In his epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul rebukes the Christians in Galatia for wishing to receive circumcision and bind themselves to the Old Covenant. As part of his argument, he makes this statement:
As many as are of [ek] the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: "Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all the things written in the book of the law, and do them" – Gal. 3:10.
He quotes here from the book of Deuteronomy, in the 27th chapter, wherein Israel swears a covenant oath and binds themselves to a curse if they break the covenant. The history of Israel shows clearly that they did, in fact, break that covenant, and that they did come under the curse associated with it — the curse, as Deuteronomy spells it out, culminates in exile. In St. Paul's own time, Judah was under Roman rule, still in "slavery" to a foreign power, and the prophetic and inter-testamental literature makes it clear that the Jews considered these things as evidence that they were still under that covenant curse.
St. Paul's argument, then, is something like the following: the covenant to which Israel bound themselves came with an attached curse; because Israel broke the covenant, the curse is even now still in effect; to receive circumcision and enter into that covenant is to enter into the curse which currently governs that covenant; therefore, "as many as are of the works of the law" — or "of the cursed covenant" — "are under a curse."
This will be our point of departure for considering the situation of all Creation after the Fall of Adam. In the epistle to the Hebrews, the Old Covenant is compared to Creation itself. In the first chapter, Christ as the mediator of the New Covenant is contrasted to the angels, who mediated the Old Covenant; Christ's superiority to the angels is demonstrated in order to show that the New Covenant is superior to the Old. Quoting from the Psalms, Hebrews says:
Thou, Lord, didst found the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of thy hands; they will perish, but thou remainest; they will all grow old [palaiothesontai] like a garment, like a mantle thou wilt roll them up, and they will be changed. But thou art the same, and thy years will never end – Heb. 1:10-12.
Later, the same language is used with regard to the Old Covenant:
In speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old [palaioumenon] is ready to vanish away – Heb. 8:13.
There is a parallel link here between the Old Covenant and the Creation itself. Both are said to be "growing old"; St. Paul says that the Old Covenant is "under a curse," while we see in Genesis that the earth itself comes under a curse when Adam sins:
Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, 'You shall not eat of it,' cursed is the ground because of you – Gen. 3:17.
If receiving circumcision as a religious rite of the Old Covenant puts an individual under a cursed system, and one which is in the process of growing old and decaying, it would seem that the same can be said of anyone who is born into this world; we are born into a "covenant" that is under a curse, and is getting ready to pass away. This is more true than we may realize at first, because the Creation itself was part of God's original covenant with Adam.
Speaking to all Israel through the prophet Hosea, God makes this accusation:
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings. But like Adam they transgressed the covenant [b'riyth]; there they dealt faithlessly with me. Gilead is a city of evildoers, tracked with blood – Hos. 6:6-8.
Adam is said to have "transgressed the covenant" when he sinned; what covenant did he break? Biblical scholars today recognize that there was a covenant sworn by God with Creation when He made the world and sanctified it on the seventh day. After the flood, God said to Noah:
Behold, I establish [quwm] my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark – Gen. 9:9-10.
The Hebrew word used here has the following range of meaning: "establish," "confirm," "fulfill," "fix," "persist," "continue," or "accomplish." The sense here seems to be that God is renewing with Noah an already-existing covenant. That already-existing covenant was first sworn with Adam as the covenant representative of all creation.
We learn this from a semantic study of the word "seven." It was on the seventh day that God blessed and sanctified His Creation, but the Hebrew word for "seven" [sheva] also has a verbal form that means "to swear an oath." The swearing of oaths, Scripturally speaking, is what creates a covenant.
What happened with Adam, however, was mirrored in what happened to Israel later in history. The Exodus account of Israel's apostasy in worshiping the Golden Calf shares many similarities with the account of Adam's sin. When Adam sinned, God came to him and gave him a chance to confess by asking him, "What have you done?" So also Moses came to Aaron and said, "What did this people do to you that you have brought a great sin upon them?" (Ex. 32:21). Adam dodged the blame by immediately pointing the finger at his wife, and she in turn blamed the serpent (who was the "object," if you will, of their "worship," in the sense that they obeyed his word and not God's); likewise, Aaron first blames the "Bride," or Israel, by saying, "you know the people, that they are set on evil" (Ex. 32:22), and then he blames the "object" of worship itself: "they gave [the gold] to me, and I threw it into the fire, and there came out this calf" (Ex. 32:24).
