How does the ancient concept of a covenant triumph over the modern formulation of a contract?
Contracts are based on mutual distrust and typically stipulate expected responsibilities as well as penalties for deviation from the desired behavior. Take, for instance, any contract that you have signed with an employer or an employee that works in your business. No one ever signs a contract with someone whom they place ultimate trust on; rather, there is at least some concern or expectation that one party will deviate from the terms put down on paper.
Covenants, on the other hand, are based on mutual trust and in a biblical sense are motivated out of an ethic of love. The most accessible example today would be the covenant that parents have with their children, which is ideally how the relationship should work: “No matter what happens, no matter what you say or do, I will always be your parent and you will always be my child. As a result, I will always have a vested interest in your health, safety, and well-being despite the circumstances.” The parties of the covenant are always specific, which is why the covenant I share with my son does not cross over to your children; responsibility remains within the boundaries of your mutual pledge. Therefore, no matter what anyone else thinks of the dynamics of your covenant relationship, he/she is not the one ultimately responsible, and criticism is always much easier without the burden of accountability.
Furthermore, biblically, covenants are made frequently between human parties, which are imperfect reflections of the ideal divine covenant.
To illustrate, consider what the writer says in 1 Samuel 18:1–5: “Now it came about when he had finished speaking to Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as himself. Saul took him that day and did not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, with his armor, including his sword and his bow and his belt. So David went out wherever Saul sent him, and prospered; and Saul set him over the men of war. And it was pleasing in the sight of all the people and also in the sight of Saul’s servants” (New American Standard Bible, italics mine).
Here, Jonathan establishes a covenant with David out of the motivation of love, and as a result of this motivation, the one who makes the covenant freely gives of himself to the other party. In the text above, Jonathan was the son of the king, which means he was clean and well dressed. David still held his old job description (shepherd), which means he was most likely dirty and smelt like animals. Imagine walking up to someone begging on the street, taking off your most expensive suit, and then dressing them up in your finest, leaving you in your undies. Covenant is a powerful thing.
As stated, this promise between two men reflects the divine ideal of a covenant, and God made several (e.g., Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic) with humankind throughout the Bible. The specifics of each vary, but each covenant represents an irrevocable, blissful promise, where God goes “all in” and voluntarily puts Himself on the line for the perpetual, continual pursuit of the inferior party (humans). That means, no matter what humankind does, says, or doesn’t do, and no matter how evil they behave, the terms of the covenant remain in place and will never be abandoned. For example, did Adam and Eve violate the covenant? Yes. What did God do? He clothed them, provided for them, and gave them a plan B. Did David commit adultery even though he was anointed? Yes. What did God do? He didn’t give up on the man who became Israel’s prototypical king. Were the people of Israel disobedient in the land promised and then given to them? Yes, and they were even given hundreds of years to repent and change course, all to no avail. What did God do? He sent His son to save them and everyone else.
For all the nonparents, this may be hard to imagine, but think about a rebellious child whom you raised, nurtured, protected, and sustained, only for them to spit in your face and curse you continually. Yet despite all this, you, the parent, do not give up but continually pursue your child, not because of a contractual obligation, but because you have his/her best interest in mind, an interest that transcends injury and harm to the physical, mental, and emotional self.
One of the most beautiful words used in the Hebrew Old Testament is hesed, meaning love, favor, and kindness. This reflects God’s way of thinking on grace (unearned favor without merit), and this attitude represents an inversion of what we know about the world, which requires reciprocity and retribution in order for things to be “fair” and “balanced.” Most ancient covenants emphasized either mutual obligation or a greater obligation of lesser to greater. Hesed actually implies larger obligation of the greater to the lesser, like a king to his subjects.
We live in a world where the conception of a contract has become a normal means of engagement in interpersonal relationships, because in tit-for-tat interactions, any fault can be used to judge, dismiss, and separate from the other party. (This sense of self-preservation combined with the overall lack of discerning commitment to future-preference partly explains, I think, why divorce rates in the United States are so high). Yet in interpersonal covenantal relationships, particularly with children and marriage, it is something to be taken very seriously. Automatically dismissing other parties for a contract violation certainly does preserve the self, but at what cost? At some point, we must all face the daunting question if our children and our loving spouses are worth fighting for. To truly embrace the idea of a covenant means to fully embrace an ethic of love, one that God perfectly manifested when He sacrificed Himself for all those whom He knew would even reject him. To not fully embrace the gravity of covenantal relationships, then, is to dismiss one of the many lessons that God has been trying to teach us all along—that we should stop quickly giving up on each other, just as He has never given up on us. This is one of the powerful messages Christ showed us when He walked the earth, as God showing us all how to be more divine and less human.
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal