Covenants in General

Question

What are the basic elements of a covenant? Was there a covenant at creation?

Answer

In the original order of creation, man's relationship with God was covenantal. This can be inferred in a number of ways.

First, the standard means by which a suzerain king (the greater king) related to a vassal king (the lesser king) was through a national treaty, also called a covenant. These were arrangements whereby the suzerain imposed a relationship on the vassal, as well as the terms of that relationship. He offered blessings for following the terms of the relationship, and threatened curses against breaking the terms of the relationship. Since man was God's vassal king, and God was the suzerain, Moses' and his original audience would have assumed that God would relate to mankind through a covenant.

Second, there are a number of standard features of a covenant, and these can be found in the creation account. Now, it is important to note that there are two basic definitions of a covenant. One is that a covenant is the agreement between two parties, such as a treaty or contract. The other is that a covenant is the relationship between these parties that is forged by that agreement. In point of fact, the Bible uses the word "covenant" in both ways. While there is no covenant document or ceremony or sacrifice in the creation account (common elements of a covenant agreement), there is plenty of evidence that a covenant relationship existed between God and mankind.

Different scholars list the elements of covenants in different ways, but there are at least five basic elements of covenantal relationships that are typically reflected in ancient covenant documents, each of which is present in the creation account:

1. Benevolence of the Suzerain.

Prior to forming the covenant, the suzerain demonstrated good will in the form of blessings to the vassal. In the case of mankind, he created mankind and placed him in a "very good" (Gen 1:31) Garden. He was the Suzerain's crowning of creation.

2. Imposition on the Vassal.

Covenant relationships were unilaterally imposed by the suzerain upon the vassal. With regard to mankind, God assigned humanity a role that could not be refused (Gen 2:15). He also imposed stipulations, consequences, and perpetuity (see below). See "Conditional and Unconditional Covenants" below.

3. Stipulations.

Covenant stipulations consisted of laws that vassal kings had to follow. Ancient suzerains often required vassals to provide tribute and men to serve in armies, etc. (just as suzerains and vassals commonly required these things from their subject peoples; cf. 1 Sam 8:11-17). In the Garden of Eden, the stipulations included working and taking care of the Garden (Gen 2:15), being fruitful and multiplying (Gen 1:28), and not eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:16-17).

4. Consequences.

Covenants also imposed consequences, both positive consequences (i.e., blessings) for obedience to the stipulations, and negative consequences (i.e., curses) for disobedience to the stipulations. The most obvious consequence mentioned in the creation narrative is the curse upon creation (including Adam and Eve) if Adam/Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:16-17).

5. Perpetuity / Succession.

Covenants also provided for their continuation in the future. Often, this provision took the form of mentioning who would inherit the covenant obligations, both suzerain and vassal, in future generations. Such rules of succession were based on the understanding that the covenant was perpetual. Appropriately, the consequences of God's original covenant with mankind extended to future generations of humanity (e.g., all mankind, not just Adam and Eve, were thrown out of the Garden of Eden; Gen 3:24; see also Rom 5:12-19).

Third, other portions of Scripture refer back to the original creation with the understanding that it was covenantal. For instance, Hosea 6:7 reads: "Like Adam, they have broken the covenant they were unfaithful to me there." Some commentators take the word "Adam" as a reference to humanity in general, or to a city by that name (cf. Josh 3:16). But the most natural reference seems to be to the first man. This first man of course represented all mankind, as he was their federal head (Rom 5:12-21).

Genesis itself also alludes to a covenant with Adam. When the covenant with Noah is introduced, the vocabulary refers to confirming (Hebrew: qum; Gen 6:18; 9:11ff.) an existing covenant rather than creating (Hebrew: karath) a new covenant. Thus, a preceding covenant is assumed when God speaks to Noah about confirming his covenant. While nothing in Genesis is called a "covenant" prior to the account of Noah, it is reasonable to conclude that Moses understood the initial arrangement between God and humanity to be the antecedent to the covenant with Noah. Cf. "The Renewed or New Covenant?" below.

Finally, it is clear that there was a covenant under Christ (Matt 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 2 Cor 3:6; Heb 7:22; 8:6). The New Testament draws a parallel between Adam and Christ, and associates the two in terms of standard covenant elements (Rom 5:12-19; 1 Cor 15:22, 45-49). Since these elements explicitly refer to a covenant in the case of Christ, it is reasonable to conclude that they also refer to a covenant in the case of Adam. Whereas Christ served as the covenant administrator in his day, Adam was the covenant administrator at creation, which is why we refer to the Adamic administration of the covenant.

Related Links:

Conditional and Unconditional Covenants
The Renewed or New Covenant?
What is the Covenant of Grace?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).