The book: We are back to Genesis, the Torah; probably the form we have now reflects layers of stories from ancient times, put together from more than one source – in this passage, a southern popular source (J) and a “priestly” source (P) – around the time of the end of the Babylonian exile, so early 5th century BCE. Which might be important because the text preserves ancient experience and revelation, and in a form that is meaningful to people who have a more recent experience of redemption from a disastrous experience that they, or many of them, understand to have been avoidable, something that happened as a consequence of anti-covenantal behavior.
Background: This is the conclusion of the longer narrative of the flood, which takes place after God saw “that the inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continuously” and “was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Genesis 6:5-6) and because the earth is full of violence (Genesis 6:11) along with “all flesh.” Humanity is looking like a bad idea after all. Only Noah finds favor with God and is righteous and walks with God (vv 8-9). So God is trying to repair damage, or maybe more like, clean up a big mess. We know the rest of the story … God tells Noah to make an ark, provides explicit instructions, designates Noah’s family and representative animals and birds as beneficiaries of the ark; and then the flood comes, and everyone not on the ark dies. I think we are supposed to have more of the affect people have at the end of a good guy-bad guy action film, when the villain gets blown up and everyone in the theatre cheers, but I always find this difficult to sustain, despite knowing that the inclination of their hearts was only evil continually and they were thoroughly violent and corrupt. And evidently this feeling was also difficult for God to sustain, because he promises never to do it again. In other words … this turns out to be an ambiguous story; human evil is evil, and cries out to be eradicated; but then again … death and destruction on a global scale does not feel good … so that what is good, how to secure it, how to save it, turns out not to be a simple matter.
Text: What Noah does in this text is: builds an altar, takes of every clean animal and every clean bird, and offers a whole burnt offering. (v 20) “Nothing would seem more natural to a Biblical Israelite who had just survived a life-threatening crisis” according to the Jewish Study Bible. So we could read it as a sign of gratitude and thanksgiving.
What YHWH does is smell the burnt offering, and say a long poetic speech “in his heart” (v 21), and what God does is say to Noah another long speech, which reiterates that God “is establishing a covenant” (vv 9, 11, 12 (if we count “make”), 17), that the rainbow will be the sign of this covenant (vv 12, 13, 17), that God will remember the covenant (vv 15,16), for a total of seven references to covenant, three to a sign, three to the bow, and eight references to “every living thing” or “all flesh” or “every living thing of all flesh” (8:21, 9:10, 11, 12, 15 (2x), 16, 17). As in: “I really really really mean it.”
“Covenant” is the larger theme of the next 13 weeks.
Should we be surprised that God needs a mnemonic device for this covenant? “I promise to remember that I said I would let you-all live.” (I think how surprised we are depends on what we think about God and God’s relationship to human beings. This is a story in which human beings appear as a chronic source of grief and regret to God, with rare moments of relationship – e.g., Noah walks with God, Noah’s sacrifice. So God knows that we are in a precarious condition, because humanity’s being the way it is tends to make God forget God’s intention to be forbearing … a point of view entirely consistent with the sentiment “the fear of YHWH is the beginning of wisdom.”)
YHWH’s poetic speech in 8:21-22 begins with a promise not to curse the earth or destroy every living creature because of humans, because “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth” – that is, the earth and living creatures would not be very safe if God took action on the basis of what humanity deserves. So despite the persistence of human evil, God promises to sustain the cycles of nature. Genesis 8:22 is sometimes brought forward as a proof-text against the evidence of climate change, but I don’t see how people figure that. God doesn’t say that humans are incapable of destroying things all on their own; in fact, God seems to intimate just the opposite.