The “Noahide laws,” or the “seven universal laws of Noah,” have become fairly popular in certain Christian circles today. The premise is that God gave to Adam and Noah seven laws which are binding for all their descendants – that is, all humanity – and any Gentile who adheres to these laws will be regarded as “righteous” and ensured a place in the world to come (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot M’lakhim, 8:14). Yet, such a doctrine is found nowhere in Scripture and is wholly Talmudic, based upon the traditions of the rabbis. The Talmud puts it thus:
Our rabbis have taught on Tannaite authority: Concerning seven religious requirements were the children of Noah commanded: setting up courts of justice, idolatry, blasphemy, [cursing the Name of God], fornication, bloodshed, thievery, and cutting a limb from a living beast.¹
Of course, it is true that the Talmud did not originate in a vacuum; it is a collection of rabbinical discussions on the Hebrew Scriptures. The Talmud can be helpful at times, giving historical background as to why characters in Scripture behave the way they behave. For example, in Matthew 26:63, the Lord Jesus is on trial before the high priest who asked Him if He was the Messiah, the Son of God, and to which the Lord responded, “Thou hast said,” and that He would soon be seated “on the right hand of power… coming in the clouds of heaven.” Then we come to verse 65 in which we read, “Then the high priest rent his clothes, saying, He hath spoke blasphemy…” Now, scripturally, to tear one’s clothing was merely a sign of great emotional distress, but the religious leaders by that time had made the act very specific, only to be done “on account of the four-lettered name of God [used as a curse]” (b. Sanh. 7:5, IV.3.B). The action of the high priest, therefore, shows that the perceived blasphemy was not merely His proclamation to be the Messiah, but that He also had proclaimed Himself to be the One God of Israel.
So, the Talmud can be useful, but any doctrine arising from it should be immediately suspect since the Lord sternly rebuked the religious leaders of His day for transgressing the commandments of God by their adherence to tradition (Matthew 15:1ff). The Talmud asserts that God will judge the Gentiles for their failure to live according to the “Noahide laws.”² Yet, nowhere in Scripture are we told that God gave Adam, Noah, and their descendants particular laws to follow in order to be regarded as “righteous.” In fact, the apostle Paul says the opposite in Romans 2:14-15, which says:
(… For when the Gentiles, which having not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing, or else excusing one another;)
As a former Pharisee of the tribe of Benjamin, Paul would have been very familiar with the oral teachings in the Talmud. Yet, when addressing the standing of the Gentiles, he never mentions following “the seven universal laws of Noah.” Rather, he states clearly that the Gentiles were not given any kind of law from God and that God will judge them fairly. That is, they will be condemned because of their failure to live up to their own moral standard. In other words, people who have never heard about the Lord will be condemned because they have fallen short of what their conscience knows to be right and wrong. Furthermore, whether Jew or Gentile, a law can only condemn a person for breaking it; it cannot make one righteous.
The Talmud formulates the seven laws of Noah by essentially cherry-picking words and phrases from the opening chapters of Genesis. For instance, the Talmud finds the “scriptural basis” for the seven laws of Noah from Genesis 2:16, which says:
And the LORD God commanded Adam saying, Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat.
The rabbis, therefore, link the phrase And the Lord God commanded, with Genesis 18:19 in which the Lord says of Abraham:
For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment.
Therefore, it is claimed that the first “law of Noah” which God commands Gentiles is “to set up courts of justice.” The Talmud then asserts that the word in Genesis 2:16 for “LORD” is a law against blasphemy and “God” is a law against idolatry. The name “Adam” is said to prohibit murder, linking Genesis 9:6, and the word “saying” is said to prohibit adultery, linking Jeremiah 3:1.
Finally, the phrase “of every tree of the garden you may freely eat,” is asserted in the Talmud to mean:
Since it was necessary to authorize Adam to eat of the trees of the garden, it follows that without such authorization—when something belongs to another—it is forbidden.³
As should be evident, the seven Noahide laws are total eisegesis, that is, reading into the text something that is not there. This passage contains one command from the One True God to the first man, not seven laws to those outside of Jacob’s lineage. The text says that Adam could eat of any of the trees of the garden except the one tree in the middle of the garden. To say that it was “necessary to authorize Adam to eat of the trees of the garden” shifts the focus of the command. The text gives no indication that it was “necessary” to give Adam permission to eat of the trees of the garden. Rather, the statement “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat” is an introductory clause, the Lord first showing Adam the blessings he has been given. The focus of the command, however, is “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (2:17).
