Sermon Ideas For Genesis 9:8-17 Part 3
The Covenant with Noah
The covenant, as we indicated in the discussion of Psalm 50:1-6, is an agreement made between free and creative human beings and their Creator. In her story of Moses, Moses, Man of the Mountain1, Zora Neale Hurston meditates on the meaning of freedom. She concludes that one can show another the meaning of freedom, but cannot make another free. Freedom, therefore, is not only a state of being but is a state of mind and soul. Freedom requires undertaking responsibility. To be without duties and ties is to be without humanity. The human, as Aristotle said, lives in a polis, in relationship to others. The covenant, then, is a symbol of the relationship of freedom and responsibility and also of our interdependence. The choice to participate in the covenant binds the individual to community and to God in duty and in love.
The covenant, however, is also a story. In Deuteronomy 6:20-25, Yahweh tells the Israelites that, in the future, when they are asked by their children the meaning of the requirements of the covenant, they must tell the story of the Exodus, of God's power working in history to free them from bondage. The covenant, therefore, is not just about action; it is about understanding, through telling the story, who we are by where we came from and where we believe we are going. It is also about weaving the individual story into the story of the community. As we have said, telling one's story is weaving one's destiny, articulating the unique place of the individual in the pattern of creation.
In the story of Noah, the rainbow emerges as a symbol of the unity between individual, community, creation, and God. The covenant that God makes with Noah, the chosen individual, is an unconditional covenant, that extends not only to the human beings who were saved by the ark, but to the earth and the animals as well. As a sign that God will never destroy the earth by flood again, God sets his bow, his weapon of destruction, in the sky, transforming this symbol of his power into a symbol of peace, harmony, and protection. God's justice, mercy, and love are revealed in this action. In placing the bow in the sky, God promises forever to sustain the creation.
The rainbow is a symbol of unity in modern literature and film. The rainbow is the bridge that links opposites: Particularly those of heaven and earth and male and female. D. H. Lawrence, in numerous novels, uses the rainbow as a symbol of hope and reconciliation. In his sweeping generational novel, The Rainbow2, the symbol is an image of the perfect marriage. Lawrence was interested in how opposites come into balance, and the struggle between women and men in love fascinated him. In his novel, the rainbow initially symbolizes the marriage coming into full fruition as strong and autonomous individuals come to love and to respect one another. The self is not lost in marriage; indeed, for Lawrence, the self of the lover is further defined as one engages in relationship with the beloved. This working out of opposites brings about, with time, balance. For example, one of the children in the novel, Anna Brangwen, sees her mother and father as two ends of the rainbow under which she can be safe from the terrors of the world. At the end of the novel, Ursula Brangwen, Anna's daughter, sees the rainbow and understands it as a promise of, not only true love with a man that God will send to her and an affirmation of her identity, but also as a promise of the transformation of culture. Lawrence, writing in the period of the first World War, believed that the world could be saved only by a renewed commitment to nature, to community, and to the holy, and the rainbow is, for him, the symbol of that new heaven and earth.
Ntozake Shange also sees the rainbow as the symbol of the coming into unity of men and women bringing about a new world. In her play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf3, Shange explores the quality of relationship between black men and black women. Her cast of characters is a rainbow of women: a group of ladies in blue, red, yellow, green, and purple. In the course of the "choreopoem," as Shange calls it, the women explore numerous issues, including rape, abortion, and the degradation of black women. What is generated in the course of the conversations between the women and in their confessions is sisterly love and black pride that restore wholeness to these wounded individuals and that are the basis of community. In a beautiful passage in which a character says there will be no more love poems, we realize that the play has created a love poem of the deepest kind: a narrative about love that heals and supports. The rainbow, then, symbolizes collective experience and hope.
The rainbow also symbolizes hope for Black Elk. After his vision of the destruction of his nation, he, in Black Elk Speaks4, goes through a door in a flaming rainbow. Under the safety of the rainbow, Black Elk finds all of creation: birds, animals, human beings, and the holy ancestors. All are rejoicing, and the thunder sounds like happy laughter. Under the flaming rainbow are also the generations of his people yet to be, the promise that the nation will not die despite their coming trials. Here, Black Elk receives an individual gift as well: The explanation of the gifts of power that he receives from his ancestors. These gifts, in keeping with the Noah story, include a cup of water and a bow and arrow; Black Elk says these symbolize the power to create and to destroy. Later in the narrative, Black Elk explains that this was his great vision, but that, as a human being, he could not follow it because it is difficult to follow a great vision in this world of darkness. Yet, he says, one must try to follow the great vision or risk being lost in the changing shadows of experience.
Shadow and light are significant in The Wizard of Oz. In the film, Dorothy attempts to save her dog Toto from destruction by a neighbor. Toto, for the orphaned Dorothy, represents love and companionship. In the course of the film, however, Dorothy must explore the meaning of love and relationship in a different context and come of age. Caught in the whirlwind, the young girl is transported over the rainbow which links the magical and colorful world of Oz with the everyday and black-and-white world of her home in Kansas. Though the whirlwind, the holy, interrupts her everyday existence and takes her over the rainbow, Dorothy, on her own power, must undertake a pilgrimage in order to get back home to those she loves.
On the path, the yellow brick road, Dorothy meets her Kansas family and community transformed into symbolic beings. The Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, and Tin Woodsman represent the qualities that are necessary to be a full human being: intelligence courage, and loving compassion. These persons and qualities must work together to defeat the common enemy. More important, Dorothy must integrate these qualities, enhanced by the wonder that she finds in Oz, within herself to get back home. But these qualities are always in danger. The Scarecrow can go up in flames and the Tin Woodsman can become rusted and rigid. These qualities are also threatened by evil, symbolized in Dorothy's difficult neighbor who becomes the Wicked Witch of the West. She tries to kill Dorothy for her ruby slippers but is eventually dissolved by water, a symbol of purification.
The ruby slippers are magic objects that, like the rainbow, link Oz to Kansas and that insure Dorothy can return home. Her return, though Dorothy does not know it, can be accomplished at any time, if she chooses. That dimension of choice signifies that Dorothy must willingly participate in the covenant of her community. She eventually chooses to return, realizing, like Ray in Field of Dreams, that the holy lies in our own back yards. Dorothy, living with her aunt and uncle and an acquired family, must affirm that this is her family. Dorothy expresses her wonder to this family, saying that "There's no place like home." For Dorothy, however, the everyday world of Kansas will be forever transformed by her pilgrimage, for she will see her family and her home in the light of her adventures. The rainbow, then, emerges not as a division between two worlds, but as a link between two worlds.
The covenant, therefore, is that agreement between free persons to live in community, to reconcile self to the "other" and to God. The rainbow symbolizes this choice. The rainbow is light and water. Light has always been the symbol of God's pure love and of God's intelligence that governs the creation. Water is the primordial substance from which, at the creation in Genesis 1, God began to differentiate the parts of the world. The rainbow, therefore, combines both the spirit of God and the substance of creation. Its different colors, separated from the face of the water by the light of God, promise us that, despite our differences, we can, if we choose, be as one.
1. Zora Neale Hurston, Moses, Man of the Mountain (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984). 2. D. H. Lawrence, The Rainbow (New York: Penguin Books, 1976). 3. Ntozake Shange, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf (New York: Bantam Books, 1980). 4. John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961).