Covenants of Christ – Noah and the Covenant of Preservation

This post continues a discussion of themes from O. Palmer Robertson’s book The Christ of the Covenants. With this post we begin discussing the second phase of what Dr. Robertson calls the Covenant of Redemption: Noah and the Covenant of Preservation.

In previous installments Robertson notes the origins of two distinct lineages or “seeds” of humanity: the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. Genesis 4-11 describes the early development of those lines.

To add more detail to Robertson at this point I note that Genesis 4 describes the first conflict between those seed in Cain’s murder of Abel. Cain’s family lineage is then described in Gen. 4:16-22. The line has degenerated to the point of polygamy by the time of Lamech. The section closes with yet another murder of an apparently righteous person by Lamech.

[As an aside I also note the rapid development of technology early in human history as noted in verse 22. Within 8 generations from Adam bronze and iron were already being worked.]

Verse 25 begins with the development of the lineage of the seed of the woman. I note that Eve is aware that this is “her” seed, and that he replaces Abel as the good seed. Verse 26 confirms that Seth’s lineage is in league with the Lord.

The official genealogy of Adam in Chapter 5 makes no mention of Cain, confirming that Cain’s line is disavowed in the annals of the righteous. Seth is said to be “in the image and likeness” of Adam, who is said to have been made (along with Eve) “in the likeness of God” (Gen 5:1-3). The lineage goes many generations and concludes with Noah and his three sons Shem, Ham and Japheth.

Chapter 6 sets the stage for the next phase of the covenant of redemption. The lineage of Eve has been mixing in marriage with the lineage of Cain for several generations. The result has been a general corruption of all of humankind. This corruption has resulted in a condition in which “every intent of the thoughts of his [mankind’s] heart was only evil continually.” God is grieved that the human experiment has been a failure and decides to end it.


But Noah finds grace in God’s eyes.

The genealogy of Noah (6:9-13) signals a new chapter in the history of humanity. God prepares to wipe out humanity wholesale, but provides Noah with a means to save himself, his family, and a remnant of the air-breathing land creatures on earth. To do so he must build a boat large enough to accommodate the remnant of human and animal life. Since this is a discussion of the covenants rather than the ark, we will forgo the details of that mammoth undertaking in this session.

Robertson identifies four passages that relate to the covenant with Noah: Gen. 6:17-22 is the first passage. What is interesting in this passage is that in the midst of the instructions God tells Noah that even as He destroys all of mankind He will establish his covenant with Noah and his family.  They are also required to preserve two of each sort of land animal in order to repopulate the earth after the flood.

Verse 22 records that Noah did everything God commanded him to do. In this way, according to Robertson, Noah becomes the prototype of the family head whose obedience saves the rest of the family of humankind. In the process he also restores the earth by allowing the creatures to repopulate it.


The second passage pertaining to God’s covenant with Noah is Gen. 8:20-22. It is immediately adjacent to the remaining two passages he identifies: 9:1-7 and 9:8-17. Each one appears to be a distinct speech by God that pertains to the covenant.

Gen. 8:20-22 begins with Noah and his family leaving the ark and sacrificing to God. God smells a pleasing aroma and declares that he will never again curse the ground (presumably by covering it with water) again because of man, despite the evil heart inherent in man. God promises to preserve human and animal kind on earth.

In his second speech (9:1-7) God begins a blessing on Noah and his sons with the very words he used with Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill (or replenish) the earth.” This suggests continuity with the Creation Covenant to a great degree. Noah and his family function as Adam did in a completely new and empty (of human life) world.

There is a difference, however. While they continue to have dominion over the creatures, those creatures must now fear for their lives from the hand of mankind. God now allows human beings to eat of all the animals in the world, including the fish in the sea. The command to subdue the earth now comes at a much greater cost to the creatures of the world.

There are limits, however. Mankind is not to eat of the blood of the animals. In his discussion of whether Noah’s covenant is universal he points out that this same rule is applied to Gentile believers in the book of Acts (15:28-29). He sees evidence that it is soon repealed (without citing scripture), but notes that it is a logical progression from the universality of the offer of salvation to go back to a universal covenant’s stipulations in order to include Gentiles in the church. (I am not so certain that the particular sanction against eating blood is repealed later.)

Another difference is that God here introduces capital punishment as another measure to control the spread of evil in the world. Humans are now charged with putting to death any animal or human that kills a human being. Both aspects of this covenant are enacted in various ways in later Israelite legislation, suggesting that they remain universally applicable.


