The Covenants of God
Week One: Eden
Last week we talked about getting back to the basics. Remember? “Ladies and Gentlemen, THIS is a Bible.” We read the beginning verses of Genesis as the launchpad to remind ourselves of several things:
1.God is before all things. Before the creation of all that is…seen and unseen…God existed. Before any of our problems…before we got ourselves in a big mess…God is there.
2.The Spirit of God hovered over the waters. God’s Spirit is hovering around us, among us, and in us to accomplish His purposes. God is present regardless of our chaos.
3.God said…So God made…And God saw…A word from God creates, restores, instructs, and commands, to name a few things. God can speak into our lives whatever is needed that will restore us to Himself and bring glory to God.
Today, we are beginning a new series called, “COVENANT,” in which we will look at the work and purposes of God through one of the most significant elements of Scripture. It is found throughout the Bible…Old and New Testament. It speaks of the relationship between God and His creation…more specifically God’s people.
We have talked about covenants before, but like we were saying last week…sometimes we just need to get back to the basics again. In fact, last year we began the year with a Covenant Renewal Service very similar to the one our Methodist founder, John Wesley, created in the late 1700s. At the end of this series, I hope for us to enter into this Covenant again.
So today, we will (1) look again at what a covenant is. We will (2) list the grand narrative of covenants found in Scripture. And (3) finally, we will spend a little time with the First Covenant and the implications of this covenant with us today. Sound okay?
What is a Covenant?
We know our Bibles as a collection of books which are divided into two major sections: The Old Testament and the New Testament. But, the term behind our English word “Testament” is the Greek word diatheke, which is a translation of the Hebrew word, berit, both of which mean “covenant.” So, in essence, we read and follow what might be called the Old and New Covenants.
A quick word of caution! Some may argue—as pastor Andy Stanley does in his new book, Irresistible: Reclaiming the New That Jesus Unleashed for the World –that since we are under the new covenant because of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross (which is true), we do not to concern ourselves with the old covenant. Stanley spends most of the book establishing a few major claims: the old covenant is legalistic, judgmental, and unnecessarily harsh.
In the new covenant God has made the old obsolete. We now have a covenant rooted in the grace of God, one that compels us in all our actions to ask what love requires. The Old Testament (OT) contains the old covenant. The New Testament (NT) tells us about the new covenant. When we claim that we are saved according to the new covenant, but still act as if we are under the old (living according to OT teachings), we are blending the covenants, and thus rejecting God’s work in Jesus Christ.
I will not spend the rest of my time refuting Stanley’s claim because that’s not the focus today. But let me say this: Jesus came to fulfill the Law, not to abolish it. Jesus came to complete the covenant, not to dispute or destroy any old covenants found in the Old Testament. We must remember that the Bible is God’s redemptive story for humanity. It has a progression…a trajectory…that has always included Jesus and that ultimately leads to Jesus as well. Therefore, we will NOT throw out the Old Testament (Covenant) in favor of an exclusive reading and following of the New Testament.
But what IS a covenant? The idea of covenants is not new with the people found in the Bible. Even before Israel became a great nation…before the covenants we read in the OT between God and David, God and Moses, and even God and Abraham, there existed the cultural practice of covenant.
In its original context, according to Dr. Sandra Richter in her book, The Epic of Eden, a covenant is a secular term that means, “an agreement enacted between two parties in which one or both make promises under oath to perform or refrain from certain actions stipulated in advance.”
A covenant is much like a contract. It can be on an individual, tribal, or national level. The ideological foundation for the concept of covenant-making in the Ancient Near East was an idea we now know as “fictive kinship.” Let me explain.
Do you remember us talking about the Bible’s patriarchal societal structure known as the “bet ‘ab”—the father’s household. The oldest living member of a household was the patriarch. He exercised the highest level of authority, but he also bore the highest level of responsibility.
That’s why the eldest son received a double-portion of the father’s inheritance; because he would be expected to care not only for his own immediate family, but all the unmarried and widowed women in the household.
Consider the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. The eldest brother—when he finds out his younger brother is back from squandering HIS portion of the inheritance and is now back as part of the family—is angry, and for good reason. He has pulled the largest share of the household chores and responsibility. His younger brother is now endangering the economic well-being of the bet ‘ab by his return.
Basically, one’s level of responsibility toward another member of society was determined by blood. The more closely related, the greater the responsibility’ the more distantly related, the lesser the responsibility. This is how the ancients ordered their world. We don’t have to imitate their culture, but we must understand it if we are going to rightly understand the Bible in general and covenants in particular.
So, how does a person/group go about establishing a relationship of privilege and responsibility with someone/group who is non-kin? That person would have to make kin our of non-kin. And THAT’S how fictive kinship comes about. By means of an oath the people of Israel’s world understood that a fictive kinship bond could be established by which both parties agreed to act like family.
The closest things we have to fictive kinship in our society is adoption and marriage. With adoption, a couple make the claim that someone who is not blood kin will have all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities as a blood kin offspring would have. With a legal contract approved by a Chancery Judge, a child takes the name of his/her parents and is considered a legal heir.
That’s why it’s so significant when we read in Ephesians 1 these beautiful words: “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will. We were NOT legitimate children of God.
We were NOT Abraham’s biological offspring. We were alienated from God because of our sin. BUT God, who is so rich in mercy offered Jesus Christ as the sacrifice for our sins SO THAT we might not only be in a restored relationship with God but also might be called sons and daughters of God with all the rights and privileges thereto!
Also consider the fictive kinship covenant of marriage. Two people who are not kin (except in Arkansas!) enter into a covenant to become united in the bonds of marriage until death. Typically, and traditionally, the bride takes the sir name of the groom.
By the covenant of marriage, they are now like blood kin. Each spouse has all the rights and privileges to all the other spouse has (unless a prenuptial agreement is in place). That’s why the image of the church as the Bride of Jesus Christ is so vital! In the apostle Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church is urging them to follow only Christ and to consider Paul as a true apostle of Christ compares the church to being a bride for Jesus when he said this: I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. (11:2)
And Revelation 21 depicts New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven as a new bride beautifully dressed for her husband. The image of New Jerusalem throughout Revelation are those who are the true followers of Jesus Christ, who have not been divided in their loyalty between Christ and the world.
By adoption…by marriage…we are considered blood kin to the Lamb…the King of kings and Lord of lords! Is this not the greatest news in the entire world???!!! Are biblical covenants important? You better believe it!
That said, what are the major historical narratives of covenant found throughout the over-arching narrative of God? Different scholars consider different points of historical narrative. Some say there are 5 major covenants…others SIX…and some even suggest SEVEN. We are going to take the long view of SEVEN…because it covers more of the entire biblical narrative. Here are the SEVEN COVENANTAL EPICS we will cover over the coming weeks :
7.Messiah (New Covenant)
There are two basic types of covenants in the ANE world: (1) between two equal parties (parity treaties); and (2) between two unequal parties (suzerain and vassal). [Explain].
What is the Edenic Covenant?
In the time we have left, let’s look at the first covenant in the Bible…the covenant made in the creation of the world and in particular, the place of Eden. Let’s read chapter 2 of Genesis. I’m going to begin in verse 4, skip over the part of the four headwaters that formed the river which flowed through the Garden of Eden, and pick up in verse 15 to the end. (Read 2:4-9; 15-25)
We learned last week that, in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And while we didn’t read through the creation story of Genesis 1, we probably remember that each part of the earth’s creation took place on different days of a calendar week: light, sky, land, plants, big light and little light (sun and moon), water creatures and birds, land creatures and finally human beings. And God saw that it was very good!
If we had spent some time in chapter 1, we would have seen that the force which held this peaceful, perfect, and productive cohabitation in balance was the God’s sovereignty over all. But we would also have seen that in the 6th day—when God mad man—it is obvious God is choosing to manage his creation through his representative.
Genesis 2 is a second account of creation that focuses NOT on the particular elements of creation, but on God’s creation of man and woman and their responsibilities to govern God’s creation. The Edenic Covenant is not explicitly called a covenant in Genesis; however, it is later referred to as a covenant in Hosea 6:7, “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with Me” (ESV).
It’s important to realize that God never GAVE Eden as their possession but made them stewards over it. Just as the eldest son is given great privilege as first born but did not OWN the father’s household, so Adam was given great privilege as first born of all humans but did not OWN what he was in charge of it. In essence, it was a land grant by God which included stipulations.
In the Edenic covenant, God places man in the garden to do what? To work/cultivate the land and to take care of/keep it. He is to enjoy nearly every aspect of the Garden. Not only that, but we see that through the creation of woman for man, God is offering him companionship and love. It’s also implied in chapter three that God has given Adam and Eve full access to Himself (remember him walking in the cool of the evening in search of Adam?).
I like how Richter describes God’s original plan for Eden. “This was Adam and Eve’s perfect world. Not just fruit and fig leaves, but an entire race of people stretching their creative powers to the limit to build a society of balance, beauty, justice, and joy. Here the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve would learn life at the feet of the Father, build their city in the shadow of the Almighty, create and design and expand within the protective confines of his kingdom.
“The blessings of this gift to Adam and Eve are a civilization without greed, malice or envy; progress without pollution, expansion without extinction. A world in which Adam and Eve’s ever-expanding family would be provided the guidance they needed to explore and develop their world such that the success of the strong did not involve depriving the weak. Government would be wise and just and kind, resources plentiful, war unnecessary, achievement unlimited and beauty and balance everywhere.” Doesn’t that sound marvelous!!!!
This was God’s perfect plan: God’s people enjoying God’s presence in God’s place. And yet, like all covenants, God’s perfect plan was dependent on the choice of the vassal. Humanity must willingly submit to God’s plan. The steward had been given the authority to accept or reject his plan.
Notice that the stipulations of this Edenic covenant include permissions, but it also includes one very specific prohibition: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” It’s interesting that—before the temptation by the serpent and the fall by Adam and Eve—they were permitted to eat from ANY tree, which included the Tree of Life. This is why Adam and Eve were intended to live forever in right relationship with God.
It’s also interesting that in this prohibition, God says “WHEN” you eat form it. A more literal translation is, “for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” To me, this is a prophetic word of the Lord. He is already predicting his crown of creation will defy the stipulations of the covenant he is making with Adam.
What’s the take away from all this? What does God’s covenant with Adam and Eve in Eden have to do with us today? Several things, I think.
1.Creation and stewardship are God’s idea. God could have maintained complete responsibility and governance over his creation, but he chose to involve us. God freely gave up a certain amount of control to us. That HAS to mean something! Do we throw it up in his face? When we are called to cultivate the earth AND to tend it…to take care of it, should we as Christians be better stewards of what God gives us? Should we manage the resources we have control over? This means:
Take care of your stuff. Don’t waste it, even though you might be able to afford to replace it.
Take care of your money. Don’t waste it on things that really don’t matter.
Take care of your marriages. God made woman for man and man for woman. They become ONE FLESH. This means they work together as co-laborers and partners in the stewardship over family/household affairs.
The narrative of Genesis 2 reminds us of the presence and purpose of FREE WILL. It is God’s idea as well. God intends to give us choice SO THAT our love and devotion to him is of our own choosing, not out of compulsion.
2.God WANTS us to enjoy all that the earth offers—its food sources…its natural resources…its beauty. BUT there are limitations.
In the case of the Edenic covenant, that limitation is eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
[We will spend more time next week talking about why.] The main reason for this stipulation in the covenant is for our good.
The Edenic Covenant sets the stage for all future covenants of Scripture. As we will see next week, the breaking of this covenant is THE sin that caused the FALL of mankind, the cursing of the ground, and our spiritual death. It also paves the way for God’s redemptive purposes in the world.