Blessings and Curses: The Covenant in the Abrahamic Traditions

The idea that there exists a covenant, or divine contract, between God and His people is a common theme running throughout the Western religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha'i faith. It did not originate with the ancient Hebrews, but was used in the ancient middle east as a means of establishing social organization, especially among peoples where such organization was generally loose. The covenant, basically, was a promise that was guarenteed by the oversight of a diety, whose responsibility it was to punish any person who broke the oath. This was usually accompanied by an animal sacrifice, which was often dismembered as a demonstration of what would happen if the parties failed to keep the covenant. [1]

In religious terms, the covenant was, and is, seen as the foundation for a community. Each of the individuals that make up that community are responsible for abiding by its provisions. The blessings of abiding by the covenant are both individual and communal. While the penalty for breaking the covenant are potentially communal, it usually falls upon the individual involved, because the covenant community is bound to forcibly reject him. The covenant-breaker is seen as cursed. He stands outside the community because of his failure, yet he was, or should be, a member of the community. Both an insider and and outsider, he is potentially a dangerous enemy, a looming threat to the sacred community, and is therefore a figure of fear and revulsion.

The Jewish Tradition

The idea of humanity, and specifically, the ancient Hebrews/Israelites, having a covenant with God is a theme that is returned to again and again in the Hebrew scriptures (or Old Testment). The first covenant is that established with Adam and Eve, who for obedience are promised dominion over the earth, and for disobedience would bring death upon themselves. The Noahide Covenant allowed humans to eat meat, and in return, they were expected to avoid the shedding or eating of blood, and to refrain from sexual immorality. This was still expected behavior of any "stranger within the gates" living among Jews.[2]

The covenant with Abraham established the sign of circumcision. The punishment for refusing to be circumcised is called in Hebrew karet, the "cutting off" of the soul from the Jewish people. It is also imposed for violations of other laws, such as having sex with a menstruating woman. The person violating this covenant would be avoided as unclean by his own people, so it is seen as having both social and spiritual consequences.

By far the most significant, and believed by historians to be the oldest is the covenant at Sinai, the founding covenant of the community. In Rabbinic literature, it is said that the souls of all Jews were present there, and so are bound by its provisions. [3]

The Biblical covenant outlined in Deuteronomy follows almost point for point the Hittite treaty form used in the ancient world. Yahweh is identified as the covenant-giver, and a historical prologue is included relating How He delivered the children of Israel from Egypt. The Ten Commandments stipulate the provisions of the covenant, that is, the behavior expected of those assenting to it. Then blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience are listed. Finally, the priests are commanded to read the covenant to the people regularly, and to keep it in the temple. [4]

While this, at first glance, seems quite legal and technical, the covenant is often described in the prophetic books as a marriage, which is both a legal contract, and an emotional bond. [5] This idea, of course, had been carried on into Christianity, where the Church is described as the bride of Christ.

The covenant with David and his descendents was originally conceived of as an unconditional guarentee tha there would always be a Davidic king on the throne of Israel. When the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed, this idea had to be revised into a conditional promise that was dependent upon the king's behavior. So, theoretically, the throne was eternally available to David's family, whether or not it was occupied, and this left open the possibility that a future descendent of David could someday rule justly on the throne of his fathers.[6]

Finally, in Jeremiah, there is the lament that Israel must suffer exile because she has broken the covenant, and the promise of forgiveness and that a new covenant will be establishe to be "written on the heart". This left open the door to the reinterpretation of the meaning of the covenant in Christianity. [7]

Christian Interpretations of the Covanant

The New Testament views the Christian covenant as being established by Jesus himself at the Last Supper. As was the cases with the covenant at Sinai, this is the foundational moment of the community. The identification of the blood and body of Christ goes bck to the identification of the oath-taker with the sacrifice. Jesus endures the penalty of covenant-breaking, thereby nullifying the curses of the law. The curse now was tied to the rejection of Christ rather than specific violations of the law. The covenant community is now not those that assent to a code of behavior, but those that agree on a certain belief. The Church still thinks of itself as the "new and true Israel" that consists of the community that has received the gift of the Holy Spirit. [8] When the idea of the covenant is discussed in Protestant Christianity, it is almost invariably within the Calvinist context of the superiority of the "covenant of grace" brought by Jesus compared to the "covenant of works" in the Old Testament. [9]

While the shift of emphasis away from religious law has meant that the concept of covenant has historically received less attention fom Christians than Jews, the idea of the "cursed" covenant-breaker, the dangerous insider, persisted. The Christian tradition has tended to paint "the enemy within", first Jews, later heretics, as satanic, and in fact the very development of the Christian perception of Satan can possibly be trace to struggles with these groups that threatened the early Church.[10] Because the community is now seen as established upon a common belief, rather than an ethnic identity, the heretic, the person who alters that belief while still claiming a relationship with the community, is seen as especially dangerous.

