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Covenant as a Subversive Paradigm

by Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggermann is professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 12, 1980, pp. 1094-1099. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


It is a bit ironic that increased attention is being paid to the biblical theme of covenant just at a time when biblical scholarship is moving on to other constructs for interpretation. Clearly, "covenant" is not the single overarching theme of the Bible as previously claimed. Nonetheless, it has important potential for the church in our situation. The central affirmations of covenant stand against and subvert the dominant forms, patterns and presuppositions of our culture and of cultural Christianity. The subversion (which means undermining and exposure to dismantling) is directed against a theology that knows too much, a God who is too strong, a church that is too allied with triumphalist culture, and a ministry that moves too much from strength.

Against all of these, the covenant theme offers an alternative perception of how things are in heaven and how they could be on earth. Covenant as a recharacterization of God, church and world is not simply a restatement of conventional Western assumptions; it requires drastically new affirmations. Attention to the theme exposes the failure of a remote God who has not triumphed, a church that has not known so much, and a culture that has not kept its promises.

A God Who Embraces

Everything depends on our confession of God. The covenanting God of the Bible is not to be understood according to the general category "god." Making a theoretical case that this God is unique is not necessary; it is enough to note that in the Bible this God makes a break with all cultural definitions and expectations. The God of the Bible distances himself from the other gods who are preoccupied with their rule, their majesty, their well-being in the plush silence of heaven. This is nowhere more vividly stated than in Psalm 82, in which the general self-serving notion of godhood is harshly rejected. The temptation of the church is to force this God back into conventional modes. But the stories of Israel and the churchís memories will not have it so. That deep resistance to general categories is most important to those who care for the stories and memories of the church.

In the tradition of Moses, and from then on, this God breaks with the other gods, finding their company boring and their preoccupations inane. The heaven occupied by the other gods is no place for covenanting. Those gods. offer no model for faithful interrelatedness, for steadfast solidarity, but only for occasional, self-serving alliances. The primal disclosure of the Bible is that this God in heaven makes a move toward earth to identify a faithful covenant partner, responding to the groans of oppressed people (Exod. 2:24-25). We say it is an irreversible move. And the partner now embraced is identified as the "rabble" of slaves which no other god thought "worthy" (Exod. 12:38, Num. 11:4, cf. Luke 7:22-23, I Pet. 2:9-10).

This move is decisive not only for earth, but for heaven; not only for the slaves embraced, but for the God who embraces. It is central to covenant that this One cannot embrace without being transformed by the ones who are embraced. There is no immunity for God here; embracing a partner is not an after- thought, but is definitional for God. And the evidence of Scripture is that Israel and the church continued to battle for this discernment of God, always against the temptation to drive God back to heaven, to squeeze God back into the safety, serenity and irrelevance of the other gods. And that is still the decisive battle in the church.

A New Beginning

The break that God makes is to leave the self-sufficient world of the gods for the sake of groaning humanity. It is the key disclosure to Moses, without which there would be no Exodus. Israel is invited to break with Pharaohís "sacred canopy" of oppression precisely because this God has made a break with the boredom of the canopy of heaven. And while that disclosure moves through the long memory of Israel and the church, none has understood it in greater depth than Hosea. It is he who penetrates to the heart of God, who understands that God struggles against conventional godhood (Hos. 11:8), and who finally decides not to operate by conventions, either of heaven or of earth (11:9).

These verses show Hosea in deep conflict with the model of a God who strikes back when offended for the sake of Godís own majestic self-definition. But this God does not and will not. And the upshot of the anguish of this God in Hosea is that covenant is possible, not because of a suitable partner, but because this God has broken with conventions to new kinds of solidarity:

I will allure her to the wilderness [and begin again]
I will speak to her heart [and start over] ...
I will betroth you to me in righteousness. in justice,

in loyalty,
in mercy,
in faithfulness,

and you shall know me [Hos. 2:14. 19-20].

