Life Under the Rainbow Gen 9:1-17


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Genesis 9:1-17

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v.1       Noah is presented here as the Second Adam. The same thing was said to him as was said to Adam in Genesis 1.

The heroes of the ancient near eastern flood sagas are rewarded by being granted immortality and removed from human society. But Noah is made the beginning of a new society, the instrument by which mankind’s rebirth would be accomplished. [Sarna, 60] In the oldest of the Mesopotamian flood epics overpopulation was the reason for the flood and to ensure that the problem didn’t reoccur the gods imposed controls on mankind’s fertility, inflicting women with sterility and imposing a high degree of infant mortality. The Bible, on the contrary, is everywhere enthusiastic about the life of human beings and there being more of them. Here the Lord tells man once again to be fruitful and multiply. [Waltke, 144; Sarna, 60] Pope Paul VI said it beautifully: abortion is a selfish attempt to limit the number of guests invited to the banquet of life.”

v.2       A relationship with the animal kingdom that was intended to be harmonious would now be dominated by fear.

v.3       If this statement is taken to suggest that up to this point man ate only vegetables, no explanation is given for the change. We read of animal sacrifice and livestock in chapter 4, so the idea of raising animals for food does not seem to have originated here. In any case, even in the face of human sin and human irresponsibility, mankind is given this comprehensive authority over the animal kingdom. And, so far as diet is concerned, there was no distinction to be made between clean and unclean animals.

v.4       As we have seen in our examination of Leviticus on Sunday evenings of late, “blood” was identified with life, just as it is for us today: a strong pulse, a beating heart are what we call “vital signs.” The fact that the practice of eating meat with the blood still in it is so regularly and sternly forbidden in the Old Testament furnishes proof that it was a regular practice in that time and place and for that reason: it was thought that by eating blood one could reinforce one’s own vitality. [Sarna, 61] The Bible repudiates such superstition and instead lays great emphasis on the sanctity of life. There is, by the way, no known analogy to this prohibition against eating blood in any other law code of the ancient near east. There is a moral character to this law. Respect for life, an acknowledgment that it does not belong to us but to God, that it is sacred to him and thus must be to us, is all conveyed in this prohibition. It, of course, paves the way for so much more to come in the laws of sacrifice that revealed ahead of time the nature of the atonement: how God would atone for our sins by requiring a life for our lives. We have been redeemed, Peter says, by the “precious blood of Christ,” that is by his death on the cross.

v.5       We will read later, in the law of Moses, that animals that killed human beings were to be killed themselves (Exod. 21:28). “Fellow man,” in v. 5 is literally “brother,” so homicide is a form of fratricide.

v.6       We may regard this statement as the origin of government, the human institution designed to protect life. “Capital punishment is necessary to preserve life in the face of human depravity.” We’ve already read in chapter 4 of fallen man’s propensity to violence. [Waltke, 143] The seriousness of the crime of murder lies in the fact that homicide is also a form of deicide, man having been made like God in important ways! No human being has the right to kill such an exalted creature. The argument of justice that lies beneath the death-penalty is, here as always, that the punishment should fit the crime, that there ought to be equivalence between crime and punishment. Unlike the other law codes of the ancient world, in Israel alone the payment of money could not ransom a murderer (Num. 35:31). [Sarna, 61] But recall that elaborate safeguards were put in place to prevent miscarriages of justice and a particularly high bar was established that the prosecution would have to surmount to secure a verdict of homicide. In the OT as now in the modern west, it was far easier for a murderer to escape punishment for want of sufficient evidence than for an innocent man to be sentenced to death.

v.12     Covenants in the ancient world were accompanied by signs, usually actions or objects that served to confirm the agreement or guarantee it. Think of the Sabbath, circumcision, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, all covenant signs in the Bible.

v.13     In ancient near eastern mythology stars in the shape of a bow were associated with warlike gods. Here a bow in the heavens has been transformed into a bond of peace. We do not have to believe that rainbows originated at this time, any more than we have to believe that circumcision was first practiced in Israel or a rite of purification by water was original to John the Baptist. What was probably happening is that new significance was invested in an already existing phenomenon. [Sarna, 62-63]

v.16     Another of the many dramatic anthropomorphisms that litter the early chapters of Genesis. The Lord will remember his covenant when he sees the rainbow in the clouds!

v.17     The term “everlasting” which often describes the biblical covenants must be interpreted according to the context. The promise, as we read in 8:22, holds as long as earth endures.

