Our God is a God of blessing. No matter how bad it gets, no matter how much destruction people bring down upon themselves by their idolatry and injustice, no matter how much violence we do to each other, causing God to turn away from us, God’s last word is always blessing. God’s final act is always to save, to deliver, to redeem, to heal, and to liberate. God’s love always wins in the end.
In this particular story, God makes a covenant with the whole creation, “every living creature.” This covenant is not just with one particular nation, or race, or ethnicity, or family. It is not even with just human beings, as if it were just all about us. No. God declares this covenant to be with all of Noah’s descendants, which is the entire human race. And it is with all the animals as well, “as many as came out of the ark.”
This covenant is the conclusion of a much longer story of the Great Flood. The world had gotten so out of balance, so twisted and corrupt, and so thoroughly wicked that human thoughts were “only evil continually.” Human beings had very quickly invented murder and revenge.
So God decides to cash the whole place in and start over. He selects Noah to build a boat and collect all the animals of the earth. And then God opens the floodgates of heaven and inundates the entire earth in a flood.
After the water began to subside and the boat rested on dry ground again, all the animals were released. And God gives one basic commandment to Noah which applies to the whole human race. It is a prohibition of bloodshed. This is the condition that God attaches to the gift of the renewed planet to Noah and his descendants. No violence. No shedding of blood. For blood is life and life belongs especially to God. Not only are the people not to shed human blood, but they are not even to eat the blood of the animals they are allowed to eat for food.
This prohibition is extended even into the New Testament, by the way. The Apostles, when deciding to accept Gentiles into the church, did not require them to keep the entire system of the biblical kosher laws; but they did insist that this law that God gives to Noah, and hence to all humanity, the law against the shedding of blood, be kept.
So we see that God does not establish this covenant with people alone, but with all animals. I’m reminded of Psalm 36:6, which praises God for saving “humans and animals alike.” It is a fundamental brake against all theologies and practices that would make human beings the only life-forms God cares about. God created humans and animals on the same day of creation, day six. And for all the special calling that humans have to be stewards of creation, God clearly sees humans as partners with the animals in blessing.
In this God is working with us. In the first creation, God only gave plants to humans for food. But the humans basically quickly disobeyed God and started killing and eating animals. All this blood soaking the ground was surely one of the reasons for the Flood. In the second creation, God allows humans to eat animals, but applies a regulation: “Just don’t eat the blood. Give the blood back to me in sacrifice.”
In other words, this is an example of God changing the approach in response to what humans can handle. God chooses regulation over prohibition. Thus God does not create intolerable, either/or situations. Instead of saying absolutely not, God says, okay, but within these boundaries. As long as you are conscious of and recognize and affirm whose creation this is, you may enjoy it.
And then God makes a monumental promise not to destroy the creation again. Earlier in chapter 8, God noted that, even though the human heart is incurably evil, God will nevertheless not wreck creation again. Here this is repeated with reference to a flood: “Never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God says, that no matter how much evil you all manage to do to each other and my world, at least you don’t have this to worry about. I am not going to cash the whole place in again. There is an eternal limit to God’s wrath. God takes destroying the planet off the table.
It is an act of absolute grace. God knows that human nature has not changed one millimeter. No sooner do Noah and his family settle down on dry land than there is this sordid incident of Noah getting blind drunk on wine, and some mysterious sexual sin involving his son, Ham. So it’s not like the Flood made people perfect. They start sinning before the water has even totally receded. But God does say that God will not destroy the creation again anyway… probably because he knew it would be impractical to impose a global flood every few weeks as human sin continued.
But God also gives himself a reminder of this promise. Every time things get bad and God is ready to declare another flood, so that it even starts to rain, God has the rainbow appear in the sky. It is to remind God of this promise. “Oh, right, I said I wasn’t going to kill you.”
God decides to make this version of creation work. In spite of the people, God chooses patience and mercy and compassion. God chooses forgiveness as God’s mode of operating, while still retaining an arsenal of less catastrophic events. People and whole nations might still be destroyed, but God is not going to make the whole creation suffer again for our misdeeds.
