Volume 17, Issue 2: Pooh's Think
YHWH is a Pastor, Pt. 4
Yhwh was a pastor and not a theologian. This is revealed throughout Scripture, including what we have seen in the Genesis covenants.
Berith (`covenant') was a word that came down from heaven to comfort and cheer those men whom the Lord had already loved, those who were already righteous in His eyes (e.g., Noah and Abraham). As for the wrath and destruction we fear,
berith means `know that I will never do it again' (Gen. 9). As for what glorious things the Lord has in store for His saints and even the world,
berith means `know that I will certainly do it' (Gen. 15). To follow Paul's line of argument further, the covenant was established, cut, and given in order to assure those who would receive His blessing and confirm His wonderful promises
before circumcision and the law.
Berith was a sweet word that had little extended theological meaning for Noah and Abraham outside of restful trust in their Godand a better night's sleep.
However, after three hundred years of system, theological words, and academics,
berith (`covenant') has no such use for God's people. When our theologians speak of `covenant' they do not mean a Genesis theological
berith. Nor do they mean the sort of anthropological `covenant' cut in the days of Abraham. Nor do they mean the poetically expanded and altered covenant of Sinai, or even
the further expanded covenant of David's songs. Nor do they mean the `covenant' that is
new and now fully revealed in Jesus. Rather, when our theologians speak of `covenant,' they are speaking of covenant-in-general, a theological technical term; they are speaking of system, something less real, more timeless (dare I say rarified) than the biblical
berith. In deference to this theological tradition, I
will respectfully call this sort of covenant `Covenant' with a capital `C.' `Covenant' is commonly used to refer to the entirety of God's relationship to creation, Adam, Noah, and Abraham. Theology of `Covenant' can be summed up well with Robert Rollock's observation that "God does not
communicate to man unless it be
through a covenant."1
Some contemporary theologians have gone further by maintaining that `Covenant'
just is the gracious relationship between God and man. More intimate terms to describe the Lord's relationship with his people, such as adoption, indwelling, union, and sexual love are now thought to be inherently `covenantal,' and impossible to truly understand outside of `Covenant' reality. In fact, the nature
of the Trinity itself is now referred to by some as the `Eternal Covenant.'
Whatever the virtues may be of this traditional understanding of `Covenant' and the recent attempts at expanding its range of meaning, it is clear that all this is something different from the word
berith we find in Genesis. In fact, what the author is doing with
berith in Genesis is so different from what our theologians do with the word `Covenant,' that if we are to understand
berith at all or move on in our understanding of `Covenant,' we
must make a strong distinction between the two words. But because `Covenant' is generally taken to be the theological implication from the
berith of Scripture, or perhaps even taken to be identical with the
berith of Scripture, we should expect some resistance to this sort of analysis. Yet, because this distinction is so needful, and the sort of errors this
distinction implicitly rejects are so exegetically poisoning, we cannot let this unhappy thought deter us from our chosen exegetical course. I will therefore propose four considerationsor perhaps we could call them argumentsthat will help clarify and defend the stark difference between a theological `Covenant,' and a biblical
berith (for now, only the Genesis
1. Berith is absent before Noah.
`Covenant' is understood as permeating the creation account and God's relationship with Adam, but
berith is nowhere to be found until Gen. 6. There is no
berith spoken of until the time of Noah. O. Palmer Robertson, in
The Christ of the Covenants, vigorously defends the reality of the `covenant of creation' and does not suggest any distinction between
berith and `Covenant.' However, he admits the importance of the omission of
berith in the first five chapters, which he says "should be given its full weight of
But why does the absence of berith carry so much weight? The answer to this is found primarily in the compacted nature of the Genesis text from Genesis 1 to 9. This is a highly edited theological work and is poetically dense, meaning that the words, phrases, and repetitions are crafted with great care. If
berith is a perfect word to refer to the act of God's creating, the essence of his
relationship to Adam, and the ground for the Fall, then we would surely expect to find the word in the creation account since the Lord and the author of this text chose this word as the theological center-piece of the Lord's dealing with Noah.
Berith is so unique and robust in meaning in chapter 6 and 9, some sort of poetic incoherence or deficiency would be implied on the part of the author if it
just as accurately applied to the original creation account. The clear parallelism noted by commentators between the creation account and the ordering of the new world of Noah, carefully crafted by the author, highlights this point remarkably.
