Non-Violence from God’s Rainbow
a sermon based on Genesis 9:8-17
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on February 22, 2015 (based in part on a*2009)
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Okay, you know I’m not going to pass up on the opportunity to tell a short funny story about Noah. Here’s how it goes: Once the Ark had successfully landed all of the survivors went ashore and began living on land again. After a while one of Noah’s son, Shem, noticed Noah sitting in a field chewing hairy animal hides set out in piles. He’d would gnaw on a hide, make a face, stop, then add the hide to a pile and tabulate the results. Seeing his mother nearby Shem went over and asked “What’s dad doing in the field with all the hairy hides? It looks kinda weird. His mother looked out at her husband and said “What can I say? There’s Noah counting fur tastes.”
The story of Noah has been mined for centuries for all kinds of funny jokes. I mean building a huge ship without a body of water nearby and herding animals on it, AND being on stuck board with all those animals lends itself to humor.
Of course the story has also been mined for meaning. I actually wonder if the jokes also arise as a nervous response because the meaning has often been made to be threatening and ominous. The pulpit version is often something akin to “If we don’t behave God’s got a record of doling out violent punishment that ought to make us tremble!” But if we were listening to the text today – and feel free to re-read it– in that Lectionary text we heard that God makes a covenant with every living thing to not do that violence any more.
This text is thought to have been written after the Jewish Exile to Babylon. And it can be heard to be about human understanding of God evolving from doling out violent punishment to doling out only love.
Evolution generally means the process of changing from one form into a better form. It also has a particular meaning with respect to the theory of evolution, the idea that life changes through natural selection– that is the most favorable traits for survival are passed down over generations leading to alterations in species, and in some cases even new species.
So has God evolved? Well, I can say this human perception of God appears to have evolved. And evolution seems as apt a word to symbolize what’s going on with God in the Bible.
People experienced God with differing traits in the Bible stories, and we can hear them as threads reflecting an evolution that occurred in the Ancient Near East cultures’ experiences and understandings of God. As this evolution occurs we can even discern a symbolic natural selection of sorts occurring, in that the most favorable traits of understanding God are passed down through the generations – and so God in a better form is best-known. Simply put, the Bible suggests new understandings of God evolved from the old.
Christians rely heavily on Bible stories to help understand God – and it is the Hebrew people who give us our first stories. The early Hebrews seem to have first experienced God as one among many gods. He was given the name Yahweh and championed their causes.
Like many cultures in the Ancient Near East the god of the Hebrews was understood to be a warrior who went to battle for them, defeating others and their champions. We can hear this in an excerpt from the parting-of-the-sea story from Exodus 15
Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD: “I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea . . . The LORD is a warrior; the LORD is his name. Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea; his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea . . . At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up, the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea. . . . You blew with your wind, the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters . . .You stretched out your right hand, the earth swallowed them. “In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed . . .
Hear how God was understood to go to battle? He is the champion of the Hebrews on the battlefield. He punishes the enemy Egyptians with defeat. And, of course, he punishes them with plagues and plights before the Red Sea drowns their army.
What’s odd is that we can hear in the excerpt I just read the warrior and punishing traits exists side-by-side with the trait of steadfast love. God we are told has steadfast love for his people and it is that love that is proven by his punishing might on the battlefield against the Egyptians. The traits of this warrior, punishing God are woven like threads in the tapestry of many stories that make up the Bible.
One of the consequences of understanding God as punishing is that “He” does not just punish enemies, but punishes “His” followers too. Like in Psalm 7 (12-13) where God is likened to slaying with swords and shooting deathly arrows at sinners, that Psalm provides:
If one does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and strung his bow; he has prepared his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts.
There is a thread of theology in the Bible suggesting bad things happen to people – and peoples– as Divine punishment: like God’s shooting lightening bolts to punish wickedness. If we understand that God’s response to wickedness is destruction and harm, then destruction and harm is necessarily seen as a proper authorized response to wickedness, real or perceived.
It is this punishing God that brings about the flood and destroys virtually all the world, every animal, every man, every woman and every child that is not on Noah’s Ark. The warrior God is angry at all the awfulness of the world and so drowns virtually every bit of creation. That’s the angry God envisioned early on.
The story of the rainbow – as I said– is believed to have been written in light of the Hebrew’s experience of exile in Babylon. Israel and Judah are destroyed. Zion is occupied. Hebrews are in exile. Under the old theology God caused these things and all calamity. But in light of awful destruction, probably symbolic of the Babylon experience, what happens to God in the Lectionary Lesson today? God makes a remarkable one-sided promise, a vow to all of creation not just to humans, but to all creation – to never, ever, destroy the world again.
Nothing is needed in exchange for this forever promise from God. Nothing is needed.
And this promise has the effect of breaking off the connection of human misdeed to punishment by God; evil, bad things and destruction still exist but they do not occur by the violent hand of God’s judgement. They cannot, because God has promised not to do that violence any more.
The greatest Old Testament theologian of our time, Walter Brueggemann puts it like this:
The one-to-one connection of guilt and punishment is broken. God is postured differently.
From the perspective of this narrative there may be death and destruction. Evil has not been eradicated from creation. But we are assured that these are not rooted in the anger or rejection of God. The relation of our creator to creation is no longer a scheme of retribution. Because of a revolution in the heart of God, that relationship is now based on unqualified grace. 1.
Unqualified grace! That’s the same as what you’ve heard me call over and over and over again, unconditional, and no-strings-attached, love. It’s what numerous verses in the Bible call God’s steadfast and enduring forever love. It’s steadfast. It’s never ending. IT’S FOREVER!
