Two important words emerge in the story of Noah that will echo throughout the pages of Scripture: grace (Gen. 6:8, ESV has “favor”) and covenant (v. 18). In a context where the sinfulness of man is said to be “great” (v. 5), Noah finds “favor in the eyes of the Lord” (v.8), and because of it, he escapes the cataclysmic deluge that is the consequence of God’s retributive anger toward human rebellion. The grace of God shown to Noah (and his family) is covenantal in form: “I will establish my covenant with you” (6:18). This is deeply significant and has been viewed as a key by which to understand the entirety of God’s ways with His people in history. For this to happen, several things need to be understood.
First, it is crucial to see the relationship between the expression of favor on God’s part to Noah in 6:8 and what follows immediately in verse 9, where Noah is described as a “righteous” and “blameless” man who “walked with God.” It may appear on the surface as though verse 9 is explanatory of the grace received — that the reason God looked favorably upon Noah was because he was a righteous man! This would, of course, contradict everything we learn in the rest of Scripture about the meaning of grace — what we customarily refer to as “God’s undeserved favor,” “his unmerited love.” It is the idea of God blessing where He is not obligated to do so (see Ex. 33:12 ff.; Amos 5:15; Jonah 4:2). The solution to this problem is to note that 6:9 begins with a characteristic formula — the so-called generations formula: “These are the generations of…” (see 2:4; 5:1; 10:1; 11:27). This then makes verse 9 the consequence of rather than the explanation of verse 8. In other words, we are being told that when grace comes into Noah’s life it changes him! Grace always does: it transforms and renews.
Second, with all this in mind, God then says to Noah: “I will establish my covenant with you” (6:18). The verb employed here means “makes to rise up” (see 9:9; 17:7; Ex. 6:4), and it is only one of several verbs used in the Old Testament when God is said to initiate a covenant. Elsewhere, God “inaugurates” or “cuts” (Gen. 15:18; Ex. 34:10, 27; Deut. 4:23; 5:2) or “appoints” or “places” [lit. puts between Himself and the individual] (Gen. 17:2; Num. 25:12) a covenant — though our English versions do not always distinguish these in translation. The language is precise and evocative, demonstrating among other features God’s sovereign initiative in the bond established. This is not a treaty mutually initiated between roughly equal partners. There are two parties involved (God and Noah inclusive of Noah’s family), but the movement is by God toward Noah suggesting that the reverse would never, in fact, have taken place. It is “my covenant” God insists (Gen. 6:18). God must save and God alone!
Third, even though this is the first time the word covenant occurs in Scripture, the concept of covenant has already appeared in the garden of Eden, and it is the underlying explanation of why Adam and Eve had not been immediately destroyed following their rebellion. In the background is the “Gospel-promise” (proto-evangelium) providing a covering for Adam’s sin and an embryonic promise of victory for the woman’s seed against the kingdom of darkness (a Savior “born of woman,” Gal. 4:4). Thus, a covenantal method has been established already that will emerge in its redemptive significance in the covenant with Abraham (Gen. 17:6–8) and echo through the pages of Scripture thereafter. In the story that follows, the wrath of God against sin will be revealed in a catastrophic flood that will destroy mankind, but God will lay hold of Noah and his family and will keep them safe when the world is perishing. He will literally “make his covenant stand up” (6:18), as though it had been there all along but is now going to be shown in a clear, vivid manner.
Fourth, God does not remove Noah and his family from the sphere of His judgmental action. He does not raise this family to somewhere in the heavens and then return them again. They, too, must endure the judgment, but God will ensure they are not destroyed. The ark was not a luxury cruise liner. Noah was locked in a zoo with his in-laws! We dare not sentimentalize what this meant for him. God’s righteousness is something witnessed up close and personal. Presumably, Noah witnessed the drowning of many individuals. He would have seen the floating corpses of those who perished. The salvation of God is one whereby God is just and the justifier of the one who believes in His word of promise.
Fifth, Noah’s obedience is indicative of both the genuineness and shape of his faith in God’s promise. The story underlines in detail how Noah builds an ark and gathers the animals in response to the word God has given to him. He “did all that the Lord had commanded him” (Gen. 6:22; 7:5, 9; 8:15–18). But it is also expressive of his obedience that he was prepared to leave the ark, not because of what his eyes told him (8:13–14) but because of what the Lord told him (8:15–16). That is always the way for God’s children.