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God’s Promises to Noah
Genesis 6 –9
• A covenant of deliverance ( Genesis 6:18 , 19 )
• When God must judge ( Genesis 3 ; 4 ; 6:1–6 )
• Making place for grace ( Genesis 6:8 )
• Christ in the covenant ( 1 Peter 3:18–21 )
• A covenant of preservation ( Genesis 9:8–13 )
• God’s sovereign intent ( Genesis 8:21–23 )
• The nature of covenants revealed ( Genesis 6 ; 8 ; 9 )
The first occurrence of the word covenant in the Bible is found in Genesis 6:18 . God spoke with a man named Noah, and said “I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall go into the ark.”
God told Noah that He intended to destroy human civilization with a great Flood. He also instructed Noah to build a great floating vessel, an ark. In the coming disaster, human and animal life would be wiped out. But God made the first of two wonderful commitments to Noah.
THE COVENANT OF DELIVERANCE
We can call God’s first covenant commitment to Noah the covenant of deliverance.
But I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall go into the ark; you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing of all flesh you shall bring two of every sort into the ark, to keep them alive with you ( Gen. 6:18 , 19 ).
Although the earth would be scoured clean and “all flesh in which there is the breath of life” would die, Noah and his family, along with pairs of animals needed to repopulate the earth, would be carried safely through the waters of judgment.
An examination of sacred history’s first use of “covenant” reveals elements which help us understand all the covenants God has made with human beings.
THE CONTEXT OF THE NOAHIC PROMISE ( GENESIS 6:1–6 )
In Genesis 6 we’re suddenly confronted with a terrible specter. Sin has totally corrupted human society. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” ( Gen. 6:5 ). The seed of sin planted in the Fall ( Gen. 3 ) has come to full flower. Man’s wickedness is the backdrop against which all God’s covenant promises are made.
Man’s Fall ( Genesis 3:1–24 ).
Genesis 3 tells the familiar story of the sin of Adam and Eve. God created the first pair sinless, and at first they enjoyed a close and loving relationship with the Creator. Placed in a beautiful park-like setting, Eden, Adam and Eve had been given only one instruction by the Lord. The first pair was not to eat the fruit of a certain tree in the garden.
There was a reason why God had planted that tree. Adam and Eve were created in God’s image. So the Lord designed the place where they lived to provide opportunities to exercise every capacity He had given them. The forbidden tree was placed in Eden not as a trap but as a gift. It enabled Adam and Eve to be like God as moral beings rather than merely creatures of instinct. The tragedy is that Eve and Adam made the wrong choice. They disobeyed God, and as a result they lost their innocence. Their very natures were also warped and twisted.
The first humans chose to disobey God.
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God had warned Adam, “The day that you eat of [the forbidden tree] you shall surely die” ( Gen. 2:17 ). In the language of Scripture, they did die that day—spiritually. Ephesians describes “spiritual death” when it portrays human beings as “dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others” ( Eph. 2:1–3 ).
Genesis points us back to Adam and Eve, reminding us that the crime, cruelty, violence, and abuse that we see in society today has its root in a tragic flaw in human nature itself—a flaw that the Bible calls sin—and spiritual death.
Evidence of the Fall ( Genesis 4 ).
God had warned Adam that the day he ate the fruit of the forbidden tree, he would die. While the processes that lead to biological death were initiated then, Adam and Eve died spiritually that very day. Innocence was lost forever, and the moral corruption which gained a foothold in human personality was transmitted by Adam and Eve to all their descendants.
The clearest evidence of this reality is seen in Genesis 4 , which recounts the murder of one of Adam and Eve’s sons, Abel, by his brother, Cain. Jealousy and anger now churned within the human heart, leading to fratricide. Genesis 4 gives us another example to show that human beings died spiritually. It tells the story of Lamech, who broke God’s pattern for marriage by taking two wives, and who justified the murder of a young man by complaining that he had “wounded me” ( Gen. 4:23 ). The seeds of sin had been planted deep in the human personality, and their fruit was bitter indeed.
