Monday, September 6, 2010

The Meaning of God Establishing His Covenant with Noah in Genesis 9

The language of establishing a covenant occurs twice in Gen 9. In Gen 9:9–10, God says to Noah and his sons: “And I, behold, I am establishing (מקים) my covenant with you and with your seed after you, and with every living creature that is with you.” מקים is a Hifil participle of קום. The question here is whether מקים means that God is establishing a new covenant with Noah, or confirming a previously existing one. Linguistically, both options are possible, so context must be our guide in deciding which option is more probable. Given the absence of any explicit covenant language in the text preceding the Noah narrative, it is difficult to take מקים as talking about the confirmation of a previously existing covenant. The most natural reading is that God is establishing a new covenant with Noah and his seed, together with the living creatures (saved by Noah) and their seed (see Gen 9:12, 15). The content of the covenant is specifically the divine promise not to destroy “all flesh” by way of further instances of universal flooding (Gen 9:11, 15). This promise constitutes new content arising out of the new situation, namely, the existential crisis of life in the postdiluvian world. Appropriately this new covenant also has a new sign: the sign of the rainbow (Gen 9:13–14, 16–17). The translation of מקים in the LXX as ἀνίστημι confirms this. ἀνίστημι as a transitive verb means to cause to stand up, to raise up, to erect, to build; compared to ἵστημι, which means to cause to stand, and which can also have the meaning of to confirm. Thus, the translators of the LXX, by their use of ἀνίστημι rather than ἵστημι in Gen 9:9, seem to have understood מקים as indicating the establishment of a new (covenantal) formality within the relationship between God, humanity, and the earth.

The second instance of establishing a covenant in Gen 9 is found in v. 11, where God continues and says to Noah: “I will establish (והקמתי) my covenant with you, and all flesh will not be cut off again by the waters of the flood, and there will not be a flood again to destroy the earth.” It is significant that והקמתי is a Hifil modal perfect form, the modal flavor of which must be determined in the light of the context. The ESV seems to interpret והקמתי as carrying something of the flavor of the participle מקים from v. 9, as it translates both מקים and והקמתי as I establish. However it is best to interpret the flavor of the modal perfect verb in question in line with the two negative imperfect clauses that follow it in v. 11, which are basically epexegetic of the first clause in v. 11. In other words, והקמתי has a standard future-imperfective force. According to this interpretation, the idea of establishing God’s covenant in Gen 9:11 is to be understood in terms of God’s fulfillment of his covenant obligations in the future. God’s “establishment” of his covenant in v. 11 will be realized as he refrains from sending another flood to destroy all flesh in the future. This future-imperfective interpretation of והקמתי is confirmed in the LXX, which translates והקמתי using the verb στήσω, the future tense of ἵστημι.

All up, therefore, I would argue that the language of establishing a covenant in Gen 9:9 best reads as indicating the establishment of a new covenant that helps to guarantee the eventual fulfillment of the blessing of the realization of the original creation mandate, renewed in Gen 9:1–7. However, in Gen 9:11 the confirmation and fulfillment of this covenant in the future is being asserted. The Noahic covenant is a new covenant that functions to preserve animate life in the world by restricting the operation of the forces of chaos and decreation until a permanent solution to human sinfulness might be achieved. In Gen 9 the Noahic covenant is a newly erected frame, but at the same time its erection confirms the original framework of blessing and promise for which humanity as a whole was created.

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