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“The Rainbow”

Genesis 9:1-17
Bob DeGray
November 13, 2005

Key Sentence

God makes the rules for our good and for his glory.


I. The Law of Life (Genesis 9:1-7)
II. The Covenant of Life (Genesis 9:8-17)


        Almost everybody has heard of Alexander the Great of Greece, and Russia had Peter the Great, and later Catherine the Great. But few have heard of an English king called ‘the Great’. There was only one, and he lived in the ninth century, long before the Britain we’re familiar with took shape. He was born in 849 a.d. and died in 899 a.d., the period we call the dark ages. But as I’ve read about Alfred the Great, I’ve come to the conclusion he deserved his title. Alfred was great not only as a warrior fighting the Vikings, but also as a Christian, as a codifier of law, and as a translator of Latin works into his native tongue. His reign had a double focus: on one hand military strength, to protect his people and drive back their fierce enemies, and on the other, strength of character, to build his people up and do them good. Let me give a couple of examples. During Alfred’s day the Viking were at their most terrifying. They had progressed from yearly raids to actual invasions, and had conquered large parts of England. Alfred, like his predecessors was unable to throw these invaders into the sea, but he did soundly defeat them and made treaties that bound them into limited parts of Wessex, Mercia, Anglia and Wales. In the course of these campaigns he created both the first English system of forts and the first British navy.

        But whenever Alfred achieved a peace, no matter how fleeting, he turned his attentions to the good of his people. Early in his reign he recognized the blood feuds and injustices that abounded among the anglo-saxons, and instituted the first formal code of law seen in England, setting standards for punishment of everything from murder to stealing a chicken. He was also concerned for the education of his people, especially their nobles, administrators and priests. He lamented the loss of learning and the great loss of books that accompanied the Viking raids, and he said “When I laid this to mind, how the knowledge of Latin had fallen away throughout England, and yet I knew that many people could still read English, then, busy as I was with many other and various cares of this kingdom, I began to turn into English the writing called in Latin Pastoralis or in English, The Shepherd’s Rule.” This was the first of Alfred’s translations, and was aimed squarely at producing righteous rule by both religious and secular leaders of his country.

        So I like Alfred a lot. He was one of the rare rulers in history who not only sought his own glory and renown, but sought to achieve it by doing good for his people. This, I think, is a pattern seen in God from the earliest days of his dealings with man. If I appreciate Alfred, its only because I appreciate God, because he makes rules for us that are for our good, he makes rules for himself that are for our good, and as he does so his faithfulness and goodness lead to his glory, just as Alfred, for his goodness, is rightly called Alfred the great.

I. The Law of Life (Genesis 9:1-7)

        I see all this in today’s text, Genesis 9:1-17 where God shows Noah how men should live, and commits himself to a covenant of restraining judgment on the people of the earth, a covenant marked by the sign of the rainbow. God does all this for our good and for his glory. Let’s begin with Genesis 9:1-7 where God gives a few simple rules. Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. 2The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands. 3Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. 4But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. 5And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. 6Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man. 7As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it."

        In these verses God gives a few clear instructions and permissions we could call ‘the law of life’. The first, and also the last, is to be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. At this moment of new beginning God repeats the command he had given Adam and Eve. In Genesis 1 he said “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground. . . . I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground--everything that has the breath of life in it--I give every green plant for food." The most obvious difference between this and Genesis 9 is that originally God permitted men and animals only to eat plants. Here he permits meat also. It may be that before the flood men had already begun to do this, but that would have been without permission. Now, possibly due to the increased difficulty of growing food in the post-flood world, God permits men to eat the meat of animals. And probably as a consequence, the fear and dread of man will now fall on all the beasts. This summer, hiking in protected National Parks and forests, we saw many fearless deer, including not a few nice bucks. But ask Pastor Mike how many deer he saw once deer season started. Animals know when to fear man.

        A third difference between these instructions and Genesis 1 is that before the fall man was given a specific instruction to rule over the earth, but that instruction is not given here. This may be a subtle recognition of what the New Testament later made clear, that man is no longer formally the earth’s ruler. Instead Satan, whom Jesus calls ‘the prince of this world’, is the formal ruler. John says that the whole world is under his control. Man still has a responsibility for stewardship of this world, but in a major sense he has lost authority over it.

        With the permission to eat meat there was also given a rule, verse 4: But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. The flesh of the animals was given for meat, but the life of the flesh was given for sacrifice. Leviticus 17:11 explains: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to make atonement for you on the altar; for it is the blood, by reason of the life, that makes atonement.' The life of an animal spilled as a sacrifice was accepted by God as the symbolic death of the guilty sinner, who was permitted to live because the blood which covered or atoned for his sins. Of course even this blood was only a picture of the true sacrifice, that of Jesus, whose death truly satisfied the need for sin to be met with punishment.