Yet, perhaps you are thinking, God did say He would establish a covenant with Noah. Yes, God made a covenant with Noah (Genesis 6:18; 9:9, 11-17), but the Noahic Covenant of Scripture is not the same as the Noahide Laws of the Talmud. In the Old Testament, the word for “covenant” is בְּרִית beriyth, and is used for a wide variety of oath-bound commitments in various relationships. The word is used for international treaties (Joshua 9:6; 1 Kings 15:19), clan alliances (Genesis 14:13), personal agreements (Genesis 31:44), national agreements (Jeremiah 34:8-10), and loyalty agreements (1 Samuel 20:14-17), including marriage (Malachi 2:14). Gordon Hugenberger defines the term concisely, saying, “A covenant, in its normal sense, is an elected, as opposed to natural, relationship of obligation under oath,” and further explains that in the history of Israel a covenant always includes, first, a relationship, second, with a non-relative, third, involves obligations, and fourth, is established through an oath.4
Regarding the Noahic Covenant, the word בְּרִית beriyth first occurs in the the Bible in the flood narrative (Genesis 6:18; 9:9, 11, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17). Four of these instances, however, specifically speak of God “confirming” or “establishing” a covenant with Noah (Genesis 6:18; 9:9, 11, 17), the Lord saying in Genesis 6:18, וַהֲקִמֹתִ֥י אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י VahaKamitiy eth beriythiy, omitting the standard expression for covenant initiation which is כָּרַ֧ת בְּרִ֣ית karath beriyth, “to cut a covenant” (Genesis 15:18). The construction “to cut a covenant” is consistently used in Scripture for covenant initiation; the construction used in the flood narrative, however, “refers to a covenant partner fulfilling an obligation or upholding a promise in a covenant initiated previously so that the other partner experiences in historical reality the fulfilling of this promise, i.e., one makes good on one’s commitment, obligation, or promise.”5
Therefore, God did not “initiate a covenant” with Noah, but instead, reinstated, upheld, or ratified a covenant He had previously made; God “made good” on His commitment to creation. That is, when God says that He is establishing His covenant with Noah, He is promising to continue His care for – and preservation of – the creation, and that all the blessings and ordinances that He gave to Adam and Eve would also be with Noah and his descendants. This makes sense when one considers the sign of the covenant which the Lord gave, Genesis 9:13 saying, “I do set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between Me and the earth.”
There is no specific word in Hebrew for “rainbow,” the word simply קֶשֶׁת kesheth for an ordinary archer’s bow. Warren Gage describes God’s token of this covenant very well, saying:
The bow is a weapon of war, an emblem of wrath. God will now set it in the heavens as a token of grace. The Lord who makes his bow of wrath into a seven-colored arch of beauty to ornament the heavens is the one who will finally command the nations to beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruninghooks (Mic. 4:3) for the Prince of Peace takes pleasure in mercy (Mic. 7:18) and the Righteous Judge delights in grace.6
The rainbow is a physical picture to the whole world – all of Noah’s descendants – that God has laid His weapon down and that “the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh” (Genesis 9:15b). Not every covenant has a sign, but of the ones that do, the rainbow is the only one that only God can give, no action by the human partner capable of creating it.
- Jacob Neusner, The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary, vol. 16 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2011), 296.
- Ibid., 297.
- Gordon Hugenberger, Marriage as a Covenant: A Study of Biblical Law and Ethics Governing Marriage Developed from the Perspective of Malachi, Supplements to Vetus Testamentum 52 (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1994), 11.
- Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants, Kindle Edition (Wheaton, Il: Crossway, 2012), location 3664.
- Warren Austin Gage, The Gospel in Genesis: Studies in Protology and Eschatology (Winona Lake, IN: Carpenter, 1984), 135.