Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
The Tie That Binds...and Frees
That little library called The Bible is a collection
of 73 books, 46 in the First (Hebrew) Testament and 27 in the Second
(Christian). Every one of them has a theme...or two...or three...or
more. These are important, providing as they do the rationale behind
the work's creation.
But let's face it; a catalogue of 73 significant points
(bare minimum) boggles even inquiring minds. The prospect of sorting
them all out is enough to convince the most resolute reader that
the best place for the Bible is on the shelf.
Fortunately, such an extreme response is neither desirable
nor necessary. A far more productive alternative is to follow one
central theme as it wends its way through all the books of both
testaments. That motif is the idea of covenant which, interestingly,
is synonymous with testament. Neither term is widely used in our
high-tech century, so it may be useful to widen the search for a
synonym that resonates better with modern experience.
In essence, a covenant is a solemn commitment, bonding
two parties. These parties may be individuals or societal factions.
Throughout the Bible, the covenant in question is most often that
entered into by God and the people of Israel.
By now, you may be thinking that this sounds suspiciously
like a contract. If so, you're right. So why not just call it that?
Because in pre-literate or sub-literate cultures, our practice of
having important agreements drawn up by attorneys, signed, notarized
and filed in half a dozen places was not an option. These arrangements
were entered into during public ceremonies where witnesses heard
what was being consented to and could so testify at a later date
Such a ritual is described in Genesis 15. This practice
of exchanging pledges or vows "in front of God and everybody" lingers
in contemporary weddings, where the priest or deacon acts on behalf
of the Church, witnessing in an official capacity the promises made
by the bride and groom.
Covenants by their very nature must be entered into
freely and sincerely, whether the consenting parties are equals,
i.e., bride and groom, or of disparate stations, i.e., God and humanity.
In the latter case, the covenant is one of election, initiated by
the higher ranking party. By electing to relate to his people by
means of a covenant, God underscored his respect for their free
will. Whereas finite humans have every right to expect the God of
the universe to thunder, "You will!!!", the nature of a covenant
requires a humble inquiry, "Will you?" The agreement must be freely
adopted by both parties. If one or both of the parties did not clearly
understand the stipulations, had no intention of living up to them
or was coerced into agreeing to them, the covenant could be annulled.
Now that we've got a little better grasp of the nature
of a covenant, let's trace its winding path through the pages of
Here's the Deal
The bilateral nature of biblical covenants tends to
develop over time as human history unfolds and the nomadic Hebrews
become better acquainted with this strange new God.
Initially, the covenant idea arises from the Noah
story, a tale situated within Genesis 111:26 which is subtitled
in many Bibles "Prehistory" or "Primeval History." While we may
see little of historical value in these early accounts, they nonetheless
have much to teach us about the roots of our ancestral beliefs.
In Genesis 9, following the great flood, Noah is told,
"I will establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all
bodily creatures be destroyed by the waters of a flood...This is
the sign that I am giving for all ages to come of the covenant between
me and you and every living creature with you. I set my bow in the
clouds to serve as a sign of the covenant between me and the earth...This
is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all
mortal creatures that are on earth" (Gn 9:9-17).
The other party in this covenant is something less
than selective, encompassing as it does "all mortal creatures that
are on earth," and Noah, a representative character, is seemingly
required to do precious little except smile and nod. In fact, where
Bill Cosby's classic Noah character asks, "What's a cubit?", he
could as easily have inquired, "What's a covenant?" There's not
much evidence of a mutual understanding here, but it's a start.
It at least lays the groundwork for the next such encounter.
With Abram (later, Abraham), we come to a presumably
historical figure, and this very real man has a very real covenant
encounter with God...more than one, in fact. First, in apparent
response to an expressed need, God promises Abram an abundance of
both genetic descendants and land (Gn 15:17). This pledge is followed
by a typical covenant ceremony, with the flaming torch acting as
God's surrogate (15:8-19).
Abram seems to be the recipient of divine favor without
much, if any, commitment on his part. That, however, changes in
Genesis 17 when the agreement is sealed. There, God opens his remarks
with the requirement, "Walk in my presence and be blameless" (Gn
17:1b). Next, Abram's name becomes Abraham. Since names in the ancient
Middle East embodied the nature of the person, a change in name
signified a radical change in the person and/or the person's role.
Now, the parties to the covenant are more specific.
The reference is no longer to "every living creature." "I will maintain
my covenant with you and your descendants after you throughout the
ages as an everlasting pact, to be your God and the God of your
descendants after you" (Gn 17:7). Henceforth, Abraham and his male
heirs would wear the mark of their commitment through circumcision.
The greater mark, however, seems to lie in Abraham's faith, that
he was willing to commit so totally to a God he knew and understood
God and Israel Meet at Sinai
Although, as we have seen, the notion of covenant
has its roots in the earliest Hebrew traditions, it is the encounter
at Sinai that springs most readily to mind whenever the subject
is broached. Abraham had been entombed at Hebron some six centuries
and his beleaguered heirs had just fled a four-century exile in
Egypt when Moses acted as their spokesman in lengthy negotiations
with God deep in the heart of the Sinai wilderness. Exodus 1924
tells the tale.
