Under the common law a covenant was distinguished from an ordinary contract by the presence of a seal. Because the presence of a seal indicated an unusual solemnity in the promises made in a covenant, the common law would enforce a covenant even in the absence of consideration, or quid pro quo.
In this sense, covenants are more or less obsolete in the American, England, and other jurisdictions that use the tradition of common law; seals no longer have much significance, especially after the adoption of reforms that affected contracts, such as the Uniform Commercial Code which allows contracts to be formed with fewer formalities.
The word covenant is also given to certain privately arranged rules that attach to specific tracts of real property; usually these state restrictions on how the land can be used, and thus are generally known as restrictive covenants.
Historically, certain treaties and compacts have been given the name of covenant, most notably the Solemn League and Covenant that marked the Covenanters, a Protestant political organisation important in the history of Scotland. Other important documents that have been given the name covenant include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Palestinian National Covenant.
Covenant is also the customary word used to translate the Hebrew word berith as it is used in the Hebrew Bible. While the word is used to identify treaties or similar solemn pacts between rulers or individuals, the most important covenant in the Bible is the covenant between God and the Jews. This covenant was the basis for the Torah, and the Jews' status as God's chosen people. By the covenant, Jews understand that God had promised to undertake certain things on behalf of the people of Israel, and that the Jews owed God obedience and worship in return.
The Biblical covenants could be subdivided into several sub-headings: