10 October 2022

Covenant: How God makes our relationship official.

COVENANT 'kəv.ən.ənt noun. Agreement.
2. [Law] A contract drawn up by deed, or a clause in a contract.
3. [Theology] An agreement which creates a committed relationship between God and his people—such as the covenants between the LORD and Abraham, Moses, and David, or between Jesus and Christians.
4. [verb] Agree by lease, deed, or other legal contract.
[Covenantal kəv.ən'ənt.əl adjective.]

In our culture, “covenant” is a fancier, or more formal, way of saying “contract.”

Because that’s what our English word means. It comes from the Latin word convenire, “go together,” which evolved into the French word, then our English word. Early bible translators used it for the Hebrew word בְּרִית/berít, “treaty, alliance, constitution, ordinance, pledge,” and the word the Septuagint used to translate it, διαθήκην/diathíkin, “will, testament, agreement, arrangement.” Y’notice the Hebrew word has more of a sense of loyalty and diplomacy, and the Greek word has more of a sense of carrying out one’s wishes. Whereas the way we tend to use our English word “covenant” nowadays is either to talk about how sacred and binding marriage oughta be… or about the restrictions a neighborhood puts on the homeowners who live in it, and usually the penalties for violating those restrictions.

Not sure whether any of these concepts describe what God actually does with his covenants in the bible.

And when you ask your average Christian what a covenant is, most of the time we lean hard towards the idea it’s an agreement… and it’s binding. I’ve heard more than one preacher claim covenant means “a contract which cannot be broken.” Which certainly isn’t the way we use the word nowadays. Marriage covenants are dissolved all the time. Neighborhood covenants get changed whenever new leaders get elected; heck, most of those people run for office specifically to either make the covenants stricter or looser! In fact those people who claim a covenant is an unbreakable contract: Many of ’em claim God did away with the Law and replaced it with Jesus’s new covenant… so how’s it an unbreakable contract if God considers it null and void? (Isn’t the Law part of God’s word?—and isn’t it true God’s word never returns void?)

Frankly, the reason our English dictionaries say covenant means an agreement—that it’s nothing more than a verbal or written contract between interested parties—is because that’s how we use the word. A covenant is a contract; a contract is a covenant; they’re synonyms. “Covenant” sounds harder to get out of, but it’s really not. Ask any divorced Nevadan.

So if we wanna understand what covenants in the bible are all about, we need to put aside our English word and our culture’s ideas about covenant, and look at how God set up a berít or two with humanity.

God’s binding relationships.

When Christians try to define covenant, like one of the many covenants between God and his people in the scriptures, we point to marriage as an example: This isn’t just some informal relationship between two people who want to live together indefinitely, and maybe make and raise some kids. This is a very, very formal relationship. It’s important. It’s meant to be binding.

Marriage isn’t to be dissolved lightly… and some Christians insist it’s never to be dissolved at all. (Jesus makes an exception for πορνεία/porneía, inappropriate sexual activity, Mt 5.32, 19.9 and Paul for abandonment; 1Co 7.15 and I for abuse, which is a form of abandonment.) The thinking is as Jesus said—and as we Christians say in wedding ceremonies—“What therefore hath God joined together, let not man put asunder.” Mk 10.9, Mt 19.6 KJV

Thing is, we empahsize the binding part of the idea… and forget the more important part of it. The relationship part.

God is relational. He wants a close personal connection between himself and his creation. But God is love, and doesn’t wish any of his relationships to be a casual, go-as-you-please, Facebook-style friendship. He’ll have no relationships of convenience; they’re impatient and self-serving, and neither of these things are love. God wants commitment. He wants to bind himself together with us. Hence he establishes binding relationships. We can call ’em covenants; we can call ’em airtight contracts. Whatever words you prefer, so long that you get the idea.

This is why throughout the bible God makes covenants with everyone. He made one with Noah, Ge 6.18 Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Ge 17 Jacob, Ex 2.24 the entire nation of Israel, Dt 5.2-3 and anyone who joins Israel and willingly adopts the terms of God’s covenant. Is 56.6-7 Really, he’s made covenants with all of humanity, Ge 9.15 which is why he has every right to rule and judge us.

And of course we Christians recognize Jesus’s new covenant, in which God’s relationship with his followers involves giving us his Holy Spirit, so we can follow the Spirit directly instead of the stipulations spelled out in the Law. (Although since the Holy Spirit inspired the Law, 2Ti 3.16 we don’t disregard the Law! We simply recognize he supersedes it.)

God continually initiates these relationships because he wants his creations to become his children. He wants to interact with us, and be our loving God. Lv 26.12 He’s always wanted this. It’s why he created us humans in the first place. Our sin messed things up, and ever since, God’s been trying to put things back together.

Bungling the covenants.

Historians like to compare God’s covenant with Moses and the Hebrews, to the treaties between ancient warlords and the nations they conquered. The historians’ term is a suzerain/vassal treaty—a suzerain being the medieval term for warlord. (Sounds nicer, too.)