A corrupt civilization ( Genesis 6 ).
Genesis 5 contains a lengthy genealogy which has two functions. First, it traces the family line of Noah, whose story begins in Genesis 6 . Second, the genealogy tells us that many centuries passed between the time of the creation and Noah’s day. The human race multiplied and multiplied again, establishing a widespread civilization. Yet that civilization was corrupt, reflecting the basic flaw in human nature. God’s own evaluation of pre-flood society is that it was “wicked,” and “every intent of the thoughts of his [mankind’s] heart was only evil continually” ( Gen. 6:5 ).
Finally, conditions on earth so grieved God that He determined, “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them” ( Gen. 6:7 ).
Sin in the second generation: Cain murdered Abel.
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It is against this background of human sin and divine judgment that Scripture introduces the first covenant made by God with any human being. In spite of the total corruption of humankind, the Lord said to Noah, “I will establish my covenant with you” ( Gen. 6:18 ).
Listening to the divine evaluation of human society, we can understand why God, who is a moral judge, felt compelled to purge the earth. “The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. So God looked upon the earth, and indeed it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth” ( Gen. 6:11 , 12 ). Yet in spite of this, God told Noah, “I will establish my covenant with you” ( Gen. 6:18 ).
So the first thing to understand about the biblical covenants is that they are expressions of God’s grace, given against a background of sin and judgment.
God must and will judge sin. But at the same time, God’s covenant promises reveal a grace alternative.
PRINCIPLES UNDERLYING THE COVENANT OF DELIVERANCE
The principle of grace ( Genesis 6:8 ).
Genesis describes the background of sin and judgment against which the covenant with Noah was made, and then states, “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord ” ( Gen. 6:8 ).
The expression to find is a figure of speech which means “to receive” or “to obtain.” The same language is used in other biblical passages.
• Isaac “found” (received) a hundredfold increase at harvest time ( Gen. 26:12 ).
• Mary “found favor with” (received grace from) God ( Luke 1:30 ).
• Jesus entered heaven “having found” (obtained) eternal redemption for us.
The idiom, then, does not draw attention to Noah, as if he deserved or merited grace. “Finding grace” draws attention to the God who is gracious.
To understand what is being taught here, we need to look not to what the text tells us about Noah in the next verse, but to the meaning of the Hebrew word translated “grace.” That word is hen, or hanan, and here the Expository Dictionary of Bible Words (Zondervan) is helpful. Grace, or favor, is “the compassionate response of one who is able to help another person in need.” This source continues,
The Book of Psalms best illustrates the theological use of this Hebrew term. Ps. 51:1 expresses David’s appeal to God for forgiveness: “Have mercy on me [ hanan, ‘grace’], O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.” The appeal is uttered out of a sense of helplessness. It turns away from self and looks to God as a loving and compassionate person. God’s own nature is the basis on which help is expected. As David says, “Turn to me and have mercy [ hanan, ‘grace’] on me, as you always do to those who love your name” ( Ps. 119:137 ) (Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, Zondervan, p. 317).
Noah obtained grace, not because of who he was or what he did, but because of who God is. For God is loving and compassionate and as the psalm affirms, showing grace is something He always does to those who love His name.
The principle of faith ( Genesis 6:9 , 22 ).
Genesis makes two statements that seem contradictory. In Genesis 6:12 , the Bible says that “all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth.” Certainly the word all includes Noah and his family. No person is unaffected by sin within, nor is anyone unaffected by the sins of the society in which he or she lives.
Yet Noah is still described as “a just man, perfect in his generations” and as a man who “walked with God” ( Gen. 6:9 ). It’s important to understand that when the Old Testament identifies an individual as “righteous” or “blameless” [i.e., “perfect among his generations”] it is not suggesting that this person is sinless. The Expository Dictionary of Bible Words says, “The blameless OT believer accepted God’s way and sought to live by it” (p. 128). This is what Genesis tells us about Noah. He was a man who, unlike the others in his world, was sensitive to the Lord. Noah tried his best to walk with Him.
The New Testament describes Noah’s sensitivity to God as faith. Hebrews 11:7 says that “by faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.” Noah was not sinless. He needed grace. But Noah was open to the Lord and receptive to the covenant which God promised to establish with him. When God gave Noah the blueprint of the ark and announced His purpose, Noah demonstrated his faith. “According to all that God commanded him, so he did” ( Gen. 6:22 ).
A principle of divine intent ( Genesis 6:18 ).
In Genesis 6 , we see two clear statements of God’s intent. God said, “The earth is filled with violence … and behold, I will destroy them with the earth” ( Gen. 6:13 ). God intended then just as He intends now to judge sin.
The other statement of God’s intent focuses on covenant relationship. God also said, “I will establish my covenant with you” ( Gen. 6:18 ). God intended then and He intends now to establish a covenant relationship with people of faith.
These two “I will” statements express the two most significant options facing any human being today. The story of the Genesis Flood reminds us that Godwill judge sin. Yet our gracious and loving God is also eager to establish His covenant with people of faith. To all who respond to His word as Noah did, His promise of deliverance stands.
These three principles—grace, faith, and divine intent—govern this first expression of a covenant commitment by God.
THE NOAHIC COVENANT OF DELIVERANCE FORESHADOWS SALVATION BY CHRIST
The apostle Peter looked back on Noah’s experience and found there an image of the salvation enjoyed by Christians. Peter spoke of Christ’s suffering once for sins with the result that He brought us to God. Peter then added,
Being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us; baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ ( 1 Pet. 3:18–21 ).
While this passage has been frequently misunderstood, Peter’s analogy becomes clear when we remember that he was drawing parallels between Noah’s experience and that of the Christian.
The spirits in prison ( 1 Peter 3:19 ) .
Some have taken this as a reference to Christ preaching to spirits of the dead during the hours between His own death and resurrection. But Peter was speaking of the fact that Christ, through the Holy Spirit’s ministry in Noah, preached a gospel to the disobedient people of Noah’s day ( 1 Pet. 1:20 ). While the ark was being prepared, Noah warned those who scoffed at his giant boat being built on dry land. They failed to respond as Noah had, with faith, and so they perished. Their spirits are even now imprisoned, awaiting final judgment.
In which a few … were saved ( 1 Peter 3:20 ).
In Noah’s time, God ordained the construction of an ark. In that ark Noah and his family, just eight people, were carried safely through the waters of the great Flood. Peter draws a parallel between the waters, which stand for divine judgment, and the final judgment awaiting those who do not know Christ. For Christ is God’s ark for our own time—the only vessel in which we will be safe.
“There is also an antitype … which saves us, baptism” ( 1 Peter 3:21 )
Some have mistakenly linked Peter’s reference to baptism with the “water” in this passage. But “in the days of Noah,” water was the medium of judgment, not the means of deliverance. The solution comes when we remember that “baptism” refers to a special work of the Holy Spirit as well as to immersion or sprinkling by water. First Corinthians 12:13 says that “by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” When we trust Jesus as Savior, the Holy Spirit bonds us to Him, organically linking us not only to the Lord but also to all other believers.
No wonder then that Peter guards against our mistaking his point by saying that the baptism he refers to is “not the removal of the filth of the flesh” ( 1 Pet. 3:21 ). Peter is not speaking of the washing of water baptism, but of that work of the Spirit by which we are linked to Jesus.
But how does our link with Jesus save us? Peter says it is “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” United to Jesus by the Holy Spirit’s work, we die with Christ and are also raised with Him. The apostle Paul explained it this way: “Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” ( Rom. 6:4 ).
Peter’s analogy explained.
With this background, we can now see the parallels between the experience of Noah and the experience of the Christian.
• Noah lived just prior to impending divine judgment. So do we.
• Noah heard a message of grace that promised deliverance. So do we.
• Noah responded to the message of grace with faith and entered the ark. We respond to the message of grace with faith and enter into a saving relationship with Jesus.
• Noah was carried safely through the waters of judgment in the ark. Linked with Jesus, we too are carried beyond judgment in Him.
There is one additional point in Peter’s analogy. Peter notes that since we are united with Jesus, we should no longer “live the rest of [our] time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God” ( 1 Pet. 4:2 ). When the floodwaters receded, Noah was deposited in a fresh new world, to live a new life free from the pressure to sin that existed in pre-flood society. In Christ we too have been deposited in a new world—a world where Jesus reigns in our hearts, and we are freed from domination by the will of men.” As Christians now, we are able to choose instead “the will of God.”
In Christ a new and glorious world opens before us. And we are to live in the new world, rejecting the old world and its ways.
Our first experience with a covenant in Scripture, then, introduces us to wonderful and amazing truths. God judges sin and sinners, yet chooses to be gracious. He shares the good news of His firm intent to deliver human beings, and those who respond with faith are doubly blessed. They are delivered from the judgment that looms so darkly over lost men and women. And they are carried in Christ to a new, fresh world in which they can break old patterns and live the rest of their time in the flesh, doing the will of God.
And, according to Romans 12:2 , the will of God is “good and acceptable and perfect” indeed.
The ark offered the only salvation from God’s judgment in Noah’s day.
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THE COVENANT OF PRESERVATION
The first reference to covenant in the Bible is to what we have called the “covenant of deliverance” which God made with Noah. God announced His gracious intent to provide a means for Noah and his family to escape coming judgment.
After the floodwaters receded from the earth, God instituted another covenant. This second covenant is commonly referred to as “the Noahic Covenant.” This second covenant was made not only with Noah, but with his descendants and indeed with all living creatures on earth.
Then God spoke to Noah and to his sons with him, saying:
“And as for Me, behold, I 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 go out of the ark, every beast of the earth.”
“Thus I establish My covenant with you: Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood; never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant which I make between Me and you, and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I set My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be for the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth” ( Gen. 9:8–13 ).
THE CONTEXT OF THE COVENANT OF PRESERVATION
The Genesis Flood had scoured human civilization from the face of the earth, and with it animal life as well. The devastating judgment that God announced came as soon as the ark was finished, supplies were gathered, and the animals were assembled.
We can imagine the relief of Noah and his family members when, over a year after entering the ark, they stepped out on solid ground. We can also imagine the fear that mingled with their joy as they thanked God for their deliverance. God had revealed Himself to be a God of judgment, whose patience with sin does have limits. How long might it be before God would again act against the human race? Sin’s grip on humankind had not been loosed by the judgment. Sinful humans would certainly fear in the future when storms raged and rains began to fall.
Against this background, God made a new commitment not just to Noah but to all human and animal life, “for perpetual generations” ( Gen. 9:12 ). Never again would a “flood … destroy the earth” ( Gen. 9:11 ).
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PRINCIPLES EXPRESSED IN GENESIS’ STATEMENT OF THE COVENANT OF PRESERVATION
As we look at Genesis 8 and 9 , we note several important principles.
The principle of God’s sovereign intent ( Genesis 8:21–23 ). These verses tell us that God “said in His heart”:
“I will never again curse the ground for man’s sake … nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done. While the earth remains,
Seedtime and harvest,
Cold and heat,
Winter and summer,
And day and night
Shall not cease”
( Gen. 8:21 , 22 )
What is significant here is that the covenant promises God gave Noah and his family originated as an intent in God’s heart. God determined in His own heart what He would do before He expressed His intent in the form of a covenant promise.
God’s promise was freely made. It was in no way dependent on what Noah or any of his descendants might do or not do in the future.
The principle of God’s sovereign control ( Genesis 9:11 ).
God said to Noah, “Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood; never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
The principle established here is important. God is sovereign, and His will governs the future. God is no captive of what occurs as history unfolds. God is the author of what unfolds, in the sense that He retains control over events so that whatever happens contributes to the accomplishment of His purposes.
Only a sovereign God could state with certainty that “while the earth remains,” season would follow season ( Gen. 8:23 ). Only a sovereign God could promise that no massive disruption like that caused by the Flood would occur again.
