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The Oldest Covenant

Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother,

and shall cleave unto his wife:

and they shall be one flesh (Genesis 2:24).

      While I was wrestling with the idea of covenant, an email appeared in my inbox with an attachment. I usually don’t open attachments (viruses, you know), but this one seemed safe enough. It was a long discussion of “godly government” produced by the doctrinal committee of a church that had gone through a major reorganization in recent years. They were attempting to develop a biblically-based explanation of how they were governed. As I read along, I came across a paragraph that brought several of the questions I had been wrestling with into sharp relief. Here's what the paper said about government in marriage:


When God created Eve, a new level of government came into existence. Prior to her creation God led Adam to realize he was incomplete and needed a partner (Genesis 2:18, 20). That Eve was to be his helper indicates Adam was to be the leader (confirmed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:3, “. . . the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God”), not because of any inferiority on her part—she was “comparable” to him—but rather as a difference in family function. Governmental authority within the family structure was thus established by God with the creation of the first family, prior to sin entering their world. Footnote

      The opening sentence seemed wrong to me. As I read through the paper, I found much emphasis on authority, both in the church and in marriage. What I didn’t find was an adequate explanation of the relationship within which that authority is exercised—the marriage covenant. If there’s one thing that’s clear in the Bible, it is that marriage is a covenant; there is leadership in marriage to be sure, but that leadership is defined by the covenant.

      It seemed obvious to me that what came into existence with Eve was not a new level of government, but a new covenant—that is to say, a new relationship. And if that is true, then it is worth our time to consider what God said about this relationship from the start.

      The story began with a statement from God: Having concluded that it was not good for the man to be alone, he decided to make for Adam a help that was comparable to him (Genesis 2:18). God then proceeded to put Adam to sleep, removed a rib from him and used it to make a woman and he brought her to Adam.


Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed (Genesis 2:23-25).

      The paper in question argued that, since Eve was made as a helper to Adam, the man was to be the leader. The problem with this idea is that elsewhere, God is said to be our helper and that hardly means that man is the leader of God. Footnote        The rendering, “a help comparable to him,” suggests rather that the woman was to be a helper to the husband comparable to the way the husband was a helper to the wife. Looking again to the Hebrew, the word for “comparable” is neged, literally, “a part opposite,” or counterpart. The woman was to be the counterpart for man—a duplicate, something that fit him perfectly.

      When Adam looked at the woman, he said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” Nothing could have been closer. She was actually taken from his body, as every man from then on would be taken from the body of his mother. They were made of the same substance, bone and flesh. They will be called, “one flesh,” even though they are two persons.

      And upon the basis of Adam’s statement (the word “Therefore” is operative), God concludes that a man would leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife. The old family relationship is superceded, and a new family is created. The two of them are now, in law, to be one flesh. Footnote

      Of more than passing interest at this point is the fact that man, male and female, was made in God’s image. This is strongly suggestive of the long standing dogma that God, Father and Son, are one substance. As Adam and Eve were one flesh, so Father and Son are one Spirit. Everyone easily understands how Adam and Eve could be one, so where is the mystery in saying that God, Father and Son, are one?

      The story of the first family concludes with the observation that the man and his wife were naked and “were not ashamed.” It wasn’t immediately clear why they might have been ashamed, so I looked up the word. The Hebrew buwsh literally means, “to pale,” the opposite of blushing, one would think. But a secondary meaning is, “to disappoint.” I dare say Adam and Eve were not disappointed in what they saw of one another.

      This joining of man and woman as one flesh is the oldest and highest expression of human covenant. And out of this covenant will come children who will leave the family and form new covenants, new families.

      Now I had long understood that the word “covenant” is synonymous with “contract,” but I had never made the connection with the Jewish marriage contract. In Judaism, marriage is not a sacrament; it is a civil contract. Footnote Marriage contracts customarily specified what the father of the groom pays for the bride, what the groom is providing to the marriage, what he will have to give the bride upon a divorce, what is to happen to the children in such an event, what property rights are involved, and anything else deemed germane to the contract. Often, the parents of the bride and groom are signatories to the contract in addition to the bride and groom.

