The Bible seems replete with covenants (Hebrew, britot): the covenant in our portion, in which Noah and his family are saved from the Flood; the covenant which God makes with Abraham "between the [animal] parts" (Gen 15); the covenant God makes with the Israelites after their Exodus from Egypt, when they received the Revelation at Sinai (Exodus 24:1-11); and the covenant which God makes with the Israelites - and which the Talmudic sages insist must be translated into all 70 human languages - just before their entry into Israel (Deut. 27, 28).
Are all these covenants coexistent, or do the later ones displace the former? And what is the precise meaning of the term covenant (brit)?
I believe that each of these covenants has a unique significance, and that they all operate simultaneously. In the following analysis I shall attempt to define the origin of the Hebrew term for covenant, and demonstrate how this initial covenant with Noah is the foundation-stone for all subsequent covenants, and indeed for the very creation of the universe!
The first time the word brit occurs is even before Noah enters the ark: "But I [God] will establish My covenant (brit) with you and you shall enter the ark, together with your sons and your wife and your sons' wives with you" (Gen. 6:18). In his commentary on this verse, the Ibn Ezra gives two explanations of brit: Freely-chosen commitments agreed upon by two beings, from the Hebrew verb b-r-u (Samuel 1, 17:8), and the cutting of the flesh of an animal into two parts, with the blood joining them, from the Hebrew b-t-r, to cut or pierce (see Gen. 15), as in blood brothers.
Amazingly, the Ramban (Nahmanides) connects the word brit to the very first verse of the Bible, Bereishit bara ..., "In the beginning He created." In effect, he claims, brit is based on the verb bariti, "I [God] created" a world which emanated from Me, which is part of Me, and which must therefore last eternally within Me. The eternity of the world, the eternity of humanity, is built into the very fabric of whatever emanates from the Divine! In the later story of the covenant with Abraham, the Ramban adds that a covenant differs from a contract; a contract is conditional whereas a covenant is eternal, guaranteed by God Himself. Hence, humanity will never be destroyed completely - an optimistic promise, especially in our nuclear age.
After all, did not the Almighty bless Adam and Eve with eternal progeny, "You shall be fruitful and multiply and fill the land; You shall conquer it and establish dominion over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and all the beasts that crawl on the earth" (Gen 1:28). This is the true meaning of the Divine statement: "But I will establish My covenant with you and you shall enter the ark" (ibid). God is affirming His guarantee that there will always be a human remnant.
On the basis of all these explanations of the term brit, the climax of our Torah reading - God's commitments to Noah and his descendants, God's demand on Noah and his descendants based on his previous moral actions, and the rainbow as the symbol of the covenant - becomes magnificently clear. God promises that neither the seasons which affect agriculture nor the day-night cycle of daily living will cease, and blesses Noah and his family with fruitfulness and mastery over the earth (Gen. 8:22, 9:1-3). And then, at the same time He permits humanity to eat animal flesh, God orders that we refrain from eating the limbs and blood of a living animal, and that humans refrain from murdering each other: "Whoever sheds another human's blood will have his blood shed [by human judges], since every human was created in the image of God" (Gen. 9:4-7). A covenant of mutual commitments agreed upon freely by God and humanity, with the preservation of the created world confirmed and guaranteed by God.
And finally the biblical text informs us that God "has set My rainbow in the cloud, which shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and the earthâ€¦" (Gen. 9:13 ff). The Ramban explains that the rainbow is an inverted bow; in the ancient world, an inverted bow was a call to peace; the rainbow is an eternal sign that God will never again wage war against humanity.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests an even deeper symbolism. The dazzling colors of the rainbow - red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet - are actually all manifestations of the singular whiteness which is their source. The rainbow reminds us that all the creatures of the universe find their source and essence in the one Creator.
From this perspective, the destinies of God and the universe are linked; and if we but remember the message of the rainbow, we will never be able to harm another human being or act with cruelty toward any part of creation.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.