Is There A Covenant of Works?

I keep hearing about this Covenant of Works that Adam failed in. It was part of the reason why I started writing about our relationship to Adam (here, here and here). But I want to examine this: Is there a Covenant of Works or a Covenant of Creation in the Biblical record?

Covenants and the Ancient Near East
The Old Testament is threaded with covenantal language. You read the text expecting it. Sometimes the language is employed in making allies (Gen 14:2, Eze 30:5) and other times it means terms or a treaty (1 Kings 20:34, 1 Sam 11:1) . Sometimes the language is there preempting a covenant (Gen 12) but it’s readily admitted that the Covenant isn’t officially ratified until specific activity (Gen 15). Sometimes the language is there (2 Sam 7) without mentioning that it is a Covenant,  but everyone recognizes it as a covenant (2 Sam 23:5; Psalm 89). Other times the language is there but it’s reiterating something said earlier so there seems to be no need to add anything else to solidify it as a Covenant(Gen 17, Eze 37).

Stepping back from the text, the Ancient Near East culture was threaded with Covenantal language as well. A study of late bronze era ANE covenantal treaties reveals a general pattern, some scholars calling it the ideal pattern of: (A) Preamble, (B) The History (C), The Stipulations, (D) Provision for Deposit of Public Reading (E) The Witnesses (F) curses and Blessings and (G) Ratification Ceremony. These covenants would always be set up in creating a new relationship (between two parties, one stronger, one weaker), always be ratified, and almost always with a ratification ritual, frequently by animal sacrifice.

They were always declared in a literary or oral form to ensure that all parties knew how to think of themselves and later action, were usually affecting a sense of gratefulness resulting in self-obligation, and the cloud of curses and blessings were pretty much connected to the divine but really not implemented by the Divine. Iron Age ANE treaties were exceedingly more brutal and were totally focused on the diminished recipient party.

Divine Constitutions
The Divine Covenants (specific texts that don’t only use Covenantal language but are completely based on God toward Man) in Scripture do not always follow the exact pattern of ANE covenants and don’t even really read as covenants, but more like self-contracts by the Deity. Gen 15 for example, is definitely a Covenant but it’s a Covenant by God with Himself toward Abraham as beneficiary—so much so that God performs the ratification ceremony without Abraham’s participation. 2 Samuel 7 has David ready to do some great work of building a house for God, and God preempting him by building up his house while removing any activity on the part of David. These Divine Contracts (I’m not even sure that’s a good word for it; maybe a Constitution would be better) were explicit and binding, not merely between the parties, but in the part of Yahweh as giving them. These Divine Constitutions also do not always create a new relationship but are predicated on pre-established realities. 2 Sam 7 already assumes the Kingship is in place, but solidifies it; Gen 9 already assumes people will govern and fill the earth, but solidifies how they will be preserved; Gen 15 already has Abraham as involved religiously (Gen 12) but solidifies the relationship.

So it is not possible to define Covenant as merely binding or merely Constitutional when it’s littered throughout the text doing different things at different times but it is possible to see the Divine Covenants working an explicit way. You always know who is enacting them (Yahweh), you always know what He is intending and promising, and they are always based on a relationship that already exists but solidifying that relationship in a special way that makes transfers those under the covenantal borders under the purview of God. Further the Divine Constitution are more often than not unilateral (when they are bi-lateral they start bearing more similarities to ANE covenants) and they are enacted in such a way that all parties are to remember the benefits that are given.

Covenant of Works and the Ancient Near East
But is Genesis 1-3 explicating a Covenant of Works (a Divine Covenant in which the recipient party is afforded a status as representative but with covenantal responsibilities and duties—like the Mosaic Covenant—which can result in break of Covenant) as argued by just about every Covenant Theologian? Well, according to the Ancient Near East Covenantal language, I think we can see some similarities with ANE covenants and even the Divine Constitutions in other parts of Scripture.

  • 1) The creation account can be taken as the History of the relationship of the sovereign over the vassal (compare to (B) above)
  • 2) The heavenly hosts (Let us create man) could be seen as witnesses (compare to (E) above)
  • 3) There are blessings and curses.(compare to (F) above)

But there are some major differences from any ANE Covenant:

  • 1) There is no explicit preamble about who is creating the covenant (contra (A)). The character is assumed and he goes about making everything. Unlike Deuteronomy where the entire book is structured in this ANE Covenantal form ((A) Preamble (1:1-6), (B)History (1:7-4:49); (C) Stipulations (5-26; General/Specific); (D) Deposit and Public Reading (only implied: Exo 20,27, Deut 27:11-26, later Josh 24);(E) the witnesses are the people listening to the reading (F) curses and Blessings (27, 28);(G) Ratification Ceremony (Exo 19:8 Assent; Exodus 24 Sprinkling of Blood), the same compiler didn’t bother doing the same thing here.
  • 2) The  stipulations don’t speak in terms of obligation to Elohim (contra (C)). In Genesis 2, the obligation seems to be assumed by the fact that the man is contingent on the one who made him. Indeed, this is the same contingent obligation that belongs to every parent from their child as evidenced in Genesis.
  • 3) There is no provision for the depositing of the covenant stipulations (contra (D)). No record of the blessings are being mandated to be recorded by God. What is repeated is the cursing (Gen 4,5) which makes us assume that people took with them the future hope of being redeemed from the curse—but that doesn’t mean that they were covenantaly bound to keeping true to that.
  • 4) The curses and blessings are divorced from each other (contra (F)). ANE Covenantal language pairs these things (If you X then Y, if you Not-X then Q) but none of that exists in this text. Indeed, they are blessed apart from Lordship (YHWH is never used in Genesis 1 but in Genesis 2) and a curse is stipulated as a warning—but this is expected in a relationship from Father to Son (notice Genesis 49 and the blessings and curses of Jacob with his 12 Sons)
  • 5) There is no ratification of the covenant (contra (G)). No Sacrifice. No shed blood. Surprisingly, the only shedding of blood occurs after the point where most Covenant Theologians would say the Covenant was broken. Here it might be good to mention that in 2 Sam 7 there doesn’t seem to be any ratification ceremony (unlike Genesis 9 and Genesis 15 which both contain explicit ceremonies, as does Deuteronomy and even the Mosaic Covenant at Sinai). But there is the fact that after receiving the promises, David goes “in before the Lord” which would mean the tabernacle where the sacrifices are offered. If Genesis 1-2 has a tabernacle where the sacrifices are being offered but we don’t even have a shadow of cultic activity until after the Fall and expulsion from the Garden (Gen 5).

Covenant of Works as A Divine Constitution versus Familial Accountability
Even if we tried to really stretch it by saying that this is the first temporal Divine Constitution of which all other covenants then find their source, we would still encounter problems:

  • 1) The future language of Genesis 6 (ie: “I will establish my Covenant with…”) which implies Divine purpose but it doesn’t state that there was a Covenant that was broken to begin with.
  • 2) The Divine Covenants are redemptive after the Fall but one has to wonder why there is a Covenant (of works) that works antithetically to God’s grace before the Fall. I mean, if every Covenant after the Garden is based on faith and God’s grace, then why would the Covenant of Works before the Fall (and in an ideal situation) be based on Works over Faith? Technically, faith winds up being only a substitute (and lowered bar) for works which makes no theological sense to me. Salvation is always by faith, so if there was an Adamic Covenant it would have the intent of ensuring that Adam remains in the family, not setting him up for a fall. Of course, I’m ignoring any discussion of previous Covenants from eternity past to make what occurs in the Garden a necessity.
  • 3) The Divine Covenants always (repeat always) make it a point for the recipient party to know the covenantal blessings that come with being part of the covenantal community. Not so the Genesis account. The blessings are not only are granted, but they carry over even outside of what usually is stated as being the breaking of the Covenant.

In fact, I think there are some really good reasons to think that what we see in Genesis 1-3 isn’t the establishment and failure of a Covenant of Works, but rather the establishment of a family via the birth of a Son:

  • 1) Genesis 2 reflects something more akin to the bat’ab where the Father is immediately over his son (since he has birthed him), the son has specific obligations to the family (cf Deut 21:18–21), the Father trains the son (placing him in a garden in the midst of a non-Garden world) and the Father ultimately gets a wife for the son (who the son immediately recognizes as wife). The Father even seems to have the right to declare a death punishment on his own child (Genesis 38:24) or a curse if need be (Gen 49). But this relationship is the one that naturally occurs without a covenant.
  • 2) The text goes out of its way to declare genealogical (familial) lines (Genesis 5:1 This is the written account of Adam—then speaks about Adam’s kids; Genesis 6:9 This is the account of Noah—then speaks about Noah’s kids;  Genesis 11:10 This is the account of Shem—then speaks about his kids; Genesis 25:19 This is the account of Abraham—then speaks about Isaac; Genesis 37:2 This is the account of Jacob—then speaks about his kids; Genesis 2:4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created—then speaks about Adam and Eve.
  • 3) The blessings (Genesis 1) carry over outside of the Garden and at some points are even points of contact for punishment (Gen 5, 6, 9). As children, the father naturally provides for them and they are naturally to be fruitful and fill the earth, taking over the family business. Still retaining their familial connection, they are punished when they kill their brothers, where they are incited in violence and when they refuse to restrict their own activity in regards to violence via government. Indeed, this likeness to the patriarch of the family (Lord God) winds up affecting thinking in the New Testament in the treatment of other people.
  • 4) The creating of people in the image and likeness of God doesn’t merely seem to imply representation (which Covenant Theologians draw from Romans 5 to further the covenant of works position) but seems to point to a tighter relationship of parent to child. For example, when Adam later births Seth, the man doesn’t only stand as his representative but the familial blessing that is given by the father to the son—the inheritor via firstborn status (not temporal firstborn position). And in Adam’s case, we see the language that Adam became the father of a son who was in the image and likeness of Adam (Gen 5:3) and Adam named his son Seth. In the same exact way, Adam is made in the image and likeness of God and God names his son Adam. Indeed, Luke easily sees the connection when he draws up the genealogy of Christ by calling Adam the Son of God—not as mere representative, but as his Dad (Luke 3:38)

Covenant of Works in Later Scripture
So much for the near context. There are two later texts that some use to prove that there was a covenant at creation.

