Friday, August 27, 2010

The Meaning of God Establishing His Covenant in Genesis 6:18

In Gen 6:18 God says to Noah: “I will establish my covenant with you.” The question under investigation here is the meaning of והקמתי, the Hifil form of קום, that is used in this verse. We need to note in the first instance that והקמתי is a modal perfect or a weqatal form. The flavor of the modal perfect must be determined on the basis of the linguisitic context in which it is found. It is clear in this regard that Gen 6:17 has the immediate future in mind. The participle מביא bringing is used here to indicate what God is going to do in the immediate future. It makes sense, therefore, that the modal perfect והקמתי in 6:18 carries something of a similar flavor. The logic of God’s speech at this point is that after he brings the flood upon the earth, then he will “establish” his covenant with Noah. In other words, the “establishing” looks like it will take place some time in the future after the flood has come.

But what is the meaning of the verb והקמתי in this context? Is it indicating here that God will establish a new covenant with Noah, or simply that God will take a previously established covenant and confirm it with Noah, after the flood has come? Contrary to what some have argued, the fact that God describes this covenant as my covenant is insufficient to resolve the issue. A covenant that is not yet in existence but which God is about to grant to his subjects can be described in such personal terms. For example, the language my covenant appears in Gen 17. In Gen 17:4, God says to Abraham that “[his] covenant” was going to be with Abraham. It is clear from Gen 17:10 that the covenant mentioned by God in Gen 17:4 is the covenant of circumcision that he was about to make with Abraham: “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised” (Gen 17:10). Similarly in Exod 19:5, it appears far-fetched to say that my covenant here is not the covenant that God was proposing to make with Israel at the time, i.e., the Sinaitic covenant, the inauguration of which is recorded in Exod 24. Also, in Num 25:12, the expression my covenant refers to the covenant of an everlasting priesthood given to Phinehas and his seed. This was not a previously existing covenant, but one newly granted. The language of my covenant, which occurs 47 times in the Old Testament, simply serves to highlight God’s ownership of the covenants that he grants to his subjects, whether they be covenants already in existence or still to come into existence in the future.

In the end, how we are to understand the meaning of the expression I will establish my covenant with you in Gen 6:18 is dependent on the context. Given the logic of Gen 6:17–18, what happens after the flood (i.e., the content of Gen 9) will be the key to understanding the meaning of this expression. My next post, God willing, will discuss the idea of “establishing” a covenant that emerges from Gen 9.

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