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What is a covenant?

David Dirlam, with edits by Rabbi Edery

In this week’s Tanakh Study, Rabbi Edery (RAE) began with a call for answers to “What is a Covenant?” Replies included Don’s, “Noah,” Ruth’s “Sinai,” and my “Homeowners Associations.” Mary contrasted two-sided “covenants” from one-sided “promises.”
We read Genesis 12 in which God instructed Abram, “Go to the land that I will show you,” and “all the families of the earth will find blessing in you.” RAE observed that this covenant involved all of us, not just Abraham. Doug added that it implied an obligation for us to “be,” as well as receive, blessings.

From Genesis 15, we learned of Abram’s dream of a contract sealed by five split-in-half animals. On awakening, the Lord “cut” a covenant to give the land (later called Israel) to Abram’s descendants. RAE explained his name changed to Abraham as a sign of a meaningful change in outlook and purpose in life. Ruth added, “similarly, later Sarai became Sarah.”

RAE mentioned how “cut a deal” means “make a contract,” through a ritual act, now signified with handshakes instead of cutting. Genesis 17 instructs that circumcision of boys on their eighth day signifies the covenant between God and Abraham’s descendants. Since infant boys don’t consent to circumcision, I thought the covenant was not between God and boys, but with the father, since in biblical times infants, like women, were treated as property, in contrast to today’s personhood. RAE explained that at all times (from Bible until now) parents make life-shaping decisions on behalf of their children, obviously before the children consent, or are given the right to make their own choices. In fact, it is the main parental responsibility to do so—to vaccinate, to send to school, to instruct them to be ethical and good members of society. Introducing a child into the covenant is such a parental duty. While in ancient days women were clearly not given rights equal to men, they were not "property." Torah recalls how before Laban “gave” Rebecca in marriage to Isaac, he asked for her consent. That became the Jewish law (of a bride not given in marriage unless she consents) already in antiquity.

Marcia, Ruth, and Rebecca asked about rites of conversion, mikveh cleansing, and marriage. RAE explained how Judaism once relied on any two kosher men as witnesses for these events; but today the role of legitimizing those rites is given to rabbis, who know our tradition in detail.

RAE summarized:

  • We can enter or be entered into covenants.
  • They affect individuals and/or many others, including everyone, not just Israelites.
  • They must have some ceremonial or ritual form (such as circumcision’s cutting) 
  • They entail obligations, and we commit to it even if it may be threatening (antisemitism).

Summarized by David Dirlam with edits by Rabbi Edery, July 29, 2020


Wed, July 17 2024 11 Tammuz 5784