GENESIS 3-9. THE CONTEXT
The context for this story begins with Genesis 3, which introduces sin by telling of the Fall. Chapter 4 continues the dark story by telling of the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. Chapter 5 lays the groundwork for Noah’s story by providing his genealogy. Chapter 6 tells of the wickedness of the people of the world and God’s determination to “destroy man whom I have created from the surface of the ground” (6:7)—but it also tells of Noah, who pleased God. Chapter 7 tells of the Great Flood, and chapter 8 tells of the subsiding of the flood waters and God’s promise, “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake, because the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again strike everything living, as I have done” (8:21). Chapter 9 begins with God blessing Noah and his sons and giving them “every moving thing that lives” for food (9:3). Then God says, “Be fruitful and multiply. Increase abundantly in the earth, and multiply in it” (9:7)—effectively reestablishing the human community begun earlier with Adam and Eve.
Genesis 9:1-7 establishes two restrictions on people. The first is, “But flesh with its life, its blood, you shall not eat” (v. 4). The second prohibits the shedding of human life (v. 6). If these two prohibitions followed the giving of the covenant (9:8-17), they could be construed as conditions of the covenant. In other words, if humans violated either of the two prohibitions, God would no longer be obligated to honor his promise not to destroy all flesh (v. 15). However, the prohibitions precede the covenant, and God nowhere suggests that they impose conditions on the covenant. The covenant, therefore, remains unconditional—not dependent on people’s response.
GENESIS 9:8-11. I ESTABLISH MY COVENANT WITH YOU
8God spoke to Noah and to his sons with him, saying, 9“As for me, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your offspring after you, 10and with every living creature that is with you: the birds, the livestock, and every animal of the earth with you, of all that go out of the ship, even every animal of the earth. 11 I will establish my covenant with you: all flesh will not be cut off any more by the waters of the flood, neither will there ever again be a flood to destroy the earth.”
Primitive peoples often think of God as a threat to be placated, but the Israelites thought of God as a benevolent power (Bowie, 550).
“As for me, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your offspring after you“ (v. 9). When we think of a covenant, we usually think of “an agreement between two or more parties outlining mutual rights and responsibilities” (Myers, 240). Most covenants of that sort are made between people who agree to an arrangement that benefits both parties. Both pay a price—both exact a benefit—and both anticipate penalties if they fail to comply with the terms of the covenant. The word covenant is often used in the Old Testament to describe agreements of that kind between people.
However, covenants between God and people necessarily take on a different character, because people cannot negotiate as equals with God. Therefore, God typically initiates covenants, dictates their terms, outlines their benefits, and might or might not require a particular response from the person with whom God is covenanting.
“As for me, behold, I establish my covenant” (v. 9a). The wording is emphatic—it is God who initiates this covenant. In this covenant, God obligates himself not to destroy all life by floodwaters again, and does not require any particular response from Noah and his family. God does not say, “I will agree not to destroy all life by floodwaters again IF you will do thus and so.” God simply says, “I will establish my covenant with you: all flesh will not be cut off any more by the waters of the flood, neither will there ever again be a flood to destroy the earth“ (v. 11)—end of sentence—no “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts”—no response required from Noah.
Godly covenants are not always unconditional. Sometimes God requires a response. A little later, God will tell Abram, “Get out of your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great. You will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you. All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you” (12:1-3). While the word covenant is not used in this passage, the agreement has the characteristics of a Godly covenant—initiated by God—terms dictated by God—benefits provided by God—and a response required of Abram (“Get out of your country…to the land that I will show you”).
The fact that God does not require a response from Noah and his family might be, in part, because they have already complied with the terms of an earlier covenant (6:18) in which God announced that he was going to destroy all life (6:17), but where he commanded Noah to enter the ark along with his family and representatives of “every living thing” (6:18-19). God couched the terms of that first covenant (6:18) quite differently from this second one (9:9):
• In the first covenant, God did not specify a benefit to Noah (although there was the implied benefit that Noah would survive the flood if he entered the ark)—but God did specify a response (enter the ark).
• In the second covenant, God does specify a benefit (no more destruction of all life by water), but requires no response.
