Covenants: Creatures once in safety held by Janet Wootton
One of the most powerful and overriding images for the relationship between the people of God and God is the idea of the Covenant. God makes a covenant with his people, in which he offers security and a future to the people, generally, but not always, in return for their obedience.
The covenant relationship is fulfilled in the ‘new covenant’ sealed in the blood of Jesus, and celebrated each time Christians share the bread and wine at communion.
The hymn, Covenants, explores the biblical imagery, with its mystery, promise and hope, and it is suggested that the hymn might be used with a series of Bible Studies, or scripture expositions.
Verse 1 – God’s covenant through Noah
- Genesis 8-9
- Genesis 1: 6-10
The water, the sea, was the great chaos-monster, the last remnant of the chaos over which the Spirit of God brooded at creation. Genesis 1 does not show God creating the chaos, but rather, taming it, dividing it up into manageable sections with dry land or sky in between. There are other places in Scripture where this is celebrated. Look at the lovely, poetic Psalm 104:1-9, where the power of the Deep is honoured before God makes it into the refreshing streams which water the land and its inhabitants. Look at Job 38:8-11, with its fascination with the wonders of creation.
It is not surprising, then, when the great Flood is announced in Genesis 7:11, that the language describes the uncaging of the monster. This is the great Deep, permitted by God to creep back over the earth, wreaking chaos, and overwhelming all the life of the earth with horrible death. God is uncreating his world.
Except for the creatures held in safety on the ark. They drift across the surface of the waters, helpless, until the monster ceases to rage. Genesis 8:2 reverses the process of 7:11, and the waters recede from the earth. Into the dawn of a new age, Noah and his family and the creatures emerge from the ark.
Noah’s first act is to perform a sacrifice to God. God’s response is overwhelming and wonderful. He sets his bow in the cloud as the sign of an amazing promise. The covenant with Noah is the most inclusive of all the Hebrew covenants. God makes a covenant with Noah, his descendents and with every living creature, that the earth will never again be destroyed by flooding.
Under the rainbow’s sign, Noah planted the first vineyard, produced the first wine, and got drunk!
Verse 2 – God’s covenant through Abram
- Genesis 15
- Isaiah 11:1-10
Part of the Apostle Paul’s argument about salvation by grace and not by works (Romans 4) is based on Genesis 15. The covenant with Abra/ham is described twice in the book of Genesis. In the second account in Genesis 17, there are lots of injunctions about obedience, and the sign of circumcision is given. But Paul remembers the earlier story, in which not only is nothing required of Abram, he isn’t even fully awake during the process!
Genesis 15 tells a story full of mystery and hard to understand. Abram is asked to set the scene by means of a very odd kind of sacrifice. He makes a pathway between the severed halves of animals and the corpses of birds. Then God casts him into a state of trance, where a fearful darkness came over him. What follows is mysterious in the extreme. Between the severed halves a smoking, fiery object moves, signifying the presence of God. In this mysterious darkness, Abram is given the impossible promise of descendants. It is impossible, because Sarai is barren, and beyond the age of child-bearing. Abram knows that he and Sarai cannot produce a child, but this is the promise God makes.
Barrenness and deadness, wilderness, are often the setting for God’s life-giving work. The prophet Isaiah often describes new life and growth arising from deadness, and, especially, from the dead wood of Israel. The times covered by the book of Isaiah seemed barren and dead indeed. Israel was destroyed and its remnant taken into exile, to return to the land many generations later, in poverty and humility. The mighty curse pronounced at the call of Isaiah, when he saw the Lord in the Temple, includes the destruction of all but a remnant, but ends with the tentative promise that the burned and shattered stump contains the seed (Isaiah 6:13).
From that stump of dead wood, Isaiah weaves the promise of the renewed community and the Messiah. Isaiah 11:1-10 describes a wonderful new community, when people, and even animals, will live together in peace under the just reign of the one who springs from the stock of Jesse—the same root from which King David took his life.
Out of Abram and Sarai’s barrenness came the promise of countless generations of descendants, from whom blessing would come to all the nations. Out of Israel’s barren deadness comes the promise of a living hope.
Verse 3 – The covenant through Moses
- Exodus 24
- Isaiah 25:6-9
I love the image of the Great Feast, which permeates Scripture. Life in God’s presence is often associated with having a superabundance of good things. God is the shepherd, who leads his sheep beside still waters and lets them find rest in green pastures (Psalm 23), he is the one who gives the harvest. In Exodus 24, even more amazingly, God sits down at table with the elders of Israel, and they eat and drink in his glorious presence.
This is the making of the covenant with the people through Moses. Again, the story is told twice, because the people rebel, and make a golden calf to replace the God of Moses, and the whole process has to start again. But Exodus 24 is the precious time before Israel’s apostasy and God’s wrath. While Moses and the elders are dining with God, the people are at the foot of the mountain, and the glory of God, which appears like blue sapphire to the elders feasting with God, looks to the people like a devouring fire.