We have had cause frequently to mention in these sermons that one very important reason why Christians should be thoroughly and thoughtfully familiar with the early chapters of Genesis is that the most fundamental features of our understanding of reality are laid down in these first chapters of the Bible. Who and what God is, who and what man is, the fundamental structures of human life — such as marriage and family, work and rest — the nature of human life in sin, the double relationship between God and man — either alienation or friendship –, the reality of divine judgment and, at the same time, of peace with God.

We live today, at least in the western world, in a culture determined to minimize if not obliterate the sharp differences between worldviews. When recently the dean of the National Cathedral — supposedly a Christian church — admitted that he had more in common with progressive Jews and Muslims than with conservative Christians, he was speaking the ideas not of the Bible but of our culture, especially our elite culture: the university, the media, and much of our political class.

All of you have heard the notion — so often and so confidently repeated as if it were self-evident — that the religions of the world are, at bottom, simply different versions of man’s search for God, or for meaning, or for some transcendent dimension of human life. This notion is so uncontroversial in our public life that we have learned to accept without comment the idea that there are so-called “faith-based” organizations and initiatives, as if a Buddhist social service or a Jewish or Christian or Muslim organization would have something in common that the non-religious do not share; and as if atheistic thought and action were not as profoundly based on faith as any religion may be said to be.

One of the reasons I have spent so much time in these sermons comparing the biblical text to the ancient near eastern mythologies is to remind you how utterly different the biblical understanding of reality is from the religious ideas of the ancient world; how regularly the Bible contradicts the basic understand of reality that is found in the ancient near eastern texts. And this is as true today as ever it was in Moses’ day.

Biblical Christianity is in fact not another version of man’s search for meaning and for God. I accept that the other religions and philosophies of life are actually versions of the same thing: the kind of outlook on life and meaning that human beings invent for themselves in particular times and places. But I categorically deny that the teaching of the Bible is any such thing. It is, in fact, at the root the repudiation of all such man-made theorizing about life. Its view of God is utterly unique: the point we made last week. So too its view of man, of sin, and of salvation. At point after point the teaching of the Bible not only diverged from the thinking of the ancient world (and of the modern world for that matter) but contradicted it root and branch.

This does not mean, to be sure, that everything taught in other religions and philosophies of mankind is wrong. God has imprinted his existence and his will on the very nature of human beings by making them in his image and likeness. They cannot help giving expression to certain features of reality for that reason. Florence and I watched last night a movie about family life in Delhi and we were impressed by some of the admirable features of Hindu culture. This is one of the reasons why the arguments for biblical truth have always been so powerful. It is the Bible that makes sense of what every human being knows to be true. The atheist must believe that every believer in God is completely and utterly wrong about the fundamentals of reality. But the reason the argument for atheism has faced such an uphill climb is because it does not account and cannot account for what everyone, including the atheist, knows to be true: that human beings matter, that there is such a thing as right and wrong and so on. Anyone with a Bible in his hand knows very well that all human beings have some knowledge of God and of his will. Still, their developed religious ideas and philosophies of life all have something in common: both a disconnection from reality as we experience reality and a man-made quality about them, the sort of ideas human beings characteristically invent to manage their world and attempt to make sense of it, while at the same time refusing to accept their actual place in it as sinful creatures at the mercy of the Living God! Read the mythologies of the ancient world for yourself and tell me I’m not right.

