In yesterday’s reading from the Hebrew Bible, we heard about Yahweh’s covenant with Noah. In this week’s Hebrew Bible reading, we hear one version of the covenant with Abraham. The notion of covenant is of enormous significance for Hebrew Scripture and for the understanding of the relationship between God and God’s people. When I was studying Hebrew Bible in college and divinity school, a great deal was made of covenant, and of the important parallels and connections between Hebrew notions of covenant, and covenants among the writings and cultures of Israel’s neighbors. It seems that Hebrew understandings were shaped by those neighbors.
There were really two dominant forms of covenant both in the Hebrew Bible and in other ancient sources. One was an agreement in which each party made commitments; the other between a more powerful ruler or kingdom, and a less powerful one. In the latter, the more powerful one extended protection to the lesser and demanded loyalty and other obligations. Both the covenant with Noah and the one with Abraham recorded in Genesis 17 were asymmetrical. Some sort of response was required of the weaker party—if only acknowledgment of God’s power. Thus Abram bowed deferentially in God’s presence. But the promises of the covenant were not dependent on some action on the part of either Noah or Abram. God promised never again to bring a flood and to Abram, God promised that he would be the father of a great nation. In each covenant there was a sign, the rainbow or circumcision.
The notion of covenant continued to undergo interpretation and reappropriation. Early Christians wrote and spoke of a New Covenant established in Jesus Christ. In later centuries, Christians continued to use covenant as a rich metaphor for relationship with God and with one another. It was particularly important during the Protestant Reformation While language of covenant continues to be present in our theology and liturgy. But I wonder whether it continues to be meaningful. Do we still conceive of our relationship with God, either as individuals or as communities, in terms of covenant? To put it in slightly different words, would we use the language of treaty or contract to describe or understand those relationships? If not, what images are predominant now?
The same question could be asked of our use of covenantal language to describe relationships among people or communities. Is covenant a useful device to construct or define such relationships. One could think here of “the covenant of marriage” or yes, even the Anglican covenant. Is it helpful to understand any of those relationships in terms of loyalty, obedience, or mutual obligation?
That being said, it is clear that covenant was a supple enough concept that the Hebrews and Jews could reinterpret it to fit changed contexts. After the downfall of the monarchy and during the exile in Babylon, the exiles could still see in the idea of covenant a useful way to interpret their experience. God had not abandoned them; rather, their unfaithfulness to the covenant explained their loss of land and freedom.
To read the story of the covenant with Abraham is to read a story of great faith and a story of God’s faithfulness but as the verse that immediately follows today’s reading reminds us, it is also a story of divine mystery, and a certain amount of humor: “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed.”
In this season of Lent, exploring the nature of one’s relationship with God is an appropriate focus. Whether we think of it in terms of covenant, of friendship, of love, or in some other way, it’s important that we acknowledge who God is, and who we are in relationship with God. Sometimes, I suppose, laughter is the appropriate response in that relationship.