Is the Covenant with Noah a Recapitulation of a Previous Covenant? (1)

More material from the “big book”.

There need not be much dissension from the view that Genesis 6:18 may refer to a previous understanding of covenant on Noah’s part.[1]  It could equally mean that the covenant was “in God’s mind” before the waters came and He chose out Noah.[2]  In either case the interpretation stresses the gracious (hen) movement of God towards Noah (6:8).

But could it, indeed, should it, be construed as a reference to a “Creation covenant,” instituted in Genesis 1?  If the instructions given to Adam and Eve are repeated to Noah, doesn’t this show that, as Jeffrey Niehaus has it, “the Noahic or recreation covenant with the Adamic one” should be seen “as one legal package”?[3]  That is a big question.  It assumes, in fact, that the “Adamic” or “Creation covenant” is unambiguously self-evident like the Noahic covenant.  But that position requires a good deal of reinforcement if it is to withstand scrutiny.

So what evidence is there of an existing covenant in the first three chapters of Genesis?  I have already alluded to the fact that the evidence is “spotty”.  But it would be of some benefit to examine it a little more closely.  Not uncommonly those who see covenants in the opening chapters of the Bible do not take much space proving it.  But some arguments have been put forth deserve attention.

  1. the language of establishing not “cutting” the covenant.
  2. the repetition of parts of the Creation mandate.
  3. the reference in Hosea 6:7 to “Adam” breaking the covenant.

The first argument, and the best in my estimation, concerns the Hebrew expression used in regards to the Noahic covenant.  Merrill concludes that “Genesis 1:26-28 is at least a truncated example of a royal grant document.”[4]  It may be, but where are its specific terms?  Where is the oath which God supposedly made?  It certainly had nothing to do with a global flood.  Yet the flood is at the heart of the covenant oath God made with Noah as His witness.  In other words, without the assurance that God would not again visit the earth with such a deluge, there would be no reason to even mention the covenant!  To move from that position backwards to the first two chapters of the book in order to find a “Creation covenant” (or other), looks like moving far beyond the evidence readily discernible in the oath of the Noahic covenant.

Niehaus says that the elements of covenant (which he says stems from an “idea” in God), are present in the Creation chapters (Gen. 1 & 2).  So, even though the oath is not found there, the presence of a covenant is assured.[5]  Very well, but without knowing what the oath is we have no way of knowing for sure what the covenant was about.  Once more, Gamble, in his impressive book, thinks that “The reordering of the world after the Flood was a covenantal recapitulation.”[6]  But he gives no solid evidence for this assertion.

Perhaps the best defense of this position is found in the work of Gentry and Wellum called Kingdom through Covenant.  Building on the work of Australian scholar William Dumbrell, whose basic ideas he defends[7], Gentry asserts, and I think proves, that the deliberate choice to use heqim berit (“to establish a covenant”), rather than what would become the normal expression, karat berit (“to cut a covenant”), indicates that God was already committed to this covenant prior to Genesis 6.[8]   This does not mean they support the idea that Genesis 6 and 9 refer to covenant renewal.  Rather, the claim seems to be that God’s pre-existing commitment to His creation is now expressed in the initiation of a promised covenant.

In summary, based on the expression heqim berit, linguistic usage alone demonstrates that when God says he is confirming or establishing his covenant with Noah, he is saying that his commitment initiated previously at creation to care for and preserve, provide for and rule over all he has made, including the blessings and ordinances that he gave to Adam and Eve and their family, are now to be with Noah and his descendants.  This can be substantiated and further supported by noting the parallels between Noah and Adam, and between the covenant terms given to Noah and the ordinances given to Adam and his family.[9]

Gentry goes on to detail the parallels he has mentioned, but the existence of parallels, which it must be admitted, are hardly avoidable, do not require the presence of a covenant.  Gentry then follows Niehaus in seeing the Divine-human relationship as fundamentally covenantal, while objecting to the proposal (of John H. Stek) that covenants became necessary only after the Fall.[10]

The upshot of all this is that there is perhaps some sort of covenantal commitment in God before Creation which is hinted at in Genesis 6, but that is all it is: a commitment, not an actual covenant.  If it were a covenant then the Noahic covenant would be a covenant renewal of an already existing one.  This is so since, “a covenant does not confirm an existing relationship”, and thus the covenant with Noah was not a new relationship between mankind and the Creator.  But given the content of the oath at the center of the Noahic covenant this understanding looks difficult to maintain.[11]

—————————————————————————–

[1] Although it ought to be noted that, “as scholars of the ancient Near East know very well, a covenant does not confirm an existing relationship.  It creates a new relationship, which may then subsequently be confirmed by covenant renewals.” – Jeffrey J. Niehaus, “An Argument Against Theologically Constructed Covenants,” JETS 50:2 (Jun 2007), 270.  If this is true, then it follows that the Noahic covenant is not really the Noahic covenant, but a renewal of a more obscure covenant in Genesis 1 (?)

[2] “This verse highlights not primarily God’s establishment of a covenant, but rather the establishment of that covenant with Noah… It shows us that God’s covenant with Noah in ch.9 is no ad hoc arrangement, hatched in God’s mind once the floodwaters had disappeared.” – Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis 1 – 17, 283-284.

[3] Niehaus, “Argument”, 271

[4] Eugene H. Merrill, Everlasting Dominion, 294

[5] Jeffrey J. Niehaus, Biblical Theology: The Common Grace Covenants, vol. 1, 47

[6] Richard C. Gamble, The Whole Counsel of God, vol. I, 295f.

[7] Against, e.g., Niehaus

[8] Kingdom through Covenant, 155-156

[9] Ibid, 161

[10] Ibid, 164-165. He cites Craig Bartholomew’s note about marriage being an example of a covenant before the Fall. I shall return to this, but will just say here that marriage is not a Divine-human relationship. Furthermore, both Proverbs 2:17 and Malachi 2:14 refer to the encroachments of sin within marriages. It might be argued that the covenantal aspects of marriage became necessary only after the entrance of sin. We have argued that the essence of a covenant is to insure obedience of one or both of the parties involved. This would be unnecessary prior to Genesis 3.

[11] Even Gentry, when speaking rightly of “the covenant with Noah [creating] a firm stage of history where God can work out his plan for rescuing his fallen world” (Ibid, 175), tacitly agrees that this is indeed the principle purpose of the covenant; namely, no more flood guarantees the uniformity of nature and a linear flow of history. It does not then appear to be necessary to for God to bind himself to Creation this way before the Flood.

Photo thanks to Servant’s Place

Part Two

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8 comments

  1. Paul, what would be a good book on biblical covenants? at least one that can serve as basis for a baseline study.

    1. Hi Armando,

      I can’t recommend one single work on the biblical covenants but the best is Paul Williamson’s “Sealed with an Oath”. However, he does see two Abrahamic covenants and he has been rightly criticized for underplaying the difference between establishing and cutting a covenant in the case of the Noahic. He also spiritualizes the oaths by reading the NT in to the OT. But there is a lot of good material in the book.

      Eugene Merrill’s ‘Everlasting Dominion’ is good on the covenants, but for the life of me I don’t know how he gets a ‘Creation covenant’ from the OT.

      The trouble is that nearly everybody comes to the covenants with assumptions which interfere with the oaths themselves. My work starts with the oaths and refuses to reshape them because of some supposed theological requirement, which is just read into the Bible.

      God bless,

      P

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