“When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” (Genesis 9:16)
So what’s a “covenant?” I’ve been trying to get the concept across to my confirmation students this semester since the word seems to crop up a lot in the Bible. It’s a contract, an agreement, a treaty, a hand-shake, pinky-swear, “let’s-drink-on-it” mutual promise between two parties. And covenants show up pretty early in the Bible. Adam and Eve are the first parties to a covenant with God. That deal went like this: “Live in my garden,” God says. “Eat all the fruits and veggies you want, be in charge of everything and have lots of babies. Just don’t eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and everything will be peachy between us.”
Well, that deal didn’t last too long.
Before you know it, everybody is just sinning their butts off. By Genesis 4 we get our first homicide, and by Genesis 6:11 the whole earth is filled with violence. So God finds one pretty righteous dude—Noah—and tells him to build a big boat to save himself and his family and enough animals to repopulate the world. Then God proceeds to wipe out all other life on earth with a devastating flood and start from scratch (which, if you ask me, sounds pretty extreme!).
But God’s plan to end violence with more violence turns out to be a bust. When Noah finally sets foot on dry land once again, he builds an altar and makes a sacrifice to God, presumable in thanksgiving for not being drowned himself (Genesis 8:20ff). There is no mention that he has any regret for the mass death and destruction which has just occurred or any pity for those who’ve died. It’s God who recognizes that even righteous Noah can be a selfish jerk, and laments, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth…” (v.21b)
To be sure, Noah actually turns out to be something of a tool. In Genesis 9:18-27 (a story we never teach the kids in Sunday School), our “righteous” friend plants a vineyard, makes wine, gets totally hammered, and passes out buck naked. When his son Ham finds the old man sleeping it off in the buff, he gets his brothers to come and cover him up. Unfortunately, Noah, in his hang-over embarrassment, blames the whole incident on Ham for seeing him nude, and curses him and his descendants forever (As if seeing your dad drunk and naked isn’t enough of a curse already!). The guy whose boat-building skills have saved the human race turns out to be a drunken, abusive father after all. (I guess nobody’s family is perfect.)
Knowing that the flood idea didn’t work too well, God makes another treaty with humankind: This time, God relaxes the rules, knowing that we’re probably going to break them anyway. He even gives up on the vegetarian thing and lets us eat meat (9:3). The new deal is totally one-sided. God just promises that he won’t wipe out life on earth. Period. He seals the deal with the rainbow, his signature on the dotted line which says he loves everything he’s made, and his desire is that it should flourish. There are no pre-conditions on our part.
This is a pretty daring thing for God to do, knowing as God does, how totally weak and faithless we are. God again gives stewardship of this planet into our stupid hands (9:1-2). God promises to be patient and to bless the earth. We’re the ones with the potential to screw it all up.
So what is our response to God’s non-aggression pact? Do we say, “Thanks, God” and forget it, or are we inspired to develop some kind of responsibility towards the other living creatures of all flesh that are upon the earth? Or towrds the earth itself?
I kind of wonder why the Revised Common Lectionary marries the story of God’s covenant with Noah to the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (Mark 8:31-38). Perhaps it’s just to illustrate for us as we begin our Lenten observances that God’s goodness is stronger than sin’s temptation. God is willing to give us this planet and trust that we’ll take care of it. We’ll be tempted to make selfish choices and mess it all up. But Jesus came to walk with us in this wicked, jacked-up world, and teach us by example. We really can be grateful and faithful once we let into our hearts the knowledge that God’s love is mightier than the world’s sin.
Look to the rainbow. Feel God’s grace. Then do the right thing.
Thanks for reading, my friend.