You and I have spent a lot of time in this column talking about how the Old Testament diverges from its ancient Near Eastern context. Those differences have a point to make about God, the world, and humanity. That point spoke to its original context and it continues to have implications for our modern lives. So, looking at the OT in its ancient Near Eastern context gives us readers in the twenty-first century a few different lenses to read the OT through, which in turn helps us (I think) better understand who we are, who God is, and what our place is in the world millennia later.
But the information about the ancient Near East may leave us with what Sandra Richter calls the “dysfunctional closet syndrome,” the condition in which so many of us find ourselves: We have plenty of facts about the Old Testament, but we lack any sort of structure to organize those facts into a coherent whole. The result is a chaotic mess that we slam the door on and leave shut for fear that everything will topple out if we open the door back up. Covenants are the solution to that problem.
By the way, if you haven’t read Ricther’s book, The Epic of Eden, you should. Seriously. Stop everything and go read that book if you want to understand the Old Testament. She’s also recorded a lecture series: Part 1 and part 2 are free.
The Noahic covenant is the first explicit covenant God makes with humans. God establishes a covenant with Noah just after the flood waters fully recede and Noah and his family step out of the ark and back onto dry ground. As we saw in the previous column, God judged humanity for its sin against him, not because humans were too loud or otherwise annoying.
What was once a weapon of warfare now becomes a sign of peace.
In Genesis 8 we read that after the flood Noah made sacrifices to the Lord, who “smelled the pleasing aroma” and “said to himself, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of human beings,’” despite the human heart’s inexorable bent toward evil and wickedness (Gen 8:20–21). In Genesis 9 we learn the contours of that covenant, which include a promise from God, repetition of God’s earlier command to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” along with a further prohibition against murder, and finally a sign of the covenant.
The most important part of this covenant—and all of the covenants God makes with humans—is that God initiates the covenant with his promise. In other words, God’s grace is the covenant’s foundation and its telos; grace forms the beginning, middle, and end of his covenant with Noah and the rest of his creation.
Even though the Noahic covenant rests fully in the grace of God, there are yet stipulations, or commands, that humanity must obey in this covenant. That, of course, is the tricky part of our relationship with God—we hold in tension these two truths: 1) God is sovereign and our relationship to him is based solely on his grace; and 2) God requires obedience and thus our relationship with him in some sense also depends on our faithfulness to him. God’s sovereignty and humans’ responsibility go hand-in-hand in the biblical narrative, not least of all in his covenant with Noah.
In Genesis 9 God gives two stipulations as part of the covenant agreement. First, God echoes his command to Adam and Eve by telling humanity to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” Repeating the command from the first chapter of Genesis shows Noah—and readers today—that the basic human mandate has not changed. Humans are to fill the earth with images of God, thus displaying God’s righteous rule over all of creation. The explicit prohibition against shedding human blood (Gen 9:6) further signals God’s deep, abiding concern for human life, a theme that will recur throughout the pages of the Old Testament.
Finally, God marked his covenant with Noah and the rest of creation by hanging up his qeshet, his bow. What was once a weapon of warfare now becomes a sign of peace, thus prefiguring the time when nations “will beat their swords into plows, and their spears into pruning knives” and “never again train for war” (Micah 4:3).
What’s more, when God sees his bow hanging in the clouds, he will “remember my covenant between me and you and all the living creatures.” This term “remember” is pregnant with meaning that we will explore in a later column, but for now we simply note that it indicates much more than remembering where you left your keys. It points, rather, to a type of memorial that moves God to act on behalf of his people because of his relationship with him.
God’s covenant with Noah shows us that God, despite destroying the entire earth with a flood, remains committed to the initial task he gave Adam and Eve: to spread throughout the world, cultivating it for their God and his glory. God will punish sin, as the flood so vividly demonstrated, but he also extends grace to humanity by establishing a covenant with them. God’s relationship with humanity in Noah’s day—as well as with us today—is founded on his gracious kindness. God, despite every reason to abandon the human project, stubbornly refused and refuses to leave us alone in the world. Instead, he hung up the bow he used in Genesis 6 and reissued the creation mandate to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” Today, if we find yourselves admiring a rainbow after a spring shower, may it remind us—as it reminds God—of God’s faithful commitment to us, his prized creation.