Considering the prominence of covenant to the theology of the Bible, that with Noah seems to have suffered serious neglect. The comment is often made that since it applied to the heathen it did not provide grounds for salvation (see e.g. WCF, 10:4; Larger Catechism, qu.60). (1* Strangely, however, in the 21st century when so many assume and advocate the redemption of creation, though there is no evidence for it whatsoever, various modern theologians postulate a covenant with creation including Adam. See my Did God Make a Covenant with Creation?.) Furthermore, since there are two testaments, there has been a historical tendency to think in terms of two covenants, the old and the new or one covenant in two dispensations. The result of this is has been to regard both Moses and Christ as part of the covenant of grace despite John 1:17 (cf. Luke 16:16) suggesting otherwise, with the result that the covenant with Noah has been marginalized. Commentary on Romans 1-3 usually results in the implicit separation of chapter one from chapters 2 and 3 which are lumped together as though the former is outside the bounds of and unrelated to salvation. In fact, careful analysis of 3:21-31 suggests that all who live under the covenant with Noah (nature) as well as that with Moses (law), Gentile and Jew alike both of whom, though tarnished by sin but capable of faith, come short of salvation which is only acquired in Christ. (2* Hebrews 11 also surely indicates that though sin is universal, even the heathen, that is, all those mentioned prior to Moses, are capable of faith. However, all alike come short of perfection or salvation as 11:39f. indicate.) Indeed, precisely because the law is so explicit the Jew is more obviously in need of salvation than the ignorant heathen Gentile (cf. Rom. 2:14; Amos 3:2). Otherwise expressed, if Eve, the mother of all including the heathen (Gen. 3:20), who did not receive the commandment as Adam did, sinned by succumbing to deception (cf. Rom. 1:21-32; Eph. 4:17-19), Adam all the more (cf. 1 Tim. 2:13f.).
So why is the covenant with Noah so important?
From Adam to Noah
First, on the assumption of recapitulation, that is, that the individual recapitulates the history of the race, it is essential to realize that it succeeds or follows on man’s uncovenanted infancy. (3* On recapitulation see my I Believe in Recapitulation, Recapitulation in Outline, Epitome – Jesus The Epitome Of Recapitulation.) Prior to Noah, there was no covenantal guarantee of future development, not least because sin and death were so prominent (Gen. 5 & 6) and threatened complete cataclysmic destruction (Gen. 6:13). Though Adam and his immediate posterity were created with a view to exercising dominion (Gen. 1:26-28) and keeping the commandment (2:16f.) but failed, Noah as a man of faith and obedience received covenantal support for future success in subduing the earth (Gen. 9:1,7). Even though he and his posterity too were all sinners, God explicitly informs him that he will curse the earth no more (Gen. 8:21) but underwrite future productivity and fertility to the end of the age (Gen. 8:22, cf. Isa. 54:9f.). By implication this will undergird God’s plan of human salvation until it is finally fulfilled (cf. Jer. 31:35-37; 33:19-26).
Next, the covenant sign of the rainbow is important because man has now matured in his understanding and in contrast with the animals and his predecessors is thus capable of appreciating its significance. In other words, he has by now clearly left behind the animal or preponderantly fleshly stage of his development and can respond to the covenant that God has made with him. Prior to this, man like an infant could only react, negatively in the event, to commands, a point emphasized by Paul, for example, in Romans 7:9f. where the commandment precedes the full-blown law of Moses which, when it was announced, elicited a definite response of commitment by the chosen people (Ex. 19:8; 24:3,7). (4* See further my Interpreting Romans 7.) The inference we are surely forced to draw from this is that a covenant implies at least minimal agreement even if it is sovereignly disposed by God. So by Noah’s time man had reached a stage of mental development (childhood) when he was capable of responding to a covenant in faith. And Noah’s faith and obedience (Gen. 6:22; 7:5,9,16; Heb. 11:7) are underscored in a way that even Enoch’s and Abel’s were not.
