A Conversation about Covenant: A Covenant in Water


Dr. Jim Somerville


Genesis 9:8-17


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A Covenant in Water

First Baptist Richmond, February 18, 2024

Genesis 9:8-17

God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”

Today we begin a conversation about covenant that will continue through the Season of Lent. It might help to begin with a definition. When I taught a fifth and sixth grade Sunday school class at one of my former churches I would often ask my students if they knew what a covenant was. “A covenant is a promise,” they would say, in unison (those kids had been well taught). “Just any kind of promise?” I would ask. “No,” they would answer: “a special kind of promise.” “Can you give me an example?” I would ask. “Like a wedding,” they would answer.

And they would be right.

In Old Testament times if one person wanted to make a solemn promise to another he would do so by “cutting a covenant,” and I use the word cutting quite literally. He would slaughter an animal—perhaps a sheep or a goat—cut the carcass in half, and then lay that bloody offering before the other person, saying, “May the Lord do so to me and more if I do not keep my promise to you.” Now, that’s the kind of visual aid that will stick with you. If you ever thought about breaking your promise to that other person all you would have to do is remember the two, bloody halves of that animal’s carcass to convince you that promise-keeping was a good idea. In fact, it’s almost a shame that we don’t do that sort of thing with our modern-day covenants. The marriage covenant, for instance. Don’t

you think it would be memorable if, somewhere during the ceremony, the father of the bride put a live chicken up on a chopping block, lopped off its head, and said to the groom, “That’s what I’m going to do to you if you ever break my little girl’s heart!” I think the divorce rate around the world might begin to drop. As I said, it’s a visual aid that sticks with you.

But remember that in the original covenant-making ceremony no one said, “That’s what I’m going to do to you if you break this promise,” but instead, “May the Lord do so to me, and more, if I ever break this promise.” That’s an important distinction. You weren’t threatening someone else with death when you did it, you were wishing it on yourself. That’s how committed you were to keeping the promise. Seen in this way the covenant is not a mandatory, but a voluntary, thing; it’s not a shotgun wedding where the father of the bride forces some young man to marry his daughter, but a wonder of love in which two people gladly make promises to each other through the expression of their vows. “I, John, take you, Mary, to be my lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, as long as we both shall live.” Can you hear it? “I, John.” It’s a personal responsibility. “Take you, Mary.” It’s a voluntary commitment. “To be my lawfully wedded wife.” It’s a solemn and binding covenant, and yet, these days, it is a covenant that is too often broken.

I don’t like to assign blame in those situations. It takes two people to make a marriage and it probably takes two people to break one. But I do think of it as a tragedy rather than a sin; more like a car crash than a murder. Neither of those two people wanted the marriage to end in divorce when they stood at the altar. They didn’t think it would or they wouldn’t have said those vows. But it did, and

now here they are, recovering from the crash and wondering how to go on. I am so thankful that this church offers a divorce recovery workshop, because when you pull people from the wreckage of a broken marriage they often can’t remember how to tie their own shoelaces; they need some help.

But over time and with the assistance of programs like that one they get better, they get stronger. Eventually they might even think about getting married again. Whenever I counsel with premarital couples where at least one person has been divorced I ask them what they have learned from that experience that might make them better prepared for this one. They say it in different ways, but they seem to agree that, without having to sacrifice a single chicken, most marriages could be made stronger if both partners simply kept the promises they made on their wedding day. Think about a marriage in which each partner really had and held the other, when things were good and when they were not, when there was money and when there wasn’t, when they were sick and when they were healthy. Think about a marriage in which each partner really spent some time loving and cherishing the other, every day, as long as they both should live. It would be a wonderful marriage, wouldn’t it? But a marriage like that is made only by free and mutual covenant-keeping. Push too hard from either side, make too many demands, and the whole thing might very well collapse.

During the Season of Lent we are going to look at several examples of biblical covenants beginning with God’s covenant with Noah. The story of Noah and the ark is a wonderful story, but it is no children’s story. It begins with the passage I quoted in today’s Preparation for Worship statement, from The Message, in which Eugene Peterson paraphrases Genesis 6:5-8 by writing: “God saw that human evil was out of control. People thought evil, imagined evil—

evil, evil, evil from morning to night. God was sorry that he had made the human race in the first place; it broke his heart. God said, ‘I’ll get rid of my ruined creation, make a clean sweep: people, animals, snakes and bugs, birds—the works. I’m sorry I made them.’” This is why I say it’s no children’s story. Can you imagine a parent looking on a child and thinking, “I’m sorry I ever had you?” Can you imagine how wicked that child would have to be, how broken-hearted that parent would have to be, to even think such a thing? But that’s where God was. When he looked on his children he could see that “every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. The Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” He decided to blot out every living thing he had created.


