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No. 19: Who Rules the Land?
The Meaning of the Noahic Covenant, Part 1

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 19
November, 1990
Copyright 1990, Biblical Horizons

It is commonly held in Reformed thought that the Noahic Covenant is given to all men equally. The Noahic Covenant concerns "man," not simply "church," and establishes civil government as an institution among "mankind" — that is the theory. Sometimes the Noahic Covenant is regarded as a "covenant of common grace," guaranteeing God’s sustenance of all human life, whether faithful or wicked; but one way or another the idea that the Noahic Covenant is addressed to "man qua man" is found throughout evangelical and Reformed literature.

The purpose of this essay is to challenge this assumption, and to point to the true meaning of the Noahic Covenant. We shall see that the Noahic Covenant was not addressed to man as man, but to covenant-man, to the Church. The benefits and duties of the Noahic Covenant are not addressed to all mankind, but only to believers.

I shall not use any previous writer’s work as a foil in this essay, primarily because I don’t know of any previous writer who self-consciously has taken the position opposite of mine, except possibly for M. G. Kline. For the most part, previous writers have simply assumed that when God says "Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed," He is speaking generally to all men, regardless of faith. On the basis of this unexamined assumption, evangelical and Reformed theologians have erected a political philosophy that views Genesis 9:6 as the charter for civil government, both Christian and non-Christian. Because of this, it is felt that Christians may address unbelieving magistrates and under "common grace" call them to do their duties under the Noahic Covenant.

This is not the meaning of the Noahic Covenant, however. The rainbow is not a pledge on God’s part to sustain all men under "common grace," as we shall see. When Ham sinned, he and his spiritual progeny lost the regal benefits of the Noahic Covenant, and instead of being entitled to rule as "pagan magistrates," they were declared to be slaves. When they tried to erect a civilization, God immediately destroyed it. What this means for believers is rather frightening, but is also very important: It means that at all times it is believers who rule the world. If we don’t like how things are going, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

(A note on "common grace." C. Van Til calls it, "earlier grace" or "creation grace." I hate to disagree with Van Til, but the fact is that "creation grace" was exhausted 1656 years after creation, when the Flood came. The only grace that unbelievers receive after the Flood is the spillover from redemptive grace. "Common grace" is the crumbs that fall from the Lord’s Table. Further, the idea of building a civilization on "common grace," as advocated by many today, is ridiculous. Today on television in Japan are advertisements that say, "Come to Malaysia. A virgin every night: boy or girl, ages 8 to 11." These tours are booked up years in advance. "Common grace" is really wonderful, isn’t it? Don’t you wish we could get rid of our theocratic heritage, and live under "common grace"?)

The World Renewed

Let us now turn our attention to an overview of Genesis 8:20 – 9:27. Notice first of all, that when Noah came off the Ark, he built an altar and offered of every clean bird and beast to the LORD. It was on the basis of that sacrifice, not on the basis of some generalized "common grace," that God stated that He would never again curse the ground on account of man. God said that He would refrain from cursing even though "the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth." God had brought the Flood because the intent of man’s heart was only evil continually (6:5). God changes His approach to man’s sinfulness not because man has changed, but because of the sacrifice.

God says that He will never again destroy every living thing, even though man continues to be evil. How will He secure the world? The answer is given later in the Noahic Covenant. First, He will give to the Church the right to rule over the wicked, and to put them to death when necessary. Second, He Himself will act to put a stop to the civilizations of the wicked.

The cosmic aspect of the Noahic Covenant concludes in Genesis 8:22, "While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease." Wrenched out of context, this seems like a statement of "natural law," something that will apply to all men regardless of their covenant standing before God. In context, however, it means something entirely different. It means that the world is repositioned into the "church." The world of "nature" is given the protection of the covenant along with believers. If unbelievers benefit from this, it is only because they are squatters on our turf. They ungratefully share in the blessings God gives to the Church. God will never again destroy the animal kingdom and He will never again disrupt the world order, because these things are no longer positioned in Old Adam but now are positioned in New Adam (by anticipation, on the basis of Noah’s sacrifice). God preserves the physical world through the Church, not "next to" her.

