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Genesis 9: The Forgotten Covenant

by Howard Snyder

Howard Snyder

Howard Snyder

Ignoring Genesis 9 in covenant theology is like ignoring John 1 in Jesus theology. Skipping God’s earth covenant in soteriology is like skipping the incarnation in Christology.

Yet as I noted in my January 3 blog, “14 Favorites Ways to Twist the Gospel,” covenant theology usually bypasses the Genesis 9 earth covenant and begins with Abraham. Strange, since the first explicit biblical covenant is in Genesis 9, where God establishes his “covenant between me and the earth” (Gen. 9:13).

God’s Covenant with the Earth

The human race is sadly and lethally alienated from the land. Sin separates us from the land as well as from God. So it is significant that one of the first things God does in the history of salvation is to make covenant with the land.

God brings salvation through a series of covenants, climaxing in the new covenant through the blood of Jesus (Luke 22:20; Heb 12:24). These covenants are key markers in the biblical narrative. They are all linked, all essential in the ecology of the story. We won’t fully understand the later story if we miss the significance of this first covenant. This “everlasting covenant” with the earth is beautifully and powerfully pictured in Genesis 9:8–17.

God says to Noah after the flood, “I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark” (Gen 9:9–10). All covenants have a “sign,” and the sign of this one is the rainbow.

Three things stand out as we examine the Genesis 9 covenant God.

Three-Dimensional Covenant

First: It is a three-dimensional covenant. It is multidimensional, ecological. The covenant includes not only God and Noah’s family, but “every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (Gen 9:16).

DSCN0863 (2)It’s fascinating to see whom God includes in this covenant. God is the initiator: “I am establishing my covenant” (Gen 9:9). God both establishes and sustains this covenant, the rainbow the sign. So the covenant is first of all God’s, not ours.

The second party is Noah and his family—that is humankind, all the human family that descends from Noah. Not just Noah’s immediate family, but “your descendants after you, . . .for all future generations” (Gen 9:9, 12). Note the generational theme.

The background here is Genesis 1–2, with its emphasis on the good earth and all the creatures God made. Now, after fall and flood, Genesis 9 marks a new beginning. The plan of salvation really begins here, not with Abraham. This covenant is important in specifying the post-fall relationship between God and all humanity. God is the sovereign Creator and Sustainer; humans are his creation and his stewards of the earth.

The text emphasizes the earthly dimensions of this covenant. All earth’s creatures are included. Genesis 9 is surprisingly comprehensive here, repeating the phrases “every living creature,” “every animal,” “all flesh” on earth. The references become increasingly broad and inclusive. Then in verse 13 God says, “the covenant between me and the earth”!

Why this stress on “every living creature”? This echoes the full variety of creatures God made at the beginning, as well as God’s words to Noah to take “every kind” of creature into the ark (Gen 7:2). The “every creature” emphasis is also practical and ecological, a matter of human sustenance, because robust human health requires an abundance of creatures in wide variety, all in relative ecological balance. It reminds us too of God’s care and concern for all creatures for all generations. Most amazingly, the “every creature” emphasis signals God’s concern for all his creatures, showing that he himself has a covenant with every creature, with every species. So Jesus’ says of sparrows, “not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight” (Luke 12:16).

The Genesis 9 covenant is thus a three-dimensional covenant, not narrowly between God and humans only. It is a covenant between God, all people, and all the earth. Continue reading