With Whom Does God Enter Into This Covenant?

We human beings, confident of our intellectual and moral superiority over the creatures, normally read this passage as one addressed to the human beings. We also tend to forget that humanity’s mess, according to the same story, begins with a conversation between a woman and a snake.  Why wouldn’t the animals present at God’s address understand his message?

Up to this point in the narrative we have not been told that the ability to converse with animals has been lost, so why assume that the animals are now out of the loop? I think that God is also giving the animals instructions to refrain from retaliating against human beings who kill and eat their kind in this section.

My question arises because of an element found in God’s third post-flood address regarding the covenant. In Gen. 9:9-16 God specifies to whom the covenant applies: Noah, his family, their descendants, and every living creature on earth. Just in case the reader has missed it, God mentions four times that his covenant with Noah is also made with all the creatures on earth.


Is This Covenant of Preservation Universal?

While Robertson does not appear to see the animals as presently being included within the covenant, he does point out that God’s redemptive purpose is closely tied to his creative purpose (p.111). This is not something that is forgotten in the subsequent covenants. According to Robertson,

One of the earliest writings of Israel’s prophets rather forcefully emphasizes the unity of these broader dimensions of the covenant with Noah with God’s redemptive purposes. Hosea expresses himself in the language of God’s covenant with Noah on questions relating to god’s ongoing purposes of redemption for Israel. God will ‘cut a covenant’ with the created universe, including the beast of the field, the birds of the heaven, and the creeping things of the ground (Hos. 2:18; cf. [compare with] Gen. 6:20; 8:17; 9:9, 10).

Robertson calls the covenant with Noah a “covenant of preservation” (p.114) because God promises never to destroy all living things because of humanity. This promise comes in spite of mankind’s proclivity to evil and destructiveness. “God’s commitment to preserve man subsequent to the flood also becomes evident in the provisions of Genesis 9:3-6” (p. 115).

Robertson is saying that the provisions regarding capital punishment for murder or the killing of a human being by an animal as part of how God preserves humanity. “If the degenerating character of man is to be stopped short of total self-destruction, adequate curbs to the advancement of wickedness must be erected. In the wisdom of God, the execution of the manslayer provides a major curb to overflowing wickedness” (p. 116).

Of course that is not the whole reason for capital punishment. “Because God’s own image is stamped in man, the murder must die.”

Robertson is aware of our modern shyness toward capital punishment, and encourages thinking whether this sanction is universal and whether it applies in a Christian national context. The universalistic aspects of God’s covenant of preservation imply that it is still valid until the consummation. The circumstances regarding the application of capital punishment, however, seem to be variable according to subsequent covenants, such as the legislation about animal control and cities of refuge in Israel (Exodus 21:12; Num. 35:6; 16-28). The sanctity of human life and the state’s responsibility to punish murderers is also supported by Paul (Rom. 13) and Peter (1 Pet. 2:13-14).

The Jerusalem decree that tells the church how to include Gentiles even refers to a provision of Noah’s covenant: refraining from eating blood (Acts 15:29).

In Romans 10:18 Paul alludes to Psalm 19:2-4 to refer to God’s universal witness through the continuation of day and night, which God promises in Gen. 8:22 will never cease while the earth exists.

The inclusion of all creatures in redemption is also a feature of Paul’s view in Romans 8:18-23. The redemption of man is key to the redemption of the whole created order.

According to Robertson, “It is no accident that the throne of the righteous Judge of heaven and earth is depicted as having ‘a rainbow round about the throne, like an emerald to look upon’ (Rev. 4:3). What a joy it should be to the true sharer of God’s covenantal grace in Christ that the sign and seal of God’s good purposes arches the place of his final disposition” (p. 124).

Robertson completes this section with a reminder that the covenant with Noah comes in the context of grace within judgment. It looks ahead to a final judgment of wrath upon humanity, who may be provided with grace upon true and faithful membership in Jesus’ “family.”

The next post in this series will begin to cover the next phase of God’s Covenant of Redemption, called the Covenant of Promise (with Abraham).

About John Valade

I facilitate and teach in Wascana Fellowship. I have been married to Wanda since 1984. M.Div. from Briercrest Seminary, SK in 2011 and B.R.E. Canadian Bible College (now Ambrose University College) in 2000.
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