The rainbow as the covenant sign is important also because it signified the end of the curse on the ground which began as indicated in Genesis 3:17 when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden which was clearly the womb of the race. (5* The womb in which man is formed seems to have been neglected historically, but note Isaiah 44:2, 49:1 and Jeremiah 1:5. In Psalm 139:13-16 the earth as the original womb in which Adam was formed precedes David’s mother’s womb. It needs to be noted that to be ‘born of woman’ in Scripture is to be flesh which stems ultimately from the earth (dust).) Tragically the church has historically failed to recognize this and has implicitly perpetuated the curse to modern times. Indeed, in light of it, even today many Christians assume the redemption of creation which they argue has been ruined by sin. The truth is, however, that since creation had a beginning (Gen. 1:1) which implied an end (Gen. 8:22), it is naturally transient (Mt. 24:35, etc.) quite apart from sin. It is manufactured or ‘made by hand’ (cheiropoietos) which indicates that though ‘good’ it is intrinsically pejorative by nature and is not to be compared with the Creator himself who alone is complete or perfect. Of this Paul was obviously well aware when he wrote that much misunderstood passage Romans 8:18-25 (cf. Heb. 1:10-12) where he asserts that the creature man (a product of creation but certainly not the creation itself) will be freed from his subjection to futility and decay and gain the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Rom. 8:21). It may be pointedly added here that the mere fact that there was a curse at all suggests, first, that there was no covenant involved at the start and, second, that Adam and his immediate descendants, like the sluggard in Proverbs 24:30-34, failed to adequately till the ground over which they were called to exercise dominion (Gen. 4:11f.; 5:29). After all, ‘babies’ like Adam and his immediate posterity do not profitably work hence the curse, but they nonetheless die as breakers of the commandment.
The covenant promise of future fertility and (re-)production to the end of the age makes sense only if in accordance with man’s original call he is prepared in faith to tend and till the earth over which he has been given dominion. During the rest of history though man remains sinful, that does not prevent him from exploiting the ‘good’ creation that God has given him and deriving great benefit from it (Lev. 26:1-13; Dt. 28:1-14; Isaiah 1:19, cf. 1 Cor. 10:26,30f.; 1 Tim. 4:3f.). In what other way could he physically sustain himself and that with considerable success especially in the Western world where the so-called Protestant work ethic has made many societies extremely prosperous? It is surely significant by contrast that where the divine mandate has not been heeded, superstition, idolatry, immorality and lack of purpose have led to indolence, neglect, backwardness and poverty. The life of faithful and obedient Noah and his descendants has much to teach us.
Overcoming the World
In accordance with the covenant with Noah and the guarantee of successful effort to subdue the naturally futile creation, man’s call to subject the world to his will was fully accomplished only by Jesus (John 16:33; Heb. 2:9). It needs to be noted, however, that even he was not able (not least because he was not intended) to subject everything to his control. Even he was incapable of altering the very constitution of the created world which had been subjected to futility and corruption from the start by God himself (Rom. 8:18-25; Heb. 1:10-12, etc.). (6* On Romans 8:18-25 see Romans 8:18-25, Romans 8:18-25 In Brief.) Indeed, the wonder of his victory is that it was achieved in the flesh (that is, as one who was born of woman) which was itself part and parcel of creation’s natural corruption (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2:14). And, just as he, as (created) flesh, could not enter the kingdom of heaven, so neither could creation itself be transformed, since the naturally corruptible cannot inherit the incorruptible or imperishable (1 Cor. 15:50). This of course had been made clear as early Genesis 1:1 but especially by Genesis 8:22 which stresses the fact that the covenant with Noah like the law (Mt. 5:18) was to endure only till the end of the age. At this point, the eventual destruction of the material creation was in view. (7* See my The Destruction of the Material Creation, The Transience of Creation.)
The limited duration only to the end of the age of the covenant with Noah (Gen. 8:22) implies both, first, the lack of a prior covenant with Adam when creation was under immediate threat of annihilation and, second, the eventual destruction of creation. This latter point receives further confirmation from the book of Revelation which refers to the sealing of believers when God is depicted as ‘harming’ creation at the end (Rev. 7:3; 9:4; 14:1; 22:4). Not surprisingly, Jesus points to both Noah’s and Lot’s escape, respectively from the flood and Sodom, as illustrative precursors of eschatological events when God’s anger is manifested against sin by his destruction of creation (Luke 17:26-30). But, as Paul intimated in 2 Timothy 2:19, believers build on a firm foundation since they are known by God and are marked by his own seal (2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5; Eph. 1:13f.; 4:30, cf. John 10:14,27).
If the above is a true reflection of biblical teaching, it proves yet once again that the Bible is all of a piece. Though there are undeniably sixty-six books on view, they are ultimately all one. The book of Genesis may indeed be difficult to interpret, but the evidence suggests that it relates basically to what follows. To approach Scripture like Marcion in the early church or some modern liberals invites meaninglessness and despair. Jesus himself taught a better way which we do well to follow. To excise the covenant with Noah from the plan of salvation, or even to diminish its importance, is ultimately to make the modern world, especially the modern scientific world unintelligible. Rightly understood the Bible and genuine science are friends not enemies. If there is creation, there is inevitably evolution or at least eventual perfection though it needs careful spelling out, for the natural must be distinguished from supernatural.