Friday, August 13, 2010

The Everlasting Covenant with Noah in Genesis Chapter 9

The first reference to ברית עולם or everlasting covenant in the Bible occurs in Gen 9:16. God says to Noah: “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant [ברית עולם] between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”

The question is: what does the phrase eternal covenant refer to here? The answer is found in the immediately preceding context, but in investigating this context it is helpful to consider the parties to the covenant as well as the content of the covenant.

According to Gen 9:16, the parties of this particular covenant are God and all living creatures. But Gen 9:15 shows that the expression every living creature of all flesh in v. 16 includes Noah and his offspring—the word you in the expression between me and you in v. 15 is a plural pronoun. Genesis 9:13 speaks of the covenant as being made between God and the earth, but what is in view is particularly the living creatures who dwell on the earth. This is very clear in the wording of Gen 9:10-11 when God says to Noah: “Behold, I am establishing my covenant with you and your seed after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark, for every animal of the earth.” That Noah’s seed is included in the covenant suggests that this is a covenant that involves more parties than simply the human beings and animals alive at the time. Indeed, in Gen 9:12 it is spelled out that this covenant is being made for eternal [עולם] generations. In other words, this covenant was made with Noah, the land animals, and the winged creatures alive at the time together with their seed from that point in time ad infinitum. The parties of this covenant, therefore, are God as the first party and every living creature descended from Noah and the animals which had been housed in his ark as the second party.

Turning to consider the content of this covenant, it is helpful to note that the rainbow is the sign of this covenant (Gen 9:12, 16). The sign of the covenant encapsulates the core content of the covenant, which is in particular the promise not to destroy all flesh: “I will establish my covenant with you, 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” (Gen 9:11); “the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh” (Gen 9:15).

Given the identification of the parties of this covenant as being Noah and his seed, as well as the animals and their subsequent generations in perpetuity, and given that the content of the covenant centers on the idea that there will not be another deluge akin to the flood of Noah, then it seems that the Noahic covenant is a ברית עולם due to the fact that the promise at the core of this covenant is eternal (i.e., from that point in time ever onwards) in its scope.

But what about William Dumbrell’s idea that the covenant ceremony in Gen 9 was confirming a covenant that had been made previously between God and creation? Is the Noahic covenant a ברית עולם in the sense that it continues on forever from the time of Noah, or rather because it is simply a confirmation of God’s eternal covenant with creation? I will endeavor to answer this question in my next post.


Matt said...

I can't wait to see what you say about Dumbrell!

John Thomson said...

I am inclined to think that there are continuities and discontinuities between God's covenant with Noah and the creational promises to Adam.

1) I am reluctant (Hosea aside) to call creational promise and instruction a covenant. For two reasons. One, it is not so called in Genesis. Two, I am of the opinion that formalised covenants exist in a world where sin has destroyed trust. Covenants give solemnity to promises and instructions in a fallen world; they aid confidence.

2) Having said this there are some reaaly close parallels between God's promises and instructions to Adam and those to Noah. Noah, represents a recreation, a new beginning, and so perhaps we should not be surprised that there are parallels.

3) Yet there are distinctions. In the original creation only plant life was available for food now animal life is available too. Now there are principles of human government laid down. Furthermore, there is a promise of no further flood devastation.
Two queries:

Does the promise the world will no longer be flooded in this way indicate it was a universal flood? There have been many localised floods in history.

Was there idolatry before the flood?

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, Matt and John, for your comments.

I agree with John that there are continuities as well as some new elements. A covenant is basically a promise that is formalized and strengthened (usually by an oath of some kind), and there was definitely promise in the prelapsarian garden situation. A covenant is not totally different in kind from a promise, because the heart of a covenant is promise, and yet we can still distinguish between them. The Noahic covenant assures the preservation of human and animal life on Planet Earth. Given God’s intention to bring salvation to the world through the seed of the woman (Gen 3:15), it is essential that the continuing existence of the world and the human race be assured. The Noahic covenant, therefore, is an instrument used in the process of salvation history by which God is bringing to fulfillment his original intention of the blessing of the world (Gen 1:22, 28).

About the universality of the flood, Gen 6-9 certainly reads that way. Genesis 6:7; 7:4, 19 sound fairly comprehensive, plus there is the language of all flesh in Gen 6:13; 7:21, and the language of everything with the breath of the spirit of life in its nostrils in Gen 7:23. Genesis 7:23 states quite plainly that only Noah and those preserved in the ark survived the flood. The fact that Gen 8:17 reaffirms the creation mandate suggests that the creation mandate itself was under threat from the flood. And I take it that the creation mandate was universal in its scope. Perhaps human and animal life was more concentrated geographically back then than now, but the text suggests reads as if all human and animal life was destroyed, apart from that preserved in the ark. That the covenant was subsequently established with Noah, his seed, and “with every living creature that [was] with [Noah],” and their seed (Gen 9:10, 12), suggests a new beginning for the major species of the earth.