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10. T H E HISTORY OF GOD'S COVENANTS When one seeks to understand the theological perspectives of the Bible, much is to be said for starting at the beginning, with the book of Genesis, and following the canonical sequence. Of course, many readers have bravely tried this approach and have often gotten bogged down, usually in the book of Leviticus. The main reason for lack of theological excitement is that many readers fail to grasp the total context in which the books function. Theological Context The importance of context is evident when one turns to the first canonical unit of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch or Torah. In the Priestly perspective that gov­ erns the Torah, especially the first four books, the unfolding narrative is punctu­ ated by three divine covenants, each of which is termed an "everlasting covenant" {befit olam).1 Each covenant has its own character and scope,- and each prepares for, and provides the foundation for, the next. By dividing the biblical narrative into successive periods, characterized by a special covenant, Priestly writers provide an imaginative vision of a history that sweeps from the dawn of creation to the cli­ mactic revelation at Mount Sinai, when God condescended to "tabernacle" in the midst of the people. Read in this "periodized history," the individual narratives have a fuller, larger meaning.2 A Periodized Covenant History Let us survey the marvelous theological vista presented in the history of God's covenants (see fig. 3). Period 1 The first period extends from creation to the end of the primeval history (Genesis 1-11). Like other ancient traditions,3 the period is divided in two by a catastrophic flood, an event that marks the transition from the antediluvian times 1. The book of Deuteronomy, except for the last chapter, does not belong essentially to the Priestly history but serves as a bridge to the ensuing Deuteronomistic history (Joshua through 2 Kings). See further my discussion of "The Priestly Point of View," in Understanding the Old Testament (abridged paperback 4th ed., Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1997), 454-65. 2. On the Priestly periodization of history, see Frank M. Cross, 'The Priestly Work," in Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History oj the Religion ojIsrael (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1973), 298-300. 3. For instance, the Sumerian King List, which goes back to the second millennium B.C., begins with an antediluvian preamble that is followed by a list of kings who ruled "after the flood." See ANET, 265. 81 8 1 Contours of Old Testament Theology FIGURE 3. The Priestly Periodization oj History Primeval Period Cenesis 1-11 ,~ni- .Ti/^fci /"These are the generations of. CREATION " - - , . . . ,, - (genealogies) Call of (genealogies) Moses and Flood Abraham The Exodus Noachic Covenant Genesis 9:1-17 Sabbath Deity: Elohim Rest Sign: Rainbow I Abrahamic Covenant Cenesis 17:1-14 Deity: 'H Shaiiai Sign: Circumcision Sinaitic Covenant Deity: Yahwth Sign: Sabbath (Exod. 3l) THE CULTIC COMMUNITY (kM) Tabernacle Sacrificial system Priestly orders Calendar of holy days to the times "after the flood" (Gen. 10:1). The account of the covenant with Noah and his family after the flood, in Gen. 9:1-17, is one of the important theological passages in the book, of Genesis, comparable to the Priestly creation story (Gen. 1:1—2:3) and to the account of the covenant with Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 17), passages to be considered later. The Noachic covenant is specifically designated as a befit 'olam, an "everlasting covenant" or covenant in perpetuity (Gen. 9:16). This is a covenant of "grace alone" (sola gratia) because its permanence is based solely on God's pledge, guar­ anteed by a solemn divine oath, and therefore is not conditioned or threatened by human behavior. Notice that the flood story ends with Yahweh's covenantal promise that never again would such a catastrophe strike the earth, even though "the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth" (Gen. 8:21). Moreover, the Noachic covenant is a universal covenant that embraces all human beings—the descendants of Noah and his wife. This covenant is not made exclusively with Israel, the people of God, but with "all peoples that on earth do dwell," as we sing in a well-known doxology. Further, it is an ecological covenant that includes the whole nonhuman creation ("every living creature of all flesh," Gen. 9:15) and the earth itself (9:13). This universal covenant, which demands reverence for life, both...


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