Covenant: Merely a Contract?

The Bible emphasizes a unique word in describing relationship agreements: COVENANT. It’s the word God uses to capture His relationship with Noah, with Abraham, with Moses, with David, and ultimately with all who are in Christ - the recipients of “the new covenant,” (Jeremiah 31). But since “covenant” has gone out of fashion in common vocabulary, many search for other words to use in its place. We may be tempted to use the analogy of a contract to understand a covenant. I have used this word myself in preaching about covenant before. They both involve agreements and commitments. However, the biblical concept of covenant emerges as much stronger than the conditions of a contract. Consider 3 notable features of a contract as highlighted by Yale Professor Miroslav Volf: 

  1. It’s Performance Oriented: It ensures that a task is accomplished, and when the task is done, the relationship dissolves. If the performance is less than satisfactory, no future terms of agreement will be extended.
  2. It Demands Limited Commitment: It obliges what is stated - no more, no less. Clauses are attached merely to ensure the payment of losses incurred in case of an unjustified breach.
  3. It’s Strictly Reciprocal: The transgression of one party dis-obliges the other. The contract becomes null and void.

Contracts are clearly defined and make sense for business deals. But the contractual model fails to capture the depths of biblical covenant. As Volf states, “Unlike contract, covenant is not simply a relationship of mutual utility, but of moral commitment.” An obvious difference is the level of commitment in covenant reaching beyond a limited time or scope. Biblical covenant between myself and God directly or between a husband, wife, and God (what marriage ultimately is) is an all-encompassing commitment. And it’s not null and void just based on a breach of your choice. Transgressions will take place. Contracts end. Covenants endure. Obligations to love are not nullified by feelings that love is non-reciprocal. Covenant love is not strictly reciprocal. And it’s certainly not strictly performance-oriented. Otherwise, God would never offer a covenant with us. The idea that we could ever match His performance and offer mutual utility is laughable.

2 scenes come to my mind when I consider the power of COVENANT in the Scriptures. One is when Jesus refers to the fruit of the vine as His Blood…and more specifically, “the blood of the new covenant.” Covenant demands sacrifice, and therefore is often ratified in blood (Hebrews 9:16-18).

The other is also a scene where blood is shed. It occurs in Genesis 15, where God expresses the words of covenant (15:18) along with the specific promises upon which the relationship of trust will be built (15:4-7, 18). Abraham’s question is response is natural: “How will I know?” (15:8). And God answers this time not in words but in action. He demands that Abraham cut animal carcasses in half…with a path in between the pieces. The common Ancient Near East covenant-making practice of “signing the agreement” was for the party in a higher position to walk between the animal pieces and then have the one in a lower position walk between the pieces. Then they would say to each other something to the effect of, “May I become as one of these animals if I break this covenant.” Abraham is expecting for God to instruct Him to walk between the pieces and make the commitment. But what He witnesses instead is God in the form of fire and smoke (a common theophany, demonstrating God’s presence). And God, even as the superior party, is the only One who passes between the pieces. What was the message of assurance to Abraham? God is in effect saying, “Abraham, if I don’t hold up my end of the covenant, may I be cut in pieces. But Abraham, if YOU don’t hold up your end of the covenant, may I also be cut in pieces.” 

And God was torn apart…body ripped…blood spilt…for the sake of those who had not held up their end of the covenant: Abraham. You. Me.

This vivid picture is not the message of a utility contract. This is the language of unlimited commitment, love, and sacrifice to the other…even when it’s not being reciprocated. 

This is marriage. This is parenting. This is the life of relationships in Christ. This is God’s love for us. This is now our love for Him. This is covenant.

To His Glory,

Caleb

Photo credit: LeonArts.at via Foter.com / CC BY-ND