Creation, Covenant, and Christmas
The story of Christmas did not start with a baby. The story of Christmas started with a promise.
When man first fell into sin, God promised the tempting serpent that an offspring of the woman would come and crush his head. And the rest of the Bible unfolds as an answer to that promise. The whole rest of history unfolds within the expectation of a victorious, conquering offspring of the woman who would make things right again.
In Genesis chapter 6, we saw what looked like a major challenge to that promise: the offspring of Adam and Eve had become so wicked that God needed to destroy them all. It almost looked at if the serpent won. He tempted Eve to eat the fruit, and ten generations later her offspring are so wicked that God destroys them all.
But what of the promise? What of the hope of the serpent-crusher?
And the answer to that question is found in Noah and his ark. A faithful remnant will be saved, keeping open a crack in the doorway of hope that a saviour may yet come from the line of Eve just like God promised.
But what about the bigger problem? What about the sinfulness in the heart of man? The flood didn’t fix that problem, because chapter 8:20 told us that, after the flood, the intention of man’s heart was still evil from his youth.
And so as we track with the story of Genesis, one of the questions we should be asking at this point in the story is: how is God’s plan of redemption going to unfold if every ten generations he needs to wipe the earth clean and start again? How are we ever going to get to the serpent-crushing saviour—how are we ever going to get to Christmas—if this cycle keeps repeating and sinful people keep getting themselves judged off the face of the planet like this?
And the answer is Genesis chapter 9, and this covenant that God makes with Noah and all creation. Chapter 8 began to point us in this direction, as Noah offered a sacrifice and God said in His heart that He would never again do what He had done in the flood. While the earth remained, God would ensure stability in the seasons.
And that gets fleshed out in ch. 9 as God formalizes a covenant with Noah.
A. Covenant Confirmed
Now our entire passage today has to do with the covenant, but the word covenant itself isn’t used until verse 9. And we actually want to start there for a moment, because there’s a really important detail we want to notice. “Behold I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you.” A covenant, you’ll remember, is a binding relationship where parties pledge themselves to keep certain commitments to each other.
And there’s two very important ways this language is used. First, when a covenant is first established between two parties, there’s a specific Hebrew phrase, sometimes translated as “make a covenant” in our English Bibles (cf. Genesis 15:18). Literally, the Hebrew phrase is “cut a covenant.” And when we get to Genesis 15 we’ll see where that language came from, as animals were literally cut in half to initiate a covenant.
There’s a second phrase, often translated as “establish my covenant” in the ESV, and this uses a different Hebrew word. And when we look at every time this phrase is used in the Old Testament, we see that instead of speaking about cutting a new covenant between two parties, this phrase refers to upholding a covenant that already existed. Or, we could say it refers to a covenant partner making good on their covenant promises.
So, when God speaks to Noah in verse 9 and says, “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” (Genesis 9:9–10), the clear meaning is that a covenant relationship already existed between God and creation. And what God is doing now is confirming, upholding, establishing that relationship that already exists.
In other words, God was already in a covenant relationship with creation, with Adam as the human representative. And here God is re-establishing this covenant with Noah as the new human partner.
B. Man’s Covenant Responsibilities and Privileges
And these parallels between Adam and Noah show up when we go back to verse 1 and listen to the responsibilities and privileges that God gives Noah within this covenant. They sound really familiar.
1. Be Fruitful and Multiply
Verse 1: “And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’” (Genesis 9:1). Same as verse 7: “And you, be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it” (Genesis 9:7). This is basically identical language to Genesis 1:28, when God blessed Adam and Eve and told them to be fruitful and multiply. Noah is like a new Adam, tasked to fill the earth.
2. Dominion over the animals
Back in Genesis 1, after telling this to Adam and Eve, God went on to tell them to subdue the earth and have dominion over all all the animals. That same idea is repeated here in chapter 9, verse 2, with a slightly different focus. “The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered” (Genesis 9:2).
Noah and his family will have dominion over all of the animals, but the focus here is a bit different. In Genesis 1, the focus as just on ruling. Here, there seems to be this added layer of fear and dread. That seems to be new. That seems to be a development. It seems like this is something that wasn’t here before.
3. Animals for food
And that suspicion is confirmed when we get to verse 3, and discover that God has now given the animals for food to Noah and his offspring. “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything” (Genesis 9:3).
