BEMA 4: His Bow in the Clouds
13 Apr 22 — Initial public release
8 Mar 22 — Transcript approved for release
His Bow in the Clouds
Brent Billings: This is the BEMA Podcast. I’m Brent Billings, and I’m joined as always by the illustrious Marty Solomon, but we have a special guest this time—Kevin Luo. Say hi, Kevin.
Kevin Luo: Hey, how’s it going?
Marty Solomon: Kevin is one of my intern-disciples. So every now and then we’ll get their fun voices in here on the podcast. It’ll be good.
Brent: Today, we’re talking about the story of Noah and the Flood, and we have a wide variety of buried treasure from the author. We’re not going to have time to read the entire passage. This would be a good time, right now, to pause the podcast if you’re able, and go to Genesis 6 and read all the way through the first part of Chapter 9 and we’ll be discussing that. Marty, let’s get started.
Marty: Like Brent said, we really encourage you to read the story; that way, the things we talk about will make sense. If you need to give it a pass, we’ll be here when you get back, I promise. First of all, once we’ve read the passage, we’re able to answer this question: With every single story we’ve looked at in Genesis, one of the things you’ve been noticing is problems and we’ve been pointing out that we have been taught to not notice problems, but when you read the Bible from an Eastern perspective, you want to notice the problems, because the problems that are in the story is the author’s way of getting you to come further into the story. And so, having learned that lesson, we want to do that here.
Again, with the story of Noah, we want to ask ourselves, what kind of problems do we have? What kind of things stick and jump out to us as we look at the story? When you looked at Noah and the flood, Brent, you had a whole list of problems, but give me one of your problems you would see there.
Brent: Well, the big one that stuck out to me was the phrase that “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time,” which is pretty intense. We’re about to find out in a few more sentences that Noah was doing all right. It seems like there’s got to be somebody out there with some slightly positive thought going on.
Marty: Seems pretty drastic. Seems pretty exaggerated maybe or just extremely stated. But yes, definitely, something that jumps out. Kevin, give me a couple of problems you see when you look at the story.
Kevin: I’ve noticed that over and over it talks about the earth being corrupt and how God saw how corrupt the earth was and it seems so weird that it is no longer people that is just corrupt, that it is now the earth.
Marty: Which is a really good point. One of the things we’re noticing as we look at Genesis 1 through 11 is that evil is starting to shift, like it’s starting to grow. It’s starting to organize itself. Like evil starts as an individual, Adam and Eve, and then it moves to a family with Cain and Abel and now it’s like corrupting the earth and it’s moving to the entire civilization and even the Earth itself. Evil and corruption seems to be spreading and it’s even going to start organizing itself. I like that, it’s a good thing to notice here in Genesis 1 through 11. What else do you got?
Kevin: Also with that, it seems that, why would God go and destroy the world and kill pretty much everything he’s created?
Marty: Right, seems to be a pretty big problem here. We’ve got this—we’ve been talking with all these stories about this God that is loving and we’ve gone through five chapters of Genesis, and this is always the point where everybody’s like, “Aha! See, your narrative here of this good God and this good story and how much he loves us ends here in Genesis 6 because now God is wiping out all of creation!” And it seems again, just really drastic.
It’s funny that this is—I don’t know if “funny” is the right word—it’s interesting that this is one of those stories that we tell like 40 times a year to our children, the story of Noah and the Ark because it’s fun, you got animals going in boats, but the entire premise of the story is the mass destruction of humanity. Yes, that should raise eyebrows. It should be like a pretty major question there and this is where historical context is actually going to serve us quite well.
Flood stories were not unique to the world, the Bible. There were flood stories all over the ancient world and the Eastern world. There are Babylonian flood stories, there was Chaldean flood stories, Mesopotamian flood stories, Sumerian flood stories. There’s even an Egyptian flood story, like flood stories were a part of almost every culture’s understanding of the stories of origin that they were used to.
Brent: I was reading Genesis 6 to 9 in preparation for this and I was like, “I should look up some of these flood stories.” I hopped on Wikipedia. There’s a lot of them. The internet, there’s more than you want to know.
Marty: Most of which definitely predate the Book of Genesis. We’re dealing with stories that were in their region. Stories that were from their culture, stories that they were familiar with, which can mean a couple of things. A lot of people have talked about what’s called ‘historical cultural memory.’ When every single culture talks about a story or an event that leads some historians to ask the question, did something actually happen? There must have been a flood of some kind that everybody has stories about.
There’s that part of it, but even more important to our study of the literary aspect of Genesis is just like we looked at with Adam and Eve, just like we looked at, in some of our discussion groups with the creation story. These are stories that the author of Genesis is retelling that they’re used to and that’s going to help us with Kevin’s question here about, “Whoa, God’s just destroying humanity?” The answer to that is, of course, because that’s the story they’re used to. That’s the nursery rhyme. That’s the folk story.
Every culture had a folk story, where the gods tried to destroy the world through a great deluge. One of them is the Sumerian story, which is fantastic because the characters in the Sumerian story are the same exact names as the characters of Genesis. The main character is Noa; the sons: Japhet, Shem, and Ham. You have the same characters in that story.
The other story that’s really relevant is the story from Mesopotamian literature, which is something that’s really well known for any ancient literature student is the Epic of Gilgamesh. Many of us have probably heard it, if not studied it. The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest recorded pieces of literature, stories that we have from that piece of humanity, that part of humanity in that Middle Eastern world.
Now the Epic of Gilgamesh, I’m going to totally butcher it in my oversimplification, but for the sake of our conversation, the Epic of Gilgamesh is about this hero named Gilgamesh, who is on this journey and he’s on this journey through this world in which he encounters the many different gods of Mesopotamia. During the course of meeting these gods, almost every single meeting goes with a similar plot line. He meets the god, he discovers who the god is and what the god is trying to do and what the god wants.
The god is ultimately going to get angry and try to lash out either at Gilgamesh or at humanity, or at the different things taking place in the story. Now, at one point in the story, it’s actually a very small part of the epic, but at one point in the story, we’re told about a new character, his name is Utnapishtim. And Utnapishtim meets this god of storm and thunder and he’s furious at the world, and wanting to wipe all the world out, just like the story of Noah and the Bible, wants to wipe the whole world out.
What Utnapishtim does is he builds a raft. He puts all the animals of the world on this big barge and outsmarts the gods when the rains come, and basically saves creation because he found out about the god’s plan and pulled the story away from the brink of destruction. This is the story that they’re familiar with. That story is from Mesopotamia. Now, do you know any other names that we use for Mesopotamia? Kevin, Brent, Mesopotamia is code for, give me a guess.
Brent: I don’t know.
Marty: Yes, say it.
Marty: Chaldea, okay. Chaldea is, can you remember anybody that’s from Chaldea?
Kevin: Seems like Abraham.
Marty: Ah, what was the city? Abraham was from Ur of the Chaldeans. Abraham is from Chaldea, Abraham is from Mesopotamia, Abraham’s descendants are going to be the people that receive the Book of Genesis. It makes complete sense that the author of Genesis is going to take the very stories that Abraham would have grown up with, and rewrite them to tell the world and his descendants, to tell his descendants what God is really like. The author of Genesis trying to say, “God is not like the god that Utnapishtim met in the Epic of Gilgamesh. This God is different.”
Now, that’s going to be what we’re looking for. Kevin’s question was the exact question that we want to find. Why is God trying to destroy humanity? Well, that’s what the god of all their flood stories is trying to do, but we’re looking for what makes this God different. Now, Brent, you pointed out this phrase in the story that you had a problem with. Again, it’s going to be the problems that get us into the story. You said this phrase, “every inclination of the human heart was evil,” like every single one. What’s interesting is that phrase shows up at the beginning of the story. That phrase is going to be repeated word for word at the end of the story. The phrase shows up at the beginning and the phrase shows up at the end.