This anguished poet affirms that there is a new beginning possible on earth. It is possible because God in heaven has committed all his godhood to the wayward partner. God has no other claim to make, no special exemptions for himself, but stays with the sorry partner; in the process, both are changed. Hosea has understood as well as anyone that Godís committed grief for the partner is the only ground for newness on earth. That is the ground now to be confessed, proclaimed and practiced among us.

What a God!

He was despised and rejected by men and women,
acquainted with grief,
as one from whom they hide their faces,
He was despised and we esteemed him not [Isa. 53:3].

This God bears none of the marks of a god. This God has given up power in the certainty that real saving power is found in uncompromising faithfulness, the very posture the other gods in heaven could not countenance.

Everything Is at Stake

Perhaps that is too familiar to us, so familiar we miss how subversive it is. To test its subversive impact, one need only teach it and preach it. For it represents a break with conventional theology. It calls into question the self-sufficiency of God, the entire catechetical tradition of a God without solidarity with earthly partners whom he values and makes valuable. The conventional God of the catechisms makes all his caring moves after everything is settled and there is nothing at stake for the Strong One. But here it is affirmed that not everything is settled in advance. Very much is at stake for God; his godhood is recharacterized and redecided in company with and in the presence of the mixed multitude.

That is the deep issue in covenant. Does one (God or human) come to the covenantal relationship with everything settled? Or does one come with everything to be redecided? Both postures are offered in the Bible, but it is this radical posture of Moses and Hosea that has the possibility of subverting the death systems around us.

Everything is at stake in this question. Covenant requires a radical break not only with uncritical, scholastic notions of God, but also with contemporary views that vote for detachment. Our current consumer culture has need of an irrelevant God for whom nothing is at issue, a kind of indifferent, immune guarantor. Such a God is challenged and destroyed in the claim of covenant. The alternative God of the Bible is impinged upon and exposed. There is no immune quarter, no answer in the back of the book, no safe conduct.

Everything is at stake because how we judge it to be in heaven is the way we imagine it to be on earth. If our mistaken notion leads us to an impassive, self-sufficient God in heaven, then the model for humanity, for Western culture, for ourselves, is that we should also be self-sufficient, impassive, beyond need, not to be imposed on. Willy-nilly, we will be made in the image of some God. The one for whose image we have settled is a sure, triumphant God who runs no risks, makes no commitments, embraces no pain that is definitional. Against that, the covenanting God of the Bible protests and invites us to protest.

Let none among us imagine that the right discernment of God does not matter. On that point, everything is at issue in a culture now in deep failure. The question is whether there is an alternative affirmation to make that can let us recharacterize how it is in heaven and how it might be on earth. Hosea stands as an assertion that only in this alternative God is there ground for hope, possibility for passion, and energy to keep on. It is no different in the New Testament: "This man receives sinners and eats with them" -- i.e., makes covenant with them (Luke 15:2). This God prefers covenant partners with whom things are yet to be decided, rejecting a situation -- in heaven or on earth -- where nothing is in question. In such contexts, it is impossible to be genuinely human -- or faithfully divine.

A Community on Earth

Along the way we can redecide our notion of church. The covenant construct permits us and requires us to think afresh about the character and business of the church. That is, the move God has made in heaven opens up for us a new agenda: What is possible on earth? Godís move to solidarity is a hint that solidarity on earth is possible. And that covenantal theme permits a new ecclesiology. The church is the community attentive to the dangers and possibilities of solidarity in a culture which thrives on and celebrates our divisions and isolations.

Said another way, there, will be no new community on earth until there is a fresh articulation of who God is. What the church can be depends on that. There will be no community on earth so long as we rally round old God-claims of self-sufficiency and omnipotence. And the reason is that self-sufficient, omnipotent, isolated, impassive people (reflective of such false gods) are incapable of being in community or embracing any solidarity.