Commenting upon Israel's continued idolatry, from Sinai until their eventual exile, God says through Isaiah:
Because you have said, "We have made a covenant [b'riyth] with death, and with Sheol we have an agreement; when the overwhelming scourge passes through it will not come to us …"; therefore thus says the Lord GOD, "Behold, I am laying in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation … I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plummet … Then your covenant [b'riyth] with death will be annulled, and your agreement with Sheol will not stand; when the overwhelming scourge passes through you will be beaten down by it" – Is. 28:15-18.
Is this a commentary upon Israel, or upon Adam? Certainly, it was Adam who truly made "a covenant with death," and an "agreement with Sheol" (the Hebrew word for "Hell"), when he chose to obey the serpent instead of God. Yet the two covenants are so closely related to each other that they run in parallel; both covenants become cursed covenants, both involve swearing a covenant with Hell and Death, and both are bound to pass away.
This sheds new light, too, on the consequences that came about as a result of the broken covenants. After worshiping the Golden Calf, Israel was saddled with a perpetual ceremony, to be performed once a year, known as the "Day of Atonement." Leviticus 16 describes the ritual of this ceremony, including how Aaron (and his successors to the high priesthood) must offer a bull on the altar of sacrifice; the epistle to the Hebrews says of this ceremony that "in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year" (Heb. 10:3). In other words, the Day of Atonement ceremony was imposed as an ongoing penance for breaking the covenant; a Golden Calf was worshiped, and thus a bull must be slaughtered and offered in sacrifice, as a concrete and ritually enacted form of renouncing the idolatry.
So also with Adam, who for his sin was put under specific penances relating to his sin: the ground was cursed to bring forth thorns and thistles, and Adam was bound to labor and toil by the sweat of his brow; Eve was bound to experience pain in childbearing, and to ever be at odds with her husband concerning his authority. But just as the slaughtering of the bull on the Day of Atonement turned the curse into an occasion of meritorious penance, so also do the curses of the first broken covenant become for us occasions of meritorious penance. Adam's sweat and thorns were elevated by Christ in His Passion, as He sweat great drops of blood and wore a crown of thorns; the Church has often taught that Man can be sanctified simply by fulfilling his daily duties in work; as for the woman, cursed with pain in childbearing, St. Paul explicitly says in his epistle to St. Timothy, "woman will be saved through bearing children." (1 Tim. 2:15)
The fact that Adam brought himself and all of his future progeny into a covenant with Death and Hell sheds much light on God's future dealings with Man; He redeems Man again and again by offering him a renewal of the covenant — for this is the only way to annul the covenant with hell. One covenant can only be abrogated by the swearing of another covenant.
Here we can find something of interest in the previously quoted passage from Isaiah. A covenant, by its very nature, cannot be abrogated; contracts can be torn up and revoked, but a covenant is binding until death — this is precisely why the Church refuses to allow Catholics to simply divorce and remarry. The covenant of marriage is binding "until death do us part." So how is it, then, that a covenant with hell can be annulled by swearing a covenant with God?
Isaiah says "your covenant with death will be annulled, and your agreement with Sheol will not stand." The only reason that this can be so is because God swore His covenant with Man first, in Creation. If a Man divorced his wife and married another woman, that second marriage covenant would not be valid, and would be annulled as soon as he repented and returned to the previously sworn covenant. So also with God and Man — God swore His covenant with Creation, and Man broke that covenant by swearing a treaty with hell — but this second covenant cannot be binding or valid, because the former covenant cannot be annulled. It can only be enforced, and its curses deployed.
While the second covenant can be annulled, because the first covenant was binding, it still remains true that the second covenant must be renounced. Hence, Aaron had to continually renounce the Golden Calf apostasy by sacrificing the bull, and even in our own times, the Church requires us to renounce our covenant with hell before renewing the covenant with God.
Here we can consider the Church's rite of Baptism; before the catechumen is baptized, the priest asks him, "Do you renounce Satan? And all his works? And all his pomps?", and he replies in the affirmative. This is a formal renunciation of the covenant with hell, and it is followed by an exorcism. The very word "exorcism" comes from two Greek words, ex ("out of") and horkizo ("oath") — we tend to associate "exorcism" with the casting out of a demon, and this is precisely why. The exorcism is a casting out by means of an oath — or a casting out of an oath, if we want to think of it that way. The formal renunciation of Satan, combined with the exorcism, releases us from the invalid covenant with hell.
In his catechetical lectures to his catechumens, St. Cyril said:
When therefore thou renouncest Satan, utterly breaking all covenant [diatheken] with him, that ancient league [sunthekas] with hell [cf. Is. 28:15], there is opened to thee the paradise of God, which He planted towards the east, whence for his transgression our first father was exiled – St. Cyril, quoted in R.W. Church [trans.], St. Cyril of Jerusalem: Lectures on the Christian Sacraments [Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1995], p. 57.