Brent: I’m smelling a chiasm.
Marty: We have the same literary tool being used over and over and over again by the author of Genesis. We’re going to have a chiasm here now. I’m going to send Kevin on a hunt. He’s going to go find the chiasm. Now, for those of you that are trying to find the chiasm, you could even pause the podcast because I’m betting that Kevin’s going to be on this, and it’s not going to take him very long. The chiasm can be found by looking at the numbers. Again, you’re going to have a story with numbers and numbers mean things.
You’ve got 7 in the story. You’ve got 7 and then another 7, and then 40 and then 150, and then you’re going to have 150 again, and then 40, and then 7 and then 7. That’s going to form your chiasm. It’s going to go 7, 7, 40, 150, 150, 40, 7, 7. This is one of the easier chiasms to find because once you find the numbers, it’s just obvious that we’re dealing with a chiasm here. I’m looking over at Kevin, I think he’s probably even got an idea of where we’re at here. Kevin, you got the center?
Kevin: Yes, it seems to center around the start of Chapter 8.
Marty: Okay, so give me 8:1.
Kevin: But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded.
Marty: All right. So the center of this chiasm ends up being a statement that God remembers Noah. When you think about it, that’s kind of weird. Why does God have to remember? Did God forget? God has this horrible case of ADD. He floods the earth and he’s doing something else, and then he is like, “Oh yes, I forgot. Look at that boat. Oh yes, Noah’s in the boat. Oh no, I got to do something about Noah. I totally forgot he was there. I remember.”
God forgot? Why is God having to remember? It’s just an interesting statement. We’ll leave the center of the chiasm kind of hanging there, and we’re going to keep messing with the story a little bit, because at the end of Kevin’s verse, the center of that chiasm, it talked about -what- came over the earth?
Kevin: He sent a wind over the earth.
Marty: Okay. Now Brent told us about this a couple of podcasts ago. The word for wind here, give it to us again, Brent.
Marty: Okay, ruach is this word for wind and for spirit and for breath. Now, if you remember all the way back, and where have we seen this before, Brent?
Brent: It’s Genesis 1.
Marty: Genesis 1. Where did we see what doing what?
Brent: The Spirit of God was hovering over the water.
Marty: All right, the ruach of God was hovering over the waters, and then here again in Noah, we have the ruach of God hovering over the water. It’s blowing over the earth and the earth is currently covered in water. We have what appears to be a link to creation. Now, the moment I start looking at the story with that new lens, I started to notice that the very next thing that’s going to happen is Noah is going to open up a window in the ark. If he opens up a window, what’s going to happen, Kevin?
Kevin: Light is going to come in.
Marty: Okay, so now we have light and darkness. The very next thing we’re going to be told is that the rain stops, and if the rain stops, what does that mean, Brent?
Brent: You’re going to have water. It’s not coming down. It’s like suspended.
Marty: Right. You have water above and you have water below. You’ve had this vault created. The very next thing we’re going to have happen that we’re told is that dry ground is going to appear. This is following the roadmap of creation day by day by day. The very next thing that’s going to happen, Noah is going to send out a raven and the raven is going to be in the sky wandering about, so now I know that we have birds in the air. Just like we’re supposed to with day five.
Day four is a little tricky, by the way. They’re trying to find the sun, the moon, and the stars. It’s in there. There’s a whole midrash about where you find that and how you link it. I’m a horrible expert at that. Then what you’re going to find next is the very next thing that’s going to happen is he sends out a dove which comes back and eventually with an olive branch, and then eventually, he sends that dove out and it doesn’t come back. Now we have animals on dry ground, and the very next thing that’s going to happen is the ark is going to open. The animals are going to come out and man is going to come out.
We have repeated the six days of creation day by day by day by day, and it fits perfectly, which means we should expect something to come next. We’ve got six days of creation. What should come next, Kevin?
