Noah’s Altar, Sacrifice and Covenant, Gen. 8-9

The universal flood and its aftermath introduced a number of new features connected with man’s relationship to God. The wiping out of a whole generation apart from one family is the greatest natural disaster in recorded history. The evidence for it is indelibly written in the geological strata of the earth. Man’s sin and departure from God described in Genesis 4-6 was so deep and widespread that the only remedy was a cosmic judgment and a fresh start. In the lengthy period prior to the flood, God had His witnesses in Abel, Seth, Enoch and Noah. We are told that the last two “walked with God”, but there is no mention of their offering a blood sacrifice prior to the flood. It is possible that they followed the example of Abel, but the Scriptures are silent concerning it. Enoch was miraculously taken up to heaven out of an increasingly evil environment, Gen. 5. 21-24; Heb, 11. 5; Jude 14-15.

The next great revelation of God was to Noah. “By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house; by the which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is by faith”, Heb. 11. 7. Noah preached without making a single convert apart from his own family. As the ark was being constructed, every hammer blow was a sermon that judgment was coming. The ark, made of cypress wood and covered within and outside with pitch, with its single door of entrance and its upper window for light and ventilation, is a wonderful picture of God’s way of salvation. It sheltered those inside from the storm of God’s wrath and landed them safe on a cleansed and renewed earth.

It was the Lord (Jehovah) who invited Noah and his family into the ark, “Come thou and all thy house into the ark”, and it was the Lord who shut him in, Gen. 7. 1, 16. After the deluge, it was God (Elohim) who gave the command, “Go forth of the ark, thou, and thy wife, and thy sons, and thy sons’ wives with thee”, 8. 15-16. As the head of a new race, he emerges into a new world, under new conditions. It is a fresh start for mankind.

The Altar. His first act is worship. The passage records four terms that occur for the first time in Scripture concerning blood sacrifice: (i) an altar, (ii) the distinction between clean and unclean animals, (iii) the burnt offering, and (iv) the sweet odour of the sacrifice. Linked with these is the first mention of a covenant and the sanctity of blood. This is a development of revelation concerning man’s approach to God in worship. The details require careful study and exposition.

The Altar. The Hebrew word is mizbeach, a slaughter place. Another word is used in Ezra 7. 17, madbach with a similar meaning, a slaughter place. In the Greek N.T., the word for altar is thusiasterion, meaning a place of sacrifice. Various materials were used in the construction of an altar.

The most primitive: of earth or of unhewn stone, Exod. 20. 24.
The brazen altar of the tabernacle, made of shittim (acacia) wood covered with bronze, Exod. 27. 1, 3.
The altar of incense in the holy place, made of shittim wood overlaid with pure gold, Exod. 30. 1-6.
A false altar of brick, Isa. 65. 3.
It was prohibited to have steps to ascend to the altar, Exod. 20. 26.

There were four horns on the upper corners of the brazen and golden altars. At the beginning of Solomon’s reign, we read that the horns of the altar were used as a sanctuary by Adonijah and by Joab when they were condemned to die, 1 Kings 1. 50; 2. 28.

In the patriarchal period we find Abraham, Isaac and Jacob building altars at critical points in their lives when God revealed Himself to them. But when the tabernacle was constructed and the temple built, there was only one place where the altar was erected; that was the place where God had placed His name, the gathering centre of His people, Lev. 17. 1-9; Deut. 12. 5-6, 11, 13-14 etc.

Animals and Birds Fit for Sacrifice. “And Noah builded an altar unto the Lord (Jehovah); and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar”, Gen. 8. 20. Here we discover the reason why the clean animals were taken into the ark in sevens and the unclean only in pairs, male and female. In the renewed earth, the unclean pair could easily thrive and survive; but why the odd one in the seven clean animals? The answer is that it was required for sacrifice in the new order. Later on, in the Mosaic Levitical code, the terms “clean and unclean” are defined, Lev. 22. 17-30. The three animals suitable for sacrifice are specifically named, oxen, sheep and goats. The animals must be perfect and without blemish. “The blind, or broken or maimed, or ulcerous, or scurvy, or scabbed, ye shall not offer unto the Lord”, v. 22 J.N.D. “Ye shall not offer unto the Lord that which is bruised, or crushed, or broken, or cut”, v. 24. “And when ye will offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving unto the Lord, offer it at your own will”, v. 29. Among the birds or fowls suitable for sacrifice, two turtle doves or two young pigeons are mentioned, Lev. 1. 14-17; 5. 7. In view of these detailed regulations, compare God’s strong rebuke of the priesthood in Malachi 1. 6-10. All of this points forward with unerring finger to the ultimate great atoning sacrifice, that of the holy sinless Lamb of God, without blemish and without spot, our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

The Burnt Offering. “And Noah … offered burnt offerings on the altar”, Gen. 8. 20. This is the first time that the term “burnt offering” is used in Scripture. It is the great basic offering, the first one in the Levitical offerings, Lev. 1, 1-17. It is the highest and most expensive offering, speaking of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross in His relation to God the Father. It would seem that all the offerings mentioned in Genesis were burnt offerings. We have to read the book of Exodus to find the meaning of the Passover Lamb, and the book of Leviticus to explore the fuller development of the five great sacrificial offerings on the altar. The fact that the Hebrew word for sin is the same as that for sin-offering leads some to translate Genesis 4. 7 as “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, a sin-offering lieth at the door”. But Hebrew scholars point out that the word for “lieth” is the word used of a wild beast crouching and ready to spring. If Cain refused to approach God in the God-appointed way with a blood sacrifice acknowledging his guilt, then sin was like a wild animal crouching at his door ready to attack. God in His grace gave him the opportunity for repentance and acceptance, but as his subsequent actions showed, this was refused.

An Odour of a Sweet Savour. This is another feature of Noah’s sacrifice which is mentioned for the first time, Gen. 8. 2, and which is later developed in the Levitical offerings. It is called a “savour of rest” to God, that in which He finds His rest and delight. The word is apparently a play on Noah’s name which means “rest”. It all points forward to the supreme sacrifice of Calvary where we too can find rest, Eph. 5. 2.

At this point, it is interesting to note the orderly progression in the first three types of the death of Christ in Scripture. The first type in Genesis 3 sets forth the provision of a covering for the guilty sinner. The second, Abel’s offering in chapter 4, teaches us the way of approach to God. Then Noah’s burnt offering is a sweet odour to God, indicating His acceptance and satisfaction. It is not difficult to discern the deep and precious significance of it all. When awakened to our sinful condition, we become conscious of our need of a covering before the eyes of a thrice-holy God. The word “cover’ is the root meaning of atonement. Then follows the Spirit-begotten desire to draw near to God in worship. Abel’s offering reveals that the only way of approach is by the blood-sprinkled way into the holiest. This goes on to the sweet savour of worship going up to God, issuing in rest and peace to the believing soul.

A Promise and a Covenant. Linked with the blood sacrifice, is a promise which terminates Genesis 8, and a covenant which opens chapter 9. The universal flood, which lasted over a year, meant that among other things, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter for that time had been wiped out. God promised that this would never happen again. This promise was confirmed by an unconditional covenant, and was pictured visibly by the token of the rainbow in the stormcloud.

The word “covenant” is one of the great keywords of Holy Scripture. The English word “covenant” means “an agreement between persons or parties”, lit., a coming together, a pact or a treaty. But the Hebrew word “berith” in the O.T., and the Greek word “diatheke” in the N.T., have a deeper and fuller meaning. In “An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words”, W. E. Vine writes regarding diatheke, "In its use in the Septuagint, it is the rendering of a Hebrew word meaning a covenant or agreement (from a verb signifying to cut or divide, in allusion to a sacrificial custom in connection with covenant-making, e.g. Gen. 15. 10, “divided”, Jer. 34. 18, 19)".

The word “covenant” occurs for the first time in Genesis 6. 18, “But with thee will I establish my covenant; and thou shalt come into the ark, thou, and thy sons, and thy wife, and thy sons’ wives with thee”. The word covenant is repeated six times in chapter 9. It is not only for Noah and his seed, but also for all flesh, v. 10, for perpetual generations, v. 12, and is an everlasting covenant, v. 16.

The covenants recorded in Scripture, which God makes with man, are of a different order from any human transaction. God alone in His sovereignty lays down the terms, and man has the responsibility of obeying. But it is all of pure grace. Note the terms of the covenant with Noah and his seed:

  1. It is based on a blood sacrifice, 8. 20-21.
  2. The curse on the ground would never be repeated, 8. 21.
  3. There was given a promise of continuing natural forces, 8. 22.
  4. Human government would be committed to man, 9. 1-6.
  5. There would be flesh instead of a vegetarian diet, 9. 3.
  6. The sanctity of blood means that it was not to be eaten, 9. 4.
  7. There would be capital punishment for culpable homicide, 9. 6.
  8. The token of the covenant would be the rainbow in the stormcloud, 9. 13-17.

The Sanctity of Blood. "But the flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat. And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man”, Gen. 9. 4-6.

This prohibition of the eating of blood is repeated in a strengthened form in Leviticus 17. 10-1. “And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, that eateth any manner of blood; I will even set my face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul".

At the Jerusalem council recorded in Acts 15, when the question of the relation of the Gentile believers to circumcision and the Mosaic law was discussed by the apostles, the decision of the whole body given by James was: “that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions offered to idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood”, v. 20. Some would interpret this decision as follows: seeing we are not under law but under grace, therefore Gentile believers were to show grace by abstaining from the practices offensive to godly Jews. But the decision goes deeper than, and further back from, the law of Moses. Immorality, idolatry and the eating of blood was offensive to God, and contrary to the great covenant which God had made with mankind in Genesis 9 long before the law of Moses was given. As the eternal purpose of God in redemption gradually unfolds in Holy Scripture, the importance and preciousness of blood is more and more emphasized.