When is a Covenant not a Covenant?

Covenants and covenanting with each other seem to be almost as popular as mindfulness, and it bothers me.  Taking my lead from Krister Stendahl, I shared a few thoughts about covenants with some of my clergy colleagues, and argued that a covenant is not an agreement negotiated between parties that is supposed to bind their relationship in some way.  Rather, a covenant is imposed by the stronger on the weaker, the superior on the subordinate, and is not a matter of negotiation.  For example, God made covenants with Abraham, Moses, and the people of Israel.  God made them, he did not negotiate them.  The people had a choice about whether to enter into the covenant, but no choice about what was in the covenant.  In our own day, and in our denomination, we talk about the covenant of marriage.  The Book of Common Prayer asserts that it was established by God as a holy covenant into which a couple (theoretically) agrees to enter.  They don’t get to negotiate the terms. 
I could go on, but you get the idea.  So I tend to grit my teeth a bit when I hear someone talking about ‘covenanting with each other.’  To me that’s a contract, an agreement, a commitment, an arrangement, but it’s not a covenant. 
My friend Gretchen disagreed.  As a matter of fact, her D.Min. thesis was all about congregations establishing covenants of relationships.  As she pointed out:
The most commonly used Hebrew word for the concept of the covenant is berit, which is a covenant of “oaths and bonds” and involves mutual, although not necessarily equal commitments.  Some covenants in Scripture are unilaterally imposed – those being addressed by God have no need or requirement to agree to the covenant.  Others are entered into jointly and indeed the people are required to agree.  Some of the covenants are conditional – they spell out conditions which must be met for the covenant to be kept with corresponding rewards and punishments with those conditions.  Other covenants are unconditional, they exist regardless of the faithfulness of the people.  Some covenants are with single families, some with all creation.   As is obvious there is great variety within our Scripture among the various covenants.  
She suggested that I stop gritting my teeth and allow for different expressions of covenants.
I’m deeply respectful of her research on the subject, especially since I have never studied the use of berit.  Still, I tend to stick with Stendahl and here’s why.  I believe the popularity of the word works to cheapen it, and makes it too easy to accept or reject with casual disregard for any real commitment.  It can become just another flavor of the month buzzword.  

While a scholarly examination of the way in which a particular words are used in the Hebrew scriptures may do much for theologians that enlightens a deeper understanding, it is largely irrelevant to the way in which the contemporary English equivalents are used and understood by ordinary readers of scripture.  It isn’t easy to explain that covenant A is very unlike covenant B even if the same word is used for each.  The context and terms of each covenant make them mutually exclusive, or nearly so.  Therefore, I would prefer to limit the term covenant to the Stendahl sense, and use other acceptable words for agreements negotiated between consenting parties. 

Leave a Reply