Marty: Okay, we should have day seven. We should have on some level, we somehow should not have a Sabbath. That should come next, but instead of that coming next, we have this really weird story come next. Not a story, but a really weird passage. I’ll read it to you. If you really listen to this, it’s just ridiculous. I’m going to start at Chapter 9 Verse 8. You’ll actually notice the command to be fruitful and multiply another link to that creation story there in Verse 7 and even earlier, but I’m going to start in Verse 8. I’m going to go through 17.
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you, the birds, the livestock, and all the wild animals, to all those that came out of the ark with you, every living creature on earth. I establish my covenant with you. Never again will life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.
And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come. I have set my rainbow on the clouds, and it will be the sign of a covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.
So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”
Now, as I read that, does anything jump out at either one of you guys? It seems to just be really just awkward about...
Kevin: God seems to really love the word covenant.
Marty: There is a ton of repetition, like a ton. It’s awkward when you read it. These two or three paragraphs here are ridiculous. Like, what is God doing? Listen to this: “Then God said to Noah and his sons with him, “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and every living creature that was with you, the birds, the livestock, and all the wild animals, to all those that came out of the ark with you, all the creatures on earth.” Like it repeats the-- Like, this is a covenant he’s making between Noah and all the creatures. Okay, we got that, okay.
“I establish my covenant with you. Never again will life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” All right, I got that. And God said, “This is a sign of the covenant I am making between me and you.” Okay, but you just told me that. And every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come. I have set my rainbow in the clouds and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and —”
At some point during this, if I’m Noah, I almost wonder if I start sarcastically like, “Okay, so is this covenant between me and you? I don’t know, can we just go over that again?” You’re right, Kevin. Covenant shows up, all this, remember my covenant, remember my covenant, remember my covenant. By the end of this, you’re like, “Okay, so when we’re all done with this whole little conversation, can we make a covenant?” There’s just this weird, awkward—why is God repeating himself so much?
Now what’s interesting about that is the word covenant does show up quite a bit. It shows up seven times in the Hebrew. The word for covenant is berit and shows up seven times. The word for earth is going to show up seven times in these paragraphs. It’s another word that just keeps jumping out. The word is eretz. It shows up seven times. One of the words that repeat itself quite a bit is the word clouds. In the Hebrew, it’s anan. It doesn’t show up in the English five times, it only shows up in the English four times, but if you go back and look at the Hebrew, you’ll notice anan shows up in the Hebrew five times.
We’ve got seven times berit, seven times earth, five times anan, and then three times the word for rainbow. Now, what is it about all those numbers that strikes you, Brent? I know this is a part of the conversation that you are particularly fond of seven, seven, five, and three.
Brent: Well, if you take the five and three together, then you have eight, new creation.
Marty: Let’s just go to the heart of Brent Billings. I know that there’s something about, you have an affinity for odd numbers or even numbers.
Brent: I do.
Marty: You have an affinity for what kind of a number?
Brent: Odd numbers.
Marty: Odd numbers, right? There’s lots of us that do. I happen to have some of the same analytical—some might even call it obsessive-compulsive tendencies—that I share with Mr. Billings because I love odd numbers too. I can tell you the reason that a lot of us and research shows why we like odd numbers. Odd numbers have a center. Odd numbers aren’t even, you can’t split odd numbers in half and put an equal number on each side. Odd numbers point to the center. If I say point to the center, what do you start thinking, Kevin?
Kevin: Sounds like another chiasm.
Marty: We might have like a mini chiasm. Do you have the audacious audacity to claim that we have another chiasm in the middle of a larger chiasm?
Kevin: Yes, I do.
Marty: Yes, that would be very good. That would be a very good audacious claim to make because in fact, that’s exactly what’s happening in this paragraph. What would be really interesting is there’s seven mentions of the word berit. There’s seven mentions of the word eretz. There’s five mentions of the word anan. There’s three mentions of the word rainbow. Wouldn’t it be interesting if you took all the center mentions and they actually completed an entire Hebrew phrase? Wouldn’t that be weird?
