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Introduction to the Bible

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

Chapter Four

The History of the Covenants (Part 1)

The doctrine of the covenant is what gives structure to the Biblical story. God's relationship with man was covenantal from the beginning. But Adam broke the covenant the day he was created. This could have been the end of the story, but God is a God of grace. He renewed His covenant with man and promised to establish a wholly new covenant through a new Adam (Gn. 3:15). The promised Savior would be the Head of a new humanity that would fulfill the purpose of God in creating the world as His kingdom (cf. Rm. 5:12-25).

When we read of the original kingdom in Genesis 1-3, we see how man rebelled against God by breaking His covenant -- though the word "covenant" is not actually used in these chapters. We understand that the original relationship was covenantal because we see all the elements of the covenant in the narrative, and Hosea does refer to this arrangement as a covenant (Hos. 6:7).[1] Furthermore, when the word covenant is first used in the Bible in Genesis 6:18 and 9:9-17, it is clear that the covenant with Noah is a redemptive renewal of the original covenant with Adam.

And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered. Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat. And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man's brother will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man. And you, be ye fruitful, and multiply; bring forth abundantly in the earth, and multiply therein. (Gn. 9:1-7)

The original covenant with Adam is the basic covenant for the entire era from the creation until the incarnation of Christ. Paul points to this when he explains the whole history of the world in terms of two men, Adam and Christ (Rm. 5:12-21; 1 Cr. 15:22-49). Adam was the head of the old covenant. Christ is the Head of the new covenant. Adam was the viceregent of God who failed and led his sons into sin (Rm. 5:12). Christ is the viceregent of God who kept God's covenant and won the blessing, both for Himself and for His seed (Rm. 5:19; cf. Is. 53:10-12).

From the time of Adam's fall until the coming of Christ, the Bible records six additional secondary covenants. These covenants are renewals and extensions of the covenant with Adam, each of which underscores a particular aspect of man's responsibility as God's image. In the Garden, Adam was a priest whose responsibility was to guard the Garden and his wife Eve. He was also a king who was given dominion over the world. And he was a prophet to whom God spoke. The covenants that follow in the old covenant era show the growth of redeemed humanity in covenantal relationship with God. In redemptive grace, God leads man from immaturity in the Garden through a covenantal process of growth, leading to maturation in Christ.

The six "sub-covenants" in the old covenant era develop in two cycles from priestly to kingly to prophetic. These "sub-covenants" are new versions of the original Adamic covenant, rather than entirely new or independent covenants. Each of these covenants renews the Adamic covenant and adds a promise of redemption, a promise that develops and grows from covenant to covenant. Though these covenants do not bring in a "new creation," they do significantly change God's administration of men's affairs in the Adamic world-system. They guide history toward Christ, until He comes to fulfill all the promises of salvation (2 Cr. 1:20). They show the historical progress of God's purpose for creation. Satan tempted man to sin and ruined man as God's viceregent, but in Christ God's grace restored man, so that he can work in history by the power of the Holy Spirit to bring in the kingdom of God.


The First Priestly Covenant: the Adamic Covenant

The first of these post-fall covenants is not explicitly called a covenant in the text of Scripture. Like the original covenant with Adam, it must be inferred from the context. After the sin of Adam and Eve, God appeared in the Garden and confronted them for their rebellion, but He did not institute the curse of the covenant in its fulness. Judicial, physical, and covenantal death began, but time for salvation was also given. Adam and Eve did die covenantally, for they were cast out of the Garden, away from God. Grace is seen, however, in the fact that they were apparently allowed to offer sacrifices near the Garden (cf. Gn. 4:3). They also began to die physically, but by the grace of God they were allowed to live long enough to have adescendents. The seed of the woman, God had promised, would bring salvation (Gen 3:15).

The grace of God is also seen in that God made coats of skins and clothed them (Gn. 3:21). The animal skins point to the fact that Adam and Eve died judicially through their covenantal representatives, the slain animals. This established the sacrificial system of the old covenant that prevails until Christ. We do not know the details of the covenantal arrangements at this time, but it does seem to be clear that Cain and Abel knew that they were to offer animal sacrifices. Genesis explicitly says that God did not accept Cain nor his bloodless offering, while He did accept Abel and his offering (Gn. 4:4:4-5; cf. Heb. 11:4). Noah also understood the idea of animal sacrifice and even distinguished between clean and unclean animals (Gn. 7:1-2).

The first covenant emphasized man's priestly responsibility, for Adam's primary work in the beginning was to guard the Garden. After he failed at this priestly task, he was cast out. His sons, however, continued to have priestly responsibility, which Cain and his seed abandoned. The Sethites, on the other hand, are characterized by their worship of God (Gn. 4:26). The godly line of Seth apostatized when they married unbelieving women and forsook the worship of the true God (Gn. 6:1-5).

This first covenant era comes to an end with the flood. God brought covenantal judgment against a world of men who, except Noah and his family, had all become like Cain and Lamech. As in the beginning, when He brought judgment, God also gave a new covenant.


The First Kingly Covenant: the Noahic Covenant

The covenant with Noah is the second covenantal renewal of the Adamic world after the fall. What is new in this covenantal arrangement is that man is given the right to act as a judge (Gn. 9:5-6), something not permitted earlier when Cain murdered Abel (Gn. 4:15). This covenant emphasizes man's responsibility as king. Not that priestly duties are absent. But for the first time in history man is required to administer captical punishment. This is a blessing and indicates historical growth. However, this covenantal era also ends in abuse in precisely that area in which man was blessed: the authority to govern. Man attempted to raise his throne as high as heaven through the tower of Babel (Gn. 11:1ff.). God judged man's sin by destroying the tower and dispersing men all over the world.


The First Prophetic Covenant: the Abrahamic Covenant

Again, after judgement, God graciously renewed His covenant with man so that He could fulfill the promise of salvation and rebuild the kingdom that Satan was trying to ruin by tempting man to rebel. God elected Abraham and established the seed of Abraham as His covenantal priestly people. From this point in history until the coming of the new covenant, men must approach God through the people of Abraham -- "salvation is of the Jews" (Joh. 4:22b). The Adamic world continues, but it has been significantly changed, for the covenant with Abraham expands upon the promise of salvation more than the post-fall promise or the covenant with Noah. To Abraham is given the vision of a world redeemed from sin and restored unto God: "in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed" (Gn. 12:3b; cf. Gn. 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14).

The prospect of global blessing is the characteristic of the prophetic period. Abraham is certainly seen as a priest and as a king, for he offers sacrifices, leads an army, and is promised dominion over the nations and kings to come from his loins (Gn. 22:3ff.; 14:13ff.; 17:5-6). More importantly, Abraham is the first man in the Bible to be called a prophet: "he is a prophet" (Gn. 20:7). The prophetic blessings of Isaac and Jacob are prominent features of the Genesis story. The patriarch Joseph was a man of prophetic wisdom who brings the blessings of Abraham to the Egyptians.

Like sinful men before them, the seed of Abraham broke the covenant and became idolatrous in Egypt (Jsh. 24:14). Therefore God brought covenantal judgment upon His people, and they were sold into slavery under Pharaoh. When they cried out to God, He graciously heard their prayers and delivered them through Moses and Aaron.


1. The correct translation of Hosea 6:7a is: "But they like Adam have transgressed the covenant . . ." See, Benjamin B. Warfield, "Hosea VI.7: Adam or Man?" in Shorter Collected Writings, vol. 1, pp. 116 ff.

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