In Genesis 1, after blessing Adam and Eve and telling them to be fruitful and multiply and have dominion, God gave them every plant for food. Here, God follows the same pattern, but now gives them animals for food.
Eating animals seems to be a part of the post-fall reality. In other words, before sin entered the world, it’s hard to imagine killing and eating animals like this. But now that death is a part of the world, God permits this and gives them the animals for food.
If you’re having Christmas turkey today, you can enjoy it with a clean conscience. It’s a gift from God.
If we go back to verse 2, we can see that one of the ways God helps protect the animals from being exploited is by instilling in them a fear of humans. An important part of hunting is the concept of fair chase. The animal needs to have a fair chance of being able to get away from you. And the natural fear of humans is a big part of that. If you’re hunting an animal, and it smells you or sees you, it’s out of there. That’s why hunting can be so challenging, and that’s by God’s design.
Even with more domesticated animals, those of you who have butchered chickens or loaded up cows onto a trailer know that it’s not a walk in the park. These animals don’t want to die. And that’s one of the ways that God has balanced out this new arrangement after the flood. Yes, we can eat them, but they are naturally afraid of us and we’re going to have to work hard to get them on our plates.
4. No Eating Blood
God also wants us to respect animals and recognize the fact that, when we eat an animal, that animal lost its life so that we could continue to live. And so in verse 4 he prohibits people from eating meat with the blood still in it. “But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (Genesis 9:4).
Blood is the source of life in an animal. We know now how true that is, understanding that it’s blood that carries oxygen to every part of a body to keep it alive. Even back in Noah’s day, they would have understood that a beating heart was the difference between life and death, and loss of blood often meant loss of life. Throughout the Bible, blood is used as a representation for life.
And so here, God is teaching people that even though they are allowed to eat animals, they must have a profound respect for that life and, more ultimately, for the giver of that life. And the way He teaches them this respect and care is by stopping them from eating blood. An animal’s body was to be properly dressed and drained before it could be eaten, and this practice ensures that people maintain a profound respect for that life.
5. No Murder
This discussion on “lifeblood” segues into the fifth statement about man’s responsibilities in this renewed covenant, and it has to do with murder. And this is totally new. It has no parallel in the original covenant with Adam and Eve.
We should recall that one of the big problems that caused the flood was violence. Genesis 6:11 said that “the earth was filled with violence.” And we’ve already seen that, post-flood, the heart of humanity has not changed. So if God is not going to destroy the earth again by a global flood, then what is He going to do to curb the violence in the heart of man?
The answer is verses 5 and 6: “And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Genesis 9:5–6).
If a person—or an animal—kills another person, then that person or animal is to be put to death.
Those who take a life are to have their own lives taken. And this principle—the death penalty--is God’s appointed means of curbing the violence within the human race.
Now we need to understand that this isn’t the last word God said on this topic. In Israel’s law, there were all kinds of checks and balances and protections built in to the way that they exercised this law. This was not a blank cheque for personal revenge or vendettas. And some people have wisely pointed out how careful we need to be in our modern world in our application of this principle.
And that may be true, but we can’t miss the big idea here. The death penalty is God’s idea and God’s appointed means of curbing violence. Whoever takes a human life deserves to have his own life taken. And why? Because, unlike animals, humans are absolutely unique—made, as we’re reminded in verse 6, in God’s own image. And so the life of men is to be treated on a way higher level than the animals.
So those are people’s responsibilities in this covenant relationship. Most important among them is that they be fruitful and multiply, which we’ve seen being repeated again in verse 7. “And you, be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it” (Genesis 9:7). God wanted His world to be full of His images.
But just think for a moment: people are still sinful. Why would they be fruitful and multiply and have lots of babies if they're just going to be wicked and kill each other and all get destroyed again in a few years?
C. God’s Commitments
And that leads us into God’s commitments in this covenant, in verse 8. The King James Version captures some of the emphasis of the original when it translates verse 9 as “And as for Me, behold, I establish My covenant with you” (Genesis 9:9, NKJV). In other words, verses 1-7 were Noah’s part, and now this is God’s part.
1. Who (vv. 8-10)
And we’re going to consider three main aspects of God’s side of this covenant relationship. First, we should note who this covenant is made with. ““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” (Genesis 9:9–10).
As we’ve seen, this is a covenant with creation. In verse 13 God explicitly states it’s a covenant between Him and the earth. Noah stands as a kind of a second Adam, representing all of creation, and God makes this covenant with him and his sons and their offspring and with every living creature with them. This covenant is for the entire human and animal world.
