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First Covenant, Earth Covenant

By William H. Mueller

Covenant” in the Judeo-Christian tradition is most often thought about as something between God and prophetic figures like Abraham (Genesis 17:1-22), Moses (Exodus 19:1-6), and Jesus (Mark 14:24). In covenant, God confronts us with mission. Implied is a reciprocal obligation to respond. The first covenant to appear in the Bible is different from those that follow it, in that it addresses all of the creation. It is an Earth Covenant:

“(i) And God said to Noah and to his sons with him,‘ I now establish My covenant with you and your offspring to come, and with every living thing that is with you-birds, cattle and every wild beast as well-all that have come out of the ark, every living thing on earth.

(ii) I will maintain My covenant with you: never again will all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth’.

(iii) God further said, ‘this is the sign that I set for the covenant between Me and you, and every living creature with you, for all ages to come.

(iv) I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth.

(v) When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember My covenant between Me and you and every living creature among all flesh, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.

(vi)When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures, all flesh that is on earth.’

(vii) ‘That,’ God said to Noah, ‘shall be the sign of the covenant that I have established between Me and all flesh that is on earth’” (Genesis 9.8-17)1

The human players are first addressed, because they have language, hence more responsibility in the dialog. God has made us little less than divine (Psalms 8:6). The evolution of our species has led us to embrace a source of wisdom that has opened our eyes to death and introspection (Genesis 3:1-7). The other animals live secure in their instincts, oblivious to worry;
but humans, shown in former times to have lived in harmony with nature in Eden, are now out of harmony with the rest of the creation, having over-filled their allotted space (‘Eden’) to the detriment of other species (Genesis 6:1). They have been driven out of a former life in balance with the creation, into dependency on mass agriculture with attendant social and environmental ills that come as part and parcel of this new lifestyle (Genesis 3:17-24).

The first covenant in the Hebrew Bible comes at the end of the story of the flood featuring Noah and his family. Preceding the covenant, God tells Noah (and us) that now all life is given into your hand (Genesis 9:2); the survival of the Creation is now up to us! Most believers take little notice of this covenant. Perhaps this is because people may see it only as a quaint, folkloric description of the rainbow. In addition, there seems to be a puzzling apology from God for having devastated the earth with a flood. We may be left with an ambivalent attitude; after this, can God be trusted?

We forget the flood has come about because of human behavior (Genesis 6:1-5). Our species had begun to increase on earth to the detriment of other life (Genesis 6:1). To address the immediate situation, God imposes birth-control by reducing the human life-span (Genesis 6:3). Then is presented a picture of human-instigated chaos in this insupportable situation: The LORD saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all of the time (Genesis 6:5). We are cut no slack: great is our wickedness, every plan to deal with the ecological crisis fails, because they fall short of the mark all the time.

These observations put Earth Covenant in a different light. There are seven lines in the covenant, reflecting the number of days of the Creation in which God saw all that he had made, and found it very good (Genesis 1:31).

In the first line every living thing on earth is addressed. The only thing not addressed is inanimate nature. And this comes in line 2 where it is God’s intention that never again should there be a flood to destroy the earth. The fourth line reiterates this theme: God’s first covenant is between Me and the earth; without earth there can be no life. In line 3 a new and amazing theme is introduced: This covenant is not a one-time deal, it is for all ages to come, a theme reiterated in line 6, in which the agreement is called the everlasting covenant.

In the last four verses a sign is given that will appear in the clouds when it rains — the rainbow — to remind us of this covenant and God’s intention that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. God will remember, but God is reminding us that we have something to remember too. If the earth is being destroyed we can’t blame God for it; it is now our responsibility to stop the flood of human destructiveness.

Why would God destroy the earth in the first place, and now say it will not happen again? First, biblical scholars have noted that the verb used to describe the flooding action is “to spoil”; the same verb describes what humankind has done to the Creation (NJBC, p. 16*). “As you have spoiled my garden, I will spoil you.” In other words the destruction of the flood is not so much instigated by God as it is the consequence of ill-advised human actions.

Second, the first 11 chapters of Genesis are the story of the birth and growth of religious sensibility. Here is the sequence: Adam and Eve are aware of God, but do not conceive a working relationship with God (Genesis 2 & 3). Cain and Abel offer burnt offerings, but it is unclear why or how this came to be (Genesis 4:3). Then, in the generations immediately following Cain, beginning with his brother Seth, people began to invoke the name of the Lord, the birth of religious observance (Genesis 4:26). Later, people learn something new and amazing, to walk with God (Genesis 5:21-23). A close relationship with God is possible, its purpose to be guided in right paths as befits His name (Psalms 23:3). Thus, the birth of religious experience is dramatized in the stories of Enoch, seven generations from Adam and Eve, and Noah, their descendant in the 10th generation. When we walk with God we are doing God’s will to address a
problem, avoiding the uninformed free-will path.

Before the flood, God is imagined as having the character of a pagan god; after the flood a new conception of God is in people’s minds. God is not distant and uncaring of human beings, for the words most used to describe God now are: “merciful, gracious, faithful, forgiving and steadfast in love.”2 However, “walking with God” is no easy road. On the journey, we may expect to be confronted [as was Noah] with what Martin Buber calls “from God, mission and commandment,” and from humans an obligatory response: “seeing and hearing,” resulting in “knowledge [the best path to take] and love [Unity of the Creation]”3.

After the flood and immediately preceding this covenant, God has no illusions about people and what they are capable of: …the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth…, and still, God declares, it is his intention so long as earth endures, life and its rhythms shall not cease (Genesis 8:21-22). What we see after the flood is a turning point not in God’s thinking, but
in our understanding of God.

The first covenant is about earth care witness if it is about anything. Like many psalms, it is repetitive, restatement and repetition being earmarks of good teaching. As Quakers we should notice that the rainbow so prominently featured is a phenomenon of light, the play of light on beads of water in the heavens. We should have no trouble therefore in understanding what the first covenant is really about. This covenant calls us to stand in the Light as witnesses for care of the earth, the Light that illumines life in its infinite variety and color that God saw was very good (Genesis 1:31). For on this depends the eternally enriching life God imagined for us and our fellow-creatures in the beginning (Genesis 1:1-27).

1 Quotes from the Old Testament are from TANAKH, The Jewish Bible, Jewish Publication Society, 1985; biblical quotes are shown in italics.
2 Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2008, p. 103 Martin Buber, I and Thou, W. Kaufmann trans. Touchstone Books, 1970, p. 133

*New Jerome Biblical Commentary

William Mueller is a member of the St. Lawrence Valley Friends Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, Potsdam, New York, a preparative meeting under the care of Ottawa Monthly Meeting of Canadian Yearly Meeting.