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Commentary: Genesis 9:8-17

Our unit concludes the flood narrative. Chapters 6:1-9:17 weave traditionary "J" elements with lore and interpretive reflection from "P" into a complex whole, characterized by repetition and reiteration and by thought-provoking tension between theology by narration and theology by principle. Often the two strands are hard to disentangle, but in 9:1-17 we are clearly in the hands of "P". These verses respond to 6:9-22 and 8:1, and recall the "P" creation hymn of 1:1-2:4a.
Verses 8-17 are the second leaf of a two-leaved lesson. The first leaf, 9:1-7, summons the human family, now reduced to Noah's family, back to the vocation of 1:28—"Be fruitful, multiply, fill..." Renewed vocation lives in new conditions, the emphatic concern for the value of all human life. The second leaf is also about renewal, renewal and change in God that has come about after the cleansing flood. Our unit responds to 6:11-22 just as 8:21-22, J's conclusion, responds to 6:5-8, J's introduction.
One of "P's" structuring theological principles is the solemn institution of covenant, presented in 6:18 as though already in place; it is now confirmed. But in 9:8-17 the term is given a special meaning; it names a completely unilateral commitment by God.
Composition and Structure
"P" combines tradition and an agenda, is both story-teller and redactor. The unit in 9:8-17 is a rhetorical jackhammer. The covenant is established at the opening; the sign of the covenant established closes the unit. Verse 17 wraps the package neatly. Within the package is a progression with so much repetition that it forms a linked chain: A and B, B and C, C and D.... The point at the climax is that God, who decided upon the flood, will not bring the flood again. There has been no ostensible change in the creatures with whom God must work. God has changed, not they. The change is brought home by the rainbow sign, which serves not so much to reassure humankind as to remind God of the new commitment. Whatever has been said about Noah's walking with God (6:9), or his unquestioning willingness to do what he is told, the focus is not on human deserving; the focus is on God's decision to deal with the prevailing human condition.
Look for a moment at how Mark presents Jesus' baptism in the Gospel passage for today. Mark gives no prior information about Jesus or his qualifications as God's change agent: No birth story, no human praising, no conversation with John about why it is right to baptize Jesus. Mark has Jesus appear and has God act. A voice: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." No emphasis on human deserving or response, even on the part of Jesus. An exegetical step along this same path, composed about the time P was crafting the final form of the flood narrative, is Isaiah 54:9-10. The focus: The enduring compassionate determination of God who put the people in Exile and now does something unilateral to deliver.
Mark's emphasis is not the only New Testament echo of the Noah motif. 1 Peter 3:18-22 takes a creative tack, equating the flood with the waters of baptism and seeing the flood waters as salvific—a striking move which the Church at times in its history has explored and revisited. Then the Mark pericope can be seen as linked through the theme of Jesus' baptism. Preachers can work with this, but if they do they may sacrifice the powerful reality that the inexplicable human propensity to rebel remains—a puzzle for all of us to wrestle with. Noah washed clean will still prove less than perfect, and Jesus must yet go through the reality of temptation.
Verse by Verse Explorations
God speaks to the group kept alive in the ark and confirms the commitment made in 6:18, "I will establish my covenant with you." "Establish" is P's standard verb for covenant solidity, though we will find another verb in Genesis 17 next week. The establishment is with both humans and the family of living creatures, that whole menagerie Noah had kept safe in the ark. Hosea 2:18 is in some way bound up with this picture, where the language is almost the same; there is a shared understanding that God's agenda is cosmic in scale. Environmentalists should be given this support.
The key theological issue, though, lies with covenant. True, divine covenants are always initiated by God, but they have a bilateral dimension. In our unit alone, covenant names something strictly unilateral, a commitment that is not a transaction: "Never again will I...never again." God commits to the creatures who have made no commitment.
Verse 12 opens with a second "God said..." and turns to the sign. Signs function to ratify bilateral covenants in the Bible. Look at Gen 17:11; look at the seven ewe lambs and the tamarisk in Gen 21:25-34 where Abraham and Abimelek covenant over a disputed well; look at the sign act in Genesis 15 of the walk through the cut animals. In our unit, the sign is different. It reminds God (verse 15; cf. 8:1) of the commitment not to destroy. It is solely in God's realm, in the clouds which are God's to mask himself in and to work with. God manifests in clouds which display God's presence and hide divine splendor. And as for the bow, it has a double impact. It is the rainbow in the spent and broken clouds which admits the sun and marks the storm's abatement, and it is the arrowless battle weapon of God, tipped up and not aimed at anything; it will not shoot. What a statement our theologian has made about God! God self-disarmed. God placing a reminder in heaven which says: Remember, God, you have turned from destruction, even though destruction is within your capacity and might be justified, and you take a new way. These humans are perplexing; they are prone to rebel and yet they bear your goodness in their inward being.
The human story goes on, under the aegis of the divine one, who promises unconditionally that the ultimate aim is the shalom of a renewed cosmos. For Jew and Christian, this starting place in the will and purpose of God for all humanity is an enduring bond of faith to which they can turn together.1
Edward F. Campbell
1. Some key resources for this exegesis: Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984; trans. by J.J. Scullion from 1976 German edition), especially pp. 410-411. Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), pp. 73-88. George Mendenhall, The Tenth Generation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1973), especially Chapter 2: "The Mask of Yahweh."