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The Noahic Covenant—A New Beginning (Genesis 8:20-9:17)
Ours is not an age that desires to make long-term commitments. The covenant of marriage is often avoided, and vows that are made lack the permanence and commitment of former days. Guarantees are given for a very short period. Contracts are often vaguely worded or are undermined by loopholes and fine print.
Strangely, Christians seem to think that clear, contractual agreements are somehow unspiritual, especially between two believers. ‘A man should be as good as his word,’ we are told. And so he should.
It is interesting to observe that the infinite, all-powerful, changeless God of the universe has chosen to deal with men in the form of covenants. The Noahic Covenant of Genesis chapter 9 is the first biblical covenant of the Bible. While the word ‘covenant’ appears in Genesis 6:18, it refers to the Noahic Covenant of chapter 9.
This Noahic Covenant is important to us for a number of reasons. As I deliver this message, it is raining outside, and rather heavily, too. If the Noahic Covenant were not still in effect, you and I would be greatly concerned. The calm which we experience is a direct result of the covenant God initiated centuries ago with Noah.
The Noahic Covenant, in addition to the fact that it is still in force today, also provides us with a pattern for all of the other biblical covenants. As we come to understand this covenant, we will more fully appreciate the significance of all of the covenants, and especially the New Covenant instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ.
Finally, the Noahic Covenant lays down the foundation for the existence of human government. It addresses in particular the matter of capital punishment. It is here that our consideration of this much debated subject must begin.
The Divine Commitment
You will be aware that these last verses of Genesis chapter eight were discussed in my last message. While these three verses are not a part of the Noahic Covenant, they surely are a prelude to it. Therefore, we must begin our study with them.
Technically, Genesis 8:20-22 is not a promise which God gave to Noah. Rather it is a purpose confirmed in the heart of God.
And the Lord smelled the soothing aroma; and the Lord said to Himself, ‘I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living things as I have done’ (Genesis 8:21).
These are not words spoken to Noah, they are purposes reaffirmed in the mind of God. Covenant theologians place much emphasis on two or three theological covenants: the covenant of works, the covenant of grace, and the covenant of redemption.95 All of these covenants, while they may well be ‘biblical’ in essence, are implicit, rather than explicit. Covenant theologians usually tend to emphasize these implied theological covenants at the expense of the clearly biblical covenants, such as the Noahic Covenant. On the other hand, dispensational theologians often stress the biblical covenants and disparage the theological covenants.
In Genesis chapters 8 and 9 both elements are to be found. The eternal purpose of God to save men was made long before the days of Noah (cf. Ephesians 1:4; 3:11; II Thessalonians 2:13; II Timothy 1:9, etc.). What we find in Genesis 8:20-22 is not the creation of God’s purpose to save men, but the confirmation of that purpose in history. Just as God reaffirmed His purpose here, such recommitment is often good for men as well (cf. Philippians 3:8-16).
The covenant of God with Himself was occasioned by the sacrifices offered up by Noah (Genesis 8:20). God’s resolve was to never again destroy the earth by a flood (cf. 9:11). I understand the words, “… I will never again curse the ground on account of many… ” (verse 21), to be parallel with the following expression, “… and I will never again destroy every living thing as I have done” (verse 21).96
The reason for God’s resolve is based upon the nature of man: “For the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21).
Righteous Noah (6:9) will soon be found naked in a drunken stupor (9:21). No matter how many times the earth’s slate is wiped clean by a flood, the problem will remain if but one man exists. The problem is within man—it is his sinful nature. His predisposition toward sin is not learned, it is innate—he is “evil from his youth.” As a result, a full restoration must begin with a new man. This is what God historically purposed to accomplish.
This purpose is partially expressed in verse 22: “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.”
A New Beginning
Ray Stedman titles these verses (and verses 8-17) “Rules of the Game,”97 and I think he has truly caught the significance of this section. A new beginning, with a new set of rules, is evident by the similarity of these verses to Genesis chapter one.
Here (Genesis 9:1) and there (Genesis 1:28) God blessed His creatures and told them to be fruitful and multiply. Here (Genesis 9:3) and there (Genesis 1:29-30) God prescribed the food man could eat.
There are differences, however, which indicate that the new beginning is to be different from the old. God pronounced the original creation ‘good’ (cf. 1:21, 31). The world of Noah’s day received no such commendation, for the men who possessed it were sinful (8:21).
Adam was charged to subdue the earth and to rule over the animal kingdom (1:28). Noah was given no such command. Instead, God placed in the animals a fear of man by which man could achieve a measure of control over them. (The reason my dog obeys me—when he does—is because he fears me.)
