The Primordial Covenant of Life

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Avi Hirsch

After the Flood waters have finished receding, Hashem establishes a covenant with Noach and with his children (BeReishit 9:8-11):

ח וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱ-לֹהִים֙ אֶל־נֹ֔חַ וְאֶל־בָּנָ֥יו אִתּ֖וֹ לֵאמֹֽר׃ ט וַאֲנִ֕י הִנְנִ֥י מֵקִ֛ים אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י אִתְּכֶ֑ם וְאֶֽת־זַרְעֲכֶ֖ם אַֽחֲרֵיכֶֽם׃ י וְאֵ֨ת כָּל־נֶ֤פֶשׁ הַֽחַיָּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֔ם בָּע֧וֹף בַּבְּהֵמָ֛ה וּֽבְכָל־חַיַּ֥ת הָאָ֖רֶץ אִתְּכֶ֑ם מִכֹּל֙ יֹצְאֵ֣י הַתֵּבָ֔ה לְכֹ֖ל חַיַּ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃ יא וַהֲקִמֹתִ֤י אֶת־בְּרִיתִי֙ אִתְּכֶ֔ם וְלֹֽא־יִכָּרֵ֧ת כָּל־בָּשָׂ֛ר ע֖וֹד מִמֵּ֣י הַמַּבּ֑וּל וְלֹֽא־יִהְיֶ֥ה ע֛וֹד מַבּ֖וּל לְשַׁחֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

And God said to Noah and to his sons with him, saying, “I now establish My covenant with you and your offspring to come, and with every living thing that is with you—birds, cattle, and every wild beast as well—all that have come out of the ark, every living thing on earth. I will maintain My covenant with you: 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.”

Several questions emerge from this passage. First, the language of “מֵקִים” and “וַהֲקִמֹתִי” (to establish or maintain) is unusual for the creation of a covenant. The root that is usually used in the Torah for this is “כרת”.i[1] Furthermore, the classic covenant in the Torah is a two-way pact, with both parties swearing oaths to one another.[2] Here, we find no mention of man’s role in the covenant. Hashem’s promise to uphold life in the world by never again bringing a flood seems to be completely independent of the actions of the other party, namely, Noach and his sons. Where is the other side of the covenant?

To shed light on these questions, we will backtrack to the beginning of the Parashah, where we find another covenant between Hashem and Noach. Hashem tells Noach (6:18):

יח וַהֲקִמֹתִ֥י אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י אִתָּ֑ךְ וּבָאתָ֙ אֶל־הַתֵּבָ֔ה אַתָּ֕ה וּבָנֶ֛יךָ וְאִשְׁתְּךָ֥ וּנְשֵֽׁי־בָנֶ֖יךָ אִתָּֽךְ:

“And I will establish My covenant with you, and you shall enter the ark, with your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives.”

The language here is very reminiscent of the second, post-Flood covenant. The same phrase, “וַהֲקִמֹתִי אֶת־בְּרִיתִי,” “And I will establish my covenant” appears in both passages, and both of our two questions from the later covenant reemerge here. But here there is a new, overarching question that must first be resolved: What is Hashem’s side of the pact? Unlike in the later covenant, here the text does not explicitly tell us what the agreement is that Hashem will be “establishing” with Noach upon his entering the ark.

Several answers to this question are offered by the commentaries. Ibn Ezra, for example, explains that though the text never tells us this explicitly, Hashem had, in fact, sworn to Noach that He will keep him alive during the Flood. Ramban disagrees, and suggests that Hashem’s guarantee is implicit in the next few verses; namely, that Noach, his family, and all the pairs of animals with them will survive the Flood by entering the ark.

Other commentators, such as Abarbanel and the Netziv, take a different approach entirely, explaining that there was an implicit, primordial covenant that already existed from creation. Although the exact approach here differs among the commentators, the general idea is that from the moment Hashem created Man, a covenant was implicitly created between Hashem and all of humanity upholding the life that was created. This ongoing covenant, Hashem now informs Noach, will be upheld through his survival in the ark.

It is this primordial covenant, I think, that is upheld and reaffirmed twice in Parashat Noach, once before the Flood and once following it. This is not a new covenant that needs to be “created;” instead, it needs only to be reestablished with Noach, once before the Flood and once after.

What, then, is humanity’s role in this eternal covenant? Upon further examination, we do find a responsibility that the human must fulfill in both covenants in Parashat Noach, but in both cases, it appears before the mention of the covenant itself. Pre-Flood, Noach is commanded to build the ark in which he and the animals will be saved (6:14-16); post-Flood, Noach and his children are warned against murder (9:6). Furthermore, in both cases, Hashem details Man’s responsibility immediately prior to reassuring them of the covenant that He will uphold. And in both cases, the responsibility of the human “supports” that of Hashem: Noach must do his part to save Hashem’s creations by building the ark (which he faithfully fulfills), and Hashem, in turn, will save Noach through that ark (which He, too, fulfills); following the Flood, all of humanity is instructed not to end human life, and Hashem, in turn, swears to never again bring a flood to end human life.

Thus, both times the covenant is mentioned in Parashat Noach, it follows the same basic three-part structure: first we have an instruction to humanity to fulfill their responsibility in the covenant, then there is mention of the covenant itself, and finally Hashem’s part in upholding this “primordial” covenant is explained.

However, if the primordial covenant has existed since the creation of the first humans, we would expect to find humanity’s role in this covenant already mentioned when the first humans are created. And indeed, we do find a life-affirming commandment there (1:27-28):

כז וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱ-לֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱ-לֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃ כח וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָם֮ אֱ-לֹהִים֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לָהֶ֜ם אֱ-לֹהִ֗ים פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ וּרְד֞וּ בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.”

Immediately following the creation of man in God’s image, man is commanded to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. This commandment of “פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ,” then, is man’s responsibility in the primordial covenant to preserve life.

The commandment to reproduce, of course, perfectly parallels and supports Hashem’s creation of humanity. Through this process, humanity, having been made “in God’s image,” becomes His partner in creation. While Hashem created the first humans, we have a responsibility to continue that creation. [3]

However, not until Parashat Noach do we find this covenant made explicit in the text. Why is Noach chosen to fulfill humanity’s role as Hashem’s partner in this covenant? Noach is one of the few individuals in the Torah to be described as a man who “walks with God” (6:9). Not only that, but until the Flood, Noach consistently fulfills Hashem’s commands immediately without pausing to question or second guess them.[4] Noach is, therefore, the perfect person to work with Hashem in fulfilling the covenant of life.

But the primordial covenant is eternal. All of humanity, in every generation, has a responsibility to fulfill its part in the covenant by obeying Hashem’s command to preserve life in the world. In this way, we, like Noach, will “walk with God,” becoming His partner by fulfilling His will.


[1] See BeReishit 15:8, 21:27; Shemot 24:8, 34:10 for some of the many examples.

[2] For example, Avraham and Avimelech enter into a two-way pact in BeReishit 21.

[3] The connection between this passage and the reaffirming of the covenant after the Flood (in BeReishit 9) is emphasized by the repetition there of both humanity’s original mission to be fruitful and multiply (9:1,7), and the nature of humanity as having been created “in the image of God” (9:6).

[4] See BeReishit 6:22, 7:5. In fact, until the Flood, the only thing Noach does that is not a response to an immediate command of Hashem is to have three sons, thereby fulfilling his role in the primordial covenant.

Avi Hirsch (SBM 2017) is a junior at Yeshiva University, where he is studying Computer Science.

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