Another way to make the same point is this: The animal world started out in the Church with Adam in the Garden. Genesis 4, however, indicates that it was the wicked who developed culture and animal husbandry, and so the animal world and the world of culture were severed from the Church. During the Flood, the animals that were saved were saved by being taking into the Ark, into the Church with Noah. After the Flood, God takes steps to make sure that the animals remain under the protection of the Church.

Commentaries on Genesis note that the Noahic Covenant is not "cut," implying a new covenant, but "confirmed." This indicates that it is an "Adamic Covenant" that is being renewed here. We could, then, go back to Genesis 1-2 and see that it is a faithful humanity that is given the Adamic Covenant, and by implication that those who are faithless will lose the benefits of that covenant. Before the Flood, however, the faithful descendants of Adam were not empowered to prevent the wicked from ruling; now they are.

Humanity Renewed

Genesis 8:22 rehearses in capsule form Genesis 1:1-25 — the world is restored. Now in Genesis 9:1-7 we have a recapitulation of Genesis 1:26-30 — the word of God to a new Adamic race.

It is essential to see that it is the Church that is addressed here (see 1 Pet. 3:20-21). There are only eight people, and all of them are faithful covenant members. Though Ham will fall into sin later on, at this point he is nearly 500 years old and has been faithful to God all those years. God is not speaking here to "humanity in general" or to "man as man," but to the covenant-keeping community of the Church. As we shall see, those who break the covenant lose the regal benefits of the Noahic Covenant.

It is the Church that is commanded to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth (9:1; as in Gen. 1:26-28). God does not want the wicked to multiply. Before the Flood God did not cut the wicked out of the commands and benefits of the covenant as regards the world, and the wicked multiplied on the earth. After the Flood God acts to cut back the wicked, and it is only the righteous who multiply (cf. Ex. 1).

God says that the fear and terror of Godly people will be on every beast and bird, fish and crawler (9:2). This promise does not apply directly to unbelievers. God does not want the wicked to have dominion, and He does not grant it to them here. Before the Flood the wicked exercised dominion. They are not given it again after the Flood. (I believe that a study would show that in Christian countries, wild animals tend to fear people, while in pagan lands, people tend to be the prey of wild animals.)

God says that His people may eat the flesh of any animal, clean or unclean, except that they are not to eat the blood with it (9:3-4). Vampirism is forbidden. Of course, unbelievers after the Flood ate meat also (and perhaps before the Flood as well), but this grant is not specifically made for them. The unbelievers are not entitled to eat meat except insofar as they are under the "spillover" of the Noahic Covenant.

God says that He will require the blood of His people from the hands of those who slay them, specifically from the hand of "every man’s brother" (9:5). This is a direct allusion back to Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. God did not require Abel’s blood at the hand of Cain, and protected Cain. God allowed Cain and the unbelievers to remain "inside" the covenant grant before the Flood, but now things are going to be different. No longer are murderers protected. Instead, they are to be cut out of the world, removed from it by means of execution. Now, in a Christian theocracy we would also put to death anyone who murdered an unbeliever, but this is part of the "spillover" of the covenant. The covenant and its provisions are actually addressed only to believers. God says here that if the courts do not act to avenge His saints, He will do so Himself: "I will require . . . I will require . . . I will require"!

Verse 5 says "from the hand of every beast I will require it." Now that the animals are repositioned into union with the Church, they are accountable in a new way if they attack covenant-man. Throughout the Bible, unbelievers are symbolized by beasts, and possibly they are also in view here. It may be that the "man" here is covenant man, while unbelievers are included among "beasts."

God says that His people are to be His agents to carry out His decree of execution against future Cainites. The reason a Flood won’t be necessary in the future is that believers will take care of problems as they arise, and unbelievers will never again be able to control the world. "Whoever sheds covenant-man’s blood, by covenant-man his blood shall be shed" (v. 6). This is the only possible way to read this verse in context: The only "men" in existence at this point are covenant people. God has not given to the heathen the "right" to bear the sword and execute capital punishment. It is only because heathen magistrates are puppets on the end of the Church’s strings that they can implement civil justice (Romans 13 — see discussion below). What makes it clear that the wicked are not given the right to rule is that they are designated "slaves of slaves" in verse 25. They are removed from rule. Only believers rule in the full sense.

