© Jeff Stacey | Last updated: 18 January 2019
3A8. In grace, God “established” His “everlasting Covenant” with Noah and all his descendants, all creatures and the whole Earth:
God formally confirmed His ongoing commitment to them, declaring UNCONDITIONALLY that He would never again destroy them with a worldwide flood
3A8(title) In grace, God “established” His “everlasting Covenant” with Noah and all his descendants, all creatures and the whole Earth
God told Noah that although He was going to bring universal judgment by the worldwide FLOOD Gen 6:17 He would spare Noah and his family and “establish my covenant” with Noah Gen 6:18a. After the FLOOD God stated that the recipients of this Covenant1 (Hebrew b’rit or berith) were to be not only Noah and his family and all their future descendants, but also all other living creatures and the whole Earth! Gen 9:9-10,11,12-13.
What actually did all this mean?
The specific Covenant references occur both before and after the FLOOD Gen 6:18, 9:8-17. These verses include Covenantal terminology such as “establish”, “with you and your descendants”, “never again”, “sign”, “making between me and you”. Further related terminology occurs in nearby verses (“remembered”, “blessed”, “demand an accounting”, “as for you”) Gen 8:1, 9:1,5,7. There are also associated references to God’s favour, promises and commands concerning Noah (“found favour”, “found righteous”, “never cease”, “must not”) Gen 6:8-9, 7:1, 8:22, 9:4.
Therefore the whole subject of the Covenant is complex and the biblical data is scattered. The following is my attempt to bring all of this together.2
3A8(a) What was a “covenant”?
There are three other references in Genesis to a covenant (or a “treaty” or “sworn agreement”) made between people Gen 21:27, 26:28,29, 31:44. There are also other OT references such as Exodus 23:32, Joshua 24:25, Judges 2:2, 1Samuel 18:3, etc.
These all involved commitments to some kind of agreed relationship between the people concerned.
There have been many archaeological discoveries of ancient political, land tenure and trade covenants used by various middle eastern peoples. There were at least three distinct types of covenants:3
# A “royal grant” in which a dominant king or other ruler (a “suzerain”) would UNCONDITIONALLY commit to giving some kind of benefit to his own subjects, or to other rulers and their peoples (“vassals”) who were subject to his overlordship.
# An agreement or treaty between a dominant ruler (a “suzerain”) and a subject ruler or rulers (“vassals”), making a CONDITIONAL commitment to some mutual obligations to be observed between them.
# Simple agreements between any two parties, making a CONDITIONAL commitment to observe some mutual obligations.
Because of this cultural background, it can be assumed that when God introduced His Covenant, the recipients were already generally aware of what a covenant involved.
Some formal procedures were usually associated with the setting up of covenants. These could include sacrificial rituals or offerings, solemn oaths, penalties, witnesses, “signs”, monuments, written records and other formal procedures and reminders.4
Significantly, these setting-up procedures for covenants did not initiate the relationship, but provided formal recognition of an already existing arrangement. The formal procedures only confirmed the previously agreed commitments.5
Underlying each of these covenants was some specific purpose that served the interests of all parties who had bound themselves to the agreed arrangements under the covenant.
So a biblical covenant could be described as:-
A defined, purposeful, permanent relationship between people, or between God and people, that they were already committed to and later confirmed using formal “covenanting” procedures.
3A8(b) God called it “my Covenant” because it referred to His relationships with people, planet Earth and the whole universe at their original creation by Him
The Covenant with Noah apparently had to do with “some existing arrangement presumably imposed by God, since it is referred to as ‘my covenant'”.6
Dumbrell’s central point is that this prior, existing arrangement began at the original creation:
“We have seen that in the contexts of GEN 6 and 9 the term b’rit is applied to this arrangement. The very fact of creation involved God’s entering into relationships with the world . . . The world and man are part of one total divine construct . . . the refusal to submit in Eden meant a disordered universe . . . It would follow from our analysis of GEN 1-9 that there can be only one divine covenant . . . All else in covenant theology which progressively occurs in the Old Testament will be deducible from this basic relationship . . . “7
It was this “one divine covenant” – all the relationships and commitments originally underlying creation – that God was referring to as “my covenant”.8 The FALL had affected all of the Earth. So it is profoundly significant that God’s Covenant as declared to Noah included all people, creatures and the whole of planet Earth (even “a disordered universe“!). God’s Covenantal guarantee that there would never again be a worldwide flood Gen 9:9-10,11 was an indication of His vast positive ongoing intentions for the Earth!
