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Rector's Reflection: The Promise of the Rainbow, February 17, 2024

Beloved Members of St. Martin’s,


Our first reading this week is from Genesis 9. As chapter 9 begins, the flood has ended, and Noah and his sons and all the animals have disembarked from the ark, and are getting ready to re-establish humanity on the face of the earth. But first, God offers a covenant with all of creation. This makes this reading perfect for the start of Lent, as we review of sweep of God’s saving work in the world that will culminate with Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection.


In scripture, a covenant is very different from a contract. A covenant is often between groups where one is more powerful, and often originates with the more powerful of the two parties involved. This is certainly the case here. It is God who brings up the idea of a covenant with creation in v. 8: God is on the one side, and both humans and animals are on the other side. Although the humans and the animals are certainly in no position to bargain, God promises to never again destroy the earth by flood. As a reminder of this covenant, God creates the rainbow, which will be visible after rainfall. The idea of a covenant between God and people of Israel was very important to the Priestly redactors, who claimed that Israel’s abandonment of their covenant with God is what caused the exile to be inflicted upon them as punishment.


The word used in the Hebrew here is not “rainbow” but simply “bow,” which is normally a weapon of war and associated with warriors. Unlike a warrior god, God here is promising NOT to destroy or kill, and sets aside the weapon of destruction in the sky.


Notice that the rainbow is a sign to both parties of the promise, or covenant. Although it is not explicitly stated, humans may look on the rainbow and be assured that even the most violent storm is not a sign of a coming apocalypse. But the rainbow is explicitly described twice in vv. 15-16 as a reminder to God that God has been bound by a promise of God’s own choosing and making. Throughout scripture, we often hear language asking God “to remember” God’s promises or God’s chosen people, which implies that God can forget—an interesting idea at odds with the traditional belief of divine omniscience--that God knows everything. The priestly writers are constantly going to claim that Israel and her kings often “forget” who their God really is, getting seduced into idol worship and apostasy. The story we read here makes the inverse claim—that God can forget God’s own promises unless reminded.


Please notice that the covenant is not just between God and Noah and his sons, but between God and all creatures on earth for all generations. This is not a covenant that will die when Noah and his sons die, and the promise is not just to humans but to all of creation, which has profound implications for those of us who are “tree-huggers.”


God promises here to never again make any species extinct or nearly so. Sadly, humans can’t make the same claim. Perhaps this story could even be read as reminding us, in a time of global warming and mass extinctions, that humans should not blithely do what God Godself has foresworn, and instead remind us that we are ordained as caretakers for the earth and all its creatures. Now that would be a Lenten fast worth starting.


In Christ,

Mother Leslie+

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