Once I interviewed a Pentecostal pastor for a seminary project. He was famous locally for his prison ministry and outreach — as well as for his six-shooter-wearing swagger. In the course of the interview, he turned the tables on me and quizzed me about my family.
When he learned that we had only one child after five years of marriage, his questioning wandered into the land of impertinence.
“Haven’t you read in the Scriptures that God told Adam and Eve to ‘be fruitful and multiply?’ ” he scolded. When I reported this to my seminary peer group, one classmate scoffed, “That was for the animals.”
Of course, God was speaking to the animals, too: be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. But God spoke to all humankind through Noah and his family — twice in Genesis 9 (verses 1 and 7). The ancient rabbis understood the first instance to be a blessing and the second a command. Both instances point to the life-giving implications of the covenants.
While the covenants speak to biological fruitfulness, they also call human beings into a vocation of moral fruitfulness. Covenants are moral instruments, which is why God told Abram to “walk” before God and “be blameless” even before God laid out the terms of his covenant with Abram (Gen. 17:1-2).
The covenants with Noah and Abram are designed to bring forth life. They effect a particular moral life, a God-oriented life that is embodied in the moral law of the Old Testament. The “I am the Lord your God” leads to the “thou shalt (not)” of the Ten Commandments.
This God-oriented life encompasses stewardship of the created order. Uniquely among creation, God instructs human beings to care for the blood of the animals they kill and eat (Gen. 9:5-6). Lions have no such obligation. Caring for animal blood has traditionally been interpreted to mean that the blood is drained from the meat and is not consumed. But care for blood also says something about how we treat animals while they’re alive.
For instance, Deuteronomy calls for leaving the mother bird when harvesting eggs or chicks, granting sabbath rest to beasts of burden and allowing the ox to eat of the grain it’s milling (Deut. 22:6-7; 5:14; 25:4). In our modern moment, a biblical commitment to honoring the blood of animals surely calls into question many factory farming practices, with their crammed battery cages and muck swamp feedlots and reek of ammonia.
The signs of the covenants — circumcision and the rainbow — mark the life-giving realities that they govern. Circumcision points to the promise of future human generations blessed and drawn toward God (Gen. 17:6). The rainbow stands in the sky as a sign that God has definitively committed his power — manifest in rain and sun — to guiding all creation into God’s embrace. Paul saw this promise being fulfilled in Jesus (Rom. 8:19).
There’s a fierceness in both signs — blood in the one and a weapon of war in the other — that defies a polite and pallid modern theism. God’s zeal for his holy people and his beloved creation has not relented with the giving of the covenants. There will be blood again.
Contrary to some popular interpretations, the Hebrew Scriptures do not portray God as having set aside his bow (Job 6:4; Psalm 7:12; Lam. 3:12; Hab. 3:11). The Lord is a warrior, after all (Ex. 15:3). But in making both covenants, God has promised that no matter what happens, he fights for his people and for his creation — even if it’s God’s own blood ultimately shed.
Brad Roth is pastor of West Zion Mennonite Church in Moundridge, Kan. He blogs on encountering God in the everyday at doxologyproject.com. His book, God’s Country: Faith, Hope, and the Future of the Rural Church, will be released Sept. 19 by Herald Press.