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The Biblical Covenants, Part 1: The First Gospel & the Noahic Covenant

A basic understanding of the biblical covenants is crucial to the overarching narrative of Scripture. Ever since the promised seed of the woman in Gen. 3:15, God has been revealing His plan to bring His Messiah to undo and reverse the curse. This revelation is advanced through the establishment of various covenants (namely, the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New covenants). It is these covenants which the prophets (and later the apostles) consistently and constantly look back upon to help explain the present condition of their times as well as look forward to exhort their particular audiences. In other words, the entirety of Scripture is built around the structure which the covenants provide.

A covenant is a promise or a contract between two or more parties and is utterly binding. The biblical language literally describes the making of a covenant in terms of cutting (כָּרַת). One does not sign a covenant so much as one cuts a covenant (כָּרַת יְהוָה אֶת־אַבְרָם בְּרִית – Gen. 15:8 “Yhwh cut a covenant with Abram”). The scene created in Genesis 15 with several bisected animals left a bloody corridor for the two parties to walk through. The sense is that if either of the parties were to break the covenant, then may they be as these animals even now are.

There are two types of covenants known to the people of the ancient near east which reflects the two types of covenants found in the Bible. The first is referred to as a “Land Grant” covenant. In a Land Grand covenant, the superior outlines the specific nature by which he will bless an inferior. The reasoning for this blessing is irrelevant. The point is simply that blessing flows from the superior to the inferior in the manner which the covenant dictates. The second type of covenant is known as a Suzerain-Vassal covenant. This covenant dictates the terms and conditions by which an inferior will relate to his superior. If the terms and conditions are met, then the superior will bless the inferior. If the terms and conditions are violated, then the superior will bring about nasty repercussions upon the inferior. All the biblical covenants will fall into one of these two categories.

The content and context of the biblical covenants must be noted in the order in which they are given because they are not only built upon one another but, in some instances, anticipate future and more specific covenants to come. A brief overview[1] of the biblical covenants and their genesis is as follows:


The First Gospel

Every covenant requires a context. A covenant can be used to bind two warring nations into a peace treaty or provide the necessary stipulations that dictate the terms of surrender, blessing, or servitude between two parties. Just as human covenants assume a context, the biblical covenants between God and man arise from the context of creation and the fall. The key passages involved in this discussion are Genesis 1:26-28, Genesis 2:15-25, and the whole of Genesis 3.


Man’s Purpose Genesis 1:26-28

Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” (NASB)


These verses appear at the end of what we call “day 6” of God’s very good creation and are commonly referred to as the “Adamic Mandate”. Mankind is presented as the pinnacle of God’s creation who is here commissioned by God to rule the world as His vassal king. What separates man from the beasts is the fact that he bears God’s image. The concept of image bearer has many facets, but chief among them is the fact that man is not an autonomous being. Rather, he is a representative of God. His rule (or kingship) over the earth is an exercise in implementing and executing God’s will upon the earth.


Genesis 2

Focusing primarily on vv. 15-25, we see that within mankind is not only the division between male and female but that this division has a purpose. Adam or the Man (הָאָדָם) is to rule as Yhwh’s vassal king over this new and good creation. This purpose is demonstrated when Yhwh brings the animals to Adam and allows Adam to name them (vv. 19-20). Out of all this good creation, Yhwh said that it was not good for the man to be alone. Thus, Yhwh provided him with a helper for his task in the form of his wife (אִשְׁתּוֹ). Thus, a structure is born in God’s establishment of marriage: God-man-woman-creation.


Genesis 3

The hierarchical structure of God-the man-his wife-creation is completely upset in Genesis three where the serpent (a creature) temps the woman (הָאִשָׁה) who speaks to her husband (אִישָׁהּ) to rebel against God (the structure is now creation-the woman-her husband-God). The penalty for this rebellion can only be death (as Yhwh explicitly said in 2:16-17). Their spiritual death occurred immediately and would be followed by physical death after their days were complete (5:5). In light of this rebellion, God pronounces curses upon the acting parties according to the roles they played; first the serpent, then the woman (הָאִשָׁה), and finally the man (אָדָם). For our purposes, we will focus primarily on God’s cursing of the serpent.


Πρωτο Ευαγγελιον – The First Gospel (Gen. 3:14-15)

Yhwh God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this, cursed are you more than all cattle, and more than every beast of the field; on your belly you will go, and dust you will eat all the days of your life; and I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.’


