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The Background to the Noahic Covenant (Lesson 4.1)


1. The BIG PICTURE of Genesis 1-9:

It's good to remember that there were two absolutely cataclysmic changes that took place on the earth in the early chapters of Genesis: the fall of Adam; and the flood during the time of Noah.1

A) The FALL: Before the fall, mankind was sinless and creation was untouched by the effects of sin. But when Adam fell, it wasn't just mankind that was cursed, but the earth itself (Genesis 3:17; 5:29).

B) The FLOOD: This was the second cataclysmic change. After the fall of man, the earth became cursed. But the flood that came upon the world also resulted in catastrophic effects on the earth.2

2. The TRANSITION PERIOD of Genesis 3-5:

A) The Emergence of Two Lines:

One of the things we learned from Genesis 3:15 was that the Lord was going to put enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, that is, between the children of God and the children of the Devil; between those who would trust in the coming Messiah and those who wouldn't. In Genesis 4-5 we begin to see the fulfillment of these words. We begin to discern who are the seed of the serpent and who are the seed of God, and we begin to see the hostility between them that the Lord had spoken of. In Genesis 4, Cain shows himself to be of the seed of the serpent, and in the murder of his innocent brother Abel, we are pointed back to the enmity the Lord had spoken of in Genesis 3:15. After the death of Abel, Eve gives birth to Seth (4:25).3

After the account of Cain and Abel, we begin to see the emergence of two distinct family lines through the genealogies recorded in Genesis 4-5: the line of Cain (4:16-24), and the line of Seth (5:1-32). We also begin to understand that these two family lines represent two very different responses to the Lord. The physical seed represents spiritual seed. Those of the line of Cain show themselves to be the offspring of the serpent, children of the devil; those of the line of Seth show themselves to be the offspring of the woman, true children of God.4 So, again, we see:

I) The UNGODLY Line: Cain and his offspring (Genesis 4:16-24). The outcome of CAIN's line: Seven generations from Adam is LAMECH, the epitome of rebellion; a man totally hardened in heart towards marriage, life, and God (4:23-24).

II) The GODLY Line: Seth and his offspring (Genesis 5:1-32). The outcome of SETH's line: Seven generations from Adam came ENOCH (“dedicated”), a godly man who was taken home to the Lord (5:21-24).

III) The Biblical STORY Line: By the way, these two family lines representing two responses to the Lord don't stop with Lamech or Enoch. We see this reality continue to be played out throughout Genesis, and really, throughout the whole of the Scriptures. Noah, you remember, had three sons; one of them—Ham—showed himself to be of the seed of the serpent, while Shem inherits the blessing as a child of God. Abraham would later come from the line of Shem, and his sons Isaac and Ishmael would typify the same realities; Ishmael is called a child of the flesh, he persecutes Isaac, and he is cast out (Galatians 4:29); but Isaac is called the child of promise, and proves to be of the seed of God. Isaac likewise had two sons, Jacob and Esau; Esau is not a child of God; he doesn't know God, he doesn't love God; but Jacob shows himself to be of the seed of the woman; a true child of God. Many years later, Jesus would also use this same language when He told the Jews, “You are of your father the devil,” (John 8:44).

B) The Effects of Sin and the Grace of God (Genesis 5:1-32):

In the midst of these two distinct lines running through Genesis 3-5, we are also constantly confronted with two pervasive realities: SIN and GRACE. In particular, we see:

I) The EFFECTS of SIN: In studying the godly line of Seth in Genesis 5 we are confronted with the devastating effects of sin. Throughout Genesis 5, we read over and over and over again, “...and he died.” And remember—Genesis 5 was the godly line—these were believers. What we see here is that even the godly continue to be affected by the curse that came through Adam's sin. They're not exempt from the temporal effects of sin in this life (and neither are we).

II) The GRACE of GOD: We see God's grace, first, in preserving the line of Seth. Later, we'll talk more in depth about how God's covenant promises extend not only to believers, but also to their children. Well, that's exactly what we see in Genesis 5: God is preserving the line of this covenant family for generations. Enoch was a man who walked with God (5:21-24). And Noah's father, Lamech, named his son what he did through faith in the promise that God had given to Adam and Eve (5:29). So, we see that God deals with entire families in the covenant—not just with individuals. God has made promises, not just to us, but to our entire covenant line after us.

