“And God spake unto Moses, and said unto him, I am the Lord: and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob by the name of God Almighty, but by my name JEHOVAH was I not known to them. And I have also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their pilgrimage, wherein they were strangers” (Exodus 6:2-4). This passage has caused some trouble to conservatives, if for no other reason, as a proof-text for the division of the Pentateuch into different sections, some attributable to an Elohist and others to a Yahwist (along the lines of the many variations of the JEDP theory). Robert Candlish has an explanation that is more elegant, more simple, more devout and more contextual. It is as follows:
That statement, I apprehend, can scarcely be taken literally to mean that the name—“Jehovah”—by which the Supreme Being announced himself to Moses and the Israelites in Egypt had never been in use before among the patriarchs.
It rather points, as I think, to the different of signification between the two names;—the one, Eloim, denoting sovereignty and power, the other, Jehovah, suggesting the idea of faithfulness or unchangeableness (Mal. iii. 6); —and to the suitableness of the two names to the two eras in question respectively. In former patriarchal times, God appears chiefly in the character of one choosing or electing those who are to be the objects of his favour, giving them “exceeding great and precious promises,” and ratifying and confirming with them a most gracious covenant. With such a transaction on his part, the assertion of absolute sovereignty and almighty power is in harmony and in keeping. Now, on the other hand, when he is about to come forward and interpose for the purpose of fulfilling those old assurances, and with that view wishes to secure the confidence of the new generation in whose experience and with whose co-operation the work is to be done, —the appeal to the immutability of his nature, as proving or implying “the immutability of his counsel” (Heb. vi. 17), is relevant and appropriate. Formerly he spoke as the omnipotent ruler over all, whose hand none can stay, to whom none can say what does thou! Now he speaks as the I am, “the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever.”
During the times of the patriarchs God had made promises; and they had not seen them fulfilled (cp. Hebrews 11:9,13). Now the time has come for God to fulfill His promises, and so He declares that He will be known to the children of Israel as Jehovah –as the God of promise, as the God who keeps covenant. And so in the same text where he says that he was not known to the patriarchs by the name Jehovah he goes on to say that he will establish his covenant with them. Jehovah is, as Dr. Campbell-Morgan has said, the God who accommodates himself to the needs of His people; He is, as has been often pointed out, the unchangeable and self-existent one; but while I have no doubt that his name, Jehovah, expresses those truths, there can be equally no doubt that it expresses his character as a God who makes and keeps covenants. Indeed, as Candlish observes, His immutability is in close connection with his covenant faithfulness; and as will be argued below, his accommodation to his people is also in connection with his making of covenants.
Now that God is a God who makes and keeps covenants is a fact egregiously patent on the face of Scripture; Noah (Genesis 9:9), Abraham (Genesis 17:4), Moses and the children of Israel (Exodus 19:5) and David (2 Samuel 7) are all examples of this. The night that Christ is betrayed He gives the cup to the disciples “saying , This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you” (Luke 22:20). Covenant concepts pervade Scripture: marriage is a covenant bond (Malachi 2:14); the patriarchs enter into covenants with others (Genesis 26:38-31, 31:44); Christ is brought again from the dead “through the blood of the everlasting covenant” (Hebrews 13:20).
All of what has been said is directly relevant to question as to whether in the Garden of Eden Adam and Even were under a covenant (often called the covenant of works). This is by no means universally received. The late Dr. Ernest Kevan, to take but one example, in his little book on the Lord’s Supper goes out of his way to deny the existence of the covenant of works. At least one objection that is raised to this doctrine is the fact that the early chapters of Genesis do not speak of a covenant. This is not a fatal objection, because there may be covenant arrangements present in passages that do not expressly use the term. Jeremiah 33:20 speaks of God’s covenant with day and with night. The succession of day and night was established at the beginning of creation; but in the creation narrative the word covenant was not used. Therefore it is perfectly possible for a covenant to be present in a passage even if the term is not specifically used.
