Flood and Rainbow Promise

The earth was so corrupted by violence that God decided to wipe out everything God had made.

September 7, 2014

View Bible Text

Commentary on Genesis 6:16-22; 9:8-15

The earth was so corrupted by violence that God decided to wipe out everything God had made.

This is a terrifying story, even before the digital special effects of the recent “Noah” movie. In our rush to tame the story, to divert attention from the shocking fact that God wants to destroy everything, we focus on the animals (“two by two”) and make thematic nursery room wallpaper. In the context of the larger primeval story (Genesis 1-11), however, the terror of the flood is not that surprising, even if it still shocks.

The evidence that the creatures God has made — and especially the human creatures — are extremely violent, has been amassing almost since the beginning. The disobedience of the first couple, which put themselves at the center of the meaning instead of God, sets up the disobedience of Cain; first the relationship between humans and God is damaged (Genesis 3), then the relationship within human community is damaged (Genesis 4). Violence is made possible by the disordered relationship with God. Cain’s descendent Lamech intensifies the violence (Gen 4:23-24) by reveling in vengeful murder. What was so beautifully ordered in Genesis 1 is now utterly disordered by violence.

So perhaps it is not so surprising that God would wish to do away with a project that has gone so badly awry. Of course, there is a “yet” in the story: “Yet I will establish my covenant with you … ” God makes a covenant with the “righteous” Noah (son of the murderous Lamech! Neither our biological nor social context determines our identity), because there is always a “yet” with God in the primeval story. God makes clothes for Adam and Eve, protects Cain from human vengeance, and now looks to continue the relationship with humanity in spite of their overwhelming violence.

Noah is tasked with bringing animals onto the ark, for in the new post-flood world, their deliverance will be as important as humanity’s. Richard Bauckham has shown that the phrase “each according to its kind,” repeated five times in Genesis 6:19-20 alone, really means “each according to its species” (Living With Other Creatures, Baylor, 2011). Noah, representing humanity, is to keep these creatures alive (6:20) for the sake of the preservation of the species. Likewise, human beings are to continue their charge of the food supply for humans and animals (6:21), a task originally commanded in Genesis 1:29-30. Humanity is charged with creating and maintaining conditions under which all God’s creatures can thrive.

This new era of God’s saving action is marked by the announcement of the first of several covenants in the Old Testament. God makes a covenant with Noah and with every living creature on the earth never to destroy them or the earth again (9:11, 17), and the sign of this covenant is the rainbow in the sky. This covenant signifies that God is in a sacred relationship with all humanity and all creatures, that God desires their flourishing. Today widespread extinction of species and many natural disasters are the result of human exploitation. Humanity’s crucial role in ensuring the flourishing of all God’s creatures (announced here in Genesis) is today widely ignored or outright rejected.

In addition to announcing the divine covenant with all creation, God also blesses Noah and his sons, but something in the blessing has changed since the blessings of Genesis 1. Here Noah and his sons are commanded, and in a sense, promised, to be fruitful and to multiply, just as in Genesis 1. But instead of simply having dominion over the animals, a kind of benevolent guardianship, as in Genesis 1, a new element appears here in 9:2: “The fear and terror of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, etc. Into your hand they are delivered.” The harmony of the ordered world in Gen. 1 is here displaced by terror, and a profound alienation between human beings and the rest of creation.

The next verse (verse 3) notes a further consequence of the cleavage between humans and animals: where prior to the flood everyone was a vegetarian, now meat-eating becomes a reality. As with the curses in chapter 3, the fear and terror in this passage are not part of the divine will for creation. This is not prescriptive on God’s part, but descriptive. That is, this account of the human relation to creation accurately depicts reality as we live it. The Bible accounts for this situation by reference to the human propensity for sin and violence. Meat-eating is a concession to the animal (including the human animal) propensity for violence.

This is the only biblical covenant between God and all living creatures, yet its importance is often downplayed. While this covenant is often treated as unilateral, that is, the emphasis is all on God’s promise not to destroy, the covenant also makes demands of humanity: we are charged with fostering conditions under which all creatures can flourish, by ensuring they have habitats to live in, and by facilitating a sustainable food supply.