And there it is, what I sometimes call “the divine conjunction,” that little word but. God decided to blot out every living thing on the face of the earth but Noah. “Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord. He was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God.” Noah gave God hope that human beings could be, at their best, just what he had dreamed of in the first place. And so he decided to do away with everyone else and start a new human family with this one.

Now, this may be a good time to remind you that the Bible was written by people. Yes, they were divinely inspired, but they were also limited by human understanding, and at the time this story was written human understanding was extremely limited. People believed that the earth was like a flat plate, with a glass bowl turned upside-down on top of it. They believed that there was water under the plate and also over the bowl. When it rained they believed that God had

opened the windows of heaven, and when they saw rivers and lakes they imagined the water was coming up from underneath the plate. In those long ago days there was a story of something that had happened even longer ago, the story of a great flood, when God had opened the windows of heaven and the floodgates of the deep until the whole world was like a snow globe full of water. You can find that stories in other ancient writings that sound so much like the story of Noah and his ark that you almost have to believe something happened.

Here’s one theory: what if the Black Sea, whose waves wash up against the shores of modern-day Turkey, was once the Black Valley?i What if people lived in that valley, and farmed in that valley? And what if one day, when they least expected it, the Mediterranean Sea broke through the thin barrier we now call the Bosporus Strait and flooded that valley? It would have been catastrophic. Cataclysmic. And from the perspective of anyone who lived there it would appear that the whole world had been flooded. The Black Sea is slightly larger than the state of California. Imagine that California suddenly fell into the Pacific Ocean. What would people say about that? How would they remember it years later? How many TV preachers would claim that it was God’s judgment on “Godless Hollywood,” or something like that?

The author of Genesis tells us something almost exactly like that, that this great flood, which wiped out everyone and everything, was God’s judgment on human wickedness. But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. Noah was warned in advance that this flood was coming. We don’t know if God spoke to him in a dream, or a vision, but sometimes, if you are listening for the voice of God, you can hear it. Noah may have heard God whispering on the evening breeze that a flood was coming, and that he would need to be ready. So Noah and his three

sons built an ark, and when they got it finished they loaded onto it every animal on the farm. There are children’s books that show giraffes and elephants and zebras lined up to get on the boat, two by two. That’s entirely possible, but in my imagination I see Noah and his sons pushing cows and goats and sheep and chickens up the ramp, and not having an easy time of it.

And do you think the neighbors made fun of them? I’m sure they did. But when it started raining and didn’t let up, when the waters of the Mediterranean began to rise above their usual levels until the Bosporus Strait broke open like a mud dam and the waters of the Mediterranean began pouring into the Black Valley, who had the last laugh? Noah and his family—riding high above the floodwaters in this crazy, homemade boat he called an ark. I don’t know how long it took for the waters to recede and for the ark to come to rest on Mount Ararat, in modern day Turkey, but the author of Genesis says it took a long time. When Noah and his family got out of the boat they must have kissed the muddy ground. And the next time it rained they must have been terrified, thinking, “Here we go again!” But God made a covenant with Noah, and again we don’t know how he made it, but we do know that when the sun began to shine through those raindrops, and when Noah saw the brilliant rainbow that followed, God made it clear to him:

“Never again.”

“Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the

earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.”

It helps to remember that when Genesis was written, the bow was an instrument of warfare. For God to say that he was hanging up his bow was like saying he was laying down his sword and shield, that for his part he was determined to study war no more, at least not against humans. He knew them now. He knew they were sinners, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And yet he was determined to love them anyway. He was willing to make that solemn promise.

John Hayes says that “most Old Testament covenants have two basic elements: the promissory oath or conditional self-curse, and the contents or stipulations. Parties solemnly promise something concerning their future relationships,” just as they do at a wedding. But “the covenant in Genesis 9:8-17 is dramatically distinctive in several ways: 1) it is made between God and all future generations, and not just with Israel; 2) it is made not only with human beings but also with all creatures of the earth; its scope is thus cosmic and universal; and 3) most dramatic of all, only one party to the agreement—God—speaks at all. No response on the part of Noah and his sons is called for or given, not even their acknowledgment of acceptance. The covenant with Noah, then, is an act of a free and gracious God in behalf of a world that did not have to ask for it or earn it or even respond to it.”ii

Whatever we might make of this story, of its truthfulness or historicity, what the author of Genesis wants us to believe is that when we see a rainbow in the sky it is the light of the world shining through the tears of a broken-hearted God who

has learned to love sinners like us, so that he can say to us in words of solemn promise,

“Never again.”

—Jim Somerville © 2024