Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
There’s a song I suspect many of you know about Noah’s ark. I’m not going to sing (certainly disappointing many of you), but I will quote some of the verses:
The Lord, told Noah, there’s gonna be a floody, floody,
Get those children – out of the muddy muddy
Well Noah he built him
He built him an Arky Arky (sound familiar – do you have the tune in your head enough now?)
After animals coming in twosies, twosies; rain for forty daysies, daysies; and a dovey dovey sent to the heavens abovey, abovey; the sun then dries up the landy landy, everything is hunky dory, dory, and for a final time we sing the refrain “Rise and shine and give God the glory glory, Children of the Lord.”
What a wonderful children’s story! What a classic theme for a Sunday School classroom. I decorated my first child’s bedroom with a Noah’s Ark theme. In this story, everything turns out just fine and dandy, dandy.
Except for the corpses that floated off and landed somewhere to decay.
The story of Noah and the ark is definitely not a children’s story. It’s actually quite a terrifying and tragic tale. The French artist Gustave Doré depicted the story in his engraving of a wild, roiling sea with a giant rock protruding a few feet above the waves. On the rock are three terrified children, and slipping into the sea are a mother and father trying desperately to push a baby to safety. A giant tiger also sits on the rock, bodies are floating in the water, and overhead circle the exhausted vultures. Whatever else we may say about this story, it’s not cute.
One of the ways people have sought to minimize this story is to say the flood just had local, not global, impact. Others claim the story was copied from ancient myths, like the Epic of Gilgamesh. Others tend to simply ignore the death part and focus on the saving of Noah and his clan. However, we really can’t deny that the whole story is in the Bible. Only looking at the whole story can we begin to understand what God is like and what people are like.
The Bible begins with a world created by God, and declared “good” seven times. But then that world devolves into violence and chaos: scape-goating by Adam who blames Eve and even God; fratricide by Cain who kills Abel; then Cain’s descendant Lamech, the Bible’s first polygamist, and a murderer — all culminating in the verdict that “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence.” Amidst the corruption, only Noah and his family are decent people. God tells Noah to build an ark for himself and his family, and to bring into it every kind of animal. God then causes the heavens to rain for 40 days and nights, wreaking devastation and death.
The flood story describes God as being so upset by humanity’s rebellious acts that God seems to be trying to reverse Creation, allowing the waters to flood the whole earth and wiping everything out. In this view, God sees creation as evil, rather than good, and responds with catastrophe – almost like God saying, “Because you never listen to me, and you all have turned out so horribly, I’m going to get rid of the crap I’ve created and start all over again.” Fortunately “righteous” and “blameless” Noah, “found favor in the sight of the Lord.” Through Noah, God starts over again with a remnant of the beings created at the beginning.
While the story of Noah’s ark can be quite awful, when we read today’s passage, we can better understand what this story is really about.
“Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you…never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’”
This story isn’t about God’s destroying humanity as a punishment for bad behavior. It’s a story about God’s relationship with us. God’s whole intent is to restore the harmony that was the purpose of Creation in the first place. God sends the flood not as an act of revenge, but out of grief and sorrow over people’s broken relationship with God. And then God establishes a covenant with Noah and his descendants. Not a covenant based on a demand for better behavior. But a covenant based solely on God’s gracious promise to put aside forever the option of destruction. A catastrophe like the flood wrought upon humanity? Never again.
Throughout scripture, God makes many covenants. In the Old Testament, covenants are promises that contain stipulations and are usually made between two parties who are unequal. For example, in the book of Exodus, God makes a covenant with Israel: “I’ll take you as my people, and I’ll be your God.” But the covenant that God establishes with Noah and his descendants is different.
First, this covenant is made between not just God and the people of Israel. It’s a covenant made with all of earth’s creatures. “I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you…” In fact, God says the covenant is “between me and the earth.”
Second, God is the sole initiator and maker of the covenant. Neither Noah nor any of his family are asked to agree. God promises that God will never again use a natural catastrophe to destroy all earthly life. While God says “never again,” God doesn’t say “but if I promise to spare creation, then you have to do this-and-that.” God’s covenant is unconditional – it’s purely a gracious act by a loving God. Maybe God makes this one-sided promise because God knows people, and how they can be. If God’s promise depended on us keeping our end of a bargain, then in all likelihood God would have to destroy us again. Because people after the Flood aren’t much different than they were before it.
The symbol for this magnificent covenant is what we call a rainbow. God says, “I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” And while we think of this as a colorful rainbow, this sign of the covenant is actually the bow of battle. Ancient depictions of a deity armed with a bow and arrow weren’t unusual. To hang up one’s bow was to retire from battle. That bow in the clouds is the sign of God’s promise that whatever else God does to seek our restoration, destruction is off the table.
God drapes a rainbow across the sky, and while we like to think that rainbows are a sign to us, our scripture passage says that the rainbow is actually a sign to God. God says, “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant…” The cloud bow is not finally for us to see. Sure, we can look at it and be reminded of God’s promise. But really the bow is for God to remember. The cloud bow is like a string tied around God’s divine finger, to remind God “never again.” Even when God sees us at our worst, even when God grieves over our sin and waywardness, God remembers the promise of the rainbow, and God stays God’s hand.
As we gather on this first Sunday of Lent, we begin our journey toward the Cross, and the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection. The events of Holy Week and God’s rainbow hung in the sky have parallels. Both the cross and empty tomb AND the rainbow affirm that God doesn’t seek to punish, but to restore. They tell us that God will never forget or forsake us when the flood waters of sorrow and suffering threaten. Both the cross and empty tomb AND God’s bow in the clouds declare that death and destruction are not the final word. God has made a covenant with us – a gracious act by a loving God – and that covenant will never fail. Amen.