      Some Jewish sages insisted upon a marriage contract and said that to maintain a wife without a contract, or without specification of fair conditions, should be regarded as prostitution (ouch!). Others seem to say that keeping a woman without a contract makes her a concubine—perhaps the equivalent of a common-law wife. Footnote The essence of the contract is an enumeration of the conditions that the husband guarantees to fulfill regarding his wife, and of financial and other guarantees. It includes payment in the event of divorce and inheritance provisions. Actually, it's not dissimilar to the prenuptial agreement frequently used in second marriages to determine inheritance, the rights of children, and the distribution of property. It's all contractual and covered by law so that any problems that might arise are forestalled.

      If you enter marriage without a contract, all these situations are governed by the laws of the state. In effect, when you sign the marriage license, you agree to the implicit contract created by state law. In fact, you have a marriage contract whether you want one or not. It is a civil contract in our society that is governed by laws. Those laws determine what happens, for example, in the case of divorce. They state what is community property and how it is to be distributed, and even how custody of the children will be decided. You weren’t thinking about any of these thing as you planned your wedding, so the state thought of them for you. What business is it of the state? The state carries an obligation to your children. After all, someone has to think about them.

      So in signing your marriage license and ratifying it in the presence of witnesses, you actually enter a contract with provisions described by state law that affect inheritance, divorce and many other considerations. Much of state law covers the same issues found in many Jewish marriage contracts. The latter were being formed long before there was a civil society to enforce those contracts.

      It's a shame that so much of the contract is merely oral. As a minister, I stand before the bride, the groom, and a collection of witnesses and I ask: “Do you solemnly promise in the presence of God and these witnesses to faithfully. . .” and then I continue with a set of promises that they probably won’t remember after the marriage ceremony is over. Most wedding couples never hear any of that; they are just waiting until they get to say “I do” and kiss one another. I never expect them to remember, so I often give them a copy of the service. It's understandable that they don't remember. They are the center of everybody’s attention and they’re nervous.

      It is sad that so many people treat their marriage vows as words spoken in the air. They are promptly forgotten and they have little or no effect on the performance of either party in the marriage after that time. The Jewish marriage contract was written down and signed before witnesses. You have to wonder how that might change relationships if we had to do that before we got married. What if your wife was able to whip out a contract and say, “See, before we got married, you promised that you would put your dirty socks in the clothes hamper”?

      Now to those who are living together without a signed marriage contract, prepared either by a lawyer or the state, there are a few things we can say. From a biblical point of view, ladies, you are at best a concubine, at worst, a prostitute. Footnote Unless your state law makes you a common law wife (i.e., a concubine) and thus grants you certain rights, you have none and you have little or no protection under the law. Neither would any children, intentional or otherwise.

      Marriage, then, is a contractual arrangement; there is government within the relationship, but the relationship comes first and determines the nature of the authority in the relationship. Some marriages get in trouble because the nature of the authority in the relationship was not clear and accepted by both parties going into the covenant. Falling in love is wonderful and love is essential in a marriage, but it doesn't make a marriage without a covenant.

      It has been argued in some quarters that the Bible doesn't specify any marriage ceremony so the marriage ceremony isn't important. It is true that there is no marriage ceremony in the Bible, but that is entirely irrelevant. There is a marriage covenant in the Bible, and it defines the difference between a wife on the one hand, and a concubine, mistress, or harlot on the other. The wedding ceremony is merely part of the covenant. It is the covenant that rules, not the ceremony.

      Now what does all this have to do with “godly government”? Well, quite a lot actually, because the government of God seems always to be based on covenant. Which is to say, it is always relational. And the government is always determined by the covenant.

      Marriage is the oldest covenant known to man. And there is a strong analogy between marriage and the covenant God made with Israel, an analogy the prophets borrowed on heavily. But remember, it is only and always an analogy. God was not literally “married to Israel.” But he was in covenant with her which is very similar. Malachi developed this theme in his rebuke to the priests: “Have we not all one father?” he asked, “has not one God created us? why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother, by profaning the covenant of our fathers?” (Malachi 2:10). Here, we are talking about abject betrayal, and a dissolving of the covenant. Judah, God said, had broken faith with God, committed detestable things, and “has married the daughter of a strange god” (v. 11).

      This seems to have been the pattern ever since Solomon introduced the practice by marrying the daughters of foreign kings and even building temples for their gods. It also becomes treachery in the family. Malachi, speaking for God cries out to the priests:


Another thing you do: You flood the Lord's altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer pays attention to your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. You ask, “Why?” It is because the LORD is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Has not the LORD made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth. “I hate divorce,” says the LORD God of Israel, “and I hate a man's covering himself with violence as well as with his garment,” says the LORD Almighty. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith (Malachi 2:13-16 NIV).

