On Rainbows and Covenants
I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ … When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.
Christian author Shril Cooke related the following story: “My nieces Jessica, age five, and Stephanie, age three, were chatting with their mom when Stephanie asked, "Mommy, does God really make rainbows?" "Of course he does," my sister replied. Jessica nudged Stephanie and explained, "Only God has such big crayons."
There is something special about seeing a rainbow. Maybe it’s because we don’t see one very often. The reason for seeing one only occasionally is because you need to be in the right spot at the right time. The most familiar type of rainbow is produced when sunlight strikes raindrops in front of a viewer at a precise angle.
A rainbow is a multicolored arc made by light striking water droplets. The colours on a primary rainbow are always in order of their wavelength, from longest to shortest: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Red has the longest wavelength of visible light. It usually appears on the outer part of a rainbow's arch. Violet has the shortest wavelength and it usually appears on the inner arch of the rainbow.
1. What do you see when you see a rainbow? Yes, we can name the colours and their order informed by our knowledge of the physics of a rainbow. But is that all we see—a wonder of physics? The Bible invites us to see the rainbow as God sees it—a sign of a covenant God made with Noah that extends to all humanity. The rainbow is a sign of God’s promise that “the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.”
To grasp the Biblical significance of this sign we must go back to where the story of Noah and the Ark begins. It begins starkly: The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. (Genesis 6:5-6)
God is heartbroken that the only creatures whom he has crowned with his own image and likeness persist in rendering themselves wicked. He is sorry that he has created humankind at all. Plainly, according to our simple, primitive story, God is distressed that those whom he fashioned the apple of his eye should turn out so badly.
The narrator of our story amplifies the matter of humankind’s wickedness: “The earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” Everyone knows what is meant by “violence.” But “corrupt”? The Hebrew word translated “corrupt” literally means “destroyed.” In other words, what God decided to destroy was already so very corrupt as to be self-destroyed. What rendered the earth self-destroyed? Wickedness, one of whose principal manifestations is violence. The story-teller tells us that the earth was filled with violence.
Is God’s indictment of humanity in Genesis chapter 6 restricted to an extremely wicked by-gone era? Many read the first eleven chapters of Genesis as parables rather than history; parable expressing profound truth about humanity. Whether read as parable or history, the story is correct, violence is everywhere.
In one of those year ending reflections on the year that was, an article in the National Post described 2017 as A year of brutality and barbarism. The article spoke of the havoc caused by Islamic State marauders across Iraq, the criminal mass-murdering regime of Bashar Assad in Syria, the devastation of the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen, and Myanmar’s bloody ethnic-cleaning of the Rohingya people. Just to name a few hotspots.
And you don’t have to go to these places in our world to experience violence. Domestic violence mustn’t be overlooked. It is no less violent for being domestic. And there is the sexual violence of women by male leaders in the entertainment and news industry that dominated 2017 news. We also shouldn’t assume that violence has to be physical to be violence. Many have known the experience of being violated by what someone says. The writer of this flood story asserts what Jesus reaffirms; the human heart foams with violence. Reflect on how easy wishing harm on others bubbles up within us.
How does our ceaseless violence affect God? What does it do to him? “It grieves him to his heart.” God’s first reaction isn’t rage or contempt; it’s grief, sadness too deep for words. God is heartbroken. He weeps over us whom he has made in his image, over us who have rendered ourselves monstrous.
The point of the covenant that God made that “the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh” is that the solution isn’t to wipe everybody out and start over. The rainbow is a sign of God’s mercy. When God sees the rainbow God remembers his covenant that though he is justified in doing so, wiping out humanity isn’t the solution God will pursue. God’s just judgement of humanity’s violent ways will be borne by another in accord with another covenant he will make.
2. It was through the prophet Jeremiah that God announced his purpose to make a new covenant with his people. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. … this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-26)
And then at that last meal on the night before Jesus gave up his life for us “he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:19-20)
The new covenant is in Jesus. We read today of Jesus’ baptism and of his being driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit and there he was tempted by Satan and was with the wild beasts. What do we see in observing these events? A man coming up from the water in the River Jordon having submitted himself to a religious rite of baptism? Like we might observe someone going into a church or synagogue for worship—a guy doing something religious? What about in the wilderness? A man off by himself, alone in a wilderness keeping an eye out for the danger posed by wild animals? Maybe like a monk or nun who commits themselves to holy orders—a little odd and extreme?
What does God see? “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” There was another covenant that God made with his people Israel who were unfaithful covenant partners. God was faithful to the covenant and would not give up on his people though they wandered from him incessantly. Time and again God called them back to this covenant through the priest and prophet; John the Baptist was just such a prophet. But then God purposed to establish a new covenant when he would remember their sins no more.
Jesus is this new covenant partner with God. When God sees Jesus coming up out of the water of baptism he sees the Son who keeps the covenant perfectly on behalf of a wayward and violent humanity God desires to save. This is why God says to the Son; “with you I am well pleased.” What does God see as the Son is driven into the wilderness? He sees the perfect covenant partner who will not bend to the temptations of the enemy Satan. Jesus will not take up the violence that the kings and kingdoms of the earth use to secure power. He is a king and his kingdom has come near but it is unlike Rome’s kingdom where peace was secured by the threat of violence and death. The peace Jesus will give is not like the peace the world gives.
This covenant God made with Noah—a covenant that extends to all flesh and is still in force today because God does not give up; this covenant of the rainbow that declares that God’s solution to humanity’s violent ways isn’t to wipe us out and start over; this covenant anticipates the new covenant when God will redeem humanity in the Son. The new covenant when God will do for us what we could never do. In the Son God takes on human life in Jesus of Nazareth and this one human; the human whom God has crowned with his own image and likeness; this one human Jesus will persist in living the human life God intended. Those whom God fashioned the apple of his eye and have turn out so badly; this is reversed in Jesus who does live the life worthy of God’s purpose in creating humanity.
You will note that God’s covenant with Noah and the new covenant in Christ are both covenants that God keeps on our behalf. The first to secure the possibility of humanity’s redemption and the new covenant to make that redemption a reality in Jesus. The believer owns this new covenant by faith clinging to him who keeps the covenant on our behalf. In faith we follow after Jesus eschewing violence.
This is gospel. It has been gospel from the beginning. God is the one who does for us. God is the keeper of covenant on behalf of a wayward humanity.
When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. Amen.