We also see God displaying His grace in another way. In Genesis 4:26 we read, “Then men began to call upon the name of the Lord.” This took place during the days of Enosh the son of Seth (4:26). Evidently, God began to pour out His Spirit in remarkable ways during the days of Enosh. Jonathan Edwards takes this to be a description of the first recorded revival in the history of the world—an outpouring of the Spirit that drew multitudes to faith in the coming Messiah.5

3. The IMMEDIATE CONTEXT of Genesis 5-6:

A) The Lineage of Noah and the Preface to the Flood (Genesis 5): It's good to remember that even though Genesis 5 is a short chapter, it covers the span of over 1,500 years. Let that sink in a bit. It's easy to think of Noah coming right after Adam, but even if we assume there are no gaps in the Genesis 5 genealogy,6 the flood came 1,656 years after God had created Adam. So, Genesis 5 is a short chapter in our Bible but covers a great deal of time.

I) METHUSELAH (5:25): Yes, he was the oldest man recorded in Scripture, living 969 years; but there is more here. His name means, “When he is dead it shall be sent.” And when does he die? Add 187 (5:25) + 182 (5:28) + 600 (age of Noah at the flood; 7:6) = 969. Pretty amazing!7

II) LAMECH (5:28): “Overthrower,” probably an allusion to Genesis 3:15 and the promise of the Coming One who would overthrow the work of the serpent. It's also pretty amazing to note that Lamech was 56 years old when Adam died. Adam died 126 years before Noah was born.

III) NOAH (5:29): “Rest.” Noah's name reflects the Sabbath rest that God would give His people in salvation. Noah himself would be a picture of that rest in several ways, as we'll see.8

B) The Sons of God and the Daughters of Men (Genesis 6:1-4): Bible interpreters have been baffled by Genesis 6:1-2. What in the world are these verses talking about? Who are the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men” described in this passage?9

I) UNLIKELY Interpretations:

a) Fallen angels who had sexual relations with women. Some take this position because the language of “sons of God” is used in the Old Testament to refer solely to angels (Job 1:6).10

b) Tyrannical kings who kept large harems. Others take this position, largely because civil magistrates are sometimes called elohim (“gods”) in the Old Testament (Psalm 82:6).11

II) LIKELY Interpretation:

c) The believing line of Seth intermingling in marriage with the unbelieving line of Cain: There are three main arguments for this view: First, the concept of a godly line and of an ungodly line has been established in the immediate context of Genesis 4-5. The line of Seth and the line of Cain are deliberately traced. Secondly, the concept of sonship based on divine election is an important Old Testament theme. Scripture calls believers the children of God (1 John 3:1); God is our Father. So when the language “sons of God” is used, it refers to those who are a part of the line of promise—the seed of the woman. Third, there are warnings about marriages between believers and unbelievers throughout the Pentateuch and the Old Testament Scriptures in general.12 So it makes sense why Moses would include this in the Genesis account: it's not just a piece of random information—he's giving us a warning.13


The covenant with Noah is the first manifestation of the Covenant of Grace after the gospel promise God had given to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:15. To review, here's where we are in redemptive history:

I. The Covenant of Works with Adam

II. The Genesis 3:15 promise of a Redeemer:

A) The Noahic Covenant

B) The Abrahamic Covenant

C) The Mosaic Covenant

D) The Davidic Covenant

E) The New Covenant

The first usage of “covenant” in the Bible is found here in God's covenant with Noah (Genesis 6:18). Yet that very usage implies the continuation of a previous covenant. The Hebrew phrase “to cut a covenant” is often used to describe the initiating of a covenant for the first time, but the phrase here in Genesis 6:18 implies the confirming or continuing of a previous covenant. Thus, it seems that God is confirming to Noah the same promise of redemption He had given to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:15.14

The first usage of the word “grace” is also found here in the context of God's covenant with Noah (Genesis 6:8). Later, we'll talk more in detail about what implications this has for understanding who Noah was and why God chose to save him. But for now, we can simply note the fact that God chose to use the word “grace” for the very first time in Scripture in connection with His covenant with Noah. And what this teaches us is that God's grace is intimately bound together with His covenant.15 In particular, God's covenant with fallen man is rooted in grace—and His grace is administered through His covenant.

There are actually two manifestations of God's covenant that take place over the course of Genesis 6-9. The Lord first establishes His covenant with Noah (and only Noah) before the flood in Genesis 6:18, then after the flood in Genesis 9 He confirms His covenant—not just to Noah—but also to his sons, and indeed, to everything that comes out of the ark.16 We'll talk about the significance of the animals later.

As we study through the Noahic Covenant, it will become especially important for us to see both the temporal and eternal components of the covenant. God makes temporal promises to Noah and his seed: He promises Noah deliverance from the flood, and afterwards, He promises to never destroy the earth again with a flood. These are temporal promises that God makes. But behind them are eternal realities—things that God wants to teach us about Himself and about the gospel; about the Covenant of Grace. Ultimately, God's covenant with Noah is in the Scriptures to illustrate and teach us about salvation.17 It's understanding this principle that will help to keep us away from the error we'll be examining below.

