The Cosmic Covenant

The Cosmic Covenant

Father Robert Murray

“Religion, among American-Indian people, is not conceived as a personal relationship between the deity and each individual. It is rather a covenant between a particular god and a community.” — Vine Deloria.

It is important today that theologians and others should begin to look at the Bible afresh, and to reassess its message about humanity and our relationship with the planet. A fresh reading of biblical texts about the created world order, its conservation and restoration, and some reflections on the cultural context in which these themes occur, not only in the Bible but also in other religious texts from neighbouring cultures, can tell us much about Christianity’s real ecological ethic. I intend to attempt such a fresh reading in this article.

My purpose in doing so, however, is far from merely antiquarian. The fruit of the research out of which this article comes 1 has been a deeper conviction that the Bible has still much more to say which (at least in recent centuries) has gone unheard, but which it is now urgent to hear and ponder. The message concerns not only the crisis into which we have brought the Earth by presumptuous and unbridled exploitation of its resources, but also the value, precisely in the perspective of God’s grace, of human insights and practices which are not unique to the Bible.

Have Theologians Betrayed the Bible’s Message?

Recent essays in what might be called ‘ecological theology’ have strongly attacked the way in which the created world, and our relation to it, have been presented, both in much biblical interpretation of the scriptures and in the systematic theology which largely dictated its presuppositions. One much-quoted line of argument charges the Bible itself with responsibility for the exploitation of the environment, on the grounds that Genesis I, by giving humankind ‘dominion’ over all other creatures, encouraged the development of technology unchecked by a proper sense of reverence for God’s Creation. [2]

Theological arguments concerning the interpretation of biblical creation texts and its frequent presuppositions are more serious and substantial. It is, indeed, true that Genesis I ‘demythologised’ Creation, in comparison with other accounts in the Bible — but it is not true that it ‘secularises’ the nonhuman world. Again, it is true that in Gen. 1:28 God entrusts humankind with ‘dominion’ over other creatures, but the translated Hebrew verbs ‘have dominion’ and ‘subdue’ have been alleged to connote far more violence than they properly. [3] This has led to an interpretation that God has given us unlimited permission to exploit, which is, in fact, alien to the linguistic and cultural context of the passage. As we shall see, this passage actually pictures God’s human creature as his responsible viceroy.

In fact, history has much to answer for in terms of this apparent biblical separation of humanity and creation. Theological presuppositions, mainly from the Reformation tradition, with Karl Barth and his followers, are now most blamed for a failure of systematic theology to incorporate a coherent doctrine of the created world and our relationship to it. The charges (brought most powerfully by dissatisfied Protestant theologians) [4] centre on the tendency of Reformation theology to depend ultimately on only two poles: God the saviour and Man the saved, who received grace only through the death of Christ and faith in the gospel.

Though the world is created by God and is therefore good, it does not come within the essential drama of salvation by grace and faith: Catholicism is wrong (and is made fatally prone to idolatry) in drawing the world into the process of grace and salvation, both by valuing ‘natural theology’ and by developing a sacramental view of the world.

Another modem presupposition has also helped to hinder the development of an adequate theology of Creation. This is the all-pervasive assumption that the key perspective for understanding the Bible is history: that the essential theme of the Bible is salvation, and its essential theatre is ‘salvation-history’. In contrast to history stands myth; this expresses a vision of reality, characteristic of ‘primitive’ thinking, which of its nature is non-historical. It may formulate notions about the beginning and the end of history, but, most typically, myth expresses what is held to be true either metaphysically (for example, notions of basic dualism in the structure of all being) or in endless recurrence (for example, the cycle of the seasons and the Earth’s fertility).

Of course, there is a mythical element in the Hebrew Bible. But if the basic structure of the Bible is only the divine-human polarity, and if its fundamental theme is the working-out of God’s plan of salvation, the many passages which speak less historically of the created order and our place in it may be regarded as less important (perhaps also because the mythical idiom in the Bible is shared with, or even borrowed from, ‘pagan’ nations). On the contrary, this area of biblical religious thought enshrines supremely important ideas and ideals of order: the order of God’s Creation, displayed both in the whole cosmos and in nature on Earth; peace and justice in the relationships of humankind, as between nations, parts of society and individuals, and again between humans and animals; right thinking (wisdom) and right worship. [5] Quite apart from historical narratives, the Bible teaches us that neither sin nor salvation are affairs merely between us humans and God. Sin entails an alienation from our nature, whi ch relates us to God’s other creatures, while salvation entails our re-integration in a vaster order which embraces the whole cosmos.