3A8(c) What was meant by “establish my Covenant”?
The usual OT Hebrew terminology used for setting up a covenant was karath berith (literally meaning to “cut a covenant”, referring to associated animal sacrifices).9 But a different term was used (Hebrew heqim berith) when God “established” His Covenant with Noah Gen 6:18a, 9:9-10,11. Dumbrell says that this was because the usual notion of covenants being mutually binding did not apply in this case. Like the “royal grant” covenants then used, God was making a unilateral self-binding commitment, entirely self-initiated and self-confirmed. It put obligations upon God only and not on the people. So as far as they were concerned it was UNCONDITIONAL.
Dumbrell also suggests that even the translation of berith as “covenant” may be inappropriate here. He proposes some other word such as “commitment” or “obligation” to emphasise the one-sidedness of what God was doing.10
So although God was not drawing up a mutual agreement by “establishing” His Covenant, apparently He was using the “covenanting” procedure to formally confirm His own prior commitments.
3A8(d) What might Noah have understood as God’s previous commitment to him?
Noah himself may have had little idea at first of what God’s Covenant involved. When God announced it to him before the FLOOD, Noah perhaps saw it only as a promise that he and his family would survive Gen 6:17,18, 7:1,7.
The name “Noah” was given to him at birth by his father Lamech Gen 5:28-29. It was prophetic, indicating in advance that Noah would bring “comfort” in relation to the hard toil resulting from God’s curse upon the ground [see 3A9(a)]. Noah may also have understood God’s promised Covenant as referring to this. Did he think that somehow after the FLOOD he was going to bring relief from God’s curse upon the ground?
3A8(e) The acute situation of Noah and his family after the FLOOD
The mere eight survivors had just gone through all the traumatic experiences of the FLOOD. It was the end of the world as they had known it. Next they faced resettling alone in a totally devastated landscape which had almost no birds or land creatures! In such a situation they might have wavered in believing that God was still committed to them despite their amazing survival.
3A8(sub-title) God formally confirmed His ongoing commitment to them, declaring UNCONDITIONALLY that He would never again destroy them with a worldwide flood
God’s everlasting Covenant was established with Noah after the FLOOD Gen 9:9-17. It was God’s formal confirmation of the commitment He had given briefly to Noah before the FLOOD Gen 6:18a. God’s declarations probably far exceeded Noah’s expectations!
God’s commitment did deal firstly with the immediate situation. He declared UNCONDITIONALLY that He would never again destroy all people, land creatures and the whole of Earth’s landscape with a worldwide flood Gen 9:11.
By this commitment God was placing a self-imposed permanent limitation on how He would operate on Earth in future. He was binding Himself NOT to exercise His own unlimited power in certain ways! He now authorised Himself to act only within some defined boundaries.
3A8(f) Rainbows to be “signs” that this was an “everlasting” Covenant
God’s commitment was guaranteed as permanent not only by being in the form of a covenant. It would in the future also be confirmed repeatedly as an “everlasting” Covenant by means of rainbows appearing in the sky. God’s declaration of this was repeated four times to emphasise its certainty! Gen 9:12-13,14-15,16,17.
Future heavy rainfall could again bring forebodings of another deluge and worldwide flood! But rainbows appearing with the rain would now be “signs” of God’s permanent Covenant. They would be seen by people, but primarily by God Gen 9:15a,16b. Rainbows would always be “reminders” to Him of His Covenantal commitment to Earth and all living things, that there would never ever be another worldwide flood!
3A8(g) God’s Covenantal “package” of three other UNCONDITIONAL commitments
There were three other UNCONDITIONAL commitments announced by God immediately after the FLOOD. They were not directly included in the formal declaration of the Covenant’s establishment. Yet they were closely associated with it and occur in nearby verses of Genesis. These have been taken to be included as parts of a wider Covenant “package” that God was confirming to Noah and his descendants. For this reason they have been referred to as “Covenantal” but placed elsewhere in Chart 3A, as follows:-
# God’s made several UNCONDITIONAL Covenantal promises to provide food and protection for their continuing existence Gen 8:22, 9:2,3 [see 3A9]. This could be seen as the fulfilment of Noah’s prophetic name Gen 5:28-29.