1 As Abraham Kuyper puts it: “We leave the researchers of nature’s phenomena to their own speculations and calculations, although we admire their perseverance and the ingenuity wherewith they pursue their investigations, extending as far as the earth’s core. The only thing of interest for our subject is that the factual condition of our earth corresponds to what Holy Scripture tells us, namely, that our earth is no longer what it was originally, but that colossal cataclysms took place on the earth’s surface. Scripture records two such upheavals. In the first place, the original condition of the earth was changed immediately after the fall. Second, that condition underwent a colossal change through the flood. . .We simply cannot make a comparison with the earth before and after the curse. The world as God had originally created it at one time had perished under the curse, and an entirely different, sorrowful, and somber form of this same earth had now appeared. . .In that world thus ruptured and disheveled lived the race that had reproduced from Adam until Noah. But then followed a second powerful upheaval, one that in a violent manner again tore and fractured the earth that existed. This catastrophe wholly changed the earth’s appearance, and it was upon that earth’s surface, crushed and rearranged for a second time, that the current development of our race began after the flood.” (Common Grace, Volume 1; Chapter 2, Sections 4-5). Kuyper goes on to declare: “Whereas this earth became what it now is through those two upheavals, Holy Scripture testifies to us both times concerning something about which the natural scientists know nothing, namely this, that both the first and the second upheaval were effected by the wrath of God against the sin of our human race. Once more for a third time, so this same Holy Scripture testifies, such a tremendous upheaval is awaiting us, one that will surpass both of those previous ones in terror, when 'the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved' (2Pet. 3:10).” (Chapter 2.5).

2 Kuyper again says of the flood: “The traditions of the ancient peoples tell us little more than the recollection of an awesome event. And what the investigation of this earth, of its surface, of its mountains and its core have taught us thus far indicates that colossal changes have taken place, but it still lacks the graphic detail and exactitude of history. Meanwhile, this much is certain, that even if Holy Scripture had been silent about the flood, and even if the traditions of the peoples had contained no recollection of an event like this, simply observing the earth in its mountainous regions, and exploring the earth’s surface in almost every country, would provide us the certainty that a massive cataclysm had taken place on this earth, one that altered the entire form of the earth and completely altered even its climatic patterns.” (Common Grace, Volume 1, Chapter 2:3).

3 We could mention a little more about Cain and Abel here. One question: why did the Lord accept Abel's sacrifice but not Cain's? The reason doesn't seem to relate to the offering itself, whether it was on account of the type of offering (animals over produce) or on account of the quality of the offering (firstlings of the flock over normal produce). After all, if Abel was accepted before God on account of the purity of his offering, the corollary truth is that we are accepted by God as Christians on account of the purity of our devotion—something we would never want to affirm. It seems that the reason for God's acceptance of Abel's offering and His rejection of Cain's offering didn't primarily have to do with the offering—but with the offerer: “the Lord had regard for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard.” (Genesis 4:4-5). Abel's offerings were accepted because Abel himself had entered into the favor of God through faith in Christ. Cain, on the other hand, was evidently living at enmity with God, refusing the offer of free grace and the necessity of the new birth. It's noteworthy though, that Cain was religious—religious enough to believe in God and present offerings to Him. But his religion couldn't save him. The world says: “Worship God whatever way you choose.” But God says something very different indeed.

4 When Cain “went out from the presence of the Lord” (Genesis 4:16) and headed east, he left behind his covenant family, which also functioned as the first church on earth. The emphasis isn't that Cain now simply lived in a different location; the point is that Cain has now left the believing community to forge his own path in the world apart from God (cf. 1 John 2:19).

5 Edwards traces this theme through much of the Old Testament, particularly through the historical books. He wrote of Genesis 4:26: “[It] was the first remarkable pouring out of the Spirit of God that ever was. There had been a saving work of God on the hearts of some before; but now God was pleased to bring in a harvest of souls to Christ” (History of Redemption).

6 It's not completely certain whether there are generational gaps in the genealogy or not. John Collins notes that the genealogy of Moses in Exodus 12:40-41 was most certainly shortened, and our Savior's genealogy was definitely shortened in Matthew 1:8. It's possible there are no gaps in the genealogy but it's just hard to know for certain either way.

7 Thomas Goodwin points this out in his study of the Noahic Covenant: “Look as God inspired his great prophet Enoch, to give his son Methuselah a name that foretold the flood, and the year of the coming of it, being by interpretation, he dieth, the emission, or dart cometh, meaning the flood. Enoch, being a prophet, foretells this his son should die, and then the flood should be emitted; and therefore our days, as Methuselah's were, are appointed and set. . .” (Goodwin, Works, V9, p46).