St. Cyril says explicitly that the baptismal renunciation of Satan is a breaking of our covenant with him, and an annulment of our "league" (or "treaty") with hell; interestingly enough, the result of this, in St. Cyril's words, is that Eden is opened to us again. In other words, this confirms what we have been saying about Adam having sworn a covenant with hell in the Garden, which caused him to lose paradise; in the baptismal renunciation, we annul this hellish covenant and return to paradise.
The connection between the Old Covenant and the cursed covenant of Creation leads us to some new considerations as well. In a way, it can be seen that what makes the Old Covenant "old" is its temporal quality — the fact that it is passing away. What makes the New Covenant "new," conversely, is the fact that it is eternal — hence the frequent combination of the terms, "New and Eternal Covenant."
And in fact, to speak of the "abrogation" of the covenant is a kind of misnomer. Our Lord said in the Gospels that He did not come to abolish, but to fulfill; that is, He came to elevate the covenant and establish forever what is eternally valid in it, while simultaneously sweeping away all that is temporal in it. In that latter category, we can identify such things as the Jerusalem temple, the animal sacrifices, the rite of circumcision, the Levitical priesthood, and other dietary or ceremonial laws. But it would appear, then, that the "Old Covenant" of Creation is also going to undergo a similar kind of change; not an annihilation, or an abrogation, but a re-creation, or a kind of purification. In purification by fire, we find precisely this process: all that is temporary and flammable is burned away, while what is truly lasting (the gold, silver, etc.) remains.
This is precisely the imagery that St. Peter uses, when he says that "the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up," in order to give way to a "new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (cf. 2 Pet. 3:9-13).
In a way, then, it can be seen that we who live on this earth are still in a sense living under the "Old Covenant"; or, better put, we can see how the New Covenant has been inaugurated, and we are part of it, but yet we still await its fulfillment. We still live in a period of "overlap," in which the New Covenant has come, but the Old Covenant with Creation lingers and awaits the moment when it will be dissolved by fire, burning away all that is temporal and not of eternal quality. The similarities with Purgatory are too striking to miss.
This, then, is a deeper understanding of how God works in Salvation History. It explains better why, throughout Scripture, salvation is conceived in terms of God swearing (or renewing) His covenant with Man. We are born into an "Old Covenant" that is cursed, and by nature we are in a covenant with hell; this invalid covenant must be renounced in favor of a renewal of the only truly binding covenant, the one God has already sworn, and fully ratified through the New Adam. When we turn away from God's covenant, we must of necessity fall back into the covenant with hell, and if we die in this state, we are eternally united to the Kingdom of Hell. There is no alternative — we must swear a covenant with someone, and we will either accept the sweet yoke of Christ, or we will submit to slavery to the Devil.
In the Old Testament, this contrast is drawn sharply when God speaks through Hosea about His covenant with Israel:
And in that day, says the LORD, you will call me, "My husband," and no longer will you call me, "My Ba'al." For I will remove the names of the Ba'als from her mouth, and they shall be mentioned by name no more. And I will make for you a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground … And I will betroth you to me for ever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the LORD – Hos. 2:16-20.
The word "Ba'al" literally means "Master" or "Owner," and denotes a kind of servile relationship; this is set in contrast to God's promise of betrothal and marriage to His bride, who will not call Him "slave master," but "husband." St. Paul uses this same kind of language when he writes to the Romans:
Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to any one as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? – Rom. 6:16.
When we turn away from service to God, we necessarily get slavery to Ba'al — one of the Devil's many names. When we turn from the blessing of God's covenant, we necessarily find ourselves cursed by that covenant. The difference is that slavery to the "Old Covenant" ends in destruction, for that covenant with hell is marked for burning. This earth — as St. Paul also says in Romans 8 — is awaiting its final purification and redemption, and all that is temporal in it will be dissolved with fire; hence the Church has always taught Her children to maintain a healthy detachment from the things of this earth. Clinging to them means clinging to the destruction for which they are targeted.
The sons and daughters of God know this; like Abraham, as it is said in Hebrews 11, we know that we are strangers in a strange land, and we are looking forward to an everlasting "kingdom" and "city," one that is built by God. Therefore we must not become too attached to what is temporary, but always be willing to renounce it — as we do in the baptismal vows — in favor of the New and Eternal Covenant which will redeem not only our souls, but Creation itself.