Covenant-making, divine and human

This is the second of two excerpts from Writings on Marriage, the journal of the Bishop of North Carolina’s Task Force on Marriage, edited by Greg Jones.

By Jo Bailey Wells

There is a thread that runs throughout the Old and New Testament in which human marriage finds its theological context. One might argue there are differing models of marriage visible in Scripture: patriarchs and monarchs practiced polygamy without impunity (including Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon); the Hebrew law prescribed remarriage within a deceased husband’s family to protect a widow (Deut. 25:5-10); Jesus challenged divorce (Mark 10:2-12; Matt. 5:31-32); Paul championed celibacy (1 Cor. 7:8-9, 32-35). Nevertheless, the context within which all marriage is understood relates fundamentally to the overarching relationship of God to his people, through the language of covenant.(1)

Our 1979 Book of Common Prayer explicitly articulates this covenant understanding of marriage. Consider, for example, the words of one of the nuptial blessings:

O God, you have so consecrated the covenant of marriage that in it is represented the spiritual unity between Christ and his Church: Send therefore your blessing upon these your servants, that they may so love, honor, and cherish each other in faithfulness and patience, in wisdom and true godliness, that their home may be a haven of blessing and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (p.431)

This chapter explores the scope, significance and limits of covenant language in the Judaeo-Christian tradition: how, in particular, it enriches and defines a Christian understanding of the bond of commitment between two parties traditionally termed ‘marriage’ and how it may appropriately be applied elsewhere. Our Church does not only invoke the concept of covenant for marriage; the Episcopal Church also speaks of the baptismal covenant; and more recently the Anglican Communion has explored the idea of an ecclesial covenant. What does the common Christian usage of covenant language have to do with the theology of covenant as it is developed through Old and New Testaments, and what does the biblical concept have to offer the Church today?

Covenant in Biblical Perspective

The Old Testament term for ‘covenant’ (berith in Hebrew) is borrowed from everyday life, to describe a deal, agreement or contract. It becomes used, fundamentally, as a metaphor to describe the relationship of God to God’s people.

As with other metaphors for the divine-human relationship – father and son, or husband and wife, or king and subject, or shepherd and sheep – an everyday image is borrowed from one realm of life and applied illustratively to another, on the principal of analogy. In its new theological context, the concept of covenant takes on a life of its own – lending itself to imaginative development far beyond the original scope and significance of its origins. Consider, in particular, the book of Hosea which assumes a covenant theology in describing God as a lover who has been spurned by his bride, Israel. Hosea underlines the faithfulness of God: even though Israel has become a whore, yet God longs for her to return (Hosea 1:2; 11:8). The covenant is not broken, even though it is continually threatened.

The books of Exodus and Deuteronomy tell the story by which God initiated the covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai. It is rather like a love story, whereby God had patiently wooed his people. He had brought them out of Egypt; he had sustained them through the desert. Now, prior to entering the long-promised land, God ‘gets down on one knee’ and asks Moses to communicate a gracious proposal:

“Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now, therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation…” (Exodus 19:3-6)

Notice how the initiative lies entirely with God, even though it is clearly bilateral. The biblical account underlines how God wishes to reveal himself to humankind in order to enter into relationship with them. The covenant with Israel is the means to that end, not just for Israel’s sake but through Israel to all nations. Covenant is oriented to relationship and particularly to God’s self-revelation.(2 )

Where the story is retold in Deuteronomy, it is emphasized that this covenant is not a past action that related only to the original generation in the wilderness but a living reality for subsequent generations. That is to say, the covenant does not end in the way that most human covenants do. In Deuteronomy a later generation is addressed, as if it were the recipient of the covenant:

Not with our ancestors did the LORD make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today (Deuteronomy 5:3)

Indeed, the encounter with God that is so carefully described in Exodus 19 at Mount Sinai depicts a spatial architecture that mirrors the temple (as well as much subsequent church architecture), underlining that what the Sinai covenant describes in Exodus is not a one-time encounter belonging to the past, but the regular encounter of Israel with their God in worship. This covenant goes on forever.(3)

At the heart of the covenant are the ten commandments. At times the covenant is equated to the commandments:

[The LORD] declared to you his covenant, which he charged you to observe, that is, the ten commandments; and he wrote them on two stone tablets (Deuteronomy 4:13)

These are given so that the people ‘do not sin’ – to equip them to live up to the original lofty proposal, to be a holy nation. Even as obedience is invited (Ex.19:5; 20:20-21), it is underlined how these stipulations are life-giving, not life-destroying. Thus, the narrative frame by which they are introduced: ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt’ (Exodus 20:2) – emphasizing the relationship of redeemer to redeemed, Lord to servant, Life-giver to creature. Obedience to the commandments is for Israel’s growth and development. The story of redemption is the grounds for which God asks for loyalty, for an exclusive choice – a choice which is ratified enthusiastically by the people ‘with one voice’ repeating their previous intention, “All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do” (Exodus 24:3).

