The First Mention of Covenant
The very first mention of brit [covenant] found in Scripture is in the story of Noach in Genesis 6:18.
But I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall enter the ark-- you and your sons and your wife, and your sons' wives with you. And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds after their kind, and of the animals after their kind, of every creeping thing of the ground after its kind, two of every kind will come to you to keep them alive. As for you, take for yourself some of all food which is edible, and gather it to yourself; and it shall be for food for you and for them. Thus Noah did; according to all that G-d had commanded him, so he did.
Genesis 6:18 occurs before the Flood (which is described in chapter 7-8). In the verses leading up to this point G-d informs Noach that He is going to bring "the flood water upon the earth" and that "everything that is on the earth shall perish". G-d then tells Noach that He will establish His covenant with him.
A reasonable person might make the observation: "G-d is going to flood the whole world. If Noach dies in the Flood then how will G-d be able to make a covenant with him?" Being the infinitely wise Creator of the universe that He is, G-d also recognized this dilemma and provided Noach with instruction for building an ark that will carry him, his family, and all the kinds of animals on the earth safely through the time of the Flood.
After the Flood, G-d established His covenant with Noach. Genesis chapter 9 provides the details of the covenant:
Then G-d spoke to Noah and to his sons with him, saying, Now behold, I Myself do 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 comes out of the ark, even every beast of the earth. I establish My covenant with you; and all flesh shall never again be cut off by the water of the flood, neither shall there again be a flood to destroy the earth."
G-d said, "This is the sign of the covenant which I am making between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all successive generations; I set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the earth. "It shall come about, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow will be seen in the cloud, and I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and never again shall the water become a flood to destroy all flesh. "When the bow is in the cloud, then I will look upon it, to remember the everlasting covenant between G-d and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth." And G-d said to Noah, "This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is on the earth."
G-d's Covenant with Noach
The particulars of the covenant span several chapters of Genesis with the introduction being the largest portion.
- Introduction- Genesis 6:1-8:22
- The covenant is G-d's (Genesis 6:18, 9:9)
- The covenant is made with Noach (Genesis 9:8),
his sons, and descendants after him [i.e. all mankind] (Genesis 9:9) ,
and with every living creature that was with Noach (Genesis 9:10)
- Covenant Responsibilities
- Required actions
- Be fruitful and multiply; populate the earth (Genesis 9:7)
- Prohibited actions
- Do not eat meat with blood still in it (Genesis 9:4)
- Do not commit murder (Genesis 9:5)
- All flesh shall never again be cut off by water (Genesis 9:11)
- There shall not again be a flood to destroy the earth (Genesis 9:11)
- Whoever sheds man's blood by man his blood shall be shed
[i.e. the death penalty administered by men] (Genesis 9:6)
- Whoever sheds man's blood by man his blood shall be shed
- Required actions
- Conditions for perpetuation
- The covenant is specified to be for "all successive generations" [l'dorat olam: literally "for time eternal"] (Genesis 9:12)
- The covenant is specified as an "everlasting covenant" [brit olam] and is not perpetuated by any specific action (Genesis 9:16)
- Enumeration of witnesses - none given
- Covenant sign- G-d's bow [rainbow] is set in the clouds (Genesis 9:12-17)
- Covenant seal- none given
Just so we do not mistake the point, G-d declares in Scripture that the covenant is His (Genesis 6:18). It is not Noach's. The covenant is made with Noach, true, but ownership of and authority in the covenant are clearly G-d's. Covenants of this type are sometimes termed "suzerain" covenants in which a greater power bestowes an unmerited covenant upon a lesser power. G-d is clearly the greater in this situation and He extends His covenant to Noach.
This begs the question: who can make a covenant? Is it just anyone? It seems fair to state that only an individual with something to offer can reasonably initiate a covenant. G-d created everything (Nehemiah 9:6) and all of Creation belongs to Him (Deuteronomy 10:14). In human terms we can historically find greater kings making covenants with lesser kings or perhaps kings with other kings who are their equal but no human being can approach G-d and attempt to make a covenant with Him. We have nothing to offer Him except that which already his.
A Covenant of Grace
Verses in Genesis 6 indicate that G-d had already selected Noach for a covenant relationship before the events of the Flood. Without these verses we might be left to think G-d chose Noach because of his obedience in building the ark and saving the animals (and himself!) that he was given the covenant. Recall from the first part of this series that the act of covenanting also involves a choice. A greater meaning is revealed to us when we see G-d's choice being made when He had all of humanity to choose from before the Flood. If G-d were choosing after the Flood then Noach seems to get the covenant by default and the greatness and gravity of G-d's sovereign selection is diminished.
Noach had done nothing to merit this covenant.
G-d's covenant with Noach is extended as a measure of G-d's grace. Noach had done nothing to merit this covenant. Although Scripture describes Noach as "righteous" (Genesis 6:9, the first time in Scripture such a statement is made of a man) we know that G-d "has mercy on those whom He will have mercy" (Exodus 33:19). To paraphrase the ancient l'olam y'hay adam prayer of believers:
It is not in the merit of Noach's righteousness but in the merit of G-d's abundant mercy that Noach was shown grace.
In Genesis 9:16 this covenant is called an "everlasting covenant" [brit olam]. The Hebrew word olam is used in Genesis 21:33 to describe G-d as "the Everlasting G-d", in Exodus 15:18 to declare "The LORD shall reign forever and ever.", and in Deuteronomy 33:27 to describe G-d as "the eternal G-d".
As an expression of the character and nature of G-d (graceful, merciful, Savior, Sovereign, etc) it stands to reason that the covenant itself is eternal and is in this way also an expression of the Eternal G-d. We should be thankful that this covenant is eternal and everlasting so we can have peace knowing that never again will G-d flood the Earth as He did in the time of Noach.
We should also recognize from the events of the Flood that this is also a covenant of salvation. It is not the "great and eternal salvation" (which is found only in Messiah Yeshua) but salvation from the physical consequences of the Flood. Noach was saved from G-d's wrath and judgment upon the earth and was afterward given the covenant. This covenant provides a picture of G-d's future, eternal salvation. Yeshua even refers back to the events surrounding this covenant to describe His return (Matthew 24:37-38, Luke 17:26)).
The pattern we find in the covenant is this:
- G-d reveals coming judgment- Genesis 6:5-7
- G-d creates a way of salvation- Genesis 6:8, 13
- G-d provides a way for mankind to connect with that salvation- Genesis 6:14-22 (not through our power but through His power)
- G-d provides deliverance- Genesis 8:1
- There is a remnant who are delivered- Genesis 7:23
- G-d establishes a covenant and lays out the terms of the covenant with those who are delivered- Genesis 9:9-17
We should not mistake the mechanism G-d provided for "connecting with" salvation as a separate covenant with Noach. The details of G-d's only covenant with Noach are revealed in chapter 9 when the covenant is actually established.
After examining the details of Noach's covenant, some maintain that the "Seven Noachide Laws" are all that is required of Gentiles today1. It is interesting to note that only two of the "Noachide Laws" are actually given to Noach as recorded in Scripture. The remainder of the Noachide laws are imported from the Law given at Mt. Sinai or rationalized by early rabbis. Scripture never indicates that the covenant with Noach contains seven laws or that the covenant is the only standard for Gentiles.
The consistent teaching of Scripture (addressed later in this series) is that the Gentiles who sojourn with the Israelites are subject to many of the same covenantal conditions as the Israelites themselves. As those who are "grafted into Israel" through Messiah Yeshua (Romans 11:24) Gentiles also have the privilege of participating in many (but not all) of the covenant promises and responsibilities given by G-d.