Contracts, Covenants and Conan

Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his house, who had charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh and I will make you swear by the Lord…”

Genesis 24:2-3a

My Old Testament professor was the first person who challenged me to approach scripture in a sensory way, to imagine my way into the biblical narrative. I guess that’s why the promise between Abraham and his most trusted servant has, for better or worse, permanently set up camp in my consciousness.

Abraham knew he was dying, and he made his servant swear that he would go back to the old country and find a suitable wife for his son Isaac. (Isaac was, after all, the heir to and vehicle of God’s promise, so he couldn’t give the family name to just anyone.) The oath was sealed when the servant placed his hand under Abraham’s thigh. The two men were eyeball-to-eyeball, personal space be damned, each smelling on the other’s breath whatever he had just eaten for lunch. With his grip on the hamstring, the servant was within inches of his master’s genitals. I don’t know about you, but if I’d made a vow by such intimate means, I believe I’d do all I could – as Abraham’s servant did – to hold up my end of the bargain.

Now, I’m not eager to smell anyone’s Caesar salad breath or to put my hand anywhere near someone’s bathing suit area. But lately I’ve been really nostalgic for the old school kinds of promises that were made between two people and didn’t come with the implied caveat, “until something better comes along.” In particular, contracts – the business version of a vow – sometimes don’t seem to be worth the paper they’re printed on. Lawyers interface on behalf of their clients. The negotiations are a game of Hungry Hungry Hippo, with each party grabbing for as many of the marbles as possible. The contracts themselves are an exercise in semantic gymnastics and build in easy outs, if you only have the cash.

Of course I’ve got the late-night talk show wars on the tip of my brain: Jay Leno vs. Conan O’Brien vs. NBC. NBC had plucked Conan from the writer’s room at Saturday Night Live, given him a shot as host of the 12:30 am Late Night program when David Letterman bolted for CBS, and groomed him for years to helm The Tonight Show. And when Conan didn’t hold onto the coveted young adult demographic after he moved to 11:30 – arguably because he had to tame his edgy humor for an older, sleepier crowd – the network reacted. In a matter of weeks, NBC canceled Leno’s primetime experiment (4 months old), pulled the plug on O’Brien’s rendition of The Tonight Show (7 months old), and prepared to pretend that Leno had never vacated the 11:30 pm timeslot he held for 17 years. The drama played out publicly and provided plenty of comedic fodder not just for Jay and Conan but also for other late-night personalities, who reveled in the dysfunction.

I’ll be honest. From the time the first shots were fired, I was committed to Team Conan. I have just enough 14-year-old boy in me to appreciate a cigar-smoking dog puppet that makes caustic observations. My sense of humor about my own shrunken size is drawn to Conan’s jokes about his lanky frame as well as his pasty complexion and red bouffant. And I love that – at least in my estimation – Conan’s comedy finds a way to combine the smart and the ridiculous. (He is a Harvard grad, after all.)

There’s been much debate about Conan’s on-air handling of the controversy. Was it gracious and spot-on or vindictive and over the top? You can probably guess which way I lean. But what really tugged at me was the sense that a real person – not just a tv personality – was looking for a way to acknowledge to himself and to his fans the network’s betrayal, his devastation at losing his dream job, and his guilt at uprooting his family and crew for a cross-country move that proved all for naught. Conan had, in a manner of speaking, grabbed the hamstrings of his employees and braved their stale breath when he convinced them to follow him. Unfortunately, in his dealings with the network, his own thigh had borne no fingerprints.

I can’t help but think that we too often lose that personal element in our understanding of agreements, contracts, covenants. Abraham and his servant were bound by their awkward encounter. God and the chosen people argued and stomped off from one another from time to time, but they always came back. In the family business, my father sealed deals by signing papers and shaking hands, gestures imbued with trust. In marriage vows we pledge to hang in there despite our screw-ups and whatever hardships lie in wait. All of these kinds of promises are calls to accountability. Yet they prompt us to remember that we’re talking first and foremost about flesh and blood and relationships, not loopholes and liabilities.

Maybe it’s silly to relate so personally to a celebrity who will certainly land on his feet, and even if not, has a multi-million dollar cushion to break his fall. (In decent fashion, Conan negotiated severance for his crew as well.) Maybe the situation strikes a little too close to home because I have had an employer who wouldn’t look me in the eye and gave up on me after only seven months. But I grieve this very public example of a widespread problem: that we so easily forget that God demonstrates covenant-making for us as a means of binding together, of sharing a future.

Even as the bitter taste remains in my mouth, I would do well to tuck away Conan’s closing words:

“To all the people watching, I can never thank you enough for your kindness to me and I'll think about it for the rest of my life. All I ask of you is one thing: please don't be cynical. I hate cynicism; it's my least favorite quality and it doesn't lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen.”

I’ll be honest; my very human side was hoping more for a parting shot at NBC. But I am grateful that in – and even because of – being done wrong, Conan finally got some of the support he deserved, the backs of his thighs undergirded with the hands of so many fans.


What a FANTASTIC article. Thanks, Laura!!

A good point...and a reminder, too, that for those of us in call-based systems, we, too, sign onto a contract. And, we too, need to be gracious and patient in holding on to our congregations (by the thigh if necessary) even when it's tempting to move on quickly when things get rough!

Thank you! I too, was reflecting a lot on this - keeping covenant, keeping promises - in light of Conan/Leno/NBC. And sided with Team Conan for the same reasons. I think many people who have lost jobs in the last 2 years might relate too.

Great article, Laura- thank you!

you're awesome! this is great!

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