As our Prayer Book puts it, Israel has discovered ‘the God whose service is perfect freedom’. As at a wedding, promises are made that are exclusive and binding at a special ceremony, following which there is eating and drinking. Then Moses heads up the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, which (like wedding rings) serve as a practical physical reminder of the promises made. Further, we may recognize the practice of covenant renewal, a sort-of ‘anniversary’ celebration for the sake of regularly remembering the promises made (Deut.27:1-10; Josh.8:30-35).

As many scholars have explored, the Sinai covenant – which becomes the overarching picture of God’s special relationship to Israel – incorporates all the key characteristics of any typical ancient treaty. The narrative we build from the Pentateuch includes an historical prologue, a list of covenant stipulations (the ten commandments), a ceremony of ratification (followed by regular reminding), a description of the witnesses present (here, heaven and earth) and a set of expectations regarding future blessings and curses that accompany either faithfulness or failure in keeping the covenant. While tracing all these elements of the ancient pattern, the notion of covenant in its new-found Israelite usage takes on a life of its own (while also shaping the life of Israel), such that its origins are rendered virtually irrelevant. ‘Covenant’ is re-defined, as the ‘marriage’ between God and his people. Even though we may also use legal language to describe it – for example, that it is binding and inviolable – it is not primarily legal, but relational.(4) A covenant is no longer simply a contract.(5)

Most of the rest of the Old Testament relates to that faithfulness and failure, to the ups and downs of the divine-human journey together. Even at the ‘honeymoon’ stage, the relationship is threatened by unfaithfulness. That is how the book of Exodus depicts the incident of the golden calf (Exodus 32-34): before Moses had descended from Mt Sinai with the stone tablets, the people had forgotten the commandments and forsaken their promises. It is here that the unconditional nature of the covenant is explored. The situation begs the question: can the covenant bond be terminated? That is, will there be a divine divorce? Certainly God threatens to abandon Israel: so great is the anger. Yet he does not. In the face of the worst human depravity comes the most unconditional statement of divine mercy (Exodus 34:6-7) as well as the most emphatic demand concerning God’s uncompromising loyalty (Exodus 34:14). The occurrence of sin, destructive as that may be, does not imply an end to the covenant. Rather, it reinforces it: its privilege, its permanence, its exclusivity.

The fact that the possibility of failure is envisaged from the outset stands as a testimony to the fact that God understood human nature from the start, yet perseveres. Later in Israel’s history there is a rocky period resulting in a separation – the exile – but even this does not rupture the covenant. Although Jews would differ in their interpretation of the new covenant announced in Jeremiah 31:31,(6) Christians recognize in Christ an extension of the Sinai covenant to include non-Israelites.(7) Thus we find ourselves welcomed in to ‘the marriage made in heaven’ – that is, to the ongoing covenant between God and God’s people Israel. The New Testament describes the same covenant, now between Christ and his Church, the new Jerusalem. Consider the picture painted in the book of Revelation, describing the end times:

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband… (Rev.21:2)

Human Covenants

There is no carefully-nuanced definition of human marriage in Scripture Yet the permanent, committed partnership of a man and a woman is clearly present, something regarded as a norm from Adam and Eve onwards, based on the pattern of creation (Genesis 2:24). It is taken for granted that this is the unit from which children are conceived (consider the domestic assumptions concerning the raising of children in Proverbs, for example), even though the modern concept of the nuclear family would have been alien. The problems associated with loss or failure in marriage are raised (the vulnerability of widows and orphans; the circumstances for divorce). The norm, however, is not something that is given any significant constructive exploration in Old or New Testament. Furthermore, it can be argued that both Jesus (by his example) and Paul (1 Cor. 7:32-35) challenges the very assumption of marriage in favor of promoting the ‘ministry’ of singleness.

Nevertheless, the concept of covenant for understanding the dynamics of committed relationship between two parties is well-developed in Scripture.(8) The term that was borrowed from the circumstances of everyday life – a treaty between senior and junior colleagues, a deal between two merchants – is applied to the fundamental relationship between God and Israel, and by extension, to Christ and his Church. It is the ‘marriage’ between God and God’s people that in turn becomes the context for the working-out of human covenants, which may take many forms, including marriage.(9)

As we have already explored above, a covenant represents a binding agreement between two otherwise-unrelated parties. The commitment is permanent and unconditional. It requires absolute loyalty (‘monogamy’). It is no private arrangement between the parties, but an oath formally established through a publicly recognized ritual, whereby the duties and privileges of kinship may be extended to another individual (or group). In this light, we may recognize how radically inclusive is the concept of covenant: enabling social ties beyond familial relationships, even extending to aliens.(10) The ritual involves spoken declarations, an expression of consent and the presence of witnesses under God.(11) Their task is to remind the two parties of their commitment, with an awareness of the opportunities and demands (the ‘blessings and curses’) that potentially ensue. Witnesses are those who then bear responsibility for recognizing and supporting the covenant in the community where it is to be lived out. Failure to keep up to the demands of covenant does not deny the existence of a covenant: a covenant is not dissolved by error or failure, only by death.

