Our Limiting God

“This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and everything living around you and everyone living after you. I’m putting my rainbow in the clouds, a sign of the covenant between me and the Earth. From now on, when I form a cloud over the Earth and the rainbow appears in the cloud, I’ll remember my covenant between me and you and everything living, that never again will floodwaters destroy all life. When the rainbow appears in the cloud, I’ll see it and remember the eternal covenant between God and everything living, every last living creature on Earth.” – Genesis 9:12-16, The Message

We study a familiar story this week, but we skip the two-by-two part along with the rains come tumbling down section and head straight to what God promises creation after the floodwaters subside.  In Genesis 9, we find the first mention of a covenant in the Bible.

In the ancient near east, a covenant was an agreement between two groups.  Most always, this agreement was a promise made by a conquering kingdom to not destroy the conquered kingdom and even protect this people in exchange for access to the conquered’s resources and land.  The agreement is reciprocal but not equal:  We the conquering will not destroy you but will protect you as long as we have access to the resources that will make us greater.  There is clearly a have and a have-not.

What we see in the covenant promise that God makes to Noah’s family on behalf of all creation is different.  Clearly God is the powerful player in this scene.  God has just all but wiped out his creation, save for Noah’s family and the two-by-twos.  But as one scholar puts it, God appears to be just a little shocked at the display of his strength toward creation. Therefore, God makes a unique covenant, a one-sided covenant, with the people and animals that God delivered.  In doing so, he sets his bow down in the clouds, as a warrior would do when he has come home from battle.

This rainbow becomes a sign for God and a reminder that he will never destroy creation again.  The rainbow acts as a reminder to God.  I admit I’ve never given much thought to the rainbow being a reminder for God.  I’ve always seen it as a reassuring sign for creation.  Why does God need reminding?

Perhaps it is because when God promises to not destroy, God is limiting his ability to bring to an end to his creation.  And from time to time, humanity’s propensity to selfishness might just frustrate God enough to consider it again.  And why would God want to do this?  If we look back to Genesis 6:5, we read that God saw the wickedness that had overtaken all of creation  – that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only to evil continually.  And God is sorry about his creation – enough to blot them out; except there is Noah. So God saves the only family that found favor in his sight.  And God destroyed the rest!

We don’t spend much time on this part of the flood story, do we?  We love the faithfulness of Noah and the way God saves his family and all the animals.  Its safe.  We make it a children’s story and decorate nurseries with these images.  But the times leading up to the flood and the catastrophic flood are far from G-rated!  There are very adult themes here.  God was fed up with the evil in his creation’s heart.  Seems like the world was like Las Vegas, times ten!  Even God’s angels got into the mess, falling in love with women and impregnating them with giants!  Really?  Read Genesis 6:1-4.

To harken back to Adam and Eve’s original sin, it appears that the people of Noah’s day had no regard for God or his commands, which were created for the purpose of humanity’s flourishing.  People had their mind set on evil, day and night (6:5).  I take this to mean people did whatever made them feel good, putting their desire ahead of the good of the whole and the order that God had created.  Such disregard for God, the divine parent who cared so much for creation, was enough for any mortal to give up.  And for a moment, so the scripture says, so did God.

But there was Noah. God provided the necessary instructions for Noah’s family to survive.  They boarded a ship and the floods came.  But what about all those bent on evil?  What happened to them?  They got what they deserved, right?  Can you picture the hopeless struggle as the waters rush and rise?  Its not a pretty sight.  And now that Noah, his family and the animals had survived, God, fresh from his victory in battle, is ready to lay his weapon down for good.

What must it be like to be angry at creation?  Many of us have been angry at our children, sure.  But angry enough to kill?  Is this really the kind of God we read about in the rest of our Bible and worship?  Its hard to imagine.  But his wrath is right there in scripture. Is there more to this?

Since the beginning, civilizations have had their flood narratives.  What does one do when everything they know is wiped out by rushing water?  When lightening strikes from the sky?  Thunder rolls overhead?  We know a lot about the weather today (although not enough to control it or even predict it well).  But in ancient times, this was all mysterious and assigned to the anger of God.  Certainly, we know that sin is pervasive and at times almost irresistible to humanity.  Its can be enough for anyone (even a deity) to want to give up.

Recalling that much of the Torah was written down during the Babylonian exile, what might the homeless Israelites have thought of this story?  They believed their continual sin had carried them away into exile.  Might flood stories also be explained as righteous anger?

The beauty of God’s covenant is that, no matter the cause of the flood, we see God taking initiative to promise that no matter what evil may come in the future, God will not destroy, even though it may be tempting as evil can be so frustrating and hurtful.  But God is willing to be limited so that even when humanity turns to evil all the time (and I think we can admit it still happens) God will refuse to destroy.

With this in mind, I think the story can be more about who the LORD God is in contrast to those other near eastern gods.  Whatever resemblance God and the flood may have had in other flood stories, the covenanting God who limits his power out of love and compassion for creation is a far more compelling and, in the end, powerful.  It is also a foreshadowing of God’s final redemptive work through Jesus, as he limits himself all the more, taking the form of a human and denying any divine privilege. (Philippians 2)

What I take from this story is God does hate the state that sin leaves us in but loves us so much that he finds another way around the sin problem.  It wasn’t through destroying his wayward creation but being vulnerable enough to conquer the sin that would put Christ to death.

One last feature I noticed, with the help of others: God’s bow – the rainbow – is taut, as if strung and ready for action.  A bow that is strung will look more like the bending arch in the sky than one that is not loaded.  This could reflect that God is patient with his creation even though his patience is tense, full of pent up energy.  He’s laid his bow down but it doesn’t mean God is OK with the evil that remains in creation.  And because God was willing to suffer at the hands of evil, God knows all the better the terror that it inflicts on us.  Just look at the evil that leads one teenager to kill so many other innocents this week.  And even how we are becoming so used to it.  So, no.  God isn’t OK with the evil that woos us.  So, just as the rainbow is a reminder to God that he will never destroy his creation for even this, the strung, tense bow should also be a reminder that God doesn’t take our sin lightly.  In righteous love, God has defeated evil through his incarnational sacrifice.  But in God’s righteous anger, God is still burdened by the sin that keeps us from fully knowing and seeing his love, this side of the kingdom.

Therefore, I believe that anyone who suffers for righteousness sake, who stands up for God’s creation in the face of evil can expect to suffer but also expect to be blessed.  (Beatitudes, Matthew 5)

  • How does our lesson speak to God’s radical love in the face of even the heartbreaking events of this week?
  • While God will not destroy us because of our sin, what might the taut roundness of the rainbow reveal about God’s attitude toward sin?
  • Following God’s example, should our attitude toward sin be different than our attitude to those who sin?  How does our attitude toward sin and sinners reflect that God’s Kingdom is available to all?