Covenant of all flesh: earth community as grounds for biblical and biological identity.
For this web of traditions, notes Laurie Braaten, "there is no interaction between YHWH and people that does not include Land." (2.) In some instances, the song of the earth rises up as part of an all-encompassing relationship with YHWH that is upheld, hut not defined, by humankind. In the Creators "visitation" (Ps 65:9) of the earth, the land in its plurality is jubilant, pours forth the sweetness of fertility, and is aglow with blessing:
The pastures of the desert shout for joy, the hills gird themselves with rejoicing. The pastures clothe themselves with flocks, and the valleys cover themselves with grain, they shout for joy, indeed they sing. (Ps 65:12-13) (3.)
The opposite condition--a violated, despairing disintegrity--reflects in negative the same vision of the comprehensive togetherness of beings. In the Isaiah tradition, as elsewhere, the betrayal of commitments made by certain of Earth's inhabitants does not merely create victims of other inhabitants, but rather, strikingly, engulfs the total community in a state of desolation and grief: The earth is mourning, pining away, the pick of earths people are withering away. The earth is defiled by the feet of its inhabitants, for they have transgressed the laws, violated the decree, broken the everlasting covenant. (Isa 24:4-5, NJB) (4)
I begin with these examples to frame my objective here. I aim to marshal biblical language and its cherished imagery to contemplate, on religious terms, a world that we know considerably differently than did the biblical authors. This is the key hermeneutical move, the principal exegetical challenge. Our understanding of this Earth Community is far more complex, to the point of vertigo, than that of the Hebrew prophets and the early Christian church. The lenses through which we come face-to-face with the natural world today show us a quantum, chemical, ecological, and even psychological connectivity unimaginable among the nomads and early kingdoms of the Levant. What translations, then--of the expressions in the text and of our own habits of perception--must we be prepared to perform if we call upon the biblical testimony to orient our own participation in Earth Community?
Although the biblical authors drew on an ancient picture of the world, they were not naive in their application of metaphor to re-cognize the world that they saw. Howard Wallace, in his discussion of Psalm 65, notes that the "shouting" and "singing" of the land is not simply a personified echo of the praise and prayer of human peoples. This "shout," indeed, "consists of the flocks clothing the pastures and the grain covering the valleys." (5) In other words, the life of the land is witnessed in its natural activity, then refracted theologically as a manner of praise proper to pastures and valleys, then meta-phorizedassong, in the human vocabulary. These metaphorical moves--particular to a time and place--only reinforce the overall experience of the land as ethically and theologically significant Earth Community. (6)
I want to argue that we can make analogous moves: approach the world as we witness it--that is, with the lenses of the contemporary natural sciences in place-- then consider its significance within the categories of our religious imagination and identity, then apply prophetic metaphor that resonates at the angle created by these other two interpretive histories, in the present day and in the face of its challenges.
With the limited scope of this essay, I will zero in on the second of these moves, to aim at one in-depth discussion rather than to attempt three inadequately. I will be taking as given, therefore, the picture of the universe developed during the twentieth century, from the increasing interpenetrations of the natural sciences with each other and with the human sciences: a universe characterized by a total, concentric connectivity, from the curvature of space around superclusters of stars to the energies holding subatomic particles in relation to one another; a universe characterized by cosmological genealogy, from molecular clouds to stars to heavy elements to amino acids to self-sustaining--but interdependent--organisms; a universe in which human being is a particular modality of the universe that can celebrate its subjectivity as such. This presupposition should be scrutinized, and indeed, frequently is--but here it is my foundation. On the other side, I will touch upon some implications of achieving resonance between the contemporary world-picture and Judeo-Christian imaginative and evaluative criteria, but only in conclusion. My focus, rather, is a modern application ok traditional religious ways of synthesizing the witnessed world--and in particular, one arch-category of interpretation from the Judeo-Christian heritage: covenant.
