Opening The Old Testament
God's Rainbow: Reflections on Genesis 9:8-17
Lent 1: Genesis 9:8-17
"God gave Noah the rainbow sign; no more water, the fire next time." This old spiritual, that formed the backdrop for a very angry James Baldwin book of some time ago, misses the most basic claim of this quite extraordinary text. YHWH has just promised Noah and his family that "even though human beings are evil from their youth" (Gen 8:21), God will henceforth refrain from destroying them, though YHWH acted precisely on that belief to bring the flood in the first place (Gen 6:5)! As one can readily see, humanity did not change because of the flood; it was God who changed, or, if that is rather too hard a theological pill to swallow, then it was the perception of God that changed from a divine strict adjudicator of justice to a God "slow to anger."
Then in chapter 9, the promise of YHWH not to destroy humanity again is extended to the entire creation. It could be said that Gen 9:8-17 is a quintessential ecological verse, uniting the creating God with the sustaining God who loves and cares for the entire cosmos. As the Hebrew Bible is quite fond of saying to those who have ears to hear: human beings are not all there are in God's world. The clattering, buzzing, clacking, and honking creatures are in the care of YHWH, too, not to mention the quiet wavers in the wind and the glorious and calmly colorful and silent flowers. In short, the covenant that YHWH makes with Noah is inclusive in its range and fully comprehensive in its scope.
"I am about to establish (or "set up") my covenant with you (pl) and with your (pl) seed after you, and with every living creature with you, the birds, the domestic and wild animals, all those that left the ark, every last creature" (9:9-10). The grammar of this sentence is somewhat tortured in Hebrew, but the implication is extremely important: the covenant, the contract between God and God's vast and disparate creation, poised on the divine tongue, is thoroughly and completely inclusive of all those made by God in Genesis 1. No one is excluded; no one is left out. The horrors of the cataclysmic flood are never to be repeated. "I now set up my covenant with you that never again will all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood and that never again will a flood corrupt the earth" (9:11).
Two words from that last sentence contain large ironic resonance. First, the word "cut off" is regularly used in other places in the tradition to describe the very act of making covenant! It is often said that a covenant is "cut" (this same verb), possibly referring to the ancient practice of cutting animals for proper sacrifice by way of symbolizing the covenant being made (see, for example, Gen 15's covenant between God and Abram). This covenant, though it might be said to be "cut," will stop any future "cutting off" of the world's creatures.
The second ironic word is "corrupt." God says that no flood will ever again "corrupt" the earth; it is this same word that in Gen 6:11 describes one of the very reasons for the unleashing of the flood in the first place! Human "corruption" may have grieved the heart of God, but now after the flood, God vows never again to bring divine "corruption," despite the continuous presence of human evil.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.