Friday, November 11, 2016

Genesis Notes: The Noachide Covenant

The Complete Bible Handbook gives a different perspective on the consequences of Noah's story than I'd seen before. It resulted in the Noachide Covenant which laid down laws for how the Jews would deal with Gentiles who kept their laws.

The rainbow is the sign of God's covenant with Noah.
It came from a spot where you can read the seven laws of Noah.
Within the structure of the Bible as a whole, the covenant with Noah is the beginning of god's work of repair and healing. Having come to regret making humans on the earth (Gen 6:6), God now blesses Noah and his descendants and makes promises of further blessings, tied to certain conditions that they must keep. Then God gives the rainbow as a sign of the covenant that they have entered into (Gen 9:1-17). This covenant later came to be understood as one that embraces all people, not just the Israelites and Jews, because in chapter 10 the three sons of Noah -- Shem, Ham, and Japheth -- become the fathers of all the nations of the world. Noah is thus sometimes seen as the "second Adam."

This all embracing covenant came to be known in later Christian and Jewish tradition as the Noachide covenant, and it was thought to contain seven commands. These are listed differently in different texts, because they are derived not from this chapter in Genesis alone but from the appeals in the rest of Scripture to the Gentiles (non-Jews) to live justly. The usual list of seven is the command to establish a system of justice, prohibitions against idolatry, blasphemy, murder, adultery and incest (regarded as one, and often interpreted as sexual immorality in general), robbery, and eating flesh torn from a living animal.

A Gentile who keeps these laws is already in the covenant with God and does not have to convert to Judaism in order to become a part of the "world to come" ('olam ha-ba). Jews have a special vocation to keep the 613 commands and prohibitions of Torah, not for themselves or for their own advantage (since "righteous Gentiles" stand on the same footing), but for the good of the whole world, in order to show what life lived under the guidance, or Torah, or God can be like.

At the outset of Christianity, a decision had to be made concerning how many, if any, of the laws in Torah a new convert was obliged to follow. It is possible that the decision in Acts 15:20 is an early reflection of the Noachide covenant.
This series first ran in 2004 and 2005. I'm refreshing it as I go. For links to the whole study, go to the Genesis Index. For more about the resources used, go here.

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