Christians have come to understand baptism as a covenant, and this example helpfully illustrates the way in which the biblical notion of covenant is appropriated in the Church. Baptism is the ceremony that marks the personal recognition and participation in the covenant of God with humanity, even though the conceptual linkage is not found directly in Scripture, it involves the making of promises, the demands of commitment, the presence of witnesses and the anticipation of blessing. Even though the ritual directly hears promises only from one side – from the baptized (or parents and Godparents on behalf of the baptized) – it nevertheless marks a covenant between two parties given that it recognizes the story of salvation whereby God has already made commitment to his people.

In the same way, covenant provides a theological backdrop for shaping life-long human commitments. The linkage in Scripture is clear for marriage in particular (Eph. 5:21-30), and may also be applied to other forms of human commitment. That is, that God’s covenant with his people provides the context within which we make covenant commitments one to another. A biblical perspective on human covenant recognizes the way in which, in our small corner, we seek to mirror and reflect the greatest covenant of all. If we love because Christ first loved us, so we can live in covenant because God in Christ first lives in covenant with us.

In the Old Testament God shows us what it means to make a covenant and keep it. Covenant becomes the means of growing in faithfulness, of living into the call to be ‘a priestly kingdom and a holy nation’ (Exodus.19:6). Jesus reaffirms this archetype. Although he does not use the term ‘covenant’ of marriage, in ruling out all divorce and remarriage, he makes obligatory for his followers the ideal of God’s covenant with Israel, in which God is faithful even when Israel is faithless.(12)

In other words, the call to discipleship in the Judeo-Christian tradition demands so shaping our lives that we become covenant-keepers. That shaping we may call spiritual formation: it happens through the habits of our lives in relation to God and neighbor. For Christians it is the natural – yet disciplined and necessary – response to baptism. Such discipleship, in the end, is not about what we do but who we are: where we fail and how we respond; how we see and where we are blind; what we give and where we resist; how we trust and how we are trustworthy. These are just the aspects covered, in the tradition of TEC, by the baptismal covenant. The sacrament of baptism is the Christian recognition and response to God’s covenant.

As in baptism, so with other forms of covenant. It is on the principle of imitatio dei (‘imitating God’ – for example, [Lev. 11:44, 19:2, 20:26), that human covenants are shaped to reflect the elements and characteristics of God’s covenant, and through them that we ourselves are shaped to reflect more fully the image of God. That is, also, that through them we strive to be a window through which others may more fully understand God’s covenant commitment and mercy.

This is the context in which I understand the gift of marriage. Scripture suggests it is the key context in which I may grow to understand how to live in covenant and thus grow into the reality of God’s ultimate covenant. Though we may describe other forms of covenant – the covenants between business partners or between Churches – these do not mirror the features of God’s covenant to the same extent. That which models an exclusive, permanent commitment of two parties represents the most direct, and personal, and particular outworking of the call to be covenant-keepers. Seen in this light, it seems to me unnecessary that the opportunity be confined only to conventional heterosexual marriage, even though I hesitate to use the term ‘marriage’ for any other kind of union. So long as it is done responsibly – as the marriage liturgy puts it, ‘not… unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately…’ (BCP p.423) – it seems fitting to encourage all forms of covenantal relationship that seek to mirror and reflect the divine. Enabling God’s people to fulfill the covenant call to be God’s ‘priestly kingdom and holy nation’ is what ultimately matters; and this might most obviously include encouraging all who long to imitate God’s rich-but-costly pattern of covenant commitment.

This is the purpose and experience of those who are called to make monastic commitments in the setting of a religious community. As with the Sinai covenant and with the covenant of marriage, vows are taken in the presence of witnesses that are permanent and exclusive. The stakes are high: that is, the costs and benefits – the blessings and curses – are substantial. Yet we recognize here a high calling, and a means to holiness. That calling, and indeed the practices of holiness, require the community – the witnesses – who are charged with the responsibility of helping sustain the covenant they have witnessed in circumstances that intentionally limit the human options so as to discover the freedom of service to God. Brueggemann speaks of covenant relationships involving ‘revolutionary discipline, devotion and desire’.(13)

