Well, first of all, a covenant is a thousand times more serious than a simple “deal.” It’s why I’m attempting to savvy its implications. Understand a covenant’s an all-encompassing arrangement, containing clearly prescribed perimeters and promises. The two parties involved have mandatory obligations they must fulfill. It’s not temporary, it’s for life. Its purpose is to complement both parties’ strengths and weaknesses, based on wholehearted trust and genuine respect. It requires blood to be shed to reinforce the solemnity and gravity of the bond it establishes. While a contract’s limited to the exchange of goods, services, products, etc., a covenant is, in essence, a giving of one’s complete self to another. (The marriage institution is the closest thing we have to a covenant nowadays but it makes for an anemic comparison by default.) The attributes I just listed show a covenant to be the ideal of what we call a relationship. In ancient Arab cultures a covenant friendship topped even family ties. It was literally “thicker than blood.” Thus, people/parties didn’t enter into a covenant agreement on a whim. A covenant is the ultimate commitment. It’s sacrificial. It’s inherently selfless to the max. And, when it comes to humanity as a whole, God’s the “other party.”
It’s difficult to convey in 21st century secularized terms what being in a covenant partnership meant. Sadly, the Hebrew word chesed (describing the core of a covenant relationship) gets watered down when translated into English, frequently appearing as the somewhat ambiguous expression, “mercy.” At its most foundational, chesed represents an intense emotion flowing outward from one party’s “heart of hearts” toward the other party, saturated with a strong desire to bless them. It’s primarily centered around unconditional love, something modern society rarely exhibits in reference to any group of folks they’ve labeled as “different” from their particular clan. I mean, love your enemies? Are you insane? They’ll run roughshod over you! Who’d suggest such a foolish thing? (Um, that’d be Christ in Matthew 5:44.)
Another facet of a covenant pact foreign to most is this: the only way to get out of it’s via death or mass extermination. That explains why they were signed in blood instead of ink. As grisly as it is to visualize, ancient tribes would confirm their mutual covenant agreement by conducting a sacrificial ceremony in which a prized animal was slaughtered, usually by cutting it in half. In doing this both sides were avowing, “If we fail to keep our end of the bargain may what happened to this innocent beast happen to us.” Now, I’m not trying to gross anyone out, just making the point that nobody entered into a covenant casually. This was serious business. However, since the penalty for breaching one was so severe, covenants held a lot of appeal due to the security, strength and cooperation that resulted from entering into them. Recall in my last essay I mentioned that phrases like “unending love,” “unshakable loyalty,” “tender mercies” and “unwavering faithfulness” have covenant roots. No wonder.
Realize also that covenants were common as houseflies in the Middle East for thousands of years. They were how nations, tribes and families kept from annihilating one another. Thus, it’s important to note there were two kinds of self-explanatory covenants – equal and unequal ones. Both were intentionally entered into by both parties and were intended primarily to complement strengths and weaknesses. For example, an aggressive, militaristic bunch of folks would logically be eager to join up with an agriculture-based clan, thereby acquiring what they lacked and desperately needed. And vice-versa. That’d be an equal alliance whereas an unequal (or unilateral) covenant came into play as the result of a mightier group conquering a lesser one by force. It was the only practical way for the defeated to avoid extinction. Of course, it came with strict stipulations, starting with the demand for total allegiance to the victorious king. That king and his people would help themselves to any wealth, land, resources and labor skills the other side possessed. In return the triumphant party was obligated to provide the defeated with security, peace and certain measures of assistance. While far from creating perfect harmony, it still managed to keep civilization, brutal as it often was, from descending into complete chaos and taking the human race with it.
You might ask why I want to spend time investigating this subject. It’s because I deem the covenant concept the key to understanding God’s master plan better. It’s the glue that connects mere mortals with His awesome divinity. Therefore, I feel it’s important to learn all I can about it and writing blog entries is my way of making sense of this befuddled world I live in. I think the word “covenant” best describes God’s relationship with all of us. Malcom Smith wrote, “A covenant’s a binding, unbreakable obligation between two parties, based on unconditional love sealed by blood and sacred oath, creating a relationship in which each party’s bound by specific undertakings on each other’s behalf. The parties place themselves under the penalty of divine retribution should they later attempt to avoid those undertakings. It’s a relationship that can only be broken by death.” So, like it or not (and because God granted each individual the sacred gift of free will) there’s a give-and-take structure to our ongoing existence in His universe. Rob Price opined, “Since the very creation of the world God used a unique pattern, a unique cultural event, referred to as the covenant. Through this He outlined specific requirements and spectacular promises and tells us how He wants us to respond to Him, outlining the promises of what’ll happen if we follow His ways. And those promises are absolutely thrilling – even life-changing.” So even if it’s solely for the historical perspective it can provide that you opt to tag along on my investigative journey, I predict you’ll be amazed to see how the rites involved in establishing and maintaining a covenant have fascinating connections to Biblical truths.