The first readings in Lent lead us to focus on covenants in the Hebrew scriptures. We get in succession the covenants with Noah, Abraham, and Israel at Sinai. Then we get God’s promise of healing from the serpent bites in Numbers 21. Finally, we get Jeremiah’s promise the “new covenant” in chapter 31, a text we Lutherans associate with Reformation Sunday. Since Lent can be a time for reflection on and recommitment to our own baptismal/confirmation promises, we could spend the season exploring what “covenanting” means for us.
The covenant with Noah in Genesis 9 is part of what is often known as the “Priestly” tradition within the Torah. This tradition was composed during the Babylonian exile. Wolff notes that there is a concern for the whole world in this tradition, in part, because Judah has been forced to reckon with a “world” much bigger than its own history and borders – a “world” forced on them by the Babylonian conquest and captivity. We see that concern in Genesis 9.
Wolff reminds us that the exiles needed to know, in the midst of their chaotic and uncertain experience, that Creation was good, orderly, and reliable. They needed encouragement to “be fruitful and multiply” and to fulfill their human vocations as made “in the image and likeness of God.” They had experienced violence and destruction on a massive scale, and they needed help to understand the faithfulness of God in their experience.
The flood story taught them that people forfeit their lives when they live by violence. In the face of absolute destruction and the near extinction of human life, “God, through one righteous man, Noah…has granted them a new start in life” (Wolff, page 33). That was certainly good news for folks who wondered if things were over for them and their descendants. No, the story says, God makes new starts possible, even when it seems that everything good is gone.
“God’s renunciation of total destruction is theologically explained,” Wolff writes, “as a ‘covenant’ with Noah” (page 33). God gives Noah a symbol that all people can recognize – a rainbow. “God places the rainbow in the clouds the way an archer hangs his weapon on a nail,” Wolff notes. The good news of the text is clear. “Israel, scattered among the nations of the world, is to realize that she [sic] lives,” Wolff concludes, “by the goodness of the Creator and by his [sic] renunciation of force” (page 33).
Wolff suggests that the covenant language emphasized in the Priestly document was the simplest possible. “I am your God,” the Lord says, “and you are my people.” The Kingdom of Judah had failed in its obligations and loyalties to the God of Israel and had been judged. “They are now to recall,” Wolff writes, “that God had committed himself [sic] to them, and that the covenant which [God] had instituted remained in force even though” they had broken it (page 34).
Cameron Howard, in her workingpreacher.org commentary, points to things about the covenant with Noah here. The covenant is not only with Noah but rather with everything that lives, all of Creation. “The second extraordinary detail about this covenant,” she writes, “is that it does not involve the legal reciprocities of a treaty. Instead, all of the obligations rest with God.” Unlike covenants in the ancient world that specified mutual obligations, the promises in this agreement all flow in one direction – from the Creator to the Creation.
God is the Giver, as Luther liked to say. Thus, covenants with God must be rooted in God’s grace. God needs nothing from us and wants everything for us. Howard writes that “in the Noachic covenant, promises are made freely by God and do not count on any reciprocity from creation. The promises made by a church community at a baptism, especially of an infant, are reminiscent of this unconditional covenant,” she suggests.
The specifics of this covenant matter a great deal. Part of God’s promise is never again to respond with deadly violence to the reality of human sin. “The sign of this covenant, God’s bow in the clouds, is precisely the bow of battle,” Elizabeth Webb writes in her workingpreacher.org commentary. “Ancient depictions of a deity armed with bow and arrow are not unusual. To hang up one’s bow is to retire from battle. That bow in the clouds,” she notes, “is the sign of God’s promise that whatever else God does to seek our restoration, destruction is off the table.”
We Christians see this bow in the clouds as a foreshadowing of the cross of Jesus Christ. Rather than wipe out Creation in an orgy of wrath, God takes the powers of sin, death, and the devil into the Divine Life and suffers all the impacts those powers can inflict. We confess that the cross is in fact the clearest expression of God’s power – Power that no other power can overcome. The cross is not payment to an angry God but rather the victory of the God of Love.