The Biblical Pictures of Creation

It is essential to realise that the Bible contains not merely one account of Creation or of its ordering. It contains several; and there are also stories or visions of the ‘undoing’ of Creation. Again, there are pictures not only of the ordered beauty of the world but also of disorder. Believers call the Bible ‘the word of God’; if we take this seriously, it implies that God invited us to meditate on all these stories and pictures and to reflect on their variety.

It cannot be without significance that the final editors of Israel’s traditions chose to place at the head of their collection the account of Creation which we read in Genesis. But nevertheless, it is not the only account in the Bible, and it is most unlikely that it is the oldest. While the first eleven chapters of Genesis show many links with ancient Mesopotamian tradition, the creation account in Gen. 1 is in contrast with the Babylonian and other Creation myths, in which the creator conquers chaos in the person of a monstrous sea-dragon. It is likely, therefore, that allusions to such a myth in the Hebrew Bible are older than Genesis 1.

Thus Psalm 74, which contains perhaps the Bible’s most varied series of images of both order and disorder, in its first and third sections presents fearsome visions of God’s absence and silence (vv. 1-2, 9-11, 22-23); of the destruction of his temple on Earth (vv. 3-8); and of social order destroyed (vv. 18-21); in contrast, the central second part (vv. 12-17) evokes a picture of Creation as God’s victory over ‘dragons’ and ‘Leviathan’ in the waters, followed by his ordering of the Earth, the heavenly bodies and the seasons. If the Psalms were texts for use in worship (as is surely true of most of them), what sort of context could call for this range of powerfully contrasting images? We shall return to this question.

Myth symbolises truths in narrative form. Apart from allusions to Creation myths in this proper sense, the Bible contains many references to God’s ordering of the cosmic elements by imposing limits on them and commanding them to keep their place. The elements are slightly personified (as they are not in Genesis 1), but not to the extent of a fully mythical narrative. Thus, God reminds Job how he confined the sea, saying “Thus far shall you come and no farther” (Job 38:8-11). This picture of God establishing order comes again in Psalm 104:5-9, Psalm 148:6 and Proverbs 8:29. Jeremiah 5:22-23 contrasts the discipline kept by the elements with the disobedience of God’s human creatures, a theme which becomes classic in both Jewish and Christian literature (cf. 1 Enoch 2:1) — 5:9; I Clement 20, etc.)

In fact, human disobedience is regularly viewed in this context of order; the basic sense of moral sanctions, in the Bible as in other ancient literature, is that disorder brings its own nemesis. In the Old Testament, it is this which is fundamental rather than the story of disobedience in Paradise; no other biblical writers seem to know either that story or the idea of an original ‘fall’ affecting all humankind, till the (late) book of Wisdom and the subsequent growth of Christian ‘original sin’ theories.

The third, and most recent, picture of Creation is Genesis 1. It is majestically serene. There is no enemy to be either dramatically vanquished or even disciplined. There are no sea monsters. The theme is still order, but God achieves it effortlessly by his Word. He creates order by separation, [6] this brings about the vast diversity of creatures, on whose distinctness the priestly scribes will insist so as to establish as divinely sanctioned their basic laws of sacred and profane, clean and unclean. Genesis 1 is a great prose poem on order – above all, as it is manifested in the liturgical calendar. It is arranged like a trajectory, rising to the fourth day and coming to rest on the seventh. The fourth day is the structural climax, when the heavenly bodies are created, to make possible the sequence of the calendar and its feats. But in another sense the climax is the creation of the last order of creatures, humankind (adam, a collective noun in Hebrew) in vv. 26-27.

The meaning of the ‘image of God’ has been much discussed: most probably it belongs to ancient thinking on the relation of kings to their patron deities [7]. Just as the author of Genesis I radically ‘dernythologised’ his older material, so he ‘democratised’ the memory of kingship. Yet it is a kingly role that humankind has under God, and it is to be realised in behaviour like that of truly just and wise kings who govern their subjects in peace and moral order, the earthly reflection of cosmic order. God’s original plan did not involve bloodshed, even by animals (vv. 28-30). Though Gen. 1 has developed beyond the oldest expressions of divine order, it is still implicitly in touch with their theme, at the centre of which lay the ideal of true kingship.

