The Covenant of the Rainbow

(Genesis 8:20-9:17; Hebrews 11:7)

I think I’ve probably mentioned before that my dad grew up in the Church of God (Anderson). I’ve never attended a Church of God congregation, although I’ve visited one with my grandmother, but the Church of God was a real presence in our lives anyway, in the stories Dad told, and the music he listened to. Now, I am by no means unusual in this country in having grown up listening to a lot of Gaither music; having it combined with large doses of ’60s folk and classical was probably more unusual, really. But the connection my dad always felt there meant that even though he didn’t listen to a lot of other Southern gospel groups—I have a fair bit of the Imperials’ older stuff, for instance, but I bought all that myself—whenever the Gaithers put something out, it showed up in my house. Whether it was the Bill Gaither Trio, the New Gaither Vocal Band, or whoever, Mom got it for him and it went right into rotation. I am not, you understand, complaining; I enjoyed it, and I still do. But I do recall being particularly interested when Larnelle Harris joined the Vocal Band and they put out the album New Point of View, which Harris gave something of an R&B feel. It’s a fun album; but in retrospect, there’s one song on there I have to argue with a little.

You see, the American church since the Jesus Movement that began in the late ’60s has tended to be a bit free and loose with apocalyptic imagery, something that was encouraged when the “culture wars” phrase began to be kicked around in the ’80s; so on that album, they picked up a song by the old rock-and-roller Paul Evans called “Build an Ark,” where Evans talks about how bad the world is and how he’d like to build an ark for all the good folks and just let the rest of the world flood. Now, I don’t want to beat up on Evans for writing that song, or on the Gaithers for singing it; I understand the impulse, and I’ve certainly felt like that myself a time or two. But as understandable as that impulse is, when it hits us, I think we really need to step back from it a bit. As appealing as the thought can be of just pulling out of the world, keeping ourselves safe and letting it go its own way, that’s not the path God has marked out for us.

We see that, I think, in this section of Genesis. Yes, this world is in pretty sad shape, and there are terrible and horrifying things that happen; when the peasants of the Black Forest told tales of Jack and the beanstalk and the great giant who wanted to grind Jack’s bones to make bread, they captured the way the world treats the poor and the vulnerable. The only thing that’s fantasy about that story is that usually, the giant wins. But as we saw last week, the state of the world now doesn’t compare to how bad things were in the days of Noah; there, evil had basically won the day. There’s an old quote, falsely attributed to Edmund Burke, that says, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”; in the days of Noah, there weren’t enough good men left to matter. The only way to stop evil was divine deliverance: the flood.

Now, we didn’t read the account of the flood itself this morning, in the interests of time; there’s a number of things there that we could talk about, but I wanted to focus this morning on the aftermath of the flood and the way forward. When the flood is over, Noah and his family come out of the ark, and all the animals come out after them, and immediately, Noah has a worship service. He builds an altar, and he takes some of the animals suitable for sacrifice to God, and he offers sacrifices—things he couldn’t do while he was on the ark, for fear of burning the thing down to the waterline. In other words, Noah takes the first available opportunity to offer thanks to God for saving him and his family. And note God’s reaction as Noah does this: “Even though humanity is evil, even though they’re all completely tainted with sin, I will never again strike the ground and wipe the earth clean of life.” And so he makes that a promise to Noah, and offers the rainbow as the sign of that promise, as the seal of his covenant.

This is important. God is saying that the flood accomplished its purpose, but that purpose was limited: it could wipe away particular evil societies from the earth, but it could not wipe away evil, because that lives in every human heart. In order to destroy evil by force, it would be necessary to kill all people, not just most of them—even the most righteous would still have to die. The flood was a one-time response to a particularly dire situation, but all it did was treat an especially bad set of symptoms; to address the real sickness of the human heart, a very different approach would be necessary.

That approach is prefigured here, but unfortunately, the NIV obscures it. In verse 14, where the NIV reads, “I have set my rainbow in the clouds,” the text literally reads “I have set my bow in the clouds.” Yes, it’s the rainbow to which God is referring, but there’s more going on here than that; the rainbow is being used symbolically in a very interesting way. The bow, of course, was a major weapon for hunting; equally of course, it was a major weapon of war, the best way for human beings to kill either animals or each other at a distance. A drawn bow was a sign of hostility; in the ancient Near East, among Israel’s neighbors, stars in the shape of a bow would have been seen as a sign of the hostility of the gods. But here, God has hung his bow in the heavens—pointing up. It isn’t pointing down at the earth to strike, it’s pointing up, away from the earth. Instead of a sign of war and hostility, it’s a sign of peace.

And it’s one other thing, though of course the early readers of Genesis couldn’t know it. God had aimed his wrath against sin at the earth, striking it with the flood; now he would take that wrath and reverse it, aiming it up—at himself, at his own heart. Tim Keller argues, and I think he’s right, that what we’re seeing here is a prefiguring and a foreshadowing of the work of Christ: the rainbow isn’t just a sign of God’s promise that he will never again deal with human sin by flooding the world, it’s an indication of how he will deal with it, by taking all its pain and penalty on himself. God makes this covenant with Noah, he promises never to send another flood, because he already knows that his final victory over sin is going to come a very different way. He knows that while punishing us for our sin—or allowing the consequences of our sin to fall on us, which is often enough the same thing—is frequently necessary, all the punishment in the world will only produce a more cautious and circumspect sinner; it will never make a saint, and what God wants is for us to be saints. To accomplish that, he needs to show us grace, so that we can respond not with fear and the desire to avoid punishment but with love and gratitude and joy.

Thus we have the gospel of the rainbow, which gives the lie to the idea that the God of the Old Testament is somehow different from God as we see him revealed in Jesus. Yes, law is necessary; it’s necessary to show us, so clearly that we cannot avoid the truth, that God’s standards of holiness are too high for us to meet, so that we understand our desperate crying need for grace. Yes, punishment for sin is necessary, for many reasons; as rough as this world can be sometimes, it would be far worse if the evil that we do were never punished. But these things aren’t what God is on about, even in the Old Testament. He doesn’t want to terrify us into obeying him; he wants, rather, to love us into trusting him so that we obey him because we trust him, and love him, and know he loves us. That’s why his ultimate answer to more sin wasn’t more floods, more natural disasters, more judgment; his ultimate answer was the cross.

Posted in Sermons and tagged .

Leave a Reply