In his Commentary on the Book of Genesis the Reformer John Calvin notices that a reason for God’s covenant promise to Noah was to encourage him in the hard task of obedience in the building of the Ark. By way of application he writes,
For then do we freely embrace the commands of God, when a promise is attached to them, which teaches us that we shall not spend our strength for nought…It is especially necessary that the faithful shall be confirmed by the word of God, lest they faint in the midst of their course; to the end that they may certainly be assured that they are not beating the air, as they say; but that, acquiescing in the promise given them, and being sure of success, they follow God who calls them. – John Calvin, Commentaries on the Book of Genesis, Vol. I, 258
Calvin is right to fasten on the encouragements to faith of a divine covenant (though interestingly, Calvin interpreted Genesis 2:17, a common proof-text for the “covenant of works”, negatively as requiring meritorious works and not faith. (See Daniel P. Fuller, The Unity of the Bible, 181-182). But note that his application is on target only if God’s promise means what it says; otherwise faith can find no assurance in what God said. It is a moot point, or ought to be. But it is routinely overlooked in biblical and systematic theology. Covenants become malleable in the hands of many writers. It is our opinion that this contributes in a major way to the disagreements between scholars over just where the biblical covenants function in God’s program.
We might ask, ‘How many people take Genesis 9:11, which include the terms of the covenant with Noah, typologically or spiritually or allegorically?’ The answer would be, ‘nobody.’ And that simple answer is very significant, because it means that this first covenant is interpreted uniformly in what we call a “literal” way. The words of verse 11 mean what they say:
The LORD smelled the soothing aroma; and the LORD said to Himself, “I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done. “While the earth remains, Seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” – Genesis 8:21-22
If this is compared with what God said to Himself in 9:11 we see a close correspondence:
I establish My covenant with you; and all flesh shall never again be cut off by the water of the flood, neither shall there again be a flood to destroy the earth. – Genesis 9:11
This again shows that there is agreement between God’s thoughts (“the LORD said to Himself”) and God’s words in the covenant oath. This brings a certain welcome rigidity to what God says in His covenant. There are over sixty ancient Near Eastern covenants or treaties which have been discovered, and the terms all mean what they say (not that we take our lead from extra-biblical sources). In point of fact, many of these treaties specify in the clearest terms the cruciality of the words in the covenant oath, explicitly saying that the words themselves are inviolate.
To give just two examples taken from a reliable and accessible resource (The following are from Readings From the Ancient Near East, eds. Bill T. Arnold & Bryan E. Beyer, 97-98): From the first part of the second millennium B.C. there is a covenant between two brothers, Abban and Yarimlim pertaining to lands which includes the line,
Abba-AN is under oath to Yarimlim, and also he cut the neck of a lamb. He swore: I shall never give back what I gave you.
The central core of the oath which Abban made to Yarimlim is plain and clear. It cannot suffer typological or symbolical transfiguration into some other thing. Although this covenant is conditioned upon Yarimlim’s fidelity to Abban, the oath binds his successors, and therefore cannot undergo any alteration of meaning without being made void.
In another example (14th century B.C.), Hittite king Suppilulima makes a treaty with Mattiwaza, king of Mitanni, witnessed by a host of gods on both sides. It includes the warning:
If he breaks it or causes anyone else to change the wording of the tablet…, If you, Mattiwaza, the prince, and you the sons of the Hurri country do not fulfill the words of this treaty, may the gods, the lords of the oath, blot you out…
What is noteworthy about this is that the wording, and so the meaning of the wording, is sacrosanct. It is not open to reinterpretation, and the pantheon of gods is called upon to ensure against such a thing. This is standard procedure for ANE covenants, in fact, for all covenants. The reason for it is because the oaths must be unambiguous and must mean what they say. I might go further and say that the choice of words as conveyors of accurate meaning is a sine qua non of covenants and treaties.
Going back to the Bible, the well known example in Joshua 9 where the Gibeonites fooled Joshua and the elders into making a covenant with them makes this point well. As Golding correctly says,
When the Israelites discovered how they had been deluded, they were furious, but could not go back on their oath, which had been solemnly sworn with God as witness (v.19). – Peter Golding, Covenant Theology, 70 (My emphasis)
In like manner, the covenant cut by Laban with Jacob in Genesis 31:44-54 makes the same point. The pile of stones (31:46) acted as “a witness” (31:48, 52) to the terms of the covenant (31:52):
This heap is a witness, and this pillar is a witness, that I will not pass beyond this heap to you, and you will not pass beyond this heap and this pillar to me, for harm. – Genesis 31:52
If after striking this agreement Laban would have rose up, strode past the heap and knocked Jacob to the ground, only one of two understandings of his actions would be possible. Either Laban would be knowingly violating the words he just agreed to keep, or, he would have dishonestly and disingenuously made an oath which he knew whose words he knew full well he would not keep. Either way he would have broken his bond. (more…)