Text: Genesis 9:8-17
Anyone with formal instruction in reading the Bible will remember that when something is repeated, it is worth our attention; two repetitions (three times, total) is very important. What, then, do we make of God’s using “covenant” seven times in one paragraph? As though that were not enough, except for the promise to establish a covenant (Gen 6:18, where “covenant” occurs only once), this is the first time “covenant” occurs in the Bible. Is a second look warranted?
The Great Flood was over. After a year in the Ark, Noah’s family and the animals with them stepped again upon dry ground (8:18-19). In thanksgiving, we may assume, Noah offered a sacrifice from each clean-animal species (8:20). God purposed not “again to smite all life” (8:21*), and spoke to Noah words both of blessing and of instruction (8:22–9:7). These end with God’s instruction to Noah’s family, “As for you, be fruitful . . .” (9:7); we should take them as creation-covenant responsibilities laid upon all this earth’s higher animate creation.
This is confirmed by God’s opening word here, “As for me.” In our paragraph, God spelled out with lavish repetition the responsibility God laid upon Godself in this early covenant. The first to rivet our attention is the seven-fold use of “covenant,” itself. Three times, it is expressed as, “My covenant”; twice, as “the covenant”; twice, as “a covenant.”
More important, of course, is the substance of this covenant. Fundamentally, a covenant is a legally binding contract, so what obligation was God taking on? This paragraph states it twice: never again would God send “a flood to destroy the earth” (v 11), “a flood to destroy all flesh” (v 15). The narrator had stated this earlier (8:21), but not quite so explicitly; in addition, this time Noah and his family heard it (v 8).
For the first time, also–but by no means the last–God vouchsafed a sign of the covenant, the rainbow in the clouds. Both the phrase, “sign of the covenant,” and the singular noun, “(my) bow/rainbow,” occur three times (vv 12-17).
As impressive–when we finally notice them, as we so seldom do–is the collection of nouns reminding us that God did not enter into this first covenant with humans alone. We have partners on our “side” of this covenant. The earth and all its animate denizens are included, in a series of repetitions (with artistic variations) numbering eighteen in total–and this excludes the twelve nouns and pronouns that reference only humans! Furthermore, the rest of the earth’s animate life is referenced explicitly as being “with you [Noah]” three times, and implicitly in at least a dozen other ways, in the vocabulary, the grammar, and the syntax of this paragraph.
What are we to make of all this? We will focus on a specific reassurance and on a potential recalibration of perspective, as appropriate responses.
For millennia, in the hands of a skilled and experienced archer, the bow was the most efficient and effective weapon available, both in the hunt and on the battlefield. To say that God has hung God’s bow in the clouds is to say that God has ceased large-scale aggressive action. Individual and community judgments yet may be required, but as long as this age endures, we may be sure God will not again “destroy” the earth and all its inhabitants. Seeing the rainbow, and knowing God also sees and remembers, is reassurance, indeed!
The depiction within this paragraph of God’s passion for the Shalom of all God’s creation is neither the first, the last, nor even the most important such depiction throughout the pages of Scripture. God still expects us to steward God’s creation on this earth. (See, e.g., Gen 2:15, “to serve and to protect.”) The “potential recalibration of perspective,” then, we pose as a question: How are we to care for the earth and all its creatures–partners “with us” in this covenant at God’s behest, not our own?
(*All translations are the author’s.)