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B'resheet/Genesis 6:18 And I will establish My covenant with you and you shall enter the ark
Three words dominate this text: , and - "I will establish", "my covenant" and "the ark". is the Hif'il 1cs affix form of the root , "to rise, arise, flourish, prosper" with a vav-reversive to generate a future tense. The causitive stem takes the meaning "to establish, confirm, perform" (Davidson), so here, "I will establish". is a feminine noun with a 1cs possessive pronoun, 'my', from the root , "to cut, eat, choose, select" (Davidson), usually translated "covenant", so here, "my covenant". Umberto Cassuto suggests that , a feminine noun with the definite article, is a loan-word, probably from Egyptian rather than Akkadian and probably describes a box or a chest with a flat bottom and rectangular form.1Targum Onkelos largely preserves the word in the Aramaic, ; the Septuagint translates it as , a chest or box; Josephus uses the word , a coffer, box, chest or coffin;2 and the Vulgate arca, an ark. The same word is used for the reed basket in which Moshe was placed on the Nile river as a baby in Egypt.
Four verbs are most often associated with covenants in the Tanakh: make, establish, keep and remember. Here we are concerned with the first two. The verb , to cut, is most frequently used for making or initiating a covenant, perhaps because of the ancient practices of symbolically cutting up animal sacrifices on such occasions; the modern colloquial expression "to cut a deal" is perhaps derived from the idea of cutting a covenant. The verb , to rise, in Hif'il, to establish, is - on the other hand - most frequently used for activating or affirming a covenant that is already in existence. Put another way, making a covenant means the giving of an undertaking by the parties to the covenant; whilst establishing a covenant signifies to fulfil and implement this undertaking. The problem with our text, however, is that the 'establish' verb is used, yet both Gunther Plaut and Nahum Sarna report that this is the first time that the covenant word is used in the Tanakh. So what is it's antecedent - to which covenant can it be referring?
There appear to be three options, all of which have their supporters among the commentators. TheRamban suggests that this is a new covenant being made specifically with Noah, that he and his family will be preserved through the flood. This is the line taken by the ancient sages, when "Rabbi Hiyya ben Abba explained: You were indeed the builder, yet but for My covenant which supported you, could you have entered the Ark? This will be proved when you enter the ark" (B'resheet Rabbah 31:12). Ibn Ezra appears to agree that this is a sign for Noah, but then switches to the rainbow that will be given as a sign of the covenant made after the flood. The Sforno prefers this latter option, saying, "My covenant - which I will make after the Flood." Plaut hints at the third option, commenting: "Noah's offspring will be enabled to carry out the command to the first humans, to be fruitful and multiply."
It is Cassuto who explains the third option in the most detail, writing, "Noah is informed that all mankind would perish in the waters of the Deluge; and if this came to pass, what would become of the promises that G-d had made to Adam? It is written: 'And G-d blessed them and G-d said to them, "Be fruitful and fill the earth"' (B'resheet 1:28). Thus a covenant was made with the human race that they would be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth ... a unilateral promise in favour of man. So here, G-d is saying that He will fulfil His promise through Noah and his seed, 'through you shall the existence of mankind be continued and through you shall the blessing that I bestowed on Adam be realised.'"1
RabbiHirsch picks up on the nature of itself, distancing it from the purely human understanding of an agreement made between two parties: "B'riyt is an arrangement which is to be carried out, quite independently of all external circumstances, even in opposition to them. It literally corresponds to the conception of the 'absolute', something separated, cut off from all connection between cause and effect, something absolutely unconditional. The word 'covenant' is by no means adequate for b'riyt, if only because a covenant is always a two-party, a mutual agreement, whereas b'riyt can be completely unilateral." Sarna confirms that is a special and important word; it is "one of the cardinal and pervasive concepts of biblical theology. It is employed for the relationship between G-d and man and, especially, between G-d and Israel."
So far we have dealt with the first two of the dominating words in the text. The third one is perhaps unexpected, precisely because it is not 'boat'. Although almost all the artwork through the ages concerning the ark shows a large boat shape and the modern so-called reconstructions (here and here) follow a boat outline, the word's meaning as a box or chest makes that unlikely. Sarna suggests "a boxlike craft made to float on the water but without rudder or sail or any navigational aid, that does not use the services of a crew." Noah could not steer the ark if he wanted to. This makes a startling connection with the idea of covenant: Noah was totally dependent on G-d for the whole of the voyage. It brings together the notes that "Noah and his sons, Shem and Ham and Japheth, and Noah's wife and the three wives of his sons with them entered the ark ... And the L-RD shut him in" (7:13-16, ESV) and "G-d said to Noah, 'Go out from the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons' wives with you ...' So Noah went out, and his sons and his wife and his sons' wives with him" (18:15-18, ESV). Once the ark was built, Noah did nothing except sit out the flood inside! Even shutting the door was beyond him. In Cassuto's words, "Noah's deliverance was not due to his seafaring skill but only to the will of his Heavenly Father. He had only to make an ark that would not sink in the water; that was all that was required of him; in all that concerned the unfolding of events, he had to put his trust in the L-rd and He would do what was necessary."1
G-d called Noah to build the ark and invited him into a covenant relationship, a saving relationship for himself and for all future mankind. G-d initiated and fulfilled the covenant; His was the idea, the plan, the invitation and the execution. Noah's part was to listen, to obey and then to get in and out of the ark when told. Okay, so Noah built the ark - although some of the Jewish tradition says that he needed rather more help with that than the biblical text narrates3 - and sent out the raven and the dove once the rain had been stopped for some time, but these were not significant navigational or strategic moves. No, what made it all happen was the specific and deliberate interventions and actions of G-d to preserve Noah and his family from destruction in the waters of the flood.
The ark itself can be seen as a physical representation of covenant, into which Noah entered and which then became the vehicle for the salvation of himself, his family and all future generations of mankind. The author of Hebrews affirms this when he writes, "By faith Noah, being warned by G-d concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household" (Hebrews 11:7, ESV). Noah responded to G-d's invitation and built the ark; G-d established His covenant once Noah was safe inside, by shutting the door against the flood waters. Being "in covenant" with G-d means entering into His saving plans and purposes. Or, turned around, to know the salvation of G-d, you must enter the ark of His covenant and be in relationship with Him.
Peter takes the argument on to the next step when he connects the journey in the ark, the passage through the flood, with salvation, when he speaks of, "the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you" (1 Peter 3:20-21, ESV). Baptism, passing through water, is a sign of our unity with and faith in Yeshua. It is covenant that provides the vehicle for our salvation; G-d invites us to enter His covenant in Yeshua, to get aboard for the journey of our lives - and He covenants with us that He will save us so that we emerge to life in a new world.
1. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part Two - From Noah to Abraham, Magnes Press Jerusalem 1984, 965-223-540-7
2. - So from Herodotus and Thucydides, Liddell & Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, OUP
3. - Jewish tradition and the B'resheet narrative are not in conflict here; tradition simply fills in some of the holes of the story where the narrative is silent.
Further Study: Luke 17:26-27; 2 Peter 2:4-9
Application: So, are you on board the ark - are you in that saving and preserving covenant with G-d that will see you safe through the floods and storms of life?
© Jonathan Allen, 2017
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