In the remainder of this essay, I Will: a) define and describe biblical covenant according to its appearances in the Pentateuch, with special regard to the all-embracing covenant of all flesh (Gen 9:8-17); b) explore the conditions of covenantal violation and integrity (as expounded by the Prophets) when viewed in the light of contemporary science--that is, present a religious reading of physical and biological interdependence as covenantal; and c) accounting for the Christian adoption of these texts (however fraught), provide one viable christological interpretation of the personification and recapitulation of covenant in the Gospels, thus arriving at a covenantal reading of incarnation and ecumenism in relation to physical cycles, ecological flows, and evolutionary history.
When the word "covenant" (berith) appears in the Hebrew scriptures, it signals a special category of relationship. The translations differ--some have the English terms "treaty," "alliance," or even "confederation" for the Hebrew berith--but in each case the relationship in question is binding rather than incidental or instrumental. It is binding for all parties, as with a league of nations, a pledge of mutual service between a government and a populace, even a marriage. A covenant molds and maintains the identity of those who live within it--both the original mediators of the covenant and their descendents. Abrams very name is changed (Gen 17:1-8), and his people are circumcised--a commitment of the heart as well as of the skin. Moses and his whole community are called to a priestly identity to bear through the ages (Exod 19:5-6). This covenantal form of relationship--mutualistic, identity-forming, attention-holding, and demanding of accountability--implies the entry of the identity of each party into, and its subsistence in, the identity of the other. Thus the religious invocation of berith signals God s promise but also God's claim.
Much more could be said about the parameters of the covenantal tradition, but it is at least essential to note that each successive iteration of covenant in the Hebrew scriptures does not repeal or replace chose prior to it. Much of the drama of the scriptures is framed by the violation and restoration of one or more of these covenantal registers; however, when the covenant is violated it is not undone. It must be recapitulated and transfigured, but also continually qualified, refined, focused. Thus I speak of the concentricity of the Judeo-Christian covenantal tradition. The geometric analogy is a useful one: Note that the covenant made with Noah creates a binding togetherness, not of one nation or even all nations, but of "every living creature on earth" (Gen 9:16, NJB). The covenant with Abraham and Isaac, in turn, narrows the focus without any separation from the encompassing field. It takes as its scope the many human peoples of the world, with the descendents of Abraham uplifted as a holy family of nations for the blessing of all nations. (8) With Moses and Aaron, subsequently, the conditions of holiness for Israel are defined--the laws, praxis, and blessings of the covenant again tighten in scope, from all living things to all nations and now to all people of one nation. (9)
The covenant on which I want to focus, however, is the first specific mention of berith in the Hebrew scriptures (Genesis 6-9): the covenant between YHWH and the living earth, established through Noah. It is my contention that the Noachic covenant not only precedes the later covenants but also undergirds them and renders conditions within which they are maintained:
And God said to Noah and to his sons with him, "I now establish My covenant with you and your offspring to come, and with every living thing that is with you--birds, cattle, and every wild beast as well--all that have come out of the ark. every living thing on earth. I will maintain My covenant with you: never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth" God further said, "This is the sign that I ser for the covenant between Me and you, and every living creature with you, for all ages to come, have set My bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember My covenant between Me and you and every living creature among all flesh, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When a bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures, all flesh that is on the earth. That," God said to Noah, "shall be the sign of the covenant that I have established between Me and all flesh that is on earth"(Gen 9:8-17, TAN).
This extraordinary passage establishes the identity of Noah and his descendants (representative of the human species) as members of a unified community of "all living things." It is the integrity of this life in its entirety that is upheld. (10) The astonishing stress placed by the passage on "all living things," "all flesh"--repeated in variable form ten times between Gen 9:8 and 9:17--sharpens a vision of the whole of the Earth Community participating in relationship with God. (11) The suggestion is not of a separate relationship for every species, but rather of a single community of life united in the shared promise and claim. God does not command Noah to take aboard the ark only those animals that will benefit humankind, but the totality of species down to the ugliest and least useful, simply and strikingly "that their lives may be saved" (Gen 6:20, NIB).