Like if you took the fourth berit and the fourth eretz and the third anan and the second rainbow, what if that was the phrase that sat in the middle of these two or three paragraphs? Wouldn’t that be weird? Well, it is actually weird. It also happens to be exactly what’s going on. The center ends up being the last part of Verse 14, and the first part of Verse 15 of Chapter 9 here. I’ll read it to you. When you take those center Hebrew words, it makes this phrase. “When the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant.”
That’s the center rainbow, it’s the center cloud, it’s the center covenant, it’s the center earth, right before that, I guess I didn’t read that part. Whenever I bring the clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds. That earth is the center earth. That rainbow is the center rainbow. That cloud is the center cloud, and that covenant is the center covenant. This ends up being the center and so now we end up having this idea of remembering my covenant.
There’s a few things that come out of that. Number one, there’s this whole idea of rainbow. The Hebrew doesn’t say rainbow, the Hebrew just says “bow.” It doesn’t have a word for rainbow. The rainbow is interpretive there. When we translate that, what the phrase actually says is “whenever I see my bow in the clouds…” I’m going to put my bow in the clouds, but what is a bow, Brent?
Brent: Just an arch.
Marty: What’s the function of a bow?
Brent: Like a bow and arrow?
Brent: Well, that’d be to destroy something, potentially.
Marty: Okay, that would be a weapon, a weapon of destruction. God says, I’m going to put my bow in the clouds. Now, if you just think about that arch that you were talking about, which way is the bow facing?
Brent: It’s facing upwards, away from the earth.
Marty: Ah, so God says, I’m going to put my bow in the clouds. When you look up in the clouds, that bow is pointing up—and I think there’s all kinds of Jesus stuff in there, by the way, but we’ll cover that all later—God says, “Never again am I going to destroy the earth. I’m putting my bow in the clouds and I’m turning the bow towards myself.” What I find so interesting about this is, Kevin sat over here and he said, “Well, I would expect to see Sabbath, we’re missing the seventh day.”
This whole paragraph ends up being a paragraph about Sabbath. This whole paragraph ends up being a paragraph where if we found out in Genesis 2 and 3 about a God who knows when to stop creating, in Genesis 1, 2, and 3, we talked about the God who knew when to say enough. God knew how to stop creating, which was important because if God doesn’t stop creating, he ruins creation. We talked about the sculpture. We talked about the sculpture of David. We talked about how the artist has to know when to stop creating.
One of the other examples we use is the example of cancer. I actually heard that from the rabbi where I learned this stuff from. Rabbi David Foreman talked about cancer. The reason cancer is what it is and the reason we can’t figure out how to defeat it is because cancer never stops creating. Cancer just keeps creating. That’s what makes it so destructive. You have to know when to stop. This creator knows when to stop creating because if he doesn’t stop creating, he’s going to destroy creation.
At the same time, this retelling of creation is another story about God knowing how to stop. This time God knows how to stop destroying. The first time, God knew how to stop creating. The second time, God knows how to stop destroying. That’s the part about the rainbow, but there was this other part that we pointed out at the center of the larger chiasm, and now this entire back chiasm being built around this idea of remembering, I’m going to remember my covenant, I’m going to remember my covenant, I’m going to remember my covenant. Like, why does God have to remember? What’s the point here?
To understand that, we have to understand the ancient world of covenants because in the ancient world, we had what was called—I used to say this word wrong. I used to say so͞ozərān. I found out today, in fact, that I’ve been pronouncing it wrong this entire time. It’s actually, so͞ozərən, but we call them Suzerain-Vassal covenants. In the ancient world, there was two parties to a covenant: a suzerain and a vassal.
Brent: Just to clarify, it’s spelled S-U-Z-E R-A-I-N.