Following the Great Theophany (a natural phenomenon,
such as clouds, fire, or wind signifying the presence of God), Moses
descends from Sinai's heights clutching two tablets on which are
inscribed the Decalogue (Ten Laws or Commandments). These were to
constitute the heart of the deep and abiding covenant the people
were asked to adopt.
Chapters 2123 establish that much more was involved
than a simple 10-statement legal code, but within these often terse
declarations lay the substance of what would be required of the
Israelites, both in terms of their relationship with God (commandments
1-3) and with one another (commandments 4-10). For the most part,
the rules governing interpersonal behavior were neither new nor
unique. The Babylonian king Hammurabi had carved their counterparts
in stone some five centuries earlier. In essence, they set down
minimal standards for communal living.
Commandments 1-3 specify the basic requirements for
a relationship with God, either individual or collective. These
are the expectations of those who are chosen, and from this time
forward, Abraham's children will correctly see themselves in precisely
that role, the Chosen People. This role is, of course, a supreme
privilege, but as is usually the case, it comes with a correspondingly
heavy responsibility. All ensuing books of the First (Hebrew) Testament
in some way illustrate the Israelite struggle to live up to these
As Moses presents God's "Will you?" to those assembled
at the foot of Mount Sinai, they are blessedly unaware of the ups
and downs that lie ahead, and so, "When Moses came to the people
and related all the words and ordinances of the Lord, they all answered
with one voice, 'We will do everything that the Lord has told us'"
(Ex 24:3). It always sounds so easy at the outset. However, as you
may recall, that unpleasant Golden Calf episode occurred soon thereafter
'Propheting' from the Relationship
Throughout the ensuing centuries, Israel's fidelity
to its God was tested many times and, sadly, received a failing
grade on many of those tests. Book after book of the Hebrew canon
contains explicit or implicit pleas to the Chosen People to return
to the living and enduring pact they had made with their God.
"Keep the terms of this covenant, therefore, and fulfill
them, that you may succeed in whatever you do" (Moses to the Israelites
in Dt 29:8).
"So the Lord said to Solomon, 'Since this is what
you want, and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes which
I enjoined on you, I will deprive you of your kingdom and give it
to your servant'" (1 Kgs 11:11).
"Now, therefore, O our God, great, mighty, and awesome
God, you who in your mercy preserve the covenant, take into account
all the disasters that have befallen us...In all that has come upon
us you have been just, for you kept faith while we have done evil"
"They kept not the covenant with God; according to
his law they would not walk; and they forgot his deeds, the wonders
he had shown them" (Ps 78:10).
The best of the kings, men of the caliber of Hezekiah
(2 Kgs 18-20) and Josiah (2 Kgs 21-23), did what they could to rally
the people, but attempts of this sort tended to die with the men
who instigated them.
Often the strident voices of the prophets had the
most effect. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Zechariah
and Malachi all made Israel's covenant failures a major issue.
"The earth is polluted because of its inhabitants
who have transgressed laws, violated statutes, broken the ancient
covenant," rails Isaiah (24:5).
Jeremiah goes further, "Then the Lord said to me:
'Proclaim all these words in the cities of Judah and in the streets
of Jerusalem. Hear the words of this covenant and obey them. Urgently
and constantly I warned your fathers to obey my voice, from the
day I brought them up out of the land of Egypt even to this day.
But they did not listen or give ear'" (11:6-8a).
Paradoxically, it is also Jeremiah who announces,
"The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be
like the covenant I made with their fathers the day I took them
by the hand to lead them forth from the land of Egypt; for they
broke my covenant and I had to show myself their master, says the
Lord. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house
of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will place my law within
them and write it upon their hearts. I will be their God, and they
shall be my people. No longer will they have need to teach their
friends and kinsmen how to know the Lord. All, from least to greatest,
shall know me, says the Lord, for I will forgive their evildoing
and remember their sin no more" (32:31-34).
The New Covenant
God never gives up on his people. What a relief! What
a consolation...not only for them, but for us, since the notion
of covenant extends into the Christian Scriptures, too. According
to the Synoptic writers (Mark, Matthew and Luke), Jesus instituted
a new covenant in his blood during the Last Supper (Mk 14:24; Mt
26:28; Lk 22:20). As his disciples, we not only empathize with the
Chosen People's ongoing struggle to live up to the covenantwe
are those people. We are heirs to God's solemn agreement with our
spiritual ancestors and recipients of Jesus' invitation to us.
The creedal statement of belief recited at Baptism
contains the essence of our fidelity. Like those long-ago Hebrews,
we find making the commitment to be the easy part. Living it out,
day by week by month by year by decade, is something else again.
What keeps us going is a tradition weaving its way
through nearly 4,000 years of religious history during which the
covenant tying God to his people was never broken for the very simple
reason that God would not allow it to be. We may wander off; we
may turn our backs; we may completely forget our obligations. Still,
we are irrevocably bound to a God who loves us, who wants to be
connected to us, who never gives up on us. And for us, who have
thrown in our lot with Jesus, the relationship is even better than
it was for our forebears.
As the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, "Now he [Jesus]
has obtained so much more excellent a ministry as he is mediator
of a better covenant, enacted on better promises" (8:6). We can't
get lost forever unless we want to because we have the promise of
the covenant, the tie that binds.
Next: The Book of Daniel (by Wilfrid Harrington,
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