2. What (v. 11)
Next, in verse 11, we see what God’s commitment in this covenant is. This is really it—this is what God is pledging to the human and animal worlds to do. And it’s very straightforward: “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 9:11).
God states the same truth in two different ways. First, “never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood.” Second, “never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” He’s really emphasizing that this will not happen again. We know that God had made this statement to Himself in 8:21-22, where he said to Himself that He wouldn’t strike down every creature again, and that as long as the world endured the seasons would be consistent.
But here, God makes this a commitment and pledges it to the human and animal worlds. We should note what’s really important here: God is not saying that people will never deserve another global flood again. But despite the ongoing reality of sin, despite the fact that violence is still going to be a reality and is going to need to be curbed, God pledges that He won’t do again what He just did.
Now He’s also not saying that He will never bring judgement in any form whatsoever. But He is committing to never again cut of all flesh by a flood, and never again to destroy the whole earth with a flood. That’s His covenant promise.
3. The Sign (vv. 12-17)
Now it’s very interesting to see what comes next. Look at how verse 12 opens up: “And God said.” God had already been talking. Why does the narrator need to say “And God said” if God is already speaking?
This is actually a common feature in the Old Testament. You’ve probably read this numbers of times in the Bible and not noticed it. Someone is already speaking, and then their speech is introduced again with no comment from the other person. And the implication here is that the other person is being silent, and their silence is significant, and so the first person has to keep talking.
Basically, God states his promise to never again destroy the earth with a flood, and Noah is silent. It could be that Noah needs some more assurance before he can believe this promise, or perhaps he’s just speechless as he takes it all in. But either way, he has nothing to say.
And so God goes on, and whether Noah needed it or not, God offers Him assurance in the form of a covenant sign. Verse 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: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth” (Genesis 9:12–13).
This is a pattern we’re going to see all throughout the rest of the Bible: when major covenants are made between God and man, almost always there is a sign of that covenant. The sign is a visible reminder and a display of the covenant, and often serves to seal that covenant the way a handshake or a signature might seal a deal today.
The most common covenant ceremony we’re familiar with today is a wedding ceremony, and in that covenant most couples exchange rings, which are a sign of that covenant, identifying those people as being in that covenant relationship from that point forward.
Similarly, we can think of the rainbow that God speaks of here as the wedding ring in this covenant with creation—a sign of this covenant between God and the earth. And verse 14 tells us how it will work: “When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 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” (Genesis 9:14–15).
Now it’s very interesting that God uses the word “bow” here. Some other translations use the word “rainbow,” but the word is just “bow” like the ESV translates it. Most often this word is used for a bow that an archer might use, and so some have seen this military connotation here. God has hung up his bow in the sky—which means he’s not using it to destroy the earth. The rainbow would thus a real sign of peace between God and the earth.
And the real function of this sign is explained by God here in verse 14: when he sees the bow, He’ll remember the covenant and not destroy us with the flood again. When the clouds form and rain falls on the earth, the rainbow will be a reminder that this rain is not going to keep falling like it did in the flood. It will stop and all flesh will not be destroyed again.
And in case Noah or anybody else doesn’t get it, God repeats this basic truth two more times. Verse 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” (Genesis 9:16).
And Noah is apparently still speechless, because verse 17 says, “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 9:17).
God goes to great lengths to help convince Noah that this flood is not going to happen again. He’s not going to forget, and Noah can know God isn’t going to forget because of this sign He’s established.
Now, of course God can’t forget. Of course God remembers everything. But have you ever been gripped with fear that maybe you’re on your own and God isn’t thinking about you?
Your brain might know that God remembers, but doesn’t your heart forget easily?
Imagine how hard it would have been for Noah and his family the first few times it started raining. Imagine the fear in their hearts, all of the memories of the ark.
And so, in an act of rich generosity, God gives a sign that they can see, and tells them that every time He sees it He’ll remember His covenant. So it’s not so much that God needs the sign, as much as they need the sign. They needed a regular reminder that God is not going to forget this covenant.
4. The Meaning
But let’s probe a little deeper as we think about the meaning of this covenant and this sign. Remember the basic promise in this covenant: God will never again destroy all flesh with a flood. Why would we need to be reminded of this covenant again and again? Why would God set up a reminder of this covenant for everybody to see?
