Covenants are a fundamental part of biblical theology and the biblical narrative. Reformed churches tend to preach on covenants more than others, depending on the training and interest of the preacher. A covenant can be understood as an agreement, a contract (note: I will not be using the English legal definitions of terms in this post as that would be anachronistic; unless otherwise stated, take them in their normal quotidian sense). Sometimes there is an exchange of promises, sometimes the human side of the arrangement is implicit. God is the initiator of the covenants of the Bible (for most part).
Is there a covenant in the Eden story (Gen. 1-3)? It seems there is, although this word is not used explicitly. Consider the following text.
And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
Here the word “commanded” (Heb.: וַיְצַו֙ ) is used, but there is an implied covenant, an exchange. In return for receiving the right to eat of all but one tree in the Garden, the Man must promise not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Contracts often come with penalties to be applied in the instance of a breach. The curses of Gen. 3 can be understood as an example of this.
And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
In many cases, when covenants are broken, even after the penalties have been upheld by the courts, the parties cease to have dealings with one another: breach of promise is a serious thing. Now a covenant presupposes relationship: it is built on a “meeting of minds” that occurs between two parties. God is committed to relationship with us. The Genesis story could have ended with the expulsion of the humans from the Garden and their death in the wilderness. But God does not merely curse the humans; He also promises to restore the Man and the Woman through the Woman’s “Seed”, Jesus. This part of the speech is known as the “Protoevangelium”, the “First Gospel”.
I will put enmity between thee [the Serpent] and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.
This commitment to relationship with us, the faithfulness to His promises and covenants, is a characteristic of God that runs through the Bible as a major theme. It is expressed with the Hebrew word chesed, often translated as “loving kindness” or “faithfulness”.