Verse 6b says, "For in the image of God He made man." This phrase has been interpreted three ways. First, it has been put with the second part of 6a, "By man his blood shall be shed." This view says that the right to execute capital punishment is given to "man" because "man" is the image of God. The problem with this interpretation is that Adam was the image of God, but Adam did not have the right/duty of executing capital punishment (Gen. 4:15). Indeed, ascension to rule and authority is an aspect of maturing in the likeness of God, not an aspect of the image. (See Jordan, "The Dominion Trap," Biblical Horizons No. 15.)

The second interpretation puts 6b with all of 6a, "Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed." In other words, killing a human being is an attempt to kill God, an attack on the image of God, and thus merits the death penalty. This is the usual interpretation, and I can live with it. The third interpretation, however, does justice to this idea while taking the context into account in a better way.

G. Ch. Aalders in his commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981) points out that it is most likely that 6b refers to everything from 9:1-6a. He notes that in Genesis 1, man is given dominion over the animals, given the right to eat God-given food, and told to multiply. In Genesis 1:26-30 are spelled out, in part at least, what it means to be the "image" of God. These provisions are repeated in a new form in Genesis 9:1-3, and so 6a most likely refers back to the entire paragraph.

We have seen, and we shall see again, that it is the Church that is being addressed in Genesis 9, not humanity in general. The fact that the Church is in view means that the Church is going to fulfill God’s original intention regarding the "image." All men are images of God, but the Church is the undistorted and true image.

So, to paraphrase Genesis 9:1-6, God said, "I am giving all the original Adamic gifts to you, the Church. I am also arming you with a sword that will enable you to preserve the world against the Cainites. I am doing this because I made man as My image to start with, and I intend to fulfill My original purpose, which is that the world should be ruled by My true images."

Let me make it clear that Genesis 1 teaches that humanity in general, unfallen humanity and all that proceeds therefrom, is in one sense the image of God. Man does not cease to be God’s image when he sins, though he loses by degrees the likeness of God. Though the Bible calls sinners "beasts" and uses this symbolism pregnantly (even, I believe, here in the Noahic Covenant), this does not mean that sinners are no longer the images of God. Theologians distinguish the "wider" and "narrower" senses in which man is the image of God. In the wider sense, all men are God’s images, for better or worse, but in the narrow or moral sense, only the faithful show forth God’s image.

Genesis 9, however, is not simply a repetition of Genesis 1. It is not addressed to unfallen man, but to redeemed and covenant-keeping man. The creation ordinances of Genesis 1 are republished within the sphere of redemption. In terms of redemption, only covenant-keepers are manifesting the image of God properly.

Thus, we have two universes of discourse, both equally Biblical and both equally legitimate. In the creational universe of discourse, all men are the images of God, and are entitled to be treated as such. As images of God, apostate people have much in common with regenerate people, and can be appealed to evangelistically, as C. Van Til has taught us. By way of contrast, in the redemptive universe of discourse, it is the covenant keepers who have true title to the name "images of God," while those who are apostate are "beasts" and "slaves."

The Sabbath Renewed

In Genesis 2, God established the sabbath as His sign of completing His work. The sign of the Noahic Covenant is the rainbow. It is God’s "warbow" placed in the sky, showing that He has completed His war against the first world (9:8-17).

Verses 9-11 restate what we have seen earlier. God’s covenant is with Noah and his godly seed. The ungodly will lose the regal benefits of it. This covenant embraces every living creature, all flesh, so that the animal kingdom is now repositioned in union with the Church, and removed from its previous position in union with the wicked.

In verses 12-17, God says that He has placed His warbow in the sky. People are free to look at it, but what counts is that God looks at it. God "reminds Himself" (not that He needs to do so, but that He chooses to do so) of the covenant between Himself and "you" (the Church) and the animal kingdom. When God sees the rainbow, He will remember not to destroy the world again.

Now, are unbelievers directly embraced in this promise and covenant? Clearly not. It is evident from the events that follow in Genesis 9 that the unbelievers are not full beneficiaries of it. Unbelievers are not cut completely out, because they are "slaves" of the believers. Thus, they experience some of the blessings of the Noahic Covenant as "slaves" of the actual members of the Covenant. What they lose are the regal benefits, the right to rule.

Moreover, the Noahic Covenant embraces the animal kingdom under the Church. The Bible calls unbelievers "dogs," and thus animals. As animals, they are embraced in the Noahic Covenant. Notice especially that the Canaanite woman called herself a dog when Jesus identified her as one, and claimed the dog’s (slave’s) right to a share of the children’s bread. This is what "common grace" really is (Mt. 15:26-28).

