What is the meaning and force of “covenant” (Gen 9:9)?

It is not merely an agreement, because God’s covenants do not necessarily require anything of man, as here. It is also unlike an agreement in that there is no negotiation between the parties. That is, God hands each covenant down to man as a fait accompli; God’s covenants are all announced unilaterally by him. Usually man is required to do something, and there is punishment or loss of rights if he does not do that; but here, man has no requirements and it is just God declaring his intentions. A covenant also establishes, so to speak, the context in which God and man are thereafter to interact. It may include commands, laws, rewards, punishments, blessings, and curses—these all or mostly couched in the form of promises. You might call covenants “God’s parameters for man.”

Is the content of the covenant at Gen 9:11 identical to the promise given to Noah at Gen 8:21? What is the relationship between the two similar statements?

This seems to be a fairly typical example of Biblical repetition, but the difference, as Henry pointed out, is that in the first passage, what “the Lord said in his heart” is, remarkably enough, revealed to us, while the second passage says what he said to Noah. Both specify that God will never again destroy man in a Flood. But in fact, the Gen 8 divine self-reflection is more elaborate than the Gen 9 covenant, except that the covenant includes the bit about the rainbow. It is possible that there were indeed two separate oral narratives (i.e., texts written to be read) written down by Moses and placed one after the other, and like the toledoths, they featured repetition because they overlapped. The first is backward-looking, letting the eight remaining people know they need not fear something so terrible happening again. The second is forward-looking, being placed in the context of new instructions to “be fruitful,” and of the first law.

Why is the symbol of the covenant a rainbow (Gen 9:13-16)?

The “bow in the cloud” image is repeated three times here. It is explicitly called a “sign,” which is remarkable in that it proves once for all—if proof were really needed—that God does use signs or symbols as memorials used in teaching. Of course, such signs can be found throughout the Bible. It is an appropriate symbol since rainbows generally appear when the rain ends. That we are to look to this as a symbol that God will never again flood the Earth suggests that the rains will always end; if the rainbow will always come out, then the rains will not go on so long as to wipe everyone out again.

Did God create a rainbow at this point?

One commentator (Ross) takes the bold view that since no rain had fallen before the Flood (Gen 2:5), there had been no rainbows before this. But this is quite a stretch; the text only says that, at some time before Adam was created and before there were any plants (itself relevant to say because Adam was to be a tiller of the soil), there had been no rain. In short, that text hardly establishes that there was no rain between Gen 2 and Gen 6 (for literally hundreds and hundreds of years). My view is that surely God did not create rainbows at this point; the laws of physics do not change, so we must not understand “I do set my bow in the cloud” in this way. After all, the rainbow need not have been created at that moment for God’s statement to be true. The point might just as well be stated this way: “Henceforth, whenever you see a rainbow, remember this promise.” Besides, God always knew this would happen; you might say the laws of physics were so arranged as to create rainbows, and it is now that he announces their purpose.

What is the significance of calling the Noachian covenant an “everlasting covenant” (Gen 9:16)?

This is the first of many instances of this phrase. The Hebrew עוֹלָם, olam, is glossed as “long duration, antiquity, futurity.” That it cannot be an “eternal” covenant seems clear if the implication is that God will never again destroy the earth—because he will, after all, at the end of time. Moreover, some things that are called “everlasting covenants” in the text do fail to apply to certain descendants of those with whom they are made. For example, after some generations, distant descendants of the Jews will not be bound by the Mosaic covenant because the temple will be destroyed, or because a new covenant replaces the old. Hence “everlasting” would seem to be better rendered “long-lived” or “indefinitely long.” This is not to deny that God does not have any number of, indeed, eternal covenants. It is just that an olam covenant is not necessarily eternal. It is just long-lived.

The Canaanite line of Ham is soon to be cursed; who else is said to be in that line Gen (9:18)?

We need only look in the genealogy which we are about to read: “And the sons of Ham; Cush [Ethiopia], and Mizraim [Egypt], and Phut [Libya], and Canaan.” (Gen 10:6) Interestingly, together, these are the southern enemies of Israel. Of course the Canaanites will, in the future, become the wicked inhabitants of the Promised Land. As a people they are to be extirpated for their sins, which will become as monstrous and widespread as those of the antediluvians.