Now that the Easter season (Holy Week, Resurrection Sunday and following) is fading in our collective memory, it is a good time to reflect upon the significance of what happened at the cross, and the meaning of many of our sacramental practices. The concepts of redemption from sin and salvation from the absence of God are rooted in animal sacrifice from ancient history. The manner in which spiritual redemption and salvation were accomplished was through the practice of blood covenants.
Throughout history, humans have been making irrevocable contracts with one another, which were sealed in blood. A blood covenant sealed an agreement that carried with it the understanding that it could cost one’s life. If one party failed to uphold his end of the bargain, the other party could take the life of the one who failed. Two parties would go through rituals to satisfy the requirements of an irrevocable covenant. Nearly all of these spiritual rituals can be read in the 15th chapter of the Book of Genesis, the Covenant Dream of Abram. This chapter is rich with symbolism.
Blood covenants had nine parts which conform to methods that God chose to communicate with His people and to implement His plan of salvation. Many of these practices or their roots still survive, today.
1) Typically, two parties would exchange coats or robes, which represented that individual’s life.
2) They would offer their belt, which would hold their sword or knife for protection of the other; as David and Jonathan did.
3) The two would cut a covenant (“cut a deal”). They would kill a large animal and cut it into two pieces front to back, then lay the halves opposite each other on the ground and walk between the halves. To destroy an animal and walk through the blood was a warning of what would happen to the party who broke the covenant. In the dream, Abram fell asleep. God took Abram’s (humanity’s) part and chose to die in humanity’s place for failure to uphold our end of the covenant.
4) Exchange of blood through cutting their hand or wrist and commingling their blood as a sign of being one with the other.
5) Exchange names to demonstrate shared identities, becoming part of each other. God gave Abram and Sarai the “ha” parts of His name (YWVH – ya hay vo hay) to become Abraham and Sarah.
6) Making of a permanent mark or scar that others can see that a covenant of protection has been made. Circumcision accomplished this purpose, and Jesus possesses the marks from being hanged on the cross as a sacrifice for all.
7) Parties to the covenant would have witnesses who affirmed that all of the worldly goods of the other would become their property in the event one of them died; including assurance that the departed one’s family would be provided for.
8) Eating of a memorial meal of bread and wine. A loaf of bread was broken in half, and each individual would give it to the other to be eaten, saying, “This is my body that I am giving to you now.” Then taking wine, giving it to the other saying, “This is my blood, which is now your blood.” We can see the significance of this in the New Covenant; it is Holy Communion, instituted by Jesus during the Last Supper.
9) A memorial tree is planted in memory of the covenant. The blood of the sacrificed animal was sprinkled upon the tree as a covenant offering. The cross of Jesus certainly qualifies as a memorial tree. Jesus, the sacrificial lamb, was crucified to satisfy the breach of humanity.
This may explain the root of some our holiest and most efficacious practices. God speaks to us in terms we can understand.
Rev. Wilfred Verhoff is an associate priest at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in Lewis Center.