      This is fascinating, because it underlines the reason God hates divorce. It is because he wanted godly children brought up in godly families. Breaking covenant, whether with God, with your wife, with your husband, is treachery. Preachers are fond of comparing the Israelite covenant as a marriage to God. But we should remember that this is only a metaphor. The reason the analogy works so well is because both relationships are covenants.

      We mustn’t overlook one very important statement in this passage. “The LORD is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth.” When we make vows in a wedding ceremony, we make promises in the presence of God and all those assembled. Then, we sign our marriage license, which for most is their marriage contract. Then, the witnesses to the marriage also sign. Consider the implications. We call on God as a witness to our covenant. Shall we then betray our mate and violate the covenant?

      Let’s be sure we understand what God was saying. It is not merely that God hates divorce because it hurts society. The problem with divorce in God’s mind is that it involves the breaking of a covenant. He expects his people to be people of their word, to make vows and keep them, to be the kind of person who, having sworn even to his own hurt, stands by his word. Footnote

      Note the repeated use of the idea of “breaking faith” throughout. The term implies not merely making a mistake, but the violation of a sacred covenant. Treachery is not merely shooting yourself in the foot, it is the breaking apart of a contracted relationship.

      Some have wondered why, in the Law of Moses, that premarital sex is not dealt with in the same way as adultery. A young couple, unmarried, get too close and have sex together. The Bible does not require that you stone them and put them to death. Rather the young man is required to marry the girl if the father permits. Footnote But if a woman who is married to a man commits adultery, she may be stoned to death, along with the man.

      What is it that makes the difference? The act is the same. The difference is that the married woman is in covenant. Adultery is treachery, while premarital sex betrays no existing human covenant. Premarital sex is a sin, it’s harmful, it is dangerous, neither the woman nor any children from the union have any protection under the law, but it does not involve the betrayal of a covenant with one’s mate for life.

      There are other laws that deal with the same idea, and they are deeply rooted in a culture very different from our own. It has been a custom in many societies for the family of the bride to give a sum of money or other valuables to the family of the groom as a dowry. Generally, it is a contribution to help the happy pair get off to a good start. Because of the inability of poor families to pay a dowry, the custom tended to prevent the marriage of a poor girl into a wealthy family. The opposite of this practice, which made its way from Rome to British Common Law is the “dower” where the family of the groom pays money to the family of the bride. Presumably, it would improve the lot of the girl to be married off into a better family. It appears that the custom of dower was regulated by Israelite law.


And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, Footnote she shall not go out as the menservants do. If she please not her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then shall he let her be redeemed: to sell her unto a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he has dealt deceitfully with her (Exodus 21:7-8).

      In this case, the girl was being contracted as an amah. It is fascinating how widespread the usage of this word is. The word is found in Chinese, Portugese, Latin, Hindi, and other languages and cultures, and is commonly used even by English speaking people residing in the East. General Douglas MacArthur carried his amah, along with his family when he fled the Philippines during WWII. An amah is a maidservant, perhaps a nanny.

      The context of this law in the Bible, though, suggests that although she enters the new family as an amah, the purpose is marriage in that he has betrothed her to be his wife or the wife of his son. He has paid a dower for her. And even though the custom of the time might allow an indentured servant to be sold off (contracted out, as it were), that could not be done with female servants. The object of the law, then, turns out to be exactly the opposite of what it might first appear. The object is to protect the rights and safety of women in that culture at that time. He must, if the family desires, allow her to be redeemed. But the law goes further.


            And if he have betrothed her unto his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters. If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish. And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money (vv. 9-11).

      That last sentence implies that he paid a considerable sum of money to bring her into his household. If he does not fulfill his obligations to her, she can simply go home. The contract is void and the money forfeit. Note that I use the word contract here synonymously with covenant. Marriages have commonly been contracts or covenants in most societies. In this case the contract is broken because “ he has dealt deceitfully with her” (v. 8). The expression for “dealt deceitfully” is bagad, the word we saw earlier rendered, “treacherously.”

      Marriage is the oldest covenant of man, and it serves to introduce us to some important ideas about governance and relationships.

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