The Noahic Covenant I

Genesis 4-6 presents the message that because of human sinfulness even the godly line of Seth was eventually corrupted. It highlights the nature of human sinfulness. The message of Genesis 6-9 then is that, before unrighteousness swallowed up the last remaining family from the Sethite line, God did what He had to do to give humanity a new start. Hence the Flood to destroy the world and the instruction to righteous Noah to build an ark to preserve his family (and the animals).

There are parallel accounts in the ancient world of a massive flood similar to that recorded in Genesis 6-9. “Many of these stories conform to a basic pattern. Religious man saw in these upheavals of nature the activity of the divine and attributed their cause to man’s angering of the gods. Most frequently, one man and his family, the favorite of the gods, survived the deluge to father a new human race” (Sarna 1966: 38). It is tempting to assume that the Genesis account was borrowed from parallel accounts in Mesopotamia. But the differences are too great to make this assumption credible (cf. Walton 1989: 34-42). A more sensible conclusion is that these accounts are based on the common memory of a massive flood in the distant past. But the memory was filtered and shaped according to the respective belief-system. With different belief-systems undergirding Genesis and its Mesopotamian counterparts, the differences in the flood accounts are to be expected.

It is instructive to compare and contrast the flood account in Genesis with that in the Mesopotamian Atrahasis. For our purpose we will only highlight the difference in the specific reason for the flood. According to the polytheistic account of Atrahasis, the reason was that the human race had become too noisy as a result of over-population. The gods could not sleep and so decided to rid the world of this annoying noise pollution. The gods were thus presented as self-centered capricious beings.

In contrast Genesis presents the reason as the widespread wickedness of humanity (Genesis 6:5-7). And God is presented as patient and compassionate. For we read that God felt “sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.” He felt sorry not for Himself but for humanity. For when there is widespread wickedness there is widespread suffering. We are told specifically that the earth was “filled with violence” (Genesis 6:11,13). Wenham (1987: 171) notes that the Hebrew word for “violence” is most often paired with another Hebrew word that means “oppression.” He adds, “‘violence’ denotes any antisocial, unneighborly activity. Very often it involves the use of brute force, but it may just be the exploitation of the weak by the powerful or the poor by the rich (e.g., Amos 6:1-3), or the naive by the clever (Prov 16:29).”

God was thus grieved that humanity was on this pitiful self-destruct course. His compassion, let alone His sense of justice, demanded that He did what He did so that the world could begin afresh. But He waited till there was only one family left that was not affected by the spread of wickedness before He acted. This shows His patience.

Both of the flood accounts are written by human beings. In preserving the memory of the Flood, one account puts the gods in a bad light and presents the crime of humanity as simply being too noisy, and hence not deserving the drastic judgment. The other account puts humanity in the worst light, thus clearly deserving the judgment, and presents God as patient and compassionate even in His judgment. If granted that the Flood did happen, which account is more likely telling the truth?

As for the ecological crisis and the human suffering that have marred modern civilization, our exposition points the source also to human sinfulness. The Unabomber, who presupposed a materialist belief-system, blames it entirely on the Industrial Revolution. Industrialization is only the means and not the source. This blaming of others for our own woes began with the sin of Adam and Eve. Unless we accept the reality of original sin we may not readily acknowledge that the source of human problems is human sinfulness, whether in the ancient or the modern world. Genesis presents an exceptionally honest picture of the (fallen) condition of humanity.

When God decided to destroy the wicked world, He had in mind a new beginning for humanity. He also had in mind a covenant with Noah and his descendants (and creation as a whole). This covenant stipulates how He would relate to the world and how human beings should relate to one another in the post-Flood world. He first expressed His intention to make that covenant even before the Flood (Genesis 6:18). A covenant is basically a binding commitment or obligation between two or more parties to fulfill a set of terms. The covenant, as well as its terms, may be established unilaterally or bilaterally. Covenants were often made between human beings; they differ from what we call a “compact” and a “contract,” in that a covenant is divinely sanctioned, as it is sealed with an oath before God (cf. Williamson 2007: 38-39). In the Old Testament one of the covenanting parties is God Himself. Our focus in this exposition is on divine-human covenants.

