“Dispensation” is a term give by theologians to the eras of redemptive history described in the Bible. A clear example of a dispensation is the period during which the Law was in effect, from the covenant God made with Israel on Mount Sinai until the death of Christ and the beginning of the church. Within each dispensation, God prescribes different means by which believers are to demonstrate their faith in Him; however, dispensations are not different methods of salvation, which has always been by grace through faith.
While the New Testament clearly distinguishes between the Age of the Law and the Church Age, the most popular modern list of dispensations comes from the Scofield Reference Bible, which was published in the early twentieth century. In this study Bible, C. I. Scofield, building on the work of earlier dispensational theologians, lists seven dispensations. He calls the first dispensation “Innocence.” This was the time from the creation of man until the fall of man. The second dispensation, extending from the fall of man until the flood of Noah, is labeled “Conscience” by Scofield. The idea behind this name is that man had little or no direct revelation from God, and therefore could only be guided by his conscience in moral and spiritual matters. Proponents of this idea hypothesized that people who lived during this period had a much stronger (more reliable) conscience than people do today, which made it possible to live merely by conscience. Somehow human souls were gradually weakened during that early period, so that people gradually lost the sensitivity of their consciences.
However, when we examine the biblical description of the period between the Fall and the Flood, it does not match the theory that this was the Age of Conscience. For one thing, Cain murdered his brother Abel in cold blood and showed no remorse afterward (Gen 4:8-9)—hardly the behavior of someone who had an extremely sensitive conscience. More importantly, the antediluvians did have clear and direct revelation from God. Before the Fall, God conversed directly with Adam and Eve every evening in the garden of Eden (Gen 3:8; cf. Ezek 28:13), and it is very likely that God revealed to them the story of creation that is recorded in Genesis 1:1–2:3, among other things. Adam and Eve, in turn, must have spoken of these things to their children. There were also prophets in the antediluvian world. Jude 14 mentions that Enoch was a prophet, and Genesis 6:13-22 describes revelation that Noah received directly from God. Dreams and visions were another possible source of revelation; Job 33:14-18 indicates that God commonly revealed things to people in dreams during the most ancient periods of human history.
However, there was another revelation of God in the antediluvian world that many Christians have never heard of, although it is described in Genesis 3–4. To understand what this was, let us look first at Genesis 3:24, which says, So He drove the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden He placed the cherubim and the flame of a sword that turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life. Evidently the garden of Eden had an entrance on its east side. After Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden, the cherubim were stationed at its entrance in order to prevent man from eating the fruit of the tree of life. The cherubim were openly manifested in their awesome glory, in order to dissuade men from trying to enter the garden.
The cherubim are very interesting creatures. Technically, they are not angels, but are a different order of celestial beings. In the book of Revelation, the cherubim are called “living creatures.” In Isaiah 6:2 they are called “seraphim,” which means “flaming ones.” Each time that the cherubim are described in the Bible, there are four of them, and they are situated around the throne of God, one on each side, with the throne of God above them in the center. The cherubim support the throne from underneath and from the sides, and function as guardians to protect the holiness of God’s throne from intruders. Given the fact that the cherubim have the responsibility to protect the throne of God, they must be the most powerful created beings, with Michael the archangel likely the only angel who is equal to them in power.
Interestingly, the function of cherubim as guardians of the throne of God is reflected in the material culture of the ancient Near East. Many royal thrones in the ancient Near East included winged guardian figures supporting the throne from its sides (examples). In Assyria, massive human-headed winged bulls called kāribu or lamassu were carved beside royal gates to represent guardian spirits. Since Noah and his sons actually saw the cherubim before the flood, they must have described their appearance and function to their descendants and helped them make depictions of cherubim. Cherubim were also depicted in the tabernacle and temple and above the ark of the covenant because these beings accompanied God’s presence (Exod 25:18-22; 26:1; 1 Kgs 6:23-29). An ivory carving from Samaria apparently depicts a cherub, and may reflect the way these creatures were carved in Solomon’s temple.
Ezekiel 28:13-14, which describes the origins of Satan, says he was originally created as “the anointed cherub who covers.” This indicates that God originally created five cherubim—four around the throne, supporting it from below, while hovering above the throne was a special cherub who occupied the most privileged position in all of creation. It is most unfortunate that this specially anointed cherub became filled with pride because of his exalted position and his great power and glory, and craved to take the throne of God for himself, in order to govern the universe himself and receive the worship of all creation (Isa 14:12-14). This cherub became Satan, the great opponent of God. When he decided to rebel against God, he left his station above God’s throne and persuaded large numbers of other angels to follow him instead of God (Rev 12:4). Satan then organized his forces and attempted to overwhelm the angels and cherubim who had remained loyal in order to break through to God’s throne and take it for himself. He lost the battle and was cast out of heaven to the earth for a time, where he proceeded to tempt Eve to sin, leading to the fall of the human race. The spiritual war on earth, fierce as it is, really is only a proxy war in the main conflict between Satan and God (Gen 3:15). At the end of history, when the antichrist is seizing power on earth, Satan will make one final attempt to storm heaven with his angels and drive God off His throne, and when he loses that battle, he and his angels will be cast out of heaven for all time (Rev 12:7-9).