The Covenant in Islam

The religion of the Qur'an is based upon the conept of covenant, just as much as that established upon the Hebrew scriptures. The nascent Islamic community was based upon it[11], and it has been estimated that more than 700 verses of the Qur'an have to do with covenant relationships. The Islamic idea of covenant has two basic aspects:

The first is described in the seventh sura of the Qur'an, wher mankind is asked by God "Am I not your Lord?" and all the children of Adam assent. This primal covenant, returned to often in mystical literature, binds all human beings to obedience to God. It is strikingly similar to the notion that all Jewish souls were present at Sinai and therefore bound by that covenant.

The second aspect of the covenant is that the Muslim community, which consists of those what accept the covenant mediated through God's messenger. Each prophet was given a revelation and established a communiy, who is bound as a part of the covenant to recognize the next messenger, until Muhammad. The importance of this aspect of the covenant declined in Islam, but it was to become central in the Baha'i Faith. [12]

The Baha'i Covenant

The newest religion to emerge from the Abrahamic lineage, the Baha'i faith, has renewed and re-emphasized the concept of covenant beyond any of its sister religions, with the possible exception of Orthodox Judaism. Established by the Persian prophet Baha'u'llah in 1863, the Baha'i faith teaches the unity of the world's religions, the unity of humanity, and calls for the establishment of world peace.

Baha'is believe that they are bound by two covenants: the first, or Greater Covenant, is similar to the idea in Islam, where each prophet makes a covenant with his followers promising that another messenger with divine guidance will appear, and these followers in turn agree to recognize and accept that messenger when he appears. Unlike Muslims, however, Baha'is veiw this process as never-ending, since Baha'u'llah rejected any claim to finality for his revelation.

In his major doctrinal work, the Kitab-i-Iqan, Baha'u'llah emphasizes that the coming of the nest messenger (or in Baha'i terminology, Manifestation of God) is a test of man's faithfulness to this greter covenant. It is, in fact, Judgment Day, and the eschatalogical prophecies of previous religions are interpreted as referring to the coming of a new revelation.

However, when Baha'is refer to "the Covenant", they are usually referring to the Lesser Covenant, or the divine sanction given to the successive heads of the Baha'i Faith since the passing of its founder. Its basic function is to maintain the unity of the Baha'i community, which is seen as essential for its mission in uniting humanity.

This covenant, like those found in previous religions, is scripturally based. However, it is unique in that the scripures involved were written by the founder of the religion himself. Baha'u'llah, obliquely in the Kitab-i-Aqdas, and explicitly in his will, the Kitab-i-Ahd (Book of the Covenant) appointed his eldest son, 'Abdu'l-Baha as the leader of his faith. In turn, 'Abdu'l-Baha, in his Will and Testament, created the institution of the Guardian as the Cause of God, naming his eldest grandson, Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, as the first to occupy that office. He also confirmed the creation of the institution of the House of Justice, which is ordained in the Kitab-i-Aqdas.The Guardianship was to have an interpretive and executive function, whild the Universal House of Justice was to be a legislative body, elected by the National Spiritual Assemblies of the countries of the world.

However, the administrative system outline in the Will and Testament of 'Abdu'l-Baha was never to function as completely intact. The Universal House of Justice was never elected during Shoghi Effendi's lifetime, since he felt there needed to be a broader international base for such an election. (Until the 1950s, the majority of the world's Baha'is lived in Iran.)In 1957, he died suddenly without heirs, leaving no one scripturally qualified to be Guardian. The Universal House of Justic was elected in 1963, and has been the sole head of the Baha'i Faith ever since. It is believed by Baha'is to be divinely guided and infallible, although the meaning and sphere of this infallibility is the cause of some debate.

In Baha'i definition then, faithfulness to the Greater Covenant means recognition and acceptance of Baha'u'llah as the messenger of God, and obedience to his commands, including the provisions of the Lesser Covenant. Faithfulness to the latter is generally tken to mean obedience to the successive heads of the Baha'i Faith: 'Abdu'l-Baha, Shoghi Effendi, and now, the Universal House of Justice. For modern-day Baha'is, the covenant is strongly identified with the institutions that govern their faith, which gives these institutions a potent avenue of control when they choose to use it.