The promise of the new community on earth is made especially by Jeremiah: "Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah" (31:31). It is important that Jeremiah, most anguished of the prophets, speaks this hope, for only one in anguish could hope so deeply. It is equally important that he speaks this anticipation precisely at a time of historical brokenness when there seems no ground for hope. The new community he anticipates is not to be derived from the old shattered one. It depends only and singularly on a new move from God, a response to groans. It is this move that makes possible what was not possible before the groans were received and embraced.

That, of course, is not very realistic sociology. But new community is proclaimed in the Bible on the basis of the new move from God, just at the time when the best possibilities of sociology are exhausted. We are in such a time now, when there is no sociological possibility about which to speak. So we are pressed to speak to each other about this most unlikely thing, a move of solidarity made by God, a move which makes all things new on earth -- even human covenanting.

Large Human Questions

The new community now to be proclaimed and called into being bears at least three marks, according to Jeremiah.

1. It is a community of Godís Torah: "I will put my torah in their midst" (31:33, the translation "within them" is excessive personalizing). The new covenant anticipated here is one whose content is torah (which we do a disservice to render "law"). Torah that marks the new community is not a practice of law to clobber people, not a censure to expel and scold people, not a picky legalism. It is rather a release from small moralisms to see things through the eyes of Godís passion and anguish. The torah is a reminder that Godís will focuses on large human questions and that we also may focus on weighty matters of justice, mercy and righteousness.

There are seeds here for genuine reform within the community, a reform of communities of indifference which do not care much about anything except their own well-being. Torah turns the community from self to the neighbor. And there is a call here away from communities of triviality which imagine too much is at stake too soon and too often in every question that comes up. The Torah of the biblical God is not written in fine print or with footnotes. It is there in its rich, broad claims for holiness and justice. Foundational torah calls this community away from its self-serving fascinations.

2. The new community of covenant is in solidarity about the knowledge of God: "They shall all know me, from the least of these to the greatest" (Jer. 31:34). "Knowing God" is crucial for covenanting. Since this God has made a move to earth, there is no knowledge of God that can focus on the things of heaven to the disregard of the affairs of earth. And, conversely, there is no preoccupation with the things of earth without awareness that disruptive covenanting has caused a break in heaven.

Knowledge of God calls this community away from its many other knowledges which betray and divide. Jose Miranda (Marx and the Bible) has made clear that "knowledge of God" is attentiveness to the needs of brothers and sisters (Jer. 22:13-17). He does not mean that this derives from or comes after knowledge of God; rather, the two are synonymous. One could scarcely imagine a more radical and subversive theological claim. And the matter is the same in the new community of the New Testament. Love of God is intimately and inextricably linked to loving brother and sister (I John 4:20-21).

The new "knowledge of God" envisioned here does two things. First, it minimizes the importance of much of our knowledge, our expertise and professional skills (I Cor. 13:2). A different kind of knowing is what is needed. Second, the new knowledge now entrusted to this community (the very antithesis of gnostic secrets) is radically democratized. The least as well as the greatest shall know. The strong and the weak know together (cf. Rom. 14:1-23). The credentialed and the uncredentialed share the gift. The word to the strong in the community is that the weak ones know some very important dimensions of the news, to which we must all attend. The word to us all is that within the church there are no monopolies on this knowledge, not by wealth or longevity or gender or anything else. Democratizing knowledge in the community is a threat to all of us who preside over the establishment, for we have long known that knowledge, even in the church, is power.

But the knowledge now broadly entrusted is not just "personal experience," not a subjective inclination about this or that. It is a discernment of the "news," of the gospel, of the move God has made to earth where the torah is given. In New Testament categories, the knowledge commonly entrusted to us is knowledge of the cross, a sense about how the empty cross bestows life. That is a knowledge which is deeply subversive and now definitional for covenant.

The Practice of Forgiveness

3.The third mark of the community envisioned is that it knows about, experiences and practices forgiveness: "I will forgive their iniquity and I will remember their sin no more" (Jer. 31:34). It is not Lutheran reductionism to say that the single crucial sign of the church is the practice of forgiveness. And that means at least two things. First, the past should be past. Our posture toward each other should not be a grudging, careful management of old hurts, but rather a genuine yielding of the past for a hope.

