Sunday, July 19, 2009

Suzerain Covenants in Scripture, III: The Noahic Covenant

The Noahic Covenant is the second covenant between God and man. After completion of the Adamic Covenant, Genesis 3 describes how Adam and Eve failed to uphold their end of the bargain, and the resulting cursings. Genesis 4-6 then tells us of the key events of Adam's descendents, the increasing violence on the earth, and God's ultimate decision to wipe out the evil of humanity with a Flood.

It is in preparation for the Flood that God brokers a new agreement with mankind, this time with a man named Noah.

The Noahic Covenant (Gen 7:1-9:17)

Overview
Suzerain Party - God the Father
Vassal Party - All of Noah's descendents
Broker/Mediator for Vassals - Noah
Right to Serve as Broker - Father of all vassals




Preamble


Then God spoke to Noah and to his sons with him, saying, "Now behold, I Myself do establish My covenant with you, and with your descendants after you; and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you; of all that comes out of the ark, even every beast of the earth. 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.”(Gen 9:8-11)


The preamble identifies the parties and their relationship to one another. God is the suzerain party, and the descendents of Noah (all of post-Flood mankind) is the vassal party.

Noah is the mediator (ambassador) of the covenant on behalf of mankind, acting on his authority as the father of all future mankind. Because the covenant applies to all of Noah’s progeny, we are all bound to this covenant, and it is still in effect today.

Historical Prologue

Then the LORD said to Noah, "Enter the ark, you and all your household, for you alone I have seen to be righteous before Me in this time. You shall take with you of every clean animal by sevens, a male and his female; and of the animals that are not clean two, a male and his female; also of the birds of the sky, by sevens, male and female, to keep offspring alive on the face of all the earth. For after seven more days, I will send rain on the earth forty days and forty nights; and I will blot out from the face of the land every living thing that I have made."
Noah did according to all that the LORD had commanded him. Now Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of water came upon the earth. Then Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons' wives with him entered the ark because of the water of the flood. Of clean animals and animals that are not clean and birds and everything that creeps on the ground, there went into the ark to Noah by twos, male and female, as God had commanded Noah. It came about after the seven days, that the water of the flood came upon the earth. In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on the same day all the fountains of the great deep burst open, and the floodgates of the sky were opened. The rain fell upon the earth for forty days and forty nights. On the very same day Noah and Shem and Ham and Japheth, the sons of Noah, and Noah's wife and the three wives of his sons with them, entered the ark, they and every beast after its kind, and all the cattle after their kind, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth after its kind, and every bird after its kind, all sorts of birds. So they went into the ark to Noah, by twos of all flesh in which was the breath of life. Those that entered, male and female of all flesh, entered as God had commanded him; and the LORD closed it behind him. Then the flood came upon the earth for forty days, and the water increased and lifted up the ark, so that it rose above the earth. The water prevailed and increased greatly upon the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. The water prevailed more and more upon the earth, so that all the high mountains everywhere under the heavens were covered. The water prevailed fifteen cubits higher, and the mountains were covered. All flesh that moved on the earth perished, birds and cattle and beasts and every swarming thing that swarms upon the earth, and all mankind; of all that was on the dry land, all in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life, died. Thus He blotted out every living thing that was upon the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky, and they were blotted out from the earth; and only Noah was left, together with those that were with him in the ark. The water prevailed upon the earth one hundred and fifty days.

But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark; and God caused a wind to pass over the earth, and the water subsided. Also the fountains of the deep and the floodgates of the sky were closed, and the rain from the sky was restrained; and the water receded steadily from the earth, and at the end of one hundred and fifty days the water decreased. In the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark rested upon the mountains of Ararat. The water decreased steadily until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains became visible. Then it came about at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made; and he sent out a raven, and it flew here and there until the water was dried up from the earth. Then he sent out a dove from him, to see if the water was abated from the face of the land; but the dove found no resting place for the sole of her foot, so she returned to him into the ark, for the water was on the surface of all the earth. Then he put out his hand and took her, and brought her into the ark to himself. So he waited yet another seven days; and again he sent out the dove from the ark. The dove came to him toward evening, and behold, in her beak was a freshly picked olive leaf. So Noah knew that the water was abated from the earth. Then he waited yet another seven days, and sent out the dove; but she did not return to him again. Now it came about in the six hundred and first year, in the first month, on the first of the month, the water was dried up from the earth. Then Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and behold, the surface of the ground was dried up. In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry. Then God spoke to Noah, saying, "Go out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and your sons' wives with you. Bring out with you every living thing of all flesh that is with you, birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, that they may breed abundantly on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth."
So Noah went out, and his sons and his wife and his sons' wives with him. Every beast, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out by their families from the ark. hen Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. (Gen 7:1-8:20)


The historical prologue recalls the history of how the suzerain has shown benevolence to the vassal in the past. In the Noahic account, the entire Flood story is the historical prologue to the covenant. The entire purpose of the Flood story is missed if one does not understand the Covenant which follows! God showed us all favor and love, in that He chose to save our father, Noah, from the Flood.