God the warrior who slays the wicked with the sword of vengeance and slings and arrows of calamity and catastrophe has evolved, to something else entirely. Yahweh has changed in the Lectionary text from a violent form to a loving form.
We can even claim a symbolic natural selection at work. The most favorable traits for survival of God in the experience of the Hebrews is passed down. God’s love is steadfast . . .it has no strings attached! God’s grace is unqualified. After all if the capture and exile and enslavement of men, women and children by Babylon was God’s doing, how are the Hebrews to love such a God? And where is the steadfast forever love of that God? That God of Love is virtually impossible to find if God is the one who caused the enslavement and destruction of Zion.
In today’s story the God who rules over the Hebrews ends up being seen in a wholly a new way. In light of the Exile. God had to be re-imagined. God was re-imagined. 2. Yahweh the warrior with a bow that shoots lightening bolts of tragedy from his quiver of judgement is no more. That Yahweh has hung up his bow on the wall of the sky for all creation to see forever. When storms brew and spew destructive forces, when they bring dark clouds and trouble the bow hanging on the wall is said to remind the God of old that HE is no longer in the doing-bad-things-to-creation business.
God cannot knowingly violate a vow and the rainbow comforts humans with the knowledge that it reminds God so “He” cannot forget that vow. More importantly it reminds US that God’s hung up his weapon of destruction and will use it no more on creation. We no longer have to imagine God as MALE WARRIOR who is vengeful and punishing. From the rainbow story onward we can forevermore imagine God as loving and good.
This story can be heard to tell us that from the flood on, from the first rainbow onward God will not, and does not, and has not destroyed anything in creation. We can hear that God has evolved and the rainbow – that splendid bow of God’s hanging on the wondrous wall of the sky– reminds us of that evolution. God’s old traits of macho warrior-ing and violence and punishment are to be imagined and experienced no more. God’s made an unbreakable vow to all of creation, that no human being, no living thing need worry again that awful things in life are God’s doing.
God had to evolve in the Hebrew Scriptures for us to understand Love in light of the horrors of the Exile, in light of the difficulties of life. God cannot both be the source of terror and the source of steadfast Love. So, if we look in the Bible we can fairly find the God of steadfast love. The God who does not terrorize with the chaos of deep waters and punish with flailing sword and bolts of lightening.
The re-imagined God of steadfast love sides with the oppressed, seeks justice and calls us to such righteousness in hope of shalom for all creation. This is the God of Jesus, the God who’s old reign’s bow hangs on the wall as an everlasting symbol that divine retribution and destruction will not– cannot exist based on God’s own promise and unconditional grace.
Did God literally evolve? We can choose to see it that way. Or we can choose to see that human understanding of God has evolved. Either way we end up at the same place. The God of vengeance, of fire and brimstone, of floods and famine and destruction and war is no more. The rainbow is said to be proof of this.
Yahweh is now and forever the God of steadfast love who calls us to justice, to righteousness, to love, and to shalom from wherever we are. Even when we choose to create storms in our lives or the lives of others God is not going to respond in violence. Rather God will always, always respond with Love. That is what steadfast love on a cosmic scale is all about.
The good news in today’s reading is that we can rest assured that God does not create storms or trouble in our lives. The Bible can be heard to beautifully claim that that’s God’s unbreakable and beautiful promise reflected in every rainbow that we will ever see. That’s good, good news.
But there is disquieting news. We have to similarly re-imagine ourselves. That’s what Lent is about. We are to act as God acts, as Jesus acted. The Old Testament instructs us to be holy as God is holy. (Lev. 11:45; 20:26). The New Testament reflects on that command like this:
as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1Pe 1:15-16 NRS)
In all conduct . . . ALL . . . CONDUCT . . . Christians are to be holy. The word “Holy” in my theological dictionary is said to mean “that which is able to convey the divine . . . that which is godlike by being spiritually whole, well, pure or perfect.” 2
What being Holy as God is Holy means is we are to follow the divine example of non-violence, hanging up (like God in the Noah story does) whatever bows we’ve used in the past to sling violent arrows with. This matches up with Jesus’ teachings, right? Jesus commands us to love our neighbors and our enemies. He commands us to not only put up our swords, but to turn the other cheek.
The Book of First John teaches that we ought to be like Jesus, to strive to walk as he walked:
Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked. (1 John 2:4-6)
When we imagine God as love and non-violent, we cannot in turn be the hands and feet and voice of God in the world unless we reach out and walk and talk as God would do . . . lovingly and nonviolently. From the first rainbow onward there’s been no God, no holiness, in violence– none! To be holy as God is holy we must act with non-violence, with steadfast love, with peace. We have to re-imagine how we are to be. We have to put up our swords. We have to turn the other cheek. We have to hang-up our bows and shoot no more arrows. We have to love like God. We have to be like Christ. We have to make our own rainbow promises of no more violence.
It is common at Lent to give up or start a practice until Easter. What if we consider re-imagining our selves during Lent by returning the promise God gave creation to do no more violence. What would happen if from now – this first Sunday in Lent– until Easter Sunday – and maybe, just maybe, beyond– we reached out and walked and talked with arms and legs and voices of non-violence? Why we’d be holy as God is holy. We’d walk as Jesus walked. Imagine . . . imagine that. AMEN
1. Brueggemann, Walter, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary, Atlanta, John Knox Press (1982), 84.
2. Westminister Dictionary of Theological Terms
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