NEVER AGAIN Genesis 9–11 “I now establish My covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature” (Gen. 9:9–10).Noah and his sons carried the seed of sin with them into the new world. But now God introduced another theme which, with that of Creation, sin, and judgment, echoes through the Old Testament. It is the theme of promise; of a divine commitment to human beings made despite what we are rather than because of what we are.
God permitted man to prey on the animal kingdom, but not on other human beings (9:1–7). He made the rainbow a sign of His promise never again to cut off all life by a flood (vv. 8–17). Yet the act of Noah’s son Ham shows that sin was still imbedded in human nature (vv. 18–29). The roots of ancient nations are traced (chap. 10), and the origin of differing languages explained (11:1–9). A genealogy draws attention to a man who will be pivotal in God’s grand plan of redemption—Abraham (vv. 10–32).
Understanding the Text
“I will surely demand an accounting” Gen. 9:1–6. In this brief but critical paragraph, God makes society responsible for individual behavior. Men are responsible to enforce God’s prohibition against murder. The words “whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” supports proponents of capital punishment by commanding society to execute murderers. The rationale, “For in the image of God has God made man,” is stated. Human life is of such ultimate value that no lesser penalty for taking life can signify how important each individual truly is. The same paragraph lays the foundation for human government. Lesser powers (such as making regulations that promote well-being) are implied in the “accounting” God requires of us for punishing murderers. Covenant Gen. 9:9. This vitally important Old Testament word indicates a formal, legally binding commitment. God’s promise to never again destroy all life with a flood was not lightly made. “Saw his father’s nakedness” Gen. 9:22. Here the NIV interprets. The Hebrew original reads “uncovered his father’s nakedness.” Just what this phrase suggests is uncertain, but the seriousness with which Genesis treats the event indicates that Ham did more than catch a glimpse of an uncovered body. The delicacy with which Shem and Japheth treated their father (vv. 23–24) is a reminder to us of the modesty with which Scripture treats sexual matters. “Cursed be Canaan” Gen. 9:24–27. The “curse” uttered here did not cause Canaan’s future condition, but predicted it. Old Testament curses and blessings are often predictive, though pagan peoples considered curses magical utterances which could cause harm to enemies. There is no suggestion here that Canaan participated in his ancestor Ham’s act. Yet the moral flaw seen in Ham developed through the centuries into the gross immorality practiced by the Canaanites, who practiced ritual prostitution by both sexes as a part of their religion. Let’s open our lives totally to the cleansing power of God. He can remove even the small flaws that might otherwise be magnified in the lives of our children. “This is the account” Gen. 10:1–32. Genesis uses both language and land areas to identify ancient peoples. While exact identification is difficult now, many of these names of peoples and nations have been found on ancient inscriptions. “Settled there” Gen. 11:1–4. Most agree that the tower built at Babel was a ziggurat, a stepped structure which in ancient times was often topped by a temple. Perhaps the words “reaches to the heavens” implies the early institution of idolatrous worship. Yet the text suggests a different sin. The tower was to be a symbol of racial unity, so man should “not be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (v. 4). But God had specifically told Noah and his sons to “fill the earth” (9:1–7). It may have seemed like a little thing. Yet it was important to God’s plan for man to multiply. Here too is a lesson for us. All that God says to us is important. We need to be sensitive to every command. “Confuse their language” Gen. 11:5–9. What an indication of God’s sense of humor. Can you imagine the next morning, one of the workers saying, “Hand me another brick, will you?” And his friend hearing, “Xpul Kodlyeme kakkadoke, seppulvista?” And can’t you see the people, milling about in search of others they can talk with and understand? Soon the speakers of different languages found each other, and each group drifted away to settle in its own territory. In this gentle way “the Lord scattered them over all the earth.” God often responds this way to our disobedience. He sends no lightning bolt, causes no great suffering. Instead He gently and sometimes humorously changes the direction of our lives. It’s hot in Dallas in the summer. One young couple, feeling a call to the ministry, enrolled in the seminary I attended. They arrived in August, and were greeted by a heat wave in which temperatures reached 112 degrees. After two days, the young man’s “call” melted away, and they left town. How God must have chuckled. Like the confusion of tongues, His heat wave had “scattered” a couple who were not where they were supposed to be. Perhaps you can look back too and see gentle ways God has redirected your life. How gracious God is. How good God is not to break out in anger every time we wander from His intended path. “Became the father” Gen. 11:10–32. Genealogy was vitally important to the Hebrews. In Hebrew genealogies “became the father” often means “was an ancestor of.” Also, Hebrew genealogies often skip generations, just naming significant ancestors. There is no way to tell from genealogies like this how many generations or how long a time passed from the first person named in a list to the last. Instead the genealogy points us to the truly important persons in Bible history, here preparing us to meet Abraham.
The Sign of the Covenant(Gen. 9:8–17)
The covenant is a key to grasping what the Old Testament teaches about the character of our God. In Old Testament times a covenant (Heb. brit) was a formal contract, intended to make an agreement legally binding. In international affairs a covenant was a treaty. In a nation’s life it served as a constitution. In business a covenant was a contract. In personal relationships it was a commitment. Most covenants in ancient times were two-party agreements. That is, each person or group involved specified what he or she would do to carry out the agreement. If one side failed to perform, the agreement was broken, and the other side was no longer obligated. But look at God’s covenant with Noah. It is pure promise! God made no conditions. There are no “ifs.” Instead God simply said, “I now make a commitment to you and your descendants. Never again. Never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” Whatever humanity may do, God remains committed to this promise made to Noah. The text tells us that the rainbow is to serve as a reminder to God of this specific covenant promise. But the rainbow means something else to us. Rather than a reminder of a specific promise, the rainbow is a reminder of the character of God and the nature of our relationship with Him. The rainbow reminds us that God comes to us with promises, not demands; that God in grace makes commitments to us that do not depend on our performance. We may fail God, but God will never fail us. Only in Jesus do we fully understand. Only in Christ’s promise of eternal life to all who trust Him do we grasp the full wonder of God’s grace. Yet we sense something of it here in Genesis. And each time we see a rainbow, we are reminded. The God who promised to never again destroy all life with a flood is the God of promise, the God of grace. The commitments that He makes to us in Christ are promises that will never fail.
The next time you see a rainbow, let it remind you of God’s amazing grace.