CNS Bible Blog: A rainbow and a covenant for Noah

By Michael Kolarcik, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

The story of the flood which destroyed almost all life on earth (Genesis Chapter 9) reminds us just how precarious life is even in the midst of a good and beautiful habitat. In the face of so much wickedness and violence, God is said to have regretted the creation of life.

The pattern that we have seen time and time again in Genesis — namely, how the stories present before us our deepest desires as well as our worst fears — is confirmed in the story of the flood. But the last word in this story is not destruction but the promise of life.

Michael Kolarcik SJ

Michael Kolarcik, SJ (Photo by Moussa Faddoul, SJ)

At one point the story seems to end with Noah’s sacrifice and God’s acceptance of the pleasant fragrance of the offering with the promise, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind…” (Gen 8:21).

But the same author who wrote the opening chapter of creation has transformed this divine promise to Noah into the most significant agreement which could be made among humans –- a covenant. God declares the promise to Noah in the form of a covenant. And this is the first of many covenants that we witness in the Torah.

Just as God had blessed humanity with the command to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, so too is Noah given the same blessing (Gen 9:1). Just as God had given vegetation as food to the animals and humans, so too God gives to humanity food; this time the food includes flesh. But there is a limit. “Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (Gen 9:4).

In this changed state of affairs where we live in disharmony between the animal and the human world, humans are commanded to treat life, even the life of animals, with respect. With the covenant of Noah we have a recreation, a new ordering of creation.

A rainbow appears over the desert near Phoenix. (CNS photo by Craig Robinson)

A rainbow appears over the desert near Phoenix. (CNS photo by Craig Robinson)

What is the function of this covenant with Noah? With this covenant a sign is given, the sign of the rainbow. The bow in the clouds is a sign of the covenant. We all know how after a rain storm, with the combination of light and darkness, a refraction of light often gives shape to a splendid display of colors. Every child can take delight in a rainbow. It is a reminder from nature that after the struggle for life there is the possibility of joy and beauty.

The flood story tells us that the rainbow will be a reminder to God never to forget the promise made to Noah, that “never again will all flesh be destroyed by a flood” (Gen 9:11). But the function of the sign of the covenant is to assure humanity that God’s intention in creation is to let life flourish even in the midst of storms.

The covenant with Noah with the sign of the rainbow is a reminder to us of this essential promise on the part of God. The intention of God behind all of creation, with its beauty and even with its storms, is to let life flourish.

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