The Primeval History of Genesis 1-11: Covenant & Consequence

posted in: Textual Studies | 0

rainbow-1492119At the end of chapter eight of Genesis, the flood waters had subsided but the future was uncertain. To this uncertainty, Noah responds with worship (8:20), and God responds with a renewed covenant (8:21-22). While no work of God should be considered a failure, it is fascinating that God deems this a course of action not to be repeated. The absolutist approach to human evil is not part of God’s purpose, in fact is contrary to it. For God’s will to be done, human evil must be permitted to continue in the creation. Human evil is a sad outcome of human choice, and human choice is a birthright given every person by God according to his will. The promise of the covenant then is that while the creation lasts, so will humanity – for better or worse.

Terms of the Covenant

The renewed covenant comes with renewed terms. First, it repeats the terms of the initial creation covenant, “Be fruitful” (9:1, 7). Beyond that, much has changed.

While the initial purpose of creation included human stewardship, this newly crafted covenant has much more aggressive terminology.

The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. (9:2-3)

This reminds us of how the relationship between man and woman changed after the fall (3:16). Also, the relationship of man to the earth and his work in it was damaged (3:17-19). Now, his relationship to other living creatures is more severe. It reminds me a bit of a line from the great preacher, George Whitefield:

I have often thought, when I was abroad, that if there were no other argument to prove original sin, the rising of wolves and tigers against man, nay, the barking of a dog against us, is a proof of original sin. Tigers and lions durst not rise against us, if it were not for Adam’s first sin; for when the creatures rise up against us, it is as much as to say, You have sinned against God, and we take up our Master’s quarrel.1

What Whitefield applies to the fall of Adam, I would suggest fits better in reading the text of Genesis 9. Creation is more fully broken, and stewardship will fall into a struggle for survival. While this isn’t a particularly scientific explanation, the message of the story is that the animals know and remember that this is all our fault. This is worsened in that the creation which once sustained humanity through vegetation alone is no longer up to the task. The spiral of human violence and the consequence of the crisis has seen to that. Animal flesh, previously only used as sacrifices to God, now also becomes food. Only the blood is preserved as a token of humanity’s need for atonement (9:4).

Furthermore, the relationship of humanity to itself has changed. The spiral of human violence was magnified by unbalanced vengeance. Lamech’s revenge was seventy-seven fold (4:24). God’s next term of the covenant is given to restrain this impulse (9:5-6). The blood for blood law, lex talionis, is not a deterrent to prevent murder. It is a prohibition against excessive retribution, the sin that led to the crisis of the flood.

Finally, the token of the covenant is the bow in the sky (9:8-17). We emphasize the pretty colors of the rainbow, but the text does not. For the story, it is a bow, a weapon, and it is aimed not at earth but at heaven. God has fired his shot, the collapse of the cosmos itself, and has vowed never to do it again. From this time forward, the God of heaven will suffer the violence of men rather than crush them. The culmination of the bow is the cross.

The Consequences of the Crisis

The story has already suggested that the world will not be the same. The earth that then was perished beneath the water. A new world has survived, but not without scars. The final story in this sequence explains the toll of the crisis on humanity.

One of the scenes I enjoyed most in the recent Noah movie was the scene with Noah’s intoxication (9:20-21). Of all the script’s sometimes ludicrous innovations, this was the truest to the text. It is the part of the story we omit.

Noah survives the flood, but not well. What does a crisis like this do to a man? How does a man reckon with a God who would drown the world and with a world that deserved to be drowned?

Worse, the evil of the old world has survived also in Noah’s sons. Ham, the father of Canaan, “saw the nakedness of his father,” most likely a Hebrew idiom for something more lewd than leering (9:22, 24). Shem and Japeth show their fallen father some dignity, but the deed has already been done (9:23). A father curses his son for sin, as God has already cursed the creation (9:25). Canaan and its pagan Philistines will be the symbol of the survival of what the flood washed away, violence and decadence of every kind. In contrast, Shem particularly and also Japeth represent a hope for the continuance of God’s blessing (9:26-27).

At last Noah dies. He is the last of the old ones, living 950 years (9:28-29). What now will become of the creation once broken and now merely surviving?


  1. From “The Method of Grace,” by George Whitefield.
Follow Benjamin Williams:

Pulpit Minister for Glenpool Church of Christ (Glenpool, OK); BS in Astrophysics from University of Oklahoma; MDiv in Ministry from Oklahoma Christian Graduate School of Theology

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