It’s one of my eternal moments. Perhaps you have them too, those memories that live through the years. October 1987. I’m in Old Testament Survey in a second floor classroom of Peterson Hall facing SPU’s Tiffany Loop. The late Steve Hayner, then a VP at SPU and pastor at University Presbyterian Church (later of Intervarsity and Columbia Seminary) is unpacking the narrative of God’s covenant with Abram in Genesis 15:
[God] said to [Abram], “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other…”
If you knew Steve, you are familiar with the ever-present, deeply dimpled smile that was a constant feature. And he is wearing this smile as he acts out the grisly narrative in the front of the classroom: “When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. Steve, his arm around an imaginary companion, walks through the imaginary pathway created by the imagined severed sacrifices, one half of each unfortunate creature on one side, the other halves on the other. Steve explains this was a customary way in which two parties in the Ancient Near East made a contract—sealing their agreement by walking together through the path of sacrifices, arms draped over the other’s shoulder, eyes locked, close enough they can smell the breath of the other, that dazzling Steve Hayner smile (I imagine) directed at the counterpart to the agreement, the implicit message: “You see these animals? So shall it be with you if you break our agreement.”
And then Steve drops the conceptual bomb that lives with me still:
“On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram…” Abram is not a participant, but a witness, it turns out. The pot and torch, they symbolize God moving through that contractual space alone, and the singularity of the story captures the distinction between covenant and contract that has shaped my understanding from that moment on.
There is no if-then, no contract, only a then, and a covenant. This is what I will do. This is what I will do, no matter what you do, God says in God’s covenant to Abram. It is an unconditional commitment, a unilateral, self-differentiated act.
I’ve used the image (usually sans the graphic imagery!) in countless conversations with couples moving toward marriage: Look at the promises you are making. These are no contracts, but covenant. “I will… I will… I will… rich or poor, joy or sorrow, sickness or health.” Of course there are complexities, circumstances that demand exception. And we are not gods. We fail, and look to the promise of grace. Surely we know this. But it’s the fundamental stance of covenant and not its conditional cousin contract that sets us for fullness in our relationships. As I look back on my 27 years (today, in fact!--Happy anniversary Barb!) of marriage, I believe there is a correlation to those better seasons and my attention to covenant.
Chuck Sigars is currently an elder at St. Andrew and a newspaper columnist and author.