Genesis 9:8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I 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 which 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 look upon it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.”
In 9:8 God is speaking to Noah AND to his sons which is the first time they too are included in “hearing” the invisible God; so however Noah was able to hear and understand God, now too His sons hear God speaking to them. In 9:17 God appears to be speaking to Noah alone, if the text is to be read literally.
This is the first explicit covenant between God and Noah. A covenant is an agreement that binds together two parties that otherwise would be separated. As a result of the Fall humans had become not only separated from God, but even alienated from Him and had become at enmity with Him. The covenant endeavors to heal the division and to bind God to humanity again specifically through His chosen servant Noah and Noah’s descendents. In this sense the covenant is with Noahian humanity, not just with the man Noah alone. (Because a covenant “binds together” two parties who might not share a natural union, we can understand how the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is then a New Covenant). The Genesis 9 covenant asks nothing of the humans and is extended to all of creation (though in the earlier verses :1-7, God promised a blessing to humanity and laid down specific laws regarding not eating the blood of animals and demanding societal punishment upon any who kill other humans). God promises never to destroy humanity or the earth again, no matter what. In Isaiah 54:9, God promises to remember His covenant with Noah and not to entirely annihilate faithless Israel. Noah is the prototype of the faithful remnant who exist in every generation and whom God will remember. “Noah was found perfect and righteous; in the time of wrath he was taken in exchange; therefore a remnant was left to the earth when the flood came. Everlasting covenants were made with him that all flesh should not be blotted out by a flood” (Sirach 44:17-18). As stated in the text, this covenant is also a covenant of hope because it makes certain promises about God’s future relationship with all humans. Hope for the humans is also a trust in the unseen future. We will not know if God will stay faithful to His promise to “never again” destroy the earth until time has come to an end. The Covenant for us is thus an agreement of faith. As Hebrews 11:13, 39-40 attests: “These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. … And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” We await the fulfillment of God’s eternal promise.
The Covenant. God makes a covenantal promise to never again destroy the earth and all humans by another flood – the rainbow becomes the sign of that covenant. But did God leave Himself a loophole? He won’t destroy the world with a flood, but might He use something else – say fire – to destroy the earth? In Genesis 8:21, “the LORD said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.’” God seems to rule out ever again destroying all humankind. He recognizes the human heart is full of evil from the time we are children. But His covenantal promise to never totally destroy the earth again would also seem to apply to whatever God plans for His final Judgment Day. Of course in Genesis 8:22, God may have made conditional this promise when He said, “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” The condition being that as long as the earth exists God will not destroy it. He doesn’t promise that the earth will always exist, but certainly in the New Testament there is much indication that God plans to transfigure the earth at the end of time, not destroy it. In the Beatitudes for example we read that the meek will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5) – what kind of blessing is that if the earth is to be destroyed anyway? And how is the rainbow an everlasting covenant if “everlasting” means only for a time? Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, Jesus answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed … for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you. … As it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of man. They ate, they drank, they married, they were given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all” (Luke 17:20-21,26-27). The Kingdom of God is in our midst – it is not far away “in heaven” nor does it require the annihilation of the earth for it to be established. The promise of God in Genesis never to destroy all life again is everlasting. And while God explicitly promises never to destroy all of life again, He never denies the possibility of someday glorifying humanity.