The Noahide Covenant
Cain is culpable, and for someone to be culpable of something, we have to assume some principle that they have violated. There seems to be in existence from the beginning of creation this universal moral law, and that is: Yahweh-endowed sanctity of human life. The fact that Yahweh has created humans in his own image, but Yahweh-endowed sanctity of human life is an assumption, and it’s the violation of the assumption which makes Cain culpable. Despite Yahweh’s warning to Cain, that it’s possible to master the urge to violence by an act of will. Yahweh says, “Sin couches at the door; its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master.” The tension between settled areas, and the unsettled desert areas and desert life of the nomads. Abel is a keeper of sheep. He represents the nomadic pastoralist, unlike Cain who is the tiller of soil, so he represents more settled urban life. Yet Cain’s fatal and culpable refusal to reconcile himself to what Yahweh told him; Yahweh prefers the offering of Abel, and as a result Cain’s distressed and jealous to the point of murder. Yahweh’s reference of the offering of Abel valorized the free life of the nomadic pastoralist over urban existence. After the murder, Cain responds to a question Yahweh asked him, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” We are all of us our brothers’ keepers, and the strong implication that all homicide is in fact fratricide. Yahweh yields to Cain’s plea and protects him from the fate he inflicted on Abel. The man who could not tolerate Yahweh’s inscrutable grace, now benefits from it. Yet, the murderous first-born son of Adam, his offspring will not survive the flood.
The world dissolves, corruption, and injustice, and lawlessness, and violence inevitably bring about destruction. When humans destroy the moral basis of society, when they are violent or cruel or unkind, they endanger the very existence of that society. These humans were not being punished for religious sins, for idolatry, for worshipping the wrong god, or anything of that nature. By virtue of having been created by Yahweh in the image of Yahweh-they are bound to a basic moral law that precludes, murder and other forms of oppression and violence. Inhumanity and violence undermine the very foundations of society, Yahweh provides a moral rationale for his actions. The earth is destroyed because of the violence, bloodshed, but also all kinds of injustice and oppression. Noah is saved specifically for his righteousness, he was righteous in his generation. Noah was chosen therefore for moral reasons. Yahweh is not acting capriciously, but according to certain clear standards of justice. This was deserved punishment and the person who was saved was righteous. Yahweh makes the decision to punish humans because the world has corrupted itself through bloodshed and violence. Yahweh selects Noah due to his righteousness and Yahweh issues a direct command to build an ark.
Yahweh realized that he’s going to have to make some concession. Yahweh’s going to have to make a concession to human weakness and the human desire to kill. And Yahweh’s going to have to rectify the circumstances that made his destruction of the earth necessary in the first place. So Yahweh establishes a covenant with Noah, and humankind receives its first set of explicit laws. The Noahide covenant, they apply to all humanity; this covenant explicitly prohibits murder. The spilling of human blood, blood is the symbol of life; life is in the blood. So blood is the biblical symbol of life, but Yahweh is going to make a concession to the human appetite for power and violence. Before the flood humans were to be vegetarian, the portrait was one in which humans and animals did not compete for food, or consume one another. Humans were vegetarian. Now Yahweh is saying humans may kill animals to eat them. But even so, Yahweh says, the animal’s life is to be treated with reverence, and the blood which is the life essence must be poured out on the ground, returned to Yahweh, not consumed. So the animal may be eaten to satisfy the human hunger for flesh, but the life essence itself belongs to Yahweh. It must not be taken, even if it’s for the purposes of nourishment. Genesis 9:4-6, “You must not however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it; but for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning. I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man! Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in Yahweh’s image did Yahweh make man.” So if you are killed by a beast or a human, there will have to be a reckoning, an accounting. Whoever sheds the blood of a person, in exchange for the person shall his blood be shed, all life, human and animal, is sacred to Yahweh. The Noahide covenant also entails Yahweh’s promise to restore the rhythm of life and nature, and never again to destroy the earth. The rainbow is set up as a symbol of the eternal covenant, a token of the eternal reconciliation between the divine and human realms.