Genesis 9: Promises After the Flood

By Mary Jane Chaignot

The first seventeen verses of chapter nine are comprised of three speeches. God addresses Noah and his sons after the flood. The world has been destroyed; Noah and his sons are charged with the task of repopulating the world. So it is that God virtually repeats his command of 1:28, "Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth." Indeed, this command is found in verses 1 and 7, thus providing an inclusio for the first speech. Not only does this remind readers of the Genesis passage, where everything that God saw was pronounced "good," but it also emphasizes the task that lies before them. Interestingly, scholars have pointed out that God's speech does not include Noah's wife or his sons' wives – which shows an ironic patriarchal bias, considering the topic is one of reproductive matters.

Yet, the following verses veer in a slightly different direction from the blessings of Genesis 1. It is true that 1:28 instructed man "to subdue the earth" and to have "dominion over the fish, birds, and every living creature." While that is reaffirmed in these passages, the emphasis is that the beasts, birds, and fish will have "fear and dread" of humans. Moreover, all these creatures "are given into your hands." These words are considerably stronger, and indicate that the world is not exactly returning to the paradise that once existed. Some scholars argue that this is the result of the fall described in Genesis 2-3; the harmony of creation has been replaced by fear and violence.

Then, verse 3 brings in a whole new dimension and explains why the animal world will have "fear and dread" of humans. "Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything." "Everything" means as long as it is alive and moving about; roadkill or cadavers would not have been included. And scholars argue whether "everything" includes animals and other food that would later be designated as "unclean." True, those designations have yet to be established, but it raises some interesting concerns. The point is, however, that humans are no longer limited to a vegetarian diet. Animals are fair game.

But along with new freedoms come new guidelines, and they seem slightly paradoxical. Humans can only eat living things, but they must not eat anything that "has its lifeblood still in it." This, no doubt, relates to the fact that blood is the essence of life, and life belongs to God. The word used for "life" in this passage is the same one translated as "soul" in later passages. Some scholars think this restriction was meant to preclude the wanton eating of raw meat in a freshly killed animal. Others point to ancient cultures, where the drinking of blood was thought to restore one's vitality. But it is more likely that this whole notion is a precursor to the temple's sacrificial system, wherein a living creature is chosen for sacrifice; the blood is totally drained (poured out to God); the remains are then eaten. In so doing, respect is shown for the life of the animal and to God for being the sole giver of life.

If provisions are made for the killing of animals, what happens if another human is killed? Verse 5 unequivocally forbids the killing of humans. Three times God states that he will "demand an accounting," not just from humans but also from animals that might kill a human. The word for "accounting" or reckoning is very expressive, indicating that God will relentlessly pursue the perpetrator until punishment has been exacted. Animals are included because death by an animal corrupts the divinely created order previously set forth. At this point, the prohibition seems to be absolute: no human life is ever to be taken by an animal or another human.

Yet the words of verse 6 include the punishment for the taking of human life. And, lo, the punishment is the death of the murderer! Scholars don't know if this is a legal or proverbial principle. Later on, the Old Testament will spell out specific punishments for various crimes that will require the death penalty. Yet, here, the idea seems to be that only God is the giver of life and "in the image of God has God made mankind." This basic truth has not changed, despite the fall or flood. Anyone violating this fact must be eliminated out of respect for God's unique authority over life and the inviolate nature of human life that He has created. The question, though, is who is to do the eliminating? Some argue that only God can do this, thereby prohibiting all human killing. Others think man is authorized to carry out the sentence. The actual words could be translated either way.

These prohibitions are sometimes referred to as the Noahide Commandments. There are seven in all and many of them were already implicit in the Adam and Eve story. They are rooted in moral law and, obviously, predate the Ten Commandments given to Moses at Mount Sinai. Biblically speaking, humanity has been wiped off the face of the earth, with the exception of Noah and his family. Therefore everyone is descended from Noah. Not everyone will be of the Hebrew faith, so these commandments encapsulate the minimum moral requirements for every living person. They are comprised of six negatives and one positive: idolatry, blasphemy, murder, theft, adultery, and eating live animals is forbidden; a system of laws is established in order to provide an orderly and just society.

The next verse repeats the first – the command to "be fruitful and increase in number…," which completes the first speech.

In the second speech (verses 8-11), God repeats, twice, that he is establishing his covenant with Noah and his descendants. Scholars debate whether this is a brand new relationship with him or a continuation of God's promise from 6:18. This covenant extends, not just to Noah and to his family, but also to the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals that were in the ark. God, then, promises, "never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth." If the first speech ended with a prohibition against what man must not do, this one ends with assurances regarding what God will and will never again do. He will establish his covenant with Noah, and he will never send a devastating flood to destroy the earth. This is not to say that there will never be other judgments against humankind, but they will not come in the form of a catastrophic flood.

Obviously, God's promise would have satisfied Noah and his sons. Yet, God offered a sign for the covenant that he was "making between me and you and every living creature, a covenant for all generations to come." The sign will be a "bow" in the clouds. The word for "rainbow" and a "bow" used as a weapon are the same. So while the word conjures up all sorts of powerful images of God being the warrior and vanquishing his foes, here it is used as a sign of peace and comfort, eternal and universal. And it will be a sign of the covenant between God and the earth, which refers to everything under the heavens, humanity, creatures, et al. Nor is it an accident that the rainbow is associated with storms and clouds. Seeing a rainbow after a storm is a humble reminder of God's mercy, when he could have unleashed destructive judgment for humanity's transgression.

The twist comes in verse 15 when God says that the sign of the covenant is for His benefit. He will remember the covenant, he will never again use the waters to destroy all life. While this might suggest that God could forget or need a visual reminder regarding the terms of the covenant, it is probably stated that way to ensure His trustworthiness. There is no room for error; His word is inviolate. Nor is one to think this covenant is mutual, unlike God's later covenants with Abraham, Moses, and David. God alone establishes this covenant, and Noah and the animals are its recipients. Nothing is required of them, nor can they do anything to keep it in force. This is all God's doing.

Altogether, then, God has made several speeches, ending with, "This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth." This covenant lasts forever.