Looking again to our bifocal hermeneutic--the world witnessed with new capacities of vision in every era, refracted through particular ethical and theological experiences of the world (upheld as sacred by identity-molding traditions)--we might say that biodiversity is one of the laws of God's primary covenant with Creation. It is to be upheld in perpetuity, "for all ages to come" (Gen 9:12, TAN), as an expression of Gods fundamental--and pluriform--relationship with Creation. (12) Indeed, Earths biodiversity can be read in this way as a sign and sacrament of Gods standing covenant with "all flesh," as was the rainbow in earlier times. The physical and biological interconnectivity of our world is thus religiously evocative in and of itself, "shouting" to us with the force of the pastures and valleys in the psalms, articulating the conditions of the Noachic Earth Community with ever-greater richness. The covenant, we recall, is binding for all; it consists of parameters of integrity and praxis associated with its maintenance; it upholds a promise of blessing shared by all; it calls the identity of every part into deep participation in the identity of every other part. Thus, the emergent complexity of energy-exchange between micro- and mesoorganisms, the dance of ecological succession when a decadent forest is rejuvenated by fire, the soaring water quality and marine birth rates associated with coastal wetlands' health--to contemporary eyes, any of these can be as visible, emotionally uplifting, and naturally embedded as the rainbow effect of light prismed through wet air.
But--just as we have come to see the conditions and praxis necessary for covenantal blessing with new eyes, so too can we witness the violation of "the everlasting covenant" (Isa 24:5, NJB) within the world-picture of our time. In the biblical traditions, it is most often the prophets who recall negligent peoples to repentance, remembrance, and recapitulation of the covenant. Different prophets attend to different dimensions of the concentric covenantal heritage, (13) but the clearest instances of prophetic concentration on the Noachic covenant can be found in Isaiah and Hosea. These prophets are especially sensitive to the mourning of the earth, its weeping when its inhabitants are not at peace with God, its crying out in pain when it bears the wounds of injustice. The relationship between the planet and human sin is complex in these texts, as in the modern world. It can hardly be argued that Earth is responsible for its own desolation; indeed, Isaiah declares it "defiled by the feet of its inhabitants" (24:5, NJB) and victim to those who would strip it of its rightful dignity. But, Hosea employs a rhetoric that identifies the disgrace of the earth because of human sin. (14) In both of these texts, the nation and the land fell as they stand: as one. Connectivity trumps fairness--as with the impact of climate change falling most rapidly and brutally on the backs of those fragile island and desert communities least responsible tor the carbon explosion.
Yet, it is the reconciliation envisioned by these two prophets that most vividly presents the inextricability of humanity and the rest of the Earth Community in relation to God. Hosea envisions YHWH becoming abundant in mercy, straight out of his Accusations and anger toward the earth:
But look, I am going to seduce her back, and lead her into the desert, and speak to her heart... When that day comes I shall make an agreement [berith] with the wild animals, with the birds of heaven and the creeping thing of the earth; I shall break the bow and the sword and warfare, and banish them from the country, and I will let them sleep secure. I shall betroth you to myself for ever, I shall betroth you in uprightness and justice, and faithful love and tenderness. (Hos 2:16, 19-21; NJB)
When human sin (15) is renounced, the covenant of all flesh is renewed, and articulated in specific terms: No form of life, whether the feared "wild animal" or the ugly and repellant "creeping thing," is to be scapegoated and excluded. (16) The whole community of the land is joined in healing as much as in brokenness. Isaiah, in turn, is clear that the blessing of the covenant restored, no less than the desolation of the covenant disrupted, is a reality indigenous to the Earth Community, whose life is the all-pervasive breath of God. This state of salvation and the human righteousness that animates it are represented as fruits of the earth itself, when it is united with YHWH, rather than being imposed on it from beyond: "Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down righteousness; let the earth open, that salvation may spring up, and let it cause righteousness to sprout up also; I the LORD have created it" (Isa 45:8,NRSV).
