“Why do you have to go to work, Daddy?” is a question that my two young boys have asked me on a couple occasions. The first answer that usually comes to my mind is, “Because I need to earn money so we can live in our house and afford our food and clothes.” It’s a concept I think is simple enough for them to understand, even at the ages when they asked me (between 3-6yrs old). If I don’t go to work, we could lose our house and many other things we enjoy in our day-to-day lives.
My work history is a major aspect of the story of my life. If I had a billion dollars, work might not be a big portion of my story, but I don’t have a billion dollars so I continue to go to work. And I continue to go to work, in large part, because I have made agreements with several companies so my family can live in a house and so we can have transportation to and from work. So, a major portion of my life story can be grasped when one understands the agreements and obligations I have made and accepted. The main story of the Bible is similar.
The theme of creation, which starts in Gen. 1 and repeats several times throughout the Bible, is one of the most helpful themes in terms of understanding the main plot of the Bible. The biblical theme of God’s covenants is just as helpful. The many covenants God makes with various people can provide even more details and background to help Bible readers better understand the meta-narrative of the entire Bible. Knowing these covenants helps readers understand (1) why God does what He does in certain biblical stories and (2) why the major characters do what they do as well.
In this post, I am going to discuss the Edenic, Adamic, and Noahic covenants. First, I will briefly discuss the nature of biblical covenants. Afterward, for each covenant, I am going to explain its stipulations, whether it is conditional or unconditional, and whether or not it has been completed. There are more covenants than the three I will discuss, but there is not enough space to discuss all of them in one post. So, I will cover the remaining covenants (Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, Land, and New Covenants) in upcoming posts.
One question readers may have at this point is, “If God is sovereign over creation because He created and sustains it, then why does He bother making covenants with humans in the first place?” The answer seems to lie in God’s purpose for creating. As shown in an earlier post, God created the world to glorify Himself, which is another way of saying that He created to spread His love and to spread knowledge of His goodness and justice.
God wanting His creatures to love Him and wanting His creatures to have knowledge of His goodness and justice are key concepts here. For one, love necessarily involves a relationship. So, God has always wanted a relationship with humanity. Second, love also involves trust. A healthy relationship between people who love one another must involve trust. So, God has always wanted humans to trust Him also. Finally, as a loving creator, God wants the best for humans, and since God wants His creation to reflect His perfect goodness, He also wants His creatures to be the perfect versions of themselves without moral or physical flaws. So, He makes sure that humans know the best way to live in order for them to be happy, healthy, and to fulfill their purpose. But if humans choose (remember that free will is necessary for the ability to love) not to live in the best way, this will result in God’s creation not reflecting His perfect goodness, and this is where knowledge of God’s justice comes in. Punishing wrongdoing not only provides knowledge of God’s justice, but can also be a means for God to redeem His creation.
These concepts regarding reasons God desires covenants meld well with what biblical scholars have found while studying covenants in the Bible. For example, biblical theologian Thomas R. Schreiner defines a biblical covenant as “a chosen relationship in which two parties make binding promises to each other.”1 Based on research into the ancient Near-Eastern background of the Old Testament and biblical passages that mention covenants, Schreiner says that covenants in the Bible have three major attributes.2 One attribute involves relationships. Biblical (and ancient Near-Eastern) covenants assume that both parties are entering into a close relationship while modern contracts merely list impersonal obligations and promises that must be met. A second major attribute involves the intentions of both parties entering a covenant. The two parties entering a biblical covenant do so on the basis of an intentional desire to begin a relationship of trust. This is in contrast to modern contracts that are mainly made on the basis of both parties desiring benefits. A third major attribute involves the expectations for the two parties of a covenant. Each party of a biblical covenant makes binding promises and obligations with the expectation that the other party will be loyal. This is in contrast to modern contracts that are made mainly with the expectation that each party will perform what it promises.
So, it is no surprise that biblical covenants imply the concepts of intentional relationships, loyalty, and trust. God does not just want to enter into contracts with humanity. Instead, He wants to be in relationship with humanity and desires that human beings know, love, and trust Him. Thus, as we will see, God enters into covenants with human beings to guide them to their purpose of knowing, loving, and glorifying Him.
The Edenic Covenant
The first covenant found in the Bible is the Edenic Covenant (Gen. 1:26-31, 2:15-17).3 This is basically the covenant God made with Adam and Eve before they sinned in the Garden of Eden. It has been mentioned briefly several times in previous posts.
There are seven main stipulations of the Edenic Covenant:
- Humanity was to be fruitful and multiply across the earth (Gen. 1:28a);
- Humanity is given authority over the earth with Adam as its king (Gen. 1:28b);
- Humanity is given authority over the animal kingdom (Gen. 1:28c);
- Humanity is only given permission to eat vegetation (Gen. 1:29-30);
- Humans were to work in and protect the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15);
- Humans are forbidden to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen. 2:17a); and
- The punishment for eating the forbidden fruit is death (Gen. 2:17b).
Given these stipulations and the attributes of biblical covenants mentioned above, the Edenic Covenant basically entails that humans could live in God’s presence and enjoy His help and guidance as they fulfilled their commission to guard His holy garden and spread His glory across the earth as they multiplied in His image.
