Genesis 6:5 to 9:17
When Jewish writers were composing the stories of their faith in the Hebrew scriptures, they borrowed extensively from the religious writings of their neighbors. The rainbow which God sets in the sky as a sign of the covenant with Noah in Genesis 9:13 is best understood when it is compared to an ancient Babylonian epic called the Enuma Elish.
Going back to at least 1700 years before Christ, the Enuma Elish was famous throughout the ancient Middle East. It told the story of how the Babylonian god, Marduk, created the world in a victorious battle with the god, Tiamat. After that conquest, Marduk, set his weapon, a bow, in the sky as a sign of his bellicose power. Writing at least 1250 years after the composition of the Enuma Elish the priestly authors, who wrote the story of Noah, drew upon its symbolism. Their God also set his bow in the heavens. But unlike Marduk, the bow of Israel’s God was a sign of reconciliation and peace with humanity.
Even as it borrowed from its neighbors, Israel’s faith reshaped what it used. A weapon of war became the sign of God’s goodness. The bow which was normally used to bring death was reformed into a stunning display of color and light. The bow establishes a permanent covenant of peace, laying aside the bow of war. Israel’s God, who is our God, is a God of mercy and lasting forgiveness.
The same truth can be found in the flood itself. Although this world-wide destruction is often used as an example of God as a vengeful judge, the story actually moves in the opposite direction. True that God decides to destroy the world because of human sinfulness. But Genesis 6:6 specifically tells us that God was sorry that humans had turned to sin and that “it grieved him to his heart.” God’s motivation for the flood was, therefore, not that of an angry judge but rather of a frustrated parent, desperate over a wayward humanity.
Even more telling is the way this story announces a change in the heart of God. Once the flood is over, God makes a unilateral decision: “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done,” (8:21). Humans will not change, so God will. Realizing that humans are inclined to evil, God determines to make allowances for human sinfulness and never again to respond to human failure with destruction. Like a disappointed parent, God decides to lower expectations and make up for the limitations in the human family through a greater generosity from God’s own goodness. Without any promise of change on our part, God decides to overlook our sinfulness so that our relationship can continue.
It is still common to believe that the Old Testament presents a God of strict justice while the New Testament portrays a God of mercy and forgiveness. A careful reading of the story of Noah challenges this misleading stereotype. A proper parallel to the God of the Noah story is the father of the prodigal son. The love for the child is stronger than the hatred of the sin. In both the Old and New Testaments God acts with mercy and forgiveness.