The Covenants We Make

The God of Abraham and Moses in Covenant

The Abrahamic faiths are covenantal. In the Hebrew Scriptures, God makes a few different covenants with humans. With Noah, for instance, God agrees never again to destroy the earth with a flood. Then God promises to make Abraham the patriarch of countless descendants as long as he and his offspring become circumcised. Perhaps the most important covenant, though, is the one God made with the Israelites at Mt. Sinai.

In the Middle East during the second millennium B.C.E., covenants Moses Descends from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments by Ferdinand Bol painting - commandments as part of the covenantwere formal treaties that bound a vassal, who was the leader of a subordinate state, to a great and powerful king. In exchange for protection from the king, the vassal state agree not to have any sovereign ruler but him. Disobedience to the rules of the covenant could lead to severe punishments.

This was the kind of covenant God made with the Hebrew people. He agreed to protect them; they agreed to have no other Gods before Him. There were ten commandments the people were supposed to follow, but the no other gods bit was the most important part of the covenant. If they broke the covenant, the people would be destroyed.


Breaking Covenants

That threat didn’t stop them, though. Almost immediately, they built a golden calf to honor Baal, which means they were worshiping some god other than Yahweh. They did this at a time when they felt insecure and frightened, and they wanted something to help them feel better. so they turned back to what they’d always known. It was almost as if they were addicted to the rituals, dances, and exuberant excesses of the pagan god.

Although Yahweh yelled a bit, He didn’t destroy them. He forgave them. So the people continued to act up. Not only did they worship foreign gods, but they stole, lied, cheated, fornicated, murdered, and basically treated one another horribly.

This story is powerful because we can relate to it. We make promises to ourselves, to our higher power, to our friends, yet over and over we betray ourselves, break faith with our loved ones, and ignore our gods. As individuals, we’re probably nothing near as bad as Israel was. We might make mistakes, but most of us are basically kind and generous human beings.

As a group, however, we in the United States have failed miserably. In our greed, we no longer take care of the “widows and orphans.” We grab what we want, even if we have to rape or kill to get it. Terrorists, police killings, polluted water, fouled skies, destroyed habitat, riots, fraud, homelessness, and the obscene accumulation of wealth, are all symptoms of our brokenness. Like the cruel, thoughtless, impetuous people of the Bible, we get caught up in our addictions to being numb, or rich, or powerful, or correct, so we break commandments and covenants and, if we believe the biblical warnings, we deserve to be destroyed.

A Forgiving God

This Hebrew God may get angry, and he does sometimes send enemies to kill off or enslave a portion of the Israelites, but overall, He is a forgiving god. No matter what Israel did, and no matter what we do, this god will not forsake us. Instead, He keeps trying to successful covenants, so he made a new one. This time, so the story goes, he sent Jesus who willingly gave his body and blood to erase our sins. And this time, God added an extra measure of certainty to the agreement: “I will place my law within them,” God said, “and write it upon their hearts.” [Jer 31:31-33]

God must have been hoping we would never forget. If so, He was wrong. We are just as pompous and judgmental and nasty as ever.

Effective Covenants

So perhaps God’s form of covenant is not especially effective. Back in that second millennium B.C.E., another type of covenant was common. It was a covenant between equals. such as between a bride and a groom or between business partners. This kind of covenant is about relationship. It’s about living and working together. It’s about love. George Cladis says covenant is “a living definition of community whose essence is love.” [1]

In other words, to be effective, covenants must be grounded in love, and good covenant is a living document that grows and changes as does the community.

Perhaps that’s part of what was wrong with God’s covenants. God loves God’s people, of course. That is clear. It is perhaps less clear that the Israelites loved God. After all, they were a small and powerless people, trembling at the miracles performed by this warrior god. They wanted His protection, and to get it, they were willing to promise whatever He asked of them.

This is not a very good basis for an equal partnership or a successful covenant. If the essence of a covenant ought to be love, then it ought to be mutual. If a successful covenant is designed to grow and change with the needs of the community, then it must be forged by partners who also grow and change. Given this, how does one have a successful covenant with God?

