Proper 12 • Genesis 9:8–17 • July 29, 2012
By Thomas Egger
Congregations of the LCMS have not heard many sermons on the rainbow, since Genesis 9 did not occur in the lectionary cycles of Lutheran Worship. In fact, the LW three-year lectionary did not include a single reading from the Flood narrative in Genesis 6–9. With the biblical illiteracy of our culture and our church, Lutheran Service Book’s inclusion of this pericope is helpful. It is time for the rainbow to be reclaimed by the church, filled with its biblical weight and freight and joy, pulled from the mist and muck of its contemporary associations: Judy Garland, leprechauns, and gay pride parades. A sermon theme could be: “Reclaiming God’s Rainbow.”
Verses 8–10: These verses establish the scope of God’s post-flood covenant. This covenant is with the whole earth and with every living thing on the earth, yet it is spoken to Noah and his sons. Just as human sin has impacted the whole creation (the curse in Gn 3, the flood in Gn 6–9), so also the covenant preserving all creation is given by God to and through humankind.
Verse 11: God now proclaims the promise content of the covenant: All flesh will never again be cut off by the waters of a great flood; there will never again be a great flood to destroy the earth. It is interesting that God does not speak in terms of personal, active judgment. He does not say, “I will never again…” It is almost as if God is rhetorically distancing Himself from the raging Flood which has just devastated the earth. The divine face is now one of grace and mercy.
Verses 12–13: After reviewing the broad scope of the covenant and accenting its enduring character (ledoroth olam, “for generations in perpetuity”), these verses appoint the sign of the covenant. The word for rainbow (kesheth) is simply the word for “bow,” the weapon which shoots arrows. Its use here for rainbow plays on the rainbow’s bow-like shape. To derive military connotations from the word as some commentators have (e.g., God has ended his hostility against humanity by hanging up his war-bow in the sky), is to interpret the word beyond its contextual meaning.
Contextually, the rainbow’s expansive reach from one end of the sky to the other fits well with the repeated assurance that this covenant is with all living creatures and with the whole earth. It manifests overarching heavenly restraint and mercy against the backdrop of divine judgment. The essence of the rainbow sign is this contrast: its brilliant, sublime radiance and beauty against the dark, threatening clouds in which it appears (“I have set my bow in the clouds…”). Here, in the Flood narrative, these clouds recall devastating divine judgment (Gn 7:11–12, 17–24). The rainbow’s appearance, then, is not unlike the joy and splendor of the resurrection of the Son of God after the darkness of Good Friday and the tomb.
The rainbow’s significance is anchored in God’s word of promise in verse 11. People today encounter a rainbow with wonder, yet without thinking of its proclamation of God and his mercy. In previous generations, children were taught to stop and pray the Our Father when the rainbow appeared, in acknowledgement of its divine origin and divine address.
Verses 14–16: Verse 14 begins with the temporal infinitive construct of anan, followed by its cognate accusative: “When I cloud clouds…” God now lays out the function or dynamic of the rainbow sign. From now on, when God sets about his cloud-bringing work (associated with divine judgment), the appointed bow will do its work: it will appear—to God! And when the bow does its appearing, God will see it, remember his promise, and refrain from allowing the rains to become a world-wide destructive power. As a sign given to Noah and sons and to all generations, the rainbow is visible testimony to them. But the text describes its function primarily as a sign which speaks to God, reminding him of his covenant promise not to destroy all flesh by a great flood. This dynamic is familiar: God puts Moses in a similar role (Ex 32–34, Nm 13–14), and ultimately, it is Jesus himself—and his blood—who reminds God to have mercy upon sinners (Lk 23:34; Rom 8:34; Heb 7:25; 1 Cor 11:25; Heb 12:24; cf. Ex 12:13).
So much repetition: Few speeches of God in the Old Testament contain such heavy repetition. Luther attributes this to Noah’s great need for assurance in the face of the trauma induced by the catastrophic flood.
Preaching the Rainbow: Pastors should not miss this opportunity to simply tell the story of the destroying flood and God’s preservation of a remnant of humanity and all creatures in the ark. Hearers should be led to take human sin and God’s judgment seriously and to regard God’s present patient preservation of the world (promised by the rainbow) with humility and gratitude.
The Bible also speaks of a second world-wide catastrophe at the end of history. According to Jesus it is “coming soon,” and its suddenness and extent will be “just as it was in the days of Noah” (Lk 17:26). Those who forget the past flood may also forget that our world awaits future destruction/purification by fire on the day of Jesus’s Second Coming (2 Pt 3:1–13). Many church fathers, including Luther, used the color pattern of the rainbow to illustrate this point—the blue reminder of the ancient flood moving to the red warning of eschatological judgment.
Rainbows, Judgment, and Luther: In his monastic days, Luther had been tormented by the common image of Christ as a stern judge, enthroned upon the rainbow, an image from Revelation 4. “I did not believe in Christ; I regarded him only a severe and terrible judge, portrayed as seated on a rainbow.” But once he had discovered the gospel, Luther anticipated the Day of Judgment with joy: “Therefore we who come to Christ want to have him as a gracious Lord. The rainbow on which he sits enthroned does not terrify me; it appears for my salvation. We do not look upon him as a judge. He will call for us. He will not reject us.”
God’s Promise and God’s Signs: Where do we gain such confidence in Christ? Do we look to the rainbow? The rainbow is a marvel testifying to the patience and grace of God and confirming his promise to Noah. But the gospel word of forgiveness and eternal life in Christ is confirmed to us by different God-given “signs.” Luther writes:
Our merciful God always placed some outward and visible sign of His grace alongside the Word, so that men, reminded by the outward sign and work or Sacrament, would believe with greater assurance that God is kind and merciful. Thus after the Flood the rainbow appeared in order to serve as a convincing proof that in the future God would not give vent to His wrath against the world by a similar punishment…To us in the New Testament, Baptism and the Eucharist have been given as visible signs of grace, so that we might firmly believe that our sins have been forgiven through Christ’s suffering and that we have been redeemed by His death.
 Laurence A. Turner, “The Rainbow as the Sign of the Covenant in Genesis IX 11–13,” Vetus Testamentum 43 (1993): 119–120.
 Luther’s Works (American Edition) 1:359 and 2:149.
 Luther’s Works (American Edition) 24:24. See also LW 24:307; 26:37–8; 28:246–7.
 Luther’s Works (American Edition) 23:61.
 Luther’s Works (American Edition) 1:248. This connection between the rainbow-sign and the sacramental signs of baptism and Eucharist is common in Luther: LW 2:144; 20:67–8; 35:86; 36:174; 37:135; and 54:56.