“Understand that I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you—birds, livestock, and all wildlife of the earth that are with you—all the animals of the earth that came out of the ark” (God to Noah, Genesis 9:9-10).
“On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “I give this land to your offspring, from the Brook of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates River” (God to Abraham, Genesis 15:18)
“Now if you will carefully listen to me and keep my covenant, you will be my own possession out of all the peoples, although the whole earth is mine” (God to Israel, Exodus 19:5)
What’s the big deal about covenants?
Oh, nothing. Except that we use them all the time. We just call them different names – agreements, contracts, weddings, and the like. Oh, and they’re the bedrock of the Old and New Testaments (Covenants), that’s all. So yeah, covenants are a big deal.
In our deep dive into the Subdue and Rule Mandate of Genesis 1:28 (“Bring the earth and creatures under control and manage the whole thing, humans”), we have to add in an understanding of covenants. Why? Because covenants have obligations called terms. If there’s a functioning covenant, it includes mandatory terms to follow. Keeping those covenant terms makes good things happen, like happy covenant partners and God’s blessing. Breaking those covenant terms brings about bad stuff like discipline, punishments, judicial actions, lawsuits, divorces, and God’s anger to varying degrees.
Most importantly to our topic, the existence of a Creation Covenant has big implications regarding the Subdue and Rule Mandate as one of the terms of that original covenant.
So, we’ll look at what a covenant is, how they’re put together, examine a brief list of the major covenants in the Bible, and the main kinds of covenants. Knowing which type of covenant is used will help you appreciate what’s happening in any Bible story that involves covenants or covenant language.
It might even make you fall on your knees to worship the Lord when we’re done. Trust me.
So let’s answer some questions about covenants.
What is a covenant, and what purpose does it serve?
We human beings are relational creatures. We were designed and built to have relationships with other human beings, not live isolated and lonely lives. That’s clear because God made a perfect counterpart for the Man in the Garden of Eden. Creating a partner for the Man wasn’t just for sexual reproduction, although that did create the conditions to carry out with the first command to “Reproduce, y’all!” It’s also clear because the Man needed a partner with whom he could subdue and rule the earth as a team. And God flat-out tells us, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Outside of a few extreme introverts or those who suffer from social anxiety, most of us like to hang out with other people. Even my social anxiety-hampered friend who says, “It’s too people-y out there,” admits he needs company (in limited numbers), or he’d become a hermit to his detriment.
Me? I like the Minnesota State Fair, which I attend with about 75,000 of my closest friends.
God designed relationships between people as essential to family development and societal stability. At their core, all relationships are built on mutual obligations and responsibilities for the good of all parties involved. However, every relationship comes with the possibility that one of the parties will fail to remain faithful to the relationship.
We’re talking betrayal here, and not just in the marriage sense. To betray someone means “To be false or disloyal to someone” (American Heritage Dictionary). A good relationship demands loyalty and truth for its foundation. When loyalty is broken, and truths become lies, a betrayal has occurred. Call it what you will – treachery, disloyalty, duplicity, infidelity – when it happens, it stuns the unsuspecting party. Betrayal brings pain, often a lot of pain, and once betrayed, the innocent party learns not to trust so quickly again for fear of even more pain. Ask any spouse that’s felt the pain of adultery, any business person whose partner embezzled their company into bankruptcy, or a child who’s been lied to by a parent or vice versa.
It hurts—a bunch.
Betrayal comes in many forms because relationships do too. And let’s face it, we’ve all experienced at least one betrayal in our lives. Okay, we’ve all experienced many betrayals in life and committed our share of them. Why? Because we’re spiritually fallen people who care about “me” more than others, and under the right conditions, most of us will break our commitment rather than keep our word to our hurt (Psalm 15:4).
Covenants are ancient forms designed to protect relationships from betrayal. A stuffy way to explain a covenant is, “Covenants are designed and established to promote mutually beneficial relationships through clearly understood expectations that encourage loyalty and provide redress against disloyalty and betrayal” (Christianson). That’s what a covenant is. The purpose of a covenant is to define the relationship between two or more parties, declare mutual commitment and obligations between them, state the terms of how each party will work with the other, and set in place rewards for keeping the terms (covenant faithfulness) or punishments for breaking the terms (covenant disloyalty) to determine loyalty. Oaths (a solemn promise) are often included along with an exchanged tangible sign to remind each person of their commitment and responsibility to the other.
Relationship – commitment (obligations) – terms – oath – sign. Those are the basic ingredients of a covenant. Additionally, there’s usually a provided renewal clause should one of the parties break their promise. It’s also possible for covenants to be renewed with additions and modifications (usually) and subtractions (not usually).
Business people make covenants all the time through contracts. They declare their working relationship, state their commitment to each other, lay out the terms of the contract, declare their oath to follow through, and sign on the dotted line with a notary present as a witness. The sign of their commitment is the paper contract.
For a marriage, the spouses stand before the minister and declare their relationship, state their commitment to each other (the declaration of intent) and the marriage terms (the vows and oath), and exchange rings (the sign) in the presence of witnesses (the best man, maid of honor, and guests).
When you move into some neighborhoods, a Home Owner’s Association sometimes requires the new resident to sign a covenant mandating the conditions for living in the community. The HOA covenant often has clear disciplinary measures for breaking the terms of residency.
So think of this. If relationship loyalty is so important between people because of the possibility of betrayal, how much more critical is relationship loyalty between the God who created us and us? Now, there’s no possibility that God would betray us. He’s forever faithful and true. If He were in any way false, He wouldn’t be God. So, let’s face it, the onus is on us. We’re the ones who need the restraints and guidelines of covenants to help us remain faithful to God. On a positive note, we have God’s invitation to call upon Him to exercise His self-imposed covenant promises toward us rightfully. Covenants are an essential aspect of humanity’s relationship to God and have been from the very beginning and will be until God brings humanity to perfection.
According to The Bible Project, here are the five main covenants in the Bible. They are the Noahic Covenant, Abrahamic Covenant, Mosaic Covenant, Davidic Covenant, and the New Covenant (bibleproject.com/blog/covenants-the-backbone-bible). You’ll find many of the covenant elements I listed above when you read each one. There are also other “smaller” covenants in the Bible, like the one between Jonathan and David and the covenant between God and Phinehas. But I’ll let you find those via a simple “covenant” word search.
However, my studies found that nearly all of the websites and scholars who talked about the Bible’s many covenants failed to mention a Creation covenant. They start with the Noah covenant in Genesis 9. The debate about a Creation covenant usually centers around, “But I don’t see a covenant specifically mentioned!” Well, not if you’re looking for a specific word. But if you understand the types of covenants, how they’re used, learn to identify the covenant elements and actions, and read what the other scriptures say, a Creation covenant is there. Don’t worry. I’ll show you. So, let’s look at the three types of covenants in the Bible.
The three different types of covenants in the Bible
According to Dr. Scott Hahn (Kinship By Covenant), there are three ancient near east covenant forms represented in the scriptures – the Kinship Covenant, the Suzerain-Vassal, or Treaty Covenant, and the Grant Covenant. At the “heart of a covenant is always an oath, whether explicit or implicit.” In other words, at the core of every covenant is the “I swear I will do these things to sustain our relationship and not betray you” pledge.
The Kinship covenant is a family-type covenant where the two partners stand equal to each other in the covenant relationship. The kinship covenant is also called a parity covenant.
The Treaty covenant is an agreement between a “superior” and an “inferior” partner. It’s also known as a Suzerain-Vassal covenant. This covenant is used after a stronger king (the suzerain) conquers a neighboring kingdom and forces the defeated king (the vassal) to submit to his authority. The ruling king or nation allows the vassal king or nations to live on their lord’s land in exchange for allegiance, honor, obedience, and often tribute of some kind.
The Grant (or Land Grant) covenant is also an agreement between a superior and an inferior. But in this case, the responsibilities are arranged differently. The superior party works on behalf of the inferior party.
The particular type of covenant is determined by “the manner of distribution of covenant obligations between the covenanting parties” (Hahn). Under the Kinship covenant, both parties share covenant obligations equally, as in “Together, we will ride out and fight the enemy!” Under the Treaty covenant, the superior suzerain imposes covenant obligations upon the inferior vassal, “As my vassal, you will ride out with your army and fight my enemy!” But under the Grant covenant, the superior takes the relationship obligations upon themselves, “I will ride out to defend my faithful, loyal subjects’ land against the enemy!”
Do you see the difference, especially between the Treaty and Grant covenant? It’s all about on whose shoulders the covenant’s obligations rest, which is crucial. For the Grant covenant, there is still a superior and inferior relationship, but the covenant obligations are taken by the superior upon himself, “who freely accepts responsibilities toward the inferior, usually in response to the inferior’s faithfulness or other meritorious qualities. The initiative in establishing a covenant of this form also rests with the superior; it is granted as a reward to a faithful vassal or servant” (Hahn).
Another way to determine which type of covenant is agreed upon is “to observe carefully by whom the covenant oath is sworn” (Hahn). Generally speaking, both parties swear the agreement oath for the Kinship covenant. For the Treaty covenant, the inferior party swears the oath, and for the Grant covenant, the superior swears the oath.
If you keep the obligations and oath parts straight, you can easily identify which of the three covenant forms are used in a Bible narrative.
Here is a quick and easy way to figure out which covenant is being used in the Bible in any instance (based on Hahn, p. 29).
Kinship – parity or between equals.
· Obligations – Equally shared with equal status.
· Oath swearing – Sworn by both parties, mutually binding.
· Oath sign – Symbolic gesture.
· Relationship – Father-son.
· Curse-bearing (i.e., who gets “cursed” for violations) – Either party.
· Blessing – Mutual.
· Commitment – Mutual.
Treaty – suzerain (king) to vassal (subject).
· Obligations – Imposed by the superior and required of the inferior. Loyalty is expected.
· Oath swearing – An oath sworn by the inferior that binds the inferior to the superior.
· Oath sign – Symbolic gesture.
· Relationship – Suzerain to vassal, a symbolic “father-son” relationship.
· Curse-bearing (for covenant violations) – The Inferior.
· Blessing – Based upon the inferior’s performance.
· Commitment – The Inferior to the superior.
Grant – king to a subject, a reward for loyalty.
· Obligations – Taken on by the superior, granted as a reward for loyalty and an incentive to stay loyal.
· Oath swearing – A unilateral oath sworn by the superior to the inferior that binds the superior to the inferior. The superior is unconditionally bound to fulfill his grant. The oath often extends to descendants, and the descendants are also expected to remain loyal.
· Oath sign – Symbolic gesture.
· Relationship – Suzerain to the loyal vassal and the vassal’s descendants.
· Curse-bearing (for covenant violations) – Superior.
· Blessing – Superior’s responsibility to bless inferior.
· Commitment – Superior to inferior.
Knowing which kind of covenant is made is crucial to understanding the context.
Shall we play a game? It’s called “Guess the Covenant!”
No, there are no crazy amounts of cash and prizes. Just the sheer satisfaction that you learned something new that will enrich your knowledge of the Bible and build appreciation for what God has done. And it’s a game you can play at home. Let’s begin!
In Genesis 6, God tells Noah His plan to wipe the world clean through a massive flood. God gives Noah the plans for the ark and the command to gather into the ark a representative group of animal and bird life on the planet. Why did God save Noah from the flood? “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among his contemporaries; Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:9). Therefore, this covenant was based on Noah’s previously demonstrated loyalty to the Lord. Noah follows through, and after the flood, in Genesis 9, God (the superior) initiates a covenant with Noah (the inferior), giving him authority over the land and the animals, a prohibition against consuming blood, and a command to his family to once again have babies and fill the earth. Noah has no say in this. This act is a one-sided covenant where God does everything for faithful Noah and expects Noah’s continued demonstrated loyalty. Since the covenant obligations rest with God, it’s a… Grant covenant. Correct! (You’re so smart.)
In Genesis 12, God tells Abram to leave his people, nation, and land and keep walking until God tells him to stop. Abram obeys and get’s moving. (There’s your first clue.) In Genesis 15, God tells Abram that He will bless the elderly man (and his barren wife) with a multitude of descendants, and Abram believes (trusts) God’s promise. That’s some big-time loyalty going on there, although Abram questions how the Almighty will do it. God immediately “cuts a covenant” (using blood) to seal His promise of land and offspring to Abram. Abram sets the covenant scene by lining up halved animals as a make-shift “corridor” and promptly falls into a dream state by God’s hand. In his dream, Abram sees God’s physical presence move between the bloody animal parts as God declares His promises to Abram.