A Covenant with God

If by “successful” we mean the covenant isn’t broken time after time, then no covenant succeeds. We break covenants. It’s just our nature to be imperfect that way. Whether the covenants are formal or not, we never follow all the rules. We hurt one another, we damage relationships, we mess up. Since covenants are about relationships, when we mess up, we damage the relationship. Then we either give up or we reconcile. If we want to reconcile, it helps to have a structure for coming back into right relationship with one another.

I guess that’s what communion is supposed to be, a structure for reconciliation. If we see in the wafer and the wine the body of one we call God, then communion brings us back into right relationship with Him.

So what if we don’t see God in the wafer or wine?

Unitarian Universalists have Principles and Purposes that we might call a covenant. They are informed by our values; they contain guidelines for sustaining healthy relationships with one another and the world. The first principle we affirm is the “inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Retired Unitarian Universalist minister, Marilyn Sewell, writes about this principle that it “calls for gentleness and forgiveness and the understanding that redemption is just a decision away.”

When we damage relationship, we can decide to turn back. We can decide to admit our wrongs and seek forgiveness. Sewell suggest that our first principle can guide us in doing just that. It is, she writes, “a covenant of relationship that . . . orients us remarkably quickly when we lose our way.” [2]

Turning Back to Right Relationship

Thus, we can use our principles, especially our first, to bring us back into right relationship with all that is, including God. Regardless of what our covenant looks like, a good one will provide us with a way to repent, atone, and make whole what has been fractured or damaged.

We humans create ourselves with story. A sacred story, like the one of God’s covenant with a certain ragtag group of slaves, comes out of our collective unconscious and creates a collective identity. We become a people loved for all time by a powerful, yet gentle god. In God’s love for us, God forgives everything. In God’s love for us, God allows us to be who we must be, to make our mistakes, to learn a bit here and there, to backslide, to grow, to heal. Stewart Herman calls covenants “the very instrument God employs to render the people trustworthy.” [3]

For us to become trustworthy, we must be allowed to break trust, so we can learn. For us to be in real covenant with God, God must be as vulnerable as we are. If God doesn’t care what Israel does, if her mistakes and failures make no difference to this deity, then the covenant they forged together becomes meaningless. The covenant has power, the relationship has power, the story itself has power, because God also feels sad, frustrated, furious, and at times bereft. This is no distant, unchanging, unaffected God. This is a gentle, angry, and desperately loving God, a God who can be moved and changed.

Creating Covenant Together

Soon, we at Universalist Recovery Church will create our own covenant of right relationship. We will explore our values, lay out some hopes and promises, and consider how to bring ourselves back into healthy and respectful relationship when we fail to live up to the covenant we create. At its best, this covenant will be formed out of our sacred stories, our most important values. It will tell us who we are and who we long to be, and it will be grounded in mutual respect.

Yet covenant is not just something we create in groups and churches, or with gods. We create covenants with ourselves, with nature, with loved ones. May these covenants we forge be ones that support our recovery. May they transform us and sustain us. May they be grounded in love, and when we break them, as we will do sometimes, may we reach out in humility and kindness so we, our loved ones, and our world, can reconcile and become whole again.

In faith and fondness,

1. Cladis, George, Leading the Team-Based Church: How Pastors and Church Staffs Can Grow Together into a Powerful Fellowship of Leaders, San Francisco: Jossey- Bass, 1999, 10.
2. Sewell, Marilyn, “The Inherent Worth and Dignity of Every Person,” With Purpose and Principle: Essays about the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism, Edward A. Frost, ed., Boston: Skinner House, 1998, 23-30, 10.
3. Herman, Stewart W, “The Portential for Building Covenants in Business Corporations,” Max L. Stackhouse, Dennis P. McCann, Shirely J. Roels, and Preston N. Williams, eds, On Moral Business: Classical and Contemporary Resources for Ethics in Economic Life, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1995, 514-520, 519.

Photo Credits:

Moses Descends From Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments, Ferdinand Bol [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons