The Noahic Covenant’s Importance for Government
God and humans aren’t strangers to one another, as if their relationship is undefined or their obligations unknown. Instead, God has established covenants in which he defines his relationships with people, makes commitments to them, and demands obedience in return. The Abrahamic covenant with the house of Abraham, the Mosaic covenant with Israel, and the new covenant with the church serve as the Bible’s most prominent examples. Thanks to these covenants, God’s people haven’t had to wonder about the nature of their relationship with him or the terms on which he deals with them.
But what about our political communities and civil governments? How should we understand their relationship with God? This article argues that God also relates to civil governments by way of covenant—specifically, the Noahic covenant he established after the great flood (Gen. 8:21–9:17). This fact has profound implications for defining the importance and legitimacy of civil government as well as its limited authority and modest aspirations.
A FEW BASIC CHARACTERISTICS OF THE NOAHIC COVENANT
Before turning to issues of civil government specifically, I explain a few basic characteristics of the Noahic covenant that provide the necessary background for what follows.
First, the Noahic covenant is universal in scope. God established it with Noah and his family and with all future generations (Gen. 9:8, 9, 12). He also established it with the entire animal kingdom, “every living creature” (9:9–13, 15–17). This covenant even extends to “the earth” (9:13) and the broader natural order: “seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night” (8:22).
Second, the Noahic covenant is preservative in purpose. That is, God promises to sustain this fallen world but nothing more. Instead of destroying the earth again with a flood (8:21; 9:11, 15), he maintains the cycles of nature (8:22) and enforces boundaries between the animal and human realms (9:2–4). Noticeably absent are any promises of forgiveness, a coming Messiah, or a new creation. The Noahic covenant administers God’s common grace, not his saving grace.
Third, the Noahic covenant promulgates a modest ethic for human beings. It requires being fruitful, multiplying, and filling the earth (Gen. 9:1, 7), eating plants and animals with certain restraints (9:3-4), and punishing the violent (9:6). These are important. Still, this covenant doesn’t command things that seem even more important, such as worship. This isn’t surprising. Because the covenant’s purpose is preservative, the covenant’s ethic focuses on basic activities necessary for the survival of human society: procreation, material provision, and enforcing justice.
Finally, God put the covenant into effect for a limited period of time. He promised to maintain this world “while the earth remains” (8:22). From the New Testament’s perspective, we can say that the covenant’s expiration date is Christ’s Second Coming. Then he will judge the world and bring the present created order to radical consummation (e.g., 2 Pet. 3:3-13). God established this covenant to last for a very long time, which is what calling it an “everlasting covenant” means (9:16), but he never designed it to last forever.
THE OBLIGATION TO ENFORCE JUSTICE
While the Noahic covenant doesn’t formally institute civil government, it authorizes it. To understand how, consider one aspect of this covenant’s modest ethic: enforcing justice. God said: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (9:6). Although this mentions a specific act of injustice—bloody murder—it points to a broader principle, the so-called lex talionis (law of retribution). The Mosaic covenant later summarized it as eye-for-an-eye and tooth-for-a-tooth (Exod. 21:23–25; Lev. 24:19–20; Deut. 19:21). The point isn’t the need for physical mutilation but that the punishment should fit the crime. Acts of violence should receive proportionate retribution.
Note three aspects of this requirement: First, the covenant requires the entire community to enforce justice. God doesn’t appoint particular people to be judges or reveal an ideal constitution but simply hands over this general responsibility to the human race.
Second, the covenant indicates that every perpetrator of violence should be punished and every victim should be avenged. It doesn’t matter whether the perpetrator or victim adheres to a particular religion, is rich or poor, or is male or female (the Hebrew word translated as “man” can refer to either). The Noahic covenant demands equal justice for all. No one should be exempt from its requirements or excluded from its benefits.
Lastly, the covenant’s context suggests that this justice must be tempered by forbearance. In the broader biblical context, God manifested his retributive justice by sending the great flood against humanity because of their violence (see 6:11). In contrast, through the Noahic covenant, God displays his forbearance by postponing the final judgment despite continuing human sin (see 8:21). As Genesis 9:6 indicates, human beings should enforce justice under this covenant as God’s image-bearers. If God now tempers his justice with forbearance, so must we. We would destroy ourselves if we tried to avenge every last wrong. Instead, the Noahic covenant demands enforcing justice in a way that promotes the covenant’s purpose: preserving the human race.
THE NOAHIC COVENANT AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF CIVIL GOVERNMENT
Against this background, readers can now understand my claim that the Noahic covenant authorizes civil government. Consider this both from the perspective of the Noahic covenant looking forward and from the New Testament looking backward.
The Noahic covenant commissions the human community to enforce justice but gives no specific instructions for doing so. Thus, how could the human community effectively fulfill this commission? Not by leaving matters in the hands of each individual. That’s no recipe for equal justice. Promoting and maintaining justice requires collaborative action for all sorts of reasons. It’s evident, therefore, that communities must establish institutions responsible for enforcing justice.
Fulfilling the Noahic command to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 9:1, 7) requires more than mere individuals; people must form institutions—namely, families—that support the procreation and nurture of children. Likewise, fulfilling the Noahic command to do justice requires institutions designed for this purpose. Private institutions can and do serve this purpose, to be sure. But throughout history, communities have inevitably formed public institutions called government. It’s interesting to note that governments often justify their existence (at least partly) by claiming to uphold justice in society. Moreover, people regularly beseech their governments to make wrongs right. Most communities did not intend to obey the Noahic covenant when forming such (very imperfect) institutions. But in God’s mysterious providence, they fulfilled his covenantal designs.
Consider this also from the New Testament’s vantage point. The Noahic covenant doesn’t directly institute civil government, nor does any other biblical text. Yet texts such as Romans 13:1–7 and 1 Peter 2:13–17 recognize existing governments as divinely authorized. Looking at these texts on their own raises a puzzling question: how are these governments divinely authorized if God never commanded anyone to establish them? The answer is that God has commissioned human communities to do justice under the Noahic covenant. Thus, when communities establish governments intended (at least in part) to do justice, these governments exist with God’s approval. Paul and Peter can therefore say that civil magistrates are “appointed” and “sent” by God (Rom. 13:2; 1 Pet. 2:14). He sends them to bear the sword against the evildoer and approve those who do what’s good (Rom. 13:3–4; 1 Pet. 2:14), that is, to do justice.
I close with a few implications. At the most general level, we see that Christians’ political thinking and conduct should always reflect the fact that our governments are in covenant with God through the Noahic covenant. Our political agendas should reflect God’s purposes in the Noahic covenant, and we should beware of trying to make government serve different purposes, however wise they seem to us. This general implication exposes perhaps the most fundamental flaw in the recent theonomy movement. God gave the Mosaic law to govern Israel under the Mosaic covenant (Exod. 19:5; 24:7–8; Deut. 5:2–3; 9:9; 29:1). The Law served that covenant’s purposes. But no nation in the world today is under the Mosaic covenant, and thus the Mosaic law is an inappropriate standard for any of them.
I find four adjectives helpful for describing the proper character of civil government under the Noahic covenant. Each has important implications.
Civil governments are legitimate. That is, God has “instituted” and “sent” them to accomplish his purposes concerning justice (Rom. 13:1–3; 1 Pet. 2:14). Hence, all people should submit to their civil authorities, honor them, and pay taxes (Rom. 13:1, 5–7; 1 Pet. 2:13–17), and Christians should pray for them (1 Tim. 2:1–2). Government legitimacy also implies that Christians are free to participate in politics and hold government office (cf. Luke 19:1–10; Acts 10; 13:6–12).
Civil governments are provisional. That is, God has temporarily appointed them—in Noahic terms, “while the earth remains” (Gen. 8:22). They’re necessary but not of ultimate importance. Only Christ’s kingdom is of utmost importance, and that kingdom will one day destroy all earthly kingdoms (Dan. 2:3–-45). Governments can accomplish good purposes but not the highest purposes. They might bear the sword to promote justice (and even that imperfectly), but they don’t minister the keys of the kingdom of heaven, which Christ entrusted to the church (Matt. 16:18–19). Thus, Christians shouldn’t stake too much on the affairs of the state. God raises rulers up and brings them down (Isa. 40:23–24). Through it all, our citizenship remains in heaven (Phil. 3:20). At the present, we have no lasting city here but seek one that’s to come (Heb. 13:12). Wise Christians keep politics in perspective.
Civil governments are common. That is, God appointed them for all human beings and not for a privileged few. As noted above, God entered the Noahic covenant with all people (Gen. 9:8, 9, 12) and commissioned the entire community to enforce equal justice (9:6). Likewise, Paul calls “every person” to obey civil authorities (Rom. 13:1), says that whatever civil authority exists is from God (Rom. 13:1), and calls these authorities to punish evildoers and praise the good (Rom. 13:3–4; cf. 1 Pet. 2:14). In none of these statements does Paul distinguish between rich and poor, male and female, or Christian and non-Christian. Civil office should be open to all, civil obedience required of all, and the courts of civil justice accessible to all. Thus, Christians should seek equal justice for everyone and support religious liberty for all peaceful people. Believers are most faithful to Scripture when they resist invitations to embrace “Christian America” or “Christian nationalism” and instead promote just government policies that give no special privileges to any identity group.
Civil governments are accountable. The idea that governments are common does not imply that they’re morally neutral. On the contrary, because they’re in covenant with God, they’re liable to him and his standards. Paul calls civil officials God’s “servants” and “ministers,” appointed not to pursue their own gain but to carry out “God’s wrath” (Rom. 13:4, 6). As servants, they must give account to God on the last day. This reminds Christians to be diligent and just as they participate in politics or hold government office. But most of all, it should encourage Christians who suffer injustice in this life, especially those suffering for Christ’s sake. On the last day, God will hold accountable the wicked city in which is found “the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slain on earth” (Rev. 18:24).
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 God also made a covenant with Noah before the great flood (Gen 6:18). This was evidently a different covenant because none of the four characteristics of the post-flood covenant I describe below were true of this earlier covenant. In this article, the “Noahic covenant” simply refers to the covenant post-flood.
 I’ve discussed and defended all the ideas in this article in fuller detail in David VanDrunen, Politics after Christendom: Political Theology in a Fractured World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2020).