One of the ways to read the narratives of the Hebrew Bible involves following Jesus’s method of explaining the Old Testament on the topic of marriage and divorce in Matthew 19. Jesus outlines two principles that I find helpful for understanding not only this topic, but a number of others as well, including the covenants. The first of these two principles is to appeal to the beginning. For example, what did God originally do or say within the setting of creation? (vv. 4, 8). The second principle recognizes that some things (maybe many things) in the Hebrew Bible are allowed because the people’s hearts are hard (v. 8). I find these two principles helpful when applied to the topic of the covenants. For this reason, I will begin with the first covenant, given to Noah.
God’s covenant with Noah seems fairly one-sided: First, He gives some stipulations involving not taking another human being’s life and not eating the blood of animals; these are not directly connected to the covenant a few verses later (compare Genesis 9:4–7 with 9:8, 9). The covenant then begins with a promise: God will never again send a flood that destroys every living thing on the earth. Next God forms a sign of this covenantal promise: a rainbow formed like an archer’s bow so that He will remember never again to send a deluge like the one Noah and his family experienced. This covenant exists between God and “all creatures on earth” (Genesis 9:17, CEB).
What did the terms of the covenant call for Noah to do? One could argue that he was supposed to obey the stipulations given before the covenant and thus, that they were part of the covenant. But in most ancient Near Eastern treaties, stipulations followed the beginning of a treaty; they did not precede it.
Another curious thing occurs in this covenant. Often, in the Hebrew Bible, people did not form a covenant; they cut a covenant. The Hebrew verb sometimes used “to make” or “terminate” a covenant literally means “to cut (a covenant).” The cutting of a covenant involved cutting an animal, sometimes, so that they shed blood. The cut animal symbolized the one responsible for the terms of the covenant. Here’s an extra-biblical example from the Treaty of Aššur-nerari V with Mati’ilu, King of Arpad: “This shoulder is not the shoulder of a spring lamb, it is the shoulder of Mati’ilu, it is the shoulder of his so[ns, his magnates, and the people of his land. If Mati’ilu] should sin against this [treaty], so may, just as the shou[lder of this spring lamb] is torn out and [placed in …], the shoulder of Mati’ilu, of his sons, [his magnates] and the people of his land be torn out and [placed] in […].”
With this background in mind, it is interesting to note that the actual wording of God making a covenant with Noah is devoid of such “cutting.” Instead, God says to Noah, “I am now setting up my covenant with you” (Genesis 9:9a, CEB). Because we cannot construe the verb to mean “to cut,” God’s covenant with Noah contains no verbal link to later covenants in the Hebrew Bible that have to do with cutting. Since this way of making a covenant stands first in the various narratives about covenants, I take it to represent God’s preference for how He makes a covenant between Himself and His creation.
Still the question remains: what is Noah supposed to do with this covenant? Certainly, God sets it up by addressing Noah, but Noah’s response is absent in the text. This covenant between God and a human being requires nothing of Noah, his family, and all the creatures of the earth. Yet if it is to be between them and God, it at least implies that they make note of that covenant and its sign. Again, of course, we could include the prior stipulations about shedding and eating blood as the intended responses the recipients of the covenant and its promise were to make. But this does not work well, since one cannot expect the animal population who are included in the covenant (vv. 9, 10) to refrain from eating flesh with the blood. Therefore, it seems that God’s first canonical covenant requires neither cutting flesh nor obeying stipulations. What role, then, do Noah, his family, and all creatures on the earth play? They see the sign and human intelligence understands what it means, and they either reject it or they trust that God will keep His promise.
This is very significant if we follow Jesus’s interpretation of “in the beginning…”. It means that God’s original design of a covenant involved a bond of trust, not a bond of blood in which lurked a threat: keep my terms of the covenant or die. It bears significance for the story of Abram six chapters later in Genesis. There, God says nothing initially about forming a covenant; rather, He simply makes three promises to Abram. The first is that Abram’s reward will be great; God gives the second promise in response to Abram’s questioning this first promise. He says, “Lord God, what can you possibly give me, since I still have no children?” (15:2a, CEB). God responds that his servant Eliezer will not be his heir, but rather his “very own biological child” (yet unborn) will play that role (v. 4, CEB). He then brings Abram outside, focuses his attention on the sky, and tells him to count the stars—“if you think you can count them….This is how many children you will have” (v. 5, CEB).
The next sentence contains what Genesis 9 only implied about Noah and his family: “Abram trusted in Yahweh, and he considered it as his righteousness” (v. 6, my translation).