This early Genesis indication of God’s control over future events is central to our understanding of all His covenant promises. God can make promises about what will happen because His sovereign control of the future is such that even the free choices of human beings, made without divine coercion, contribute to the accomplishment of what He has planned.
The Descendants of Noah
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The principle of God’s sovereign grace ( Genesis 9:13–17 ).
After announcing the covenant promise, God also said, “I set My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be for the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth” ( v. 13 ).
The Jewish sage Ramban noted that any visible object which serves as a reminder of an agreement (covenant) is called a “sign.” Thus in Genesis 21:30 seven ewe lambs and in Genesis 31:52 a heap of stones are identified as “signs” of agreements between persons.
As a sign, the rainbow was a grace gift, a constant reminder that God had promised not to destroy the world by water ever again.
But why does God say, “The rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will look on it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature” ( Gen. 9:16 )? Surely God could not forget His promise.
The answer is that in Scripture “to remember” is an idiomatic expression meaning “to act in accord with what is remembered.” The rainbow was not needed to remind God of His commitment; it was a gracious gift reassuring Noah and his descendants that the onset of even the heaviest of rains posed no threat to the earth. God had made His covenant promise, and God would never go back on His word.
The principle of God’s sovereign freedom ( Genesis 8:22 ; 9:11 ).
It is important to note that God’s covenant of preservation does not limit His freedom to judge sin.
God freely committed Himself never again to “destroy every living thing” by water. “While the earth remains,” no catastrophic judgment will disrupt the regularity of the seasons. Yet Peter looked back on the Flood and saw in it unmistakable evidence that God most certainly will judge our world. Peter said of those who scoff at the idea of coming divine judgment, “This they willfully forget: that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of water and in the water, by which the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water” ( 2 Pet. 3:5 , 6 ). The Flood serves as a precedent and as a warning: God most surely will judge sinful humankind.
In fact, Peter tells us that in history’s final moment the heavens and the earth which are now preserved by the covenant promise of God “are reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men” ( 2 Pet. 3:7 ).
God’s promise not to disrupt the regular patterns of the seasons in no way limits His freedom to judge individuals, to judge nations, or ultimately to burn up our earth, melting its elements in fervent heat ( 2 Pet. 3:10 ).
WHAT WE LEARN ABOUT “COVENANT” FROM GENESIS 6 , 8 , AND 9
The first occurrence of the word covenant in the Bible is in Genesis 6:18 . The word occurs next in Genesis 9 , where it is repeated several times. As a general rule, first occurrences of any important biblical term are especially significant. It’s important to ask, then, what principles are established by the use of berit in the Noah story.
Covenants express God’s intent.
Covenants are “I will” statements expressing in unmistakable terms what God intends to do. The covenant of preservation made with Noah demonstrates God’s ability to do what He intends. The covenant of preservation made with Noah and all living creatures shows us that God has plans which extend to history’s end.
Covenants are instruments of God’s grace.
Covenant promises are made against the backdrop of human frailty and need. God has compassion on us in spite of the fact that we human beings are sinners. He extends His grace to us through unilateral promises to save, preserve, and bless. Noah was a recipient of God’s grace, and was saved from death. Noah’s descendants still receive grace in the form of God’s preservation of our planetary home.
Covenants invite a faith response.
Our appropriate response to God’s covenant promises is to gladly welcome them, to trust the God who makes the promise, and to show faith by acting on His word. Noah built the ark as an act of faith, and was preserved when the flood waters came.
Covenants imply God’s sovereignty.
Only a sovereign God, capable of knowing and shaping the future, can make the kind of promises expressed in biblical covenants. As in the Noahic Covenant of preservation, God is able to guarantee future events “while the earth remains!” Only a sovereign being whose control of events is certain can make and keep such promises.
Covenants foreshadow the work of Jesus Christ.
The covenant promises God makes express what He will do, but they do not tell us how He will do it. The apostle Peter shows us how Noah’s experience parallels and foreshadows the believer’s experience in Christ. As we explore the other key covenants of Scripture, we will see that each foreshadows the ministry of Jesus, and is fulfilled in and by Him.