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The Tie That Binds...and Frees

by Virginia Smith

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 if necessary.

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 Scripture.

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 1—11:26 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 so little.

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 19—24 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 21—23 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 covenant obligations.

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 (Ex 32).

'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" (Neh 9:32-33ff).

"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 covenant—we 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.

Virginia Smith, one of the general editors of, and a frequent contributor to, Scripture From Scratch, has a B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana and an M.A. in religious studies from Gonzaga University. She writes on Scripture and world religions for several publications.

Next: The Book of Daniel (by Wilfrid Harrington, O.P.)


Praying With Scriptures  

Who is this god to whom we are bonded in covenant? Spend some time in meditative prayer reconciling the omnipotent Lord of the Universe who might be expected to boom, " You will!" with the considerate God of the covenant who quietly asks, "Will you"?



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