These diverse but aligned prophetic visions are more than an "environmental ethic, concerned only with treatment of the land: Human peace and security (17) are themselves intrinsic to the well-being of Earth Community. Humans can see ever more vividly today that we are the earth, are of the earth. We are adamah (Gen 2:7), humus, starstuff. What ancient Israel identified as the covenant of all flesh can thus be said to be genuinely "ecological," or even "ecumenical," identifying the integrity of the whole oikos (18) --human and extra-human entwined on the common ground of their physical nature--as the promise of Creation's fulfillment.
In conclusion, I want to trace the contours of a contemporary puzzle that is brought into focus but cannot be adequately elaborated in this space. To consider these Hebrew texts refracted through contemporary lenses demands that we account not only for their embeddedness in Jewish theology and interpretation but also for their millennia-long influence on Christian understandings. We need to address both historical questions of intellectual genealogy and contemporary questions of Jewish-Christian relations.
Christianity, hi its inception, development, and constellation of identities, both adopts and adapts the covenantal tradition. Jesus' articulation of who he was and what he meant to accomplish is deeply embedded in the covenantal narrative of claim and promise, violation and reconciliation. Like Jeremiah (31:31), Isaiah (55:3), Ezekiel (37:26), and others, Jesus promised a new covenant: both a restoration of the ancient covenant and a birthing of an unprecedented level of integrity in the relations of God and world. (19) However, the hearers of Jesus' new-covenant ministry came to break from the earlier prophetic expectation. They claimed that Jesus not only announced God's promise of a new covenant, a new Creation, but also embodied that new identity and commitment, personified the very covenant that he recapitulated. Jesus was identified as Emmanuel, God-among-us, the Presence of God chat is no longer confined to the Temple but has made all flesh its temple.
To understand the Christ as incarnation is to see him not as a visitor to Earth but as one whose body is like all bodies, formed of organic material in his mothers womb, growing to adulthood as an organism that trades its substance with that of the natural world. The body of Jesus was made of new cells every day, new molecules acquired from air, water, and food; quite literally, Earth was his substance. Incarnation thus means being born not only of Mary but also of the whole of evolutionary history. (20) This history is the "true vine" (John 15:1) of the universe, from which all beings dangle like fruit, their bodies woven of and nourished on the same matter chat congealed into planets from pre-solar nebulae. (21) Theology of incarnation is theology of Cod's physical union with all Creation: "Turn the light of the world" (John 8:12); "Take, eat, this is my body" (Matt 26:26). A Christianity with contemporary eyes can envision Jesus' cucharistic identity as the ultimate affirmation of God's covenant with all flesh--attuned to the physical harmonics established by cosmic history, bursting with biodiverse communities even within the apparent boundaries of a single body, and psychologically exuberant in an experience of selfhood that stretches lovingly to the farthest reaches of reality.
The field of Noah's covenant encompasses all others; all beings are enrolled in it, all divisions overcome in it, and all diversities are maintained in it. It is thus both biblically resonant and scientifically accurate that despite and inclusive of the differences that exist between the inhabitants of the world, our common ancestry and our participation in the interconnected life of the planet are an existing, ecumenical unity. Whether we hope for or despair of unity in a religious or even a human sense, we are already united on a more fundamental level than that of all that would divide us.
To approach the interpersonal and intercultural crises that characterize centuries of Jewish-Christian relations upon this hermeneutical and spiritual ground is to affirm that the abundant life of Earth Community aw be both a common ground for dialogue and a chief parameter of diverse confessional commitments. This life--which admits no material or spiritual reductionisms, which binds the whole Earth Community in shared integrity and disintegration--is the basis on which justice and peace, and no less Zion-centered hope and evangelical proclamation, are meaningful concepts. Ecumenism--whether intra-or inter-religious--is therefore fulfilled not as the strategizing of tentative and incidental allies in a war on evil, but as the permanent relationship, often frayed, but always magnetized toward the deepest love, of family members with a common origin and cohabitation. Ecology, after all, includes human ecology--and ecology is "the study of organisms at home." (22)
Bible editions cited:
[NJB] - New Jerusalem Bible: The Complete Text of the Ancient Canon of the Scriptures. New York City: Doubleday, 1998.
