What is the Noahic Covenant?

I establish my covenant with you [Noah], that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. – Genesis 9:11-13

God’s calling of Noah to build the ark begins in Genesis with the lengthy genealogy of Adam’s descendants until the birth of Noah.1 The primary theological point of the genealogy is to show that every descendant of Adam was a sinner who lived and died without exception; it reveals this in a rather monotonous and unspectacular fashion, simply saying “and he died” repeatedly.

Peter, reflecting on God’s patience in the days of Noah, sees a correlation with our own day.2 As decades, centuries, and millennia pass with little change in the world, it is easy for us to lose hope that things will ever be different. Don’t you wonder if God will ever change the world in a dramatic way? We may doubt at times, but we can take heart. God did not allow sin to go unpunished in Noah’s time; he will not let it go unpunished in the future. He did not fail to rescue his people from judgment in Noah’s day; he will not fail to rescue us in the future. Christ certainly will return and bring us into a new heaven and new earth in time, just as he brought the flood. Genesis 6:5–9 breaks from the cycle of mere sin and death:

The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God.

It is easy to misread this passage and come to the conclusion that Noah was a good guy who earned God’s favor through his good works. Tragically, the story of Noah is commonly told like this: “In the days of Noah, all the people were wicked except for Noah, a righteous man who earned God’s favor. Therefore God saved him from judgment in the flood.” The practical application of this version of the story is that there are good guys and bad guys and that God loves and saves the good guys but kills the bad guys, so we should be good guys so that God will love and save us. However, this false teaching about Noah is antithetical to the rest of Scripture and simply not what Genesis 6:5–9 says.

First, Genesis 6:5–7 depicts the total depravity of everyone on earth with one of the most negative declarations about human sin in all of Scripture. We are told that God saw that every person was only evil all the time. God was grieved that he had made mankind because they filled his heart with pain. This statement does include Noah.

Second, Genesis 6:8 does not say that Noah worked hard to merit God’s favor. Noah did not begin as a righteous man. Rather he began as a sinner among sinners. His status with God was God’s gracious gift, not a result of Noah’s religious works. It is beautiful that the word “favor” in this passage is the Hebrew word for grace, which appears here for the first time in the Bible and is echoed repeatedly throughout the Bible in the teaching that salvation is by grace through faith alone. Throughout Scripture people are saved through the undeserved working of God. Because everyone was a sinner in Noah’s day—just like everyone is a sinner in our day—no one earned God’s favor. God’s favor is a free gift. So God worked, as he always has, by saving an ill-deserving sinner by grace alone, through faith alone, thereby enabling him to live a righteous life. Genesis 6:9 then explains the effects of God’s grace to Noah: “These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God.”

Indeed, Noah was a blameless and righteous man who, like Enoch, “walked with God,”3 and like Job, whom God pointed out to Satan as “a blameless and upright man.”4 But Noah was only this sort of man because God saved him by grace and empowered him to live a new life of obedience to God by that same grace. Noah’s trusting obedience separated him from the others who refused God’s gift of redemption and continued in their sins while he worked out God’s grace in responsive righteousness (Phil. 2:12-13; Tit. 3:8; 2 Pet. 1:5-11).

God began to speak directly to Noah and give him commands to obey. God informed Noah that he planned to end sin by killing all the sinners through an enormous flood as judgment on sinners. God then gave Noah orders to build an ark. The ark measured some 1,400,000 cubic feet, was shaped like a modern-day battleship, and was big enough to house some 522 modern-day railroad boxcars. This is all recorded in Genesis 6:13-18:

 And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark 300 cubits its breadth 50 cubits, and its height 30 cubits. Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above, and set the door of the ark in its side. Make it with lower, second, and third decks. For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.

Noah obeyed God’s commands and built the ark, likely with only the help of his sons. Hebrews 11:7 says that Noah did so in holy fear as a man of faith who believed that God would bring the flood even while others continued in sin without repentance. Upon completing the construction of the ark, Noah placed his family on the ark with the animals God had commanded him to bring, and waited for God to fulfill his promise of judgment. After Noah was saved by God’s grace, built the ark according to God’s instructions, and loaded his family onboard with the animals as God commanded him, God sent rain.5 The rain continued for forty days until it covered the land, drowning all the sinners under God’s righteous judgment. The only people spared in the flood were Noah and his family because, as Genesis 6:8 states, God gave them grace.

