For those who want a change from the Gospel
Lent 1 – Genesis 9:8-17
For the first three Sundays of Lent our Lectionary gives us a mini-series, exploring three covenants made by God with Noah, Abraham, and Moses. So we will need to begin with a quick review of what a covenant is, so that we can then go on to explore the unique features of each of these three, and what they can each tell us about our God and how we relate to him.
In the Ancient Near East covenants were two-a-penny. They were often made between two parties, and usually involved some kind of deal with a quid-pro-quo clause, although they were not often equal in nature. For example a conquering king might make a deal with those he has defeated not to destroy them completely as long as they don’t attempt to rebel. The covenant would require the agreement and compliance of both parties, even though the power balance was clearly unequal. In our world perhaps the most common form of covenant is marriage, and one hopes that this deal will be a little bit less one-sided! Covenants are usually sealed with some legal paperwork (or perhaps stonework), and perhaps other symbols, such as wedding rings.
God’s covenant with Noah isn’t in fact, with Noah alone, but with the human race and the animal kingdom. Unlike most covenants this one is completely one-sided: there are no demands at all on humans, but merely a promise from God. This is one reason why people talk about the ‘unconditional love’ of God, which you may have heard me try to debunk in my podcasts on John 3:16, although the word ‘love’ does not feature in this passage at all. Taken in context of the other two covenants which we shall be examining, this one is a great starter for ten. It reveals something important about God, and is a good foundation for the more typical forms of covenant to come. This one may look unconditional, but the others certainly aren’t. Indeed only two verses before our passage for today is a command for capital punishment for murder, so the text will not allow us to go overboard on unconditional love.
So what’s the deal? In context God has wiped out most of the world population of humans and animals in an attempt to purge evil from his beautiful world. It clearly didn’t work, as the very next paragraph shows that the hero, Noah, is no better than anyone else when he’s had a few tinctures. And two chapters later we see the human race in arrogant rebellion against God at Babel. But the promise is there anyway: never again will God wipe out life from the earth with a flood. That is important: God does not promise never to destroy the earth, only that he will never flood it again. The text emphasises two things about this deal: universality and eternity. The covenant is with ‘you and your descendants … and with every living creature’. Whilst we’re going to see next week a special covenant with one particular race, that isn’t the original and best. This is about all living creatures. And it is for ever: the words ‘never again’ are repeated for emphasis.
The sign, the ‘wedding ring’, for this deal is the rainbow, a powerful and beautiful symbol which has been reappropriated (or ‘hijacked’, some might say) by the campaign for a united South Africa, the Gay lobby, and more lately, for reasons which are not clear, by supporters of the NHS. The range of colours speaks of inclusion, as do the words which emphasise that this deal is for all life for all time, and from a meteorological pint of view rainbows happen at the conjunction of rain and sunshine, reminding us that clouds literally have a silver lining.
This covenant, then, forms a little oasis in the desert of human sin and divine judgement. But it does reveal one more important thing about God, the fact that he ‘feels’ for his world. The Greek philosopher Aristotle thought of God as a ‘unmoved mover’, the one who causes stuff to happen but is completely untouched by any of it, perhaps like chess player who moves the pieces around but feels absolutely nothing for the pawn he has just sacrificed. The flood narrative, terrible though it is if we get beyond the Sunday School story and really wrestle with it theologically, reveals a very emotional God. He regrets, grieves, and now remembers. He draws up this covenant precisely because he has not simply washed his hands of the human race. He desires ongoing relationship with them, just as his Son is later going to be described as having chosen a Bride for himself for eternity.
Noah, then, offers us a paradox, one in which Christians live daily. God makes an unconditional promise to the human race, which demands nothing back from us, and yet he desires a response, a relationship, and, as we shall see soon, obedience. Christians talk about not being good in order to be saved, but being good because we have been saved. Noah introduces us to this idea by showing that the initiative first comes from God towards us, but we have to understand this alongside Abraham and Moses. So come back next week!