Covenant. That’s one of the themes of today’s passage. And actually it was the theme of last week’s Old Testament lectionary passage, if you have been following that. In last week’s Old Testament lectionary passage, God covenants to never again send a flood of the dimensions of that first flood, which as you know, wiped out almost everything on the planet. In this week’s Old Testament lectionary passage, God covenants with Abraham and Sarah that they will be fruitful and multiply and be forbearers of entire nations.
I use the word covenant a lot—since I officiate at a lot of weddings. When I officiate at a wedding, I ask the groom, “Knowing that God has created, ordered and blessed the covenant of marriage, is it your desire and intention to enter this covenant?“ After the groom says yes, and no one yet has said no, thank goodness! I ask the same of the bride, “is it YOUR desire and intention to enter this covenant?”
The way the term is used in marriage, and the way we usually think of it, is a spiritual commitment to provide for the other, in plenty and in want and so on and so forth. Then they kiss on it. (Smooch) That’s not all that is involved though.
In our advanced societies (and believe me, more and more I am thinking that advanced societies is an oxymoron) anyway in our advanced societies, we have laws, and some of those laws are expressly about marriage. State laws make a marriage covenant legally binding. An engaged couple goes to a circuit court, fills out some paperwork, swears before a clerk that they are who they and their driver’s licenses say they are. Then they are given two pieces of paper: their marriage licenses. I complete and sign those after their wedding. I send the licenses back to the court for processing. That’s the way it is SUPPOSED TO WORK.
However. I was at a wedding rehearsal on a Thursday evening a few weeks back. It was at UVA chapel. The bride and groom, had come from DC. Apparently the couple was super stressed on Thursday afternoon before leaving DC for Charlottesville: you know, finishing up at work, making sure a dog sitter had been secured, packing up wedding attire and also clothes for the rehearsal dinner, the Sunday brunch, and on and on. In all of that chaos, the couple forgot to get their wedding licenses. They discovered their omission at the rehearsal. “No problem,” I offered. “You can get your licenses tomorrow (which was a Friday), at the Charlottesville Courthouse.” Except. Except that the groom had left his wallet in his DC apartment, so, no i.d. You know that painting, by Evard Munch, the scream? That was the couple and me, and the couples’ parents, and actually the entire wedding party, pretty much, in unison. An itsy bitsy irony here-- the groom is a lawyer.
Next day the couple goes to the Charlottesville courthouse and begs for mercy. The clerk and the couple come up with a plan. The groom phones a friend back in DC. The friend breaks into the groom’s apartment, finds his driver’s license, scans that, and sends the scan via e-mail to the Charlottesville courthouse. It is accepted as proof enough. The couple gets their licenses, I marry them in UVA chapel as originally planned, and now they are, happily married, I hope. At the very least, though, they are LEGALLY married. And, the upshot-- now they have a good story to tell at dinner parties. Whew.
But, we were talking about covenants. The point I was trying to make, before I interrupted myself, is that our present day marriage covenants are backed up by a legal process. But that’s not the way it was in Bible times. Back in the days of the flood, and the days of Abraham and Sarah, there were no courthouses, not to mention paper for licenses to be printed on! There were no police officers or attorneys to enforce the agreements or covenants that people made either. So how did you know that the promises that people made to each other were for real? How could you be assured of a person’s integrity?
We actually know how early covenants were made. It was a complicated, time- consuming process that demonstrated a person’s sincerity and commitment.
There’s a detailed description of covenant-making between God and Abraham in Genesis, chapter 15. In that chapter, God has just told Abraham that he is being given a huge tract of land on which to build a home, raise some animals. And he promises to one day give Abraham heirs. Abraham, though. Well, he’s suspicious. I mean WE know, as Abraham also knew, that you don’t get something for nothing. So in Genesis we read that Abraham asks God a question. Probably his eyes are squinty and his speech slow and cautious, as he inquires of God, “How can I know that I will gain possession of the land?” We can imagine that God sighs and thinks to himself: “Come on, Abraham, you don’t believe ME, the one who created you?” The writer of Genesis reports simply though, that God replies, “Bring me a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtledove and a pigeon.” Sounds strange, I know.
