Flood and Promise

What God is doing here is disarming unilaterally

Photo by Karson on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

September 11, 2022

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Commentary on Genesis 6:5-22; 8:6-12; 9:8-17

Despite generations of Sunday School children serenely coloring the animals walking two by two into the ark, the story of Noah’s Ark is not a children’s story. Here is how that truth changed for me from the simple academic to the visceral. When my older daughter was almost four, she was given a lovely set of three Bible story books: The Creation, Jonah, and Noah’s Ark. After we had read the flood story, she asked, “Mommy, did God kill all the babies because they cried too much?” She had a baby sister who cried a great deal. How does one answer that question to be understood on the level of a four year old?

God declares near the outset that the earth has become full of violence (6:11). Is God a slow learner? The trajectory of the plot of Genesis seems unhappily clear: the second generation’s central scene is a murder, however inadvertent it may have been, and despite God’s warning to Cain before any sin has been committed (Genesis 4:7-8). Before the end of the chapter, we have a descendant of Cain bragging about taking seventy-sevenfold vengeance on anyone who harms him (4:24).

Without any stated evidence, Noah is called “righteous” (6:9, 7:1) and said to have “found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (6:8). God instructs him in ark-building and flood-surviving. Noah follows the instructions. Interestingly, there are no conversations in the whole of the narrative. God instructs; Noah obeys. Inside the ark are the human family, non-human animals, provision of food for them all, and work. Humans and the rest of creation are to be saved together. 

After the flood waters are gone, God declares an unrestrainedly universal covenant. It is for all people. And more: it is for the whole created order. And even more: it is one-sided. Neither Noah nor his family nor any of the animals or birds or creepy-crawlies has to promise anything in return. God is making an unconditional promise to the whole of creation.

God sets the rainbow in the sky as the sign, a reminder of the covenant, this universal promise. The Hebrew word also means “bow,” as in bow and arrow. At the time, it was the most technologically advanced weapon delivery system known. What God is doing here is disarming unilaterally. “I promise that I will never destroy the world again with a flood,” says God in 9:11 and 9:15b. This is the promise in the Priestly portion of the story. 

Within the J portion of the narrative, outside the range of our assigned verses, God expands the promise and does not specify a particular method to be eschewed. Not only will God not flood the world again, there will be no total destruction by any method (8:21b-22). This is good news indeed for the globe and its inhabitants. I do wish, however, that there had been one more expansion and that God had promised to keep us from destroying the world ourselves. Such a possibility would likely have been unthinkable when the J and P versions of the tale were being stitched together. Alas, it seems now to be well within the realm of possibility for humans to render the globe uninhabitable for humans and other sentient beings.

Perhaps when we all “know” the basic outline/plot of the story, there is warrant for examining often-unasked questions. A small example: what about the fish? Genesis 1:20 clearly includes aquatic life in P’s account of creation. Why are only air and land animals mentioned in the flood narrative? Might one easy reason be the difficulty of drowning fish?  A larger question: Although Noah is said to be both righteous and the best of his generation, apparently he did not warn anyone of the impending flood. He does not argue with God on behalf of the world as Abraham does in Genesis 18, on behalf of a mere two towns. 

“Noah and the flood” was one of the stories acted out in the medieval English mystery plays. The majority of the scripts have been lost, but there is something interesting in what is left of Chester’s version of Noah and the flood. His wife—not named, but called “Uxor,” the Latin for “wife”—is cantankerous. Contemporary critics claim this was just for comic effect. Her contentiousness, though, has a clear reason. She does not want to enter the ark unless she can bring her friends along with her. Why should she escape and they all drown? Why indeed. Perhaps she is an ancestor of Judah’s daughter-in-law, whom he has to admit publicly is “more righteous than I” (in Genesis 38:26).

Notice one more detail. This reading is scheduled for September 11. Since 2001 that has become a date as identifiable to most US Americans as December 7 or July 4. An act of violence left thousands dead and led to a retaliatory war with more thousands killed. 

What is our reaction to bad news? Did anyone take Noah seriously before the water began to rise? Or, did Noah even bother to send out a warning? What was his response to neighbors’ questioning his building project? Who is listening to rumblings about climate change?

[A strange and troubling story is stranger and more troubling in the verses following our narrative. It has been literally thousands of years that people have been arguing about what Ham did or didn’t do to his drunken sleeping father in the tent (9:21-27). The curse on Canaan has a long and frightful history of being pretext supporting chattel slavery, or condemning homoeroticism of any stripe. J. David Pleins has a compact article worth a preacher’s time: “When myths go wrong: deconstructing the drunkenness of Noah,” Culture and Religion, 5(2004), 219-227.]


God of promise, you set a bow in the sky to remind us that you will never
again forsake your creation. Make us ever mindful of your promise, so that
we might honor our covenant with you. We pray these things in the name
of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.


Come, thou fount of every blessing ELW 807, H82 686, UMH 400, NCH 459
Creating God, your fingers trace ELW 684, H82 394, 395, NCH 462, UMH 109
Lord, dismiss us with your blessing ELW 545, H82 344,UMH 671, NCH 7


God of tempest, God of whirlwind, Carolyn Jennings