The Dispensations: Human Government

As we saw in the previous article, the Dispensation of Conscience ran through to the end of Genesis 7, ending in the cataclysmic judgment of the worldwide flood. The next chapter in the unfolding panorama of God’s dealings with mankind began in Genesis 8 with the flood waters receding and God making a covenant with Noah. This period in man’s history spanned approximately 425 years, covering four chapters (Genesis 8-11), and culminated with divine intervention in judgment against man at a plain in the land of Shinar when he “confused the language of all the earth” and “dispersed them over the face of all the earth” (Gen 11:9).[1]


The ability to discern between right and wrong that had inaugurated the Dispensation of Conscience continued on into this age. But added to it were very specific instructions given to Noah following his emergence from the ark. There was a reiteration of the direction given to Adam and his descendants to populate the earth and exercise dominion for God. Additional details were provided at this point to strengthen man’s governmental authority and stewardship – his rule over the animal kingdom was cemented (Gen 9:2) and his responsibility to guard and uphold the value of human life was highlighted (Gen 9:6). We cannot emphasize enough in today’s Darwinian-influenced, humanistic age the uniqueness of human life as repeated in this verse, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”

Most importantly, God’s communication at the start of this era touched not only man’s responsibility over nature but his relationship with his fellowman. Perhaps the most striking feature of the divine revelation commencing this dispensation is the inauguration, by God, of an unconditional covenant with man, committing Himself to never destroy the world again with a flood (Gen 9:8-17). This covenant was everlasting and absolute; it was not conditional on man’s obedience. It was God’s binding Himself to fulfil His own promise in clear, unambiguous, literal language. This is the first of several such covenants God made with man, and it is important for us to understand each of them in the same way – literally, plainly and directly. Allegorical interpretation of biblical covenants has led to many false interpretations of biblical revelation.


This fresh communication from God placed a very direct corresponding responsibility on man.  God’s instructions were clear: Man was to spread out and populate the earth, he was to exercise dominion for God, and he was to recognize his God-given uniqueness – “God made man in his own image.” Man was to be responsible for establishing social order and justice based on this underpinning reality that recognized and reflected man’s unique Godward substance, and hence his dignity and accountability to the God in whose image he had been formed.


Man’s weakness and failure is seen very quickly in this dispensation. Mark Sweetnam writes, “Too soon, we see the man into whose hands government had been committed lying naked in a drunken stupor in his tent.”[2] How tragic! Noah, the great hero of faith who had obeyed God in a remarkable way, engaged self-indulgently in the fruit of his own vineyard and “became drunk!”  As an aside, this is the first mention of alcohol in the Scriptures. Following the “law of first mention,” we would all be wise to recognize the loss of control, the shame and the tragic consequences associated with alcohol in this ancient narrative, and govern our own conduct accordingly.

Man’s rebellion, though, greatly multiplied in subsequent generations. A great-grandson of Noah called Nimrod (Gen 10:8) arose and became a charismatic, powerful political and social leader. His name means “rebel,” and he proved to be very true to his name. He opposed God and rallied the people around him in his rebellion against divine purpose. Chapter 10 tells us “the beginning of his kingdom was Babel … in the land of Shinar” (v10). Then chapter 11 tells us that “as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there” (v2). God’s instruction had been clear – spread out and populate the earth. The people defiantly said, “No. We will settle here and congregate here.” Notice their arrogance and self-exalting motives: “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (11:4). This was not an innocent, harmless building project; it was an act of direct defiance against God, deliberately disobeying His direction and promoting man’s independence and self sufficiency.  The motives and methods of Nimrod and the people he led have tragically been replicated over and over again through human history, and they still run rampant with tragic consequence in our world today.


God’s response to man’s rebellion in verses 5-9 was swift, deliberate, decisive and effective – as divine retribution always is! It is very important for us all to remember that “our God is a consuming fire” and that a healthy, reverential fear of God is an essential attribute for us all, especially in those of us who are His children. God could not only see what they did but could assess perfectly why they did it. He not only understood their actions but clearly discerned that these actions were merely the manifestation of their rank rebellion against His authority, His Word and His purposes. So with characteristic, almost dismissive, rapidity, He confused their language, eliminated their ability to band together in their godless enterprise, and left the works of their hands in ruins.

It is interesting to see how even God’s judgments further His purposes. God had said, “Disperse and fill the earth.” Mankind had said, “No.” But the immediate result of God’s hand moving in judgment was that “the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city” (v8), and then, almost seemingly for emphasis, verse 9 says, “From there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.” Man’s rebellion will never successfully stand in the way of the fulfillment of divine purpose!

As this dispensation drew to a close, we see the thread of divine promise continuing on – as is always the case. God’s plans and purposes will never fail. In the genealogies that conclude chapter 11, we have the first mention of the name “Abram.” This character, “the father of the faithful,” will have remarkable dealings with God. Chapter 12 will mark a dramatic development in the divine perspective on human history as the focus turns away from God’s broad-based dealings with humanity in general and narrows down very specifically to one man and the line of faith that will spring from him.


[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV.

[2] Mark Sweetnam, The Dispensations: God’s Plan For the Ages (Lisburn, UK: Scripture Teaching Library, 2013).