Every human covenant that lives by violence is therefore ruled out of bounds. “The rainbow covenant represents radical inclusivity in the heart of a narrative shaped by gender bias and ethnocentrism,” Wil Gafney writes on workingpreacher.org. “The covenant between God and all flesh is between God and every person for all time,” she continues, “including but not limited to those who can trace their ancestry to Noah and all of their descendants forever.” It should not be surprising that the symbol of the rainbow is used by LGBTQIA+ movements and organizations to represent radical inclusivity. That is the nature of this covenant in Genesis 9.
Humans make covenants too often to maintain privilege, position, and power. Housing stock in the United States was redlined for decades in part through restrictive covenants that prohibited owners from selling their property to Black, Brown, or Asian people, or Jews. Those restrictive covenants continue to shape neighborhoods, school districts, and access to health care across the United States. And some of those covenants continue to be enacted, consciously or otherwise, by some banks, realtors, and politicians. God’s covenant declares all such covenants of violence to be null and void and calls us to act accordingly.
Howard reminds us that we have an opportunity to reflect on the care of creation in this text if we wish. The covenant is with all of Creation, and Noah is to be a steward of that covenant. “As the Lenten season calls us to repentance,” she writes, “a sermon on the flood could provide a call to repentance from our corporate sins of environmental degradation, as well as a call to action for ecological justice.” Living in Lent toward Earth Day in April, for example, could be a good part of our seasonal discipline.
I find it most helpful to read this text and those like it as a Christological allegory. I don’t assert that this is “the truth” of the text or that its reading, for example, in Judaism is “wrong” or “superseded.” But if I am to be true to my Christian worldview, I am best served if I read this text through the “lens” of Jesus.
It truly is God’s desire to eradicate sin, death, and evil fully and completely. That is the real meaning of the Flood, through the lens of Jesus. The Flood is an eschatological sign that is fulfilled, for example in the Apocalypse of John. In that book, the “sea will be no more.” It’s not that God dislikes oceans. Rather, the death-dealing power of the waters of chaos will be defeated and deleted. There will be no more crying or mourning or dying (or drowning!).
In the same way, the rainbow promises that this eradication of sin, death, and the devil will not be accomplished by violence. Instead, it will be the work of Divine mercy and steadfast love. That Love takes in the violence of the cosmos and transforms it into cosmic peace. The ark is a symbol of God’s protection in the midst of the chaos, and the landing is a “new creation.”
I close by remembering some work we did as part of a “Camp Noah” experience after Hurricane Katrina. Camp Noah provides a therapeutic and supportive week of Bible camp for children who have survived and been traumatized by natural and other types of disasters. I remember one afternoon when we were playing outdoors. That was a great joy for the children, many of whom had been locked in eight-foot by twenty-foot FEMA trailers for the previous nine months. We were having a wonderful time.
Then the sky clouded over. The wind picked up a bit. Anxiety levels began to rise. With the first flash of lightning and rumble of thunder, children whimpered and tears began to flow. The children had been so terrorized by thunder and lightning, wind and water, that they could not manage their fears. We quickly got them back into our classrooms and pulled the blinds. We wrapped them in their safe blankets – decorated with rainbows – held them close and sang Jesus songs together. The anxieties softened, and in about an hour the storm was passed.
It was a concrete experience of the work of transforming rainstorms into rainbows. Our task was to tell one another (after all, many of us counselors were frightened but feared admitting it) that God is faithful, even in the midst of the storms. Our work was to hold one another close until the sun came out again. Our privilege is to be part of the sign of God’s mercy and love when the storms come.
Resources and References
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Lewis, Alan. Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday. Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 2001.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.
TDNT VI: 23-26 (Seesemann), peira, etc.
Von Balthasar, Hans Urs. Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter. San Francisco, CA.: Ignatius Press, 1990.
Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan Publishing, 1996.
Wolff, Hans Walter. The Old Testament: A Guide to Its Writings. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress, Press, 1973.
Wright, N. T.. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone) . Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.