The Cutting of the Covenant
5th Sunday of Lent (B)

Jeremiah R. Grosse
Reproduced with Permission

In 722 BC, the Assyrian army invaded the northern kingdom of Israel and sent the people into exile. This was the land that God had promised to His people and now they are being forced to leave and become subjects of a foreign power. In 586 BC, the Assyrian army, under King Nebuchadnezzar, invaded the southern kingdom of Judah and for the first time since the death of King David, the Jewish people had no place to call their own. The temple, God’s earthly dwelling place, was burned to the ground and it would not take long before the future generations of Jewish children drift away from Judaism and begin to marry among the Assyrians.

After all that God had done for them, the people of the northern and southern kingdoms chose to turn their backs on God and do their own thing. God, chose to turn His gaze away from them and they were taken captive.

The opening verse from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah states, “The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.” In Hebrew the phrase is, “…when I will cut a covenant with the house of Israel…” This would involve cutting a bird in half and having each party to the covenant walk between the cut pieces as a sign to them that if they violate the covenant than what happened to the bird will happen to them as well.

In her novel, Middlemarch, George Eliot introduces the reader to several characters who have entered into a marriage covenant. Two of the major female characters are Rosamond and Dorothea. Both of these women entered into a covenant because they saw marriage as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself, and they are portrayed as being very unhappy.

Dorothea married Casaubon in order to help fulfill her need for a father figure and to fix her new husband of the brokenness she perceives in his life. Rosamond marries Lydgate because she realizes that doing so would allow her to climb the social ladder and she could have all the things that she always wanted, but could never afford.

Middlemarch is often presented as a treatise in favor of divorce since the two lead characters are so unhappy. However, it is not marriage which makes them unhappy, but their misunderstanding the covenant.

The covenant which God offers the people will not be like the covenant which He made with earlier generations. There is no mention of repentance on the part of the people and yet God offers to place His law within them and write it upon their hearts. The people will no longer need to teach their friends and relatives how to know the Lord since everyone shall know Him.

In spite of their repeated unwillingness to turn to God, He forgives His children and remembers their sins no more. We worship a God of hope and love, not a god of vengeance and wrath. After years in captivity, God sent King Cyrus of Persia in 539 BC to defeat the Assyrians and free His chosen people. At this time a new age has dawned for His people. Cyrus allows them to practice their faith and even helps them rebuild the Temple.

Divorce, rather than marriage, may appear to be a major theme in Middlemarch; however, not every covenant relationship is doomed to failure.

Nicholas Bulstrode is a wealthy Middlemarch banker who married a local widow, Harriet. Nicholas hires a man, John Raffles, to find his wife’s daughter from her first marriage so Harriet can leave part of her fortune to her daughter. Raffles finds her daughter and when he gives Nicholas this information, Nicholas bribes him to keep Raffles quiet. Raffles blackmails Nicholas with this information, but soon becomes ill. Nicholas agrees to care for Raffles; however, as a result of Nicholas not following the doctor’s advice Raffles dies and the blackmail scandal and Nicholas’ past life become public knowledge.

Rather than abandon her husband, Harriet takes off her jewels, puts on her old black clothes, and stays with her husband. She knew nothing about his previous life or that he had made his fortune selling stolen goods. Harriet loves Nicholas and stays with him. It is her devotion which gives him the strength to reconsider ending his life after the scandal becomes public knowledge.

Just as Harriet would not abandon Nicholas, neither will God abandon us. If she had chosen to walk away from him, no one in Middlemarch would have challenged her decision; however, she chose to remain faithful.

Given our willingness to turn away from God, He would be completely justified in walking away from us, but God does not operate by human standards. God reaches out to us time and again and offers us an opportunity to renew our relationship with Him and make a fresh start.

This ability to make a fresh start is part of the joy of the Season of Lent. Just as there is joy when a couple renews their marriage vows before their family and friends, so we can experience that same joy as we renew our vows at Easter to remain faithful to the covenant that we have made with God.