The Covenant of Works (Gen. 2-3)

The covenantal motif laid out in chapter 1 continues in chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis in describing God’s relationship with man. Adam was to be God’s vice regent, given a dominion of his own, and representing God to creation in stewardship and the creation back to God in worship. Man bore God’s image, reflecting not only God’s rationality and volition, but also His an original righteousness, holiness, and true knowledge. Such an exalted stature for man was a unique idea among ancient cosmologies (ways of explaining reality). All other ancient cosmologies saw mankind as simply being slaves for the gods; none saw man as possessing an inherent, albeit derivative, dignity, and authority. Even today, this is a radical idea when one considers that evolutionary views and other religions like Buddhism and Hinduism see man as having no greater significance than other beings, and, in many ways, even less significance. Even where man’s uniqueness is granted in comparison to other creatures, such as in Islam, man is little more than a slave to God.

In the Bible, man’s original exalted status in creation only highlights the depth of the tragedy of his subsequent fall and descent into evil and rebellion, which we are the heirs of to this day. In the Garden of Eden, God provided for man’s needs, like food and companionship, but also called man to exercise dominion over creation, not in self-serving ways but helping to order it, through the naming of the creatures. From ch. 2 we can see that man had direct communion with God. Moreover, we can see from later Scripture that the intimacy of the marital relationship between Adam and his wife was to be a picture of sorts of the intimacy of the relationship between God and man, not in a sexual way, of course, but in the bonds of steadfast love and devotion (see, e.g., Matt. 19:4-6 and Eph. 5:22-31, as well as the Book of Hosea for a negative contrast making the same point). Even with all this, man was promised more, and that is the significance of the Tree of Life (2:9). Man already had physical life, but what the Tree of Life promised was eternal life. This is why when man did fall, his access to the Tree of Life was foreclosed, lest he be eternally confirmed in a state of enmity toward God (3:22-24). At the end of Scripture, the Tree of Life reappears, signifying eternal communion with God (Rev. 22:2). Such intimate communion was to be man’s ultimate end.

This ultimate end of man having eternal communion with God raises the issue of how man was to move from his initial condition into this place of greater intimacy with God, and that highlights the importance of man’s testing in the Garden. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil presents a choice for Adam to make. If he demonstrated faithfulness to his covenant bond with his Lord, he would enter into that greater intimacy; if he were unfaithful, then that covenant bond would be ruptured. As God accomplished a great thing before entering into His rest, so too man had to accomplish a great thing before entering into that greater intimacy with God. Merely to refrain from eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil would not have been a sufficient accomplishment for man to demonstrate his devotion to God. There needed to be a testing and God in His providence allowed Satan’s temptation to be that testing and to force a decision.

To understand the significance of this trial, we have to understand that Adam’s responsibility was more than just obedience to God’s Word about the Tree. In 2:15 God commands Adam to “tend and keep” the Garden. The Hebrew behind the word “to keep” literally has the sense of “to guard.” What does this mean about Adam’s responsibilities? This can be best understood in comparison with Christ. The Apostle Paul draws the comparison between Adam and Christ in Romans ch. 5 as heads of respective covenantal arrangements and other parts of the New Testament draw out how Christ has the offices of prophet, priest, and king. If Christ has these offices and is the Second Adam, then presumably, the First Adam had these offices as well. What do these offices entail? A prophet is to speak rightly the Word of God. A priest is to keep the sanctuary pure and facilitate the right worship of God. A king is to defend the realm against intruders and to execute justice.

So, what would this have meant for Adam in the Garden? As priest, Adam should have been on the alert for that which could defile the sanctuary, like a serpent questioning the Word of God. As a prophet, Adam should have corrected his wife when she misquoted God’s command to say that they were not even to touch the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. As a king, Adam should have expelled the intruder from the Garden. If Adam had done these things, he would have earned a great triumph that would have brought him into eternal and more intimate communion with God. In the actual test, he did none of them. The result of the Fall was immediate shame, spiritual death, and eventually physical death. As head of his people, the benefits or sanctions that a king receives convey to his people as well. In this case, as head of the human race, the guilt of Adam and Eve and the curses God laid upon them convey to all their offspring as well, along with the ravages of sin in practice.

This relationship between God and Adam before the Fall the Westminster Confession of Faith describes as a “Covenant of Works” and the Larger Catechism calls the “Covenant of Life”: “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him, to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience” (WCF 7.2). This covenant is now broken, and no person can achieve what had been promised to Adam by his own works. The rest of the Bible is the story of God’s redemption of mankind, not through works, but by grace.

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