Once again, the prophets pick up the imagery of feasting. Isaiah 25 describes another feast on a mountain top, this time denoting the restoration of Israel, when the shroud of mourning has been removed, and the tears of grief wiped from the people’s eyes. This time, the feast is lovingly described. The food is ‘rich fare’ and the wine is well matured. And this time, God himself prepares the banquet.
On Mount Sinai, the elders of Israel made the sacrifices and prepared the meal, and God appeared, which was wonderful enough. In Isaiah’s vision, the food and wine are bound to be of the best, because God has set out the banquet, and the people rejoice and exult, because God has saved them – and that is worth a feast!
Verse 4 – The new covenant
- Jeremiah 31
- Ezekiel 11:20
Skipping over the covenant with David (2 Samuel 7), for this has its reference in verse 2 of the hymn, we move on towards fulfilment in God’s new covenant. Jeremiah and Ezekiel both recognise that God’s relationship with the people cannot rely on the people’s obedience. God has given his promise again and again, and the people have ignored it. They desire peace and prosperity, but are incapable of living in that close relationship with God which will bring it about. They need a change of heart.
Jeremiah 31 begins with a variation on the theme of feasting. This time, there is a great procession of God’s people – another popular theme in Scripture. The journey includes people who are lame, pregnant and in labour, and gives the impression of a vast, untidy, but inclusive throng, travelling home, home from their long years of exile, home towards the promise of the land.
Among them are people who symbolise the promise. There are dancers (Jeremiah 31:4, 13), dancing for joy. There is a universal shout of rejoicing, even though there is still room for weeping. And there is food and drink! Vineyards are planted, the priests are satisfied with the fat of the land, and the people have their fill of God’s bounty.
The language is powerful in mixing images of grief (Rachel weeping for her children, Ephraim rocking with grief) and rejoicing. And all of this is a journey of hope: ‘The days are coming’, God says, ‘The days are coming’. In Jeremiah 31:31-34, we hear of the new covenant that will be made in the coming days.
This covenant is radically different from earlier covenants in that God works on the people’s hearts. God writes his law on their hearts, so that they know it instinctively. They don’t need to teach each other any more. This is a real new start. Past sin is forgiven and forgotten by God, no more to be called to mind. All the people of Israel, high and low alike, will have direct, unmediated knowledge of God. Perhaps it is as well that the priests have the fat of the land, for they have lost their job!
Ezekiel likewise looks to a change of heart when the people of Israel return to the land. He speaks of their previous state as having a heart of stone, inanimate and unresponsive. Instead, he will give them a heart of flesh—which is, after all, the created human state—we were not designed to have stone hearts. With the true human state restored, the people will be able to keep God’s law.
This is the new covenant, which Jesus took up and fulfilled when he ate his last supper with his disciples.
Verse 5 – The covenant fulfilled
- I Corinthians 11:23-26
- John 1:14
Here is the fulfilment, but it is not easy. The last supper is inextricably linked with the betrayal, denial, mistrial, torture and death of Jesus. Like many others throughout the ages, Jesus suffered at the hands of his friends, at the hands of his own people, and at the hands of a brutal unjust regime. When we eat the bread and drink the wine we are remembering that Jesus was broken for us.
But we also remember the new covenant sealed in his blood. The bread and wine take on the symbolism of flesh and blood, reminding us inevitably of the full humanity of Jesus and the wonder of the incarnation. The lovely prologue to John’s gospel leads us through the purposes of God, from the creation of the world by his Word, to the entry of that same Word into creation by becoming flesh—John 1:14.
Jesus is the sum of all God’s purposes in a human life. He is the one who engages with the Deep in the depths of human suffering and death. He is the true descendant of Abram, who brings a blessing to the world. He is the Messiah who calls all people to the Great Feast in the presence of God, and whose invitation, like Jeremiah’s procession, includes people who are hurt and damaged. Jesus is the one who truly bears a heart of flesh, and melts the hearts of people round him, or exposes the stony hypocrisy of their lives.
Now we are in the room with the worshippers. We, who sing the song, who share the bread and wine, share the full humanity of Jesus. Christ is here in flesh and blood— not in the elements of communion, but in the living lives of the worshippers. We ourselves become the sign of God’s covenant. When we eat the flesh and drink the cup, we proclaim the death of Jesus (I Corinthians 11:26). The profound act of communion is more, much more than a set of symbolic actions and ritual words. At its best, it is itself a sign of the fulfilment of all the richness of God’s covenant with his people and with the whole of creation through Noah, through Abram, through Moses and in the change of people’s hearts in the new covenant.
© 2000 Janet Wootton. Copying facilities provided are limited to local use by owners of HymnQuest. Wider or commercial use needs negotiation with the copyright holder.
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