Creation Mandate Partially Reapplied

The Noahic Covenant and its terms were spelled out unilaterally by God after the Flood. On God’s part, recognizing that human beings are (still) prone to wickedness, He promised not to destroy the world again, and that the laws governing day and night and the seasons of the year would be preserved for as long as the earth exists (Genesis 8:21-22; 9:8-17). On the part of human beings, the covenant requires that they fulfill the Creation Mandate (Genesis 9:1-7; cf. Isaiah 24:5-6). The blessing to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth is repeated here. But this version of the Creation Mandate leaves out the subduing of the earth and the ruling over God’s creation. As noted before, this is no longer relevant as God has cursed the ground, rendering the earth no longer subduable as originally intended. Basically, as we have seen, this means agricultural productivity is affected.

Other aspects of “subduing the earth,” particularly in terms of city-building, the economy, the arts and technology, do not seem to be affected (cf. Turner 1990: 38). Otherwise there would not be an Industrial Revolution. However, as a result of the Fall, “ruling over God’s creation” would also not be as originally intended, but has even been corrupted into exploitation and domination of God’s creation. Hence, the way human beings build cities, grow the economy, develop the arts, and use technology, are often expressions of human sinfulness. The negative consequences of industrialization illustrate this well.

Now that human beings are no longer living in Eden, the goal of the pre-Fall Creation Mandate to turn the rest of the earth into Eden is also no longer relevant. We recall that within Eden, because it was where God dwelled with human beings, God’s will must be done. But it does not imply that since human beings no longer live in Eden they are no longer required to do God’s will. The whole earth belongs to God and human beings are still to do God’s will, in terms of how we live and how we relate to God’s creation. The Flood itself shows that human beings outside of Eden were still accountable to God. The difference, with Sin having come into the world, is that they could no longer dwell with God like Adam and Eve did before the Fall.

In other words, Noah and his family were to build a global civilization that would be as consistent with God’s will as possible. The “in fellowship with God” part of the Creation Mandate did not apply (yet). In this sense the mandate was only partially reapplied. As we shall see, God has a redemptive plan for humanity to be in fellowship with Him again.

God’s will for humanity under the Noahic Covenant, which is still relevant today (Genesis 9:16), is expressed as follows: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6). Genesis 5:3 notes that though Adam was made in the likeness (and image) of God, Seth was born in Adam’s, and not God’s, likeness and image. But Genesis 9:6 makes it clear that this does not mean that Adam’s descendants are no longer considered “made in the image of God.” What it means is that Adam’s marred image of God, and not the original image of God, was passed on to his descendants. On this basis the Creation Mandate, for which human beings were made in God’s image, was reapplied. But since the image of God is now marred, unless and until redeemed (Colossians 3:9-10), the Creation Mandate can only be partially fulfilled.

Genesis 9:6 has been the biblical basis for capital punishment for convicted murderers (capital punishment for other offences under the Mosaic Covenant is a separate matter, which will be addressed at the appropriate time). For it does not just stipulate death for murderers, but also that it is to be executed through human agency (“by man”). And this stipulation has been fulfilled in history through the execution of a death sentence passed by a human court of justice, which is integral to and presumes a functioning government. Ancient Jewish sages went so far as to say that through Genesis 9, “the principle of formal government was introduced” (Elazar 1995a: 111).

The need for government to curb and punish human wickedness makes sense in light of human sinfulness and God’s promise not to destroy the world again. This need is explicitly recognized in the book of Judges, where “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” because “in those days there was no king” (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). Echoing Genesis 9:6, the apostle Paul says in Romans 13:1-7 that all governing authorities are (supposed to be) servants of God as they are instituted by Him to praise what is good and punish what is evil. By emphasizing that the government “does not bear the sword for nothing” Paul certainly does not exclude capital punishment, as the phrase “most obviously has in view the power of life and death which was then, as for most of human civilization, the ultimate sanction for government” (Dunn 1988: 764).

