We Covenant Together
In the ancient Near East, a covenant was a promise that defined a relationship. As it has come down to us through the biblical text, such a relationship could be between a king and his subjects, or between a deity and his/her chosen people, or between two humans or groups of regular humans.
Some of those biblical covenants were conditional, i.e., if one of the parties acts in this way, then the other will act in that way. Often, though, ancient covenants were unconditional, in that the signatory to the covenant committed to a certain course of action whether the other kept their word or not.
Ancient covenants bound two entities together for as long as the covenant was in effect, which could be a really long time since biblical covenants often carried no end date. Most were understood to be in effect until the death of the parties, or maybe even forever.
There are a number of covenants both explicit and implicit in the biblical text, but just how many there are depends on whom you ask. Here are three that are widely recognized:
In Genesis 9, after killing most of humanity in a Great Flood and saving only Noah and his family, God promises never again to destroy all life on Earth.
In Genesis 12, God promises to make of Abraham a great nation and to make his name a blessing for all people on earth.
In Exodus and Deuteronomy, God promises to make the Israelites his “chosen people” if they will follow God’s commandments.
The idea of covenant did not end when the last book of the Bible was written. Many religious groups today ask members to sign a covenant that outlines their duties to God and their fellow community members. My own faith, Unitarian Universalism, speaks openly of being covenantal rather than creedal, meaning that rather than promising to all believe the same, we promise to behave in certain ways toward each other and the rest of Creation.
We have a covenant in our congregation that reads in part, “In a climate of joy, goodwill, and trust, this congregation covenants to treat one another with kindness and respect, to listen with openness and acceptance, to solve problems responsibly as we grow and change, and to encourage learning and nurture the growth of diverse human spirits.”
Many of us make promises to behave in certain ways not only religiously but also in our civic, social, and personal lives. We might repeat the civic covenant called the Pledge of Allegiance. We might enter the social covenant called marriage with another person. We might act out an unspoken personal covenant with our families to love and care for them. The idea of covenant is all around once we start looking.
None of us are perfect, however, and so there are times when it feels like our covenants with one another have been broken. If those covenants were conditional, we might simply walk away when they break. If they’re unconditional, then we are still obliged to act in the ways we promised.
In both our civic and our religious lives, we have promised things to one another. As people of conscience, we must translate our values into action, and as people of faith, we are called to stand on the side of love with the most vulnerable among us.
See you in church.