I say all of this to introduce one of the most fundamental of all the features of reality as the Bible defines it. I am speaking of God’s making covenants with mankind and especially with his people. We have an important instance of this phenomenon here in chapter 9. Indeed, the Hebrew word “covenant” (berit) occurs some seven times in vv. 8-17. God made a covenant with Noah and with mankind. Like all biblical covenants, this one contained promises and corresponding obligations. We read here of the Lord committing himself never again to destroy mankind as he had with the flood and of continuing the cycle of seedtime and harvest and so guaranteeing man’s food supply. And we read of the obligations to preserve life, to respect the sanctity of life, and to punish appropriately those who unlawfully take human life. And, again typical of biblical covenants, there is a sign to remind the partners of the covenant of the promises made and the corresponding obligations to undertake.

Now, rather than dig into the details of this particular covenant, I want to consider with you the very idea of God making covenants with man. God must be personal to have a relationship with human beings and, of course, there are many worldviews that have no place for a personal God. On the other hand, God must be very great — infinite really — to be able to guarantee such a promise as the one he makes here. He must be a God capable of both destroying mankind on the one hand and ensuring that such a thing never happens again on the other.

There is nothing like this anywhere else in mankind’s understanding of ultimate reality: that the living God enters into covenants with human beings. Buddhism, for example, has no personal God who might have a relationship, personal and moral, with his creature. Islam so separates God from his creatures that there can be no thought of Allah stooping down to place himself under obligation to keep promises he has made to his creatures. In atheistic thought, obviously, there can be no thought of man’s life being so bound up with God.

I want you to stop and think about this. “Covenant” is so prominent a theme in the Bible and we encounter the term and the thing itself so many times that we are tempted to take this for granted. The term appears frequently in the Bible in reference to relationships between human beings: e.g. Abraham made a covenant with Abimilech and David and Jonathan made a covenant together. And the covenant between God and his people is an organizing principle of biblical revelation. The entire history of salvation is, in the Bible, an unfolding succession of covenants in which the one great covenant of God’s grace takes clearer and clearer form and is worked out step by step in history. The only reason people knew the Messiah was coming was because it was one of the promises God had made when he entered into a covenant with his people: the covenant with Abraham, with Israel at Sinai, with the royal house of David, and so on. All the great features of the gospel: election, atonement, calling, faith, a holy life, and the promise of life everlasting are all revealed in terms of such covenants.

It is not at all obvious that God should have done any such thing. Think what it means! God is under no obligation to enter into such a relationship with us. He is under no obligation to make promises to us. Would we not normally expect that our Creator and our Master, whom God certainly is, would simply tell us what he required of us? Perhaps he would as well warn us what would happen if we disobeyed him.

But God did not do this. He entered into a covenant, he forged a personal bond with us; he came all the way down to us and took us into friendship with himself. And who is that “us” that he took into his friendship — not men and women with the full glory of his image still upon them, but fallen men and women, corrupted, defiled, petty, small, annoying, rebellious men and women. These he made his friends!  To these he made his many exceeding great and precious promises!

This fact, that God makes covenants with men, is so fundamental to our entire outlook on reality that if I were somehow able to pull that thread out of the tapestry of your understanding of reality, by the time I had pulled the entire thread clear, there would be nothing left. Christians look at the world in an entirely different way than anyone else because of God making covenants with us.

  • Because God is a covenant-making God we know that God is large-hearted, gracious, and kind.

For God to promise himself to his creatures in this way, for the high God to bind himself, to make himself, as Thomas Goodwin once put it “a debtor to promise,” is an act of pure condescension. He certainly didn’t have to do this. He was under no obligation to make promises to undeserving creatures. Do you realize that as Christians our whole understanding of God and of life itself rests on the fact that Almighty God cares for us enough to lower himself on our behalf, that the impossibly great God who created the heavens and the earth by the mere utterance of his word is not above making a personal commitment to his creatures, to you and to me, and not unwilling to do so even though we are so unworthy of such kindness on his part. The covenant-making God is not simply a person; he is an extraordinarily attractive person!

