Genesis 9 is as least as important as Genesis 1-3 for our understanding of life on earth now.
The world had sunk into anarchy: violence ruled and the strong won and no one called on YHWH any longer. Yet, Noah obeyed his commission. Through this one man, YHWH saved humanity, and the human saved the animals. The kingdom of God survived—the partnership where YHWH governs everything, and humans represent him on earth by governing his other creatures.
Noah is therefore appointed king over creation, just as Adam and Eve were in the beginning. He receives the same providential blessing from his sovereign (9:1). He is given the same commission: the animals are delivered into his hand (9:2).
It’s the same, but it’s different. Perhaps we would paraphrase sovereign YHWH’s words like this:
Genesis 9:2-4 (loosely paraphrased)
Okay, you saved the animals, so I’m putting them back under your authority as I did in the beginning. But I realize I’m giving the animals a really bad deal here: you humans have proved yourselves to be so violent. The animals cower before you in fear and dread because of the way you treat them! Yet, I am re-establishing the creational order: they will be under your care. Yes, I know you have been hunting them and eating them, even though I gave you only the plants to eat (compare 1:29). Alright, I’ll give you this concession: you can eat animals too. All I ask is that you show respect for their life when you kill them: you must drain their life-blood out before you eat them. Watching their blood flow back into the earth should make you more aware of what you’re doing.
I’m not vegetarian, but it does sound like eating meat is a concession rather than God’s ideal for us.
But that’s not all. Humans have not only been killing animals; they have been killing each other. In the pre-flood world, they did not respect God’s authority, and there were no human authorities to keep them in line. It was anarchy. Justice depended on physical strength, so there was no justice for the defenceless. Remember Lamech’s boast about killing a boy for merely scratching him (4:23-24)? The violence was unsustainable (5:11, 13). As he replants his kingdom, YHWH must address not only the issue of humans killing animals but the issue of humans killing each other.
The sovereign decrees that murder must be investigated. When a human is killed by an animal or by another human (behaving like an animal?), the death must be investigated to see if there was a lack of respect for the value of human life (9:5). If the killer failed to recognize the image of God in their victim, the community is to terminate their life:
Genesis 9:6 (NIV)
Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.
Now that’s the oddest thing! The sovereign has a problem with people grasping power over each other, so he gives us more power over each other! This is the first time he has given humans power over the lives of other humans. He has just handed the community the power to take the life of a killer who shows no respect for the God-life in his victim.
God has just authorized human government. The pre-flood world showed that anarchy cannot work. When humans resist God’s governance and don’t call on his name for justice, the strongest win and the vulnerable are trampled in the violence that ensues. To head off a repeat of that dystopia, the sovereign authorizes the community to enforce justice.
The issue of capital punishment deserves its own post. The broader issue is that earthly government is a concession rather than the original creational ideal. Human government is a two-edged sword: it is absolutely necessity to avoid anarchy, and yet humans always abuse power. This initiative changes the shape of the whole biblical narrative.
Would you ever do what God did here? Would you consider giving more responsibility to people because they were acting irresponsibly?
What others are saying
Wayne A. Grudem, Politics according to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 78 (emphasis original):
No further details are given here regarding civil government. But in speaking these words to Noah, God establishes the obligation to carry out the most severe punishment (the taking of a human life) in retribution for the most horrible crime (the murder of another human being). Once this principle is established, then the imposition of lesser penalties for lesser crimes is also validated, since if a government has the right to carry out the most severe kind of punishment, then it certainly has the right to carry out lesser punishments for lesser crimes as well.
Devora Steinmetz, “Vineyard, Farm, and Garden: The Drunkenness of Noah in the Context of Primeval History,” Journal of Biblical Literature 113 (1994): 197:
God, after the flood, hands over governance of the world to Noah and his family.
G. C. Berkouwer, The Providence of God, Studies in Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1952), 119:
The state is not to be despised as being of trifling and external significance in the rule of God. To despise the state is to despise the Noahic covenant, is to underestimate the cross which restores and reestablishes God’s justice and law in the redemption of the world.
See also Michael Bird’s post on When to Disobey Government – Quick Look at Romans 13 (2016-05-31).
Read Genesis 9:1-6.