3A8(h) God’s UNCONDITIONAL Covenantal commitments were another great act of GRACE
God gave these UNCONDITIONAL commitments personally to Noah and his sons, for them and their wives and all of their descendants Gen 9:8-9,11. God in extraordinary GRACE even blessed all people Gen 9:1a despite their ongoing sinful unworthiness! Gen 8:21c. This included providing an environment where they could survive, multiply, be protected, and sustained with food. That also left open the possibility for them to receive His acceptance.
3A8(j) God’s intentions in establishing His Covenant with all people and the whole of Earth
In declaring that He was going to “establish my covenant” with Noah and the whole Earth, God was committing Himself to begin restoring the Earth, including the people’s situation. It was going to be decisive in countering the appalling condition of all people and their impacts on the Earth prior to the FLOOD.
The profound scope of God’s Covenant that He was establishing with Noah started to emerge:
“God could not be expected to rest content with the frustration of the intentions which He so plainly endorsed in Gen 1:31 . . . Such a commitment was intended to achieve the purpose of creation . . . it is through man that the divine purposes will be realized.”11
By establishing His everlasting Covenant, God was formally confirming His original intentions in creating the universe, including the Earth, its people and creatures. It was nothing less than God’s declaration of His ongoing intention to accomplish His primary purpose! In particular, He was again stating His commitment to the central roles of people. Ultimately He was going to achieve totally the purpose of creation as He originally intended.
This whole Covenantal “establishment” and its associated “package” confirmed God’s unchanged commitment to a relational framework of love that formed the basis of His continuing interactions with all people. This was His ongoing strategy for accomplishing His primary purpose.
God’s Covenant was not a law-keeping system to provide a way to gain His acceptance. Rather it was an invitation for people to commit to Him wholeheartedly and “walk with” Him, as Noah did Gen 6:9b. They were to live within the boundaries He was setting, as He made Himself known TO them in a loving relationship. This was how He would accomplish His primary purpose THROUGH them [see 3A11(b)].
By establishing His Covenant, God in grace was declaring His own UNCONDITIONAL commitment to “His side” of such a relationship! He was also indicating that this strategy was going to succeed totally.
This would be the beginning of His eventually recovering the original perfect relationships at creation, as lost at the FALL and mostly demolished by the FLOOD.
Arrow 3A4 -> 3A8,
Arrow 3A5 -> 3A8
Arrow 3A6 -> 3A8
These arrows indicate God’s specific strategy for accomplishing His primary purpose following the FLOOD. He was committing Himself to continue expressing His own nature by making Himself known TO and THROUGH people.
Having saved Noah and his family, God in grace established His everlasting Covenant with them and all later people and creatures and the whole Earth. This was to confirm His unchanging love and ongoing commitment to them, within a framework that still declared His power and perfection.
1. Because it was God’s Covenant, a capital letter has been adopted to distinguish it from other mentions of covenants in Genesis and elsewhere in the OT.(Return to reading).
2. W.J.Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984], pages 16-26. I am greatly indebted to the work of this world-eminent Australian biblical scholar and theologian. His writings have helped me navigate my way through the complex OT covenant material and theology. But I accept full responsibility if I have misunderstood or distorted his work in any way.(Return to reading).
3. W.J.Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation, pages 94-96.(Return to reading).
4. These covenants had some similarities to modern contracts, where the terms, conditions and specifications are contained in extensive legal documents. These are all drawn up beforehand to define the proposed contract. But they only become legally binding when the contract is formally signed. (Return to reading).
5. W.J.Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation, pages 16-20. Unlike modern contracts but similar to a marriage, covenants were primarily based on and emphasised the already committed relationship between the parties, not just the legal obligations. There was also no “cancellation clause” – covenants were binding permanently.(Return to reading).
6. W.J.Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation, page 26, my italics added for emphasis.(Return to reading).
7. W.J.Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation, page 41-42, my italics added for emphasis.(Return to reading).
8. W.J.Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation, page 28.(Return to reading).
9. W.J.Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation, pages 24-25.(Return to reading).
10. W.J.Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation, pages 15-16.(Return to reading).
11. W.J.Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation, pages 32-33.(Return to reading).