28. Genesis 8:20 to 9:17

II.  continued

B. The Covenant of Preservation

1. The Terms of the Covenant (Genesis 8:20 – 9:17)

The first thing Noah did after leaving the ark was to sacrifice some of the clean animals he had brought. Doubtless one of the reasons for bringing seven pairs of the clean animals was to have such sacrifices, but since the clean animals for sacrifices were also the domestic animals, they would have wanted extras of those to build up their herds more quickly as well. The bringing of sacrifices dates back to Cain and Abel, to the very beginning of fallen humanity. The innovation in the Law of Moses was the dietary restrictions on unclean animals, not on the requirement of sacrifices. Moses would build on a tradition long established in the world. Part of the process of revelation occurs when God inserts certain ideas in advance into the general culture where they can be adopted and elaborated for His purposes. Whether certain pagan ideas were dim memories passed orally through the generations from our first parents, or were inserted by God into pagan culture, or were ideas they came up with but which He then adopted for His own ends, He used them to speak to us. General revelation, as a theological term, should not be understood as God speaking to us in the natural world only, but as God speaking to us in everything. In this way, God’s work of self-revelation proceeds in a less formal way in the world in general; His focus on the Bible did not exclude revelation to everyone.

But the next verse is peculiar. Genesis 8:21 says: “And the Lord smelled the soothing aroma…”. The idea that the smell of the smoke of the burnt offering had a soothing effect on God is an idea that had crept into people’s religious superstition, and it was an idea that God took into His own revelation. Is it merely a superstition that the smell of a burnt offering is a soothing aroma to God? Absolutely. Why then would God allow mere superstition into His revelation? For the same reason He was so careless about including science. Because His revelation is exactly a revelation to man, a seriously ignorant and unteachable creature. God could have made an issue of the truth at this point, but it would have been fruitless. Too much truth too fast is as bad as no truth at all. In this case, it was a superstition that was useful in leading to other and more accurate information later when the time was ripe. “The Lord smelled the soothing aroma” becomes a metaphor to mean that God took notice of the burnt offering, and that it was soothing conveys that He was pleased with Noah’s offering and wanted his descendants to continue bringing such offerings. That people would take such a statement at face value, literally, and imagine God with a nose smelling the smoke and being placated and calmed down by it, was an error that could be tolerated until such a time as God chose to make a point of what He was really like. And people did think wrongly. In the Sumerian account, for example, when Utnapishtim offered sacrifices after the flood the hungry gods swarmed around it like flies. The Bible’s language is again subdued and respectful in comparison with how the story evolved among the pagans.

There are various kinds of superstition, of course. Some superstitions are vicious by nature and not to be tolerated under any circumstance, but some are more benign, and some are even useful as a means for expressing something deeper that is true. We should not assume, because the canon of Scripture is closed, that we know everything. The Bible contains all that we need to know, not everything there is to know. We need to be made ready to hear from God before we can hear from God; and because the revelation of Truth about God is so critical God took great care to tell us only what we ready for. There is no contradiction in this. Any parent experienced with teaching children knows that timing is critical. We can’t tell our children all of the truth when they are three years old; nor when they are four; nor when they are any particular age. We must be content that they do not understand some parts of the truth until they are ready; we must even be content that they believe things that are not strictly true for a time. The Bible is a progressive revelation of God’s character to God’s children. God has tolerated ignorance and misinformation in us for long ages. Doubtless He is tolerating it as we speak.

The way I understand it, God’s plan of salvation was executed in a series of covenants, the covenant in this passage being the first. This is the same as saying that the plan of salvation is a series of relationships, a series of increasingly intimate relationships. It is something like the process leading to marriage: first the friendship, then dating and courtship, then romance, betrothal and marriage. Each phase of the relationship builds on the foundation of what came before. Or let’s use a different image. The series of covenants is like treating a critical illness with a medical procedure that requires several stages to effect the complete healing. Each covenant extended the healing accomplished by the previous stage and built on the progress that had been made. Each covenant was a step in patching up the universe, a step toward that Tree in the book of Revelations whose leaves bring healing to the nations.