The same ideas underlie the following account, in a different key, of how God, like a craftsman, moulded the first human being and invited him to exercise wise authority over the kingdom of the animals (Gen. 2:7, 19-20). It is sad that these poetic first pages of the Bible have been so misread by those set on proving or disproving that they have anything to do with either history or evolution.

The Spoiling and the Restoration of Created Order

As we have seen, the Bible contains images of order spoiled or destroyed as well as established. One form of ancient myth ascribed the presence of disorder in the world to rebellious supernatural beings. Only a fragment of such a myth remains in the early chapters of Genesis (6: 1-4). (Forms of the older kind of rebellion myth are found in Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 and are hinted at, with consequent disorder on Earth, in Isaiah 24 and perhaps in Psalm 82; the fullest extant version is in I Enoch 6-1l).8 If evil was introduced on Earth by superhuman powers, then humans are to some extent victims rather than authors of evil; probably the author/editor of Gen. 2-3 knew the old myths, but wished to present the human moral situation primarily in terms of responsibility for sin against God’s revealed will. The myth of angelic rebellion was banished from the canonical Bible by most Christian traditions, but it has retained its power to suggest an alternative picture of the moral situation (see The Book of Enoch and C osmic Sin by Margaret Barker in this issue).

The greatest image of world order destroyed is, of course, in the flood story, which is unquestionably borrowed from Mesopotamian sources. God resolves to blot out all who have turned to evil, preserving only the one righteous man, his family and animals, so as to preserve all species of living creature. The story is not of world destruction (God lets in the powers of chaos, but does not actively destroy his creation) but rather of purging the world so as to restore it, while bearers of God’s blessing are preserved to continue life on Earth. Thus the flood is a great paradigm of warning but also of hope. [9] As a narrative, it has the character of myth rather than history. God reaffirms ‘cosmic order’ (Gen. 8:22) by an ‘eternal covenant’ which he makes with both humans and animals (9 8-18). The inclusion of the animals is characteristic of the ‘cosmic’ vision of a covenant with God which represents a different mode of symbolic religious thought from the Mosaic covenant of law, and points to an origin in a di fferent kind of milieu.

Despite the conventional classifications of biblical scholarship, a sensitive ear can recognise themes that must be related, though they are found in different parts of Biblical tradition. I believe that the ‘eternal covenant’ of Gen. 9 reflects the same idea as the ‘marriage of Heaven and Earth’ which God promises to Israel in Hosea 2, 18-23; the royal blessings in Isaiah II and Psalm 72; and the vision of peace under a restored Davidic king in Ezekiel 34. [10] If it is objected by ‘historicists’ (be they naive fundamentalists or sophisticated scholars) that “all this comes long after the flood,” we must reflect again on the mode of thought in which these visions of peace and harmony are conceived. They formulate truths and ideals in a different language from that of history.

To return to the flood story; the scene after its end has another function within the book of Genesis. The point has been reached where a transition must be made from myth to the concrete world, in which blood is shed. So, in place of the original grant of only vegetable food (Gen. 1: 29-30). God grants animals to humankind for food, but under laws of reverence for life which are to bind not only humans but even animals (Gen. 9:2-6). There are now two programmes for human nourishment, one vegetarian (Gen. 1) and the other carnivorous (Gen. 9). What the two passages have in common, clearly, is that humans are addressed as God’s creatures, made in his image and as his responsible partners, whose rule must be exercised in peace, with reverence for life. Exploitation has no sanction in the Bible. Humankind is bound up with the rest of creation and the ideal images of peace and order link all creatures together. It remains to consider in what kind of context these images were expressed and celebrated; what they m eant in their native milieu and what they can still say to us today.

Cosmic, Social and Moral Order in the Biblical World

To help us understand this broad theme of ‘order’ in its various linked spheres and senses, we must turn to passages which deal with the ideals and roles of those who, in the ancient world, were regarded as the divinely-appointed guardians of order — namely, kings. We have already seen how royal themes can still be discerned behind the accounts of the creation of the human race in Genesis 1-2. These were edited at a time when the Jews no longer had kings. The old royal blessings and psalms were re-interpreted as looking forward to one to come, anointed mashiah (‘messiah’) by God. But let us look at some passages from the time when kings still stood at the centre of the ordered world, not only in Israel but in neighbouring Syria, Egypt and Babylon (not to mention other cultures as far away as China).

