First Sunday in Lent (Year B)

What does it mean for God to give an eternal promise to every creature, including the animals, the birds, and the earth?

March 1, 2009

First Reading
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Commentary on Genesis 9:8-17

What does it mean for God to give an eternal promise to every creature, including the animals, the birds, and the earth?

In this text God lays out the dynamics of a renewed relationship to the post-flood world. This passage, commonly assigned to the Priestly writer, must be read in view of other post-flood texts, especially Genesis 8:21-22. Although Noah is in some sense a new Adam, God’s moves into the future must now take into account the evil inclination of the human heart (8:21). The post-flood world is no Garden of Eden, yet God assures Noah and his family that the basic shape of the world as created still holds, with its blessings, commands, and promises (see also 9:1-7).

The covenant with Noah and all flesh fulfills the pre-flood promise God made in 6:18. Note the environmental implications of this text: God makes a covenant with “every living creature,” indeed with “the earth” (vv. 12-13), not just human beings (see God’s remembering of both wild and domestic animals in 8:1). God’s promise is universal and extends through all time. The meaning of “covenant” here is “promise,” a promise which is unilateral and unconditional. Covenant does not mean “agreement” in this text (contrast Exodus 24:3-8); it is sheer promise from God (see Isaiah 54:9-10, which describes this covenant as a divine oath). God stands as the subject of the verbs throughout the text–even seeing the rainbow and remembering the covenant; nothing at all is said about what human beings should do. God alone takes on this obligation.

God did not create the rainbow for this moment, but it is now filled with new significance for the future. Strikingly, the rainbow reminds God (see Exodus 12:13). God’s remembering is more than a mental activity; it involves action with specific reference to a prior commitment (see 8:1; Exodus 2:24; 6:5). In times of difficulty, particularly conflict and war, this sign of divine remembering is one in which people can take comfort and hope. Sometimes it is suggested that this is a sign that God will not use the bow as a weapon again; but this interpretation is difficult since the broken bow becomes a symbol of peace (Psalm 46:9). But the rainbow is a sign of divine good will toward the creation, even though God’s judgment will continue.

The flood story focuses on God and God’s commitment to the world. This God:

  • expresses sorrow and regret
  • judges, but does not want to judge
  • goes beyond justice and decides to save some, including animals
  • commits to the future of a less than perfect world
  • is open to change in view of experience with the world and doing things in new ways
  • promises never to do this again

What God does here recharacterizes the divine relation to the world. God softens the workings of divine judgment and promises an orderly cosmos for the continuation of life. God will never do this again! God is the one who has changed between the beginning and the end of the flood, not human beings (compare 6:5 with 8:21). God decides to continue to live with such resisting creatures–not the response of your typical CEO!

This story shows that God changes in the divine way of relating to the world. God’s eternal promise is more than simply promising to bring no more floods. The promise in 8:21 makes it clear that God brings the reign of the curse to an end–an eternal limit on the functioning of the moral order–and promises not to “destroy” the world again, by whatever means. Come what may, the cosmic order will remain steady and regular (8:22). “As long as the earth endures” does not qualify the promise; it speaks only of the life of the earth into an indefinite future.

At the same time God is not simply resigned to the world’s evil. God must find a new way of dealing with the problem of sin and evil. God takes three complementary directions:

  • For God to promise not to do something again entails an ongoing divine self-limitation regarding the exercise of freedom and power. God thereby limits the divine options for dealing with evil in the life of the world. The route of world annihilation has been set aside as a divine possibility. And, given the fact that God will keep promises, divine self-limitation yields real limitation. That is, while God would be capable of annihilating the world, God cannot do so and still be faithful. This divine commitment is not unlike marital promises: the parties involved are capable of breaking the promises, but they cannot do so and still remain faithful. On divine impossibility, see also Matthew 26:39.
  • Divine judgment there will be, but it will be limited in scope (e.g., Sodom and Gomorrah; plagues in Egypt). And hence God determines that, while a moral order of sin and consequence would continue, no world-ending consequence would be allowed to occur (end-of-the-world scenarios move to another level of consideration). Sin and evil will be allowed to have their day, but God will work from within such a world to redeem it, not overpower the world from without.
  • Genesis 6:5-7, with its reference to divine suffering over human evil, makes a bold claim about God. That sin and evil continue after the flood (Genesis 8:21), and God still makes the promises God does, means that such divine suffering will continue. This kind of divine response means that God has chosen to take the route of suffering relative to sin and evil rather than annihilative power. For God to decide to endure a wicked world, while continuing to open up the divine heart to that world, means that God’s grief is ongoing. God thus determines to take suffering into God’s own heart and bear it there for the sake of the future of the world. The cross of Jesus Christ is on the same trajectory of divine promise. It is precisely this kind of God with whom sinful readers have to do, and it is primarily the divine commitment to promises made that they most need to hear.