Commentary on Genesis 9:8-17
As the conclusion to a story of God wiping out almost all life and right before Noah curses his innocent grandson, we find Genesis 9:8-17, God’s eternal covenant with all creatures. It is a beautiful covenant in which God unconditionally promises to withhold divine destruction, and God sets a sign—a (rain)bow—in the sky to assure humanity that we need not fear another cataclysm like that which is depicted in Genesis 6–8.
This is a much loved passage by adults and one that we share with children from a very early age. But even as we draw out meanings from this passage that we would like to uphold, we must not ignore the terrible literary context in which our text is couched. If we are not careful, we may adopt this passage as a palliative that gives us a sense of comfort with the divinely orchestrated genocide inscribed in the story of the flood. It is only a small step from that to becoming desensitized to the genocide and massive disasters of our world today.
If we are not careful, we are prone to treat the rainbow as a happy ending to the flood while paying no attention to the horrible historical consequences that have come out of how people read the verses that actually end Genesis 9. Those verses (Genesis 9:18-29) have consistently served as a crucial theological support for all kinds of oppression including, but not limited to, Christians persecuting Jews, Muslims enslaving non-Muslims, Christians enslaving people of African descent, and Hutu massacring Tutsi. Although most readers may denounce such atrocities today, the majority of readers still find ways to justify the curse of Canaan in the text, which leaves the passage charged with theological potential to be used for evil in generations to come.
It would be irresponsible to glibly profess love for the theological insights that one can draw out of Genesis 9:8-17 without offering a warning about the dangers embedded in its immediate literary context. Because I treat these ancient Israelite texts as life-giving scripture, I take great care with how I transmit these stories to communities of faith where we so often treat the Bible as our guide.
As we turn from the literary context to the socio-historical context of biblical authors, we can gain special insights from a basic understanding of what a covenant is. The biblical authors who write of God making covenants with humans are taking a specific type of binding arrangement between humans and imagining God entering into these social relationships. A key idea worth drawing out of covenants in their historical context is that they are predicated on relationships. The fact that God makes a covenant with “every living creature … for all future generations” (Genesis 9:12) implies that God maintains some ongoing relationship with every being, human and animal.
What does it mean to read the Bible as scripture written by ancient Israelites, but also hinting at a relationship between God and the rest of the world—a relationship never thoroughly depicted in the pages of our Bible? In rare instances we get a glimpse of this radical theological vision. At the other end of the flood story, Genesis 6:12 implies that all flesh, not just humans, can act in ways that are concerning to God. In Amos 9:7 God recounts having been the liberator for other peoples in the same way that God led the Israelites out of Egypt. As with these passages, God entering into a covenant in Genesis 9 implies God’s relationship with creation that extends beyond the limits of our parochial purview.
Another important way to contextualize this passage is in relation to the strikingly similar flood myths of their ancient Southwest Asian and Northeast African neighbors. By “myth” I mean a story set in primeval time that expresses some core beliefs about something significant and that is held onto tightly by the communities that pass on these stories. (It is not a claim about the truth or historicity of the story.)
When one looks at the parallels between the biblical account of Noah and a popular Old Babylonian flood myth of Atrahasis, the many similarities are apparent, but the differences also provide a very fruitful space for thinking about why it is that we hold so tightly to the theology in the story passed down in the Bible.
The Old Babylonian flood story explains why things are the way they are for the contemporary authors and audience in the ancient world. Before the flood, there is a problem of overpopulation that disturbs the gods to such an extent that they decide to wipe out people; only by following the advice of a wise god does Atrahasis build a vessel to withstand the catastrophe. In the aftermath of the flood, the gods replace catastrophes of epic proportion with the perennial tragedies their audience would recognize such as stillbirths and infant deaths. But the biblical authors, rather than use this flood tradition to explain the tragedies of contemporary circumstances, use the flood story to explain the blessings of life. The end of the flood marks a time when God’s world will carry on with predictable seasons—a sign of hope that things will turn around for the better even during the tough times (Genesis 8:22)—and a covenant of assurance that God will not destroy all life again (Genesis 9:11). One of the reasons that we hold onto the biblical flood story so tightly is because it reminds us to hope for the rainbow after the storm and to believe that, even in the midst of a tempest, a new tomorrow awaits us.
This message of hope seems especially poignant as we navigate the devastation of a global pandemic. The biblical authors certainly did not imagine the toll that COVID-19 would take on the world when they transcribed their own version of an ancient flood myth. Nevertheless, Christians have a rich history of drawing meaning from the Bible in order to speak life into the present moment. Certainly, this is a moment when we could benefit from God’s message of hope.