Psalm 72 is a prayer for a king – the traditional title names Solomon – that God will endow him with his own attributes of mishpat and sedaqah. The first word is usually translated as ‘justice’; the second has long been rendered by the old English word ‘righteousness’, but in different contexts it requires many other renderings: justice, correctness (especially of religious rituals), good deeds, victory, etc. In fact, these two words, which often stand as a pair, connote the sum of royal virtue, together with the blessings people hope to enjoy through good kings. So it is in Psalm 72. The basic prayer (v.1) is elaborated by asking in turn for merciful justice (1-2, 4, 12-14), peace and fertility of the land (3, 5-7, 16) and victory (8-11, 15, 17).

Anyone whose idea of biblical ‘righteousness’ is too restricted to the kind of sense which is familiar in the Pauline theology of justification will be amazed to see that the Psalmist prays for the hills to be fruitful with sedaqah, as well as with shalom (peace or prosperity — though it had the wider meaning of peace between Heaven and Earth). Once again, we see that salvation in the Bible has a far wider scope than has been understood by many Christians. [11]

Another example is Isaiah 32. This poem starts with a vision of ideal kings reigning with sedeq and mishpat (32:1). There follow various brief evocations of order and disorder, both in society and in the state of the land (vv. 2-14). The turning point is a hoped-for outpouring of divine power (v. 15), after which the land will become fertile with mishpat, sedaqah and shalom (vv. 16-17). Another Isaian vision, long familiar to Christians in a messianic sense, contains typical elements of a royal blessing, namely Chapter 11. Here, the gifts prayed for are wisdom, by the gift of God’s spirit,(vv 2-3), and then again merciful justice, by the gift of sedaqah (vv 3-5). There follows the famous picture of shalom symbolised by the harmony of animals not usually at peace with each other (vv. 6-9), and a final allusion to Paradise, “my holy mountain” (v. 9). All these examples illustrate how wide is the semantic field of cosmic and social order and peace connoted by the Hebrew words referred to.

It could be said that sedaqah is the Hebrew word for ‘order’ in this broad sense, corresponding to the Egyptian ma’at and analogous concepts in the other neighbouring cultures. This order is seen as God’s plan for his creatures, established by his will; sedaqah is his own divine justice, in which his chosen kings participate by his gift. Its range of meaning embraces wisdom and active justice, good order in society and all its members, agriculture regulated by the calendar, correct cult in a temple whose structure and rituals alike symbolised cosmic order, victory over enemies, and of course, moral order, as is made clear in Psalm 19 (which some wrongly regard as two separate poems). [12] Though we lack proof, it is probable that in Israel, as in Babylon and Egypt, there were rituals which celebrated, and were believed to realise by a kind of sacramental enactment, the conquest of disorder and all hostile forces and the victory of true order. This, I believe, was the context for many psalms and other biblica l passages of liturgical character.

After there were no more kings, the royal endowments were transposed by democratisation to become the virtues of all who are obedient to God’s will revealed in his law. But the memories of kingship could not die, and so gave birth to messianic hope. The royal blessings were given a new, eschatological context, and in time Christians would relate them all to Jesus. The richness of the ancient royal ideology (even if people had forgotten it) still fertilised the soil out of which sprang the Christological ‘hymns’ in Ephesians and Colossians, the cosmic dimension of salvation which Paul brings into his vision in Romans 8:19-22, and the transfiguration of the world in the last two chapters of Revelation.

Lessons for Today

What is the theological value of all this today? Certainly, we too must translate this theory of divine and Earthly order guarded by sacred kings into something more suited for a modem age, for such kingship exists no longer on Earth (at least, in the regions which claim to be civilised). When these ideas are translated, they can still speak to us about our place in the whole of Creation. If Christians have taken the vision only as prophetic of Christ’s coming and the birth of the ‘kingdom of peace’, they have narrowed its scope and its importance for the whole human race.

Here, Christians can learn from Judaism, which (perhaps in reaction to Christian ‘other-worldliness’) has never lost its sense of the holiness of God’s Creation and our duties to it. Whether or not there were actual liturgies for the preservation and restoration of cosmic and social order, as I believe are postulated by many Psalms and prophetic passages, the idea lives on in Judaism as tiqqun olam, ‘preservation of the world’. This means, in effect, fostering the good of society; while in the thought of the kabbalist Isaac Luria, tiqqun is both the vision and the great work of cosmic restoration in which the mystic is called to take part. [13]

The aspects of biblical teaching which have been emphasised in this article may prove both demanding and surprising reading. I believe that the biblical teaching analysed here implies a far more open and inclusive doctrine not only about the world, but also about both revelation and salvation, than the Reformed tradition has often allowed.