Second, forgiveness is not simply a "spiritual" notion but includes a genuine redistribution of power. Our communities are often organized by bad memories, configurations of mistakes, and seasoned fears. The community of forgiveness means a redress of power in which the weak and the strong, the least and the greatest, really derive their life from each other (cf. Mark 10:42-44).

Of course, these marks of the covenant community are not new among us. But they characterize a subversive ecclesiology in deep conflict with our conventions. It is important to see how extensively our usual notions of community are refuted here -- notions which are either of communities of fate (into which we are locked without choice) or of convenience (in which we have no serious or abiding stake). Against both of those, we are to have a called community -- not a voluntary association, but a people addressed and bound in a concrete and abiding loyalty.

Covenant for the World

Finally, we may rearticulate our covenantal hope for the world. So long as this subversive paradigm is kept to God and church, we are safe enough. Its character of surprise and threat becomes clear when the covenant is related to the world beyond the believing community. The covenantal paradigm affirms that the world which we serve, and for which we care, is a world yet to be liberated. A theology of covenanting is not worth the effort unless it leads to energy and courage for mission.

So we are pressed to ask: What might be expected yet for the world? The response is that the world is intended by God to be a community that covenants, that distributes its produce equally, that values all its members, and that brings the strong and the weak together in common work and common joy. Though it is not yet that kind of community, we are assured that soon or late it will be (cf. Rev. 11:15). And the mission of the believing community is to articulate, anticipate and practice that transformation which is sure to come.

In the tradition of Hosea and Jeremiah, here we may appeal especially to Isaiah of the exile. One might have expected a poet to exiles to be preoccupied with that little community dealing with its own identity and survival. But this poet has a large vision indeed. And so his words serve to extend and urge the vision of Israel away from itself to the world in which it is placed. The word spoken here begins with a statement about Godís move. "I am the Lord," and goes on to call to Israel, who is given for others. But finally, as Israel looks beyond itself, the covenant passes to the world of need, darkness and prison (Isa. 42:6.7 and 49:6).

The poet will not permit Israel to think too long about itself. And so he uses the word "covenant" precisely to speak about mission to others. The crucial phrase is enigmatic, "a covenant to the people." How is this people to be linked to the other people? In covenant? As covenant? It suggests, perhaps, that Israel is a mediator toward the others, so that through Israel the other peoples receive the blessings of God. Or perhaps the call is to act as the partner, to be in solidarity with those others who are still alienated.

To Know, to Hope, to Expect

What is in any case clear is that covenanting becomes a way to think about the nations and kingdoms of the earth, a way requiring risk, emotion and solidarity. Covenanting, it is believed and affirmed in this poetry, is the way all of society is intended to be with its markings of justice, freedom, abundance and compassion. And the people addressed by the poet are to work toward that transformation and not give up on the world.

That is, the faithful community knows something about the world, hopes something for the world, and expects something of the world. What it knows and hopes and expects is that the world is to be trans. formed. That is in itself no mean ministry: to know, to hope and to expect. And that, perhaps, is the most important and most subversive thing the church can now do: to refuse to give up on the world and its promised transformation. Those who are victimized by the world in its present order need most of all voices of assurance that what now exists is not the way of the future. Such a voice is always subversive because it goes against our usual presuppositions and against the way the present order wants us to think. We have grown so accustomed to the disorders and inequalities which beset us that we do not expect it to be otherwise. And that is because we believe the world to be autonomous, set an its own course, with no possibility of transformation or intervention. We act as though the world gets to vote on its long-term future.

We have grown accustomed to the ways in which institutions are self-serving, in which every institution serves primarily its functionaries in order to preserve jobs and enhance personal well-being. This is true of government, court, school, hospital, church. Because the forms of public life are so complex, we despair of change. We expect ourselves and certainly others to be exploited. And we do not imagine that it can be otherwise.

