The account of Noah and the ark is one that always features prominently in children’s Sunday School materials with colorful illustrations of lots of animals, but it is actually a very dark story; God did, after all, destroy the entire world with a flood because of the moral corruption mankind had sunk to. From a covenantal perspective, the Flood account is a key foundational pillar in the Covenant of Grace.
In ancient Near Eastern covenants, there are typically prologue sections describing the relationship between the suzerain and the vassal which have led to the formation of the covenant between them. Not infrequently, the relationship was one in which the vassal rebelled against the suzerain, was defeated, and then had the covenant imposed on him by the suzerain to henceforth regulate relations between the two. The Noahic account fits this pattern.
With the growth of families on the earth, there came an intermingling of the lines of Cain and Seth, with the result of corruption and moral degradation across mankind. The problem was not racial mixing but of the heart; people followed in Adam and Eve’s footsteps of basing their actions not on God’s word, but on what looked good and what felt good to them. In this, they rebelled against being the image that God made them to be, His image reflected to all creation. In man’s rejection of being the image God, God was compelled to reject man. This is what is behind the seemingly curious language in 6:6-7 about God being sorry (or in the KJV, “repented”) that He made man. We should not read this as God somehow being surprised by the direction that man tread or that God has changed His mind about man. God is all-knowing and the Hebrew word used for “sorry” is used elsewhere in the Old Testament (1 Sam. 15:29) to most emphatically say that God does not change His mind. What has changed is not God or His holy standard, but man and his estate. The desecration of God’s image requires the destruction of that image. God is sorrowful for man for what His justice requires Him to do: His kingly justice requires man to be destroyed (6:7). Moreover, because the creatures were made for man, with man’s destruction they need to be destroyed as well.
The LORD declares to Noah beforehand that in bringing judgment upon the world and all creatures, He will make a covenant with Noah (6:18) and after the flood does exactly that (9:9ff). In response to Noah’s burnt offering for atonement upon exiting the ark, the LORD pronounces a self-limitation upon himself: He will not curse the ground because of man, nor will He destroy all living things, as He had just done. There would be predictable seasons for the sustenance of man, as long as the earth remains (8:21-22, cf. 9:10-11). Among ancient Near Eastern treaties, there are cases where a suzerain pledges what amounts to a non-aggression pact with the vassal. This would be a grace and an assurance to the vassal in that it provides the necessary space for a potential relationship to grow in the future. In the LORD’s Covenant of Grace with His people, the Noahic covenant is the promise of common grace. God’s absolute power was evident in His destruction of all things, which highlights man’s obligation to submit to and be obedient to God. In such common grace upon the righteous and unrighteous alike, however, God allows history to unfold, and with that, His redemptive purposes in forming a people for Himself and eventually providing an Anointed One that would save them. For that to come about, God will be actively involved in restraining men from being as corrupt as they inclined to be, while at the same time working to build His people. Final judgment and ultimate destruction will be delayed until God’s purposes are fulfilled.