By Richard Mather
There is a theme running throughout the Tanakh that is sometimes called the “cosmic covenant,” a covenant that is connected to the cosmic order and associated with peace and justice. The covenant is like a harmonious marriage – a marriage of heaven and earth, of God and his people Israel. And you don’t have to believe in God to appreciate the beauty of a vision that is both humanistic and ecological.
This covenant, which is described in the book of Isaiah (54:10) as a “covenant of peace,” was established at Creation, when the cosmic elements were fixed in place. As Genesis 1 explains, God divides the light from the darkness, the land from the water, the day from the night.
The fixing of the cosmic elements and the pacification of chaos during Creation is echoed in subsequent books in the Tanakh, notably:
“I placed the sand as a boundary for the sea, the eternal rule which it may not transgress,” says the LORD in the book of Jeremiah (5.22);
“Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness, when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place, when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt’?” (Job 38:8-11).
The loosening of the binds and the reintroduction of chaos at the time of the Flood should be attributed to God’s disgust at the state of the world and mankind’s immorality. Peace and justice were apparently in short supply, and social disharmony was rife. In Genesis 6:11, the Torah states that “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence.”
Although God could have completely destroyed the world, He instead instructed Noah to save himself, his family and a remnant of animals by creating a huge ark or sanctuary, before sending an almighty flood:
“The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits. Every living thing that moved on land perished—birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind. […] Only Noah was left and those with him in the ark” (Genesis 7:20-23).
By unfixing the boundaries that were put in place in Genesis 1 and flooding the earth with water, the Eternal One was (in a sense) remaking the world.
The receding of the waters after the rain had stopped echoes the separating of land and water in Genesis 1. The post-deluge covenant between God and Noah can be interpreted as a reaffirmation of the universal created order. In Psalm 104:9, the psalmist observes how God “set a boundary” so that the waters “might not again cover the earth.”
So God blesses Noah and his sons, and makes a pledge with mankind and the animal kingdom, in which He promises to never again to “cut off” all flesh with the waters of a flood. God commands Noah and his sons to be fruitful, to multiply and to replenish the earth. God also forbids the eating of animal blood (which can be interpreted as an injunction against animal cruelty), as well as the shedding of human blood. There is also an implicit commandment to set up courts of law to punish murder.
The renewal of the covenant after the Flood is a promise of abundance. Hence the following promise in Leviticus:
“Your threshing will continue until grape harvest and the grape harvest will continue until planting, and you will eat all the food you want and live in safety in your land. […] I will look on you with favor and make you fruitful and increase your numbers, and I will keep my covenant with you. You will still be eating last year’s harvest when you will have to move it out to make room for the new. I will put my dwelling place[a] among you, and I will not abhor you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians; I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high” (Leviticus 26:5-6, 9-12).
But there is something about the post-Flood covenant that falls short. Man is allowed to eat animals, which was forbidden to Adam. And it soon becomes clear, with the uncovering of Noah’s nakedness and the cursing of Canaan, that injustice and discord are problems that won’t go away.
Enter the prophets who say unrighteousness is to blame. Injustice, they argue, threatens the harmonious workings of the universe. Individual behavior, national prosperity and the health of the cosmos are all interdependent. In the book of Isaiah, God scolds his “children” for their rebellious ways and promises to “purge away [their] dross” and “shake the earth.”
Then there is this dire warning:
“See, the LORD is going to lay waste the earth and devastate it; he will ruin its face and scatter its inhabitants— it will be the same for priest as for people, for the master as for his servant […] The earth will be completely laid waste and totally plundered” (Isaiah 24:1-3).
Why is God threatening to destroy his people? It is because they have “broken the everlasting covenant” (24:5) and “therefore a curse consumes the earth.” This is a stark reminder of the story of the Flood in Genesis and a warning that injustice and idolatry are a real threat to the created order.
Jeremiah, too, recognises that mankind’s failure to keep a covenant with the LORD is disastrous:
“If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night no longer come at their appointed time, then my covenant with David my servant – and my covenant with the Levites who are priests ministering before me – can be broken and David will no longer have a descendant to reign on his throne” (Jeremiah 33:20-22).
Indeed, the breaking of the covenant threatens to return the earth to the chaos of pre-Creation: “I looked at the earth, and it was formless and empty; and at the heavens, and their light was gone” (Jeremiah 4:23).
But there is hope. The prophets look forward to a better time, a day when God delivers Creation and completely restores it. Indeed, the prophetic books are packed with visions of the future when the covenant of peace is full restored and mankind and nature are no longer estranged from each other:
“I will make a covenant of peace with them and rid the land of savage beasts so that they may live in the wilderness and sleep in the forests in safety” (Ezekiel 34:25).
“[…] I will make a covenant with them, with the animals of the wild, with the birds of the sky and what creeps on the ground. I will break bow, sword and war on earth, and I will let them rest in safety I will make thee mine own forever; I will make thee mine by right and justice, by loyalty and compassion, I will make thee mine by faithfulness, and thou shalt know [that I am] the Lord” (Hosea 2:18-20).
Only with the arrival of the Moshiach (Messiah) can the process of healing the world begin. It is the Moshiach who will implement a new moral order that will culminate in the transformation of the laws of nature. This can be seen in Psalm 72:
“Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness. May he judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice. May the mountains bring prosperity to the people, the hills the fruit of righteousness. May he defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; may he crush the oppressor. […] May grain abound throughout the land; on the tops of the hills may it sway. May the crops flourish like Lebanon and thrive like the grass of the field. May his name endure forever; may it continue as long as the sun. Then all nations will be blessed through him and they will call him blessed. Praise be to the LORD God, the God of Israel, who alone does marvelous deeds. Praise be to his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory. Amen and Amen. This concludes the prayers of David son of Jesse.”
And finally there is eschatological hope in the book of Isaiah, when the Moshiach will be endowed with the “Spirit of the Lord” and “the wolf will live with the lamb”:
“The leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:6-9).
And so the cosmic covenant or covenant of peace is fully restored. Having been through so much bloodshed and disaster, the entire created order – mankind, animals, heaven and earth – will be at peace with each other, and full of the knowledge of God.