Since the death penalty has been opposed by even Christians today, we need to take a closer look at the meaning of Genesis 9:6 and its moral and legal implications. Our exposition will have both positive as well as negative things to say about the death penalty as practiced today (cf. Budziszewski 2004: 109-122).

The basis for capital punishment given here is that the holy God made human beings in His image, and human life is therefore sacred. Unless we claim that human beings today are no longer made in the image of God, which means they are sub-human, the death penalty still applies. The underlying teaching is that because human beings are made in the image of God, any willful act of injustice against a human being is a deliberate violation of the sanctity of human life, and amounts to showing contempt towards God Himself (cf. Proverbs 14:31). Murder is the most blatant violation of the sanctity of human life, and amounts to treating God with utmost contempt. If the punishment must fit the crime, the just sentence for murder has to be the death sentence. When practiced properly (see below), capital punishment can infuse society with the sense that human life is sacred. A lesser sentence on the other hand cheapens human life and desecrates the holiness of God.

The sanctity of human life is then God’s reason for requiring us to “do justice and love mercy,” which summarizes His will for humanity (Micah 6:8). In practice, unless we see something of the holy God in one another we will not likely feel enough constraint (the fear of God) within us to treat one another justly and mercifully. Since any mistreatment of a human being is a violation of the sanctity of human life, courts of justice have not been limited to murder cases but cover the whole range of criminal and civil offenses. So a denial of the validity of capital punishment is not only a denial of the sanctity of human life, but also a denial of God as the basis for morality. It amounts to denying the reality of God.

It is thus no coincidence that in modernity the death penalty does not “feel right” and so opposing it has become popular; for in modernity God does not feel real because it incarnates the idea that God does not exist. This is taking murder, the gravest injustice against another human being, too lightly; modernity with its godlessness will all the more breed rampant injustice, just like the widespread “violence” that led to the Flood. There is a difference between opposing an improper practice of capital punishment and opposing the practice itself.

How then should capital punishment be practiced? Firstly, under Old Testament law (Deuteronomy 17:6-7) a murder suspect can only be convicted on the basis of (at least) two or three eyewitnesses, and “to forestall a conspiratorial process in which witnesses would collaborate in misrepresenting the truth, the witnesses would themselves be forced to hurl the first stones of execution” (Merrill 1994: 261). Also, the penalty for perjury is that of the case being tried, which means the death penalty for bearing false witness in a murder case (Deuteronomy 19:16-19).

These safeguards were intended to prevent a wrongful murder conviction. In other words, the teaching is that no one accused of murder should be put to death without a water-tight conviction. If a murder conviction is not reasonably water-tight, the death sentence though upheld in principle, should automatically be commuted to life-imprisonment. For the accused is also made in the image of God and we cannot risk putting an innocent person to death; there is divine sanction to take the life only of one who is truly guilty of murder. In this way we uphold the sanctity of human life, both of the victim as well as the accused. Otherwise capital punishment cheapens human life.

Secondly, while God’s will involves doing justice, it also involves loving mercy. This should be applied to a murder case as well. The just sentence on murder is no doubt the death sentence. But there is still a place for mercy depending on the circumstances. Showing mercy when mercy is deserved upholds the sanctity of human life. Compare and contrast the case of a battered wife who had endured her abusive husband for years till she could take it no more and decided to poison him to death, with that of an unrepentant serial rapist-cum-murderer who preyed on young girls. When both are convicted of murder, should they be treated exactly? Does at least one of them deserve mercy? If so, there is no biblical basis for mandatory death penalty even in water-tight convictions. And in these cases, should the judge then be given the discretion to commute the death sentence (justice) to life-imprisonment, with or without the possibility of parole, depending on the mitigating factors (mercy)?