As a first order approximation, we frequently describe a covenant as a two way promise often with consequences attached if one breaks ones promise. That almost sounds like a contract. So what exactly is the difference between a contract and covenant?
Rabbi Sacks discussed something I rather liked on this. First he sees that the archetypal covenant is the covenant God makes with Israel at Sinai via Moses. By looking at the Sinai covenant and its echoes he gets at the distinction.
In a contract, two or more people come together, each pursuing their self-interest, to make a mutually advantageous exchange. In a covenant, two or more people, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, come together in a bond of loyalty and trust to do together what neither can achieve alone. It isn’t an exchange; it’s a moral commitment. It is more like a marriage than a commercial transaction. Contracts are about interests; covenants are about identity. Contracts benefit; covenants transform. Contracts are about “Me” and “You”; covenants are about “Us.”
Contracts fundamentally are about people making agreements by way of self-interest. For a covenant though the focus isn’t on the individual and their wants. Rather a covenant has its focus the relationship between the people which is more important than what either person wants. It’s that focus on relationship that’s key not just to Israel’s covenant but to other covenants we make such as with marriage.
Nate Oman, writing here a couple of years ago, put it well.
A marriage is a relationship that is defined by reciprocal promises, but it isn’t just defined by reciprocal promises. It is also defined by love, passion, and what I think of as habits of affection. We often think of love as a kind of Dionysian force that assaults us, but married love is more than simply Dionysian. It is also agricultural, something that one treasures, cultivates, and seeks to protect. I think it suggestive that in English “husband” can denote both a spouse and a farmer.
Nate goes on to talk about our covenants that tie us to the Church. I’d add Rabbi Sacks comments as a context. If we look at Church as something purely we get things from, then we’ll fundamentally misunderstand what Church is about. We see it as contract rather than covenant.
Once we see our relationship with Church, and thus our relationship with each other in Church, in terms of relationhip I think our perspective changes a great deal. Ideally we’ll see it as a place we give rather than just get. That’s not to deny that we get a lot from things like sacrament. However fundamentally that’s not our focus, just like it’s not our focus in marriage.