A covenant is a life or death bond. It is a do or die promise in the truest sense. It involves solemn, binding oaths in which two individuals or groups are united as one. The Hebrew word for covenant (berith) is a “a pledge or an agreement; a pact that is made by passing between the pieces of flesh, a confederacy or a league.” The flesh in this definition refers to the animal or blood sacrifice usually involved in a covenant ceremony. In effect, when the parties walk through the animal that has been cut in two (Genesis 15:9-18; Jeremiah 34:18-20), they are proclaiming a curse upon themselves if they do not keep the promises they have made. They are acting out a drama showing what they call upon themselves (death) if they are not faithful to keep their promises. It is a pretty big deal.
Covenants occur throughout Scripture, in nearly all cultures, and a few covenant practices persist even until the present day. Common elements of covenants include binding promises or oaths, conditions, blood sacrifices, signs, meals, name changes, and etc. Every element is not necessarily present in each covenant but some combination appears.
Most of us have heard of the concept of ‘blood brothers.’ Odin and Loki in Norse mythology were blood brothers as were the Lone Ranger and Tonto in the TV show (aside: How is he the LONE ranger when Tonto is always helping him? And why is Tonto’s name derogatory? He’s not the one with the dumb outfit. Ugh…). Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are blood brothers. Remember the scene in the cave? It is covenant concept.
When two people became blood brothers, a small cut was made, usually on the hand or arm, and the wounds were pressed together. The mingled blood meant that two were becoming irrevocably connected. The scar left behind was a reminder of the promise of friendship and protection. Sometimes, ash or dust was rubbed into the scar to make sure it was prominent when it healed, allowing the scar to be a sign of the covenant. This practice was common in cultures as varied as Chinese and Native American, Bulgarian and Norwegian, Albanian and Swedish, Serbian and Mongolian. The ancient Scythians would cut their arms and allow the blood to drip into a glass where it was mixed with wine and ceremonially drunk by the partners (Yuck but true). The Lydians (of ancient Asia Minor located in the Turkish provinces of Izmir and Manisa) would make cuts on their arms and lick the blood off of one another’s arms as a symbol of their becoming united in covenant (Ditto). It is believed that the Greek practice of drinking wine with arms intertwined is a representation of becoming blood brothers.
[Next up: covenants in the Bible and then what all this has to do with gettin’ married and staying that way.]