Gen. 3:15 (the promise of the coming seed) is called the πρωτο ευαγγελιον or the first gospel because it is the first place in Scripture that announces the coming one who will undo and reverse the curse.[2] The enmity that exists between the woman’s seed and the serpent’s seed will come to a head and the seed of the woman will emerge victorious. This one who will come will succeed where Adam failed.[3] The entirety of Scripture traces God’s revelation concerning this one, calling the reader to trust in His coming.

This revelation invites several questions. First, what is “the seed of the woman”? Biologically speaking, women do not have seed (זֶרַע). In a purely technical sense, the same can be said of the serpent, who is clearly an embodiment or tool of Satan. The sense therefore emphasizes those who these two will produce or those who will come forth from them. Yet it remains a puzzling fact that the one who will come, and defeat Satan will come from the woman, rather than from the man. Second, how is this possible? If neither Adam nor his wife could stand before Satan’s temptation, how can we expect a future descendant or seed to gain victory? This one to come must therefore be something more than a mere man.

To the woman and the man, God provides both curses for their rebellion and blessing filled with hope. Though the woman will experience pain in producing children, she will continue to desire her husband (v. 16). As for the man, all creation will feel the effects of his failure. His work will be multiplied, yet his work will not be in vain, and he will be able to continue to feed himself and his wife (vv. 17-19). But the first rays of hope do not end here.


The First Faith & Atonement (Gen. 3:20-21)

“Now the man called his wife’s name Eve, because she has the mother of all living. And Yhwh God made garments of skin for the man and his wife, and clothed them.”


It is necessary to note not only Adam’s actions but also the context of these actions. Adam names his wife and choses her name after God’s pronouncement of curses and hope. That Adam or the man (אָדָם) choses the name for his wife (אִשְׁתּוֹ)[4] indicates that he is stepping back into his God-ordained role. This is an act of repentance. That he chooses for her the name Eve (חֵוָּה) because she is the mother of all that lives (כָּל־חָי) reveals that Adam believes what God said about this coming seed. Through Eve will come the one who will bring life to this dead world.

God in His mercy and grace not only promised that one would come from the woman to undo and reverse this curse of sin and death (Gen. 3:15) but also provided a temporary covering for the man and his wife as they await the fulfillment of God’s promised seed. To obtain animal skins, animals must die, and blood must be shed. A death occurred on their behalf. Their new garments serve to cover their nakedness and shame and it was Yhwh who clothed them. Their repentance in faith was met by Yhwh’s kindness, grace, and provision. Thus, the context for the biblical covenants is laid.


The Noahic Covenant

From Adam and Noah things progressed from bad to worse. The depth of depravity is simply stated that the desires of man’s heart was continually bent on wickedness (Gen. 6:5). The problem with the world is not education or moral upbringing but that man’s heart is evil. Without the promised seed mankind only increased in ungodliness and rebellion to the point where a union was made between rebellious man and rebellious angels (Gen. 6:1-7).[5] It would seem that the seed of the serpent is growing and becoming more powerful rather than being bruised, broken, and subdued. This task of undoing and reversing the curse can only be done by the woman’s seed. Yet there was one who found favor or grace (חֵן) in Yhwh’s sight: Noah (Gen. 6:8). This should come as no surprise to the careful reader because it was this Noah who was anticipated as the one who would bring rest from the labors incurred through Adam’s curse (5:29). Because we are introduced to Noah as the son of Lamech (a man), there is no reason to think that he is the promised seed of the woman. And yet, the distinction that this one found favor with God draws our attention to him.


Genesis 6

That there was a man with whom Yhwh favored is important. Through the flood, there is a sense of undoing or even uncreating in the sense that the order that was brought from the waters (Gen. 1:9-10) was obliterated in the flood and return to the waters.[6] Yet, God promised that the seed of the woman would undo and reverse the curse, not a flood. Likewise, it is significant that the flood did not demolish the globe, but certainly wiped it clean. Therefore, there must be more to this event than at first meets the eye.

There is a two-fold point that begins here: salvation and judgment. There is salvation for Noah and for his family (those who attach themselves to Noah). Yet, this salvation is inseparably linked with the destructive judgment on the vast majority. The whole earth is swallowed by water and perishes. Meanwhile, Noah and his family are safe in the ark.


Genesis 8-9

Genesis chapter 8 begins with the statement that “God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark” (8:1). Though all life on the earth was snuffed out, God did not forget His promise to those attached to Noah inside the vessel of salvation.

