by Christine Schubert
Our western cultures have a hard time with the idea of marriage as a lifelong inseparable union of a man and a woman. Whatever the reasons are, the concept of covenant can be helpful to grasp some understanding.
Marriage– God’s design
On the first pages of the Bible we read that God created man. The creator used a blueprint, or model – Himself. Throughout the Bible, He is presented as three persons being one. Together they created man and woman for community. Together they represent the Creator. The Creator confirmed that they are one flesh, commissioned them to pass on life, and blessed them.
God initiated covenant
God is committed to the persons He is in relationship with, for example with Abraham. God asked him to leave his homeland and promised to give him land and descendants. Abram trusted God, but no children were born to him. So Abram had a question: “How can I know for sure that God will fulfil His promise?” God reacted by asking Abram to bring Him a number of specifically named animals. Abram obviously knew what that meant: God was about to make a covenant with him. Abraham was familiar with the concept of covenant, as it was an important part of ancient cultures, whereas in western cultures it’s more or less unknown.
What does covenant mean?
In the Bible, there are various accounts of occasions where covenants were made. In historical literature too, we find indications of the concept in tribal societies, for example by David Livingston, considered to be the first white man to enter the African interior. There are variations when it comes to details, but it seems there are some general common characteristics.
- Belonging to each other. Only death can separate us. “We are one”.
- Military alliance. “If someone threatens you, I’m here to defend you.”
- Common possessions. “What I own is available to you.”
- Absolute solidarity. “I’ll stand with you no matter what.”
- Giving the other priority. “You first!”
- Covenant is sacred. “I will die if I ever break this covenant.”
- Future generations are affected. “I will be faithful to your offspring, too.”
Making a covenant followed a specific ritual:
- A sacrifice was needed.
- Blood was to be shed, and this is the reason why the term blood covenant is used. In Hebrew making a covenant was called: “Cutting a covenant.”
- A sign of the covenant was made on the body, for example a scar on the hands.
- Gifts were exchanged, such as clothes, weapons, or names.
- Promises were made, in the form of vows or oaths.
- A meal was shared.
God made His covenant with Abraham
(Genesis chapters 15-17).
Abram killed the animals God had asked for, and laid the halves in ordained order on the ground. It was customary for both partners to walk in the form of an 8 between the parts of the animals. Surprisingly in this situation, God walked this way as a flame. “The Lord made a covenant with Abram.”
The Lord changed Abram’s name to Abraham. The letter H was added to his name, which is one of the letters of God’s name: JWHE. Circumcision was ordained by the Lord as the sign of the covenant. Abraham received descendants and the land, in the form of a promise, and became the Father of all believers.
In Jesus God made a New Covenant with mankind.
His own son is the sacrifice, and His own blood was shed. He pours his Spirit into a person who enters into covenant relationship with Him. He gives His divine eternal life in exchange for our sinful mortal life. Jesus promised His followers that He would always be with them through the Holy Spirit. Jesus also ordained two signs of the New Covenant which are experienced in the body: Baptism – a one time experience symbolising the exchange of our old life for His. Holy Communion – a frequently shared experience by Jesus’ followers as the sacred sign of the covenant to be celebrated until He comes back. During the Last Supper Jesus called the wine he gave His disciples “my blood of the covenant.”.
The Marriage Covenant
In Ephesians 5 the Apostle Paul uses a specific style of writing. He sandwiches the constitution statement for marriage – leaving parents, unifying with the partner, becoming one flesh – between statements about two types of relationships, that of husband and wife, and that of Christ and the church (husband/wife – Christ/Church – becoming one – Christ/Church – husband/wife). By placing marriage parallel to the relationship of Christ and the Church, Paul qualifies marriage also as a covenant relationship.
In marriage there is also sacrifice. Both spouses leave their families of origin and lay down their individualistic lives for each other and for a shared future. There are promises, or vows made to love, care for, honour and be faithful to the partner. Gifts are exchanged – possessions, talents and often the family name. There is also a sign of the covenant common to every culture. The marriage covenant is sealed with the first sexual union. As in the ancient covenants, it is experienced by the body and blood is shed. This physical union, a sign of the covenant, is frequently celebrated by the couple, throughout their married life.
When marriage is understood as covenant, and the sexual union as the holy sign of this covenant, it makes sense that sexual intimacy is to be shared only by the married couple. The terms holy and sacred suggest separation from common use. A sacred object is to be used exclusively for its designed purpose. The Apostle Paul teaches that we honour the Creator by respecting our bodies as holy and using sexuality exclusively to bless our spouse.
It is the adequate body language to express the covenantal love the partners are living out in everyday life. This love is characterized by commitment and faithfulness, and caring for the wellbeing of the other. It is this quality of love which produces intimacy and qualifies for producing a new generation. Commitment, faithfulness, patience, goodness etc. – all the qualities of love are necessary for raising children to be emotionally healthy, to learn how to relate to each other, to communicate and work out differences and conflict. Healthy families are vital for building healthy communities. That’s why it’s written: Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. Hebrew 13,4
What about when we did it all wrong?
People often don’t know how to go about marriage, plus everybody carries emotional wounds into their close relationships, which make it difficult to give and receive love.
As we started talking to many wounded people in broken marriages, we asked the Lord how He deals with situations where we suffer consequences for our wrong decisions. He led us to the story in the Book of Joshua, chapters 9-11. The people of Israel had made a covenant with the people of Gibeon which wasn’t God’s idea. However, the Lord honoured their decision by performing one of the most remarkable miracles recorded in the Bible, when the Israelites were held accountable to the terms of that covenant by the Gibeonites.
We can find hope and faith in the fact that God stands with us in a covenant we made even when He didn’t agree with our decision. Our Heavenly Father is gracious to those who honestly admit their sins and weaknesses and ask for His counsel. He helps us work out step by step where we have gone wrong, heals our wounds and restores our relationships.
In both the Old and New Covenants, God took the initiative by making the covenant and providing for living it out. With the Marriage Covenant, God again took the initiative. He created the first couple in His image, blessed and commissioned them. He never thought we should live out marriage and family without Him. He gladly accepts our invitation to be part of our union. When we grant the Lord first place, He teaches us how to live out our marriage, representing the love of God, and enjoying its precious fruits.