        Finally, man is commanded to revere life. Before the fall men like Cain and Lamech, had no regard for human life. But God makes a universal rule for our good in 5 and 6: “And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. From each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. 6Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” The life of man was precious and belonged to God. It was his to give and his alone to take. Therefore animals which shed man’s blood must be put to death, and men who willfully take life must be put to death ‘by man’. God uses a judicial term to require governments to show reverence for life by punishing those who would destroy it. Before the flood there was evidently no formal human government, which contributed directly to the chaos and violence God judged. But here God authorizes human governments to punish wrongdoing, to act on behalf of God and reflect his moral image.

        Paul says in Romans that “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. . . 3For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” The ‘sword’ Paul mentions strongly implies capital punishment, which is actually a gracious restraint upon man’s sinful bent toward violence. Under this restraint mankind can, at times, live in peace and security under human governments. And notice that this is not about vengeance; the emphasis is on justice, with some means of impartial verification of guilt implied. Notice also that this doesn’t suggest that there is never to be an exception to this punishment of the murderer. With God justice may be tempered with mercy, especially in response to repentance, as in his mercy toward David after the murder of Uriah. In the same way, Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery. So governments and judges are justified in taking into account the mitigating factors that may exist in individual circumstances. That in fact is exactly what the laws of Alfred the Great were intended to do, to provide impartial justice and the possibility of mercy in an age when blood feud and retribution were the norm for murders.

        Furthermore, in principle, this passage speaks to every issue of reverence for life. That’s made clear when God refers to his own image in man to establish life’s value. To attack man is to attack God in whose image he was created; it is to devalue that which God most highly valued in the creative process. This has implications for suicide; to take one’s own life is to disdain the value God has placed on you. And compelling implications for abortion, genetic research and euthanasia. The fetus has ‘the life of the flesh’ in it. To shed this blood, destroy this fetus either by gross physical or chemical means is to violate God’s command and to be subject to judgment. Any technology, such as embryonic stem cell research, that relies on the creation and destruction of embryonic life is unacceptable by this same rule, given for the good of even the most helpless person created in the image of God.

        In the same way, we must approach end-of-life issues with the firm conviction that we do not murder people simply for being old and infirm. Any end-of-life choice that involves taking an active roll in the death of a person is a violation of this rule of life. Any philosophy that says that such a person would be better off dead is opposed to this command. I do believe that allowing a person who is dying to die is appropriate; but that’s very different than giving an injection to cause death or withholding the basic necessities of life, as was done to Terri Schiavo.

        So we’ve seen how God makes rules for our good: be fruitful and multiply; eat what is needed, but have a reverence for the blood of animals, which God has designated as sacrifice for sin; and have a strong reverence for the life of people created in his image. These rules are also for his glory: they show him to be a God of abundant provision, of salvation, and one who truly cares about the lives of those he made.

II. The Covenant of Life (Genesis 9:8-17)

        The next section shows God’s own commitment to the preservation of life. Let me read this in two parts. Genesis 9:8-11: 8Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: 9"I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you 10and with every living creature that was with you--the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you--every living creature on earth. 11I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth."

        This is only the second use of the word covenant in Scripture - and the first, in chapter 6, looked forward to this one. The whole topic of covenants is deep, significant and often wonderful, but when you get into either the cultural aspects or the theological debates, its often frustrating. Suffice to say that a covenant is an agreement between God and man, initiated and secured by God but often requiring man’s cooperation. This first covenant with Noah is followed in Scripture by other covenants and covenant-renewals. There is the covenant with Abraham, then the covenant with Moses, the covenant of law given at Sinai and renewed several times during the life of Israel. But there is also a covenant with David that led directly to the Messiah, and other covenants that God made to show his relationship to Israel.

        Most important of all is the New Covenant, promised in the Old Testament, but realized in the death and resurrection of Jesus, by which God initiated and guaranteed forgiveness and eternal life for those who will trust in Him. All these covenants share a certain set of characteristics, and we’ll see those in the covenant with Noah.

        First, the Noahic Covenant was initiated and dictated by God. While some ancient covenants were the result of negotiation, this one wasn’t. God gave it as an outward expression of His purpose to preserve the lives of men so that some might be saved. He asks for no agreement from Noah, and the very word used of the covenant - to establish it, or set it firmly in place - makes it clear this was God’s work. Second, notice the scope of the covenant - covenant agreements usually define the parties involved. This covenant was made with Noah “and with your descendants after you 10and with every living creature that was with you--the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you--every living creature on earth.” As far as I know this is the only Biblical covenant that included other living creatures. Even though animals don’t posses an eternal soul and spirit, as men do, they are God’s creatures, and merit his concern.