[NRSV] - New Revised Standard Version, with Apocrypha. Oxford: Oxford University press, 1989.
[TAN] - Tanakh: A New Translation of the Holy Scriptures According to the Traditional Hebrew Text. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1985.
All translations from Greek are my own,
(1.) A version of this paper was presented on October 21, 2011, at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago for die fourth annual Student Symposium on Science and Spirituality of the Zygon Center's Religion and Science Student Society. The author would like to thank Geraldine Smyth, Lorin Hollander, and Kelli Gardner for their attention and insight in helping to develop this material.
(2.) Laurie J. Braaten, "Earth Community in Hosea 2," in The Earth Story in the Psalms and the Prophets, ed. Norman C. Habel (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 188.
(3.) Translation in Howard N. Wallace, "Jubilate Deo omnis terra: God and Earth in Psalm 65," in The Earth Story in the Psalms and the Prophets, 53. Compare a description of the earth's participation in God's jubilee from Isa 55:12-13, TAN:
Yea, you shall leave in joy and be led home secure.
Before you, mount and hill shall shout aloud. And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands
Instead of the briar, a cypress shall rise;
Instead of the nettle, a myrtle shall rise. These shall stand as a testimony to the LORD, As an everlasting sign that shall not perish.
(4.) See also, in comparison, Hos 4:1-3, NJB:
There is no loyalty, no faithful love, no knowledge of God in the country, only perjury and violence, bloodshed after bloodshed. This is why the country is in mourning and all its citizens pining away, the wild animals also and the birds of the sky even the fish in the sea will disappear.
(5.) Wallace, "Jubilate Deo omnis terra," 61.
(6.) Ibid., 63.
(7.) Cf. David Gosling, A New Earth Covenanting for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation (London: CCBI, 1992), 11.
(8.) See Gen 17:4-8, NRSV."...this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God."
See also Gen 26:4-5, NRSV. "I will multiply your offspring as die scars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws."
It is critical to note a distinction here between the covenant with Abraham and the other covenants discussed. Whereas the Noachic covenant is made with all living things and the Mosaic covenant is made with all people of Israel, the Abrahamic covenant is only made with Abraham's lineage through Sarah--even though the blessings promised through this covenant extend to all nations (with the conditions of composition and the political ramifications bracketed, we can see in Gen 17:19-21 that even Ishmael's descendents arc blessed by, but not subject to, the covenant--within its scope but not its claim). On the one hand, this wards off an interpretation by which the many nations are subject to the binding conditions of the Abrahamic covenant; on the other, "blessing" is so vague a category that it does not render any particular ethical expectation between Abraham's descendents of different lineages or between Abraham's descendents and those many nations blessed "in them."
(9.) The parameters of the Mosaic covenant are more difficult to define, as the texts related to the promise of the land of Canaan and the giving of the law extend through the remainder of the Pentateuch--however, some clarity is gained by reading Exod 19:5-6, NRSV ("Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but mm shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.") alongside the dialogues char immediately follow between Moses and YHWH on Mt. Sinai.
The promises of land and blessing made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have been reiterated, bur the conditions are now further defined. Written on tablets of stone, the commandments themselves are referred to as "the covenant" (Exod 34:28-29). In the simplest terms, these tablets are a legal contract, drawn up by God and undersigned by Moses on behalf of all those who sojourn with him, who share in the covenant's expectations, communal/ethical relationships, and identity before God. Later, in 2 Samuel, the covenant with David provides a further, concentrically embedded refinement, issuing a calling for sage leadership of the community of holiness and its righteous steering through all generations to come.
(10.) Although the laws of this covenant include the acceptability of relating to other animals as predators and prey (Gen 9:3), they also insist that the "life" of all animals, human and nonhuman, is sacred in God s eyes (Gen 9:4--5).The fact that the narrative emphasizes God's commitment to the preservation of species rather than the preservation of individual lives reinforces the sense of ecological wholeness with which we are concerned.
