Last week, we talked about Adam and Jesus as two federal representatives. Today, we revisit the notion that God establishes the terms upon which he relates to us. We’ll be exploring the concept of God’s covenant-making with man. God is the one who bends down low to us like children and provides a way of drawing near to him. And the way he has chosen is the institution of the covenant.
When we think of a covenant these days, we have notions of contracts or perhaps something more traditional like a marriage ceremony. These are apt thoughts. Some common features of divine covenants in Scripture are oaths, promises, obligations, sanctions, blessings, curses, and signs. They’re frequently, though not always, sealed in blood. In fact, to make a covenant is literally to ‘cut’ a covenant in Hebrew, hinting at the bloodshed aspect.
There’s a Hebrew word that sadly doesn’t find easy expression in English: khesed. The word is used in great abundance in the Old Testament. It’s often translated as ‘mercy’ or ‘lovingkindness’. Khesed means God’s loving faithfulness to his covenant promises. So, when we see, again and again, expressions like “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, for his khesed (mercy or lovingkindness) endures forever,” we should experience a heightened awareness of God’s faithful covenant-keeping toward us. Something that personally illustrates khesed for me is the hymn “Thy Mercy, My God”. You can read the complete original lyrics and listen to modern renditions by Caedmon’s Call and Sandra McCraken. The ‘mercy’ being spoken of is this concept of khesed—covenantal love and faithfulness.
God made covenants that bear a good deal of similarity to legal contracts and political treaties common in the ancient Near East. The people of God were to relate to God in ways similar to the ways that the surrounding nations would relate to a great king or conquering emperor. Ways that were very unlike the ways that the nations related to their false gods. This is unique to the religion of ancient Israel.
The Adamic Covenant
Passage: Genesis 1–2
Scripture never explicitly uses the word ‘covenant’ in Genesis 1-2 in God’s dealings with Adam. But we see a number of elements present which suggest a covenant is in place, such as obligations (“by fruitful, multiply, rule”), prohibitions (“do not eat of the fruit of the tree …”), and threats (“for in the day you eat of it …”). And other passages in Scripture speak in terms of Adam transgressing a covenant and reveal parallels with explicit covenants made with Noah, Israel, and Christ.
The Noahic Covenant
Passage: Genesis 8:20–9:17
The earth first arose out of the water during the Creation Week. And after the Fall, mankind descended into deeper and deeper depravity until God was grieved to the point of destroying the world with a flood and reverting it to watery chaos. But Noah found grace in God’s sight, and God spared Noah and his household through it all.
After the flood, Noah makes burnt offerings to God who finds them sweetly pleasing. He vows never to destroy the world in a flood of water. God makes a covenant with Noah his servant and with the whole earth and its inhabitants. God establishes Noah as a new Adam who is commanded to “be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth” once again. He’s given rule over the creation and animals for food. And God establishes the beginnings of human government and justice with a death penalty for those who kill a human being—whether human or beast. Humanity is the image of God, and slaying a human violates the dignity of the image. Furthermore as image-bearers, humanity is to exercise rule. So humanity must learn to administer justice like God does.
Lastly, God sets up a sign of this covenant. The (rain)bow in the clouds. Whenever the clouds should come and threaten a downpour, God will see the bow and remember his promise to preserve the earth from a global flood. This bow associated with the rain (i.e. a ‘rainbow’ as we call it) is God’s battle bow. He is a warrior with a bow and arrow. He hangs his battle bow in the sky, and it arches up—heavenward. This is a display of God threatening himself with his own weapon as assurance to us.
The Abrahamic Covenant
Passage: Genesis 12:1-3; 15:7-21; 17:1-14
God’s covenant with Abraham is built up in three parts in Genesis.
First, God appears and calls Abraham out of his father’s house and homeland to the land of promise. God promises to give Abraham a great name as well as this land. God promises blessings and curses in payment to those who have dealings with Abraham.
Second, God reassures Abraham by undertaking a covenanting rite with him. He has Abraham prepare a number of animals, divided in two and the pieces lain side by side. God appears in the night as smoke and fire and passes through the pieces of the split animal carcasses. This is a familiar ritual to people in that time and place. It signifies the promise and threat of the covenant. Either the promise is kept, or the fate of the dead animals will be the fate of the oath-breaker. God alone takes the oath and places the threat upon himself.
Third, God commands Abraham and all the men in his household and under his rule to be circumcised as the sign of the covenant with God. God will look to that sign and remember his promises. And God will carry out his threats against all those who are under the covenant who forsake the sign and thereby the covenant it signifies. Those who have not cut off the foreskin shall be cut off from the people.
The sign of circumcision is the sign of cutting off an unclean thing. Circumcision is a precise medical term we have. The Hebrew word is a simple term meaning: to cut off. The sign takes on deeper significance as the Israelites are commanded to circumcise the foreskin of their hearts and obey God (Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4). Ultimately, it is the bloody cutting off of the Messiah in his crucifixion at Calvary where circumcision points. Paul calls this the “circumcision of Christ” (Col. 2:11).