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B'resheet/Genesis 9:16 And the bow will be in the cloud and I will look at her to remember the everlasting covenant.
In this and similar passages - for example, "The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to G-d. G-d heard their moaning, and G-d remembered His covenant with Avraham and Yitz'khak and Ya'akov" (Shemot 2:23-24, JPS) - the question is often asked, "Why does G-d need something to help Him remember His covenant?", particularly as here the covenant is specifically an everlasting covenant. TheRadak bluntly pushes the question away: "The Bible speaks in the language of men since G-d certainly cannot forget."
A number of commentators take this symbolically. TheSforno suggests that G-d is saying, "I will regard the result of the bow, which is the prayers of the righteous as they stand in the breach to turn away My wrath form destroying the earth." After pointing out that "Apart from this passage and 'Like the appearance of the bow which shines in the clouds on a day of rain, such was the appearance of the surrounding radiance. That was the appearance of the semblance of the Presence of the L-RD' (Ezekiel 1:28, JPS), where the rainbow is emblematic of the radiance of the Divine Presence, the word invariably means 'a bow'", Nahum Sarna comments that "frequently used in Ancient Near East mythology as the weapon of the gods, the rainbow in this narrative takes on added significance as a departure from Ancient Near Eastern notions. The symbol of divine bellicosity and hostility has been transformed into a token of reconciliation between G-d and man."
Taking the sign of the rainbow literally, Cassuto1 connects this verse with "And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the L-RD, to do them" (B'Midbar 15:39, ESV). The tassel (or tzitzit) is to be a constant reminder: "When man constantly looks at the fringes, he will always remember the commandments and do them whenever the opportunity arises." So in this verse, Cassuto contends: "since G-d will always see the bow in the cloud, He will ever remember His promise and the thought will never enter His mind to bring a flood upon the world." Then almost as a side comment, Cassuto adds: "This is of greater service to mankind than to G-d; they will always see the sign, and this constant observation will be a sign and token of the promise of G-d who remembers the covenant." By the same mechanism, G-d remembers His promise; man remembers G-d remembering His promise; and man is comforted.
Nechama Leibowitz, using the same parallel illustration, firmly rejects using the rainbow in a symbolic way: "We are not to look for and ferret out its symbolism in the form of the bow, its colour or physical characteristics to determine the connection between them and what it represents for us. It is the same as in the case of the tzitzit, we are not to look for its meaning in the number of its knots or threads. The text simply says: 'You shall behold it and you shall remember'. Similarly, the bow will serve as a token or sign because the Almighty has fixed it as a token if His covenant. The bow in the cloud which accompanies the rain therefore symbolises the message of the prophet Habakkuk: 'In wrath, remember mercy' (Habakkuk 3:2, NASB)."
Did you ever tie a knot in the corner of your handkerchief to help you remember something? Many have used the image of someone pulling a handkerchief out of their pocket with a knot in one corner and saying, "I know I need to remember something, but I can't remember what it is!" Mary Spaulding suggests that the inclusion of the detailed accounts in John's gospel of the Feast of Tabernacles is a social memory device to enable the early church to use the text as a hook to remember their identity as a Jewish community in the Diaspora2. Many of our memories are framed in social contexts: family events such as weddings and funerals, parties and celebrations, milestone birthdays, the birth of a child or a dramatic world event. Some people can remember exactly what they were doing when the radio or television announced the assassination of John F. Kennedy, others can remember the cricket scores for the test match on the day their oldest child had life-threatening surgery. The event is so dramatic or traumatic that it etches a deep groove in the memory - often a collective memory as well - and captures with it all the surrounding day-to-day minutiae that would otherwise have been forgotten by the end of the week (or day!).
This is why G-d has commanded us not just to remember but also to rehearse key events such as our exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai and our journey through the wilderness towards the Promised Land; we do this at the three pilgrimage feasts: Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. By reviewing the historical events, obeying the rabbinic command to consider that we ourselves had been freed from Egypt, by eating traditional foods and remembering the year that Auntie Jo went all red in the face after choking on the horseradish, that time the front left corner of the sukkah let go and dropped a length of two-by-two on Mr Applebaum's bare head when he had only just dropped in to let Abba read that strange poem he had written about the twist of purple thread in the High Priest's robe, we mark the passage of time and the things that make us who we are stay fresh and relevant in our minds. We celebrate Passover each year, even though we have done it a hundred times before, and remember Yeshua our Passover Lamb as if it was only yesterday; we stay up all night and study at Shavuot so that we are reminded that we need both the written and the Living Torah, set ablaze by the Spirit; we build the sukkah and mark the height of the children as they grow each year on one pole so that one day they too will build their sukkahs and experience G-d's miraculous provision in their lives. Each shabbat eve we light two candles - one to remember, one to observe - so that old Issy Friedman, who lives just down the hall, can wipe his misty eyes on his handkerchief and remember his grandmother lighting candles in the old country before the war because G-d never forgets and we are part of the ongoing story of G-d's relationship with His people.
It's all about relationship. We are in a relationship with G-d, whether Jew or Gentile. He has called us into relationship with Him. A collective relationship, as part of His people, and a personal relationship, as one of His children. The Shunamite says to her lover, "Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the L-RD" (Song 8:6, ESV). We and G-d are designed for each other; we fit perfectly, but we are currently apart until He calls us home (or Yeshau returns, may it be soon and in our days), but we look at each other, we look at the signs and symbols we have exchanged and remember the strength of our relationship. The L-rd reminds Zion - a collective referring to His people - at a time of distress, "See, I have engraved you on the palms of My hands, your walls are ever before Me" (Isaiah 49:16, JPS). Every time He looks at His hands, every time He does anything, He is reminded of His people; not that He forgets or has forgotten us, but once more we take the focus and regain His first attention.
What can you do to remember G-d as a constant reminder of His presence around you and provision for you in Messiah Yeshua? Reading and learning the Scriptures is an important way to keep Yeshua fresh in our minds. Just as courting couples may keep and re-read their love letters to each other, so we need to re-read and memorise the words of our Beloved so that He stays with us at all times. Finding creative ways to do what He would do or say what He would say to others is another idea; acts of grace and generosity in His name, even if not spoken, will bring a glow to our hearts as we act out His part and realise His presence. Talking with Him and listening for the whispers of His Spirit are key - how many human relationships have broken down due to lack of communication, where one party goes quiet on the other? We must keep all channels open and share our thoughts, desires, dreams, frustrations and, yes, even angers with Him, just as we might pick up the 'phone to our spouse or parents or call through to the other room where they are. Signs and symbols can be very effective; people whose partner has died often keep a picture of their late spouse on the piano or the mantelpiece so that they see if it every time they enter the room; we could have a picture of a rainbow, a vase of fresh flowers, some token that reminds us of His love and what He has done for us.
Be creative and expect to find Him around every corner!
1. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part Two - From Noah to Abraham, Magnes Press Jerusalem 1984, 965-223-540-7, page 115
2. - Mary B Spaulding, Commemorative Identities, T & T Clark, 2009, 978-0-567-16061-4
Further Study: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; 2 Timothy 2:8-9
Application: How can you remember Yeshua in your life today? Can you think of a new and exciting way to connect with Him that will bring a refreshing closeness as you draw nearer to His presence? You could always ask Him if He has any ideas He would like you to try!
© Jonathan Allen, 2014
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