The answer is obvious, isn’t it: it’s because we’re going to deserve another flood. Do you remember 8:21? “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21).
It will not be long until people are sinful and wicked enough that the earth deserves another flood. And that’s why we all need this sign. When we look around us at the wickedness of the world, we might wonder—is God going to judge us again like He did with the people of Noah’s day? And when it rains, we might wonder if the rain is just going to keep coming like it did then. But when we see the bow in the sky we’ll remember that God is remembering His covenant, to preserve this creation until Christ returns.
I wonder how many of us read the story of the flood and think that the people in Noah’s generation were the worst of the worst. And the flood was basically effective in putting a stop to evil, and that since the days of the flood people have never really gotten that bad again. God hasn’t flooded the earth again because we haven’t been bad enough to need a flood again.
But if that was true, then we wouldn’t need a rainbow. We wouldn’t be worried about God sending another flood because we don’t deserve another flood because we’re not that bad.
But the reason God has to assure us again and again and again that He won’t ever flood the earth like that again is because we’re going to deserve it again. The intentions of humanity’s heart are wicked from youth and the earth will be filled with violence before too long.
Do you know that today, the earth is filled with violence? And I’m not just talking about countries like Afghanistan or Somalia. I’m talking about here in Canada, where abortion is the leading cause of death, and doctors are being pressured into offering death to their sickest patients. Is this land filled with violence, against the most vulnerable? Does Canada deserve the wrath of God?
You bet. And if we truly grasped the righteous character of God and His holy justice, we should tremble. We would know that we deserve the fury of a flood just as much as Noah’s generation. And that’s why the covenant is so precious. That’s why the bow in the sky is so precious. We remember that, in spite of what we deserve, God has promised not to judge all flesh in this way again.
He’s promised to keep the earth going in spite of our best efforts to convince Him to do otherwise. He’s promised grace.
5. The Future
And why? Is it because God has gone soft? Is He going to stop dealing with sin?
Not one bit. This covenant with creation—this promise to not destroy the earth by a flood, even though we’ll deserve it—at it’s most basic level means that, from this point forward, God is going to deal with the sin of man in a fundamentally different way.
His wrath and His judgement are still very real. There will be localized judgements, and the individual judgement of death is still in effect. But God promises to preserve the earth—to keep history rolling, despite our sin—because He has a plan. A plan of salvation. A plan of redemption.
In just a few weeks we’re going to hear about the call of Abraham and the promise to bless the nations through His offspring. And we know how that promise took shape through His covenants with Israel and David, until the faithful remnant were waiting together for one person to come and keep the promises.
And through hundreds of years of His people’s failures, through hundreds of years of violence and wickedness, God kept His covenant with Noah. He kept the earth turning. He kept the seasons coming. He kept history in motion.
Until, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son” (Galatians 4:4). And the Angel said to Joseph, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). And the shepherds were told, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).
And all of that happened—Jesus was born to save us—because of he covenant in Genesis 9. This covenant created a stable platform upon which the rest of God’s plans of redemption could unfold and come to a peak in Christ. The wickedness of man would not be able to derail the plans of God.
And today He continues to keep His covenant with creation—He continues to keep this earth going, He continues to keep history rolling—until Christ returns.
You’ve probably noticed in the last few years we’ve talked a lot about the second coming of Jesus around this time of year, and that’s 100% on purpose. Throughout church history, that’s what the advent season was about: following this very biblical pattern of remembering Christ’s first coming in order to stir up hope and anticipation for His second coming.
And all of that comes down to this covenant in Genesis 9. God kept creation running until the birth of Jesus, and keeps creation running until His second coming, just like He promised to Noah.
So what’s today look like for you? What’s this week look like for you? Maybe it’s going to be full of food and celebration. Maybe it’s going to be just a normal week for you, and you wish it wasn’t. Maybe it’s going to hard because you’re missing someone who isn’t around this year.
Whatever and wherever you’re at, does it help to remember that this week ahead of us is happening on purpose? The covenant-keeping God is very deliberately keeping this world running for a reason and a purpose, and that purpose is Christ.
History is going somewhere. Your life is going somewhere. And that means there is meaning to be found in the smallest of moments. Every act of faithfulness, every moment we walk with God, we play our part in this great building crescendo that will reach its peak when Jesus splits the sky.
He came, He is here by His Spirit, and He is coming again in the body, and nothing is meaningless.
May God cause our lives this day, this week, and always, to be shaped by our hope in Christ.