The theme of covenant is fairly important in the Old Testament, since Hebrew Scripture is essentially the story of the relationship between God and his chosen people. The term covenant comes from בריתי (berit) in Hebrew, and διαθήκη (diatheke) in Greek. The theme recurs frequently – the term is found more than 300 times in the Greek and Hebrew versions of the Old Testament. I’ll take some time over several posts looking at the covenantal theme in the Old Testament.
God’s Proto-Covenant with Adam and Eve
The first proto-covenant is found in Genesis 2, where God says to Adam you are free to eat from any of the trees in the garden, except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. From that tree you shall not eat, the moment you eat from the tree you are doomed to die. (Gen 2:16-17). Why is this injunction a biblical covenant? Clearly, God establishes a relationship with humankind’s first ancestors that, on the one hand, provides for everything that they need, including the possibility of eternal life. On the other hand, God requires one thing of our ancestors: obedience. As a result of the disobedience of Adam and Eve, The Lord God therefore banished [them] from the Garden of Eden, to till the ground from which [they] had been taken.” (Gen. 3:23)
We do not have to accept the historicity of the story to understand what the Sacred author of Genesis was getting at: that God required obedience of man from the very beginning, and that man’s fall was his own doing. This fall was two-stage. First, Adam and Eve disobeyed God, resulting from the expulsion from paradise and their own mortality. The second stage is the act of violence perpetrated by Cain against his brother. In that story, God forewarns Cain not to seek revenge against Abel: Sin is a demon lurking at the door; his urge is toward you, but you can be his master. (Gen 4:7) But Cain ignores God’s advice and murders his brother. God punishes Cain by making him a “restless wanderer of the earth.”
We are presented with God’s first covenant with humankind – the establishment of a paradise by God in exchange for man’s obedience. Then the Sacred Author of Genesis tells us of man’s two stage fall. First, his disobedience to God’s precepts in the Garden of Eden, and second, the act of violence that man commits against his brother.
All the while, we should keep in mind that God sees creation as fundamentally good. The basic thrust of the seven day creation account is to demonstrate that God created the world, that it was not an accident, and that God views creation as a positive thing. God is not a Manichean or a gnostic, who views physical reality as evil while our souls are essentially good. Not only is creation good, but it is placed in the custody of man, who is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26).
The Covenant with Noah
The second covenant in the Old Testament, and the first covenant made explicit by God, is the agreement he made with Noah. This agreement is pre-Abrahamic, and thus antedates the history of the Jewish peoples. It is, like the covenant with Adam and Eve, “pre-historical” in the sense that the covenant is more about a theological lesson than it is about recounting history.
According to the Sacred Author, God saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth,… he regretted he had made man on earth, and his heart was grieved. (Gen.6:5-6). God approached Noah, who was blameless, and told him to build an ark, and to spare two of every creature. After the flood had wiped out the earth, Noah resettled the earth, and God established a covenant with him (Gen.9:1-17). God reaffirms that man is made in God’s image. He warns Noah that he wil demand an accounting for human life, and that man is not to shed the blood of his brother (9:6). In return, God promises “never again to destroy all mortal beings,” the proof of this being “a rainbow in the clouds to serve as a sign of the covenant” (9:13).
There is Christological symbolism in both covenants. In regard to the proto-covenant, man was lost by the action of one man, Adam, and we inherited our mortality from his fall. With regard to the Noahic covenant, God promised that he would not destroy humankind for its disobedience. This covenant prefigures the man who will be sent by God to redeem the world.