All seems to fit well with God’s original way of making covenants, until God makes a promise to give Abram the land of Canaan. Abram’s faith falters a little as he asks, “Lord God how do I know that I will actually possess it? (v. 8, CEB). Without a hint of exasperation, Yahweh God tells him to bring various creatures (three mammals and two birds). Abram obeys without asking, “What do you want me to do with them?” This indicates that he obviously knows what to do, and proceeds to use these creatures in a manner after the ancient Near Eastern cutting of covenants.
Confirmation of this occurs in verses 17–20. After splitting the animals in half, he places the halves facing each other, thus creating a pathway between them. While he waits for Yahweh’s response, he protects the carcasses by chasing off birds of prey. As night comes, he falls into a deep sleep and a frightening darkness deepens over him. It is then that Yahweh responds: a smoking, flaming vessel moves down the pathway between the carcasses. Then the conclusion makes everything clear. That day the Lord cut a covenant with Abram: “To your descendants I give his land…” (v. 18, CEB). The clear verb, “to cut,” means that God has shifted from the bond of trust in verse 6 to a promise bound by a legal ceremony to reassure Abram’s faith.
But something doesn’t seem quite normal in this ceremony. A close look at the Neo-Assyrian treaty above demonstrates that it was the subordinate of the treaty who had to go through the ceremony of taking on the penalties of breaking it. If we follow that in the Abram story, Abram should have passed through the body parts to signify that Yahweh may cut him in pieces if he did not keep Yahweh’s covenant. Instead, it is Yahweh Himself who passes through the body parts in the form of a smoking, flaming vessel! This is buttressed by the fact that Yahweh has nowhere given Abram any stipulations for keeping the covenant. All that the covenant consists of is a promise, backed up by Yahweh’s own taking on the ceremony that indicates that Abram may cut Yahweh in pieces if He does not keep the terms of His promise to Abram. This profound humbling of God to meet Abram where he is serves to increase Abram’s faith in Yahweh’s promises.
No wonder, then, when Abraham decides to fulfill Yahweh’s first promise of a biological heir himself, Yahweh steps in with a revision of the original promise that Abraham had received by faith. By the birth of Ishmael, he has usurped Yahweh’s place as the Giver of the promise and its fulfillment. If Abraham believes he has fulfilled the covenant himself, then it is his turn to cut that covenant; only that cutting becomes highly personal and painful: the foreskin of the source of the covenant’s “fulfillment.” This is why the Apostle Paul feels free to abandon the rite of circumcision for Gentile believers. He firmly believes that Yahweh’s covenant is not a cutting covenant but a promise to be received by faith (Gal. 3:6–18). The later test of Abraham in the binding of Isaac occurs precisely to demonstrate that Abraham still trusts God enough to be willing to give up his own son in yet another cutting ritual. In the process, God aborts the actual act of sacrifice to demonstrate that He does not permit this kind of cutting.
Regrettably, the Israelite community comes to the place where a covenant is merely a legal way to ensure obedience to law that they willingly agree to obey the stipulations of the Sinai covenant, thinking that they can in their own strength. The covenant based on the stipulations of law (Exod. 20–23) and later backed up by many curses (Deuteronomy 27, 28) comes to resemble some of the Neo-Assyrian treaties. They would find it difficult to engage in a covenantal relationship of God based on promises that they received by trust in God that bonded them to Him. Though Jeremiah spoke of a new covenant, in which the law is engraved in the heart, the people could not seem to grasp this promise. Though God wanted to be their God and have them be His people, they failed to come to know Him so that they could believe His promise and accept His forgiveness through trusting Him.
Jesus established the covenant at the Passover supper. “Jesus… took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them saying, ‘Drink from this, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many so that their sins may be forgiven” (Matt. 26:26–18). There is nothing in His words that indicate that His blood enabled God to forgive “their sins.” According to God’s lengthy definition of His name, given to Moses, God is the Forgiver; forgiveness is a part of His character. Jesus demonstrated this truth in His life as He forgave the paralytic (Mark 2:1–12) and as He prayed for forgiveness for His enemies in confidence that His Father would answer His prayer. But God can forgive without the person He forgives accepting it, often through lack of faith. To be forgiven, one must trust God enough to embrace it. The new covenant, then, consisted of involved a trusting relationship with God.
Indeed, it would take the “cutting” of Jesus’s body and His blood shed by sinful human beings to create that eternal bond of trust that God originally intended as the covenant between Him and His people.
Notes & References:
 Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, rev. Walter Baumgartner and Johann Jakob Stamm, trans. and ed. M. E. J. Richardson, 5 vols. (Leiden/New York/Köln: E. J. Brill, 1994), 1:157; 2:500.
 Simo Parpola and Kazuko Watanabe, eds., Neo-Assyrian Treaties and Loyalty Oaths, State Archives of Assyria 2 (Helsinki: The Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project and the Helsinki University Press, 1988; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2014), 9.
Jean Sheldon is Professor Emerita and adjunct professor at Pacific Union College.
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