The covenant (בְּרִית) God made with Noah is found in Gen. 8:20-9:17. Everything about this text screams “new creation” as the sole surviving family after God poured out His wrath upon the world must begin anew with the mission that was once handed to Adam. To the corporate head of this family God establishes His promise of stability: the world will not self-destruct, nor will He destroy the world with a flood. Rather, creation will continue in the way He created it with season following season. This is a promise of stability so that the promised Seed to come (Gen. 3:15) will have a context in which to operate. Not only will the coming seed save the world, but there will be a world for the seed to save. Every promise and statement that God makes from this point forward is predicated upon and assumes this covenant of cosmic and terrestrial stability. By virtue that it (1) continues to exist yet (2) remains marred and imperfect, creation itself testifies to the fact that God’s plan of redemption (a) remains valid yet (b) is not yet complete. The seed is yet to come. This idea is advanced one step further before the Genesis narrative leaves Noah.

After the new creation language of the Noahic Covenant we read something that sounds very much like a reproduction of the first creation. There is a man with a divine directive (1:28 vs. 9:1-7) who plants a garden (2:15 vs. 9:20) and fails in his moral obligations resulting in nakedness and shame (3:1-7 vs. 9:21). Noah is certainly a second Adam, but is certainly not the ultimate or final Adam. It appears that until the seed appears mankind is doomed to repeat himself. As with the first Adam, this second Adam is a participant in a curse/blessing situation targeting three individuals (3:14-19 vs. 9:22-27). The difference is, only one of these three individuals is a transgressor. In short, Noah curses his son Ham for the dishonor shown to Noah and blesses his sons Shem and Japheth for the honor they showed Noah. 

The language used to bless both Shem and Japheth is used to advance the idea of this coming seed and begins to hint at the seed’s identity. Genesis 9:27 is normally translated something like: May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem (NASB). This makes it sounds as if Japheth is going to dwell in the tents of Shem. If this translation is correct, it becomes difficult to understand or explain how Shem is blessed by this arrangement. Every time the brothers are named (5:32; 6:10; 7:13; 9:18) Shem is always listed first, implying that he is the target of blessing. How can Shem be blessed while the other brother (Japheth) occupies his tents?

Yet יַפְתְּ אֱלֹהִים לְיֶפֶת וְיִשְׁכֹּן בְּאָהָלֵי־שֵׁם is better and more easily translated as “God will enlarge Japheth, and He will dwell in the tents of Shem” indicating God is the subject who both enlarges Japheth and dwells in Shem’s tents.[7] How can God dwell in the tents of mankind? This begins a whole new set of questions, but it at least provides a clue to one of our existing queries. In response to the question regarding the ability for a human to gain victory over Adam’s foe comes an implication of the seed’s divinity. What if the seed is not merely a man? Thus, part of the seed promise which flows through the Noahic Covenant is now tied to Shem’s blessing. The seed of the woman will come through Shem’s line and will be fulfilled in God somehow dwelling in his tents. Another thread is added to the tapestry.

[1] All that follows is only a survey of the biblical covenants and should not be understood as anything resembling an exhaustive teaching. The purpose of this appendix is simply to provide the reader with a very basic understanding of the content, context, and construction of the biblical covenants.

[2] Walter Kaiser, The Messiah in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), p. 37-42.

[3] Michael Vlach, He Will Reign Forever: A Biblical Theology of the Kingdom of God (Silverton, OR: Lampion Press, 2017), p. 68.

[4] The language of “the man” and “his wife” vs. “the woman” and “her husband” is indicative of the rebellion against not only a simple command, but against the entire system which God had ordained. The language returns to “the man” and “his wife” in v. 21 as an indication that obedience (to some extent) was restored.

[5] It is necessary to understand v. 2 as describing an unholy union between rebellious angels (demons) and human woman, the offspring of which are here called the Nephilim. This is an attempt by Satan to thwart God’s plan of the coming seed of the woman by polluting the human race with his own seed, so to speak. This explains the necessity of the flood, to wipe the slate clean of demonic seed.

[6] Vlach, p. 70.

[7] Kaiser, p. 42-46. There are five good reasons for such a translation and understanding. (1) Hebrew naturally presumes the previous subject when none is provided. (2) The poetic structure certainly allows for it. (3) Shem is constantly presented as the leader of the brothers and thus is given a place of honor. (4) The previous line blesses Shem; thus, this line cannot be understood as something that would dishonor/curse Shem. (5) The understanding that Japheth (rather than God) would dwell in the tents of Shem indicates a conquest of some kind, which would certainly not be a blessing to Shem.

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