(11.) Note that in Gen 9:13 (TAN) YHWH describes a relationship of commitment even more fundamental than that with "all living things": "the covenant between Me and the earth."
(12.) cf. Richard Hiers, " Reverence for Life and Environmental Ethics in Biblical Law and Covenant," in the Journal of Law and Religion 13.1 (1999), 135-137.
(13.) Amos, for instance, rails against the empty faith of a priestly caste that has become more of a business and a circus than a pure body meeting the expectations of communal holiness and ethical integrity given to Moses and Aaron (5:18-24). Micah's famous vision of each nation beating its swords into plowshares and coming in peace to worship "in the names of its gods" on Mt. Zion (4:1-7, TAN) can be read (in the light of the covenant of Abraham and Isaac) as a call for meaningful benevolence even towards nations that do not share in the covenant--Israel lifted up as a light of blessing and wisdom rather than violence.
(14.) He weaves a narrative of God's pitiless turning away from his "wife," the earth, because of her "adulteries" that produced an unfaithful race of humans. Laurie Braaten suggests that "the call to accuse Land with the charge of whoredom is actually a rhetorical device employed to get the Israelites involved in pronouncing judgment on themselves as the true guilty party" ("Earth Community in Hosea 2," 190)
(15.) In this case, religious infidelity; in the broader scope of the prophets, the Gospels, and our own situation, we can imagine other violations of the "everlasting covenant" between God and world, whose laws are written into the natural functioning of the Earth Community.
(16.) It should be noted, however, that not all die prophets share Hosea's (and Isaiah's) inclusive imagination of the renewal of the Earth Community--Ezekiel excludes wild animals from Israel in his own "covenant of peace" (34:25, NRSV). Likewise with other iterations of covenant and other visions of (heir restoration: Unlike Micah, Joel excludes "strangers" from the holy mountain and depicts the nations that have oppressed Israel as lying in desolation (4:17-19, NRSV), rather than coming in peace to celebrate God's jubilee side-by-side with the Israelites.
(17.) In Hosea, the abolishment of warfare; today, we might add the overcoming of exploitative economic relationships.
(18.) Braaten points out that because the Greek term oikos is not a concept in the Hebrew Scriptures, we must be cautious in applying it to them ("Earth Community in Hosea 2," 188). Nevertheless, the land is Preferred to as God's "home" or "house" (Hos 8:1; 9:15), albeit in highly metaphorical language, and as long as we recognize that the familial relationships of a "household" are implied in our discussion of Earth Community, we can move carefully between the two terms.
(19.) Standing in the concentric covenantal lineage of the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus explicitly denies the dissolution of earlier covenants in his transfiguration of them. See Matt 5:17--"Do not think that I have come to demolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to demolish but to fulfill them." The Gospels of Mark and Matthew even avoid the qualifier "new"' when Jesus declares the Eucharistic wine to be "my blood of the covenant" (Mark 14:24; Matt 26:28).
(20.) When we speak of Mary as Jesus' mother we can recognize that she is also the representative of an entire half of Jesus' sacred heritage. Jesus' "mother" is more than the single person of Mary in the same way that his own body is more than a single organism.
(21.) Cf. Paulos Mar Gregorios, "New Testament Foundations for Understanding the Creation," in Liberating Life: Contemporary Approaches to Ecological Theology, ed. C. Birch, et al. (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1990), 42. Gregorios notes that Christ became not only an individual but also humankind itself--which, as one emergence of Creation, is coextensive with all flesh. Christ, therefore, "shares his being with the whole created order."
(22.) Sean McDonagh, To Care for the Earth: a call to a new theology (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1986), 17.
Covenant molds and maintains the identity of those who live within it--both the original mediators of the covenant and their descendents.
Aaron T. Hollander
Ph.D Student Iheology, University of Chicago Divinity School
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|Author:||Hollander, Aaron T.|
|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2012|
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