A warlord, like Genghis Khan of Mongolia, would conquer all his neighbors. But rather than just slaughter them and take their land, he’d be far more practical and turn ’em into willing subjects of his empire. He’d set up a covenant with them. Here were his obligations towards them; here were their obligations towards him. If they paid tribute and obeyed his laws, he promised to build up their infrastructure and defend them from enemies. If they didn’t, he’d be their enemy, and enslave or slaughter them. Follow the covenant, be his loyal subjects, and you’ll find him a benevolent and very beneficial king.

There are a lot of similarities between these ancient treaties and the Law handed down from the LORD to Moses. And y’know, that may be why the LORD adopted such an idea: It’s what people were familiar with, so why reinvent the wheel?

But there’s one profound difference between a warlord and the LORD. The basis for the warlord’s treaty was he conquered his people, and offered a relationship instead of destroying them. Whereas the basis for the Law was the LORD rescued his people from others who were destroying them.

Exodus 20.2-3 KJV
2 I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

The foundation of God’s Law is his grace. Not death threats, not the menace of hellfire, not captivity nor slavery. Adoption. Love. Relationship. ’Cause that’s who God is.

Warlord treaties would go on and on and on about what a badass the warlord was, and how you ought never, ever cross him lest he lay waste to your people. In comparison, God has this:

Exodus 34.6-7 KJV
6 And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, 7 keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.

Those who fixate on the “visiting the iniquity…” part miss the point: The LORD’s covenant doesn’t mean the Hebrews were free to violate its terms whenever they liked, and God would simply forgive and ignore their misbehavior. He forgives all, but actions have consequences, and consequences regularly affect generations to come. But again: For those who do follow him, God forgives all. In comparison, warlords forgive very little. Break their covenants, and they’ll break you.

As you might remember from your bible, the Hebrews—later the nation of Israel—broke God’s covenant plenty of times. Hence the cycle. But unlike warlords, who simply wiped out the rebellious nation, the LORD’s goal was always to restore their relationship: Get Israel back to repentance, revival, deliverance, and prosperity. Go back to being their God, and they his people. Live together in love and fruitfulness. You know, like we Christians on our better days.

Covenants are totally breakable.

This one preacher I used to listen to, loved to describe covenants as “an unbreakable contract.” Ironically, he’s a divorcé: He used to have a marriage covenant with his first wife, and now he doesn’t. He has a new covenant with his current wife. Hope this one sticks.

I’m not judging his divorce. I have no idea who initiated it, or why, or any of the details. There, but for God’s grace, go us all. I’m just saying it proves covenants aren’t unbreakable at all. Like I said earlier, Jesus permits some divorces. Don’t blame the government for making it so easy; blame the many, many adulterers out there. Blame our hardness of heart, as Jesus did. Mt 19.8

God’s covenant with the Hebrews was likewise breakable. Lv 26.15 His regular complaint to Israel was they broke it time and time again. Jr 11.10 Yet he kept forgiving over and over again.

Heck, we break it time and time again. Every time a Christian sins, we break our covenant with God. We break our covenants with one another all the time; we’ll end relationships over really stupid things, like politics or favorite football teams. We suck. But God isn’t so fickle. When he makes a covenant, he commits. Jg 2.1 He intends it to be permanent, Ek 16.60 and always holds up his end of the deal. When he offers us eternal life, he’s not kidding about the “eternal” part. He knows our future, and knows precisely how bad we might get some day. I’m not saying he doesn’t care; of course he does. Still he forgives. Every single time. He maintains a relationship with us, even though we make hash of it, then piss on the hash. That’s God’s amazing grace for you.

The fact God doesn’t quit his covenants, despite our sin, has nothing to do with the nature of covenants. It entirely has to do with God’s grace. He’s wholly within his rights to give up and abandon us. But he never will, He 13.5 because he loves us so.

Contracts are actually less breakable than biblical-style covenants. That’s how people abuse them: If you violate the spirit of the contract, but never the letter, it’s still valid. Still counts. And we Christians love our loopholes, which is why we often try to reduce our relationship with God to a mere contract—the popular cheap-grace substitute of “Say the sinner’s prayer and God’ll save you, permanently, no strings attached.” Such a contract is way easier than any actual relationship. By such a contract, we fulfilled our end of the bargain!—we need never follow Jesus again, and can sin ourselves sticky. But God still has to fulfill his end. Sucker.

You see the problem. Thanks to this exploitative mindset, this rotten attitude about God’s grace, a lot of Christians have no real relationship with God their Savior. They’re counting on God to come through on his end: They have afterlife insurance! Full coverage against hellfire. Once saved always saved. Isn’t it great how a contact can never be broken?

Just as bad: Whenever legalists imagine the terms of the Law have to be followed, contract-style, in order to earn salvation from God. Or when doctrinaires insist all the proper things have to be believed, lest one little mistake means God has to throw us out of New Jerusalem as a rebellious heretic. Y’see, contracts have a lot of room for loopholes, but no room for grace. Whereas relationships have a lot of room for grace—so there’s no point in trying to make or find loopholes.

When we have a relationship with the Holy Spirit, and follow him, we’re pretty much following the Law. (He inspired the Law, remember?) But the difference is the Spirit’s not about consequences, but forgiveness, mercy, and love, and “Do better next time!” That’s the kind of relationship God offers us now. That’s his new covenant.