Noah steps out of the ark after 150 days enduring the violent onslaught of the waters and waiting for the waters to retreat from the ground. When his feet hit the dry land, the narrative is dense with anticipation of Lamech’s hope—that relief from sin and all its tragic consequences has indeed come, that the world broken by sin and judged by the flood has emerged new and restored. Is Noah the one to bring relief? Has sin be washed away in the water? Where will things go from here? Noah’s first action provide a portrait of faith, of responding rightly to what God has done. However, his first action also proves that the world into which he steps, despite being pregnant with the hope of Eden, is not the return to the garden for which we all long. Yet, God will forever supply the world with a sign that will point us forward to day when it at last will be made new.
20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done.22 While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”
1 And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. 2 The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. 3 Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. 4 But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. 5 And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man.
6 “Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image.
7 And you, be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it.” GENESIS 8.20-9.7
Noah’s first action upon leaving the ark is to offer a sacrifice of the clean animals. This description of clean animals calls our attention back to Genesis 7 when God instructed Noah, “Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and his mate, and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and his mate…” The differentiation between clean and unclean animals is usually associated with the Mosaic law in Leviticus where the Lord stipulates that sacrifices must be offered only of clean animals, so the reference may be anachronistic. But regardless of if and how Noah knew these animals were clean according to the stipulations of the Mosaic code, the early Jewish readers of this story would have understood the connection—the sacrifices God commands are of clean animals. In drawing the connecting, the author is inviting us to see that from the beginning of the story and despite the wickedness of humanity, God’s ways and his will for his people do not change. The Mosaic covenant is not something entirely new. It is, rather, a continuation of God’s dealings with Noah (and, in some ways, Adam).
It also says something of the way God relates (and will alway relate) to his people. In the descriptor “clean” animals, there is a direct connection between the animals God instructed Noah to bring into the ark and the animals of Noah’s sacrifice after leaving the ark. The clean animals were saved for a sacrificial purpose. To say it another way, God provided what God required to restore relationship. Sacrifice is required in the new world in which Noah finds himself. Animal death must be offered in exchange for humanity’s life—a violence intended to to unveil the dissonance between the way things are and the way they ought to be. The world is not as it should be. Where God had provided a promise, made a way for Noah to be saved, restrained the floodwaters, and provided the clean animals for sacrifice, Noah’s role is simply to respond in faith—to do as God had commanded, to follow in the way God has prepared.
In understanding these events this way, God’s finding the aroma pleasing isn’t a matter of like versus dislike as if God was happy Noah just happened to bring him his favorite ice cream flavor. Rather, God finds the aroma pleasing because it accords with his design in the same way an architect finds delight in the construction of a building according to her plans. God has designed a way for relationship to restored, and our part to play is the obedience of faith. Just like the creation account moved from the created order to the first image-bearing creatures, so, too, do God’s first words in this world made new. This spoken movement reaffirms God’s commitment to creation and his commission to his image-bearing creatures. Interestingly, God speaks first of creation, and in doing so, alludes back to Genesis 3 when the ground is cursed because of humanity’s sin. When the prince and princess of the earth fell, the whole creation fell with them. Yet God promises to preserve and sustain creation despite humanity’s continual sin. Seedtime and harvest, the seasons, night and day—all creational distinctions—will remain. The same creation that has suffered under humanity’s failed rule will still be a source of blessing to humanity. After addressing creation, God then addresses Noah and recasts his vision for humanity—be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. God’s blessing Noah mirrors God’s blessing of Adam. Again, despite humanity’s failure, God’s purpose for them remains the same.
There are, however, differences in God’s address to Noah. Where God had called Adam to exercise dominion in ways that perpetuated divine harmony, Noah’s dominion will be fraught with discord. In this new world, humanity’s relationship with the animals has drastically changed. God has caused fear and dread to dictate the animals’ relationship with humanity, for now, they have been given to humanity not simply as creatures to nurture but creatures to consume. The animals know what it’s like to be constantly threatened, to be hunted by the ones originally called to care for them. Despite the hope that this world that has emerged from the floodwaters will be new, it is, from the beginning, clearly a far cry from the harmony of Eden.
God stipulates, however, that humanity cannot consume animals with their blood still in it. Blood doesn’t simply represent life in a symbolic sense. It is life, and life, as Genesis has made clear, is from God. Therefore, to eat an animal but to leave its blood is act of humility honoring the giver of life, for in doing so, we recognize that we, too, are dependent creatures. Every meal is an opportunity to honor God and remember our place as creatures whose life comes from God. Yet humanity are not simply creatures like the animals but creatures like God.
There is much debate around God’s declaration that the taker of life shall have their own life taken, but what is clear is the weight and dignity of human life and its relation to the Creator God. God created humanity to be an expression of himself on the earth. Therefore, to murder an image-bearer is an assault against the Image himself. To deny the life of another is to deny that life is a gift given by God. It is, in this way, blasphemy. Murder is clearly sin, a stark and tragic deviation from God’s purpose for humanity. Further, being an assault against God, God alone can exact justice. And the story of Cain reminds us that human justice will only perpetuate injustice. In this way, the narrative thrusts us forward to when God himself will enact divine justice in the murder of the God-Man. The Image of God will be put to death in God’s judgement of humanity’s sin.
God’s words here aren’t meant to ignite a campaign against murders, however heinous murder is. His words, especially in view of Christ, are a mirror. We are culpable in the cross, deserving of death for our assault against the Author of life. We have put to death, not a murderer, but the only Innocent One. But our act of violence is not met with violence in return. We do not get the death we deserve. Instead, Christ intercedes for our pardon, pleading his blood as payment for our sin so that there is, therefore, now no condemnation for those who hope fully in Christ Jesus.
8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 And 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: 13 I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 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.16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” GENESIS 9.8-17
God promises to never flood the earth again. It should be no surprise at this point in the Genesis story that God gifts this promise to all creatures. As a sign of the covenant, God puts a bow of brilliance in the sky. In a divinely poetic way, the sign of the covenant that God will never flood the earth again appears only after the rain. Humanity lives in the fragile tension of needing God to supply the rainwaters and needing God to restrain the rainwaters. The rain, therefore, is a constant reminder of our fragile place in God’s world—between the waters. Yet the encore of every watering of the world is an eternal reminder of God’s grace. The rain and its bow should plant in us a holy fear and humble joy, for it reminds us that God gives us what we need and not what we deserve.
It is possible to understand the sign of the bow in another way. Some commentators note that the bow of brilliance is symbolic of a divine hunter’s bow. While, admittedly, there isn’t much explicitly in the narrative to arrive at this reading, it does fit thematically. Sure, God is not a crazed hunter on a killing spree. But consider that, in context, God has given the animals to be hunted by humanity. Fear and dread now define the relationship between humanity and wildlife. This after God has taken the life of everything and everyone on the earth in the flood as an act of judgement against humanity’s sin. God called humanity to pay for their sin. That God would hang his bow in the clouds now is a symbol that God will not be on the hunt for humanity. He will absorb the death penalty for humanity’s sin and point his bow at himself. The divine bow of brilliance with which we could rightly and justly be hunted down is now for us a sign that God has not given us the death we deserve but has appointed his Son to die instead.