8 Again, as Goodwin puts it: “. . .in like manner God inspired Noah's father with a name, which foretold the restoring of the earth from that curse, even from Adam, all along due to it, from the flood; and for the giving both the earth, and a new world of inhabitants, rest in it again, by that Noah, who was then born unto him; thus Genesis 5:29.” (Works, V9, p46).

9 Information for this section gleaned from Ligon Duncan Covenant Theology course.

10 Those who hold this view also appeal to passages such as 2 Peter 2:4-5 and Jude 6-7. But there are several arguments against it: First, there is no other reference to angels in this context (of Genesis 1-6). Secondly, the language “take wives” (v2) is the standard OT expression for marriage. Third, Jesus said that the angels do not marry (Matt.22:30; Mk.12:25; Lk.20:34-35). Fourth, the Jude passage is talking about fornication and not marriage, but this passage is clearly talking about marriage.

11 These magistrates are called “gods” in the sense that they were to reflect God's image in their ruling. Against this interpretation, we would ask: first, how would this relate to the context—why would Moses all of a sudden insert this into Genesis 6? Secondly, why would you express kingship so cryptically in this passage? IE, Why not just say “kings”?

12 Esau's marriage in Genesis 26; the actions of Jacob's sons in Genesis 34; the warning of Solomon, etc etc.

13 In that this was, it seems, the major event that led to the wide-scale corruption that had filled the earth by the time of Noah.

14 Insight gleaned from Ligon Duncan, Covenant Theology.

15 As Thomas Goodwin observes: “It is greatly observable, that in the sacred story Noah was the first of the sons of men unto whom God ever spoke of a covenant. There was promise indeed of Christ, the woman's seed, uttered before, which all the patriarchs before the flood lived upon; but under the title of a covenant never no mention, no, nor of the word grace till now. Noah had the first honor of both these expressions, grace and covenant.” (Goodwin, Works, V9, p45). And as Cammenga puts it: “it is in connection with the revelation of God's covenant with Noah that for the first time the word 'grace' appears on the pages of Holy Scripture. Genesis 6:8, 'But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.' Striking it is that the first use of the term 'covenant' occurs in conjunction with the first use of the term 'grace.' . . . it is in connection with God's establishment of the covenant with Noah that Scripture for the first time makes explicit mention of God's grace.” (Cammenga, Cosmic Grace).

16 The Noahic Covenant is one and the same covenant, that is first established with Noah alone, then afterwards confirmed to everything that comes out of the ark. Thomas Goodwin understands the two manifestations of the Noahic Covenant as fitting together in this way: “[The Lord] had established two covenants with Noah, both before and after them waters; whereof the first prefigured some eminent pieces of the covenant of grace; the other signified other particulars thereof, and in a special manner the stability of it; and therefore it was they were two in a figure, because no one figure is sufficient to signify the whole; and therefore God revealed it at those sundry times, by parts, but yet so as in their tendency both served to be figures of that covenant; for so the covenant of grace is, which is but one, and is therefore styled in the singular, the covenant of his peace, but typified forth by those two of Noah's, which in that respect do coalesce in one.” (Works, V9, pp57). Again, he says: “there being two covenants made with Noah about his waters (as they are called), differing in this, that the first was with promise to save him in the waters which were inevitably decreed to come upon the world for their destruction; the other only to secure him, that they should not any more return to drown him and the earth. . .Noah's two covenants were both of them for his salvation from the waters, but with this difference: the first was with this promise, to save him from those present waters that did drown the rest of the earth; the second, to preserve him, and the earth for his sake, from any more such a flood of waters its coming upon the earth, and so to secure him from all fears of destruction thence. . .” (Goodwin, Works, V9, pp61,63). It may also be that there is one more lesson to learn through these two manifestations of the Noahic Covenant. As we said above, Scripture makes clear that the covenant in Genesis 6 is with Noah alone; while the covenant in Genesis 9 is extended to everything that comes out of the ark. This is drawn out through the use of the Hebrew second-person pronouns, which are singular throughout chapters 6 through 8, but become plural in chapter 9. In light of this, we might say that the first covenant with Noah in Genesis 6 is, among other things, also highlighting truths concerning the Covenant of Redemption (the covenant only being made between God and Noah), while the second covenant in Genesis 9 is especially highlighting truths concerning the Covenant of Grace (being made with Noah's seed in and through Noah). We'll cover this more under Noah's Headship.

17 See Thomas Goodwin, who argues for this extensively and convincingly in his Works V9, pp41-80. Much of the material I have here on the Noahic Covenant is made up of re-hashed insights from Goodwin. His work on the Noahic Covenant is an absolute hidden treasure; I would recommend it more highly than anything else I have read on the Noahic Covenant.

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