        Third, this Noahic Covenant is unconditional. Some covenants were contingent upon both parties carrying out certain stipulations. In the Mosaic covenant, if Israel kept the law of God, they would experience the blessings and prosperity of God. If not, they would be expelled from the land. The blessings of the Noahic covenant were not conditional. God would simply give regularity of seasons and he would not destroy the earth. While certain rules were given to mankind in verses 1-7, these are not conditions of the covenant. Finally, notice that the specific promise God makes is to never again destroy the earth with a flood. Verse 11: I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ In Hebrew this is not just ‘a flood’ - it is ‘the flood’. Local floods may do great destruction, as we saw in the tsunami or Katrina, but God’s promise is that ‘the flood’, the big one, will never come again.

        Finally, it was typical for covenants to be marked by a sign. The Abrahamic covenant was marked by circumcision and the Mosaic by the Sabbath. This covenant is marked with the most striking sign of all. Genesis 9:12-17 And God said, "This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: 13I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, 15I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. 16Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth." 17So God said to Noah, "This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth."

        The “sign” of the rainbow is so appropriate. It consists of the reflection of the sun’s rays in the moisture of the clouds, it’s caused by the same water which destroyed the earth. Also, a rainbow often appears after a storm. It assures man that the storm of God’s wrath is over. Before the flood there was no rainbow, for there had been no rain. After the flood rain was common, but the rainbow assured that a universal catastrophe would not be repeated. It’s interesting too that the rainbow is not designed so much for man’s benefit as for God’s. God said that the rainbow would cause Him to remember His covenant with man. He would look upon it whenever he brought a cloud over the earth. This is a picture of his faithfulness: when God makes a promise he doesn’t forget it; he chooses to remember despite provocation from us. In this he is glorified. The rainbow, and the covenant it represents is for our good - that we might not be wiped out due to sin - but it is also for his glory - a physical symbol of his faithfulness.

        Once again, Moses uses repetition to make the point. God re-iterates, over and over in various ways, this great promise and covenant. This was no doubt of great comfort and assurance to those who had been through the trauma of the flood, and who, apart from God’s promises, would have had little hope for the future; but the same Lord who had seen them safely through would also protect and provide for them. In the months and years to come they would have to remember these promises: there would be many devastating local floods, continuing earthquakes and volcanos, cold winters and even a long Ice Age, all part of the residual consequences of the flood. But over and over again, after a period of such storms and convulsions, they would see the beautiful rainbow traversing the heavens and remember that God was still on his throne and the world was safe from destruction. This beautiful span, from one end of heaven to the other, would remind them that God’s promises were from eternity to eternity, from beginning to end. Thus what is for our good allows us to glorify him.

        The rainbow appears three more times in Scripture, and in each it is associated with the glory of God. In Ezekiel 1:28, Ezekiel’s first vision, he sees four living creatures, and above them a throne, and one seated on it, “Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him.” And he says “This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.” The rainbow expresses God’s glory. Similarly in Revelation 4, John sees the throne and one seated on it, and says “And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne.” And those around the throne cry out ‘You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory.” Finally, when God does begin to send judgment on the earth, the mightiest of the angels - possibly Christ himself - is described this way “He was robed in a cloud, with a rainbow above his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs were like fiery pillars.” So the rainbow is associated with God’s glory, and God displays it for his glory, but it’s also for our good - our peace in the midst of life’s storms.

        And this is the pattern throughout Scripture. In Isaiah 43 God commits himself to our good, but says he has made us for his glory. Listen to this “Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west. . . Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth-- 7everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory.” He does us good for his glory. When God glorifies himself it is not a selfish thing; he is glorified in the display of his righteousness, his love, his compassion and his mercy.

        Are you getting this? The rainbow is a perfect example of the fact that God does things, makes promises, makes covenants that are for our good. He provides us with every blessing for our good - and that he might be glorified. ‘What is the chief end of man?’ the Westminister Chatecism asks? ‘To glorify God and enjoy him forever’. He is glorified as we enjoy the surpassing goodness of his blessings to undeserving sinners. The covenant with Noah was a blessing of self restraint: undeserving sinners deserve judgment, but God would no longer judge that way. The covenant of Jesus, however, is a covenant of positive blessing, for our great good, and yet it brings very great glory to the one who bestows it. I want to close with the Scripture we read earlier, and I encourage you to prayerfully listen for the good he does us, and for the purpose of his goodness. You won’t miss it.

        Ephesians 1:3-14 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will-- 6to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace 8that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. 9And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment--to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. 11In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 13And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession--to the praise of his glory.