Over the next 3 weeks, the first 3 weeks of Lent, the lectionary provides us readings of God’s covenants; covenants with Noah, Abraham and with Moses. While each covenant is distinct from the others, taken together they testify to God’s ongoing desire to be in relationship with humanity. This desire is eventually expressed in Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. These readings start us on our journey which in time will bring us to Holy Week and on Maundy Thursday, we will remember and celebrate the last super, the new covenant. We will also celebrate this on Lent 3, the first Sunday of March, as we share in the meal that has become for us the sacrament of Holy Communion, the last meal of Jesus which he shared with his disciples before he was betrayed and crucified. The meal is which he:
“took a loaf of bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)
We see in these readings that Again & Again God meets us, Again & Again God speaks, Again & Again God shows the way to live, Again & Again God loves. This Lent, “Again & Again” will be our theme, our refrain, as we see God showing up Again & Again.
So what is meant by covenant? In the ancient Near East, covenants were legal documents, cementing a relationship of mutual obligation but not necessarily of mutual status. In fact, often the power dynamics of the parties were uneven. For example, a conquering kingdom might covenant not to destroy a losing kingdom, as long as the losers promised to fight against the conqueror’s enemies and to support the conqueror with troops and supplies. The covenant with Moses which we will get to in a couple of weeks is the most similar to one of these ancient legal treaties with the Ten Commandments, the stipulations of the covenant.
This week’s reading is the story of the Noachic covenant is different. Although referred to as the Noachic covenant, God makes this covenant not just with Noah but with “every living creature” and “for all future generations” (Genesis 9:12). The interesting thing about this covenant is that while most covenants have conditions the Noachic covenant has no obligation on Noah or the other living creatures. The obligations all rest with God. The covenant is unconditional and therefore can be called a “promise” rather than a treaty. God enters into this eternal covenant or promise with all creation without requiring anything in return.
- Can you think of examples of making promises that we say are unconditional, and yet we end up expecting that we should receive equal “payment” for keeping up our end of the bargain?
God’s promise is grace. It sounds like good news, and it is but let’s not gloss over the fact that before this God wiped out almost all life. What motivates this act of destruction? In Genesis 6:5 it says that God saw that “every inclination of the thoughts of [human] hearts was only evil continually.” It seems that rather than an act of vengeance and anger it is an act of sorrow and regret. God was “sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Genesis 6: 6).
- What do you think of this idea that God regrets?
A God of regret poses a problem with all the “omni-” categories we traditionally assign to God: omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, that is all knowing, all powerful, all present. In particular the all-knowing characteristic. What is interesting is that much of the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament, speaks of a God that does not appear to be so “all-knowing:”. In fact, God changes God’s mind, God regrets (Genesis 6:6), God grieves (Genesis 6:6), God remembers (Genesis 8:1) and God needs a reminder, God sets God’s bow in the clouds so that God will remember (Genesis 9:15). The notion of an omniscient God is likely an influence of Greek tradition on Christianity, which often characterizes God as Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover.” In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, God is the “Most Moved Mover.”
- It can be disconcerting to think of God’s needing a reminder of God’s promises, as if the rainbow were a string tied around God’s finger, or a post-it-note, or an alert from God’s Google calendar. What is your response to this idea?
Whether or not God knew ahead of time that we humans were capable of horrible evil the Genesis account tells the story of increasing sinfulness. The story which begins in Genesis 3 is a story of increased disunity. Disunity between humans and other creatures (Genesis 3:15), between male and female (Genesis 3:16), and between humans and their earthly labours (Genesis 3:17-18). Disunity intensifies in chapter four, in which the first murder, the murder of one’s own brother, occurs. Of course there is also disunity between people and God, a recurring theme throughout all of scripture.
“So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But…” (Genesis 6: 7)
God decided to wipe it clean, to do a factory reset but…
“Noah found favour in the sight of the Lord.” (Genesis 6:8)
God goes beyond justice and decides to save some, including animals. God commits to the future of a less than perfect world. God is open to change in view of experience with the world and doing things in new ways and God promises never to do this again.
Some suggest that God is the one who has changed between the beginning and the end of the flood, not human beings. God decides to continue to live with such resisting creatures fully aware that still “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth,” (Genesis 8:21).
Whether or not God changed is probably not the point. The story may have emerged from a change in the people’s understanding of God. Something like: “We used to think that floods meant God was punishing us, but now we realise that God wouldn’t resort to such acts of violence.” The theology – the God talk – that is what it says about God is that God is a God of mercy and love.
God has chosen to take the route of suffering relative to sin and evil rather than destructive power. For God to decide to endure a wicked world, while continuing to open up the divine heart to that world, means that God’s grief is ongoing. God thus determines to take suffering into God’s own heart and bear it there for the sake of the future of the world. An implication of this promise is that God will try everything else. Again & Again God will seek us, Again & Again God will meet us despite our sin or perhaps because of God’s knowledge of our sin, our grief, and shame that clouds our vision of God’s reality and of ourselves as God’s beloved creatures. Whatever dwells in our hearts that keeps us from hearing the harmony of all life in God’s care, God, Again & Again is loving us and Again & Again is calling us into restoration.
Rev Tammy Hollands