  • Because God is a covenant-making God fundamental to the hope and promise of every single human life is a personal relationship with God, the knowledge of God person to person.

We take this for granted, but, again, do you realize there is nothing like this in human thought about reality anywhere else in the world? This is the very nature of “covenant.” A covenant is nothing else but an ordered relationship between two persons or parties. Marriage is a covenant and it is precisely because marriage is a covenant that God’s relationship to us is so often likened in the Bible to a marriage. Because God makes covenants with mankind and, in particular, with those who trust in him and love him, the entire issue of our lives reduces to this relationship. What is our relationship with God? Are we his enemies or his friends; do we resist his presence and his will or do we love to serve him; are we his creatures only or are we his children? These are the options; the only options. We are in one kind of relationship with God or in the other because there are only these two. There is no other alternative. I am well aware of the fact that most people do not think of their lives in these terms — all manner of things are more important to them than what kind of relationship they have with God — but if God, the Living God, makes covenants with man, what possible thing could be more important than that we are in that covenant with him? What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul? When he asked that rhetorical question, the Lord Jesus was laying his finger on this very fact: salvation, eternal life come to human beings by their knowing God and being in relationship with him. If one has everything else but is not a friend of God he has nothing at all.

  • Because God is a covenant-making God there is predictability in our lives.

Christians alone have such assurance regarding their lives and their future. Because it is God who has made promises to us — a God of perfect honesty and infinite power — we can absolutely count on those promises to be kept. No other religion, no other philosophy tells or can tell human beings what must certainly come to pass in their case! As many things as remain unpredictable in our lives, the promises of God are the bedrock under our feet, which is the same way of saying God’s covenant is the bedrock under our feet. We may not know how our days and nights are going to unfold, what delights and shadows may come our way, but we know that our sins are forgiven, we know that God is with us to order our lives for our ultimate well-being, and we know that we will live forever in the fellowship of God. Do you appreciate how much knowing such things changes root and branch your understanding of life and makes it completely different from the understanding of everyone else? And all of that we do know because God has made a covenant with us. Because God is a covenant-making God we have hope. Hope with a capital H. The firm expectation of things to come. No matter what the circumstances of our life may be, no matter how bitter and heavy our trials, no matter the uncertainty of our affairs, we know that fundamentally and ultimately all is well because God has pledged himself to us to make it so. He didn’t have to do that, but he did.

In a sermon preached some years ago at Covenant Seminary, Prof. David Calhoun — I know some of you know Professor Calhoun and you’ve heard him preach even here in this congregation more than once — I say, in that sermon he drew attention to the wonderful lesson of the rainbow, its message of God’s mercy and faithfulness in and through and after the storm of life. Remember, the promise of the covenant God made to Noah is not that there will be no more storms but that God will not destroy mankind or the world. Indeed, storms will continue to occur; must continue, even in a Christian’s life. No rainbows form unless there has been rain!

And, for the believer, who sees in the rainbow the pledge of God’s faithfulness and mercy and longsuffering, this is a particularly wonderful sign, beautiful as it is. For remember the rainbow always comes after, not before the storm, not as warning that the storm is coming, but as a reminder that God’s faithfulness has kept us safe through it. That sermon at the Seminary was made more poignant by the fact that Prof. Calhoun himself had been weathering a great storm for some years — throat cancer that had continued to reappear. He knew of what he spoke, both concerning the storm and the rainbow. In that sermon, he referred to the hymn by George Matheson, “O Love that will not let me go.