But against all that, this poet of the exile, who knew about the pathos of Hosea and the promise of Jeremiah, flings his dangerous words. He conjures life alternatively as a genuine homecoming. He asserts that a condition of alienation and displacement is not our final destiny; there will be a homecoming of transformation. And the company and followers of this poet (which means us) keep the dream alive. Surely he had to speak of things he did not understand. But he clearly believes

ē that the world is not closed, fixed or settled;
ē that institutions can be changed and transformed;
ē that communities of people can be practitioners of other ways of living.

The entire poetry of Isaiah of the exile has a tilt toward freedom and liberation and justice. Those are the ingredients of a covenanted homecoming. His lyrical envisioning of a new possibility is given in the presence of and in argument against the Babylonian gods, Babylonian kings and Babylonian definitions of reality (see chapters 46 and 47). This subversive poetry has an unavoidable political realism to it. It knows that the yearned-for liberation will not happen until there is a dismantling of imperial definitions of reality. That is where the missional activity of Israel is called to be -- defiantly and buoyantly against every imperial definition of reality. And so he speaks with nerve and authority, believing that his speech is not idle or futile, but that it plays a part in the dismantling.

We live in a time of domesticated hopes, weary voices and co-opted imaginations. Now is not a good time to join issue with the enslaving structures of the day (cf. Amos 5:13). And those who have worked at such a calling lately have good reason to stop in futility. But the poet knows better. The poet knows that, even in a world like ours, songs must be sung, dreams must be kept, visions must be practiced. And none of it yields to the despairing cynicism which the Babylonians want so much to encourage.

There is in this poetry no large or sustained strategy. We may note two simple features that likely are decisive. First, in the familiar words of 52:13-53:12, the world is to be transformed precisely by one who is deformed (53:2-3). And his deforming is for the "many" who lie beyond the immediate community (cf. 53:11-12). Thus we must be asking about deformity. Second, in the derivative song of 61:1-4 (cf. Luke 4:18-19), it is by the action of the spirit that the dream is mounted and practiced. And where, the spirit is quenched, there the mission is domesticated.

The New Covenant

The three belong closely together: a God who makes covenant by making a move toward the partner (Hos. 2:14, 18-20); a community which practices covenant by the new forms of Torah, knowledge and forgiveness (Jer. 31:31-34); and a world yet to be transformed to covenanting, by the dismantling of imperial reality (Isa. 42:6-7, 49:6).

That is how the battle is joined. These alternatives given us in the prophets are subversive. They mean to controvert conventional, noncovenantal loyalties. These three elements belong together and are inseparable. And they are entrusted to our ministry. These affirmations were a fragile minority report in ancient Israel by this line of prophets who had so little power in their time. The likes of Hosea, Jeremiah and Isaiah in exile mattered little. These affirmations are a fragile minority report when they come to embodiment in Jesus of Nazareth who had so little power. And they also are no less a minority report in the fragility of our common ministry.

What we have claimed for these three poets is not new. But that makes it no less urgent. And the question presents itself: How do we stay at it? How do we not yield these radical convictions? I submit that it is in this: these subversive alternatives of God/church/world must be kept close to the eucharistic table where we eat and drink in covenant. The cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood (Luke 22:20); This cup is the new covenant in my blood (I Cor. 11:25). Whenever we eat this bread and drink this wine, we engage in a. subversive minority report. Precisely because of being broken and poured out, this bread and wine will never be fully accommodated to the interests of the old age. The world wants the bread unbroken and the wine still filling the cup. The world yearns for unrisking gods and transformed humanity. But in our eating and drinking at this table we know better. We will not have these subversive alternatives rendered void.

Undoubtedly covenantal discernments will become more dangerous in time to come as resources shrink, as we grow more fearful, as our public world continues to disintegrate. And therefore it is very important that we do not lose heart. Everything is at stake.


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