After the flood receded, the land appeared out of the water like in the days of creation for Adam. In many ways, the account of Noah echoes the account of Adam, with a sort of new creation and new humanity and new fall. After the flood subsided and God dried the ground, Noah and his family exited the ark. Then Noah did a remarkable thing that we must be careful to note and appreciate. In Genesis 8:20 we read, “Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar.” Recognizing the devastation that God had wrought upon the earth, Noah was convicted of his own sin; he knew that he too should have been killed like everyone else. So he offered a burnt offering for the atonement of his sin.6

God was pleased with Noah’s offering of atonement and responded by promising never to flood the earth again; the answer to sin is always atonement, which foreshadowed the death of Jesus for sin as promised in Eden (Gen. 3:15).

God entered a covenant with Noah that was intended for all people of the earth.7 God promised that he would never again send a cataclysmic flood and that the seasons would continue by God’s provision. In this covenant, we see that God’s answer to human sin would be a covenant of grace, beginning with Noah. The sign of the covenant was the rainbow to remind God’s people of his promise to never flood the earth again. Through the covenant, God would restore his intentions to bless people.

The terms of the covenant for human beings include respect for the sanctity of human life and the freedom to eat animals as, at this point in history, meat was added to the human diet. These commands further build upon the teaching in Genesis 1, that while animal life is to be treated kindly, it is inferior to human life, which alone bears God’s image. The effect of the covenant is the renewal of God’s intentions in creation by distinguishing between those people, like Noah, in covenant with God from those who are not.

In Genesis 9:18–28, Noah responded to God’s kindness by getting drunk and passing out naked in his tent like a hillbilly redneck on vacation. Noah’s son Ham then walked into Noah’s tent to gaze upon his father’s nakedness. The text does not tell us much more than these bare details, but many people have inserted numerous speculations about what happened, including Ham having homosexual attraction to his passed-out father. Whatever happened, one thing is sure: both Noah and his son sinned.

In the story of Noah we have a sort of second fall; God started over with Noah, who sinned like Adam. The point is simply that sin remains the human problem even after the flood. Furthermore, the Noahic covenant reveals that not only is ours a cursed earth but also a covenanted earth. The Noahic covenant is for both humanity and all of creation. Therefore, God’s plan is to ultimately redeem all his creation along with his covenant people.

This desire is shown in the fact that the flood is in essence a new start for creation and humanity despite the ongoing nature of the fall. Noah and his family are blessed and called to fill the earth and exercise dominion over creation in a manner that echoes God’s instructions to Adam and Eve. Additionally, the creation mandate is renewed with a special emphasis on respecting life and exercising creation care as responsible stewards of all that God has made. Genesis 9:15-17 reports:

I [God] will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 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.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

We easily forget how much God’s covenant with Noah enhances our lives. We grow so accustomed to the order of creation that we act as if it were something automatic, inherent in nature itself. But as scientists learn more about our world, we see more clearly that the universe is not self-sufficient.

Nature is fragile, constantly teetering on the edge of disaster. Disruptions in the food chain, water pollution, atmospheric changes, and a host of other modern environmental concerns demonstrate dramatically that the earth needs the constant providential care of the Creator. The food we eat, the air we breathe, the streets we walk, the cars we drive, the books we read, the buildings we erect, the universities we establish—all these good things in life have been possible because God constantly upholds a safe place for humanity to multiply and have dominion. As we reflect on God’s blessing in the days of Noah, we should be utterly amazed at its tremendous value.

To summarize the Noahic covenant, the human covenant mediator is Noah, who intercedes for his family and the rest of humanity. The blessings of the covenant include God’s saving grace and promise not to flood the earth again, thereby preserving human life so that it could be fruitful and multiply. The conditions of enjoying the covenant include not drinking the blood of animals and the command that God’s people are to honor God’s image bearers by not committing murder and by upholding the sanctity of all human life. The sign of the covenant internally is faith, as demonstrated by Noah and his family building the ark in the desert for perhaps 120 years while being mocked,8 and the sign of the covenant externally was the rainbow, which God said was a reminder of his promise not to flood the earth again. The covenant community took the form of an extended family.

What practical things in your life do you often overlook but need to stop and thank God for today (e.g. life, health, the air you breath, the water you drink, the food you eat, the sun that shines upon you, etc.)?

1Gen. 5:1–7:1.
22 Pet. 3:3–7.
3Gen. 5:22, 24.
4Job 1:8; 2:3.
5Gen. 7:1–8:22.
6E.g., Lev. 1:4; Job 1:5.
7Gen. 9:1–17.
8Gen. 6:3; 1 Pet. 3:20.

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