How can the unchanging God commit Himself?
This post has been updated. Please see Covenant Conundrum
But I will establish My covenant with you;
and you shall go into the ark—
you, your sons, your wife,
and your sons’ wives with you.
In the last post, we looked at God’s repentance in light of His unchanging nature. We noted that, although it may seem impossible that the unchanging God can repent, the reality is that His unchanging nature actually means He will repent when a person changes their lifestyle. Since He always has judgment for the wicked, He will change from showing favor to judgment for a person who leaves righteousness for wickedness.
A little farther in Genesis 6, we find a second concept related to God’s unchanging nature – a covenant. At first glance, a covenant appears fully congruent with God’s unchanging nature, since a covenant is basically a promise to not change from a course of action. But when we place the concept of God’s covenant alongside the necessity of God’s repentance, we will find there is a level of complexity that rivals and perhaps surpasses the complexity of God’s repentance.
Incidentally, the covenant in Genesis 6 is the first one recorded in Scripture and thus likely carries a high level of significance. We find the covenant in the passage where God commanded Noah to build the ark.
And behold, I Myself am bringing floodwaters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall go into the ark—you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing of all flesh you shall bring two of every sort into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Genesis 6:17-19
Normally, a covenant includes detailed terms that specify the proposed actions, but, as you may have noticed, Scripture passed over the terms of this covenant. So we should conclude that the terms of the covenant are not significant to what the Author wanted to convey and not try to guess the terms. Instead, we should note what the passage shows us. Namely, the purpose of the covenant. God used it like a guarantee to preserve life. Scripture is telling us that God made a commitment to Noah to keep alive all those with him throughout the duration of the flood. The significance is in the contrast to the repentance we saw earlier in the chapter. By making a covenant, God promised Noah that He would not repent/change.
A promise to exempt from judgment seems impossible for the unchanging God to keep over an extended length of time, because of human tendency to change. It seems that God should have told Noah that his life would be preserved if he remained righteous. Instead, He made a covenant that committed Himself to preserving their lives regardless of their lifestyle, whether wicked or righteous. Thus, if Noah or his family abandoned their righteousness while on the ark, God would have to either show favor to a wicked individual or break His covenant. So by making the covenant, God seemed to put Himself in a situation that would inevitably require Him to compromise.
Why did God make a covenant?
When God spoke to Noah about the flood, He began by telling of the coming destruction upon every living creature on the earth. Then He said, ‘But I will establish My covenant with you…’. God promised to establish a covenant, but the promise came with an implied condition. Noah needed to build the ark. Thus, the covenant depended on the existence of the ark. If the ark wasn’t there, Noah wouldn’t be able to get on it. Noah would have to obey God’s command to build the ark in order for the covenant to be established. His obedience was key.
The text, after telling what God said to Noah, does not give a single detail related to the long process of building the ark, but jumps to the completion of the project and tells us that Noah obeyed.
Thus Noah did; according to all that God commanded him, so he did. Genesis 6:22
Notice how the verse repeats the fact that Noah ‘did’. The Author deliberately draws our attention to Noah’s obedience, making Noah’s obedience the context of the covenant. He shows us that God made a covenant with a righteous man in the context of his obedience. So we see God rewarded Noah’s righteous obedience.
Putting this in the context of God’s administration and sovereignty, we see God always has judgment for the wicked, always has favor for the righteous, and always rewards righteous obedience.
The Covenant Scope
There is more to consider because the covenant covered others besides Noah. Namely, it covered his family, both sons and in-laws. But did you notice the passage is conspicuously silent about his sons’ contributions (or lack thereof) in building the ark? The Author only drew our attention to Noah’s obedience, not his sons’. Yet the covenant specifically included Noah’s sons. And their wives. And the animals. It’s as if Noah’s obedience covered him, his family, and the animals.
This fits the precedence set in the first half of Genesis 6. God didn’t restrict judgment to only the most wicked of mankind, He sent it upon every living creature on earth, both man and animal. I suppose this was because man had dominion over the animals. When God’s judgment fell upon man, it also fell upon all who were with him. In the same sweeping way, the covenant of life applied to all who were with righteous Noah.
Of course, the passage is not implying that God holds one person accountable for another person’s sin; He will hold each accountable for their own sin. But the passage is showing that God’s judgment upon the wicked can impact those who are with the wicked. Similarly, but conversely, His reward upon the righteous can impact those with the righteous. So God guaranteed to deliver from death Noah’s family and the animals as long as they were with Noah and inside the ark.
God promised the covenant in the context of Noah’s obedience. That ark was the tangible expression of Noah’s obedience. As a result, the covenant included all those who were covered under the reality of Noah’s obedience.
God committed Himself to reward righteous Noah in the context of his obedience. Thus, all those who were covered under the expression of Noah’s obedience (that is, those who were in the ark) would enter the benefits of Noah’s reward. God would not turn from rewarding righteous obedience even if non-righteous folks were under the cover of the obedience.