The first covenant is the foundation on which all the others rest. Thus it was important and right that this first covenant be between God and the whole creation. God’s purpose was and is to redeem the damage done to the whole creation, and so of course the first step was to re-establish a covenant framework for all relationships through the whole creation. God’s redemptive purposes have always had in view the rescue of the whole creation and not merely mankind. He loves us; but more widely, He loves everything He made. All the other covenants that would come later should be understood as extensions built onto this foundational covenant. This covenant sets the tone, establishes the priorities and character, of what would come later. I will call this one the Covenant of Preservation for reasons that will be clear shortly. Covenants set the terms for how a relationship will be worked out. This one established the following terms:

1. On God’s part: the promise to protect the creation from a future destruction like the Flood.

2. On man’s part: permission to eat animals, excluding their blood;

and permission to execute murderers.

3. The sign of the Covenant of Preservation would be the rainbow.

This covenant is much more sweeping than it may appear. What was in God’s heart here was to protect the creation and man himself from the effects of man’s evil (see 8:21,22), to hinder the degeneration that had led to the Flood. But His words are superficially odd: “I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth…” Did He mean that, after all, we couldn’t help being evil and so evil would not be punished anymore? Did He mean that next time He would just let us wallow in our misery and violence with no mercy? Did He mean that He no longer cared so much about the presence of violence on the earth? Those are all rhetorical questions. On the contrary, the promise never to send another such Flood must be read as containing the tacit promise to intervene to prevent humanity from degenerating so far that another such Flood would be necessary or desirable. As I read it, this covenant commits God to restrain evil on the earth.

The world before the Flood was what happens when God allows us to proceed according to our nature with no restraint. This tacit promise to restrain evil is perhaps part of the background for understanding the strange comment in II Thessalonians 2:6,7:  “And you know what restrains him now, so that in his time he will be revealed. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way.” It is this commitment to restrain evil that makes it the Covenant of Preservation. How exactly this Covenant would help restrain evil we will consider in the next section, and there were other means that God used as well. Meanwhile we will conclude this section by considering what the sign of the Covenant means.

Normally covenants are accompanied by signs. A sign is simply some tangible physical object or ceremony or event that is chosen to remind us of the covenant. It is a natural impulse, seemingly built into us, to use signs. Everything human is performed by means of signs. Language itself is just an elaborate and detailed system of signs: the words are signs of ideas and the sentences are signs of thoughts. Fundamentally, abstractions are not easy for us and we have to anchor them in the world somehow. Everything that is important to us is enshrouded in signs, and the more important it is the more signs we use, and the more honor we bestow on the signs themselves. Marriage is an abstraction, for example, an ideal of a relationship between two people, and so we link it to signs that help us remember and honor it: first a more or less elaborate ceremony and then the tangible physical sign in the wedding rings. Patriotism is another abstraction, usually embodied in a flag and the reverence the citizens show it. So it is completely natural that God would tie His covenants to particular signs.

According to its habit, the Scripture talks about the rainbow from a peculiar viewpoint, one calculated to communicate an idea but which seems to not entirely make sense at first. Putting God’s perspective into human terms means that everything He says floats on the surface of our rational minds like an iceberg: only the tip of it shows. The Scripture says, “It shall come about, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow will be seen in the cloud, and I will remember My covenant…” We must read this carefully. God of course does not need reminding because He doesn’t forget. What happens is that  we forget or doubt that He remembers. The rainbow was really a reminder to us, a reassurance to us, that God does remember His promise, and when we see it today we are still reminded that God remembers His promise even now.

This is humility. It ought to be enough that God has promised to preserve the world,  and we should believe Him and trust Him simply on that basis. God deserves to be believed, but He does not stand on His own merits. He remembers our weaknesses and accommodates Himself to us. That God is humble is an idea that could never have entered our imaginations unless it had been put there from the outside. The revelation of the humility of God is probably the biggest surprise, the most shocking and unique idea, in all the Bible. It ought to jolt us into paying attention.

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