I can’t say how many times I have read the word ‘covenant’ in the Bible and had a vague definition in mind when I did. However, I never dreamed how important, how intense was the meaning behind that small word.
I am not the kind of reader that enjoys a novel when the development of each character takes chapter upon chapter. I am more of an action junkie. Take me to the conflict, the chase, the ‘angst’. If you don’t take me there quickly, I will find it myself, read it, and be on my way.
What kind of reader are you? Do you mull over each sentence? Or, like me do you wonder ‘where are we going?’ and ‘how long is it going to take to get there?’
Just for fun, write down some things that come to mind when you think of a covenant in today’s world.
Now, when you think of the Biblical version of covenant, what comes to mind?
Imagine my surprise when I went through a class on the ‘Blood Covenant’, and found that the entire Bible has ‘covenant’ as its central theme.
Write down what we call the collection of the first 39 books of the Bible from Genesis to Malachi.
Now, what do we call the second group of 27 books of the Bible from Matthew to the Revelation of John?
If you answered ‘Old Testament’ and ‘New Testament’ you would be correct. But, did you know ‘testament’ is another word for ‘covenant’? Would it surprise you if I said that the following statement by Jesus in Luke 22:20
“In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.’”,
could not have happened without the old covenant? God is not a god of mistakes or second thoughts. He doesn’t say ‘Let’s try this plan and move to plan B if necessary.” The old covenant was Part A; the new covenant Part B. The old covenant was absolutely essential for Part B.
Let’s start at the beginning. As much as I would like to jump to the end of the book, the pieces are each intense in their own way.
When you wrote down what a covenant means in today’s terminology, you may have written court of law, will, contract, wedding vows. These are some ways a covenant can be expressed. The dictionary defines covenant as: an agreement, usually formal, between two or more persons to do or not do something specified. In the Western world, the word covenant is not used as much in today’s language as it was in the past. In fact, even this dictionary definition leaves out very important pieces of a covenant relationship.
To be in covenant with someone, is to pledge your entire being to the other person. The words spoken are an oath, sometimes before God of the intentions of each party to fulfill the contract. This is not a casual friendly relationship. In some cultures, this meant the exchanging of blood. When I was growing up and watching shows on television about cowboys and Indians, one of my favorites was the Lone Ranger. The Lone Ranger and his Native American friend Tonto were blood brothers. Tonto would call the Lone Ranger ‘Kemo Sabe’ or ‘trusted friend’. They fought bad guys together and you knew that one would die for the other if necessary. Even as a child, I knew there was something special about that relationship. When we would play, we would pretend to cut ourselves and enter into a blood brother relationship with our friends just like the Lone Ranger and Tonto.
Sometimes a token of the relationship is given such as a ring, or an amulet. This is a remembrance to the covenant partners and as a sign to the rest of the community. They may also change their names or take part of each other’s name.
Also a covenant often had at least one condition attached. One may say, “So that we understand each other, I need for you to do ______________________. That way I KNOW you are bound to the covenant.” A non-Biblical example of this is the relationship gang members have towards one another. There are some gang initiation rites where you would be accepted into the gang, but then you must show you are really a member. You would be required to steal something or even to kill someone. Then your membership would be sealed.
The reverse could also happen. If you break the covenant there could be a consequence, sometimes a very severe consequence. Today, in some cultures, if a young woman goes outside her religious community and marries, her brother or father could kill her. This is a terrible thing. I am not condoning this practice. But, in their eyes, she has brought dishonor to the family, to their name and must be punished by death.
Often in a covenant, gifts are exchanged. The marriage covenant has this in mind when the two persons are joined together. Everything I have is yours and everything you have is mine. (This even includes your charge card debt and your tax burden!)
A covenant can also be established with the partaking of a meal together. A meal is a very traditional way to establish a relationship of importance between two parties. Dinners with heads of state are an example at a very high government level. How many treaties have been ratified over food before a piece of paper was ever signed? And, of course what happens in a typical wedding? Maybe a sit-down meal is a part, but most of the time there is a CAKE! What happens with the cutting of the cake? Everything stops! The friends and family gather around, everyone stops talking, for the CUTTING OF THE CAKE! We have lost the symbolism for this in Western culture, but it is a symbol of the marriage union expressed in sharing bread (cake). Bread is the symbol for sustenance, for livelihood. The couple expresses their commitment before witnesses that they are now one by feeding each other a bite of cake.