And God spake unto Noah, saying, Go forth of the ark, thou, and thy wife, and thy sons, and thy sons’ wives with thee. Bring forth with thee every living thing that [is] with thee, of all flesh, [both] of fowl, and of cattle, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth; that they may breed abundantly in the earth, and be fruitful, and multiply upon the earth.
God spoke (dabar) — this seems to be more conversational than ‘said’ (‘amar) earlier in Genesis. There will be more hints than God’s relationship to man is changing at this time. The command to the animals to be fruitful and multiply (parah rabah) remains the same, though. They find at least one new use, though:
And Noah builded an altar unto the LORD; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar.
There’s a new word: altar (mizbeach), from kill (zabach). And in case we miss it, it is repeated twice! It appears used to offer offerings (‘alah ‘olah), again a different term than the gifts (minchah) of Cain & Abel. Somehow there seems to be more structure appearing in man’s relationship with God — and vice versa:
And the LORD smelled a sweet savour; and the LORD said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart [is] evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done. While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.
I have to admit – I find this verse odd. The naive reading is that God was bribed by the smell of burnt flesh to turn away from His wrathful ways. Is there more? Well, let’s see what God does next:
And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.
Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things.
Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.
Clearly something big is happening, as God is redrawing the rules for relations between human and animal, and man and man. Maybe the sacrificial altar was merely one aspect of this transformation, rather than the cause. This is sometimes called the Noahic covenant (b@riyth ), in contrast to the Adamic covenant in Genesis 1 and 2:
And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you;
God’s initial command in Adam’s time was for all creatures fill the earth, and for humanity to subdue it, which is more or less repeated here with some elaboration. The major qualitative difference, as far as I can see, is that now God is explicitly including himself in the bargain. He says it twice:
And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that [is] upon the earth.
And God said unto Noah, This [is] the token of the covenant, which I have established between me and all flesh that [is] upon the earth.
First he explicitly describes it as a covenant between God and living-creature-flesh (beyn ‘elohiym beyn chay nephesh basar) on the earth, then as simply a covenant established with all flesh (quwm basar) on the earth.
The extraordinary thing about this is that God is explicitly constraining Himself in His relations with humanity and the created world. No longer is God just an arbitrary figure issuing commands. He is a reasonable being, which human beings can understand, and — in a very specific sense — bound. Not in the sense that His character or power are bound, but that the relationship is bounded — certain things are simply “out-of-bounds.”
God. Wow. Out of the destruction and loss, something wonderful has happened. You have chosen to treat with us as equals, and enter into covenant with us. Like a parent promising a child he’ll never leave. We have no claim upon you, no court through which to enforce judgment. Yet somehow you count us worthy of binding yourself to us — and to the world which you have made. Father, teach me the reality of your covenant heart, that I may find freedom in submission to you. Amen.
Note: Processing Theology
One way scholars have attempted to reconcile God’s seemingly harsh behavior early in the Bible, with what might considered His later more ‘enlightened’ approach, is something called process theology, which as best I understand it implies that God learns or changes based on His experience dealing with human beings. While process theology deserves some credit for its willingness to read the text at face value, strong theists like myself find the whole notion of a growing God inconsistent with His other claims to preternatural wisdom. Instead, I interpret these texts through what I call a ‘parental’ perspective. That is, God is parenting humanity, and as the relationship matures God reveals Himself differently — just like a parent appears very different to a two-year old than to a twenty-year old. True, the human parent is learning as time goes on, but that is not the primary reason for the shift. Rather, as the child’s capabilities and experience base — both with the world and with their parents — increase, they are able to better appreciate the fulness of their parent’s personality. Not being a theologian, I have no idea if this is a common viewpoint, or if there is an official term for it — I know just enough theological lingo to be dangerous — but I find it a useful perspective on passages such as this.