Not to Abraham, though. He has a pretty good idea what’s afoot. Abraham knows how the human-to-human covenant-making process works. He finds the animal carcasses. Then he cuts them in two. Note the verb cut—the Hebrew word is cutr. The Hebrew phrase to make a covenant, is berit cutr. Berit means covenant. In Hebrew you don’t draft a covenant agreement, you don’t sign a covenant agreement you cut a covenant—with dead animals.
Abraham arranges the animal halves in two rows. Now at this point, in a normal, human- to-human covenant-making process, each of the two parties walks between the rows of animal pieces. That’s the ancient ritual signifying that the two parties of the covenant are being true and honest with each other. But Abraham is dealing with God here, remember.
God and Abraham wait until nightfall. Then, while Abraham looks on, God floats a smoking firepot with a blazing torch between the animal pieces.
Now here you are thinking, “God floats a smoking firepot with a blazing torch?” As I said before, this is really strange. But it makes sense, in a way. God doesn’t have legs or feet to walk on. God can’t actually walk between the animal pieces. God floats a smoking firepot and blazing torch and Abraham knows that it’s God making this happen.
What’s at least as amazing as the floating firepot and torch, though, or at least people hearing this story back in Abraham’s day would have thought it just as amazing, is Abraham’s silence and inactivity during this odd covenanting process. Abraham promises God, what? Zip, nada, goose egg.
Same goes for the covenant involving the rainbow. God promises to never flood the earth again, but what does Noah promise to do for God in return? Zip. Nada. Goose egg. Same with the covenant that God establishes with Abraham and Sarah in our story for today. God reaffirms the covenants to give Abraham and his wife a child, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. God promises to give Abraham the entire land of Canaan. Abraham commits to do what? Zip. Nada. Goose egg.
With God’s covenants there is a clip, then, but no clop. There’s a ding without a dong. One shoe drops but not the other. There’s this hugely uncomfortable sense of incompleteness, isn’t there? It’s as if during a marriage ceremony I were to ask the groom, “Is it your desire and intention to enter this covenant?” And then after he says yes, I were to move on without asking the same thing of the bride. You’d wonder what was going on.
Why doesn’t God set some contingencies for Abraham, for US? “I will not flood the earth again, IF you promise to be kind to one another and treat me with love and respect and by the way, I want 3 quarters of all your flocks.” Or how about, “Abraham, I will give you progeny, but you must promise to give me whatever you grow on your land.”
Social scientists study human behavior. One of our behaviors is reciprocity. If I do for you, you do for me. It’s the way we’ve been taught. It’s the way we live in community. It may even be the way we are hardwired. You bring me hot meals when I am home sick with the flu. When you break your foot a few months later, so that you have to wear a boot and you can’t drive for six weeks, I drive you to your doctor’s appointments. It’s only right. Yes, we are friends. We care for each other. But it is also the case that a debt was owed. A debt is paid.
The jury is still out whether there is such a thing as pure, Brillo pad, scrubbed clean altruism. It is something you have probably thought about, though, right? You read about a truly heroic act, say, someone gives a perfect stranger a kidney, and you think--well, what’s in it for the donor? Did he get paid?
Warning here: There’s a book I skimmed a while back. It’s titled the Price of Altruism. It’s about a scientist named George Price. George Price spent the latter part of his life, trying to prove mathematically, the existence of altruism. He went crazy. So best not to dwell too long on the subject.
God, though. Well, God invented altruism. God just gives and gives some more without asking anything in return. It’s right here in Genesis, with these one-sided, lopsided, clip but no clop covenants.
It’s NOT the normal way we do things here on earth among ourselves, but apparently it is GOD’s way. Unconditionally. Without contingencies. And in that, there is a message for us all. May we strive to do likewise. Amen