The Covenant with Noah, and all life on Earth

The Text

YHWH said to himself, “Never again will I curse the ground because of humanity, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease.

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will be upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the sky, upon every thing that moves upon the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands. Every moving thing that lives will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being too, I will demand an accounting for the life of their fellow human. Whoever sheds the blood of human being, by human hand shall that person’s blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made human beings. As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it."

"I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you - the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you, every living creature on earth. I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth."

Then God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.” So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”


The terms of The Covenant

What God will do:

  • Never again curse the whole earth because of humanity
  • Never again destroy all living creatures
  • Never again cut off all life with a flood
  • Give all life into the custody of humanity
  • Give as food to humanity all animals that move

What humans must do:

  • Be fruitful, increase in number and fill the earth
  • Not eat meat with blood still in it
  • Give an account from anyone guilty of shedding the blood of another human being

Blessings:

  • As long as the earth exists, then seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will not cease

Curses:

  • Whoever sheds the blood of a human, their blood shall also be shed
  • If an animal sheds the blood of, and kills a human being, that animal shall also be held to account

The sign of this covenant:

  • The rainbow that appears after the rain, when it is seen in the sky

Personally, we do not take the story of the flood literally, rather as an ancient myth that has an on-going message.

If you examine the story closely, there are in fact two versions which have been melded together. The first is the Yahwist version (commonly referred to by scholars as ‘J’, from the German spelling of God’s name, ‘JHWH’, and the way that God is always referred to by name); and the Elohist version (commonly referred to by scholars as ‘E’, from the word ‘Elohim’, the way in which God is referred to in this version).

In the J-version, seven pairs of every kosher animal, seven pairs of all birds, and just one pair of all non-kosher animals are taken into the ark.

In the E-version, only one pair of every animal (kosher and non-kosher) is taken into the ark.

In Genesis 8:20, Noah sacrifices of every kosher animal and every kosher bird. If the E-version is correct (where only one pair of every animal is taken into the ark), then this sacrifice logically means the extinction of every kosher animal. Even if Noah only sacrifices one of each, that still means that all these species will become extinct because they no longer exist as breeding pairs! The Flood story therefore cannot be taken literally.

Interpretation

What message then does the story still have for us today? How do we interpret the covenant? (In our community, we do not experience YHWH as a vengeful God, so how are we to re-examine the story)?

  1. The story says that we are given all of nature. We believe that this is because our species is being appointed as custodians of Nature. We are not being given the plants and animals to oppress or subdue them but to look after them. We believe this is a continuation of Genesis 1:26 “Let us make humanity in our own image and likeness; so let them rule over the fish of the sea, and the birds of the sky, over the domestic animals, over all the land, and over every creeping thing that crawls upon the ground”. Very often in translations, the Hebrew word ‘ve-’ is translated in this instance as ‘and’. But ‘ve-’ serves many different grammatical uses. It can mean ‘because’, ‘even’, ‘who’, ‘just as’, ‘so’ and ‘then’. The two sentences, ‘let us make humanity’, and ‘let them rule’ stand side by side, because they are connected. The second is a reason and an explanation of the first. When translated correctly, we can see that the way in which are have been made in the image and likeness of God, is not in our souls, but in our responsibilities. We are to look after and care for Nature, just as God does.
  2. We are not to eat meat with blood still in it. In ancient times, people noticed that when anything lost its blood, it inevitably lost its life. So they came to believe that blood was the seat of life, and was therefore sacred. It was not to be consumed with meat, but drained. Blood was to be avoided, not because it was ‘unclean’ but because it was sacred. In modern life, blood transfusion is permitted, because you are using a sacred thing to give life to another.
  3. Many of us find capital punishment distasteful, especially in Europe where the death penalty is banned. However, the third condition still carries with it the understanding that if anyone takes a life, they shall be called to account and be brought to justice, even if no blood is spilled.
  4. Most animals have a natural wariness and even fear of human beings. However, some animals turn rogue, and specifically hunt out humans for food. Because of Genesis 9:5 (“I will demand an accounting of every animal”), it would be reasonable to have such an animal put down.

To us, this covenant is about human responsibility towards nature. Controlling nature does NOT mean that we can do whatever we want with it. We must grow in wisdom, so that Nature will endure and prosper in the care that YHWH our God has entrusted us into our hands.

 

   
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