Greater than Guilt/7 – The biblical type of covenant establishes mutual commitment and forgiveness

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire le 04/03/2018

Piu grandi della colpa 07 rid“I shall try to help You, God, to stop my strength ebbing away... But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. ... I can already forgive God for allowing things to be as they probably must be. To have enough love in oneself to be able to forgive God!”

Etty Hillesum Diary, 1942 (English translation by Arnold J. Pomerans)

In many key episodes of life, a single story is not enough; it is too little. To say what happened on the day we first met, or when we heard ourselves called by name, a single voice is not enough. The story of those decisive moments has to be told many times, by different people, and by each in their own way. Things that are repeated become beneficial, to those who tell the story and to those who tell it. When this bio-diversity is missing, denied or torn, our stories become impoverished, the mystery of life escapes us. The multiplicity of stories can protect us from ideology, which develops when the chrism of truth is attributed to only one narration, while all the others are considered heresy. This multiplicity and variety of stories tend to disturb the modern man who is in search of agreement in historical data, but for the biblical writer it is a language to say the greatness and importance of the episodes he is narrating. The lack of greed and generosity of the Bible also emerge from the abundance with which its most beautiful stories are accompanied; as in the letters of love, where adjectives add up to saying what we can't really say - the Bible is a long and unique letter of love addressed to us, which often remains closed inside the envelope. The truth is symphonic, always.

There are at least three narrations of Saul's vocation in the Books of Samuel, each one different from the others, because they are the expressions of the various tribes and cities linked to the figure of Saul (and that of Samuel). And so, after the two stories we have already read, the text now tells us the story of another tradition on the consecration of Saul as King: “Then Nahash the Ammonite went up and besieged Jabesh-Gilead, and all the men of Jabesh said to Nahash, »Make a treaty with us, and we will serve you.« But Nahash the Ammonite said to them, »On this condition I will make a treaty with you, that I gouge out all your right eyes, and thus bring disgrace on all Israel«” (1 Samuel 11:1-2).

We are inside a very dense, rich and tremendous narration. The threat now comes from the Ammonites. The Jews ask for a pact of vassalage, but Nahash (i. e. the ‘serpent’) humiliates them by proposing a tremendous and outrageous pact, at a crazy price: to poke out the right eye of all Jews. In the manuscript of the Books of Samuel found in Qumran, which are more ancient and probably original, we discover that the foolish and crazy pact was actually implemented: “Now Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had been grievously oppressing the Gadites and the Reubenites. He would gouge out the right eye of each of them... (...) But there were seven thousand men who had escaped from the Ammonites and had entered Jabesh-Gilead.”

To get a little bit into these very hard and distant pages containing great wisdom, a very productive reading key is offered to us by the great biblical category of the Covenant (berit). The pact between YHWH and Israel, the original and founding act of that different and unique religious and social experience is described in the Bible by taking one of those Middle Eastern treaties of vassalage that the Jews had asked from the Ammonites as paradigm. The story of this absurd pact can therefore make us glimpse, albeit in backlight, something of the meaning that the Covenant has in biblical humanism. In a small people, faced with the failures of political treaties, the awareness of the existence of another unthinkable possibility gradually matures: to make a covenant with God. To find the good and reliable ally in a reality that you don't see and can't portray. An ally who does not poke out your right eye, but gives you another one to see the invisible. Living the relationship with God as a treaty with the invisible, amidst peoples who worshipped only visible and touchable (but mute) things made it possible for that small and quarrelsome people to generate extraordinary theological and spiritual innovations. What is astonishing in the biblical Covenant is not its diversity but its resemblance to the political-commercial pacts of the time, and therefore to their reciprocal structure. In the treaties, each of the two parties undertakes to respect them. It was ingenious to apply the status of ally to God, to enter into a social and perennial contract with a voice, to which we recognize the possibility of remaining within a pact of reciprocity, of mutual commitment. It is something surprising, even if today it almost completely escapes our reach. A treaty that came to the Jews as a gift. But a gift that was a treaty, and therefore reciprocity and mutual advantage, where both sides gain some benefit.