While Adam and his contemporaries seem to have been vegetarians (Genesis 1:29-30; cf. 9:3), Noah and his descendants could eat flesh (9:3-4). There was, however, one stipulation. They could not eat the blood of the animal, for the life of the animal was in its blood. This was to teach man not only that God values life, but that He owns it. God allows man to take the life of animals in order to survive, but they must not eat the blood.
One may puzzle that flesh could be eaten after the flood, but not before (or so it seems). It may be that conditions on the earth so changed that protein was now necessary for life. More likely, man must be brought to the realization that, because of his sin, he could only live by the death of another. Man lives by the death of animals.
Most important of all, man is taught to reverence life. Men before the fall were obviously men of violence (cf. Genesis 6:11) who, like Cain (Genesis 4:8), and Lamech (Genesis 4:23-24), had no regard for human life. This is more emphatically stated in verses 5 and 6 of chapter 9:
And surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.
The life of man was precious and belonged to God. It was God’s to give and His alone to take. Animals which shed man’s blood must be put to death (verse 5, cf. Exodus 21:28,29). Men who willfully take the life of another must be put to death ‘by man’ (verse 6; cf. Numbers 35:33).98
In addition to murder, suicide is prohibited by God’s command in these verses. Life belongs to God—not only the life of animals and of others, but our own as well. We must realize that suicide is taking our life into our own hands when God says it belongs to Him. In the words of Job, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away” (Job 1:21).
This passage seems to shed light on the controversial subject of abortion also. Man is not to shed the blood of man. The life of man is in the blood (Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 17:11). Aside from many other considerations, must we not conclude that at the time a fetus has blood, it has life? Must we not also acknowledge that to shed this blood, to destroy this fetus, is to violate God’s command and to be subject to the death penalty?99
Man is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27; 9:6). In view of this fact, murder is much more than an act of hostility against man—it is an affront to God. To attack man is to attack God in Whose image he was created.
We have said that murder is sin because life belongs to God. We have also shown that murder must be severely dealt with because the victim is a person created in the divine image. One further reason for capital punishment remains in this passage: man must shed the blood of the murderer because he is also a part of the divine image. “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man” (verse 6).
God did not take the life of Cain when he killed his brother, Abel. I believe God allowed Cain to live so that we could see the consequences of allowing the murderer to go free. Lamech could kill a young lad for what may have been a mere insult and boast of it (Genesis 4:23-24). The men who died in the flood were men of violence (6:11). God did punish sin, but He delayed the execution until the days of the flood so that we could learn the high price of allowing the murderer to go free.
Now that all mankind had perished because of his sin, God could require society to take the life of the murderer. In this act of capital punishment, man would act on behalf of God—he would reflect the moral image of God, namely, His indignation and sentence upon the murderer.
Man (and by this I understand Moses to be referring to society and its governmental agency) is required to execute the murderer to reflect the moral purity of His Creator. Government acts in God’s behalf in punishing the evildoer and rewarding those who do good:
Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behaviors but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of Gods an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil (Romans 13:1-4).
The ‘sword’ which Paul mentions in verse 4 is the sword used by the executioner to carry out capital punishment. Our Lord Himself gave testimony to the fact that government had been given the task of executing law-breakers:
Pilate therefore said to Him ‘You do not speak to me? Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?’ Jesus answered, ‘You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason, he who delivered Me up to you has the greater sin’ (John 19:10-11).
The command concerning capital punishment is, I believe, the cornerstone of any society of sinful men. The animal kingdom is to be controlled, to a great extent, by means of their fear of man (9:2). Man’s sinful tendencies, also, are kept in check by his fear of the consequences. Any society which loses its reverence for life cannot endure long. For this reason, God instituted capital punishment as a gracious restraint upon man’s sinful tendency toward violence. Because of this, mankind can live in relative peace and security until God’s Messiah has dealt the death blow to sin.
And so a new age has dawned. Not an age of naive optimism, but one to be lived by clear commands. And, as we shall see in the following verses, one that has a hope for the future.
The Noahic Covenant
God’s covenant with Noah and his descendants displays many of the characteristics of subsequent covenants which God had made with man. For this reason, we shall highlight some of the covenant’s more obvious features.
(1) The Noahic Covenant was initiated and dictated by God. The sovereignty of God is clearly seen in this covenant. While some ancient covenants were the result of negotiation, this one was not. God initiated the covenant as an outward expression of His purpose revealed in Genesis 3:20-22. God dictated the terms of the covenant to Noah, and there was no discussion.
