I may have been too hard on poor old Noah, I admit. But aside from the mythological rainbow connection, the outcome of the flood was notable because God finally chose to set down the rules.
Enter, the Noahic Covenant. In the Hebrew Bible, there are many covenants, the best-known being the covenant that God gave the children of Israel in the form of the Ten Commandments and Mosaic law. In specific, this covenant is the only one that covers all of humanity, whether Jewish or Christian, Hindu or Buddhist. These are the new rules, at least according to the early Jews, that applied to all humanity for all time:
- Humans have to be fruitful and multiply. This condition was given to Adam and Eve as well and repeated here. (Genesis 9:1) In other words, it is the responsibility of everyone to have children.
- Mankind can eat animals. (Genesis 9:2) Up to this point, it is implied, humanity has been vegetarians and only sacrificing animals to give to God. In return, animals begin to fear man. Obviously, “every creature that lives” would not remain the rule for Jews, but these rules were intended to be universal.
- Mankind can eat animals, but not with the “life-blood” still present. (Genesis 9:4) So, make sure your meat isn’t too rare. This is a precursor of the rules for koshering and Jews today interpret that rule in many ways, but chiefly as a way of butchering the animal properly and draining its blood before it can be eaten.
- If a man kills another man, he too shall be killed. (Genesis 9:6) “Thou shall not kill”, but in specific, if you do “thou shall be killed”. But rather than a peaceful prohibition against killing, this “commandment” (if it can be called that) also requires justice or revenge. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”
Compared to the Ten Commandments, this is fairly light. There is no commandment to have a single God (so other religions are okay), no requirement to keep the Sabbath, to honor your parents, to not commit adultery or steal, nothing about covetousness or lying.
This early covenant defines Judaism (and later, Christianity) as a faith among faiths and reinforces that other ways in the world are still valid, as long as a basic set of rules for decency are observed. While the rules of the Noahic Covenant don’t quite live up to being a full code of human decency, the idea that other people may have other ways is a good one. Pluralism!