A shocking hypothesis underlying the same idea of the Covenant is that God also benefits from the relationship with people. It is a different, asymmetrical benefit, but the category of the Covenant makes it legitimate for us to call it a benefit. The category of the Covenant tells us that if YHWH gains a benefit from allying with us, our fidelity to that covenant and treaty enriches God as well, it changes and improves him. The biblical God, that of the Old and the New Testament (who is the same), is not the most perfect being, because our fidelity to the treaty makes him ‘more perfect’ (and therefore our infidelity makes him ‘less perfect’). At least this is what the biblical thought says, a theology that immediately becomes a marvellous humanism. If we were created in the ‘image and likeness’ of a God who is capable of treaties, we too rejoice in God's fidelity and suffer from his ‘infidelity’: when he ‘falls asleep’ and we remain slaves, when he leaves us on the pile of manure with Job although we are innocent, or when he abandons his son and our children on the infinite crosses in history. The logic of the Covenant also allows us to imagine the unthinkable. Like Etty Hillesum revealed to us in her lager, leaving us one of the most wonderful human pages of the twentieth century as an inheritance: even in the darkest abandonments, we can save faith in the Covenant if we learn to forgive God. Something acting like chills to the soul, giving an infinite substance and seriousness to fidelity to our treaties under the sun. And when we get betrayed and deceived in our treaties, when we forgive each other and know how to start over together, we can hope that someone ‘above the sun’ can understand us, because perhaps these joys and pains resemble his own. We should not be surprised, then, that at the end of Samuel's speech following these facts, we find a reference made to the Covenant, precisely: “For the Lord will not forsake his people, for his great name's sake, because it has pleased the Lord to make you a people for himself” (12:22).

After the request for that absurd treaty, the messengers of Jabesh went to Saul and told him what had happened: “...and all the people wept aloud. (...) And the Spirit of God rushed upon Saul when he heard these words, and his anger was greatly kindled. He took a yoke of oxen and cut them in pieces and sent them throughout all the territory of Israel by the hand of the messengers” (11:4-7).

Here we are reading a tradition about the tribe of Benjamin, and we are in the city of Gibeah. Upon encountering Saul who turns his oxen into 'messages of flesh’, the practised reader of the Bible cannot fail to immediately think about the tremendous story of the Levites narrated in the Book of Judges. On that night, which was one of the darkest nights of the Bible, in the city of Gibeah a passing Levite and his woman are hosted by an old man for the night. A group of locals burst into the house, raping the woman. The next morning, the Levite “entered his house, he took a knife, and grasping his concubine he cut her into twelve pieces, limb by limb, and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel. Then he commanded the men whom he sent, saying, »Thus shall you say to all the Israelites, ‘Has such a thing ever happened since the day that the Israelites came up from the land of Egypt until this day? Consider it, take counsel, and speak out’«” (Judges 19:29-30). Before proceeding with the commentary, we must stop for a moment, try to overcome the pain and bafflement of such a story, and the ‘many similar things’ that unfortunately still continue to happen. And it's not easy.... Then we discover a strong affinity between the two episodes. The Ammonite outraged the request for a treaty by those Jews. The Benjaminites profane the treaty of hospitality, which is one of the most sacred. Every treaty offered is an offer of hospitality, and every denial of hospitality and a denial of a treaty. The covenants and alliances among those ancient peoples were celebrated by cutting up animals, with the language of flesh and blood. God established his Covenant with Abraham by passing like fire in the midst of cut-up animals.

These are strong, archaic and primitive languages that we do not understand. But if we can look at them in the ‘eyes’ they still can speak to us. We can read the blood and flesh of the treaties in the Bible to construct an image of a God who is thirsty for our blood and even for that of his crucified son, who is quenching his thirst with these to pacify his wrath for the world. And so we don't go very far, we are stuck inside the Middle Eastern myths, of which there is also a trace in the Bible and which continue to influence some Christian readings of sacrifice and the theology of atonement.

But from that flesh and from that blood another, very different story can also begin. One that tells us that treaties are tremendously serious things, just like flesh and blood, because they are the flesh and blood of life lived together. Those men used the strongest words they had at their disposal to express the seriousness and value of life. To tell us that promises and covenants are as important and serious as the flesh and blood of children, husbands, wives, parents and siblings. We can sign and dissolve a thousand contracts, without them leaving any sign. With treaties we cannot do so. These are made of flesh and blood, and therefore even when we decide to cut them to take exit from them, their signs remain engraved in our flesh forever. Every covenant is a wound; just as faith is a wound, that slit towards heaven which we try not to close throughout our lives, which we hope will still be open when we close our eyes and, perhaps, it is through that slit we will try to see God.

On another day or night, the Bible sent us another message of flesh. This time it was a wonderful child, the word made flesh and blood. On another day, that wonderful child, already a grown man, was hung on a cross - other real blood and flesh. Other incarnate messages, which the Bible, meekly, still has in store for us.

After Saul defeated the Ammonites, "all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before the Lord in Gilgal. There they sacrificed peace offerings before the Lord...and...rejoiced greatly” (11:15).

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