A covenant God

Tell me if you’ve heard this one. A pastor and a rabbi walk into a wedding…

One of the first weddings I ever officiated was between a bride from a Christian background and a groom from a Jewish family. The plan was to have two officiants: myself, and a local rabbi they had hired from the Internet (the family lived on the other side of the country). The ceremony took place outdoors, under a chuppah, and the rabbi and I took turns speaking to the couple and their guests.

I had though long and hard about what I would say, knowing that the bride’s family had been deeply disillusioned by the way they had been treated in the past by people in their church, and the groom’s family was not Christian. I settled on the theme of covenant as something that both sides would be able to understand, hopefully in a way that would encourage them and bring them closer to God. The rabbi, for his part, focused on the theme of God’s law and what the couple needed to do to be obedient to it.

When the ceremony was over, some of the guests came to thank both of us for officiating. The rabbi was there with his wife. After a few minutes, when the guests had dispersed to the reception, the rabbi introduced me to his wife. Then he turned to her, inclining his head toward me, and said, “Covenant. Hmm. Maybe I can learn something from this guy.”

. . .

Covenant is one of the central themes of the Old Testament story; some would say the central theme. In the modern western world, the concept can be difficult for us to understand and apply, because our understanding of relationships is more contractual than covenantal.

To put it briefly: a contract is a legal agreement between two parties. There are conditions and obligations both parties must uphold; if one side fails to hold up their end of the agreement, the contract is broken. A covenant, however, is not so easily broken. It is a moral agreement between parties. There are still obligations, but each side pledges loyalty to the other even if the other drops the ball.

A striking example is found in Genesis 15. God had already promised the childless Abram more descendants than he could count, and the land of Canaan as their inheritance. In faith and obedience, Abram left his homeland. But he was still confused about the promise, since he had no offspring of his own. How could the promise be? God directed Abram to bring him a heifer, a goat, a ram, and two birds. When Abram had cut the larger animals in two and laid the pieces opposite each other, the sun went down and he fell into a deep sleep.

God then appeared to Abram in a vision and reinforced the promise. Verse 17 is key: “When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces” (NRSV). Scholars believe the significance of this draws from the way covenant promises were sometimes made. The one who walks the path between the halves of the slaughtered animals is saying, symbolically, “So may it be done to me if I don’t keep my covenant promise to you.” God promises to hold up his end, but at this point, makes no additional demand on Abram.

This is important to understanding much of the story that follows. Abraham and his descendants aren’t exactly the consistent picture of faithfulness, good morals, and family harmony we might want to see. They do things that make them look like the most dysfunctional of families, and God never seems to take them aside for a little fatherly chat about right and wrong.

And yet, the covenant promise still passes from one generation to the next. They don’t deserve it. They haven’t earned it. But God made a promise, and God keeps his promises.

This background understanding of God’s gracious covenant is reflected in Psalm 25. “All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees,” the psalmist says in verse 10. He reinforces the thought in verse 14: “The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him, and he makes his covenant known to them.”

We’ll talk about fear and friendship in the next post. But for now, note how the psalmist’s way of understanding the world is rooted in the ancient vision of a covenant God. There are covenant obligations, to be sure: the psalmist is deeply aware of his own sin, and wants God to put him back on the right path. But there are also covenant promises: those who fear the LORD “will abide in prosperity, and their children shall possess the land” (vs. 13).

These words may not connect with us in the same way they would have with the psalmist or the worshipers reciting his words. They would have understood the reference to being part of a history that stretched back to an ancient promise, and forward to the endless generations that would be heir to that promise.

That’s the kind of perspective we need when we come to God for help and mercy, when we pray for wisdom. God is a covenant God, a God who remains true to his promise even when we don’t live up to our half of the bargain.

It’s always been like that. It will always be.