Anglicans Together ...promoting inclusive Anglicanism

Ora et labora

by the Reverend Andrew Sempell, President, Anglicans Together

The Reverend Andrew Sempell

'I will be your God and you shall be my people'


The Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt to Canaan was not completed under the leadership of Moses, who only got to see the Promised Land but never entered it. The Bible describes the conquering of the land as being achieved by Joshua, who was portrayed as a shrewd military commander who led the people in what might be described as a 'holy war'—which included genocide. Such a concept may not sit comfortably with us today and the accounts of the conquering of Canaan and the conduct of the army would not seem to be all that Godly to our way of thinking. However, it is interesting to note that there is little historical or archaeological evidence available to confirm the account. That Canaan was settled by the Israelites is not questioned, however historically it would appear to have been more of a gradual and partial achievement.

If anything, the book of Joshua is more about affirming the relationship between God and the Israelite people. While the Law was outlined in the five Books of Moses, the Book of Joshua extended this theme by reminding people of the effect and consequences of the covenant God made with Moses in the wilderness. Indeed, the idea of the covenant between God and his people was a major factor that shaped both the identity and the motivation of God's people. Loyalty and obedience are therefore important themes that run through the Book of Joshua, which finds its culmination in Joshua's affirmation of the Covenant and his call to be faithful to God:

And if you be unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the river, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. (Joshua 24:15)

Covenants ancient and modern

In the Ancient Near East (ANE), there were three types of covenant:

  1. Suzerain or vassal treaties between a person of higher status and a lower one, which were often made between a conquering king and those that he conquered,
  2. Parity treaties between two parties of equal status, and
  3. Land grants from a higher status person to a lower status person.

Such covenants were formal agreements witnessed by both parties, proclaimed by public reading, and sealed by an oath and sacrifice.

The Mosaic Covenant (Exodus 19–24), includes the Ten Commandments and has many features similar to a suzerainty covenant; including a prologue, stipulations required of those living under it, public reading, and resulting blessings and curses (according to whether one is faithful to it or not). It was out of the Mosaic Covenant that came God's recognition of Israel as a nation.

However, the covenant made through Moses was not the first one, nor the last. There were two important earlier covenants described in Genesis; one made with Noah (Genesis 9) and the other with Abraham (Genesis 12–17). The Covenant with Noah arises after the great flood that almost destroys the entire earth. Noah and his family, along with representatives of all living species, survive because he is faithful to God. God decides never again to destroy the earth and makes a covenant, not only with Noah, but with the whole of creation; declaring never to repeat such destruction. This covenant is a universal one and focuses on the relationship between God nature and humanity within it. It is therefore inclusive.

The story of the Covenant with Abraham is of a different category, as it is made between God and Abraham and to his descendants. It includes some of the more formal features of an ANE covenant such as the granting of land, the promise of offspring, blessings and curses and the requirement of circumcision as a sign of participation in the covenant. The Abrahamic Covenant is also significant because of its application to the three great religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam—all of which describe themselves as being in some way 'descendants of Abraham'.

Throughout the Old Testament, covenants are made and renewed in recognition of the relationship between God and people. Indeed, the covenant with King David (2 Samuel 7) becomes the basis for the expectation of a Messiah who will usher in God's reign on earth. This expectation is picked up in the New Testament and the idea of a 'New Covenant' that is made through the Messiah, Jesus Christ (Hebrews 8:6–8:13).

The idea of covenant is therefore an enduring one that has described the nature of social and religious relationships down through history. In the modern era, secular covenants have also been created (such as those of Marxism, Fascism and Capitalism), as a means of ordering relationships in society. These covenants are about the management of power, status and resources, and have tended to provide a pseudo-religion for their adherents, each having their own creeds and rituals.

Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Jonathan Sacks, is critical of these modern political and economic covenants because of their commodification of social relationships. In a speech at the 2008 Lambeth Conference he said:

In the short-term wealth and power are zero-sum games. That means if I win, you lose; if you win, I lose. Covenantal goods are non-zero-sum games, meaning, we both win, the more I give away the more I have—we both win; and that has huge consequences...
...and so, the question is where will we find covenantal goods like love, like friendship, like trust, like influence? You won't find them in the state, you won't find them in the market, you will find them in marriages, in families, in congregations, in communities—you will find them in society, so long as you remember that society is something different from the state... You see there are two words that sound as if they were almost the same, but they are actually very different. I mean the word contract and I mean the word covenant.
What's a contract? A contract is an agreement between two or more individuals, each pursuing their own interest, and they come together to make an exchange for mutual benefit; and so, you get a commercial contract that creates the market, and you get the social contract that creates the state.
A covenant is something different. In a covenant, two or more individuals, each respecting the dignity and the integrity of the other, come together in a bond of love and trust, to share their interests, sometimes even to share their lives, by pledging faithfulness to one another, to do together what neither of us can do alone.
...A contract is a transaction, but a covenant is a relationship. Or, to put it slightly differently, a contract is about interests, but a covenant is about identity; and that is why contracts benefit, but covenants transform.
(Sacks J, Address: 'The Relationship between People and God', 28 July 2008)

Sacks' speech offered a radical critique of how we order western society and described the dead-end of a civilisation based on self-interest, be it mutual or otherwise. He called for a recovery of the idea of 'covenant', which seeks to reconcile people who are in conflict, renew commitment to God, and thereby engender respect for all people. Drawing on the Covenant with Noah, he described this as a 'covenant of fate' in which all humanity participates, because it speaks of our human condition.

Belief, truth and values

So how do we discover the truth that lies in relationships?

Despite humanity's best efforts, non-mathematical truth often remains elusive. As much as we may try to objectify social phenomena, such truths are not value-free for they are dependent on what we will allow into our decision-making process. In other words, we create a system or process by which we seek to determine the truth, but that process always remains a human construct and is dependent on its general acceptance in the community to have any status. For instance, convinced by his intelligence agencies, President George Bush Jnr believed that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and invaded Iraq to prevent them being passed on to terrorists. He convinced others of this belief and therefore led a 'coalition of the willing' to capture what was proven not to exist.

Moreover, the proliferation of information is making it more difficult to determine the veracity of all sorts of statements and claims to truth such that any sense of objectification is becoming extremely elusive and that which is popularly held up as 'reality' looks more like entertainment! Information, as a commodity, appears to have reached its own dead-end and the rise of cynicism is its sign.

As human beings, however, we still need to hold to the idea of truth and knowledge. We understand intuitively that we have come to know more and more about how our world operates and have thereby built up knowledge and, by extension, the determination of certain conclusions as truth. This truth is held intersubjectively; which is to say, it is knowledge based on experience, which has been tested by a large number of people and found to be consistent, yet it is also held provisionally. To be sure, it is our collective memory. Such an approach is an activity of the community and requires the gift of humility—it is a covenant approach to knowledge.

A problem that is often identified with both religion (and pseudo-religion) is its arrogance; which is its overvalued sense of the entitlement to be heard, approved and obeyed. Claims of exclusivity, the possession of absolute truth, aggressiveness and the condemnation of those who are different all work against the Gospel of Christ. A more relational way is offered in the Letter to the Ephesians:

I . beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace". (Ephesians 4:1–3)

A community in process

The institutional church, as we have it, is a modern-world construct. Nevertheless, it is now facing huge challenges in providing the spiritual leadership that it once did. Internal divisions over the nature of belief, truth and ultimate meaning, are undermining Christ's call for it to be a transforming power in the world (John 13:34–35).

Furthermore, church structures have failed to develop and maintain the trust that is expected from God's people. This is because of church abuse of power and bullying, the mistreatment of minorities, greed and corruption, and the mismanagement of resources. In this respect, the church reflects more a self-serving earthly institution devoted to mammon, rather than a reflection of the heavenly kingdom of grace.

God's people have been called to live in covenant, which is a relationship of trust. Through that trust, God's presence in the world is multiplied through many loving and selfless acts which, as Rabbi Sacks says, is about character, transformation and the mutual benefit of all people. By focussing on the covenant with Noah, we are reminded that God's love is directed to all people and by looking at Christ, we are reminded of the sacrifice that love requires in fulfilling this mission.

As the followers of Christ, we are called to live both in this world, seeking its transformation, while at the same time being conscious that we belong to another world, which is the Kingdom of God. As we move through life there is a need to be mindful of what God wants of us. In this respect, we seek God's will, confess our faults, seek reconciliation and renewal, and by these actions experience and exhibit the love of God—which is covenant in action. So, the question remains 'Whom do you serve?'