Again, the reason for this difference might be that Noah complied with the terms of the original covenant, so this second covenant could be a reward for that compliance.
“with you, and with your offspring after you“ (v. 9b). God establishes this covenant, not only with Noah and his immediate family, but also with Noah’s descendants—in essence the entire human race—”independent of the community of faith” (Fretheim, 401). It is not only Israel who enjoys this guarantee, but even the enemies of Israel.
“and with every living creature that is with you: the birds, the livestock, and every animal of the earth with you, of all that go out of the ship, even every animal of the earth“ (v. 10). The covenant is not only between God and humans but also between God and the animal kingdom.
“I will establish my covenant with you: all flesh will not be cut off any more by the waters of the flood, neither will there ever again be a flood to destroy the earth“ (v. 11). Note the double “ever again”—used for emphasis. God leaves himself no room to rethink this covenant when humans once again descend into a moral abyss.
But note also the limited nature of this covenant. God does not promise never again to cut off all flesh or never again to destroy the earth, but instead promises only not to accomplish this by means of a flood. However, immediately after the flood, God made a much broader promise: “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake, because the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again strike everything living, as I have done” (8:21—also see Isaiah 54:9-10)—so it would appear that God’s intent in verse 11 is to assure us that he will never again destroy all life by any means.
GENESIS 9:12-17. THIS IS THE TOKEN OF THE COVENANT
12God said, “This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: 13 I set my rainbow (Hebrew: qeset) in the cloud, and it will be for a sign of a covenant between me and the earth. 14 It will happen, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the rainbow will be seen in the cloud, 15and I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh, and the waters will no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16The rainbow will be in the cloud. I will look at it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17God said to Noah, “This is the token of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
“This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations“ (v. 12). Just as God initiates covenants and dictates their terms, God also establishes the sign that serves to ratify the covenant and by which the covenant will be remembered.
Later, God will say, “You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin. It will be a token of the covenant between me and you” (17:11). In that case, it would seem that the sign is to remind Abraham and his descendants of the covenant.
Still later, God will give the Israelites another sign when he commands them to mark their houses with the blood of a lamb, saying: “The blood shall be to you for a token on the houses where you are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and there shall no plague be on you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:13). In that case, the sign will be “to you,” the Israelites—but it will also be for God, who will look for the mark so that he can pass over the house where he finds it.
Later yet, God will say, “Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days Yahweh made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed” (Exodus 31:16-17). This also sounds as if it is intended as a reminder for Israel rather than for God.
“I set my rainbow (qeset) in the cloud, and it will be for a sign of a covenant between me and the earth“ (v. 13). The Hebrew qeset can mean bow as well as rainbow. Some scholars see a parallel here with the Babylonian god, Marduk, who suspended his bow in the heavens after winning a victory over a rival. However, this verse sees Yahweh placing a rainbow in the heavens as a reminder of his promise never again to destroy all mankind.
“and I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh, and the waters will no more become a flood to destroy all flesh“ (v. 15). When we see a rainbow, we are inclined to remember this story and to take comfort in God’s promise not to destroy all life by floodwaters again. However, God says that he has set the bow in the clouds so that “I will remember my covenant” (v. 15a). The rainbow serves to remind us, but more importantly it serves to remind God of his promise.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bowie, Walter Russell and Simpson, Cuthbert A., The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 1
Fretheim, Terence E., “The Book of Genesis,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1: General Old Testament Articles, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994.
Hamilton, Victor P., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990)
Mathews, Kenneth A., The New American Commentary: Volume 1a – Genesis 1-11:26 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996)
Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)
Plaut, W. Gunther, The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Revised Edition) (New York: Union for Reform Judaism, 2005)
Roop, Eugene F., Believers Church Bible Commentaries: Genesis (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1987)
Towner, W. Sibley, Westminster Bible Companion: Genesis (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001)
Von Rad, Gerhard, The Old Testament Library: Genesis, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972)
Wenham, Gordon J., Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15 (Dallas: Word Books, 1987)
Copyright 2006, 2010, 2017, Richard Niell Donovan