Niko Bilić SJ (11 Feb 2011)

Disaster and a universal new beginning

The well known report on the history of the first covenant ever in the Bible touches the precarious issue of the huge disaster and a new beginning, giving hope in the worst scenarios of our modern environmental situation.

noa2The image is famous and appreciated. The sky got quiet. The sunlight was poured out in whole spectrum of gracious colours of a rainbow. The universal catastrophe is in the biblical history very real and adequate to the experience of devastated city and temple, of the end of sovereignty, of kingdom and state, losing the homeland under Babylonian invaders. The disaster is over and the righteous Noah together with his children listen the word God is communicating to them (Gen 9:8–18). The sharp image of devastating waters is at present once more very clear after the recent experience with floods even in the highly modern civilization of Australia in 2010-2011.

Noah had a good right to trust from the beginning, even before the waters of great flood came. What God intended and communicated to the one who was ready to listen (Gen 6:18), now is being fulfilled: “and behold, I make up the covenant” (Gen 9:8). For the first time Holy Scripture introduces the key-expression ברית berît in very ecological-context. And the report on the establishing first covenant in Gen 9:8–17) has its liability and confidence confirmed by symbolical seven times repeated berît (Gen 9:9.11.12.13.15.16.17). Even the special description of establishing, erecting or institutionalising it (Hebrew קום qûm Gen 6:18; 9:9.11.17) witnesses to the institution a human being can trust to.

The first covenant in the Bible is very actual thanks to our contemporary ecological sensitivity. The reader is immediately discovering who is the other party of the covenant with God. There are Noah and his children (Gen 9:9.11.12.15) representing humankind, because the covenant refers explicitly to their descendants after them (Gen 9:12). But God is aiming this covenant expressis verbis to “all living beings” (Gen 9:10.12.15.16). Finally – according to the God’s speech afterwards, the covenant is made with the earth itself (Gen 9:13) which is in the modern culture once more very understandable and common image. In spite of the usual theological consideration of the covenant with the chosen people of God and following their history of salvation, the principle and first covenant, never cancelled, is very wide and covers the humankind with all our environment. It is not purely spiritual notion; emphasizing “all flesh” God is establishing covenant with (Gen 9:15–17) traces the first view of the new-testament and central Christian thought about Incarnation. God is making covenant with the flesh.

Today we are aware not only of the fact that physical and chemical conditions of life on our tiny blue planet are an astronomical miracle, but also that the whole Earth is one interdependent and mutually related family. The Holy Scriptures from their beginning has an eye for these cosmic dimensions. Ecological universality of the first covenant gives in a sense correction to the report on creation from the first biblical chapter. If there it was possible to see human being as a ruler somehow over the nature, here in Noah’s story it is totally clear that the whole cosmos is under God’s protection.

The magnanimity of the first covenant is to be seen also in the time envisioned. For starters God’s word, referring to the descendants related to the covenant, proclaims the generations for ever (עולם Gen 9:12). After that it is already with this first covenant precisely declared that it is a berit ‘olam (ever)lasting covenant (Gen 9:16).

Text Box: p	universal and constant covenant    p	instituted by God (hebr. קום qum Gen 6 :18; 9 :9.11.17)     p	God: “my obligation” בריתי  beritî 6 :18; 9 :8.11.15    p	who?  n		Noah and children Gen 9:9.11.12.15  n		and descendants Gen 9:12  n		all living beings Gen 9 :10.12.15f   n		earth Gen 9 :13    p	eternal covenant ברית עולם (berît ‘olam) Gen 9 :12.16  The sign of the covenant – the rainbow – is precious because it reaches beyond symbolism of the literature and is a part of real world. Rainbow is attractive for our sight, it is beautiful and apparent, it raises our eyes up in the high, and at the same time one cannot dispose of it; this sign remains mysterious, beyond our possession and control. The rainbow, the same natural phenomenon that connects millennia of earth history confirms the pronounced continuity and validity of the covenant that God on no page of the Scriptures cancelled for his part. The same refers to the experience that we are still living on this earth, in spite of huge natural catastrophes, cosmic development and our own selfish and arrogant failures to respect the environment, our living place.

The rainbow is the sign that is not confined to the strict sacral and religious area, but is a physical phenomenon reminding that all created beings are God’s gift. Before, wider and deeper than one chosen people with whom God will made historical bond, there is this universal, all-encompassing “ecological” covenant. The nature goes before grace – classically emphasize St. Thomas Aquinas, and Noah with his story reminds that even the nature itself is the work of God, the gift of Creator. This corrects our habitual considering the reality in us and around us as something given by itself and for granted. The nature is the first gift, nature is the first grace entrusted to us.

The biblical word for rainbow, according to it’s outlook is simply a “bow” – this time without arrows. The sign of the covenant is the bow God puts down. “I put my bow into the cloud” (Gen 9:13) – says the Scripture. The arms are laid down. It is in this way that the first biblical covenant frees us from false images of God as persecutor, cruel and attacking God. The first covenant in its power definitively removes and deconstructs all easy-seducing false presentations of fictive God who would be competition of human life and effort.

The special value of this covenant is in establishing it with the exclusive strength of God’s word. That is the way how it is instituted; Noah and his family are listeners and they can trust it, because when God promises to remember his covenant in the future (Gen 9:19), Noah knows already that God remembers, as he remembered Noah (Gen 8:1).

The historians remind us that in interpreting the term of covenant we have to think about vassal treaties between one super-power and some local ruler. Both sides take some responsibilities and the weaker one enjoys the protection. But at the same time we are reminded never to be without caution with the biblical value of covenant because it is not about comparably equal parties: on the other side it is always the plenitude of God’s sovereign authority.

Yet covenant with Noah shows something essential as far as it is the obligation God takes on himself. The central Sinai-Covenant, which constitutes the biblical People of God, obliges both sides and summarises clear and deep demands in the universally known Ten Commandments. Here in the case of very first covenant it is God obliging himself. He takes over the obligation that is referred to as “my covenant” i. e. “my obligation” already with the first intention (Gen 6:18) and then three times at the institution (Gen 9:8.11.15). The meaning of the obligation – not to destroy all life – is until now easily to argument and self-evident, in spite of dangers we are very aware of.