Conditions and Terms

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear of you and the terror of you will be on every beast of the earth and on every bird of the sky; with everything that creeps on the ground, and all the fish of the sea, into your hand they are given. Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man's brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man. As for you, be fruitful and multiply; populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it." (Gen 9:1-7)


The conditions and terms of the Noahic Covenant are also spelled out in this passage. There are three commands:

1. First, man is commanded to continue the Adamic Covenant. We see this in the first verses, in which Noah is commanded to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth, and that the “fear” of man will be on every beast of the earth. (This final statement is a restatement of the “subdue” clause of the Adamic Covenant.) The only clause of the Adamic Covenant which is not restated is eating from the tree of good and evil, because this has already been broken.

2. Next, man is commanded not to eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. This phrase can be taken many ways. The purpose behind this commandment was that pagan rituals involved a sort of "toast" to the gods in which animals were eaten without having been exsanguinated, so the underlying principle here is to avoid idolatry and pagan worship. On a more literal level, if you wish to follow this principle, ensure that you never drink blood or eat food that was not exsanguinated. This is not really an issue for most of us, unless you're eating blood sausage or goose blood soup (such as in Poland). Virtually any meat you can buy today was exsanguinated, generally in a kosher-approved manner. So there is really no risk of you doing this except on purpose.

(Note:  eating "medium" or "rare" steaks is not a problem. The red in these steaks is not blood--as mentioned, the blood was drained during the slaughter process. It is myoglobin, a protein that stores oxygen in muscles as a reserve system so that the animal can continue to run even if the hemoglobin--blood--is not pumping fast enough to deliver fresh oxygen to the muscles.)



3. Next man is commanded not to shed man’s blood; that is, not to commit murder.

4. Finally, it is required that if a man commits murder, he is executed legally by other men.

This covenant is still in effect today, and all of mankind is still bound to it.


Witness of the Covenant
God said, "This is the sign of the covenant which I am making between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all successive generations; I set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the earth. It shall come about, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow will be seen in the cloud, and I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and never again shall the water become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the cloud, then I will look upon it, to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth." And God said to Noah, "This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is on the earth." (Gen 9:12-17)


Here, God establishes that the rainbow is the sign of the Noahic Covenant. This section demonstrates why it is absolutely crucial that Christians understand ancient covenants—otherwise, we find ourselves unable to comprehend many passages of familiar Scripture. God does not need this sign as some cosmic reminder of the covenant—He uses it because the covenants included such things as standard legal language. The sign or witness is a physical object which, when seen by any person at any time, can be used as “proof” that the covenant was undertaken. Whenever any person in the world views a rainbow, he or she is acting as a witness to the Noahic Covenant.

(Notice also that God does not create the rainbow in this passage! There are many Hebrew words indicating creation (e.g., bara’ or ‘asah), and none is used here. Instead, the word nathan (to grant, bestow, or assign). God did not create rainbows here—rainbows existed since the first rain, as they are a natural result of the laws which God used as the basis of nature. Instead, He assigned the rainbow to act as an eternal sign or witness. He could have chosen the sun, or the butterfly, or the night sky as well. He chose the rainbow because its relationship to rain makes it a fitting reminder of the Flood: just as every rain is followed by a rainbow, so too was the Flood followed by a blessing (the Noahic Covenant).

Curses and Blessings

And from every man, from every man's brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man. As for you, be fruitful and multiply; populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it." (Gen 9:5-7)


God here pronounces a curse upon those who would violate the covenant. Those who violate the Noahic Covenant—particularly, the clause which prohibits murder—are condemned to death at the hands of their fellow man. This passage is clearly supports (and in fact, requires) that if a man can be proved guilty of murder beyond a doubt, then he must be put to death.

(NOTE: This does not endorse the death penalty for any other sin. As we shall see later, the Mosaic Covenant requires the death penalty for people of Jewish descent for other crimes; however, the Noahic Covenant for the rest of humanity only allows the taking of life if that man has already taken another life.)

Final notes

Christians must be careful here. Jewish Talmudic and rabbinical sources have long written on the Noahide Laws, citing seven laws to which they believe all Gentiles must adhere; they expanded this into thirty sub-laws. However, their reasoning is fairly questionable and suspect in these writings, and some Christians have denied their faith in order to follow these “Noahide” laws (one of which involves no idolatry through eating of pagan sacrifices, which Jews consider the worship of Jesus; thus, the Noahide Christians deny that Jesus was a deity).

This clearly is not the case. We are required to uphold the four commands given to Noah in the Bible—we are NEVER required to uphold the beliefs of certain Jewish rabbis about what the Noahic Covenant supposedly says “between the lines”.


Next up: the Abramic Covenant