But note well: The unbeliever as "slave" does not have a "right" to exercise capital punishment. The unbeliever as "animal" is not the "image of God" in the redemptive sense that phrase is used in Genesis 9:6 (cp. Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).

The book of Revelation shows the rainbow in action. In Revelation 4:3 we see that there is always a rainbow around God’s throne. Whenever God looks at the world, He looks through the rainbow. Thus, He never forgets the Noahic Covenant. But, in Revelation 6:1 we begin a series of amazing judgments against the wicked. Apparently the rainbow has nothing to do with "common grace" and does not spare the wicked at all. Similarly, in Revelation 10:1, Jesus Christ is pictured with a rainbow around His head, so that again whenever He looks at the world, He looks through the rainbow. Yet right after this, more horrible plagues are poured out upon the wicked. In both cases, the saints are given protection before the plagues come (Rev. 7:1-9; 12:13-17). So then, it is clear that the Noahic Covenant and its provisions apply only to the Church. The rainbow reminds God to protect His people and the animal world, not the wicked. (Meredith G. Kline’s approach to the covenants would require that the "common grace covenant" — the rainbow — be set aside when God performs "instrusion covenant" judgments. In fact, however, God’s judgments come right through the rainbow.)

As I showed in my book Through New Eyes (pp. 76-78), the rainbow is the Church around God’s throne. God only sees the world as He looks through the Church. It is only those who come under the umbrella of the Church’s protection — as "slaves" and "beasts" — who receive the benefits of the rainbow covenant. This does not include all men, as the imprecatory psalms and the book of Revelation show. In fact, in Revelation the saints are wielding the sword by means of prayer, as they ask God to bring vengeance on those attacking the flock (Rev. 6:10). Thus, the rainbow-Church protects heathen "slaves" but destroys heathen "murderers."

Excision from the Covenant

The first story after the Noahic Covenant shows what happens to the wicked. Ham sinned against his father. Noah cursed Canaan, one of Ham’s sons. Perhaps this is because Ham repented and his other sons were faithful, while Canaan was truly unregenerate. Whatever the case, the terms of the curse are clear: "A slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers" (v. 25). Rule and dominion are instantly removed from the wicked. They simply do not have it. This is a change from the pre-Flood situation. The wicked continued to have dominion and rule before the Flood. After the Flood, they lose it.

Before the Flood Cain went out and built a city, a civilization that extended over the earth (Gen. 4). After the Flood the wicked tried to build a city at the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9), but God instantly came down and destroyed it. The wicked are not allowed to have a world civilization after the Flood. In contrast to Genesis 4, now culture, science, art, animal husbandry, and government all flow from the Church, either directly or through her "slaves."

Excision from the Noahic Covenant has two degrees. The first degree means that apostates (unbelievers) become "slaves" and "beasts," but continue to be alive in the world protected by believers. They lose the dominion granted to the covenant-keepers, but they continue to receive some of the blessings of the covenant through the believers.

The second degree of excision is death, when the unbeliever is removed from the world protected by the Church, by the Noahic Covenant. Specifically this takes place when the unbeliever moves beyond Adamic apostasy into Cainitic murder: He is to be put to death. More generally, it takes place when the unbeliever dies.

The Noahic Covenant is inescapable, and applies one way or another to all men. Under the Old Covenant, there were three possibilities. You might be a member of the priestly, seed-line people, a Shemite, in which case you were a ruler of the world (especially of the "holy land"). You might be a covenant-keeping Gentile, a Japhethite dwelling in the tents of Shem, in which case you also were a ruler of the world (specifically of the "common lands"). Or you might be an apostate, a Canaanite, in which case you were a slave. You still were under the Noahic Covenant, and you still received some benefits, but you were not a ruler of the world.

In the New Covenant this situation is modified in that in the Church now the distinction between Shemite priest and Japhethite Gentile believer has been overcome. There are now only two possibilities now: either rule or be a slave.

The only way to get out from under the Noahic Covenant is to die. You can do that by committing a capital crime, or by waiting until your death comes naturally.

So there is no neutral ground. Every unbeliever in the world is a slave of the Church. The only way he can become a ruler is by converting.