While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
A Complicated Covenant
Our Genesis lesson is fascinating for many reasons. It goes back to the very origins of Israel; to the roots of the formation of a people of faith; back to when Abraham was still called Abram.
The name “Abram” is a pretty good one. It means “exalted father”, which would have felt pretty ironic at the time because Abram was elderly and had no children.
But “Abraham” is like “Abram” on steroids and means “Father of a Multitude”. This fits very well with the image we see of Abram and God looking at the stars and God promising that Abram’s descendants would be just as numerous, just as uncountable as the stars of the night sky.
To really understand this you have to get out of the city in the summer at night and look up to see all the tiny points of light that are hidden by light pollution. It’s a wonderful, overwhelming number. If we get technical, astronomers tell us that the maximum number of stars we could see with the naked eye in any hemisphere of the Earth is a bit over 5000.
But that’s not what it feels like! It feels closer to the estimate of the number of stars that exist which is 2 sextillion, or 2 followed by 23 zeros – a mind-blowing number – especially if it is a promise for your descendants, when you really wanted some and thought you’d never have any.
All of that number stuff feels like a bit of a spoiler; it’s too technical. But people often treat Biblical covenants like they were legal documents. They are even explained as a kind of contract between unequal parties. The end of our Genesis lesson actually gives us the ritual for such a contract: with the animals sacrificed and cut in half; with the torch and incense pot carried between the halves as symbolic of how closely the two parties of the covenant were to be bound together; like two halves of a body.
And if you were to be technical and legalistic, then the number of descendants has been more than achieved. God’s promise to Abram has been kept, with well over 5000 Jewish descendants and counting – many more if you take it in spiritual terms – and include all Christians and Muslims as spiritual descendants; an interpretation that goes all the way back to the Apostle Paul.
Abram wouldn’t have counted things that way; Eliezer of Damascus was part of his extended household and might well be called a spiritual descendent, but Abram really didn’t want to count him.
So, the “numerous descendants” clause of the covenant was fulfilled but there is another part that never was: the giving of all the land between the Nile and the Euphrates to the descendants of Abram. In other words, from central Egypt to central Iraq.
The Hebrew people have certainly travelled over all this land. Their origin stories include starting in Ur near the Euphrates and multiplying as slaves in Goshen near the Nile in Egypt (or, as we would say now, workers in the Gig Economy). But they have never ruled the whole Fertile Crescent, not even in the days of Solomon when the kingdom of Israel was at its largest.
People have gotten tied into knots over this kind of thing: What do you do with a covenant that is unfulfilled? Does it mean that the fulfillment is still to come?
There are some who hold to this notion, who would really like to see the boundaries of modern Israel expanded with this kind of promise in mind. On the other hand, does it mean that God is unreliable? That God doesn’t keep promises? Traditionally, that idea is considered blasphemous, which is why we don’t hear about these unfulfilled bits very often in traditional sermons.
The basic challenge here is that covenants and contracts are words, while relationships are living things. We refer to marriage as a covenant because it is one of the best Biblical analogies we can find. Sure, there are marriage contracts but that is legal language, not faith language.
The covenant you make at the beginning of a relationship is vital. But it is also the starting point and the relationship will change and grow. So, the original covenant may not reflect the ultimate reality.
Look at the state of the covenant by the time Jesus was speaking. He referred to Jerusalem as the city that killed the prophets. The prophets were messengers sent by God to the people of God and they were stoned. Stoning, as a means of execution, was symbolically important because everyone in the community was required to throw at least one stone so the responsibility for the death was shared by the whole community.
No wonder we had to invent the phrase “don’t kill the messenger”. We have been killing messengers in real life for thousands of years.
King Herod was supposed to be ruling as God’s representative over the Galilean population of God’s people; someone who had a particular responsibility for the covenant; both to God and to the people.
Jesus describes him as a fox, which might just suggest Herod is wily, until Jesus talks about the people of God as chicks that he wants to gather under his wings: a powerful image of a mother hen preparing to defend her brood against the fox that will destroy them.
Jesus is speaking as a prophet here, the words coming as God’s own voice, giving us a wonderful, fiercely protective, motherly image for God to balance some of that “beard in the sky” stuff we know so well.
And we also see the disappointment when the chicks refuse to shelter under God’s wings.
The covenant has clearly moved way beyond questions of descendants or issues of territory. There is a long-standing relationship being worked out and it is like a marriage in need of counselling, with Jesus trying to bring the parties together.
And the part of the covenant that is clearest is that it is permanent: divorce is not an option. God and God’s people are together for the long haul and as we travel down the road of Lent, towards Good Friday and the cross, we are given a glimpse of how far God will go to bring us back into a good relationship.
As Christians, we believe that Jesus expanded the original covenant
beyond the physical descendants of Abraham, to include us in that complicated relationship between humans and God.
I would suggest that our best way forward is not to become legalistic about this covenant or others; not to demand strict adherence to the letter of the law; but to recognize the way relationships always work: with love, and compromise, and dreaming together, and differences, squabbles, and sometimes, long stretches of silence.
At the core of the message Jesus gave us is that God’s approach to us is one of love; of wanting what is best for us; wanting to guide us and protect us, even when we think we know better and we put our trust in someone like King Herod.
We have entered a complicated covenant with God and God is not going to give up on us. So, let’s see what we can do to make this relationship work. Amen.