Covenant-Making Rituals by Alonzo L. Gaskill

Sacred Symbols


The making of covenants, vows, or promises to God has ever been part of revealed religion. In the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, various promises or oaths are required of those who seek to faithfully live their religion and establish their acceptability before their God. The manner in which these pledges are entered into or enacted varies from one religion to another—and even from one denomination to another. However, the central idea of covenant-making is commonplace in these traditions.

This is an excerpt from Sacred Symbols by Alonzo L. Gaskill. 

More often than not, covenant-making rituals are laden with symbolism. Whether those symbols are to be found in the language of the oath, in the manner in which the pledge is entered into, or in the defined consequences for breaking the covenant, varies from one religion to another. But what can be said dogmatically is this: for most traditions symbolism is the language of covenant making. This fact requires the participant in the vow to seek understanding of his or her promise (thereby discouraging passive participation in oath making). But it also enables the covenant-maker to gain from the oath (through prayerful contemplation) a fuller understanding of the meaning of the vow as he or she progresses spiritually in the ensuing years. Thus, the covenant has the ability to be non-stagnant because of the symbolism’s potential to continually teach anew.


Signs or Ritual Gestures

 Hand Raised“Gestures of approach” vary from religion to religion. One of the most common is the raising of the arm to the square. What this “gesture” or “sign” represents depends upon the religion and the rite being enacted. For Christians, other than symbolizing one’s willingness to sustain another, or the representation of one’s entrance into a covenant, the raised right hand is often understood to be “a sign of power and command.”(1) The right arm raised was known as the “right hand of power.” When raised, it symbolized receiving the “gift” God was offering (and that which God offers us through rituals or ordinances is a portion of His power).(2)

One LDS source suggested that the “sign” or “gesture” of raising the arm to the square was a Christocentric symbol. “The square in the carpenter’s toolbox (remember who the Carpenter is) represents exactness in all we do. Christ, as the only person who was perfectly exact in his mortal life, could himself be symbolized as a square.

When we participate in covenants involving the symbol of the square, we are reaching up to God in a way that reminds us of Christ, in whose name the covenants are made.”(3)

Of course, the raised arm to the square is not the only “gesture of approach” found in ancient or modern liturgical rites. For example, the Hebrew word traditionally translated “ordain” in the King James Version of the Bible means quite literally to “fill the hand,” and seems to have some ritual significance.(4)

The very fact that “filling” one’s empty or cupped hand became synonymous with “ordaining” a man implied that the ordained is given something—namely, power or authority. Thus, the ceremonial act of “filling one’s hand” is a ritualistic way of saying that one is “receiving” power or authority. The “filling of the hand” may also symbolize the receipt of blessings, as ancient temple priests (when consecrated) had their hands filled with portions of the temple offerings—thus they were being endowed with God’s gifts (each token of His sacrifice on their behalf).(5)

Though the making of “gestures of approach” or ritual “signs” may seem to be exclusively the practice of ancient peoples,(6) various faiths in modernity utilize “signs” in the covenant-making process. Roman Catholicism is a prime example. They have certain ceremonies or rites in which “signs” are utilized by initiates.(7)

One Roman Catholic text notes that in making a covenant, the initiates are instructed: “Raise your right hands and repeat after me.” (8) This same source states that it is important to “teach your members the mode and use of the secret signs.”(9) In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Jews who immigrated to the United States came up with a set of ritual “signs” which initiates would employ as part of a fraternal order created to ease the transition into a new culture and nation.(10) Each of these “signs” had symbolic meanings associated with the faith to which they were attached.

For Christians these may have been Christocentric, or even penal connotations—though, once again, the penal signs tended to have a Christocentric meaning among Christians because of their association with Godly powers promised to the faithful.

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1. Elworthy (1900), 148.

2. See Elworthy (1900), 153; Frederick Thomas Elworthy, The Evil Eye (London: John Murray, 1895), 269, n. 417.

3. Parry and Parry (2009), 22.

4. Julien (1996), 189. “The power of the human hand . . . is an article of very ancient belief, and remains almost unaltered to this day.” Elworthy (1900), 159.

5. See Elworthy (1900), 160.

6. Parry and Parry (2009), 14.

7. See Kaiser, in Gaebelein (1976–92), 2:471, n. 9; R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 203; Richard J. Clifford, “Exodus,” in Brown, Fitzmyer, and Murphy (1990), 57; Parry and Parry (2009), 30; Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1982), 266.

8. See Clifford, in Brown, Fitzmyer, and Murphy (1990), 57; Joseph H. Hertz, Pentateuch and Haftorahs, second edition (London: Soncino Press, 1962), 344; Parry and Parry (2009), 29–30. In slaying an animal, as part of ancient temple sacrifices, “the hand is held in such a manner as to hold the blood, as it holds the oil in the anointing” (Nibley [2008], 396).

9. For example, of the ancient Essenes, we read: “When addressing their chiefs they stood with their right hand extended below their chin and the left dropped to their side” (Springett [1922], 92).

10. See Knight (1920), x.

11. Ibid., 86.

12. Ibid., 29.

13. See Soyer (1999): 168.