There are many Bible verses which say that God is enthroned above the cherubim (e.g., 2 Sam 6:2; 2 Kgs 19:15; 1 Chr 13:6; Pss 18:10; 80:1; 99:1; Isa 37:16). Particularly clear is Ezekiel 1, in which Ezekiel gives a detailed report of a vision of cherubim that he saw (cf. Ezek 10:20). In Ezekiel 1:26, he describes seeing God the Father on His throne above the cherubim. When John describes the living creatures (cherubim) in Revelation 4:6-8, they are likewise stationed permanently around the throne of God.
If the principal function of the cherubim is to protect the throne of God, this implies that when the cherubim were placed at the entrance to the garden of Eden after the fall of man, the throne of God must also have been there, with the presence of God manifested in some way above the cherubim. Before the Fall, God spoke openly with Adam and Eve every evening (Gen 3:8; cf. Ezek 28:13), so it makes sense that they would be able to communicate directly with God afterward as well. It is significant that the entrance to the garden was on its east side, since the tabernacle and the temple were also oriented toward the east (cf. Num 3:23, 38; Ezek 10:19), and the glory of God will enter the millennial temple through its east gate (Ezek 43:1-5). The place in front of the entrance to the garden of Eden was therefore a holy place, in which people could reverentially approach God in order to speak to Him, to worship Him, and to offer sacrifices.
The narrative of Genesis 4 assumes that the reader understands this, although it does not directly say that the divine presence was manifested above the cherubim, and that this was a place where people offered sacrifices to God and spoke with Him. Genesis 4:3-7 reads, Now it came to pass at the end of certain years, that Cain brought some of the produce of the land as an offering to Yahweh. And Abel, on his part, brought some of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And Yahweh had regard for Abel and for his offering; but He did not show regard for Cain or for his offering. Then Cain became very angry, and his countenance fell. And Yahweh said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will it not be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” Presumably Adam, Eve, and their children worshiped God at the entrance to Eden every Sabbath (when they were not working), or perhaps every day, with Adam offering sacrifices on behalf of the entire family. When Cain and Abel reached the age of adulthood, God asked them for the first time to bring their own sacrifices to Him as an expression of their personal faith. God asked them to sacrifice a specific kind of animal, but Cain was too proud to purchase an animal from his brother, so he took some his own vegetables instead and offered them to God. When the text says that “Cain brought . . . an offering to Yahweh,” this means that Cain brought his offering to the place where God was manifested. This was the same place where Abel “brought” his offering. Cain and Abel could not offer their sacrifices in the place of their choosing, but rather had to bring their offerings to a specific place, literally in front of the throne of God. God indicated in some way that He accepted Abel’s offering—possibly by consuming it with fire—but He rejected Cain’s offering. God then spoke directly to Cain, rebuking him and instructing him. God also gave Cain specific directions for how he ought to behave himself and worship; Cain was not dependent on his conscience to form his own ideas about was constitutes correct morality and worship.
Cain was extremely irritated by the fact that God accepted his brother’s sacrifice but not his own, and he was very envious of his brother. Cain killed Abel in the field while he was working (Gen 4:8), and apparently buried his body to conceal the murder. Afterward, Cain returned to the presence of God, thinking that God did not see what he had done because the murder was committed out of sight of the divine presence (cf. Gen 3:8). When Cain spoke with God in Genesis 4:9-15, we know that he had gone to the place of the divine presence, because Genesis 4:16 says that Cain went out from the presence of Yahweh. Genesis 4:9-15 says, And Yahweh said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” And He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its strength to you; you will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth.” And Cain said to Yahweh, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, You have driven me out today from the face of the ground, and I will be hidden from Your face. I will be a fugitive and a wanderer in the earth; and it will come to pass, that whoever finds me will kill me.” So Yahweh said to him, “Therefore whoever kills Cain, vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold.” And Yahweh put a mark on Cain, so that no one who found him would kill him.
These verses reveal that the place of the divine presence in front of the garden was not only a place to sacrifice and worship God and speak with Him—it was also a place where God pronounced judgment on people for their sins. God declared Cain’s guilt and punished him, then promised to punish seven times more severely anyone who would kill Cain. When Cain’s descendant Lamech killed a man in self-defense, he also appealed to God to vindicate and protect him, rather than appealing to a human judge (Gen 4:23-24). In the absence of human government, God took responsibility to judge murderers, which was possible to do before the Flood because the cherubim and the divine presence were openly visible. It is interesting that Cain was worried about the nature of his punishment because it implied that he would have to live far from the divine presence. Given that everyone now knew that Cain had murdered Abel, someone might kill Cain in retribution, thinking that God could not see or judge the murder if it occurred far from the place where His presence was manifested.
