The Early Chapters of Genesis: Chapter 9:12-17

Genesis 9:12‑17  •  5 min. read  •  grade level: 10
VERSES 1-7 set out the blessing of God pronounced on Noah and his sons for the world that now is. Man henceforth was allowed animal food, yet forbidden to eat blood due to God; and government, was put for the first time into man's hand for the protection of human life and the vindication of God where it was taken. Now vers. 8-11 give the covenant God established with mankind and every creature set under man: the largest covenant God ever made, and still subsisting under a merciful pledge that cannot fail. Neither the one nor the other applied to the ante-diluvian earth. In the verses that follow (12-17) God deigns to give a sign or token of His covenant with the earth. Of a covenant with Noah we first hear in chap. 6:18.
“And God said, This [is the] sign of the covenant which I set (give) between me and between you and between every living soul that is with you for everlasting generations: my bow I have set in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of covenant between me and between the earth. And it shall come to pass when I bring clouds over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud, and I will remember nay covenant which is between me and between you and between every living soul among all flesh; and no more shall the waters become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the clouds and I will look upon it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and between every living soul of all flesh that is upon the earth. And God said to Noah, This [is the] sign of the covenant which I have established between me and between all flesh that is upon the earth” (vers. 12-17).
It is an unprofitable question, seeing that scripture has not furnished adequate evidence to decide it absolutely, whether the rainbow was then seen for the first time, or had been familiarly known to the early ages. One can readily conceive that the Creator may have reserved it for the days of Noah: a slight physical disposition could have hindered the phenomenon. But the language seems rather to favor the inference that, often as it may have been noticed before, God took it up now and established it as a covenant sign between Him and the creatures here below for everlasting generations. The least that can be drawn from the words is that God was now, since the deluge, pleased to graft on it a new and merciful meaning. For men might well tremble after that tremendous catastrophe when dark clouds veiled the skies, and the rain fell in torrents, and tidal waves rose overwhelmingly. An accusing conscience would the more loudly speak of what had been shortly before experienced so disastrously. Man naturally looks for it that what once was will surely recur; and the more if old sins still prevailed, and new evils sprang up.
Hence the immense comfort which God's goodness pledged in the bow He set in the cloud.1 It is not seen as the rule unless there be rain, of course; and it is only seen when the sun shines brightly at one's back from the opposite quarter of the sky. Thus no sign could be more appropriate. If the rain might awaken fears, the gorgeous bow was entitled to calm them; for God Himself thus deigned to assure man of His unfailing covenant. Indeed the accuracy is the more remarkable, as its terms run, “It shall come to pass when I bring clouds over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud, and I will remember my covenant which is between me and you and every living soul among all flesh.” For “rain” does not seem absolutely indispensable, but “cloud” is. So Col. Sykes, treating of the Meteorology of the Deccan (Phil. Trans. 1835), describes a rainbow which he saw from the top of a perpendicular precipice, among the Ghauts, overlooking the Concan, on a fog cloud. “A circular rainbow appeared, quite perfect, of the most vivid colors, one half above the level on which I stood, the other below it. Shadows in distinct outline of myself, my horse, and people, appeared in the center of the circle, as in a picture to which the bow formed a resplendent frame.”
The same witness describes a white rainbow which he saw in a fog bank near Poonah: “Suddenly I found myself emerge from the fog which terminated abruptly in a wall some hundred feet high. Shortly after sunrise I turned my horse's head homewards, and was surprised to discover in the mural termination of the fog-bank a perfect rainbow, defined in its outline, but destitute of prismatic “colors.” Such a white rainbow has been seen by other travelers, and in other lands; but it is not so uncommon as with the usual colors on a fog-cloud. But all attest the faithfulness of God even if man forgets its meaning. “No more shall the waters become a flood to destroy all flesh.”
And how affecting the condescension of the words that follow! “And the bow shall be in the cloud, and I will look upon it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living soul of all flesh that is upon the earth.” It was much that man should see it: how gracious that God too would look on! Nor is this all; but it is added, “And God said to Noah, This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between me and between all flesh that is upon the earth.” How good is the God we adore! Such repeated assurance is only the more to be prized by vain forgetful man.