A friend of mine owned a car that was ‘on its last leg.’ With my encouragement, he went to a car lot to find something more dependable. He found a car which showed promise but decided to give the matter more deliberation. When he got into his old car to leave, it wouldn’t start. As you can imagine, my friend was in no position to bargain. He took the other car without any negotiation concerning the price. That was precisely the situation of Noah. And I might add, would we dare to question God’s terms today? I think not!
(2) The Noahic Covenant was made with Noah and all successive generations: “And God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant which I am making between Me and you and every living creation that is with you, for all successive generations;’” ( Genesis 9:12).
This covenant will remain in force until the time when our Lord returns to the earth to cleanse it by fire (II Peter 3:10).
(3) This is a universal covenant. While some covenants involve a small number, this particular covenant includes “all flesh.” That is, all living creatures, including man and animals:
Now behold, I Myself do establish My covenant with you, and with 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; of all that comes out of the ark, even every beast of the earth (Genesis 9:9,10).
(4) The Noahic Covenant is an unconditional covenant. Some covenants were contingent upon both parties carrying out certain stipulations. Such was the case of the Mosaic covenant. If Israel kept the law of God, they would experience the blessings and prosperity of God. If not, they would be expelled from the land (Deuteronomy 28). The blessings of the Noahic covenant were not conditional. God would give regularity of seasons and would not destroy the earth by a flood simply because He said so. While certain commands were given to mankind in verses 1-7, these are not viewed as conditions to the covenant. They are technically not included as a part of the covenant.
(5) This covenant was God’s promise never again to destroy the earth by a flood: “and I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and never again shall the water become a flood to destroy all flesh” (Genesis 9:15).
God will destroy the earth by fire (II Peter 3:10), but only after salvation has been purchased by the Messiah and the elect are removed, even as Noah was protected from the wrath of God.
(6) The sign of the Noahic Covenant is the rainbow:
I set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the earth. And it shall come about, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shalt be seen in the cloud and I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and never again shall the water become a flood to destroy all flesh (Genesis 9:13-15).
Every covenant has its accompanying sign. The sign of the Abrahamic Covenant is circumcision (Genesis 17:15-27); that of the Mosaic Covenant is the observance of the Sabbath day (Exodus 20:8-11; 31:12-17).
The “sign” of the rainbow is appropriate. It consists of the reflection of the rays of the sun in the particles of moisture in the clouds. The water which destroyed the earth causes the rainbow. Also, the rainbow appears at the end of a storm. So this sign assures man that the storm of God’s wrath (in a flood) is over.
Most interesting is the fact that the rainbow is not designed so much for man’s benefit (in this text, at least) but for God’s. God said that the rainbow would cause Him to remember His covenant with man. What a comfort to know that God’s faithfulness is our guarantee.
Conclusions and Application
For the Israelites who first received this revelation from God, the Noahic Covenant gave reasons for a number of the rules laid down in the Mosiac Law. The laws pertaining to capital punishment, for example, found their origin and explanation in Genesis chapter 9. The meticulous matters concerning blood take on added meaning in the light of this chapter.
The prophets of old referred to the Noahic Covenant as well. Isaiah reminded the nation, Israel, of God’s faithfulness in keeping the Noahic Covenant:
“‘For this is like the days of Noah to Me; when I swore that the waters of Noah should not flood the earth again, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you, nor will I rebuke you. For the mountains may be removed and the hills may shake, but My lovingkindness will not be removed from you, and My covenant of peace will not be shaken,’ says the Lord who has compassion on you” (Isaiah 54:9-10).
At the time of Isaiah’s writing there seemed to be little grounds for hope as a nation. Isaiah reminded the nation that their hope was as sure as the Word of God. God’s promise of coming redemption should be viewed in the light of His faithfulness in keeping His covenant with Noah and his descendants.
The language of Genesis chapter nine was employed by Hosea to assure God’s people of their restoration:
“In that day I will also make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds of the sky, and the creeping things of the ground. And I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land, and will make them lie down in safety” (Hosea 2:18).
Jeremiah also spoke of God’s future blessings by reminding men of God’s faithfulness in keeping the Noahic Covenant:
“Thus says the Lord, Who gives the sun for light by day, and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, Who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar; the Lord of hosts is His name: ‘If this fixed order departs from before Me,’ declares the Lord, ‘then the offspring of Israel also shall cease from being a nation before Me forever.’ Thus says the Lord, ‘If the heavens above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out below, then I will also cast off all the offspring of Israel for all that they have done,’ declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:35-37; cf. also 33:20-26; Psalm 89:30-37).
