« Monotheism | Main | Law »


Most of us recognize that each human being has to learn how to live with other people. Relationships, both formal and informal, give structure to daily life. As the philosopher Alphonso Lingis has noted, all relations are contractual, involving rights and obligations. We have invisible bonds with our family members, our neighbors, our fellow citizens, our co-workers--even with those of our own age group, race, or profession--that entail mutual albeit unvoiced commitments. In times of crisis such as floods, droughts, or sickness, farmers from around the country will help fellow farmers to survive. We see aunts and uncles adopting their orphaned nieces and nephews. War will unite the most diverse elements of a nation in a common effort to resist a common enemy.

Covenant is a biblical term for a solemn contract that defines our relationship to God. Throughout time, God has made covenants with individuals such as Noah (Genesis 6:18; 9:8-17), Abraham (Genesis 15:18; 17:7-14), and David (2 Samuel 7:8-16) or with entire groups such as Israel (Deuteronomy 4:13; Judges 2:1) and spiritual Israel--the members of Christ's kingdom (Hebrews 8:6-13; 12:24; Galatians 4:24-31; Romans 4:16-17). Covenants typically involve promises and stipulations, threats and blessings (Deuteronomy 27:12-26; 28:1-14). They are commemorated by physical signs such as a rainbow (Genesis 9:13), the rite of circumcision (Genesis 17:11), tablets of stone (Deuteronomy 9:9), salt (Leviticus 2:13), blood (Exodus 24:8), and wine (1 Corinthians 11:25).

"Relationship" conveys the force of "covenant" better than "contract" because the covenant was warm, intimate, and caring. While a covenant is a type of contract, covenant says far more than contract about the length and strength of commitment. The covenant God made with Noah not to destroy the world again by flood was a perpetual contract. His promise to bless Abraham's seed and David's kingship has been eternally sealed in Jesus Christ. Paul says God has not forgotten his old covenant with Israel. In a sense, God's covenant, like his call, is irrevocable (Romans 11:26-29) because God's love is faithful.

A man criticized for breaking his promise replied that it didn't really matter because he could make another just as good. God faithfully keeps his commitments. To understand God's idea of covenant is to catch a glimpse of God's character (Nehemiah 9:7-8). The Old Testament contains a unique word, chesed (pronounced with a hard, guttural consonant like the German ach) that has challenged its English translators for generations. Variously rendered as "faith," "loyalty," "loving kindness", "steadfast, unfailing love," and "covenant solidarity," it represents the persistent love of God that remains loyal even when betrayed, that keeps faith even with the faithless (Isaiah 54:10).

This proactive, pursuing love of God explains in large part the salvation history recorded in the Bible's pages. "For God so loved the world. . ." seems to summarize God's offer of the covenants both old and new. The word "testament" in Greek also translates as "covenant." Each time we open the Bible's to one of its two distinct parts, each time we partake of the Lord's Supper, we are reminded of God's promised love and of our corresponding obligation to emulate that covenant loyalty through good behavior.

Keeping the provisions of a covenant requires integrity. As time marches on, our interests change, our situations alter. Something within us calls us to cut loose from the past and from old commitments. Politicians forget their promises; business partners part ways; spouses break their vows. Too often it seems that dogs have better reputations for steadfastness than humans. Throughout history, however, a faithful body of believers--called "the remnant" by prophets like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Joel--has always joined God in remaining loyal to the covenant.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on July 1, 2007 7:52 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Monotheism.

The next post in this blog is Law.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Powered by
Movable Type 3.35