As will be seen, some covenants made between God and humanity are conditional and some are unconditional. In the conditional covenants, both God and humanity have obligations they must meet. In the unconditional covenants, humanity has no obligations, and God basically makes promises regarding blessings or curses.
It might already be apparent that the Edenic Covenant was a conditional covenant. As long as humans refrained from eating the forbidden fruit (it was also possibly forbidden for them to eat meat), they would enjoy God’s blessings and fellowship with Him in His presence. However, if they disobeyed God, their punishment would be death.
The Adamic Covenant
The Edenic Covenant did not seem to last long as Eve was tempted by Satan to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam, knowing what she did was wrong, followed her lead and also ate from the Tree. Since this violated the relationship they were supposed to enjoy with God, God initiates a different covenant.
The Adamic Covenant (Gen. 3:14-19) actually involves Satan, Eve, and Adam, but is called “Adamic” because Adam was the head of the human race at the time. There are several provisions and curses that are given to each party of the covenant:
Satan (Gen. 3:15):
- There will be perpetual hostility between Satan and the woman;
- There will be hostility between Satan’s seed and the woman’s seed;
- A descendant of the woman will crush Satan’s head; but
- Satan will bruise the descendant’s heel.
Women (Gen. 3:16):
- Difficulties with and the pain of childbearing will increase;
- Women will desire their husbands; yet
- Women will be subjected to their husbands.
Men (Gen. 3:17-19):
- The ground is now cursed as it will produce thorns and thistles;
- Humans are to continue eating vegetables;
- Work is now harder as working the ground will now produce sweat; and
- Humans are now subject to death.
It is important to note that the curses are mainly showing the practical negative implications of fulfilling the commission given to humanity in Gen. 1:28. Humans were to spread God’s glory across the earth with the help of God. However, now that they will be banished from His presence, it will be more difficult for them to multiply and subdue the earth. Childbearing is now more difficult, and it is hard to subdue the earth without God’s power and guidance as labor is more difficult, the seed of the woman will meet resistance from the seed of Satan, and married couples will have strained relationships.
This covenant is unconditional as it consists of God’s promises regarding the conditions of the earth after Adam and Eve sinned. There is no way for humans to lift the curses themselves as it seems all they can do is await the arrival of the seed of the woman who will crush the head of Satan. The effects of these curses show up continuously throughout the biblical narrative, and it is easy to conclude that these curses are still in effect today. Satan will not be fully defeated until he is thrown into the Lake of Fire and Sulfur (Rev. 20:10).
The Noahic Covenant
As seen with the Edenic Covenant, once the relationship set forth in a covenant is no longer possible, God enters into a different covenant with humans. And just as God made the Adamic Covenant after Adam and Eve sinned, so also God established the Noahic Covenant (Gen. 9:1-17) after He destroyed humanity with a flood. Apart from Noah and his family, no humans under the Adamic Covenant were willing to obey God.
The Noahic Covenant has seven provisions:
- Humanity is to be fruitful and multiply to fill the earth;
- Humanity is given authority over the animal kingdom;
- Humanity is given permission to eat vegetation and the meat of animals;
- Humanity is prohibited from eating and drinking the blood of animals;
- Capital punishment is instituted for the offense of murder;
- God will never destroy humanity again with a flood; and
- The sign of this covenant is a rainbow.
It is notable that God does not tell Noah that He is “making” a covenant (Heb. kārat běrît) but “confirming” a covenant (Heb. hēqîm běrît) with Noah (see Gen. 6:18, 9:9, 11, 17).4 This seems to indicate that God is confirming the covenant He made with Adam although the word ‘covenant’ does not appear in Gen. 1-3.
As such, like the Adamic Covenant, the Noahic Covenant is unconditional. No blessings are pronounced that can be lost, and no specific judgments are promised for breaking the terms of the covenant. God simply confirms a slightly-modified version of the Adamic Covenant to Noah (the new representative for humanity after the flood) and unconditionally promises He will never again destroy humanity with a flood. As an unconditional covenant, this covenant is still in effect today.
As shown, the biblical theme of covenant can provide some great insight into the biblical narrative. God created the world so humanity would know and love Him. God enters into covenant relationships with humans so He can make His justice and goodness known and so humans may know how best to live in order to fulfill their purpose.
After the creation of the world and humanity in Gen. 1-2 and the recreation of the world and humanity in Gen. 7-9, God reveals Himself to humans and establishes covenants with them. The theme of covenant follows closely the theme of creation, and noting the stipulations and natures of each covenant can give insight into God’s plan throughout the biblical narrative. In the next post, the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants will be discussed.
For visual learners, here is another great video regarding the biblical theme of covenants created by Timothy Mackie and Jonathan Collins of The Bible Project:
Thomas R. Schreiner, Covenant and God’s Purpose for the World (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017), 12.
Schreiner, Covenant and God’s Purpose for the World, 12-13.
Some biblical theologians do not make a distinction between the Edenic and Adamic covenants. Instead, they think the stipulations of both are combined into one covenant they often call the Covenant of Creation.
For a discussion of the Old Testament difference between “cutting a covenant” (i.e., making a covenant) and “establishing a covenant” (i.e., confirming a covenant), see Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants: A Concise Biblical Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), 59-61.
*The featured image of Noah’s family and the rainbow is from The Kingstone Bible, vol. 1, p. 62. Image used with permission: © 2014 Kingstone Comics.