  • 1) Jeremiah 33:20-26 speaks about the covenant of night and day. Some have (incorrectly) taken this to mean the establishment of the covenant of works. Well, the furthest they can go with this text is to establish that there is a covenant with the day and the night at their appointed times. That’s it. God established this either on the 1st Day of Creation or the 4th Day but in either case, it is speaking about the unending system that day follows night and night follows day. If the Covenant at Creation was solely that God established things with order then we wouldn’t have a problem—but people seem to make more of that then what it is.
  • 2) Hosea 6:7 is also used but ignoring the serious textual issues. Is it “[At Adam] where the people have broken [the] Covenant” (cf. Josh 3:16)? Is it “[like Adam transgressed the Covenant] the people also transgressed when they broke [the] Covenant”? Is it “[Like covenant breaking men], they have broken The Covenant? Is it “But they have broken a covenant in Adam”?  Or could it be [Like Men] they have broken covenant?Well contextually, the passage is speaking about the way Ephraim/Jacob (spoken of in the third person) has proved that their loyalty is useless: here for a little bit and gone shortly later (Hose 6:4-6). It may be referring to a town where specific activity occurred but I don’t know how we can contextually justify that beyond showing that other cities are mentioned (ie: Gilead, Shechem).

    Further on (Hos 6:8-10) we see how they are acting in different spheres of activity which are all completely antithetical to their calling. Gilead is tracked with bloody footprints (of people who are wont for violence), the priests are murderers, and Israel’s house there is harlotry (likely religious) going on. We might automatically assume then the covenant being spoken of here is therefore the Mosaic covenant (ie: Exo 20:13) between the Lord God and Israel but why does Hosea avoid having God speak about the Covenant as his own, as he does elsewhere (Hos 8:1). Furthermore, we can see this sort of indictment repeated (Hos 10:4) when they make inappropriately make treaties: their covenants are empty; they speak mere words.So I think it is safer to conclude that God is referring generally about the Mosaic Covenant but specifically about Ephraim’s actions being similar to men’s activity with covenants in general. “Like men [treat covenants poorly] they have broken covenant; they dealt treacherously with me [God] (by treating me as a mere man, they offered their sacrifices while constantly disobeying me)” So the text is highly unlikely to refer to any Creation Covenant at all. As Calvin brusquely says in his commentary on Hosea:

Others explain the words thus, “They have transgressed as Adam the covenant.” But the word, Adam, we know, is taken indefinitely for men. This exposition is frigid and diluted, “They have transgressed as Adam the covenant;” that is, they have followed or imitated the example of their father Adam, who had immediately at the beginning transgressed God’s commandment. I do not stop to refute this comment; for we see that it is in itself vapid.

Is there a Covenant of Works or a Covenant of Creation in the Biblical record?
If covenant is taken to mean the establishment of order, maybe; but if it is taken with theological weight that is usually afforded to the term: explicitly No. There might be some peripheral similarities to covenantal situations in the ANE as well as in Scripture (with later Divine Constitutions (Gen 9, Gen 15, 2 Samuel 7, Jeremiah 31)) but those similarities can easily be explained by the familial relationship that makes more sense of the text as it stands. Not only is there strong evidence against a Covenant of Works, but there’s also some serious theological evidence against it skewing the whole thing more likely the imaginative fabrication of Cocceius than anything found in the text. Since the entire three chapters are rather structured as the retelling of the first family (God and his children Adam and Eve) I don’t think there’s any need to go further: what we see is the establishment of the first family and the way the relationship was broken. Every Divine Covenant seems to be aimed at fixing what was broken; bringing the family back home.

Now there have been people that have said that all of Genesis is part of the introductory formula of an ANE covenant in Deuteronomy. This would make the Genesis and early part of Exodus portion both the Historical and the Introductory portion of a formulating or presented covenant—that being the Mosaic Covenant. Genesis 1-3 may very well function in this way in the minds of the Israelites and even as solidifying the importance of what happened at Sinai but it is a far cry from seeing into this some unstated covenant in which works(instead of faith) is the ultimate means of the salvation.

I think it’s fair to consider a warning. When it comes to the promises and curses of God it is better to see the text as it stands rather than assume covenantal promises where there are none explicitly stated. We are to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God not those words which we have tried to stuff into His mouth.

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