Now, a further line of evidence is found in Hosea 6:6,7 God is inditing Ephraim and Judah and says this: “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice: and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings. But they like men have transgressed the covenant: there have they dealt treacherously against me.” The marginal rendition of verse 7a is: “But they like Adam have transgressed the covenant”. If that is correct, then it is perfectly obvious that Adam was in some covenant which he transgressed. We read of one transgression of Adam: “and he did eat” (Genesis 3:6g). At that point, then, he violated the covenant of works. Of course, many will prefer the rendering “like men”. This, though, does not help the case against the covenant of works at all. For it would compare the people of Ephraim and Judah to men in general, and the teaching would then be that all men have transgressed a covenant; which would suppose that all men were in a covenant to begin with, and we are back again at the covenant of works. There is an alternative rendering, which takes the phrase in question to indicate the name of a place: this understanding would have God comparing the people of Ephraim and Judah to some unknown breakers of an unknown covenant at a location, which is as far as I know, also unknown. Allusions in Scripture are frequently to some other event contained in Scripture, something well known (see, e.g., 2 Corinthians 11:3, Psalm 106:7, Matthew 11:21-24, 12:3,4). Thus an allusion to an obscure event at a minor location, apart from lacking rhetorical punch, seems unlikely on the face of it. To this we may add the testimony of the following versions, who do not translate “at” but rather “like” or “as”: RV1909, RV1960, RV95, LBLA, ASV, YLT, NIV, NASB, The Message, Amplified, NLT, ESV, NKJV, Darby, Coverdale, Geneva, JPS, NLV, HCSB, NirV, LITV, Louis Segond, Semeur, Nuova Diodati, O Livro, Russian Synodal Version, Vulgate, Luther. It must be a reference to a known covenant and a known transgression of that covenant. Only one would seem to match: Adam’s violation of the covenant of works.
Now in addition to what might be considered as minor supports to this doctrine, there is of course the great passage in Romans 5 where a parallel is drawn between Adam and Christ: a parallel that seems to require that if Christ’s role as the head of a new humanity is a covenant role, then Adam’s role as the original head of humanity would also be covenantal: but a detailed discussion of this chapter is outside of my present scope. And in addition due weight should be given to the remark of T.E. Wilder that we don’t have to labour to find an occasional hint of a covenant concept in Genesis –the covenantal indications there are obvious and overwhelming.
Scripture is pervaded with covenant concepts; God is a God who makes covenants; there may be covenants in texts where the term is not used. Let me add another evidence for the existence of the covenant of works. The Westminster Assembly wrote: “The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant” (WCF 7.1). As I have been considering the Creator-creature distinction in recent weeks, the truth of the Assembly’s statement has been borne in upon me. Without some voluntary condescension on God’s part there could be no reward, no fruition of him as blessedness. And yet, Scripture does hold out to us an enjoyment of God and a communion with him. “And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:3,4). The culmination of the apocalyptic vision is the fulfillment of the covenant announced to Abraham (Genesis 17:7), and consists in the enjoyment of God. At the same time, Scripture reveals that God is absolute, independent, underived and noncontingent (Romans 11:36). But we are just the opposite. We can never attain to this, except by some voluntary condescension on God’s part. And how will God express that? On the basis of His revelation of Himself as the God of the covenant, no other way is so consistent with all the rest of Scripture, as the way of covenant. The creation narrative is consistent with this point of view. We can trace covenantal elements in the details given to us of Adam’s prelapsarian position. Beyond that, there is still more. As Exodus 6:2-4 shows, Jehovah is the name of God considered as the God of the covenant, the God who enters into and fulfills covenants. And when we come to Genesis 2:4ff, we find that the text does not simply say that it is God who does this or that, as was true in Genesis 1:1-2:3. No, now it is Jehovah God who plants a garden, who places man in it, who provides for him food and occupation and companionship, who stipulates that he shall not eat of one tree. It is the God considered as the covenant-making and keeping God who is brought to our attention.
I believe, then, in the covenant of works. I believe it because the Scripture impels me in that direction. And I believe it because the name of my God is Jehovah.