A rabbi, a priest, and an imam walk into a bar. Separately, each orders a Shirley Temple. Then the three proceed to argue which beverage tastes the best, and why the others are drinking poison.
This unfunny joke is no laughing matter. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam agree on one fundamental idea: they all promote the belief in one and the same God, and attempt (at least on paper) to usher in the twilight of the pagan idols.
Whether you like it or not, this revolutionary critique of polytheism might very well be the most consequential philosophical idea in human history. What began as a failed Egyptian experiment only gained traction within the small Israelite nation. It then received a massive public relations boost as Christians and Muslims spread over the world.
Yehezkel Kaufmann, a brilliant yet forgotten Israeli thinker who had the same PhD advisor as Walter Benjamin, argues that the basic disagreement among the main monotheistic faiths boils down to the question of the covenant. Does one religion uphold an exclusive divine agreement? Each seems to assume that God is on its side, so to speak, that his full approval and support is reserved for its own believers, with their specific creed and special conduct. One revelation challenges the validity of the other two.
To begin to make sense of this contentious debate, consider instead of another lame joke the following tale:
Three young brothers were cutting the branches of a big, beautiful tree. They were using the wood to build a house for their ailing father. While working together, each was vying for his exclusive approval. “He promised me everything,” said the first. “He treated me as his only son,” said the second. “He told me and no one else his secret truth,” said the third.
Then an older man approached the worksite. “Greetings,” he said. “I couldn’t help but hear you quarrel. There is no easy way to put this: I am your long-lost brother. Father sent me here to tell you all how saddened he is by your endless bickering, and how angered he is by your destruction of his beloved tree.”
The three young brothers are, obviously, Abraham, Jesus, and Muhammad. But who is supposed to be their eldest sibling? Who is our forgotten monotheistic forefather?
The answer, whether you guessed it or not, is Noah. God’s first covenant, which was made right after the flood, extends to Noah’s family, the animals in the ark, and all their offspring. As a matter of fact, God even proclaims that this covenant encompasses the earth as a whole. In essence, the original covenant was established with all terrestrial life.
Ten generations after Noah, God decides to constitute a second covenant, much diminished in scope. It concerns only a single chosen man, his subsequent descendants, and their limited piece of promised land. All other peoples and nations, the entirety of the animal kingdom, as well as the rest of the earth, recede to the background, disenfranchised, with the introduction of the covenant with Abraham.
Then, during the Exodus from Egypt, the Abrahamic covenant is further defined as it takes on the written form of the Ten Commandments. Upholding the Mosaic law is thenceforth a condition for the transformation of the Israelites into a great nation.
The last and most confined covenant in the Hebrew Bible is made with David. It stipulates the construction of the temple in Jerusalem and guarantees the king the continuous reign of his privileged dynasty. It is such a far cry from Noah’s ecological covenant.
Taking one step beyond the Jewish tradition, we may see Christianity and Islam as arguments against this progressive contraction of God’s covenant. It became harder and harder to reconcile God’s purported universal reach with his expressed partiality for the Israelites, especially given the reality of their dismal historical situation.
Humankind’s collective inclusion in a more expansive religious program can therefore gesture towards a restitution of the Noachite covenant. But these later theological systems only pay lip service to nonhuman animals and the nonorganic earth. They also insist that each and every individual embrace the new messianic or prophetic message, not to mention the messenger himself.
The Noachite covenant is about the whole earth, not a specific part of it or a selective list of its inhabitants. This realization is usually lost on those who move on to identify the Old Testament with the so-called old covenant, first established with Abraham and then ratified by Moses.
By comparison, the oldest covenant, the one made with all creatures, receives scant consideration in the Abrahamic tradition. Could this be an attempt to hide the fact that Abraham’s covenant is already new?
The Noachite covenant requires neither acknowledgment nor consent, neither belief nor faith. It does not rely on prophets or priests, sovereigns or messiahs, circumcision or resurrection. The Abrahamic tradition can neither confirm nor deny this simple truth.
By manipulating the terms of the divine pact to fit its own needs, each monotheistic establishment seeks to elevate its position and denigrate the others. By conspiring to downplay the idea of the primordial covenant with all the earth as a distant, inaccessible horizon, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam try to block this dangerous idea that undercuts their authority from within.
Yet for more than two millennia, the Abrahamic tradition has also been a faithful courier of the radical message of the original covenant, hidden in plain sight, right there in the ninth chapter of Genesis.
If the biblical mythology about a covenant between God and life on earth was written with a certain audience in mind, then we, today, are it. This text feels more legible now than ever. After all, the second coming of the flood is backed by solid scientific data. The world born in Genesis is disintegrating before our very eyes.
Nothing appears to stop humans from pillaging their own planet. Will the resurrection of a semi-forgotten theological-environmental conviction make any difference? Can God still save us? Did the rumor about his death accelerate the earth’s ruination? Though a renewed appreciation of Noah’s colossal covenant seems urgent, can it be more than an empty symbolic gesture?
Speaking of symbols, consider the shape of a rainbow, the divine sign of the covenant after the flood. Maybe God was trying to tell us that our history forms an arc, which bends, not toward justice, but toward the ground. Just as a singular life comes from dust and returns to dust, humanity’s end is already encapsulated in its beginning.
You can find more on this topic in David Kishik’s The Book of Shem: On Genesis before Abraham