(This year, I am intentionally working my way systematically (again) through Holy Scripture. As a part of that I am writing short rough notes as I journey through Scripture. These are random, fluid thoughts. These are not formal essays or written sermons. There are no citations and I often convey the thoughts of others that I have read or encountered. These have become a part of my own theology and clearly I stand on the shoulders of others to see more clearly.)
Genesis 9:8–17 (RSVCE): Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11 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.” 12 And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant which 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. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will look upon it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.”
What new can one say about Noah and the flood?
The story is ubiquitous in children's Sunday school classes and the popular imagination of practically all Christians (and other faiths for that matter). Flood stories can be found in stories throughout the ancient world. Whether they are stories of flood waters isolated to a particular area or an inundation like the one we find in Genesis (Epic of Gilgamesh, etc) , they existed as independent accounts of divine destruction. There is also no scientific or archeological evidence of such a catastrophic historical event so pointing to such as proof is a futile effort. I remember watching a movie on TV as a kid about some group finding parts of what appears to be Noah's ark on the side of a mountain in Turkey. This turned out to be a hoax. It seems every so often there is a news account of a group finding proof of the ark's existence.
But at the end of the day, does proof or lack of it impact the meaning of the story for Christians today?
God is in Control: This is another story that the Israelites took from ancient Near East literature to draw a stark contrast between the polytheistic cultures and that of Yahweh. The flood story existed in many forms. The gods in many of these other stories were limited in power. Their actions were self-serving usually at the expense and suffering of humanity. Yahweh is shown at all times to be in control, even of nature.
God is not Arbitrary: In most of the parallel flood stories the favor of the gods is somewhat arbitrary and capricious. There is no reason given for the gods favor of one over another. The story of Noah has Noah chosen by Yahweh because of Noah's righteousness. He was a light amidst an evil world. It was not just evil generally, but all of humanity. Noah in many ways becomes the new creation. And he too is told to "be fruitful and multiply, bring forth abundantly on the earth and multiply in it.” (Genesis 9:7).
God is Active: Contrary to the position of Thomas Jefferson and others throughout history, including those in the ancient Near East, Yahweh is not remote and distant. God is not a clock maker who just winds up the earth and all that is in it and then goes off to do something else. The flood story shows a God who is intimately involved with God's creation. He cares for his creation and cares about those behaviors and circumstances that cause creation to deteriorate.
Bahavior and Relationship Matter to God: God is indeed concerned with behavior. The flood shows that there is a concern for ethics and moral structure and that a person cannot undermine this with impunity. Nahum Sarna points to such behavior as the basis for a working civilization and "man cannot undermine the moral basis of society without endangering the very existence of civilization." (Understanding Genesis). Man's inhumanity to man and separation from relationship with others and the divine undermines God's created order.
Second Chances: I recall a sign in front of a vet's office once that said, "Spring is God's Way of Saying One More Time." I love this. The reminders of second chances and God's infinite ability to love His creation are all around. The rainbow and the covenant it represents is one such sign. Bows in the sky are another familiar element in the other ancient stories of the gods. In those accounts, gods would throw up a bow as a sign of strength or victory of the god. In the story of Noah the bow or rainbow, represents God's love for his creation. It is a sign of creation and second chances and not one of destruction. God makes a covenant with Noah. It is one of renewed blessing and relationship with the created-and it is unique in that it is with all of creation. On the basic level the Noahic Covenant is one that says God will never agin destroy the world with a flood. But on a deeper level, I think it is one that points to God's grace that will play out in the history of His people.