The rainbow is a sign of God’s choice to forgive and forebear. It is in the shape of a bow, as in what people use to shoot arrows. And the bow is loaded, stretched, bent tight and ready to propel a deadly arrow. But the point is that it is aimed away from the earth. This reminds God that he has promised not to shoot global destruction at the earth. But the bow in the clouds is aimed away from it. Indeed, as we see in Jesus, God will even receive the shot himself!
Now, this idea that God will not destroy the earth appears to rub some people the wrong way. They seem to get a lot of mileage out of the idea that God hates the creation and will in the end destroy it, and they prefer this happen sooner rather than later. And they will point to other texts in which they say that God is predicted to destroy the earth in rather spectacular terms. There is the book of Revelation, for instance.
But Revelation and other examples of apocalyptic literature do not depict the destruction, annihilation, or wiping out of creation. What Revelation reveals or discloses is the true nature of creation, and all the graphic violence in that book is actually the comprehensive wiping away of the accrued human corruption and sin that had bound and crippled the good and blessed creation. In the end there is a renewed heaven and a renewed earth, as these shine forth in all their divinely created glory.
In the meantime God deals with human sin as with something that is winding down and exhausting itself, collapsing and being reduced to the nothingness it is. In the process of sin being broken down and emptied of its power, God is always there to redeem, heal, and save. God refuses to use again the ultimate option of global destruction. Instead of starting over, God pulls us through.
The idea that God is going to destroy the planet while rescuing believers is nonsense and unbiblical. If we know anything from Scripture it is that believers do not get rescued; they endure, they come through, they are redeemed, ransomed, restored, and healed. This may happen on this side or the other side of death. But it always happens. Believers are not exempt from suffering; they just realize that suffering is not the end but a way through this collapsing order of the world.
In this story God covenants to work with us. God promises to pull us through. God affirms this relationship with us and with creation and has decided to walk together with us through life.
This decision is made most obvious and visible and powerful when God actually chooses to walk together with us, as one of us, in Jesus Christ. “Here is my Son,” says God, “he will show you what your true humanity is. He will show you, not just by words but by actions, how you need to live in this creation together. He will show you my holy way of love, which was from the beginning what I intended for you and made you for.”
In the gospel for today Jesus is baptized and comes among us, facing first the temptations of Satan. The text says “He was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him.” There’s those animals again! It doesn’t say that Jesus was in any way threatened by them, just that he was with them. As if Jesus has animal companions when he goes forth to confront Satan. As if Jesus’ is explicitly representing in this contest the whole of life, not just humans.
The covenant between God and creation, made with Noah after the Flood, is with everyone who came out of the ark, all the animals. And here we see animals accompanying Jesus as he meets Satan in what was really a battle for the fate and soul of creation. Because if Jesus caves on any of those three temptations, the planet is ruined.
You have to look in Matthew and Luke because Mark doesn’t give us the specific temptations. But they are about wealth, fame, and power. If Jesus decides that any one of these is more important than obedience to God, it’s all over. There is no story. The world would not be saved in him.
But the world is saved. Jesus doesn’t succumb to Satan and trade in his calling for any of these three things. We are the ones who are continually and perpetually doing that. And in so doing bringing down disaster on our own heads. Disaster through which God is continually and perpetually pulling us.
In a sense, Jesus is the embodiment of the rainbow. He is the rainbow come to life as a person. Because when God looks at us, God sees not so much our sins and violence, as Jesus, the true human. God looks down and loves us all the more, for Jesus’ sake.
When Jesus saves, he is with the wild beasts. When Jesus saves, he saves every living species that came out of the ark. We are all in this together, we creatures of the sixth day, and we will come through together. In the end God asks us to please refrain from violence and remember whose we are. Remember who is the Lord of all of life. And remember who is loving us and saving us and healing us and delivering us, all of us, for all time.