God’s Covenant with Noah

God’s covenant with Noah is a subject which is not often discussed in Christian circles. We occasionally reflect on the flood story, or the events leading up to it, but we rarely give much consideration to the covenant made afterwards. This is perhaps due to a tendency to avoid passages concerned with law and sacrifice. Still, it’s an important passage which sets forth moral norms which still apply today.

Sacrifice and Death

The Noahic covenant is outlined in Genesis 8:20 – 9:17. It begins with Noah’s offering of a sacrifice to God, of every clean animal and bird which he had brought upon the ark (8:20). This is precisely why God had instructed him to bring seven of every clean animal and bird, rather than simply a pair, as was the rule with the other living creatures (7:2-3, cf. 6:19-20)[1]. God had always intended to establish his covenant with Noah after the flood, and biblical covenants are established through sacrifice.

The theme of death pervades the entire covenant-making ceremony. First there are the animals killed and offered up as burnt offerings on the alter in 8:20-22. Then there are various laws concerning death in 9:1-7. Finally there is a re-iteration of the divine promise to never again wipe out all creatures in 9:8-17, represented by the sign of the rainbow.

Meat as Covenant Food

Consider the laws depicted in 9:1-7. First of all, there is the instruction to “be fruitful and multiply” (v1), a direct re-iteration of the original creation mandate given in 1:28. Next, however, there is a contrast with the original creation account. God tells Noah that the fear and dread of humanity will be upon the animals, and they will be food for Noah and his descendants.

Now, human beings had already been eating meat, at least since the time of Abel, who was a sheep farmer, as we can see in Genesis 4:1-5. So why is this commandment portrayed as a contrast with before? It has to do with which food served as the covenant sign. Under Adam, plants are highlighted as the main food source for both humans and animals because the nature of the covenant was centred around plants, and in particular around two trees at the centre of creation (2:9). Plants also happen to sit at the bottom of the food chain, as the source of life on earth.

However, following the disobedience of Adam and Eve, covenants had to be administered through animal sacrifice. So it makes sense that meat would be highlighted as the central food in this covenant ceremony (it’s also consistent with the dominion mandate in 1:26-28). Just as God gave the green plants as a special covenant food marking out the original creation covenant, so too has God now given meat as the sign of this new covenant with Noah.

Life and Death

However, there is to be an exception to the eating of meat. Animals which still have “life” or “blood” flowing in them may not be eaten. There are several possible interpretations of what this means, but the most straightforward sense is to take it as a prohibition on the consumption of living animals. This is consistent with the theme of life and death as emphasised throughout the passage.

The prohibition on consuming the meat of living creatures is expanded under the Law to also include eating blood and eating animals which are not killed by a human (Leviticus 17:10-16). This is a standard feature of the Mosaic legislation, which often takes existing norms or principles and extends them further.[2]

Following this there is the institution of capital punishment for murder in 9:5-6. This applies to both humans and animals who kill humans. The great violence which filled the earth prior to the flood (6:11-12) was a key reason why the flood happened. The intention of the death penalty is to limit further violence, to end the cycle of violence.

Now, some would argue that it can’t work like this – the death penalty is just more violence, so how can it end violence? The answer lies in the fact that human beings are made in the image of God as his divine representatives (9:6). When a human being is unjustly killed, it’s like a direct assault on God himself. The death penalty does not represent a cavalier attitude towards human life then, but rather one which upholds human life as a reflection of the very life of God.

Bow in the Cloud

The re-iteration of the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” in 9:7 forms an inclusio with 9:1 and marks out that section of the passage as distinct. Following this, we have the final section of the covenant passage (9:8-17), which ties everything together.

A special sign of the covenant is the rainbow, as shown in 9:13-15. Rainbows already existed, of course, but here they are highlighted as serving a special purpose. Just as after a battle the warrior hangs up his bow and refrains from violence, so too has God now hung up his war bow, no longer sending the arrows of judgement upon the earth. And just like smelling the sweet aroma of the burnt offerings (8:20-22), whenever God sees his bow in the cloud it will serve as a reminder to God of the everlasting covenant that was made with Noah, and with all creation.

[1] We don’t know what exactly is meant by “clean” and “unclean” animals here, since those distinctions are not established until the Mosaic covenant several thousand years later (described in Leviticus 11). The same terms are probably used in order to draw an analogy with the later Israelite experience.

[2] A couple of examples should suffice:
(1) The original prohibition on parent-child incest in Genesis 2:24 is extended to include secondary relationships such as that of siblings in Leviticus 18:6-18
(2) The use of the death penalty against murder in Genesis 9:5-6 is extended to include a range of other offences in Leviticus 20

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