Marty: You can find that on a quick Google search. This idea of the “Suzerain” in these covenants is the powerful. There’s always two parties to a covenant in the ancient world. You’re making the covenant with the powerful party. This less powerful party is usually coming with a—they’re in a predicament. Like they better surrender to the suzerain because if they don’t, they’re going to be destroyed. They make, essentially, this treaty with the suzerain and the suzerain basically says, “You’re going to become my subjects and you’re going to do what I tell you, and you’re going to become my vassal. If you don’t become my vassal, if you don’t do what I tell you, I am going to destroy you. As long as you become my subjects, you fall underneath my jurisdiction, you fall underneath my protection, you fall underneath my provision.” This is a job of the suzerain.
If you make a covenant with a suzerain, you’re going to get a sign of the covenant. Every suzerain-vassal covenant has a sign and this sign is almost like a receipt. I think of my wedding ring. My wedding ring is like the sign of a covenant I made with my wife; that wedding ring is a reminder. But in this ancient world, if you were the vassal, you would have to be able to produce the sign of the covenant. It’s your job as the vassal to have proof of the covenant you made with a suzerain.
If the suzerain shows up one day and you can’t prove you have a covenant, that powerful party is going to do whatever they want. You have to produce the sign. What God does in this story—God is clearly like suzerain in here—God says to this ancient world of covenant, he says, “I’m going to put the sign in the clouds. It will be a bow that’s pointed towards me and I will remember the covenant. I will remember the covenant.”
In the ancient world, you had to remember the covenant, but God says, “I don’t want you to have to lose it. I don’t want you to forget about it. Even when you forget about this covenant, I’m going to remember. I’m going to keep the sign. I’m going to be a suzerain that not only keeps my covenant, but I keep the sign and I remember.” When you compare this story to the story, like of the Epic of Gilgamesh or any flood story that they’re used to, this God stands out amongst the gods that they’re used to because this God is not angry.
This God is not in fact trying to destroy the world like the story began.
Compare the Epic of Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim had to outsmart the gods in order to save creation. In this creation story, this God comes to Noah and says, “I want to partner with you to save creation.” This God, who appears to want to destroy creation, is simultaneously trying to save it. This is a totally different God than the gods that they’re you to. One of my favorite lines is the line that you brought up, Brent, where you talked about every inclination of the human heart. At the end of the story, this phrase shows up again, only this time, it shows up with a different statement.
At the beginning of the story, it said, “God regretted making humanity because every inclination of the human heart was evil all the time.” By the time the story is done, what we hear from the suzerain, God party, is God says, “Even though every inclination of the human heart is evil, I will not destroy the earth.” Even though that’s true, I still won’t destroy the earth. This story is a story about a God who knows when to say enough and a God that is for creation, redeeming it, restoring it, and putting it back together. Of course, we got there because of all the problems in the story. Problems that we’ve always been taught to avoid.
Anyway, one of my favorite stories in Genesis, if we have the historical background. Golly, and you compare the God of Noah in the Bible to the god of Gilgamesh, to the god of Chaldea, to the Mesopotamian gods, to the Egyptian gods, this God’s totally completely different. The writer of Genesis continues to turn the world that they’re used to on its head and say, “God is not who you think he is. Creation is not what you think it is. You are not who you think you are.” I just love it. It’s good stuff.
Brent: Do you think that the rainbow that Noah saw was a double rainbow, all the way?
Marty: Oh man, it’s so good. I even like the idea of a double rainbow because there’d be two rainbows and it would be like tablets of Moses, ethical law. Oh, geez, that just starts to continue to unpack itself. Double rainbow.
Brent: I can cut that out if you want.
Marty: Oh, leave that.
Brent: All right. Well, I think that wraps it up. If you live on the Palouse, we hope you join us for our discussion groups in Moscow on Tuesday or in Pullman on Wednesday. If you want to get a hold of Marty, you can find him on Twitter at @martysolomon. Kevin, are you on Twitter?
Brent: No Twitter for Kevin. Tweetless Kevin. You can find him following Marty around. You can find me on Twitter at @eibcb. You can find more details about the show at bemadiscipleship.com. Thanks for joining us on the BEMA Podcast. We’ll talk to you again soon. Thanks for joining us, Kevin.
Kevin: Happy to be here.