In the Bible, the primary way in which God has relationship with humanity is through covenant. A covenant is an agreement between two parties, traditionally formalized by the shedding of blood through animal sacrifice.(1) It was by covenant that God had a special relationship with Abraham and his descendants, and it was through covenant that God gathered the Hebrew people and made them into a holy nation. Covenant remains to this day at the heart of God’s relationship with humanity.
The Mosaic Covenant
Nowhere is the importance of covenant made clearer than in the book of Exodus, which details the Hebrew’s liberation from bondage in Egypt. We read that, after escaping Pharaoh, the Hebrews arrived at Mount Sinai, where Moses ascended the holy mountain to speak with God. When Moses returned to the people who were awaiting him at the foot of the mountain, he recited the Lord’s commandments to the Hebrews: These were the things that God required of the people as their side of the covenant. He also revealed God’s promise to Israel: If they were faithful to the Lord’s commandments, God would lead them into the promised land and provide for their needs.(2)
The people agreed to be bound by the terms of the covenant, saying, “All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do.”(3) The following morning, Moses arose early and set up an altar at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses sacrificed oxen and gathered their blood into basins. He dashed half of the blood against the altar, representing God’s promise. He scattered the rest of the blood onto the crowded assembly. This blood, sprinkled on the altar and the assembly, symbolized the unity and commitment of God and Israel in this new relationship.
The rituals involved in this ancient covenant may make us squeamish; most of us today aren’t used to animal sacrifice or large amounts of blood. However, although the outward rituals may no longer be relevant for us, the essential meaning of covenant is deeply important to our life as a community gathered in Christ.
Vulnerability and Commitment
How do we make sense of the idea of covenant today? I would like to suggest that the essence of covenant is mutual vulnerability and reciprocal commitment. We make ourselves vulnerable to one another when we sacrifice that which is dear to us. By giving up our prized possessions, we admit that we need the Other more than we need our own strength. Moses sacrificed a bull; we today may sacrifice deeply held opinions and comforting habits – in either case, we give up that which makes us feel safe in our own strength in order to draw closer to the One in whom we have true security.
God desires intimacy and singleness of purpose with humanity, and this is indeed the result of true covenant: it brings about a union, a reconciliation of formerly estranged parties. Where we were once in rebellion against God, Christ brings us back into loving relationship. In covenant with God, we are reconciled not just individually, but also as a community. We were once warring factions, but now, in Christ, we are reconciled as partners in the Kingdom life.
This relationship of mutual vulnerability and love cannot, however, be sustained without mutual commitment. This is the other side of covenant: We are not only drawn together in ecstatic union; we must also promise to live in ways that will sustain our relationship with God. Perhaps the most foundational commitment that God stipulated for the Hebrews was that they worship nothing except God.(3) Without Israel’s commitment to this basic guideline, there was no hope for the covenant to endure; idolatry would make intimate relationship with God impossible.
Just as God called Israel to specific commitments as conditions of the covenant, we today must pledge ourselves to a new way of living in Christ Jesus. If we are faithful in our commitments to God and one another, the covenant will lead us ever deeper into a life of joy and peace. But to be true to our calling, we must embrace a life of responsibility to one another in Christ.
Living the Covenant Today
Just how does this play out in our Christian communities today? Far from being an outdated concept, covenant is at the heart of any human community that seeks to serve God and experience more abundant life. When we encounter Jesus in our midst, we are drawn into his new covenant: a life of union with God and transformation as children of light. We must be ready to make ourselves vulnerable, just like the ancients sought to through ritual sacrifice. Instead of sacrificing animals, we must sacrifice our selfish ambition, our self-loathing, our hopes and our fears – anything that gets in the way of the deep, risky relationship that God wants to have with us.
And our vulnerability to God must move beyond the theoretical and touch the daily realities of our lives. Covenant with God and the people of God must have practical effects, reflected in shared commitment on the part of individuals and communities as a whole. Israel’s covenant at Sinai made them very different from the peoples around them. They experienced the presence and power of God among them, and they waited on the Lord to be shown which direction to travel. Israel became a people set apart; their dress, dietary regulations and unusual dedication to one God distinguished them sharply from their neighbors.
How have we experienced God together in our community? Do we feel the presence of Christ in our times of worship, fellowship and service? How does this experience invite us to live differently? What are the ways that we are being called to commit ourselves to a new way of living – one which will at once draw us closer to one another and to God, as well as challenging our ability to blend into the wider culture and lead ordinary lives? What specific steps are we being asked to take – both as individuals and as communities – to signal our acceptance of this new covenant, our living relationship with Jesus Christ?
2. Exodus 23
3. Exodus 24
4. See Exodus 20