The very fact that we think of our relationship with God in terms of a covenant is proof that the god we worship is a man-made construct. I realise that this is somewhat of an inflammatory statement, but bear with me: this thought has a ‘good news’ ending.
It was Mark Rowlands’ The Philosopher and the Wolf that started me off on this train of thought. Rowlands explores the differences between simian and lupine evolution and socialisation. Apes, he argues, use social contracts to maintain social cohesion; wolves, on the other hand, rely on loyalty. The ramifications in terms of moral development are profound. It is a book I would certainly recommend: it helped me to begin to understand God as more wolf than ape.
At its core, a covenant is a social contract: if you do x for me, I will do y for you; alternatively, if you refrain from x, I will refrain from y. Indeed, God’s covenant with Abram in Genesis 17, does exactly that. To sum up the gist of the contract, if Abram agrees to circumcise himself and all male descendants for the rest of time, and they all obey God’s commandments, then God will “be their God” and give them the land.
It sounds delightful, but it is fraught with problems. To start with, a social contract is only possible between equals. It is, essentially, an agreement between two equally matched parties, who each consent to sacrifice something – to limit their freedoms in some way – in order to secure a form of reward from the other. A party with a genuinely significant power advantage over another has no reason to enter into a contract with any party that can offer nothing in return. The powerful party could simply requisition what it wanted by force.
But set that aside for a while, and let’s examine this covenant more closely. What do we – humans, as represented by Abram – get out of the contract? According to the Genesis 17 passage, our primary gain is a powerful ally: “I will be their God”. Crudely put, we get to be friends with the biggest child in the playground, and He (new readers, please note that I only use the masculine pronoun in reference to God when I wish to emphasise a problematic aspect of our construction of Hen) has promised to boot everyone else out of said playground so that the playground can be reserved for our exclusive use. In other words, God will pick our side. Sounds like a peachy deal.
The big question, of course, is what does God get out of all of this? If God wanted men to be circumcised, why create them with foreskins in the first place? Why the obsession with snipping people’s squishy bits? Because we need to be demonstrably different: set apart as belonging to God, being willing to serve only Him and to brand ourselves His servants. Circumcision is a process of slave-branding.
Perhaps that is why we can detect an implicit threat in the covenant: if we don’t agree to it, we end up like the various –ites who get smitten throughout the Old Testament. At the very least, there is the threat that God will abandon us to the (un)mercies of aforementioned –ites, who are savage and hairy and smelly, and we could do worse than to pursue the vague niggling in that back of our minds that questions whether this isn’t a little bit like God hiring a hitman to do His dirty business instead of pulling the trigger himself. Either way, God agrees to restrain Himself from giving expression to His violent tendencies at our expense; if we agree to serve God, then He won’t hurt us. So back to the question: what does God get? Servants. Coerced slaves. *
If that thought horrifies you, good. It ought to. The existence of this covenant speaks to a God who cannot be trusted. The only beings that need contracts to regulate their relationships are untrustworthy ones. Where love and trust form the foundation of a relationship, a contract is completely unnecessary. Actions are performed out of love and loyalty, not out of obligation.
Fortunately, I do not believe that God is a covenant God. And as proof, I offer Jesus. If we accept that Jesus is the full revelation of God (and if you call yourself Christian and cannot accept this premise then the theological starting point from which you operate is logically and fatally flawed), then just a tiny amount of logic would lead you invariably to this conclusion: God neither requires nor desires servants; God serves.
“…just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28, my emphasis)
“ I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15, my emphasis again)
If, then, God’s primary inclination is towards service, the idea of a covenant God who requires people to mark themselves as His servants in order to remain under His protection is nonsensical. Paul, I think, understood that, and his rejection of circumcision as a marker of belonging (Galatians 5:2) – in fact, his rejection of any social boundary markers at all (“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” Galatians 3:28) – suggests this.
So too, in Jesus’s teachings it is clear that God does not reward only those who obey, but God ‘sends rain on the just and the unjust alike’ (Matthew 5:45), which suggests that there is no such thing as a covenant with God where obedience guarantees special treatment. Jesus promises, on the contrary, that “in this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33).
It seems clear – to me anyway – that the concept of the covenant is an attempt by humanity to construct God in its own sordid image. It tries to obscure that fact by trying to make God appear gracious and just, but the inescapable implications of this covenant – of the very existence of any sort of covenant at all – remain: the God who would initiate such a contract is suspiciously human in nature: capricious, cruel, and egotistical. However, if Jesus, who is the very opposite of all that, is an accurate representation of the invisible God, and accurately demonstrates the way in which God would relate to humanity, then there is only one conclusion: the idea of covenant, which stinks of humanity, is not a God-thing. And that is ‘good news’ indeed.
*That God requires this suggests that for some reason, despite possessing enormous power, God cannot do this without our consent. In itself this should make us suspicious of the claim that this covenant is divine in origin. If God requires voluntary enslavement, then the threat of punishment for non-compliance is hollow – a truly powerful being would not require our permission. And the argument that God wants us to choose to love Him and therefore does not force His will on us does not hold water. First, nothing about this covenant suggests a loving God, and second, love – even if not coerced – can never be the product of a contractual obligation. It must be freely and unconditionally offered or not at all.