Last Sunday I began teaching in my church, The Compass Church in Naperville, Illinois, a series of studies on the diversity of God’s covenants. This series of studies will introduce four covenants mentioned in the Hebrew Bible: God’s covenants with Noah, Abraham, Israel, and David. The study will conclude with the promise of the New Covenant mentioned in Jeremiah.
After the presentation in church, I hope to publish these five studies here in my blog. A sixth covenant, God’s covenant with the Levites, will be published in my blog, even though the details about this sixth covenant will not be presented in church. So, today I begin with God’s covenant with Noah.
The covenant God established with Noah is probably one of the most significant covenants in the Bible. This covenant between God and every creature on earth (Genesis 9:17), is God’s promise and commitment to maintain creation and life within a fallen world. This study will examine the purpose and meaning of God’s covenant with earth (Genesis 9:13).
The Setting for the Covenant: The Flood
The events that preceded the flood are the proper context to understand God’s covenant with Noah and the earth. The reason for the flood was the sinful condition of human being. The Bible gives two reasons for the flood. The first reason was the wickedness of human beings: “The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5).
The second reason was violence and corruption: “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence” (Genesis 6:11). In Hebrew, the word for “violence” designates an antisocial behavior and the use of brutal force. It is often translated by the word “oppression.”
Human sinfulness had a profound effect on God. God’s heart was wounded and filled with pain: “The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain” (Genesis 6:6). Some Christians use the word “anthropomorphism” to describe God’s reaction to human sin. However, the concept of anthropomorphism does not explain the plain meaning of the text and misinterprets the true character of God. The characterization of God’s feelings as anthropomorphism is an attempt at denying the reality of divine passability.
The consequence of human sin was divine judgment: “So the LORD said, I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them” (Genesis 6:7).
Since God’s judgment upon sinful humanity would “blot out from the earth” the human beings God had created, God decided to give human beings a second chance. This second chance or God’s recreation would occur through God’s covenant with Noah and with “every living creature of all flesh” (Genesis 9:15).
God’s covenant with Noah shows God’s grace toward creation. This covenant is God’s commitment to protect and maintain his creation. God’s covenant with Noah also shows God’s mercy toward human beings. Although the flood brought judgment upon all flesh, in his mercy God preserved a remnant with whom he would begin the process of recreation.
God’s Covenant with Noah
Although a covenant in general is an agreement between two parties, in God’s covenant with Noah, it is God who takes the initiative in establishing the covenant: “I now establish my covenant” (Genesis 9:9).
Since God takes the initiative in establishing his covenant with Noah, it is God who sets the conditions required for the establishment of the covenant. Since in this type of covenant God is the party in the superior position, God binds himself to the obligations of the covenant for the benefit of the party in the inferior position.
As Nahum Sarna wrote: “This covenant is strictly an act of divine grace, for it involves no corresponding obligations or participation on the part of man. God binds Himself unconditionally to maintain His pledge to all humanity” (1966: 57). This means that even when human beings do not keep the stipulations of the covenant, God will keep his pledge to humanity.
The recipients of the covenant are Noah, his descendants, all future human beings, and every living creature: “I am establishing my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth” (Genesis 9:9-10).
The obligation to which God binds himself for the sake of creation is God’s promise never again to judge the world through another flood: “I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:11).
The Stipulations of the Covenant
After Noah and his family came out of the Ark, “God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1). God’s command to Noah to repopulate the earth is similar to God’s words to Adam. Although Noah was a righteous man and although God desires humanity to live in covenantal relationship with him, God is aware that the sinful nature of human beings, which brought about the flood, is the same sinful nature with which God is beginning his new creation.
God’s covenant with Noah contains three obligations imposed upon human beings: Human beings must abstain from eating blood, they are forbidden to commit murder, and capital punishment is imposed upon those who take human life.
a. Human beings must abstain from eating blood: “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (Genesis 9:3-4).
God allows Noah and his descendants to eat of every “moving thing that lives.” However, humans are forbidden to eat “flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” The law prohibiting the consumption of blood is unique to the Old Testament. Since in the Old Testament blood represents both life and death, it is possible that this prohibition may have a reference to blood used in animal sacrifice, thus human beings are forbidden to consume blood.
b. Human beings are forbidden to commit murder. “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind” (Genesis 9:6). This prohibition in the covenant obligates humans to have respect for all human life. Murder is a disrespect for life human life and since humans are created in the image of God, murder is a destruction of the image of God. Anyone who takes a life shows disrespect for God, the creator of life.
c. The murderer must be punished. “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed” (Genesis 9:6). The sentence of death upon the murderer is a reminder to all people that human life is precious to God. Human violence brought about divine judgment against humanity. Human violence against another human being will bring divine judgment upon the murderer. In this case, divine judgment has been delegated to a human authority, who “is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4).
The Sign of the Covenant
God’s promise is sealed with the sign of the covenant: “God said, This is the sign of the covenant . . . I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth” (Genesis 9:12-13).
God confirms his covenant with Noah and the earth by displaying the bow in the cloud. The bow serves as a visible reminder of the everlasting nature of the agreement God established with humanity. The bow speaks to the universality of God’s covenant with Noah. It also represents God’s guarantee that the world would not be destroyed with another flood and God’s promise never again to interrupt his purpose and plans for creation: “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease”
The Duration of the Covenant: An Everlasting Covenant
“When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (Genesis 9:16). The implication of God’s promise is that his covenant with Noah will last an indefinite period of time, that is, “as long as the earth remains” (Genesis 8:22).
Much more could be said about God’s covenant with Noah, but space and time limits this study to a brief introduction to the agreement God made with Noah and with the earth. Through God’s covenant with Noah, human beings are assured that creation will maintain its regularity and that the world will not experience another destruction by a flood. Although “the wickedness of humankind” is still great in the earth (Genesis 6:5), God’s covenant with Noah assures humanity that the waters of chaos will never disrupt creation again.
Nahum M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis. New York: Schoken Books, 1966.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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