The Israelites could look forward to the salvation which God would bring to pass. We can look backward to that which God has accomplished by His Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. While Israel awaits the complete fulfillment of God’s covenant in the Millennium, they may do so with confidence in the God Who keeps His commitments. We, too, as Christians can be fully assured of God’s faithfulness.
The Noahic Covenant in many ways foreshadowed the New Covenant. Consequently, the New Covenant fulfilled much that the Noahic Covenant anticipated. The shedding of blood took on new meaning in the Noahic Covenant. The shedding of Christ’s blood at Calvary suddenly brought the ninth chapter of Genesis into full focus.
Since all of the biblical covenants culminate in the New Covenant which greatly overshadows them, let us take a few moments to compare the features of the New Covenant with the Noahic Covenant.
The New Covenant is promised in Jeremiah 31:30-34:
But every one will die for his own iniquity; each man who eats the sour grapes, his teeth will be set on edge. ‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,’ declares the Lord. ‘But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,’ declares the Lord, ‘I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. And they shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,’ declares the Lord, ‘for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more’ (Jeremiah 31:30-34).
Our Lord instituted this covenant by His death on the cross of Calvary. The sign of the covenant is the Lord’s table:
And while they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body.’ And He took a cup and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is to be shed on behalf of many for forgiveness of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom’ (Matthew 26:26-29).
The writer to the Hebrews stressed that the New Covenant superseded the Old (Mosaic) Covenant and is vastly superior to it.
The New Covenant, like the Noahic, was initiated by God, and it was accomplished by Him. While all flesh have benefited from the common grace of God promised in the Noahic Covenant, only those who are ‘in Christ’ benefit from the blessings of the New Covenant. It is the New Covenant ‘in His blood,’ that is experienced by those who have trusted in the shed blood of Christ, the Lamb of God, for the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life. Our Lord said to his followers:
Jesus therefore said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life; and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink’ (John 6:53-55).
By this He meant that one must not only acknowledge Christ’s deity and the death that He died for sinners, but must also make this a vital part of his life by trusting only in Christ for salvation.
The only condition for entering into the blessings of the New Covenant is the expression of personal faith in Christ by receiving Him:
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name (John 1:12).
And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life (I John 5:11-12).
Like the Noahic Covenant, those who are under the New Covenant have no need to fear the future outbreak of divine wrath. While the Noahic Covenant guaranteed all flesh that God would never again destroy all life by a flood, the New Covenant assures man that he will not face the outpouring of divine wrath through other means, such as fire (II Peter 3:10).
… and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel (Hebrews 12:24).
What a wonderful comfort covenants are. They permit man to know exactly where he stands with God. Do not try to negotiate your own contract with God, my friend. You may face God’s eternal wrath by reliance upon yourself, or you may experience divine forgiveness and eternal life through faith in Christ. The terms which God has laid down for peace are very clear. Have you surrendered to Him? May God enable you to do so.
95 “The theology of the Reformed churches, in the place which it gives to the covenants, has its prototype in patristic theology as systematized by Augustine of Hippo. It represents the whole of Scripture as being covered by two covenants: (1) the covenant of works, and (2) the covenant of grace. The parties to the former covenant were God and Adam. The promise of the covenant was Life. The proviso was perfect obedience by Adam. And the penalty of failure was death. To save man from the penalty of his disobedience, a second covenant, made from all eternity, came into operation, namely, the covenant of grace. Throughout the OT period there were successive proclamations of this covenant.” “Covenant Theology,” Baker’s Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1960), p. 144.
96 One would initially expect the reference to the cursing of the ground to refer to Genesis 3:17 and 5:29. Both theologically (cf. Romans 8:19-23) and practically we know the curse of 3:17 has not been removed. Any gardener knows this from experience.
The word for ‘curse’ in Genesis is Qalal, while in 3:17 and 5:29 the word is Arur. Interestingly, both words are employed in Genesis 12:3. The curse of the ground in Genesis 8:21 is the flood which destroyed every living thing, not the curse of Genesis 3:17.
97 Ray Stedman, The Beginnings (Waco: Word Books, 1978), pp. 116-130.
98 Other Scripture makes it clear that only deliberate and premeditated murder is in mind. God made provision for those who accidentally killed another in the cities of refuge (cf. Deuteronomy l9:1ff).
99 The death of a fetus, as in other instances, may have mitigating circumstances and thus not all abortions could be called murder, just as all deaths cannot be so defined. In general, however, the deliberate destruction of the life of a fetus is murder, I believe.