God’s Covenant with Noah

The first biblical covenant of God is the covenant He made with Noah, called the Noahic Covenant. This covenant, promised in Genesis 6 and made in Genesis 9, is the first group of occurrences of covenant in the Bible. It gives insight about God’s concern for sin, especially violence and bloodshed. It also shows God’s love, sovereignty over Creation, and lays the foundation for understanding God’s intent to live in relationship with humankind.

Historical Situation

Ten generations after Adam and Eve sinned against God, the world was a violent place (Gen 5–6). Humankind was incredibly evil, practicing violence and bloodshed on a scale that history has not seen since. Not only was humanity corrupted by sin, but all land-dwelling creatures suffered similar violence and bloodshed. God was greatly grieved at such corruption and determined to begin again with the land-dwelling animals and humankind. So, He chose to preserve the human race through a man named Noah and His family in the ark He instructed Noah to build. God also preserved all different kinds of animals on the ark as well.

Covenant Structure

In Genesis 6:18, God promised Noah that He would make a covenant with him. The making of that covenant took place after the flood waters receded (Gen 8:20–9:17). It has many of the parts common to Ancient Near East covenants. The different parts are as follows:

Identification of the parties. Genesis 9:9–10 says God made this covenant with Noah, Noah’s descendants (all humankind), and all land-dwelling animals.

Review of the relationship. In Genesis 8:21, God briefly reviews the events of the Fall, including the resulting curse upon the earth and humankind’s inherited sinfulness.

Terms of the covenant. Genesis 8:21–9:4 records the terms of the covenant. There is a change of relationship between God and Creation. God promises never again to destroy every living thing for as long as the earth remains. There is also a change in relationship between humankind and all other creatures. All other creatures will fear humankind. Humankind may kill and eat animals for food. But humankind may not eat still-living creatures. Also, murder is forbidden. Further, the duration of the covenant is “perpetual generations.” The covenant is in force until the current heavens and earth pass away and the new heavens and earth are established (Gen 9:12; Matt 24:34; Rev 21:1).

List of witnesses. No witnesses are explicitly named. Implicitly, Creation and the generations of all living creatures, including humankind, testify to the enduring nature of the covenant.

Blessings and curses. In Genesis 9:5–7, God blesses Noah’s family, telling them to be active in the act of procreation. He also institutes capital punishment as the just penalty for murder.

Preserving the covenant. There are no instructions for preserving and reviewing the terms of the covenant. Perhaps the simple, universal requirements of humankind—permission to kill and eat animals and the prohibition of murder—were clear enough that no written record was needed. Also, written records would be pointless for the rest of Creation.

Ratifying the covenant. According to Genesis 8:20, the first thing Noah did after leaving the ark was build an altar and make a sacrifice from every clean animal to God. This helps explain why, when it came time for Noah to enter the ark, God clarified the need for seven of every clean animal—there needed to be enough of these animals for sacrifice and for repopulating the earth.

Sign of the covenant. Genesis 9:14–17 identifies the rainbow as the sign of the covenant.

Theological Notes

Man is sinful. This covenant is a response to the perpetual wickedness of humankind, the corresponding violent corruption of the earth, and God’s just response of righting those evils. After Adam and Eve sinned, their sinfulness was inherited throughout all generations of humankind. There are different ways of understanding how that sin is passed down from generation to generation. But the Bible makes it clear that no one is born neutral toward God. Every person is born with a natural inclination toward sinfulness (Gen 8:21; Ps 51:5; Jer 17:9; Rom 1:21; Eph 2:3).

God is loving. Some have argued that a loving God would not destroy or kill. This is a false understanding of real love. Real love is patient and kind, but also intolerant of evil and rejoices in truth (1 Cor 13:4–7). Real love cannot coexist with evil, but requires just consequence for wickedness—especially violence and bloodshed. God, rich in love, necessarily and justly brought destruction upon the wickedness of all the earth. It should be remembered that Noah built the ark over a period of 100 years (Gen 5:32; 7:6), which is is plenty of time for anyone who might repent and turn to God to do so. But only one family turned to God—Noah’s family—and his family is the one that God preserved through the flood.

God is sovereign over Creation. This covenant also displays God’s sovereign authority and power over Creation. As Creator, God has the right to do with Creation as He wills. He spoke the universe into existence and He has authority to bring just judgment into the universe by whatever means He sees appropriate. Here, the widespread bloodshed and violence on the whole earth demanded swift, just destruction. God allowed 100 years for warning and repentance before enacting that judgment. He then dramatically and eternally changed the operation of the waters of the earth. God opened the canopy of water the earth (“windows of heaven”) and the underground springs below the earth (“fountains of the deep”) and flooded the entire earth (Gen 7:11; compare with Gen 1:7). It should be noted that God required no incantations, magical spells, mystical dances, etc. God willed and it happened. Similarly, Jesus’ sovereign authority and power over Creation, as seen when He calmed the sea (Matt 8:23–27), was one of the signs that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah.

The created order. From this time forward, God permitted humankind to kill and eat animals for food. Presumably, until this time, killing to eat was not allowed. Twice before the Fall God told Adam that all plant life was available to him and Eve and the animals (Gen 1:29–30; 2:16; 9:3). Also, from this time forward, animals would fear humankind. God later promises to restore the relationship between animals and humankind during the reign of the Messiah, to one of peace, similar to what Adam and Eve might have experienced in Eden (Isa 11:6–9).

Nature of the covenant. This covenant is a perpetual promise God commits of Himself toward all living creatures in all their generations. That promise is unconditional and eternal.1 But the changed relationship between animals and humankind is perpetual until Christ returns, as promised especially in the Prophets (like Isaiah 11). So, the covenant itself is unconditional and eternal, but certain details will expire when Jesus returns.


God’s covenant with Noah is the first time the word covenant occurs in the Bible. This covenant has the general form of Ancient Near East covenants. Its terms clarify the changing relationships of God with Creation and of humankind with all other living creatures. It reveals humankind as sinful, God as loving and sovereign, and previews the restoration of the natural order that will begin during the Messiah’s reign and be completed with the new Creation.


  1. J. Arthur Thompson, “Covenant (OT),” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Eerdmans, 1979), 1:792. Logos Bible Software.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.