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Covenant Conundrum

How can the unchanging God commit Himself?

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.

Genesis 6:18

In the last post, we looked at God’s repentance as described in the first part of Genesis 6. We noted that, although it may seem impossible that the unchanging God can repent, His unchanging nature actually means He must repent towards a person who changes their lifestyle. God will cease showing grace and favor to people who leave righteousness for wickedness. 

In the second half of Genesis 6, we find the first recorded covenant tucked within God’s instructions to Noah for building the ark. It is more of a promise to establish a covenant than actually establishing it.

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

Interestingly, God didn’t define the terms of the covenant. That is, He didn’t specify what He would do or what Noah should do to accomplish the desired result. However, He did indicate the result of the covenant, which was that He would keep them alive. So this first covenant was basically a commitment from God to Noah to keep alive all those who were on the ark through the duration of the flood.

The context of this covenant sets up a stark contrast. The first half of Genesis 6 spoke of God’s repentance, that is, His change of attitude towards mankind. The second half of the same chapter spoke of God’s covenant to keep certain ones alive, which effectively was a promise that He would not repent towards Noah and those with him. Essentially, the context shows that the covenant was the opposite of repentance.

Given that it was necessary for God to repent in response to peoples’ choices, it seems impossible that God could make a long-term promise to not repent, since people are given to change. It seems like it would have made more sense if He promised Noah that He would keep them alive if they remained righteous. That way, if they didn’t continue in righteousness, He wouldn’t be obligated to keep the promise. But by making a covenant that was not based on their lifestyle, God removed His option of repenting if they embraced wickedness.

This creates a conundrum in justice. There was the possibility that one of those on board the ark would turn to wickedness. In that situation, because of His covenant, God would be obligated to extend grace to that wicked individual. The only way this could be just is if God had a good reason for making a commitment to show grace and favor on people regardless of their lifestyle.

The Basis of the Covenant

By emphasizing selective parts of the history, the text showed that God had a good reason to show grace to wicked men. Often, when we tell the story of the ark, we talk about the long process of building it. But the text entirely omitted the building process and instead focused on how Noah responded to God’s command, even telling us twice that Noah obeyed God.

Thus Noah did; according to all that God commanded him, so he did. Genesis 6:22
And Noah did according to all that the LORD commanded him. Genesis 7:5

So the text presented God’s covenant to Noah in a context that emphasized Noah’s obedience.

From this emphasis, we can see that Noah’s obedience was critical to the establishment of the covenant. In the text, God clearly linked the covenant to the ark: “I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall go into the ark…”. This covenant wouldn’t be established until there was an ark to board. Noah would need to obey God’s command of building the ark in order for the covenant to be established.

Thus, the basis of the covenant was not Noah’s lifestyle, but his act of obedience. God established the covenant based on Noah’s one-time act of obedience. It is common knowledge that an action committed cannot be retracted. Once Noah built the ark, his action became a fact of history and no one could undo the fact that he had built the ark.

If God had established the covenant based on Noah’s righteous lifestyle, then it would have been possible to lose the basis of the covenant because it was possible for Noah to commit wickedness. But when God based the covenant on Noah’s act of obedience, an unchangeable fact of history, then He established the covenant on the basis of something that could not be changed.

Because Noah fully obeyed His command, God established His covenant that He would grant the grace and favor of preserving life. If Noah chose wickedness while on the ark, God could look back on the time Noah obeyed and continue to show favor and grace based on that earlier expression of obedience. That is, God could say, ‘Even though you have done wickedly today, I will continue to show you grace because of your act of obedience in the past.’

The Covenant Scope

The text shows us that God did not limit His promise of grace and favor to only Noah. While it is true God made the covenant specifically with Noah, He expanded its benefits to Noah’s full family, including his sons and daughter-in-laws.

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. Genesis 6:18

Their inclusion into the covenant was not based on their obedience, for the text is conspicuously silent on their role in building the ark, or even whether they had a role. It clearly told us that Noah obeyed, but said nothing about whether his sons obeyed. Yet, God included them in the covenant.

Then the LORD said to Noah, “Come into the ark, you and all your household, because I have seen that you are righteous before Me in this generation Genesis 7:1

Noah’s family enjoyed the benefits of the covenant only because they were of his household. So if one of those sons became wicked, God would still show them favor because they were with Noah, the man who performed that act of obedience to God.

The unchanging God established covenant based on obedience as an unchanging fact of history so that He could show grace regardless of peoples’ lifestyle. The scope of the covenant included all who were with the man who obeyed.


There are a number of parallels worth noting between Noah and the Lord Jesus.

Noah found grace in God’s sight. Genesis 6:8Jesus found grace in God’s sight. Luke 3:21-22
Noah obeyed God’s command to provide a means of salvation. Genesis 6:22Jesus did the will of God in providing a means of salvation. Luke 22:41-42
God established a covenant based on the unchanging fact of Noah’s obedience. Genesis 7:5God established a covenant based on the unchanging fact of the Lord Jesus’ obedience. Hebrews 9:15
The covenant of life extended to all who were with Noah. Genesis 6:18The covenant of life extends to all who are in Christ. Colossians 2:11-13
God established a covenant based on the obedience of Christ. When Christ died on the cross, He fulfilled the will of God to provide a means of salvation for all mankind. Because of His righteous obedience, God can now extend the grace of life to each person who entrusts themselves in the salvation Christ provided. So God gives life to each person who is in Christ.

An earlier version of this page is available here.

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