Old Testament Sacraments, Pt. 4: The Rainbow in the Noahic Covenant (1)


In our last post, we suggested that the animal skins God used to cover Adam and Eve were a sacrament of the covenant of grace given in Genesis 3:15. It must be admitted, of course, that this interpretation is fraught with complexities, given that it is not obvious that Genesis 3:15 is a strict covenant, nor that the animals skins are a sacramental sign in the way that circumcision (for example) is the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant (cf. Gen. 17). It would seem that these sorts of difficulties quickly disappear when analyzing the rainbow in the Noahic Covenant, for God’s promise to Noah in Genesis 9 is the first biblical use of the Hebrew word “covenant” (berit) and God specifically calls the rainbow a “sign” (ot) of the covenant. While all commentators and theologians would agree on these points, historically there have been two important interpretive difficulties: whether the Noahic Covenant is a redemptive covenant and whether the rainbow is a sacrament. Many throughout the history of the Church have disagreed on these two points. This article will argue that while the Noahic Covenant is not a dispensation of the Covenant of Grace, it can nonetheless be understood as a kind of redemptive covenant in continuity with the Covenant of Grace and ultimately fulfilled in Christ. My next article will then discuss the sacramental character of the rainbow and how it signifies Christ’s redemptive work.

Overview of the Noahic Covenant

God’s covenant with Noah directly flows from the events after the Edenic Fall. Upon expulsion east of Eden, cursed mankind quickly descends into wickedness: first Cain’s murder of Abel, then Lamech’s polygamy and homicide, followed by an increased wickedness on the earth to such an extent that “the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Gen. 6:6). God responds to man’s utter depravity by an act of new creation—through the water and the covenant Word (cf. Gen. 1:1-3). As Konrad Pellikan (1478-1556) argues, his determination to destroy the earth with a flood is not simply an act of judgment, but an act of restoration, of making all things new through a kind of cosmic baptism that signifies the true baptism of the soul that leads to new life (cf. 1 Pet. 4:20-21).[1] And like the creative Word that speaks the creation into existence, God speaks a covenant word to Noah and his family through whom the whole earth will be saved (Gen. 6:18-22). In fact, this is the first time in Scripture where the Hebrew word “covenant” (berit) is actually used.

While God first enters into covenant with Noah and his family before the flood, God afterward enters into a fuller covenant with Noah that also extends to all of creation—man, beast, and the created order itself.[2] The covenant contains both the divine promise and also mankind’s covenant obligations. God establishes his covenant not simply with Noah and his offspring, but with “every living creature,” promising that he will never again “curse the ground because of man,” nor “strike down every living creature,” nor will he ever send a flood again to destroy mankind (Gen. 8:21-22; 9:9-11). Through this covenant, God establishes a new created order with all of his creation, promising life and not destruction, promising to never again curse the creation for the sins of mankind.

Having thus done a work of new creation through the flood and established a new covenant with his creation, God—as Andrew Willet (1562-1621) notes—renews the creation mandate given to Adam and Eve, albeit not in the “integrity and perfection” of the original mandate:[3]

“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth…into your hands [all living things] are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. 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 his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image. And you, be fruitful and multiply, teem on the earth and multiply in it” (Gen. 9:1-7).

As Andrew Willet notes,

“The three privileges given to human beings in their creation—of increasing and multiplying, of rule and dominion over the creatures, of their food and sustenance—are renewed here in these three first verses, though with these covenant promises and obligations, God then gives “every living creature” the sign of the covenant: the rainbow. And God promises that when he sees the rainbow he will “remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (Gen. 9:15).

In the next article we will unpack the meaning of the rainbow as the sacrament of the Noahic Covenant and how it is fulfilled in Christ. But first, we must understand how the Noahic Covenant relates to the Covenant of Grace.

What Kind of Covenant is the Noahic Covenant?