So that you know, a blood covenant is serious stuff. Usually, both parties walked between the pieces as they made their oaths, proclaimed the terms, and recited the blessings and curses. Essentially, they say, “May what happened to these animals happen to me if I break this covenant with you, my covenant partner.” First, only God “walked” between the pieces, so the covenant obligations are on Him alone. Second, God can never lie, so His promise to Abram will be fulfilled entirely – Abram’s family line will have a multitude of descendants (physical and spiritual), and his physical descendants will possess the territory from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates. Again, since the covenant obligations rest on God’s shoulders alone, this is… another Grant covenant to reward Abram’s loyalty.
Here comes the curve ball! God has delivered the nation of Israel from Egypt during the Exodus, and now everyone stands before Him at Mount Sinai. The King of Israel has defeated the Pharaoh of Egypt and claimed His prize – His people. Moses purifies the people in Exodus 19 and gathers the entire population of approximately 1.5 million at the foot of the mountain. In Exodus 20, God proclaims that He is Israel’s God-King and offers them the terms of the covenant (the Law). In Exodus 23, God tells them the good things He’s going to do for His subjects, and in Exodus 24, He asks if they agree to be His people and follow His laws. This time, the blood used in the covenant is sprinkled on the people, with God “looking on” from the mountaintop. Sprinkling the Israelites with blood means they are obligated to serve their King and obey His laws. If they obey, He will watch over them, protect them, provide for them, and bless them. If they don’t obey, He will discipline them, remove His protection and provision, and “curse” (punish) them. However, if they return to Him and obey, He will renew the covenant, and they pick up where they left off. DO you think you know what type of covenant this is? Since the covenant obligations are on the people, this is a… Right! A Suzerain-vassal or Treaty covenant.
Finally, we have an obscure reference in 1 Kings 20. Here’s the scene. After being defeated by the northern kingdom of Israel and King Ahab the year before, King Ben-Hadad of Syria launched another attack. As before, the Lord helps Israel pound his forces into the dust, and King Ben-Hadad flees into the city of Aphek. His cowering servants who were with him advised him to dress his negotiating committee in sackcloth and go to ask King Ahab for mercy. The committee arrives and says, “Your servant Ben-hadad says, ‘Please spare my life’” (1 Kings 20:32). And then, King Ahab says something most of us would gloss over, “Is he still alive? He is my brother.” Check out the surrender committee’s response, “Now the men were looking for a sign of hope, so they quickly picked up on this and responded, ‘Yes, it is your brother Ben-hadad’” (1 Kings 33, italics author). Picked up on what? King Ahab’s use of the word “brother.” This is a covenant term. What type of covenant is King Ahab offering the surrendering King Ben-Hadad? A Parity or Kinship covenant, a covenant between equals. How do we know it was about equals? “So Ben-hadad came out to him, and Ahab had him come up into the chariot” (1 Kings 20:33). The two kings negotiated a mutually beneficial settlement and covenant terms of cooperation.
Why is covenant essential to understanding the Subdue and Rule Mandate?
Hopefully, you now see why covenants are a big deal in life and the Bible. Learning about covenants is not just an academic exercise. It breathes life into the scriptures and helps us understand what the Lord is doing on our behalf. In the next part, I want to show you that there was an original Creation covenant and what the covenant terms were. Why do that?
Because if there was a Creation Covenant, knowing what type it was tells us much about humanity’s origin. Also, it will show that the “reproduce and rule but do it only God’s way” single covenant law of three commands was not optional (and still isn’t), so breaking the primary command of the covenant terms had profound consequences. It explains why humanity is in the terrible condition that it’s in and why God went to such lengths to send His Son to die for us. Finally, we’ll begin to see why there was a need for a covenant “re-work” as part of God’s plan to restore humanity to our originally designed purpose of subduing and ruling the earth.
Are you beginning to see what a big deal this is?
Christianson, Jay S., An Exploration into God’s Subdue and Rule Mandate for Humanity in Genesis 1:28: Its Origin, Corruption, Repercussions, And Eschatological Restoration in the New Covenant
Dumbrell, William J., Covenant and Creation, An Old Testament Covenant Theology.
Hahn, Scott W., Kinship By Covenant, A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s
Richter, Sandra L. The Epic of Eden, A Christian Entry into the Old Testament.
Pastor Jay Christianson
The Truth Barista, Frothy Thoughts