On the other hand, a covenant-breaker is a person who challenges the authority of the head of the Baha'i Faith, whether by establishing a Baha'i sect that rejects its authority, belonging to such a sect, or refusing to dissociate from the followers of such a sect. The history of Baha'i schismatic sects is long and complex, but basically such sects have been created at each successive change in authority. While these groups were of serious concern when they initially organized, none of them has remained a viable threat to the Baha'i mainstream, and most have eventually become defunct. The emphatic and central nature of the doctrine of the covenant, along with the penalty of shunning, makes it extremely difficult for any breakaway sect to even gain much of a hearing, much less attract a following. Baha'is are obligated to entirely avoid association with covenant-breakers, even if a spouse or close relative is declared as such, and most will refuse even to look at literature from one of these sects. Covenant-breakers are regarded as having a "spiritual disease" that is potentially contagious, so the obligation to shun is taken very seriously, and motivated by no small degree of fear. It is interesting that, while Baha'u'llah himself abolished the whole idea of ritual uncleanliness, his followers have resurrected the ancient idea of the covenant-breaker as being cursed and unclean. so repulsed are Baha'is by the very idea of covenant-breakers that there are cases of people being shunned, at least temporarily, simply for reading and asking questions about their literature, and most would consider it a duty to turn in such a person to an Auxiliary Board Member, an official appointed for the "protection of the Cause" [13]

Why does the idea of creating an alternative Baha'i sect cause such a reaction? Because Baha'is view the very mission of their religion as the creation of unity. The covenant-breaker represents the negation of that Baha'i identity. Just as the Satan worshipper exists as a sort of obscene parody of the Christian, the covenant-breaker is an "anti-Baha'i." Unlike Muslims, Baha'is are willing to tolerate the apostate, but they cannot bear the schismatic.

Only the Universal House of Justice can declare a person to be a covenant-breaker, and it is considered to be an extreme, last-resort measure. However, the warning that on is in "conflict with the Covenant"[14] is a very stong incentive for self-censorship because of the implicit threat involved. Baha'i officials have shown little hesitation in using the obligation of loyalty to the covenant to censor ideas and opinions, especially with the rise of cyberspace. Faced with such a threat, the offender must either fall silent, or resign his/her membership in the community. The belief that the institutions ar divinely guided means that the believer so threatened will get scant sympathy from most of his fellow adherents. After all, if the institutions are seen as always being right, then any critic must be wrong, and is likely to be condemned as a source of disunity. [15]

The Baha'i attitude, especially current among administrators and officials, that any criticism of Baha'i institutions is equivelent to an attack on the covenant has led to serious conflict with Baha'i academics, writers, and liberals. This is a sad irony, considering the support for free inquiry found in the Writings of Baha'u'llah, and the emphatically pro-scholarship stance of 'Abdu'l-Baha. It also belies the carefully constructed public image of the Baha'i Faith as an open-minded and tolerant religion.

In spite of the increasingly unfriendly environment they find themselves in,the more liberal and intellectual elements of the community still adhere to the idea that the Baha'i covenant requires their loyalty. It is a quite remarkable fact that there are liberal Baha'is, and believing Baha'is who have left the community, who are quite sharply critical of some of the actions and policies of the Baha'i institutions, yet there has been no move among them to organize in any formal way. Most, in fact, will assert their loyalty to the Universal House of Justice, while defining its perogatives somewhat differently than more conservative elements. The creation of an alternative community, something that would be a natural step in almost any other religion simply is not an option for Baha'is, not only because of the threat of being shunned, but because of their very convictions.


A covenant is basically a contract between God and His people. For the religions that stand in the Western tradition, the covenant is the foundation of the community, a means of defining its membership, and a tool for the control of adherents' belief and behavior. Even in so deliberately modern a religion as the Baha'i Faith, the person who dares violate this sacred pact is seen as cursed, unclean, and dangerous. While this belief can have the positive effect of restraining immoral and/or disruptive behavior,and provides a self-definition for the body of believers, it can also be an intrusive and oppressive method of thought control, stifling their creativity and individuality.

However, since the ancient idea of loyalty to a covenant holds sway over hundreds of millions of people around the world, ther must be something profoundly satisfying and practical about deining one's religious membership this way. Covenants have worked for thousands of years; they are likely to continue doing so.(December 1999)


[1]Encyclopedia Britannica

[2]Frend, W.H.C.The Rise of Christianity Fortress Press 1984 p.92

[3]Greenberg, Blu How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household Simon and Schuster 1983

[4]Encyclopedia Britannica

[5]Heschel, Abraham J.The Prophets: An Introduction Harper & Row 1962 p.50

[6]Friedman, Richard ElliotWho Wrote the Bible? Simon & Schuster 1987 p.133-34

[7] Encyclopedia Britannica

[8]The Church's Confession of Faith: A Catholic Catechism for Adults Ignatius Press 1987

[10] Encyclopedia Britannica

[11] Pagels, Elaine The Origin of Satan Random House 1995

[11]Izutsu, Toshihiko Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qur'anMcGill University Prss 1966 p.88

[12]Encyclopedia Brittanica

[13] Cole, Juan R.I. "The Baha'i Faith in America as Panopticon, 1963-1997 The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion vol.37 no.2 (June 1998) pp.234-248

[14]Birkland, Counselor Stephen 1996 Letter of July 16 to a Baha'i academic

[15]Cole Panopticon

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