Whatever the context for the human covenants we may conceive – in baptism, in the partnership of two people, or in monastic vows – we are not at liberty to shape the nature and characteristics of God’s covenant. They are the givens – the graces – within which we exist as Christians, explored and presented in the biblical and ecclesial tradition in which we are planted. If we in our human relationships seek to inhabit that tradition and live up to our calling as the people of God, then the terms of our human covenantal commitments are similarly not negotiable. We may choose whether and with whom we partner: but the terms and conditions of that partnership – if it is to reflect God’s covenant – are not ours to negotiate. The self-giving cannot be quantified (unconditional and unending) while its locus is wholly defined and confined. As I say repeatedly to couples preparing for marriage, “You have to be crazy! You have no idea what you are letting yourselves in for.” Covenant-making, in human terms, is a crazy idea. But it is not our idea: but God’s. Perhaps that is the only explanation for why so many strive for it.

The Rev. Dr. Jo Bailey Wells is Associate Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry and Bible, and Director of Anglican Studies at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C. She is a priest of the Church of England.

[1] I am working from the assumption that a constructive theological understanding of marriage, based on Scripture and interpreted by tradition, is the starting point for all contemporary liturgical and legal issues concerning marriage in the Church.

[2] See John H. Walton, Covenant: God’s Purpose, God’s Plan (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994).

[3] There is but ‘one, continually “new” covenant’ in the Hebrew bible. See R.Rendtorff, The Covenant Formula: An Exegetical and Theological Investigation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark) 1998, p.78.

[4] In Old Testament scholarship, the idea that covenant simply means ‘obligation’ and is essentially one-sided has been largely abandoned in favor of the view that covenants establish kinship bonds involving mutual relations and obligations. For further reading: Scott Hahn, ‘Covenant in the Old and New Testaments: Some Current Research (1994-2004)’ in Currents in Biblical Research 3.2 (2005), pp.263-292.

[5] While a covenant certainly has an important legal aspect, the English term ‘contract’ conveys only the legal aspect to the exclusion of its social, familial, liturgical and other dimensions. For further reading on this, see M. Haran, ‘The Berît “Covenant”: Its nature and ceremonial background’ in Cogan, Eichler and Tigay (eds.), Tehillah le-Moshe: Biblical and Judaic Studies in honor of Moshe Greenberg (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1997), and J. Dunnill, Covenant and Sacrifice in the Letter to the Hebrews (SNTSMS, 75; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

[6] Note that in Jeremiah’s covenant there is such internal unity of will between the human and divine parties that conventional notions of obligation, with attendant curses and blessings, simply do not apply. See D.N. Freedman and D. Miano, ‘The People of the New Covenant’ in Porter and de Roo (eds.), The Concept of Covenant in the Second Temple Period (JSJSup.71; Leiden: E.J. Brill), 2003, pp.7-26.

[7] Note that the fulfillment of the old in the new is neither abrogation nor termination; there is no replacement, but rather a renewal that is both restorative and transformative. In other words, here is no ‘re- marriage’, but a reaffirmation of previous vows.

[8] Frank Moore Cross evidences the way in which marriage both in the biblical materials and the ancient Near East was a form of covenant. See his chapter ‘Kinship and Covenant in Ancient Israel’ in idem, From Epic to Canon: History and Literature in Ancient Israel (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press), pp.3-21.

[9] Hosea is the first to draw the daring analogy of the divine-human relationship to marriage (see Hosea 1). Malachi applies the word ‘covenant’ directly to marriage among the Israelites, not only describing God’s marriage with Israel (in which Israel is faithless) but even pointing to the infidelity of a husband to his wife as impairing Israel’s worship of God (Malachi 2:14-15). Paul extends the marriage analogy between YHWH and Israel to Christ and the Church in Ephesians 5. For a systematic demonstration of the way in which marriage is understood as covenant not only in Mal.2:14 but consistently throughout the biblical texts, see G.P. Hugenberger, Marriage as Covenant (VTSup.52; Leiden: E.J. Brill), 1994.

[10] See F.M. Cross, ‘Kinship and Covenant in Ancient Israel’ (op. cit.), p.8.

[11] Haran explicates in detail the traditional ritual aspects of covenant-making. See M. Haran, ‘The Berît “Covenant”: Its nature and ceremonial background’ in Cogan, Eichler and Tigay (eds.), Tehillah le-Moshe: Biblical and Judaic Studies in honor of Moshe Greenberg (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1997), pp.203-19.

[12] See Mark 10:10. Paul F. Palmer notes that the seeming exception in Matt.19:9, ‘except for immorality’ is made after the scribes and Pharisees have left. Thus, if Jesus softened or accommodated his teaching, the critics were unaware of it (‘Christian Marriage: Contract or Covenant?’ in Theological Studies, 33:4 (1972), p.623).

[13] W. Brueggemann, The Covenanted Self: Explorations in Law and Covenant (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999).

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