Herman Witsius (1636-1708) strongly argues against understanding the Noahic Covenant as a dispensation of the Covenant of Grace.[4] Nonetheless, he argues that the Noahic Covenant is predicated upon the Covenant of Grace and “an appendage of the Covenant of Grace,” for in the Noahic Covenant “there is a confirmation and a typical representation of the Covenant of Grace.”[5] Because the Noahic Covenant is not part of the Covenant of Grace in Witsius’ opinion, he argues that the rainbow should not be called a “sacrament” in the strict and proper sense. But as a concession he declares that, “the signs of the Covenant of Grace, in a way of proportion, bear the very same relation that the rainbow bore in sealing or ratifying this covenant.”[6] Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949), too, says that the Noahic Covenant is not directly redemptive, but has an “indirect bearing.” [7] While the redemptive covenants are with particular people from the line of Shem, this covenant is not only with these specific people, but the whole created order. However, Vos does say that in this covenant “positive, constructive measures were taken for the further carrying out of the divine purpose.”[8] Alternatively, the Dutch Anabaptist Reformer Dirk Philips (1504-1568) argues that the Noahic Covenant is a continuation of Genesis 3:15’s promise to restore mankind through the woman’s seed and is thus in continuity with the Covenant of Grace.[9]

Given the perspective of Witsius and Vos, many—such as Michael Horton—have understood the Noahic Covenant as a “common grace covenant,” rather than a redemptive covenant.[10] This can be a misnomer, however, if we think the Noahic Covenant only has significance for the material life of the human race. In fact, Witsius’ contention that the Noahic Covenant is an “appendage” and “type” of the Covenant of Grace seems to indicate that it is not simply a common grace covenant, but a “redemptive grace covenant” as well. Witsius quotes Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562) to this effect: “Though in this covenant, God promised to deliver men, as to their bodily life, that they should not perish in the waters; yet in this there was a shadow or type of the deliverance from eternal death; namely, they should not be overwhelmed with eternal damnation.”[11] Vermigli also states that the “this new restoration of the world was a type of our regeneration in Christ.”[12] Given these arguments, it is reasonable to insist that there is a significant link between the Noahic Covenant and the Covenant of Grace, either essentially or typologically.

Continuity with Genesis 3:15 and the Abrahamic Covenant

There is also a strong thematic link between Genesis 3:15, the Noahic Covenant, and the Abrahamic Covenant that may indicate that the Noahic Covenant is in fact a dispensation of the Covenant of Grace. Noah functions in some way as a second Adam. As God promises to save mankind through the “seed of the woman” God also curses the ground because of Adam’s sin (Gen. 3:17). The flood seems to be a partial fulfillment of this curse, for after the flood God’s promises never to curse the ground again because of man’s sin (Gen. 9:9).

In Gen. 5:29, Lamech declares that Noah (a descendent of Seth) will be a reversal of the curse of Gen. 3:17: “This one will give us rest from our work and from the toil of our hands arising from the ground which the Lord has cursed.” The same word for “ground” (adamah) features in both passages, which creates a significant link between the curse, the promise, and the hope of salvation. The play on words with the name ‘Adam’ is also evident, underscoring the fact that Noah was, in some sense, to be a second Adam through whom the world would be saved. Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed would come a new Adam who will reverse the curse. This word becomes a leitwort throughout the flood narrative and the theme of “earth” is again revisited when Yahweh promises to Abram, “in you all the families of the earth (adamah) shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). This ties together Adam, Noah, and Abraham, and with it Gen. 3:15, the Noahic Covenant, and the Abrahamic Covenant.

The link is made even stronger when considering the clear connection between the creation and covenant language in the Noahic covenant that reflects the creation and covenant language of Genesis 1-3 and the Abrahamic Covenant. After the fall, the creation itself (and man’s relationship to the creation) is affected by the curses made in response to the breaking of the Covenant of Works. This connection between creation and covenant in Genesis 1-3 is reflected in the Noahic Covenant. The fivefold blessing in Genesis 9:1-3 subverts the fivefold curse of Genesis 3:14-19. Furthermore, the promise in Gen. 9:9-11 of a land, a nation, and a covenant relationship with Yahweh restores what man lost in Genesis 3 and anticipates the promise to Abraham in Gen. 12 of a land, a nation, and a covenant relationship.[13] This continuity is furthermore strengthened with the connection between creation and covenant in the reiteration of the procreation theme that runs through the Adamic, Noahic, and Abrahamic covenants to be fruitful and multiply and bless the earth.[14]

