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Volume 17, Issue 1: Pooh's Think

The Genesis Covenants, Pt. 3

Michael Metzler

The beautiful Hebrew word berith (covenant) is theologically robust the first time we find it in scripture. The Lord was going to destroy the old world, blotting out every man and beast. But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord, for he walked with God. Therefore, the Lord spoke to Noah: it is "My covenant" that I "will establish…with you," and also with "your sons and your wife, and your sons' wives with you" (Gen. 6:18). The Lord warned Noah, instructed him, and promised a future covenant. And Noah did "according to all that God had commanded him" (22).

After the great destruction, "God remembered Noah." Noah, his household, and all the kinds of animals were saved and ushered into a new world. Noah and his family worshiped and sacrificed, and the Lord smelled the soothing aroma. The Lord gave plants and animals for food, protected the life of men with vengeance, blessed Noah and his sons, and gave his promise: : "I will never again curse the ground on account of man." After all of this, as a final narrative conclusion, just before the darker days of Noah's drunkenness and shame, we are told that God did finally establish His covenant: "I Myself do establish My covenant with you, and with your descendants after you, and with every living creature" (9:9). The sign of the covenant was therefore given: the Lord would remember His everlasting covenant between Him and every creature when He saw His bow in the clouds.
We do not find the word covenant again until we learn of Abram's alliance with Mamre and his people, who were "possessors of the covenant" (14:13). This man-to-man "covenant" drove Abram into battle for the sake of his allies. Almost immediately following this, we come to the monumental covenant of chapter 15. Up till now, however, much has happened. The "word of the Lord" came to Abram. We find commands and obedience. The Lord made many promises to Abram, some of which were partially fulfilled. Abraham "called on the name of the Lord" multiple times (12:9; 13:4, 18); Abraham's wife was delivered from the hands of Pharaoh after God "struck" him, at which time they spoiled the Egyptians; Abraham defeated his enemies in battle who where "delivered" unto him by "the Most High God"; Abraham was blessed by a king-priest; Abraham made personal oaths of fidelity to the Lord; the Lord visited Abraham multiple times, giving promises and pledges of loyalty (12:1-3; 13:14-17; 15:1-5), and in fact "Abraham believed the Lord; and it was reckoned to him as righteousness."
All of this happened before God "made a covenant" with Abraham; as with Noah, the covenant comes late in the narrative, after righteousness, salvation, and the promises. The Lord adds His covenant for assurance: "How may I know that I shall possess [the land]?" (15:8). Once the Lord instructed Abraham to begin preparing for the ceremony, He said, "Know for certain that your descendents will be strangers in a land that is not theirs . . ."(13-15). Abraham prepared for the formal ceremony of agreement, darkness and terror came over him, and "on that day the Lord made a covenant with Abraham" (18). The Lord now gives to Abraham the same kind of assurance of faithfulness that led Abram into battle for Mamre. Regarding this text, Calvin notes that ancient men would form alliances by walking together through broken animals, that "they might be more sacredly united in one body." The Lord would be sacredly allied with Abraham, in life and death, peace and war, faithful to His promises. The Lord walks through the pieces of a broken people, enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years, binding Himself to divide His forces and deliver them.
However, we do see further that the covenant is the Lord's covenant, that He gives. This is an `agreement' of sovereign grace, of divine initiative and gift. When Abraham was ninety-nine years old, the Lord came to him again: "I will give My covenant . . . My covenant is with you" (17:2-4). His covenant will be established for an everlasting covenant; He will be Abraham's God (7), which, according to one commentator, "is the covenant." Abraham's faithfulness is addressed secondarily: "You shall keep my covenant" (9). "This is my covenant" "you shall be circumcised." The sign of the Lord's covenant (11) will be in Abraham's very flesh "for an everlasting covenant" (13). If Abraham rejects this allegiance to his God, he has broken the Lord's covenant (14). Just as the Lord carved a sign into the heavens for Noah, now He commands Abraham to carve a sign into his own flesh. For a third time, then, the Lord gives His covenant, His assurance of His binding allegiance. And He gives his sign for remembrance and for certainty—a rainbow, a ceremony, a mark in the flesh.
Whence then are the "essential elements" of a covenant? Where is the covenant idea that we are told permeates the creation account and all of God's dealing with His people? That question will be pursued in the next article.

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