Berith is one of the few dissimilarities
between the beginning of the world of Adam and the world of Noah.
2. Berith supplements relationship.
As already noted, `Covenant' is either an essential element of God's relationship to man or is identical to it. However,
berith comes late, if not at the end of the relevant Genesis story. This was one of the few clear aspects of
berith that we have already noted in our sweep through Genesis (part 3). So
berith is not an essential element of a relationship, and it
is certainly not equivalent to a relationship; rather,
berith comes at the end (or at the very least, the middle) of a special redemptive relationship. In the same way, it is not a surprise to find a Genesis
marriage-berith come after and additionally to a pre-existing marriage relationship: Jacob had already been with his two wives for many years and had children before it became necessary to add a
literal berith between him and his father-in-law Laban.
3. Berith exhibits poetic variation:
`Covenant' is the sort of thing that is grasped by way of singular and unchanging definition. We speak generally of the nature of `a covenant,' or we direct our attention to the unifying thread of `the covenant.' We have gone so far as to speak of the monolithic
covenant idea as the best way to understand `Covenant.' But
berith does not permit of this sort of abstracting and
definition. As most commentators understand it,
berith is clearly a natural word that is taken up from the semantic soil of our ancient fathers and employed poetically by the Lord; this is done to contrast His lips from the lips of deceitful, untrustworthy men, and thus to assure frail and distrusting men. In the case of Noah, the literal man-to-man
karat (cutting) is cleaned up in the process, coming back in full force in the time of Abraham, but in two different ways (the bloody ceremony of chapter 15 and the bloody sign of chapter 17).
The rich variation in which berith is theologically used, which contrasts to the fairly simple and monolithic meaning of the literal man-to-man
beriths in Genesis, gives full evidence to the poetic nature of the theological
beriths. In chapter 9 there is no
karat, no blood, no ceremony, but there is a sign. In chapter 15 we see
karat, a ceremony, blood, and yet no sign, and the covenant cut with
Abraham was in response to Abraham's explicit request ("How may I know?"). With Noah, however,
berith was initiated only by the Lord. There is very little connection between the
berith cut in chapter 15 with the
berith of the Lord that was given to Abraham in chapter 17, outside the common promises that were confirmed. A word that means anything at all, when employed with such variation, must
be grounded in another more natural and literal usage; hence,
berith is necessarily used poetically, but `Covenant' is not.
4. Berith is repugnant to the `garden':
`Covenant' is a defining element of life in the garden before the fall. But the nature of the creation account is repugnant to the reality of
berith. If the tree of life was a sign, it was not a promissory sign, although perhaps sacramental. The language of chapter 16 suggests a parallel with the narrative of the fall. Sarai believes that the Lord had withheld
from her the child that was rightfully hers and commands her husband to take her maid, and her husband obeys without resistance: here, take, and go into her. Eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was sacramental adultery. And the Father warned his son Adam about the ways of the garden just as Solomon warned his son: take the harlot upon your lap and you shall surely die.
So here then is a story not found in our systematics: It was not until madness brought forth her rot in the garden that the marriage between soil, man, and Spirit was ripped apart. Death, shame, and toil haunted man; the marriage bed filled with adulteries, vain gardens were erected with only memories of the luscious fruit and the fellowship of the Lord, and the blood of violence filled
hillside and adorned the hearth. Trust, fidelity, and safety were rare pearls in an ocean of strife. Ritual and blood were necessary to believe a simple
yes or no. Karat berith (cut covenant), which is paradigmatic of what we know of covenants between fallen men, implies mutilation and bloodshed. In place of a
yes or no, men were forced to promise, but any believable promise soon needed further ceremony
and oath, violent ceremony and
swearing oath. If a ceremony and oath proved true for one generation, it would be forgotten in the next: "with my offspring, or with my posterity" (Gen. 21:23). The general idea is this for fallen man: "No, it is true, I speak the truth, may I be butchered, my wife raped, my sons turned to beasts, and my gerbil hung by its own intestines if I actually don't let your
sheep drink from my well; and this goes for your sheep's sheep too, I tell you."
Berith motivation comes after the Fall, and as a good pastor, the Lord uses it to confirm His promises and comfort His people.