God’s covenant with Noah was His first unilateral agreement, whereby unconditional promises were made by a “God, that cannot lie” (Tit 1:2). Before the flood, God had promised Noah that “with thee will I establish my covenant” (Gen 6:18); note the singular pronoun “thee.” After the flood, it became evident that this promise would become effective for all humanity: “And God spake unto Noah, and to his sons with him, saying, And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you” (9:8-9 KJV). This would be an arrangement with men universally, for everyone is descended from Noah and his sons, for “of them was the whole earth overspread” (v19). In fact, it benefitted every species – “all flesh that is upon the earth” (vv16-17).
Before examining the covenant, remember the background. The flood was now recent history; escalating evil during the centuries had necessitated the extermination of earth’s occupants. Massive reserves of water stored beneath the earth’s crust had spewed relentlessly across the face of the planet and, in addition, there was an incessant deluge from the heavens (7:11-12). The result was a universal flood to the extent that “the mountains were covered” (v20). Noah was the survivor; grace on God’s part (6:8) and faith on Noah’s part (Heb 11:7) saw him emerge from his shelter, “saved through water” (1Pe 3:20 RV).
There was immediate gratitude on Noah’s part, resulting in his offering burnt offerings (Gen 8:20), and “the Lord smelled a sweet savor” (v21). In Scripture, human characteristics are ascribed to God – what we call anthropomorphism. Here, one of the human senses is attributed to Him: He smelled the fragrance of Noah’s sacrifice. The word “savor” carries the thought of an odor being blown (Strong), and the imagery is that of a pleasant aroma wafting heavenward. The word “sweet” has imbedded in it the concept of “rest,” and thus some translate the phrase “a savor of rest.” These sacrifices provided God with a sense of contentment, and He responded immediately to Noah’s activity by resolving, “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake.” Incorrigible human wickedness would have demanded a flood at regular intervals! It would never happen, because God had “smelled a sweet savor.”
The Covenant: Part 1
God’s intention was to permanently maintain varying climates and seasons and the day/night routine “while the earth remaineth,” uninterrupted by another universal flood (v22). There is no record of this being communicated to Noah, but it was obviously part of God’s agreement with him. Jeremiah described it as God’s “covenant” when asserting the permanence of David’s dynasty. His argument was that there is as much possibility of interfering with God’s promise to David as there is of interfering with His “covenant of the day and … of the night” (Jer 33:20-21). So, as Noah’s descendants, we still enjoy the benefits of changing seasons that facilitate crop production for our sustenance, and the day/night cycle balancing activity and sleep for our systems. William Cowper captured the concept of the decrees of a superlatively wise God in his oft-sung lines:
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.
Between expressing different aspects of the covenant, God introduced numerous innovations to cater to the new era we call The Dispensation of Human Government. The survivors of the flood were commissioned to commence the process of replenishing the earth (Gen 9:1). Allied with that, they were vested with authority over animals, birds and fish, and God planted within these creatures an innate fear of mankind. It is generally accepted that it is only when they feel threatened that even the wildest beasts attack humans. As a general principle, James states, “every kind of beasts … hath been tamed of mankind” (3:7). It is significant that the distinctiveness of humanity is maintained; man is a creature apart, not just a sophisticated animal!
Liberty was given for using animal flesh as food (Gen 9:3). Seemingly, prior to the flood, mankind had been vegetarian but his diet now included fish, fowl and flesh. God’s covenant with Israel restricted the scope of their fare as part of a regime that made them distinct, but the New Testament reinstated the full liberty that had been extended to Noah: “every creature of God is good … it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer” (1Ti 4:4-5 KJV). From a biblical perspective, believers need be neither vegetarian nor scrupulous about any meat. The caveat about blood (Gen 9:4) is important; among other things, it is a health issue. Any disease in an animal is carried in the bloodstream.
The gravity of murder is explained in that man was made in the image of God, and to willfully terminate a human life expresses an innate hatred of God. Thus, God introduced capital punishment (vv5-6). It was not rescinded under Law, and New Testament teaching does not advocate its abolition. Indeed, it teaches that one of the state’s duties is to maintain law and order, including the responsibility of enforcing the death penalty. It is an emotive subject, but it is not up to the believer to exact vengeance; that is the responsibility of civil government as “the minister of God” (Rom 13:1-7).
The Covenant: Part 2
As noted, God’s covenant with Noah included humanity (v9); it was a permanent commitment (v12), an “everlasting covenant” (v16). Essentially, it was the assurance on God’s part that He would never again inflict punishment by a flood (v11). The “bow in the cloud” (v13) was a visible “token,” a sign authenticating His promise. Millennia have passed; God’s promise has held; the frequent appearance of the rainbow is a reminder that “God is not a man, that he should lie” (Num 23:19).
The fact that there will never be another flood does not infer that God will never intervene again. During the Tribulation, such will be the severity of expressions of wrath that should He not curtail it, “there should no flesh be saved” (Mat 24:22). Then, flowing out of references to the flood, Peter takes a quantum leap to the end of time, and shows that the universe as it is now is “reserved unto fire” (2Pe 3:7). The God who brought it into being from nothing will assign it to nothingness again, accompanied by “a great noise” and “fervent heat” (v10). Sinners should never console themselves by the promise of God’s covenant with Noah!