But, in conclusion, I would not wish to leave the reader with too complex a message. When the Bible’s teaching on God’s Creation and our place in it is duly digested, I believe that it cries out to us: “you are fellow-creatures of everything else in the cosmos. You have no right to exploit or destroy, but you have duties to all, under God to whom you are responsible.” No one has taught the proper order of rights and duties more clearly than that great modern thinker who belongs in spirit to both Judaism and Christianity, Simone Weil. She has criticised the whole modern theory of human rights as being conceived the wrong way round. What is basic is not ‘human rights’ (which are notoriously hard to define) but needs; the basic requirements for existence. Because we all share needs, we are all bound together in a network of duties. Where these are recognised, then we can define our rights as humans and inhabitants of Earth. [14] This, I believe, offers us the framework within which we can begin to listen anew t o the Bible’s teaching about God’s world and our place in it as his responsible creatures.

Father Dr Robert Murray teaches biblical studies and theology at Heythorp College, University of London. He is the author of Symbols of Church and Kingdom: A Study in Early Syriac Tradition and The Cosmic Covenant: Biblical Themes of Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation.

References and Notes:

(1.) The theme of this article, and all its points of detail, are treated at greater length in R.Murray. The Cosmic Covenant, Heythorp Monograph published by Sheed & Ward, London, 1992.

(2.) Cf. Lynn White, Jr, ‘The Historical Roots of our Ecological crisis’ (originally in Science, 1967). in I. Barbour (ed.), Western Man and Environmental Ethics (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1973), pp.18-30.

(3.) J. Barr ‘Man and Nature: The Ecological controversy and the Old Testament’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 55 (1972) pp. 9-32. Cf. also J. MacQuarrie, ‘Creation and Environment’, Expository Tunes 83 (1971-72), pp.4-9.

(4.) Cf. H.P. Santmire, The Travail of Nature (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), esp. pp.143-55; W. Granberg-Michaelson, A Worldly Spirituality (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), esp. pp.46-47.

(5.) The interrelatedness of these themes in the Hebrew Bible has been demonstrated by H.H. Schmid in Gerechtigkeie als Weltordnung (Tubingen: Mohr, 1968); fat she broader implications see his Altorientalische Welt in der alttestamentlichen Theologie (Zurich: Theologischer verlag, 1974), pp.9-30. See J. Barton ‘Ethics in Isaiah of Jerusalem’, Journal of Theological Studies, N.S. 32(1981), 1-18. on the extent to which this sense of order underlies biblical ethical thought.

(6.) Cf. P. Beauchamp, Creation et separation (Pads: Aubier Montaigne (etc.) 1969).

(7.) So H. Wildberger, ‘Das Abbild Gottes: Gen. 1:26-30’, Theologische Zietschrift 21 (1965). 245-59, 481-501.

(8.) These passages are discussed in The Cosmic Covenant (Op.cit.l); see also M. Barker, The Older Testament (London: SPCK, 1987), esp. ch, 1 and her shorter book The Lost Prophet (London: SPCK, 1988).

(9.) See Isaiah 54: 9-10, and the contrasting visions in Zephaniah 1:2-3 and 3:11-12.

(10.) For a different analysis of these and comparable texts see B.F. Batto, ‘Thc Covenant of Peace: A Neglected Near Eastern Motif’, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 49 (1987), 187-211.

(11.) Not surprisingly, exegetes who were committed to the centrality of the Pauline doctrine, and understood it strictly within the limited polarity of God the saviour and the individual who is saved, would regard as most important in the Old Testament those instances of words of the sedeq family which most seemed to anticipate and support the Pauline doctrine (e.g. Gen. 15:6, God reckoned Abraham’s faith as righteousness; Hobakuk 2:4, the righteous shall live by his faith). Passages in which sedeq or sedaqah express quite other elements in their range of meaning too often went without significant comment.

(12.) op. cit. 5.

(13.) For an introduction see G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941; New York: Schoken Books, 1961), ch.7.

(14.) This is the first part of L’enraciment (1949; ET The Need for Roots, London, 1952), reproduced as ‘The Needs of the Soul’ in Simone Weil, An Anthology; ed. S. Miles London: virago, 1986), pp.105-140.

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