8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” – Genesis 9:8-17 ESV
God had just destroyed the majority of the human population because “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 4:5 ESV). Yet, because “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Genesis 4:8 ESV), he and his family were spared. And after delivering Noah from the floodwaters of judgment, God had “blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’” (Genesis 9:1 ESV).
God was beginning again. He had preserved a remnant of His original creation in the form of a single human family and an assortment of living creatures, all of whom He had protected on the ark. Now, it was time to restart the process of repopulating the planet. So, God reiterated His kingdom mandate a second time.
“And you, be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it.” – Genesis 9:7 ESV
Noah, “a righteous man, blameless in his generation,” who “walked with God” (Genesis 6:9 ESV), was given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become the new father of the human race. This descendant of Adam was charged with the responsibility of procreating and repopulating the earth with more of his kind. And because Noah had proven himself faithful to God by doing everything he had been commanded to do, the future for humanity seemed bright. Surely this man would fare better than his ancestor. But as “righteous” and “blameless” as Noah may have been, he was far from perfect. As a descendant of Adam, Noah had inherited the same sinful disposition. He was faithful but still fallen.
In the Adamic genealogy recorded in chapter five, it opens with the words:
This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created. – Genesis 5:1-2 ESV
“Adam”(אָדָם – āḏām) had been the name God gave to all mankind, and all mankind had been created in God’s likeness. When He had formed the first man and woman, they bore His image. They were intended to reflect His glory and to spread His image all across the planet by creating more of their own kind. More image-bearers. But Adam and Eve were not content to be mirrors reflecting God’s glory. Instead, they succumbed to the temptation of Satan and the desires of their own hearts. Rather than obey God, they chose to rob Him of glory by declaring themselves to be gods, with the sovereignty to decide for themselves what was right and wrong.
Adam and Eve dishonored God by disobeying Him. They rebelled against His divine authority and attempted to preempt His sovereign power with their own. And the apostle would later describe the nature of their crime.
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. – Romans 1:21-23 ESV
And Paul goes on to sum up the sin of Adam and Eve in far-from-flattering terms.
…they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator… – Romans 1:25 ESV
This predisposition for self-worship was passed on to the next generation. Their son, Cain chose to play god and took the life of his brother, Abel. And the genealogy recorded in Genesis chapter five reveals that Adam and Eve attempted to fill the void left by their murdered son.
When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth. – Genesis 5:3 ESV
But something has changed. It’s subtle but highly significant. More than a century after God had created Adam to bear His image, Adam fathered a son in his own likeness. Seth proved to be the spitting image of his father, Adam. He was born under the curse and, as a result, inherited his father’s sinful disposition. Adam’s “one trespass led to condemnation for all men” (Romans 5:18 ESV), including his own progeny.
All those who descended from Adam were guilty of exchanging “the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man…” (Romans 5:23 ESV). And that list included Noah and his sons. They had been delivered by God but still remained damaged goods. And God was well aware that the future of mankind was far from bright. He knew exactly what was going to happen. This is why He declared His covenant commitment to Noah and his sons.
“Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” – Genesis 9:9-11 ESV
Inherent in this promise is God’s understanding of mankind’s condition. He knew that humanity would continue to rebel against Him. It was only a matter of time before the wickedness of man spread through the earth like an infectious disease. Noah and his sons would soon father children, made in their own likeness. And the pre-flood moral conditions would be replicated all over again. But God made a covenant commitment to not repeat the judgment of the flood.
God is not suggesting that mankind will never again deserve His judgment. He is simply giving His commitment that He will never again punish mankind’s inevitable wickedness through a cataclysmic, worldwide flood. And what sets this covenant apart is that it is universal in scope and unconditional in nature. It applies to all humanity, and not just Noah and his sons. And it comes with no conditions or requirements on man’s part.
This covenant is based on the faithfulness of God. He knew all along that Noah and his descendants would fail to live up to their calling as His vice-regents. He had given them authority to rule over His creation as His stewards. But like Adam, they would prove to be less-than-faithful in their oversight of God’s kingdom. Inevitably, the descendants of Noah would repeat the sins of their ancestors. It was only a matter of time before God looked down and saw “that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5 ESV). And while humanity would deserve God’s righteous judgment, He would refrain from destroying them.
And as a symbol of His covenant commitment, God provided Noah with a sign. He established the rainbow as a reminder of His glory and goodness. When the storm clouds of God’s judgment appeared in the sky, the rainbow would form, providing a powerful sign of God’s covenant commitment. Man would continue to sin, but God would refrain from meting out the full measure of His righteous indignation against them. Why? Because He had a plan in place that would one day resolve the problem of mankind’s obsession with sin and the divine requirement to deliver justice. Once again, the apostle Paul provides insight into this divine strategy for mitigating the problem of sin and the need for judgment.
For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he makes sinners right in his sight when they believe in Jesus. – Romans 3:23-26 NLT
According to His covenant with Noah, God would hold back and not pour out His judgment on sinful humanity. It would be well-deserved but God was willing to delay it until He could send His Son as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. In sending Jesus, God would prove Himself “just and the justifier” (Romans 3:26 ESV). Through the sacrifice of His Son’s innocent life, God would satisfy His righteous judgment against sin and provide a way for sinful men to be made right with Him.
He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. – Romans 8:3 NLT
The sins of mankind would continue, and God’s obligation to judge sin would remain. But He was willing to delay that judgment until such a time that He could pour it out on His Son. Adam’s sin left humanity under the curse of God’s wrath. But God had a plan in place that would fully satisfy His need for justice and His desire to justify.
For Adam’s sin led to condemnation, but God’s free gift leads to our being made right with God, even though we are guilty of many sins. For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ. – Romans 5:16-17 NLT
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.