Dr. Mary Foskett
Wake Forest Kahle Professor of Religion
Director, WFU Humanities Institute
When we think about biblical images of covenant, it’s easy to focus simply on “covenant” as a sacred contract that binds two parties to a mutual agreement. But the Bible reveals that what also matters a great deal is the context in which we enter into covenant. When we consider the forest (why covenant is necessary) and not just the trees (the promises and the obligations) of covenant making, we can begin to glimpse important truths that ought to shape how and why we enter into covenant.
The Patriarchal History in Genesis tells the complicated, messy and colorful story of the foremothers and forefathers of ancient Israel. When my university students and I read Genesis together, I often find that they are quite surprised by all the dirty laundry that Israel lets air in this foundational narrative. Readers find here stories of faith and faith-keeping, yes, but also stories of deceit and intrigue, violence and trauma. Covenant is introduced and also sorely tested. As Genesis makes clear, covenant is about commitment and conviction, but it never guarantees an easy ride. It is visionary, but it is far from a starry-eyed.
Consider for a moment where we find ourselves at the beginning of Genesis 12. If we’ve read chapters 1-11, we’ve followed two accounts of Creation, the unraveling of God’s intended vision for humankind (whom Genesis first describes as “very good” but later describes as wicked and violent), the shock of an annihilating flood, and the narration of God’s first covenant, where God says to Noah, “I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen 10:11). God sets aside the warrior’s bow, a rainbow in the clouds, as a sure sign of this promise. This first covenant is God’s recommitment to God’s re-creation. And to the remnant humanity of Noah and his family, God repeatedly gives the charge that we know from the first Creation account: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (9:1, 7). Sure enough, what follows in Genesis 10 is a vision of an expanding humanity that is multiplying, moving about and filling the earth.
Thus Genesis 11, with its account of the Tower of Babel, comes as a bit of a surprise. Probably drawing on a different source tradition than Genesis 10, chapter 11 opens with a vision of the human population as having one language and being all together in one place: “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words” (11:1). While readers are often quick to identify the problem in this story as that of human arrogance, expressed as the desire to build a tower that can reach the heavens, Genesis actually gives scant attention to this kind of concern. Rather, the text’s focus is on the people’s fear of being “scattered abroad the face of the whole earth.” That they are “one people” with “one language” building one city is precisely the problem. To desire inoculation against diversity and multiplicity runs counter to the divine intention to fill the earth and populate it with multiple peoples. Thus God’s scattering of humankind reveals God’s commitment to the divine vision introduced in the opening chapter of Genesis. It is an intervention, not a punishment. If our first impulse is to read multiplicity and diversity as purely punitive, then we need to ask ourselves why.
Thus the drama that unfolds in the first 11 chapters of Genesis serves as the context for understanding the covenant with Abraham introduced in Genesis 12. The question that looms large at the end of Genesis 11, “How is God going to relate to this messy and scattered humanity?” finds its answer here. God recommits to the divine vision for humankind by establishing a second covenant that consists of three promises that Genesis reiterates three times: the promise of land; of a great nation; and that through Abraham and Sarah’s descendants, “all the families of the earth” will be blessed. Though certainly foundational for Israel’s self-understanding, the covenant is, from the start, also for the sake of all humankind. Just as God’s covenant with Israel is never about Israel alone, neither should covenant ever be about just us. The universal significance of covenant is later made even more explicit, when through the covenant with Moses, Israel is called to become “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:6). To be sure, this third covenant calls the newly liberated people into a social order that is to embody holiness and priestly intimacy with God. But by definition, a “priestly” people exists not for itself, but for the sake of the others.
Moreover, in covenant relationship with God, Israel is repeatedly called to be holy – and why is that? Israel is called to be holy precisely because God is holy (Lev 19:1-18). And holiness consists, in large measure, of living out social justice and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. In covenant relationship, Israel is called back to the purpose for which all humanity was created in the first place. Israel is to reflect God’s own being not because Israel is different, but because Israel is human, and humankind was made in God’s own image. To be in covenant is to live out social justice, to love one’s neighbor as oneself, and to remind the world of what it means to be more fully human. Covenant is the counter answer to Babel. Human purpose is found not in uniformity of language, ethnicity, race or culture, but in the One in whose image we all have been created.
When we are called into covenant with God and one another, we are called to nothing less than to become more fully human —in the truest and best sense of the word– and to become more fully human together, so that blessing might come upon “all the families of the earth.” Covenant is a necessary form of divine intervention for a forgetful humanity — who, too easily and too often, look past the divine image in which we were made, reaping tragic consequences along the way. To be called into covenant with God and one another is to be reminded of God’s enduring commitment to this very messy humanity and of humankind’s true purpose. The reminding makes a difference, the striving matters, and, as we see throughout the Bible, God makes good on God’s promises, and so shall we, we pray. And thus God keeps calling us, again and again, back into covenant.
For a full discussion of this aspect of the passage, see Theodore Hiebert, “The Tower of Babel and the Origin of the World’s Cultures,” Journal of Biblical Literature 126 (2007): 29–58.