Making Peoples, 187-211; Ranginui Walker, Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou: Struggle Without End (Auckland: Penguin Books, 2004), 78–98; Ruth Ross, “The Treaty on the Ground,” in The Treaty of Waitangi: Its Origins and Significance (Wellington: University Extension, Victoria University, 1972), 16–34.

[32] R. M. Ross, “Te Tiriti o Waitangi: Texts and Translations,” NZJH 6.2 (1972): 153–54.

[33] Ross, “Texts and Translations,” 154.

[34] The Waitangi Tribunal (a standing commission of inquiry) considers that the meaning and effect of the Treaty hinges on what it meant to its signatories in 1840. Moreover, the intentions and understandings of the Māori rangatira, as opposed to the Crown, are often considered of primary importance. For example, the Tribunal gives special weight to the understanding of the Māori rangatira and, therefore, the Māori language text that contributed to this understanding. The Māori text is also considered primary because this was the one signed by the rangatira and Hobson. Waitangi Tribunal, The Declaration and the Treaty: The Report on Stage 1 of the Te Paparahi o Te Raki Inquiry (Wai 1040) (Wellington, New Zealand, 2014), 11, 498, 522.

[35] Orange, The Treaty of Waitangi, 48.

[36] David Moxon, “The Treaty and the Bible in Aotearoa New Zealand, 2011,” Open Letter, Vaughan Park, 1.

[37] Waitangi Tribunal, Motunui-Waitara Report (Wai 6), (Wellington, New Zealand, March 1983), 51.

[38] Manuka Henare, “Maori Christians and Te Tiriti o Waitangi: Te Tiriti as Covenant, As a Sacred Treasure,” May 1989, Unpublished Essay, Treaty Resource Centre – He Puna Mātauranga o Te Tiriti,, 1–7; Orange, The Treaty of Waitangi, 55–56, 91.

[39] Hugh Carleton, The Life of Henry Williams, Archdeacon of Waimate, 2 vols (Auckland: Upton, 1874), 2:14. Cited in: Orange, The Treaty of Waitangi, 56. Emphasis mine.

[40] The CMS is the Church Missionary Society and the WMS, the Wesleyan Mission Society. Henare, “Maori Christians and Te Tiriti o Waitangi,” 3.

[41] Henare, “Maori Christians and Te Tiriti o Waitangi,” 2.

[42] Henare cites Orange in explaining how the two Ngāpuhi Anglican Rangatira, Hone Heke and Eruera Maihi Patuone, argued that the Treaty association with Hobson would bring benefits similar to those brought by Te Kawenata Hou (the New Testament) and their long association with the English missionaries Orange, The Treaty of Waitangi, 55–56, 91; Henare, “Maori Christians and Te Tiriti o Waitangi,” 3.

[43] Henare, “Maori Christians and Te Tiriti o Waitangi,” 1. Emphasis original.

[44] Sam Chapman, “Maori and the Justice System,” Stimulus 2.3 (1994): 23–28.

[45] Henare, “Maori Christians and Te Tiriti o Waitangi,” 7. See also: James Henare, “Te Tiriti o Waitangi Wananga Turangawaewae (Open Letter),” in He Korero Mo Waitangi, 1984: He Tohu Aroha, Ki Nga Tupuna: “Talk, Conciliate and Heal, ed. Arapera Blank, et al. (Turangawaewae Marae, Ngaruawahia: Te Runanga o Waitangi, 1984), 113.

[46] Tauroa further argues that “Maoridom – because of the similarity between Christian godship and Maori godship – accepted that Pakeha honour was based upon an overriding acknowledgement of a spiritual bonding.” Hiwi Tauroa, Healing the Breach: One Māori's Perspective on the Treaty of Waitangi (Auckland: Collins, 1989), 21.

[47] Joan Metge, Tuamaka: The Challenge of Difference in Aotearoa New Zealand (Auckland: Auckland University, 2010), 5. Emphais mine.

[48] The Te Aka Māori Dictionary defines the noun whanaungatanga as “a relationship through shared experiences and working together which provides people with a sense of belonging. It develops as a result of kinship rights and obligations, which also serve to strengthen each member of the kin group. It also extends to others to whom one develops a close familial, friendship or reciprocal relationship.” John C. Moorfield, “Whanaungatanga,” in Te Aka: Maori Dictionary (Auckland: Pearson, 2011).

[49] Joe Williams, “Sir Joe Williams on The Treaty,” 14 April 2021, Video of a speech at the Tauranga Yacht and Power Boat Club, Tauranga, New Zealand, Taonga Tauranga Heritage Bay of Plenty, Emphasis mine.

[50] Moreover, Sir Joe Williams argues that the “motivating principle” or “law” of whanaungatanga overarches and shapes all other Māori cultural ideas, including mana (authority, influence, status) and tapu (sacredness). He further explains (or defines) the centrality of whanaungatanga as follows. “So the whole world, visible and invisible, was explained, rationalised, realised and rendered tangible, by the law of whanaungatanga … that idea is what makes us Māori, more than anything else.” Joe Williams, “The Treaty of Waitangi and Whānau, Hapū and Iwi Wellbeing,” 3 April 2017, Powerpoint presentation for a keynote address to the Te Ritorito 2017 Forum at Pipitea Marae, Wellington, Te Puni Kōkiri and Superu, Emphasis mine.

[51] Williams, The Treaty. Emphasis mine.

[52] Margaret Mutu, “Constitutional Intentions: The Treaty of Waitangi Texts,” in Weeping Waters: The Treaty of Waitangi and Constitutional Change, ed. Malcolm Mulholland and Veronica Tawhai (Wellington: Huia, 2010), 13. Emphasis mine.

[53] Claudia Orange, “The Covenant of Kohimarama: A Ratification of the Treaty of Waitangi,” NZJH 14.1 (1980): 61–82.

[54] Moxon, The Treaty and the Bible, 7.

[55] P.G. McHugh, “‘Treaty Principles’: Constitutional Relations Inside a Conservative Jurisprudence,” VUWLR 39.1 (2008): 39–72; Robert Consedine and Joanna Consedine, Healing our History: The Challenge of the Treaty of Waitangi (Auckland: Penguin Books, 2012), 122.

[56] The Waitangi Tribunal is a standing commission of inquiry that makes recommendations on claims of Crown breaches of the Treaty.

[57] Waitangi Tribunal, Motunui-Waitara Report (Wai 6), 45.

[58] Tauroa, Healing the Breach, 60.

[59] In this article, I focus on a theological and historical justification for understanding the Treaty in covenantal terms. Unfortunately, there has not been scope to fully discuss the many insights for the Treaty relationship today. These insights are discussed in detail in my research thesis and include a critique of aspects of the current relationship and future possibilities. I plan to publish additional material in a 2023 edition of the Anglican Journal of Theology in Aotearoa and Oceania. Hamish Maclean, “Te Tiriti o Waitangi and Covenant Relationship in Aotearoa New Zealand” (MTh thesis, University of Otago, 2022).