“Matheson was a 19th century Scot whose poor eyesight failed him during his university days leaving him totally blind. He graduated from university despite this handicap and, with the aid of a devoted sister, prepared for the ministry and was eventually ordained to a pastorate in the Free Church of Scotland. Matheson is an interesting case. Like a number of other Free Church ministers of the time, some godly and believing men, he embraced evolution and the German Higher Criticism of the Old Testament. He believed the assurances he was given that such ideas did not jeopardize the Christian faith in any way. He was smart enough to think his way through to the bottom of all of that and would later repudiate both ideas as incompatible with the Christian faith and return to his original confidence in the Bible. At any rate, in 1868 he was called to the pastorate of the small parish of Innelan on the Firth of Clyde. Later he became the pastor of a large church in Edinburgh. It was on a summer evening in 1882, in the manse at Innelan, that he wrote “O Love that will not let me go.” After the hymn had become very popular he would later recollect:

“The hymn was composed with extreme rapidity: it seemed to me that its construction occupied only a few minutes, and I felt myself rather in the position of one who was being dictated to than of an original artist. I was suffering from extreme mental distress, and the hymn was the fruit of pain.”

Matheson himself never said what the distress was that was so troubling him at that time. Some have thought that it was a crushing disappointment in love — a woman to whom he was deeply attached, refusing finally to marry him because of his blindness. If that were the case, the opening line would be all the more poignant: “O love that will not let me go…” In our Trinity Hymnal the third verse of this well-known hymn reads:

O Joy that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to thee; I trace the rainbow through the rain, And feel the promise is not vain That morn shall tearless be.

But that is not what Matheson wrote. The third line of that third verse, as originally written, runs, “I climb the rainbow through the rain…” Matheson changed the line to “I trace the rainbow through the rain…” at the request of the Scottish Hymnal Committee when the hymn was under consideration. The committee must have thought “climbing rainbows” too indecorous a thought for a Presbyterian hymnal! But, and this was Prof. Calhoun’s point, there is a great deal of difference between those two images. It is one thing, in the comfort and security of one’s living room, to trace the rainbow through the rain as one looks out the picture window. Isn’t that the way we ordinarily we see rainbows ourselves, through glass? Tracing the rainbow, seeing where it begins, seeing if we can see the entire arc to its other end.

But, when the Christian is out in the storm and fears sinking under the flood, the rainbow is seen not merely as an image in the sky but as something real, as the promise of real mercy, real divine faithfulness. Well, one can climb something as real as that, hold on to it, and climb up out of the flood upon it. That is where Matheson saw himself that night, in that dark night of despair, groping for something to hold on to and finding at last the edge of the rainbow, grabbing on and climbing up to safety.

The promises of God’s covenant can, for all of us too much of the time be largely words on a page. But God’s rainbow is to remind us that they are much more than that — much more than mere words –, they are real, essential, living things: things to grasp, to hold on to, to stand upon, and, in the darkness and the storms of life, to climb up on for safety. On his death bed Isaac Watts was asked by a friend in that rhetorical way questions can be asked at such a time: Do you believe the promises of God? He replied, “I believe them enough to venture an eternity on them!” He was climbing, not tracing the rainbow!

God is merciful and kind and has made himself your friend and in his covenants he has stooped to make with you a relationship that is bound on his side by his promises, promises that cover every conceivable situation in your life. Whatever you really need: peace, joy, provision of the necessities of life, strength in the face of temptation, wisdom, assurance of God’s love, the calming of your fears; whatever you need, he has made a promise to you for that. He will not treat you as you deserve, and, having given his Son, life for your life, he will surely also, with him, freely give you all things. He has even given you a reminder of his faithfulness and the certainty of his care — the rainbow (and, of course, not only the rainbow; also the Lord’s Supper, which we are about to observe.) No mere tracing of rainbows for us — no mere inspecting of the promises of God from a distance and with a mere hope that they might prove true. No, grasp the rainbow — in Calvin’s ponderous but powerful phrase, “presume upon the veracity of God,” and climb up to where the sun is shining and all the brilliant colors can be seen