A further connection can be discerned through the genealogies (toledoth) in Genesis and its close connection to the idea of “blessing,” which relates to the promise of Genesis 3:15 that through the woman’s offspring the head of the serpent would be crushed. For almost every toledoth, a blessing is associated with it. Right before the toledoth of Genesis 2:4, God blesses the Sabbath day—which becomes a central redemptive theme throughout Scripture (cf. Heb. 4:9). The toledoth of Genesis 5 begins with God’s blessing of mankind (Gen. 5:2) and directly precedes God’s covenant with Noah to save his family line (Gen. 6:18). Blessing comes right before the covenant reaffirmation to Noah in Genesis 9, which leads into the toledoth of Noah in Genesis 10. These blessings connect back to the blessing in Genesis 2:3, right before the toledoth of Genesis 2:4 (which God connected to redemption from Egypt in Deuteronomy), and connect forward to the Abrahamic blessing in Genesis 12, right after the toledoth of Genesis 11:27. The Abrahamic covenant is predicated on the promise of a family and the promise of God’s blessing through that family. Thus, the link between genealogy and blessing is integral to the Abrahamic covenant and the fulfillment of Gen. 3:15, a promised seed through which the world would be blessed.[15]

This linguistic and literary link between genealogy and blessing highlights the continuity of the redemption narrative–a narrative joined together by genealogy and covenant in keeping with Genesis 3:15 and the promise of the “seed.” The Noah narrative functions as the next narrative block that features a significant covenant after the promise of Genesis 3:15. Furthermore, the toledoth formula of 6:9 and 10:1 forms an inclusio, which brackets the two iterations of the Noahic Covenant and is nestled within the larger genealogical inclusio of the Garden narrative (begun with the toledoth of Gen. 2:4) and the Abraham narrative (begun with the toledoth of Gen. 11:27). Thus, the genealogy of Genesis 6:9 in the center functions as an answer to the problems of the earth that culminate in Yahweh’s decree of universal destruction (Gen 6:5-7), for Noah found favor with Yahweh, the offspring through whom mankind would be saved.


Whether or not we can definitively argue that the Noahic Covenant is a dispensation of the Covenant of Grace, there is clearly enough continuity with the promise of Genesis 3:15 and the Abrahamic Covenant to establish an important thematic link to the work of Christ and the New Covenant. Within this context, we can then explore the sacramental nature of the rainbow, how it is fulfilled in Christ, and why it reemerges in Revelation 4:3. This will be the subject of our next post.

Nathan Johnson is Assistant Dean of Academics, Head of Program, and Teaching Fellow at New College Franklin. He holds two M.A. degrees in Biblical Studies and Theological Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte) and an M.A. in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College. He also serves as a Lecturer in Philosophy at Davenant Hall.

  1. Konrad Pellikan, “Genesis 6:17,” in Commentaria Bibliorum (1532), 1:10v.

  2. This is not the last time that God has multiple covenants with the same person, each one expanding the one before: the Abrahamic Covenant is in three stages.

  3. Andrew Willet, “Genesis 9:2,” Hexapla in Genesin (1609).

  4. Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man Volume 2, trans. William Crookshank (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2010), 239.

  5. Witsius, Economy, 240.

  6. Witsius, Economy, 240-41.

  7. Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (East Peoria, IL: Banner of Truth, 201251.

  8. Vos, Biblical Theology, 51.

  9. Dirk Philips, Enchiridion, in Classics of the Radical Reformation (Waterloo, ON, and Scottdale, PA: Herald Press), 6:418-19.

  10. Michael Horton, Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 113.

  11. Witsius, Economy, 240.

  12. Peter Martyr Vermigli, “Genesis 6:18,” In Primum Librum Mosis (1569).

  13. Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (Waco: Word, 1987), li.

  14. Brandon Frick, “Covenantal Ecology: The Inseparability of Covenant and Creation in the Book of Genesis,” in Genesis and Christian Theology, ed. Nathan MacDonald, Mark W. Elliott, and Grant Macaskill (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 206-12.

  15. This pattern continues with the other toledoth formulas after Gen. 11:27. Blessing comes in Gen. 25:11, right before the toledoth in Gen 25:12. We don’t see it connected to Gen. 36 (however, when we hear Esau, we hear his voice saying “bless me, father.” And it also helps us recall the two seed theology and the blessing of Jacob. The same goes for the toledoth in Gen. 37 and the genealogy of Jacob, which contrasts with Esau and underscores two-seed theology). These connections are not just with “blessing” but also with promises and often covenant iterations or reiterations, particularly Noah, Abraham, Isaac (Gen. 26) and Jacob (Gen 28).


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