Genesis 6:3 is also significant in this regard. In the King James Version, that verse reads, And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years. The Hebrew text of this verse is difficult, and there are various interpretations of it. According to one interpretation, “My spirit” (lowercase) is not the Holy Spirit, but is rather the human soul, which God has put in the bodies of men. God is saying that He will not continue to fight against human beings indefinitely, because they have mortal bodies, and He will kill them all in 120 years.
Another interpretation retains the wording of the KJV, but capitalizes the word “Spirit.” In accord with the idea that the second dispensation was the Age of Conscience, the Holy Spirit was using men’s consciences to fight against their desires, by bringing conviction of sin. However, we have already seen that men were not guided merely by their consciences during the second dispensation, but were given much specific instruction by God. A more basic problem with this interpretation of Genesis 6:3 is that the Hebrew verb used in this verse means “judge,” not “contend.” (The root דון is an earlier or variant form of דין.)
The best translation of Genesis 6:3 is, And Yahweh said, “My Spirit will not judge among men forever, since he is flesh; yet his days will be a hundred and twenty years.” The meaning of the verse is that God was acting as Judge of the human race during this period, in the absence of human governments. As the wickedness of the antediluvian world grew worse and worse, God issued a judicial decree that the antediluvian race would only remain for 120 more years. After the Flood, God delegated the responsibility to punish crime to human governments. The Flood destroyed the garden of Eden, and the tree of life was taken to heaven, where it is today according to the book of Revelation (2:7; 22:2, 14, 19). There was therefore no need for the cherubim to remain stationed on the earth, and both the cherubim and the throne of God ascended to heaven. After the Flood, in Genesis 9:1-7, God gave a commission to Noah and his sons, and to their descendants after them. This commission included the command to kill murderers, which meant that God was delegating the responsibility to execute justice to human government. Genesis 9:6 says, Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God He made man. With this command a new dispensation begins, one in which man will have the responsibility to execute justice and worship God without a visible manifestation of God. Since man was created in God’s image, he is capable of acting as a judge on God’s behalf.
Taking into account all the passages considered above, the second dispensation should be called “Theocracy,” not “Conscience.” The period of world history between the Fall and the Flood was an era during which God governed the world directly, and men saw God openly and conversed with Him directly. Angelic activity in the world was also much more open and visible (Gen 6:1-4). It is certain that the antediluvians did not have knowledge of certain theological subjects which were revealed later (e.g., the church, the rapture, etc.), but neither were they primitive people who had virtually no direct revelation and depended on their consciences to form their own ideas about morality and worship. They needed instruction about God, just as we do, and they received such instruction, although by different means.
What happened when the population of the earth expanded and began to spread out, so that many people lived in places that were geographically distant from the place where God’s presence was manifested? Genesis 4:25-26 gives the answer: Then Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son. And she called his name Seth, for [she said], God has appointed me another offspring instead of Abel; for Cain killed him. And to Seth also was born a son; and he called his name Enosh. Then men began to call on the name of Yahweh. The meaning of the last part of verse 26 is that when the population of the earth expanded in the process of time, people began to pray to Yahweh. They recognized that God could hear them cry out to Him, even though they were too far from the entrance of Eden to be able to physically approach the place where the divine presence was manifested. It can be assumed that God responded to people’s prayers in dreams or visions (cf. Job 4:12-13; 33:14-18), or by prophets or angels. It can also be assumed that God punished crimes that occurred far from the entrance to Eden. However, the human race must have multiplied dramatically in the 1,656 years between Creation and the Flood, and perhaps the physical distance of most people from the divine presence was a factor in the general rebellion of the human race that developed throughout that period of history (Gen 6:5, 11-12).
One might assume that the Bible is our only source of information for the antediluvian era, but, surprisingly, it is not. The most ancient written records and oral traditions from other cultures also have stories of creation, a global flood, an ark, and the dispersion of peoples after God/the gods changed human language. While the details of these traditions are unreliable and mixed with paganism, there is a true history behind the legends. Some of these early traditions contain descriptions of the period before the Flood. Of particular interest is the Egyptian Book of the Heavenly Cow, which describes how the sun god, Re, once ruled the world directly as king of both man and the gods during an age in which all was orderly and perfect, and death did not yet exist. Then man rebelled against Re, and Re ordered the goddess Hathor to annihilate the human race; however, Re saved a remnant, keeping Hathor from killing every human being. Re also created the netherworld at the time when Hathor annihilated most of the human race, and Re populated the netherworld with serpents. After the reordering of the world, Re withdrew to heaven and delegated governance of the world to lesser deities and to Pharaoh, who was considered the son and successor of Re, his representative ruler on the earth. (See Erik Hornung, The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife, trans. David Lorton [London: Cornell University Press, 1999], 149-151.) This story sounds like a reflection of Genesis 1–9, as it parallels the introduction of human government after the Flood in the biblical account. The Sumerian creation myth, Eridu Genesis, also describes a time when the gods ruled mankind, before the scepter of kingship descended from heaven and human kings were allowed to govern the world on behalf of the gods. This also seems to reflect the fact that during the period of world history between the Fall and the Flood, God, rather than human rulers, judged and punished crimes committed by men in the world.
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