As a reminder of this promise—a ‘sign of the covenant’ (Gen 9.12), God put a rainbow in the sky. We don’t know if this was the first time a rainbow had ever appeared in the sky or not, but it doesn’t really matter. God usually took things that already existed to be covenant signs, filling them with new significance. From this moment on the rainbow reminds us that God is faithful—he keeps his promises.
When you’re out for your one permitted hour (in the UK) of daily exercise these days, you’ve probably noticed the pictures of rainbows children have painted and put up in their windows. The idea started in Italy apparently, and spread to many different countries as a symbol of hope in dark times. The message seems to be that although we’re in a storm at the moment, it will pass. There is light at the end of the tunnel.
Lovely sentiments, no doubt. Very positive and nice. But what if there is no light at the end of the tunnel? What if the storm doesn’t blow over? What if the situation just gets worse and worse until things fall apart completely? There are plenty of apocalyptic projections in the press about how the economic aftermath of the virus will leave us with a world that faces far bigger problems than anything we’re dealing with at the moment. Are we just ‘whistling in the dark’ with our rainbow pictures?
Actually, the symbol of rainbow is far more appropriate for these days than many people who have them in their windows may realise. Because the first person to use the rainbow as a symbol of hope was God himself! We read about it in Genesis 9.12-16, where God speaks to Noah after sending the Flood to destroy a world that had become utterly corrupt.
In Genesis 9 God makes a covenant. A covenant is a solemn promise – the most solemn promise there is. Sometimes when children want to emphasize they are in earnest about a promise they are making they will say ‘cross my heart and hope to die’. That captures something of the weight of a covenant. It’s a life and death promise. God is effectively saying, ‘May I die if I break my promise.’
He makes his covenant promise to Noah and to all his descendants – in other words, to the whole human race. Not just with religious people, not just with Jews or Christians, but with every human being. You and I (whoever you are) are part of this covenant! In fact, God makes this promise not just with human beings but with every living creature – even with the planet itself!
So what was the promise? It’s repeated several times, but the first announcement of it is in Genesis 8.21-22: …never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done. “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.”